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Week 2--Reading, Interpreting, Criticising, Theorizing

Anne Dalke's picture

Our texts this week (the first two in the course packet, also available to long-distance class members on-line @  /~adalke/femstudies/ ) were both written in the late 1980's: Schweickart's "Reading Ourselves" and Sosnoski's "Mindless Man-driven Theory Machine."

What are your initial reactions (to one or the other or both) of these descriptions of what it is to write/read/interpret/criticize/theorize as a feminist? How close does either theorist come to describing your own reading practice? In what ways does your own praxis diverge from those they are theorizing about?

albolton's picture

Still trying to catch up

Still trying to catch up after a very hectic work week, and to post at least a few thoughts sparked by the week 2 readings.

First, it was pleasant to find the articles not only thought-provoking, but also (for me) rather entertaining to read.  Conversational rather than pedantic.

I've been only sort of vaguely aware of the reader-response theory, which I guess is part of the deconstructionist thrust, but it was interesting to see the interplay between that and the possibility of a feminist critical approach, whatever that may turn out to be, or have been.

What it brought to mind, and shed interesting light on, is the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, which seems like way too much fun to be classified at Borders as "literary fiction."  (Having been out of touch with academe for decades,  and having been a Physics major at Bryn Mawr who later went on to get an MBA and turn into a tax accountant, I haven't quite been following what constitutes the literary canon of the late 20th and early 21st century.  I've just been reading whatever I've run across that looks interesting.  So I'm not sure what the canonical answer is to the question of what feminist (or any other flavor of) literary criticism is appropriately applied to.)  Anyway, the Fforde series has an interesting take on the "reading experience."


w/r/t Sosnowski, I was interested in his invocation of Popper's falsifiability as the standard of a path to knowledge.  Falsifiability was Popper's theory specifically of what "scientific method" consists of.  For a while it seemed like The Answer, but more recently I've seen there are competing philosophers of science saying that's not how the expansion of scientific knowledge really works.  That's an interesting topic in itself.  It looks like falsifiability as a ground of knowledge may be more honored in other fields of inquiry than at home in science.  Or was so at least when the Sosnowski piece was written, which seems to have been late 1980s.  Sosnowski may have more support from philosophy of science in seeking an alternative to the falsifiability model than he realized.

One more thought--it took me a while to make the connection of what about "feminist theory" he is invoking as a step forward.  I guess it has something to do with feminism's stance in opposition to heirarchical structures and models of society in favor of more cooperative approaches.  I remember reading something years ago which made this point, but can't recapture the name or writer.  It'll come to me eventually, I guess.



marybellefrey's picture

Schweickart and Sosnoski

I have had little contact with the feminist movement.  In the 60's, at least, feminists seemed to be trying to make themselves into copies of men (as Virginia Woolf anticipates that they would).  I cannot remember EVER thinking or feeling that men were the equals, much less the superiors, of women, except in physical strength.  I find it hard to understand why I have encountered in my life so little of the prejudice against women which clearly exists.  But any strongly held belief has a way of transforming the immediate environment and attracting confirmation of itself.  Certainly my belief in the superiority of women has been confirmed every day of my life.

     I give that bit of background to explain why "emasculating" does not resonate with me.  I can appreciate other women's experience of emasculation because they describe it.  Yes, we learn to think like men, but they can't make us WRITE like men.  Do you need to read more than one page to know absolutely that the author is male or female?  "Men value autonomy" and "women value relationship".  Reading non-fiction for me is like a conversation.  Of course, the male author is conversing with other men, so he is much more protective of his autonomy than he would be in a real conversation with me.  I don't much like to be spoken  to like a man (inferior creatures!) so I find myself on guard against my own prejudices.  The more beautifully the man writes, the harder it is to avoid slipping into that prejudice and to give him a just hearing.   Women's non-fiction writing, strangely enough, seems to be addressed also to men.  I have the feeling she's talking to someone standing behind me.  That happens in real life often enough that it causes no problem.  She "values relationship" anyway.

     Fiction seems to me quite different.  The male authors I read address a mixed audience and I can easily let myself go and live in the world they create.  Some women authors of fiction address a mixed audience and some few address women.  Rereading those works addressed to women is like sitting with an old and trusted friend - pure joy.

     I see I left out fiction by men addressed to men (e.g. Laurence, Joyce).  Their unconscious psyches laid out for all to see is not an attractive sight.  I always feel I've taken a dip in a cesspool!  I no longer read those authors.

     Sosnoski gave me a new reading experience:  non-fiction addressed to a mixed audience.  In spite of the pedantic style, which I had to read around, it was totally enjoyable.  He convinced me by his logic, his intuition, and his practice. 

gail's picture


I found it interesting that Sosnoski's article was organzied and presented in exactly the male classic  falsification style which he is exposing.  Was he in a publish or perish situation which required "winning"?
One Student's picture

Myth With Footnotes

First, some miscellaneous thoughts:


A very basic assumption for Sosnoski is that people and characteristics of people can be spoken of as essentially ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’; furthermore, ‘feminine’ is good and ‘masculine’ is bad, and not in a merely metaphorical way. Is it useful to talk label a certain type of literary theory ‘feminine’ and another ‘masculine’?


It’s interesting that Sosnoski uses the concept of the Magister Implicatus: it’s a male personification, as opposed to the more usual female ones i.e. Liberty, Justice, Mary-Anne, etc.


His device in the opening section of repeating the phrase, “this is an essay about …” but with a different ending each time … I like that. Why shouldn’t a scholar be very clear about zir’s agenda?


Is a 19th century gentleman preferable to a 20th century businessman? Sosnoski seems to suggest this. “Back in the good old days …” Though I’d rather find my calling than pursue a career.


From footnote 13: “Far more important than the deconstruction of literary texts is the politicization of literary study, a project in which feminists have led the way.” Could a woman say that? Would a woman take so much credit?


Now, some thoughts that all hang together:


He writes in the format he criticizes, with footnotes and everything! On the surface, I see no difference.


-footnotes are a sign of the evil of masculinity and patriarchy, because they embody verification and falsification (pg 59)

-In the epilogue of Theorizing Myth, Bruce Lincoln said “If myth is ideology in narrative form, then scholarship is myth with footnotes.” He considers footnotes to be the least ideological and the least narrative (what is this close link between ideology and narrative?) portion of scholarly texts.


“Ideally, footnotes mark the fact that a scholarly text is not a discourse of free invention, wherein ideological interests escape all controls. Rather, they serve as a visible reminder that scholarly texts result from a dialectic encounter between an interested inquirer, a body of evidence, and a community of other competent and interested researchers, past, present, and future. All who participate are committed to a sustained engagement with the data and also with one another, their engagements being mediated by shared principles of theory and method, which – like the evidence and its interpretation – are subject to renegotiation in the space of their texts and conversations. Scholarship implies and depends on debate wherein one experiences the scrutiny and criticism of others who are able to point to data and invoke established principles of method. In so doing, they act as a check on ideological manipulation. This check is important, even though it is never entirely effective, since critics also have their ideological interest and themselves must be subject to scrutiny and critique.”


Lincoln seems to fall between Sosnoski and the Magister Implicatus: Lincoln advocates for objectivity, but no one person is capable of it; indeed, the community is not capable of it. Nevertheless, we must try. The very footnotes which Sosnoski objects to (or is just how they’re used that he objects to) are central to the attempt. Is Lincoln describing a kind of communal story-telling? Can scholarship be practiced that way? Is it practiced like that already, when not at it’s worst?


-How does Sosnoski use footnotes? Is he consciously, pointedly not using them for either verification and falsification?


Some other thoughts, on then nature of story-telling and the pleasure of having no hierarchy for the tellings:


“We know that Hamlet was no woman in disguise” (pg 61); immediately, I want to write a version of Hamlet in which he is a woman in disguise, it’s a challenge! Perhaps he’s transgender? Though describing a transgender person as a man or woman in disguise is problematic, excitingly so. Perhaps there was a reason to hide his true sex? Why? Who knows? How vast is the conspiracy, or is it an open secret? And is there anything in the play which can be used toward the end of explaining how Hamlet might be a woman?

This reaction is the result of my long exposure to fandom, which is what happens when fans of a particular book, tv show, movie, etc. wonder ‘what if?’ and then write it; or they wonder what so-and-so was thinking when that happened, or what the background is for an underdeveloped or minor character, or what kind of sexual relationship those two characters would have, or what will happen next, and they write it. As my friend Dana put it:


I've never watched it, but I believe the format of Iron Chef is the same as that chef competition I read a book about: you just turn up for the competition, and they give you a couple of sheet pans with, f'rex, a duck, some hanger steaks, figs, broccoli rabe, sand dabs, raspberry jam, fava beans, and banana liqueur. And everybody else gets the same stuff, and you know the judges are going to be pretty bored if you cook exactly what they expect. They may feel better about it if your technique is impeccable, but...

And that's how I think of canon. Everybody gets the same ingredients, although there will be various opinions about whether the show jumped the sand dabs (or at what point). But I'm always more interested in whether a story is interesting and fresh than its degree of canon compliance because, if I wanted something really canonical I'd read/watch canon.

PS--if lyrstzha decided to make, like, duck *ice cream* I bet it would be great.


I have vastly enjoyed several tellings of the same story, as a result. My liking has depended far more on the skill of the writer than on the premise. Indeed, one of my very favorite things about fandom is how unexpected it can be; a talented writer can make anything into a good story, and more likely than not it won’t have to be a satire or parody to be good. It might have to be AU, but it can still be, in a way, in this telling, true to the characters, and true, just as true as canon. In The Telling, a novel by Ursula K. le Guin:


[Story-telling is a central part of the old culture/religion/practices of Aka] But these stories weren’t gospel. They weren’t Truth. They were essays at truth. Glances, glimpses of sacredness. One was not asked to believe, only to listen.

“Well, that’s how I learned the story,” they would say, having told a parable or recounted a historical episode or recited an ancient and familiar legend. “Well, that’s the way this telling goes.”

The holy people in their stories achieved holiness, if that was what it was, by all kinds of different means, none of which seemed particularly holy to Sutty. There were no rules, such as poverty chastity obedience … There were no rules. There was always an alternative. The story-tellers, when they commented on the legends and histories they told, might point out that that had been a good way or a right way of doing something, but they never talked about the right way. And good was an adjective always …


All that said, the fen are perfectly capable of becoming deeply invested in one particular telling, to the point of vicious argument; they don’t all delight in variety. Still, fandom provides an opportunity to share and enjoy multiple tellings.


The location and mode of legitimate, valid Truth has changed. Is Sosnoski aware that mythos was once where truth was kept? In Homeric times and before, mythos meant truthful speech, logos meant false. This changed as a result of the invention of writing. (According to one scholarly story, one which I find beguiling.) Mythos was associated with young men, women, tricky and untrustworthy characters; logos with masculine warlike honest men. This seems similar to Sosnoski’s observation that in traditional criticism, arguments are characterized as intellectual masculinity, quarrels as female (pg 71). He also equates personified Logos with a frightening punishing father (pg 58). Truth was gendered for the ancient Greeks, and it is gendered for Sosnoski. Truth and knowledge are markers of power, of status. For most of history, truth has one way or another been more in the domain (if that’s the right way to put it) of men: if it’s an old wives’ tale, it doesn’t contain much truth; women were denied access to education so that they couldn’t break into scholarly story-telling.


And therefore …

Rhapsodica's picture

A slightly late response to Schweickart

I find that I tend to do a combination of reader-response criticism and feminist critique as outlined by Schweickart. Rather than completely resisting a text's manipulation, however, I prefer to let it manipulate me and then step back and try to understand why it was able to do so. A lot of times, I actually consider manipulative writing to be good writing because it succeeds so well in making the reader feel different emotions and question his/her beliefs (if only temporarily). I also don't think such "potentially damaging" (ie. androcentric writing) writing should always be resisted, either. I think that praxis (ie. changing the world) is also incited by those strong, personal reactions to texts that might challenge beliefs, or reveal something ugly about society (like how in A Room of One's Own, Mary discovers that so little is written about women)... so letting yourself really get caught up in it is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you remember that it's a voluntary choice. Writing can be powerful, but it is largely a product of the human mind, which can manipulate writing any which way it chooses... and when you read, you use your mind (and perhaps your heart), so you do have the power to not let it take over.

I definitely do think about and try to understand the writer behind the text, though... as it is said in Schweickart's piece... but I think I probably tend to focus more on the text itself at times. Then again, it depends on what I'm reading. I tend to take a more personal approach with non-fiction/memoir because I know there's really a person on the other side of the writing. I know that fiction can never really be entirely fiction (a piece of the writer will be in all of his/her writing no matter what it's about), but I do tend to be less likely to immediately realize the writer as the person I'm identifying with, rather than the character which exists only in text.

My last thought, in addition to all of these other jumbled thoughts, is another metaphor for the classroom. In class, I think I agreed with someone who said that a classroom, when it is working, is like a play rehearsal. I still agree with that idea, but I also thought of my own metaphor... that a classroom is also like a garden. I would explicate, but... nobody else did, so... I'll wait and see if we do that later.

Pemwrez2009's picture

dappling with the third wave

Feminism, and my feminist critiques of texts are usually more about the processes of why I am making a certain critique, rather than what exactly it is that I am critiquing. When I read articles, stories, and different texts that leave me with intense feelings, I always take a minute, and rather than critique what the author is saying I think about why I am driven to critique.

Even though I agree with the idea, from our last discussion that an author doesn’t necessarily have agency to tell the reader how to interpret his or her writing, I appreciate and value the contexts from which these authors come. I had a difficult time identifying with Schweickart’s idea of the feminist goal in critiquing. I identify as a feminist, though I am not necessarily looking to form a community in my critiques.

Why can’t we value the process of reading and observing our reactions to the text and understanding our reactions? However, In Schweickart’s Towards a Feminist Theory of Reading, she writes “...there are good reasons for feminist criticism to engage reader response criticism. Both dispute the fetishized art object, the ‘Verbal Icon,’ of New Criticism, and both seek to dispel the objectivist illusion that buttresses the authority of the dominant critical tradition.(p38)” In this sense feminist critique can be really important in making an effective difference.

When we discussed the idea of feminism critiques being to “change the world” I wanted so badly to disagree with that idea, however we are not in a place yet, even in third wave feminism where we can ignore the masculinized lens where most of our entertainment and educational sources are coming from. This is where the importance for feminist critique is the most important!
Gail Chavenelle Alum '67's picture

4 thoughts on Schweikart Article

1. I wonder how much AGE is a factor in differentiating readers in Reader Response Theory. We have a wonderful opportunity with 3-4 generations of Bryn Mawr women to explore. I checked the class roster and we range from first year undergraduate women to Mary and Beatrice who graduated in the 40’s.

2. The male canon of “literature” and the “other”/alienated result is real. I have felt it since childhood. That is why Nancy Drew was so important. There were no other models available. During my first year at Bryn Mawr, while waiting for my washing, I read Shakespeare, since Kate and Beatrice were the only strong, verbal, witty women in the “acceptable” literature. Today, I consciously choose women authors- even in pulp fiction with women detectives. I use this kind of psychological protection.

3. The notion of validity in the conclusion- “It’ validity is contingent on the agreement of others”. Today’s Wikipedia and the web jump to mind.

4. The arguments of the article, the basic duality between writer and reader, it seems to me is the same in all other art forms. The androcentric canon and approach strategies result in women’s bifurcated response and still ”confirms the position as other”. I happen to be in the visual arts. From pre-Columbian to Bacon or Picasso, the feminist theory of reading, or viewing, or listening must be in our consciousness.

sarahcollins's picture

Before I took this class, I

Before I took this class, I took issue with feminist criticism because I thought great literature (pretty much all art for that matter) (and which depends on your definition of "great") transcends all those racial, sexual, socio-economical lines we draw when we don't have our head in a book.
I still have a lingering habit to question the idea of feminist criticism, or really any theory that interprets with a political end in mind - particularly because a lot of books I've loved and which have had a lasting effect on me have male protagonists, and I've never considered reading them to "cause me grave psychic damage" (41) to the way I conceive of myself as a female, as Schweickart posits that it does.
However, Schweickart's essay pointed out a number of convincing reasons why feminist criticism is necessary, especially for the field of reader-response criticism, but also raised some questions about its limitations and problems with its proposed solutions.
To be more specific, I thought it was interesting that Schweickart depicts reader-response criticism as "utopian" in the sense that it overlooks race, sex, class, etc. and doesn’t consider feelings of discord that misrepresentation in literature, i.e. Woolf and Malcolm X's stories of reading, arouses in the unspoken-for reader. The feminist perspective is a solution to making the utopia a reality, it's a "mode of praxis" (39) which will change the world and the face of literature, and boost the voice of women to match those of men.
Feminist criticism will also ideally break the cycle of canonization which leads to androcentric standards. Women's literature must be more canonized than it has been, and the criteria by which they're judged should be shifted to accomodate the female perspective (as well as all perspectives); I also agree that male texts are not inherently damaging, only the fact that the "experience of immasculation is paradigmatic" for female readers is.
She says the aim of feminist critics is that "of recovering, articulating, and elaborating positive expressions of women's point of view" and celebrating its survival. This I agree with. It's mostly her distinction between readings of male and female texts, that one should be read impersonally, and one very personally, that I feel uneasy about. Shouldn't they all be read the same way? And what about the idea that an author should be everyone and no one?
I also hope her "dialogic model" is used more often in interpreting texts by all authors. 
kwheeler's picture


I think that Sosnoski’s article is a very thought provoking piece. I noticed a lot of parallels between this article and Woolf’s Three Guineas, in particular Sosnoski’s denouncement of inherent, male competitiveness and the importance of degrees and prestige. He explains how modern literary criticism was brought about due to an increasingly competitive atmosphere of professionalism and the “vertical movement” or climbing of career ladders.

We established in class that Bryn Mawr was modeled on patriarchal institutions and is very distinct from the type of university that Woolf describes as necessary, however can something not be said for its policy of not discussing grades? I realize that Bryn Mawr still awards student Cum Laude and academic awards, however I do believe that in agreeing to not discuss grades openly we are striving to eliminate the competitiveness that is inherent in so many colleges and institutions?

Sosnoski uses the image of a ‘Magister Implicatus’ to “concretize the sum total of performances now demanded for accreditation as a professional critic”. He seems to suggest that is the profile that the majority of the business and professional world has to submit to in order to be “successful”. It is interesting to think about the role of a business-woman in this context. What is considered of a woman who strives to achieve a top position in a company? Is she succumbing to the image of ‘Magister Implicatus’?

I’m a new to feminist thought and theory… but does this type of thinking devalue the achievements of the First Wave Feminists? In striving for equal rights and participation in predominantly male institutions and politics are we too participating in a world of ‘Magister Implicatus’ and simply perpetuating the status-quo?

ndegeorge's picture

reading as a feminist

I see reading as a feminist as a personal act of self-discovery, like it was for Adrienne Rich in her exploration of Emily Dickinson's writing. Therefore I would say that the reading and interpretation of the poem we did in class was indeed a feminist reading. We all found ways to connect with the poem. On that point I would agree with Schweickart; that the reader does indeed form a relationship with the text she is reading. But she makes the choice about what to take in or not, meaning the relationship could be either positive or negative. I think even when one is "resisting" a sexist text it is necessary to see where one could connect with it, though ultimately choosing not to. It is truly an individualized experience, which needs to take into account a personal definition of feminism. I guess I would agree with the reader-response theory that reading is subjective. Adding feminist theory to that I think makes reading a richer experience for women, one that is built on connection and communication; a relationship not necessarily with the author but with the text itself. I think according to traditional feminst theory my ideas might be a little too broad but I think feminism should be personal first in order to know what to build upon.
Abby's picture

  While I find much of

  While I find much of Schweickart's arguments intriguing and even helpful in clarifying what a feminist theory of reading looks like, I would like to ask a few questions related to her discussion of the awareness of androcentricity in literature and the necessity of the feminist or woman reader to resist.

  On page 49 of her essay Shweickart makes quite clear the correct choice for every feminist reader when it comes to approaching an "androcentric" text.  "The reader can submit to the power of the text, or she can take control of the reading experience.  The recognition of the existence of a choice suddenly makes visible the normative dimension of the feminist story: She should choose the second alternative." (49)  Okay, fine.  I guess I can accept that we have a responsibility as feminist readers to choose to take control.  While reader-response theory is grounded in a notion of essential relationship between text and reader, the feminist voice seems to be saying: "Yes, there's a relationship.  But WE have to be the subject." 

  I think my puzzlement is made more clear when I read on page 50 of the essay that  "Because patriarchal constructs have psychological correlates, taking control of the reading process means taking control of one's reactions and inclinations."  I suppose my question here is "Does a feminist reading require one to suppress her instincts?  Or at least, to always be wary of what she feels and thinks, fearing it may be laced with the stain of "patricarchal constructs?"  I'm not sure.  This kind of reading can be useful.  Skepticism is the friend of academia.  But I wonder at what point this resisting reaches levels of paranoia?  Or is the notion of a paranoid reader too outrageous and comical to warrant any real concern?  Feel free to tell me that it is!

  I think what I am grappling with here ultimately comes down to the definition and purpose of feminism.  Does feminism include the benefit of all people, or just women?  Are those two things synonymous?  Can men become savvy feminist readers too?  If the feminist reading endeavor drives us to isolate ourselves too much, are we sacrificing a bit of our humanity? 

  I would love to know what everyone else thinks:)

smigliori's picture

The Problem of Schweickart's Feminist

Schweickart's notion of feminist reading is extremely problematic, especially when current theories surrounding gender are taken into account. She insists that "The feminist story will have at least two chapters: one concerned with feminist readings of male texts, and another with feminist readings of female texts....The story will speak of the difference between men and women, of the way the experience and perspective of women have been systematically and fallaciously assimilated into the generic masculine, and of the need to correct this error." (39) In other words, Schweickart insists on a reading which declares that men and women are, in fact, different. Instead of trying to eliminate the idea of inherent differences between men and women in order to put them on an equal footing, Schweickart would instead like to create an entire seperate field for women reading the literature of either women. In this way, her theory proposes something not much different from Woolf's isolationist theory in Three Guineas.

Schweickart's use of example is also very telling. While she draws upon multiple examples of a feminist reading of a male text, she chooses to use only Adrienne Rich's "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson" to examine a feminist reading. Schweickart seems to believe that this tells a "different" story from a criticism of a male author because Dickinson and Rich are both female. She admits that "Rich's interpretation of frankly acknowledged as conditioned by her own experience as a twentieth-century feminist poet" (56). This reading is characterised as feminist because it attempts to establish a "connection" between the author and the critic. However, this seems to me to be just as likely between any author and critic of any gender where as little information is known as there is about Emily Dickinson. In fact, "Vesuvius at Home" is as much an essay about Rich as it is about Dickinson, in that the way Rich interprets Dickinson's work is so heavily influenced by her own experiences, especially as a lesbian, a point which Schweickart strangely overlooks. Is this what feminist criticism should be? Trying to find oneself in the work of another? Does Schweickart then believe the critique of male authors is different from female authors because it is theoretically easier for the critic to relate to someone of the same gender?

Finally, Schweickart does not allow for the possibility of a male feminist. This is extremely evident in the last paragraph, when she is speaking of "the hope that ultimately this community will expand to include everyone" and yet continues on to say that "we should strive to redeem the claim that it is possible for a woman, reading as a woman, to read literature written by women." (56) Obviously, Schweickart's definition of everyone does not include men. However, this definition is as dangerous to the goals of feminism as a move for equality as the patriarchal definition of everyone which often excludes women. While I believe that a feminist reading is both possible and highly desirable in understanding the formations of gender roles and the part they play in societies, I believe that Schweickart's "Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading" may have been going in the wrong direction.

matos's picture

Something from the

Something from the Schweikart reading that I thought was really interesting was the different ways Rich, and in general how "feminist" critic, approaches a female subject and a male author. It's described as "primarily resisting...adversarial, or at least detached." To me, it was reminiscent of a sort of "us versus them" attitude. Schweikhert went to go on to describe Rich’s essay on Dickinson, but I was stuck on this point. While it’s true that a male writer can never get inside a women’s head and it might be more difficult for a woman reader to gain the type of intimacy with a man’s writing than with a woman’s, it is certainly not impossible. Our first approach to a men authors should not be resisting, but as open minded as anything else. Then if we have beef with it then, by all means, resist away.

hslavitt's picture

What is a feminist reading?

Schweickart's article had wonderful gems of truth hidden in the academic blah blah blah. There were moments of great clarity and truths that spoke to me as a feminist reader of male and female texts. The major issue I had was her total concession to gender stereotypes. She buys into this image of all women seeking to connect and form relationships. She says by reading anything in a community of women where all voices are heard is in and of itself a feminist reading. I think that this is a touchy-feely sentiment that doesn't fit with her wonderful scholarly approach to women as writers and readers. Call me a traditionalist, but for me a feminist reading/interpretation is talking about what you see as a resiting reader, discussion of women's roles in the work itself, and application of feminist and feminist literary theory to the literature.

llauher's picture

Feminist Criticism and Reader-Response (Schweickart)

To begin, I heartily agree with Schweickart's point that "...reader-response criticism needs feminist criticism."(36) I think that the critique of text without the consideration of how women read the material or are presented therein is pointless. While, as Schweickart points out, feminist criticism does not approach reader-response theory without bias, reader-response theory supports the relationship between the reader and the text, and this relationship is also almost always inherently biased. The preconceptions in feminist theory are valuable considerations when analyzing a text.
I find myself reading increasingly more often in the manner which Schweickart describes; that is, trying not to allow the text to place me personally in the shoes of the main character, but instead trying to stay unbiased and consider the other characters or speakers. I certainly believe that the author is not the master of the reader or of the text, nor should the reader ever consider a single text the authority on a subject. I personally think that the weight of authority lies with the reader, not the author, as the author is, in the end, catering to the reader. As a feminist reader, I sincerely think that theories, stories, and articles are written to be read, and the author must cater to her readers on some level, and, in turn, expect criticism.
I do, however, find a point of contention or two with Schweickart's argument. The separation of female readers from male readers rubs me the wrong way. Do higher estrogen levels and the ability to bear children necessarily make women different readers from men? Perhaps this is too harsh a judgment to make of a female author; I may simply be misreading her acknowledgment of the patriarchy in her piece.
Flora's picture

why insist on segregating stories?

I found Schweikart's essay very useful in developing my own thoughts on both reader response theory and feminist criticism. Therefore, I was a little disappointed that we didn't spend as much time on the text in class. There is so much in it! Even though I didn't agree with a lot of it, I still found her arguments interesting and thought-provoking.

The aspect of the essay I most wanted to highlight and discuss was what she lists as the second story of reading: Malcolm X learning to love to read in prison. I found this story extremely compelling. She quotes him as saying that "the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive." I love this disctinction he makes here between being alive and being mentally alive.

However, I was frustrated by the direction the rest of her essay took. After bringing in his story, she appears to dismiss it with a comment about Malcolm X's interpretation of Mendelian genetics, saying "whether you start with a black man or a white man, without a woman, you get nothing."

In fact, I found the story of Woolf's invented heroine, Mary, to greatly parallel his story. Schweickert does too, saying that both are subject to "the pervasive systemic injustices of our time." But how/why can/does she admit this similarity and then not include aspects of race in her ideal description of feminist criticism? Is this another example of a theorist who thinks that gender trumps race? Or thinks they must be analyzed differently? Or don't apply to each other? How? This is so short sighted. They affect each other! I don't think I know the answers to these questions, but I want to think about them.

I am so deelpy troubled by both her and Woolf's insistence on the strict dualist model of gender. Rigidly assigning all women and all men certain modes of communication is certainly, I hope, a dated rhetorical approach.


marybellefrey's picture


Thank you.  I feel your comment about the outdated nature of the male/female model was much needed.
EMaciolek's picture

Gendered Terms

I have to say that there were very few points in Sosnoski's essay that I could find any reason to disagree with. What I was hung up most on was the vocabulary. He describes the "Magister Implicatus" as impeccably male but there are definitely women who work in a competitive manner that mirrors exactly what Sosnoski described. So I'm not sure why the "Magister Implicatus" must be male. I understand that it comes from a history of opression and only recently have women become more respected in the field of literary criticism, but it is more of a mindset issue than a gender issue. I don't believe it is accurate to use the word "male" in describing the "male machine. In a quote from Sosnoski's essay by Marc Feigen Fasteau, he states, " The male machine is a special kind of being, different from women, children, and men who don't measure up," which shows that even men do not fit into the prototype of the "male machine." Yet there are women who fit the description of a "male machine" perfectly. Realizing that Sosnoski's essay was written in the late 1980s, I'm hoping that current critics of literary criticism have found new un-gendered terms.

However, I love Sosnoski's argument that competition is not even close to the best method of achieving verification. For competition to work there needs to be a right and wrong and as Sosnoski points out, "texts do not provide a factual ground to interpretive claims, that writers and readers are discursive subjects who cannot be codified... In short, in post-modern theorizing, the very possibility of falsification is thoroughly undermined as a worthwhile intellectual endeavor," (69). There is a clear trend in essays written by professionals where the entire point of the essay is to falsify someone else's prior claim. Simply tearing down someone else's argument, more often than not, is a waste of time. However, if both essay-writers were to collaborate, both minds would reach a conclusion more worthy of scholarly work and intellectual capacity would increase rather than shift from one thought to the next.

Overall, Sosnoski's essay doesn't need to be at all about gender, but it is the past work of men that have created a trend and thus competition/falsification is labeled "male." It almost seems that the entire essay could have been written without any mention of gender with words that have the same meaning of insider vs. outsider. I hope his alternative methods to competition have been put into use in the field of literary criticism (or in all fields of study), because they are by far the best methods of aiding intellectuality.

jrizzo's picture

Sosnoski... a bit of a stretch.

While I am very much attracted to Sosnoski's idyllic vision of literary criticism as the terrain of "intellectual compassion, commitment, collaboration, concurrence, and community," I feel he made several unfair assumptions along the way to his denunciation of the "mindless man-driven theory machine."

First, he blames men for the current, counterproductive system resting on falsificity that governs literary criticism today.  Now, in one sense, since men have indeed been the ones in charge for so long it seems fair to hold them responsible for the shabby state of things.  However, Sosnoski takes it for granted that falsificity was a tool invented to aid the competitive in a competition they invest themselves in because their masculine natures inspire them to do so.  He tells us that "in the present academy, competitiveness and falsificity are inextricably bound together."  I believe neither that this statement is true, nor that the latter element is neccesarily a force of evil.  I agree with Sosnoski that competititon distracts from the true goal in almost any scenario, shifting our eyes away from finding the truth in literature, for example, and towards personal achievement.  Depending on the desperation of the competitors, these two ends need not have anything to do with one another.  But he also asserts that, "modern criticism is no more than a competition governed by [falsification,] an arbitrary rule." I cannot accept this notion of falsification as arbitrary.  If I am a critic and I believe that I have the truth, it is a noble desire that leads me to disprove the falsehoods that threaten what is right.  Sosnoski never takes into account the possibility that truth might actually be important to a critic, that he or she might care about what happens to a piece of art he or she deems worthy of respect. 

All of this is, of course, assuming that we accept that there are right and wrong interpretations of literature.  Sosnoski is never quite clear on this point.  I tend to think that not all interpretations are created equal.  His notion of compassion intellectual collaboration is a very nice, very democratic idea, and certainly people listening to each other will learn more than people fighting one another, but falsification also has its place.  There are more and less valid, educated interpretations.  I believe that listening and accepting every idea offered can only go so far.  The author inadvertantly proves this himself when he discusses the kind of "intellectual femininity" he considers desirable.  He asks for a world built on "intuition and the confession of error..." Where does this confession of error come from if there is no right and wrong?  If there is a wrong, does it not threaten the truth, and is it not the critic's responsibility to "falsify" it?

YJ's picture

Sosnoski vs. Schweickart

My initial reaction to Sonoski is that I don't quite identifiy with his theories of the relationsip between a reader and the text as much as I identified with Scweickart's theories. His theory about the "mindless man-driven machine" certainly approached what feminist literary theory is from a much different perspective than Schweickart did- he explicitly examines literary theory from the underlying and already-existant structure in place that reinforces the patriarchical nature of the field of literary theory.

He also observes and grounds much of his argument in the realities of the work, the competitive nature, the desire instilled early on by professors and bosses to suceed in a "vertical" manner (i.e. climbing the ladder to success), to win awards and recognition, etc. It is this desire to suceed that leads to what Sonoski terms "falsificity" (pg. 41) in the field of literary criticism. Critics feel they cannot admit error because to admit error is to admit to being wrong, and therefore they must always insist upon their own argument as always being the correct one. Sonoski points out the seemingly obvious problem with this tendency on the part of the literary critics to never admit thier own errors or even recognize the flaws in thier arguments. Knowledge must and should be gained, according to Sonoski, through communal effort. Much as Schweickart called for a community of feminist readers and writers, Sonoski is calling for a community of differences composed of literary theorists and critics. Sonoski, however, sees the differences as precisely the best part about the communal effort whereas Schweickart seemed more intent on the "togetherness" aspect of community.


As different as the two arguments are, I don't think they're entirely in opposition. However, I think it's easier to identify with Schweickart's essay much more because she is writing so explicitly from the perspective of a woman, which I obviously can relate to as I self-identify as a female, and also her argument is stronger because she acknowledges the dominating patriarchy of the literature field while at the same time actively resisting it thoruhgout, whereas Sonoski focuses his entire essay around the problems within the patriarchy. I suppose a simple characterization of Sonoski's essay would be that it's from the "insider" perspective, written from within the very patriarchy it considers flaws, while Schweickart writes from the "outsider" perspective, consciously focusing on the meaning of a feminist literary community (which would of course have to operate outside the patriarchy).

Elizabeth319's picture

Sosnoski- You almost got me for a second!

The essay starts off well- I nodded my head as I read the first few paragraphs. I agree with the concept of, knowing what one thought one knew was no longer believable, is without a doubt learning and an important part of knowledge.

The paragraphs following the beginning, regarding the implications of words such as wrong, and incorrect remind me of the situations when conflict arises with a friend and dialouge is shared yet misunderstood. In order to resolve the issue one has to change what one had said to correct oneself, "When I said I was ANGRY, I really meant that I was HURT." The potential that words have to imply alternative or additional meaning can be dangerous. So all seemed to be going well in my reading until The construction of intellectuality in the institution of criticism was introduced.

Simply the metaphor of literary criticism to a secretary was offensive though that is only with the patriarchal implications that women are secretaries and men are not. Would this assumption that I made while reading Wellek's metaphor classify my thoughts as patriarchal even though that generalization appears to be correct? 

The notion that literary criticism is a principle of falsificity is disenheartening. If the goal of the individual is soley to prove another incorrect than there is no knowledge- based gained. The second part of the essay, Intellectual sexuality in the institution of critcism save my weakening appreciation for the text.

Bledstein's description of a calling and a career surprised me. Even though he did not mention the necessity or even right of a women to act upon a calling, it was a step in the right direction. It probably was  unintentional that he did not leave women out of the notion of calling, but it was enough that I wanted to slap the man a high five for a step in the right direction.

I also found the created Magister Implicatus incredibly relevant and believe that he tends to have an over powering role in many young women's lives including my own. Does he also haunt those of the male gender but is not spoken of because a fear of shame?

Fasforwarding a bit, the second page of 72 reminded me of what we aim to have in our classroom community; intellectual collaboration through literary criticism.