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Week 2: Response mainly to Scheickart but also Virginia Woolf and Sosnoski.

jill.sellers's picture

This response is a mishmash arising from contradictory emotions of protest, admiration, amusement and irritation.  In short, it has been an interesting week!


I admit that I was a resistant reader of Patrocinio Schweickart’s  piece.  It is not her fault—she just happens to be the messenger from a world of literary criticism I have managed to avoid for 44 years, since Freshman English, which I hated.  


The survey of reader-response theories—whether texts control, colonize, and manipulate readers or readers by their subjectivity trivialize texts—seems highly comical.  The image of an exhausted and alienated reader presents itself, tearing pages out of War and Peace in an attempt of self-assertion.  Well, maybe not War and Peace—but perhaps Rabbit Is Rich or The Naked and the Dead.


I mention those books because in my simple way I always thought that reading Mailer  was impossible—the obstacles were obvious, the writing annoying and purplish.  The character of Rabbit Angstrom is in many ways loathsome—testosterone drenched, under educated, crafty and bestial—but reading Updike is very possible; the language creates a pathway into a truly alien consciousness.  Reading Updike, I experience “close contact with an interiority—a power, a creativity, a suffering, a vision—that is not identical with” my own and is even distasteful to my own. 


It seems obvious that reading is “a matter of ‘trying to connect’ with the existence behind the text,” as Schweickart puts it. One can admire the brilliant bitterness of the Woolf and recognize in Three Guineas not only one’s own frustration with—especially—the history writing of the 1950s and 1960s but also, at the same time, her class-bias.   Is it easier to connect with the angry upper-class author of Three Guineas, because she happens to be a woman, than with Rabbit?  I think both take an effort that though apparently seamless and unconscious is much like the dialogic paradigm with which Schweickart concludes her essay.


So I have to question whether all or most of literature is androcentric in a way that profoundly damages a woman reader.  To become angry or uncomfortable is not to be damaged in that way.   Malcolm X was not destroyed by reading.  How was Mary crippled by understanding that men did not represent her experience? 


Is the human universality that men have usurped in fact a male condition or quality?  Or is it something that women need in part to reclaim?  If the latter, then our ability to reclaim it through reading is not damaging but empowering.


Much is made in the essay of a scene from Portrait of the Artist where a girl appears as a bird. I have read this book many times and certain phrases seem to be my own memories, which I guess they are now, but that image I don’t recall.   If I dare to generalize, it seems that reading is not only subjective but selective.  When I read it now, the image is beautiful.  When young and perhaps more uncertain in sexual identity I could not enjoy it, the way my daughters used to cringe at female nudes. That suggests that “being a woman” entails a different subjectivity at every age, and undoubtedly at every income and educational level.


And I can’t avoid thinking that there’s a huge disconnect between “mainstream reader-response theories  . . .preoccupied with  issues of control and partition” and “just plain” reading as it is done by the vast majority of people.


Would anyone—outside Academe—seriously disagree that “it is possible for a woman, reading as a woman, to read literature written by a woman?”   It has been possible for at least a hundred years, almost as long as there has been a large population of literate women.  It goes on in thousands of book clubs. It keeps Little Women perpetually in print along with all of Jane Austen and George Eliot.  The problem for the academic feminist is, apparently, still, the “canon’—who’s in, who’s out.


Does all the violent theory making and breaking boil down to a power struggle?  That seems to be Sosnoski’s theme.


To justify certain allocations of power, including allocations of academic worth and seriousness, certain gender-associated qualities are privileged.  I’d have to agree, though I am not an academic.  But must gender be either/or, male/female, yin/yang?  Don’t human beings fall along an infinitely graded continuum of hormone-driven behaviors, thoughts, and self-presentations (not to mention individual contexts of age, education etc.)? 

Logic and science tell me that this is so, and I am uncomfortable with feminists who want to assign traits and  make blanket statements about women's psychology and men's nature.


The question Sosnoski raises is whether logic and the rules of reasoning are themselves gender-associated and hormone-driven.  I like the point that trying to apply the classical scientific methods to matters of feeling and opinion can be ludicrous (trying to apply them to the social sciences has had the same result in many cases).  But I don’t understand the need to dethrone logic in order to have feminist critical theory.  I don’t get “falsificity.”  I know what falsifiability is—but that doesn’t seem to be it.


This essay essentially asserts that competition is “naturally” male and academic resources are awarded to the most aggressive competitors. Could be.   If so, is that a problem for women only?  If the institutional “life of the mind” is a zero-sum game, that would appear to be a problem for the institution and all its members.  


I am a feminist, a voracious reader, and one who believes that some fluid combination of clear-headed reason and generous empathy is essential to not only the feminist but the human project.

marybellefrey's picture

reply to jill

You convince me.  I henceforth will put 'masculine' and 'feminine' in quotes.  We all, men and women, have a right and left side to our brains.  The 'masculine' psychology makes it presumably easier to develop the left, and the 'feminine', the right.  But, yes, there are great overlaps and great variations.  I think we've been very sloppy in our speech and therefore in our thinking (as Orwell's Newspeak should have convinced us for all time).  All the men I know, or know of, are moving toward the right side, even if only in resistence to the current, which is after all the first movement in waking up.  Thanks very much, Jill.