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Leave the Walls Standing

pejordan's picture

    Gertrude Stein and Gayatri Spivak are two very different women; Spivak was born in India yet completed most of her studies in the United States, and Stein was born in the United States but lived most of her life in France. However, they are both considered to be feminist authors, and they share the opinion that we cannot make ourselves too easy to understand for fear of letting ourselves be used for didactic purposes. The two accomplish this in different ways, Spivak by emphasizing the depth of our lack of understanding of those different from us, and Stein by limiting our understanding to the surface. While both of these approaches are feminist, Spivak’s approach ultimately gives greater agency to women who have been marginalized.

    In Spivak’s critique of “Breast Giver” by Mahasweta Devi, she takes issue with the fact that Devi puts Jashoda into this neat little box of metaphor because it excludes the meaning that Jashoda holds as an individual. That meaning, however, is something that cannot be extracted; even Jashoda does not “know” herself, and so there is no possibility that an outside reader could understand her on any level. Insisting on leaving the walls standing between Jashoda and the reader gives an agency to Jashoda, gives her an identity that is not as simple as her class or race or sex. Obscurity and confusion are necessary to emphasize the fact that we cannot and will never be able to understand people in the way that we think we do, an observation that is an interruption of what our education has taught us. That is why masks and walls are so important to feminism—because they prevent labels and categorization.

    On the other hand, in her poem “Lifting Belly,” Gertrude Stein attempts to clear all “masks” away by separating words from their meanings and symbols. She takes language back to its basest level and encourages her readers to take the words for what they are: a sensual experience. Stein’s use of language is also an interruption of conventional teaching and contributes to the prevention of labels and categorization that Spivak pointed out, but I think that while it is in the feminist vein of making things more complicated for us, it does not accomplish much else. It is an intellectual experiment that changes the way we think about language and words, but for me “Lifting Belly” still gave me the illusion that I could at least somewhat experience what these women were feeling, when this is not a reality. This illusion contributes to, in Spivak’s terms, the “subalternization of Third World literature,” although I would extend this subalternization to include anyone who is different from us, whether those differences are in class, gender, sexual orientation, appearance, or any other aspect of being. In this way, it is indicative of a continuation of a language of colonialism that is not compatible with feminism.

    This is not to say that Stein’s approach could not be effective; I think it could work if the subject were a less intimate experience. I think that readers should not be given as much access as “Lifting Belly” gives, that is, not the feeling of watching something that you maybe aren’t really supposed to see. We must always be aware that we are on the outside, and this is why we need those walls that Spivak discusses. The question becomes how can we combine the two, what would give two different readers a glimpse into some common experience while still realizing how different we are? The Book of Salt bridges this gap nicely by disclosing some memories but withholding others; there are still references that Binh makes to his own life which the reader cannot understand, but the way he describes other experiences by using images of food is more universal.

‘Do not worry about tonight’s dinner, Bin. An omelet. No. Fried eggs will be more than fine,’ she adds, expressing her amnesty, her charity toward me via a code that all French cooks understand and practice…A plate of fried eggs can inform a guest as no words can that an invitation to dinner has to be earned and not willed. (Truong 101-102)

    These images and others like them serve a purpose that is two-fold; on one hand, they help the reader to understand the feelings that Binh experiences because the senses are tangible and to some degree universal. It also helps to take language out of the equation and preserve the sensual experience that Stein conveys in “Lifting Belly.” However, even with this understanding there remains a degree of separation; smells, sounds, sights and tastes evoke different memories from each of us, and that allows the reader to have a somewhat different experience than Binh as long as those feelings are not directly expressed. There is no labeling of Binh’s sexuality throughout the novel, which also helps in terms of not putting people into boxes. The one problem that I still see with this text is that it is still not truly Binh’s words because even though he doesn’t speak it, the text is written very eloquently in English. This factor makes me think that film is potentially the best form of feminist expression because even if you don’t understand the words, you can read the expressions on their faces, their interactions with other characters, and the images the filmmaker chooses to incorporate.

    The imperialist tendencies that Western literature tends to possess can be very difficult to avoid, and now that I am aware of them I see them everywhere. The greatest shock for me was to see that it is not only what is written about the subaltern that is colonizing in nature, but also how it is written, and I think that is the more difficult problem to remedy. Texts like The Book of Salt that still leave a degree of separation between the reader and the main character are a step in the right direction, but a lot of the responsibility may still lie with the reader; reading not for a message but for the experience, and halting our attempts to try to understand those who are different from us.


Anne Dalke's picture

Undecipherability is key

What's exciting to me about your project is the striking connection you see between two such different feminist writers. You name this similarity @ the outset--that neither Spivak nor Stein is interested in transparency, in clearly conveyed messages--and you give @ least one explanation for why this might make sense as a feminist project: because making "ourselves too easy to understand" makes us available to "be used for didactic purposes." (This seems to me a huge shift, btw, from your last web event, in which you were seeking a very clearly defined answer to a very clearly defined question.) Not being understood--keeping some mystery, some unknowability about the self--thus enables some space for freedom. It also acknowledges the possibility that complete knowingness is never possible: that even in the stories we tell about ourselves (as shown by a student in my other class), there are things unknown.

This is such a striking claim for me, because the feminism in which I came of age took precisely the opposite position: as a very famous poem of Muriel Rukeyser's, "The Poem as Mask," proclaimed, "No more masks! No more mythologies!" We thought, in the '60s and '70s, that we could do away w/ complicated theoretical language, w/ mythologies that separated ourselves from the truth, and masks that separated us from one another. Stein, writing before this era when we believed in the power of transparency, and Spivak, writing after it, suggest a very different sort of feminist project.

You go on to explore the differences in the two writers, arguing that Spivak (successfully) grants Jashoda the agency of not being known, while Stein (unsuccessfully) allows her readers an intimate look into her sex life, and so offers the illusion that we understand what she has experienced. You then look to The Book of Salt as a "bridge" between these possibilities, one that both invites us to share another's experience, while reminding us of the limits of that enterprise. But I want to suggest that, by the time you get to the end of your analysis, you are actually refusing the insight w/ which you begin. In objecting to what you call the "illusory" insights offered in Lifting Belly, in seeking a "glimpse into common experience" in The Book of Salt, in offering film as "the best form of feminist expression," because it enables us to read expressions and interactions without words, you are insisting on seeking out precisely the sort of understanding that both Spivak and Stein have done their best to teach us is not possible.

My own current take on these matters differs somewhat from yours. I would say that Stein does to words what Spivak does to the experience of the subaltern: insists on the unknowability of what we take for a "sign," of an index to some certain meaning. Stein tries to unsettle our habits of thinking we know what a word means, in the same way that Spivak unsettles our hope that we might know what another person's actions mean. The epistemological gesture is the same, although the particular object (words, women) differs. Undecipherability is key in both cases.

Several of your classmates have also been looking @ the limits of labeling, of clear referentiality. You might want to check out, for instance, both What's that Word for When You Have to Break It to Find It? and just speak nearby/working towards ideas.