3 The Question of Authenticity: Feminist Theory and Minority Writing
My sealed tomb
Travels in my dreams. (Kefala, 1992:95)
Feminist theory has traditionally been an area where critics have searched for a framework for analysing the marginal. This is in part because the critical reception of both women's writing and ethnic minority writing has been haunted by questions of legitimation, founded on an authenticity supposedly based in experience. In other words, minority writing is characterised by offering the authority and authenticity of the marginal experience. Readers find that minorities are 'just like us', or so different that they throw the reader's own coherence into relief. That is to say, readers always rediscover themselves. Such are the problems of universalist readings, as distinct from attempts to develop strategies that enable us to read for difference. After Derrida, how might one argue for writing in conjunction with any notion of authenticity? Traditionally, authenticity has been located in speech and in the self which purports to be fully present behind the utterance. Writing, in Derrida's scheme, signals an orphaned textuality and a free play of meaning which go beyond the individual writer, whereas authenticity is associated with speech and voice, and functions precisely to reinforce 'the' individual as presence (Norris,1982:24---32). At the heart of postmodernist feminism is a paradox, succinctly expressed by Alice Jardine (1985:147): 'Feminism, while infinite in its variations, is finally rooted in the belief that women's truth-in-experience-and-reality is and has always been different from men's'.
This paradox continues to surface in various guises in many of the debates around feminist theory. It can be posed in other terms. Why should we read anyone in particular? Why should we insist on the rights of particular individuals to construct their own stories? How, indeed, might anyone be said to 'own' a story, if in writing we are dealing with a free play of signification? And what do we hope to see/hear when our ways of thinking about ourselves as fixed entities have been profoundly unsettled? How, in the wake of postmodernism, is it possible to theorise or clear a necessary space for the writings of particular subjects--for those who derive part of their subjectivity from minority groups, for example, or for those who are disadvantaged by signifying practices which privilege a majority as arbiters of what circulates as public meaning? As Catherine Belsey reminds us in her study of the subject:
Subjectivity is discursively produced and is constrained by the range of subject-positions defined by the discourses in which the concrete individual participates . . . In this sense existing discourses determine not only what can be said and understood, but the nature of subjectivity itself, what it is possible to be . . . Since meaning is plural, to be able to speak is to be able to take part in the contest for meaning which issues in the production of new subject-positions, new determinations of what it is possible to be. (Belsey, 1985:5---6)
But how might one argue for those 'new determinations' and resistances as coming from and privileging a particular group, without returning or reconsolidating that humanist subjectivity which traditionally is constituted as male, bourgeois, European and universal (speaking for all)? Some years ago, efforts to clear a space for women's writing generated a great deal of debate over whether or not one could claim the authority to write on the basis of a difference which apparently had not yet been represented. As Anne Freadman (1985:168) argued, 'theories of representation . . . assume the world itself to be the arbiter of accuracy'; and, indeed, women's writing claimed its legitimation on the grounds of a prior world, namely women's own experiential truths. This controversy over whether or not women write differently -- simply by being that unproblematic category 'woman'--still surfaces (see the critique by Moi, 1985, particularly Part 1). It became increasingly clear that this strategy burdened women once again with biological essentialism, and thus imprisoned them in a determinism which precluded social change. Such arguments reinforced that concept of a passive and unreflective 'feminine' which in the writings of men has always been the inferior component in a binary category. This was arguably so even when it took the extremely subtle form of écriture féminine, as Toril Moi (1985:121---6) has argued concerning the work of Hélène Cixous. Women do not write differently by virtue of being born with wombs but because they learn to become women. This counter-thesis is rooted in Simone de Beauvoir's famous and elegantly concise dictum that women are made and not born. Later versions have gained strength from Christine Delphy's (1984) argument for a redefinition of knowledge which takes into account the materialism of women's lives and historical oppression. They have benefited also from Teresa de Lauretis's redefinition of the category of experience itself, even though she has been criticised for underestimating the importance of the unconscious in this process.
I use the term not in the individualistic, idiosyncratic sense of something belonging to one and exclusively her own even though others might have 'similar' experiences; but rather in the general sense of a process by which, for all social beings, subjectivity is constructed. Through that process one places oneself or is placed in social reality, and so perceives and comprehends as subjective (referring to, even originating in, oneself) those relations--material, economic, and interpersonal--which are in fact social and, in a larger perspective, historical. The process is continuous, its achievement unending or daily renewed. For each person, therefore, subjectivity is an ongoing construction, not a fixed point of departure or arrival from which one then interacts with the world. On the contrary, it is the effect of that interaction--which I call experience; and thus it is produced not by external ideas, values, or material causes, but by one's personal, subjective, engagement in the practices, discourses, and institutions that lend significance (value, meaning, and affect) to the events of the world. (de Lauretis, 1984:159)
Such critiques focus increasingly on materialism (in the sense of the continuous construction and reconstruction of subjectivity) rather than biologism. In other words, women write and read differently in so far as they live out their lives as socially categorised women and in so far as their texts circulate or are consumed differently from those stamped with male signatures. Even those women whose writings/readings are superficially indistinguishable from those of men nonetheless negotiate a different kind of access to signifying practices and to discursive formations. They may be perceived as practising a type of mimicry which, even when self-consciously executed, is arguably limited in its subversive effects (Moi, 1985:140---3). There is also Joan Scott's illuminating analysis of 'what counts as experience'. 'Subjects are constituted discursively', she contends, ' and experience is a linguistic event (it doesn't happen outside established meanings), but neither is it confined to a fixed order of meaning . . . What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward; it is always contested, and always therefore political' (Scott, 1991: 793---7). Current projects concerned with redefining the interactions between the somatic and psychic body promise to develop, new theoretical arguments in support of the specificities of women's writing, while assiduously avoiding any biological essentialism (Schor,1985; Grosz, 1994).
These developments in feminist materialisms are important in the face of a feminist orthodoxy which might be described as the emergence of a unified female subjectivity, which is the flip side of the humanist (male) subjectivity referred to earlier. In response to postmodernism, and in the face of increasing critiques from so-called marginal women's groups, the 'feminist subject' has been seen to be just as ethnocentric and exclusive, just as imperialist and bourgeois, as her male counterpart in claiming to speak on behalf of all women.
As a result of such critiques--and a recognition that the oppositional model will always see-saw between contending unified subjectivities--it has become more expedient than ever to shift the emphasis to a decentred subject or subjects-in-process in order to open up different kinds of discursive resistances, which result, as Belsey argues, in different possibilities for social meanings. It helps to remember also that Lyotard's (1984) oft-quoted definition of postmodernism associates an 'incredulity toward meta-narratives' with a concomitant movement toward 'local determinism'. These local determinisms have kinship with Belsey's discursive resistances. That postmodernism represents a total break with modernism is not being argued here at all; indeed, Lyotard (1986) has repeatedly defined the much-maligned 'post' as a return (as in anamnesis) to what has been forgotten, rather than as a leaving behind. The emphasis here is on minor and heterogeneous narratives which come from outside the known canons and literary traditions. In the last decade feminist scholars have recovered many lost female writers, and this has resulted in the formation of a female great tradition which does of course represent certain pleasures and satisfactions, particularly for women.
But, simultaneously, one becomes conscious of exclusions. This is symptomatic, of course, of any canon formation. Even when those exclusions are noted--and there is a scramble to read, for example, varieties of non-European women writers--the way in which they are read derives often from familiar and Eurocentric perspectives. At the same time the marketplace is attempting to capture ever more exotic 'outsiders' and recruit them to publishers' lists. The effect has been ambiguous. On the one hand there has been a welcome diversification of Eurocentric and bourgeois literary canons; on the other such writings have also served to consolidate the genre of the first-person confessional novel (the promulgation of the truth-speaking subject) to which all women's writing was assigned initially. Woman as Truth has returned in the guise of working-class, Black, lesbian and other varieties of minority women, and has been constructed as much in opposition to hegemonic women as to hegemonic men.
The delineations of oppression and silencing manifest in these texts served to reinforce, renew and legitimate those original claims for promoting women's writing which were offered in the 1960s and 1970s. The more women's writing there was, the less plausible became women's claims that they were silenced or textually absent. Consequently, new witnesses to oppression were required. Not that the struggle to introduce women's texts into teaching institutions is by any means over, for tales of continuing battles prevail. But there is no doubt that women's writing has enjoyed a spectacular marketing success. As ever, feminists are alert to the spectre of 'recuperation', which is the name given to modes of reading which co-opt a radical text for a conservative or even reactionary agenda. The emphasis should now be on rereading these newly conscripted texts and being alert to their differences, instead of treating them as a chorus of women's voices blended in undifferentiated sisterhood. That impulse to homogenise is a feminist version of imperialism.
Increasingly, and not just within feminism, so-called minority writings are privileged as part of a general strategy for dismantling the humanist subject. Julia Kristeva (1980; 1982), for example, recruits dissident male avant-garde texts to the domain of the subversive semiotic, which exists prior to the symbolic and continues to disrupt it. On the other hand, there is Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between majority and minority literatures:
In major literatures . . . the individual concern (familial, marital, and so on) joins with other no less individual concerns, the social milieu serving as a mere environment or a background . . . The three characteristics of minor literature are the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation. We might say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986:17---8)
In the case of those newly discovered exclusions from the female canon described above, the forms have not been shattered. Rather, the emphasis has been on 'speaking' ( a manifestation of female presence) and content; in other words, such texts have been read as reinforcing a major and established literature, and not for their differences. If, for the moment, we accept Deleuze and Guattari's (ibid.:19) distinction, it comes down to being a stranger in one's own language and rereading it from the outside. Here an understanding of 'minority' is central as a method for breaking through privileged meanings. When does one start/stop being part of a minority? One is not necessarily born into a minority. Instead, it is a question of being alert to the positionings involved, particularly one's own as reader. We return necessarily to the issue of 'experience' and how it serves materialism, the daily construction of subjectivity. And we return also to Jardine's statement that 'feminism, while infinite in its variations, is finally rooted in the belief that women's truth-in-experience-and-reality is and has always been different from men's' (Jardine, 1985:147).
If we subscribe to the project of deconstructing those binary oppositions which continue to trap 'women' in the service of that origin of meaning and truth, the male humanist subject, then how can we at the same time endorse feminist enterprises which assert truths located in women's empirical experience, especially when we have been at such pains to tease out the ways in which 'experience' has always consolidated the imaginary relations of ideology? 'The politics of experience', according to Jane Gallop, 'is inevitably a conservative politics for it cannot help but conserve traditional ideological constructs which are not recognised as such but are taken for the "real" ' (quoted in ibid.:155). If we recognise the politics of Gallop's dictum, then on what theoretical grounds is it possible to argue that women should write and read as women, much less that particular groups of women should write and read on their own political behalf? If we are in the process of questioning such things as truth-claims (which comprise, among other things, Lyotard's master-narratives of Western philosophy and Derrida's metaphysics of presence, phonocentrism and the privileging of voice) how then might we respond to any minority's struggle to speak and to write? That question necessarily focuses on the struggle to read in new ways without reconstructing the old hierarchies and oppositions of signification.
Take the example of ethnic minority women's writing in Australia. In analysing the way in which ethnic minority writing is positioned within Australian writing, Althusser's concept of 'interpellation' remains useful: it refers to that 'hailing into being' of the subject which is constitutive of ideology (Althusser, 1976; for a critique see Hirst, 1979). Althusser defines ideology as the subject's imaginary relations to real social conditions. The concept of interpellation is useful in spite of the fact that it is arguably based on the notion of a unified and conscious subject. For the subject could not acknowledge this institutional 'hailing into being' unless some kind of subjectivity existed prior to interpellation. Attention has also been drawn to this hailing as a 'misrecognition' related in some ways to that misrecognition described in Lacanian accounts of the mirror stage of psychic development (Burniston and Weedon, 1978). In other ways it is quite different, of course, because the Althusserian interpellated subject does not have an unconscious. In relation to ethnic minority writing, interpellation focuses on the institutional processes which assign human subjects to particular positions, and on the inevitable misrecognitions which result. It is not that ethnic minorities are invisible in Australian discursive formations, but that they are positioned only in certain areas: sociology, oral history, welfare legislation, etc. They are consistently 'hailed into being' as speaking subjects but not as writing subjects. To put it another way, the possibility that other subjectivities exist--for example, in former cultures or languages--is precisely not interpellated in the Australian context except in negative or crude ways. That they are therefore fragmented or decentred subjects is perhaps more overt than is the case with other groups. But they are not read in this way. Instead, ethnic minority women are interpellated in Anglo-Celtic Australian culture as signifying sexuality (they breed), food (they over-feed their families), factory fodder (they supplement family incomes by part-time and below-award work), and silence (they never learn English because they don't mix with the wider community and so are, effectively, silent).
This may be illustrated further in a film produced by the Department of Immigration in the 1950s called No Strangers Here, where there is a brilliant mise en abyme or miniaturisation of the problem. The film is set in 'Littletown', a small Australian rural town, in the immediate postwar period. Narrative point of view is provided by the editor of the town's newspaper, a genial and overweight liberal. The story begins when he receives several anonymous letters, signed 'a true Australian', basically saying that foreigners are not wanted in Littletown. As the editor perambulates through the town kissing babies and talking to women, he notices the arrival of a foreign and good-looking nuclear family. A voice-over traces their backgrounds briefly as refugees from totalitarian and war-torn Europe.Their exact provenance is carefully not specified. Suffice to say that they clearly gesture their astonishment at the abundance of material objects around them: food and particularly a bicycle, which the father craves. Remarkably quickly they find their niches. The father works in the brickworks, the son goes to school, and the fetching daughter ends up as an aide in the local hospital, where she sets the hearts of the male patients and doctors aflutter. The mother remains in the home, where the editor decides to pay her a visit. He enters her home with the immortal words: 'Please tell me the story of your life!' On the brink of answering, the mother rushes to the oven, where something more urgent is evidently calling for attention. She offers the editor a slice of home-made cake and he in turn requests the recipe. This proves to be the answer to his question. The recipe is published under the heading 'Easy To Mix' and the town's women respond appropriately.
This risible small tale is actually an extremely accurate metaphoric and metonymic delineation of the ideology at the heart of postwar migration and the various attempts to manage it. The film signals assimilation in certain ways, notably linking it to the digestive model from which the term derives. Crucially, the mother offers food instead of words. Food, as we know, has long been the acceptable face of multiculturalism.
One way of exploring this signifying chain is Julia Kristeva's linking of the concept of 'abjection' to language, food and the mother. Subject-formation in No Strangers Here is constituted in terms of language and food. In Australia, one of the few non-threatening ways to speak of multiculturalism is in relation to food; all these ethnic minorities, it is said, have improved the diversity of the national cuisine. The usual and acceptable way of celebrating this diversity is through a multicultural food festival.
Julia Kristeva (1982:4) defines the 'abject' as an ambiguous area surrounding borderlines. It threatens the stability of subject-formation through problems engendered by separation from the mother. It is a place where meanings are lost, 'the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite'. Her introductory example relates to food, namely, the inexplicable revulsion experienced at the prospect of ingesting the skin which forms on milk. As her study goes on to reveal, the abject is related to the mother in the most primal sense, as that from which the subject needs to become detached in order to form a separate ego. The mother links not only food, meaning and language, but also entry into the symbolic, the law which gives meaning to social negotiations. The mother is subsequently relegated to the semiotic hinterland where monsters dwell. Interestingly, in Kristeva's analysis, the phobic who endures the abject often displays remarkable linguistic versatility. Hence the reference to Little Hans (ibid.:34) and his obsessive need to name everything as a way of warding off his fear of the unnamable:
. . . the phobic object is a proto-writing and, conversely, any practice of speech, inasmuch as it involves writing, is a language of fear. . . the writer is a phobic who succeeds in metaphorizing in order to keep from being frightened of death; instead he comes to life in signs. (ibid.:38)
To some extent this relates also to Freud's notion of the uncanny, although Kristeva differentiates it from this by pointing out that there is nothing familiar in the abject, 'not even the shadow of a memory' (ibid.:5). In her study of the monstrous female, Barbara Creed (1986) relates the abject to the mother who must be expelled lest she devour her offspring--the all-engulfing image. Again, the mother, food, and the loss of meaning are clearly linked. The suggestion here is that foreign languages function in a predominantly Anglophone context as the abject, as something which threatens meaning and subject-formation, including the notion of a coherent national identity. Words are feared because, unlike food, they cannot be assimilated, and words in another language emphasise the split within subjectivity. Words are able, like the non-introjected mother, to devour from within.
To consider ethnic minority women's writing in Australia, one is forced to add to the complications of gendered readings both culture (particularly in its foreignness or incommensurability, as analysed above) and, to some extent, class. In the early days the field of women's writing was always dominated by first-person confessional or semi-autobiographical writings. The mode was realist, and there seemed to be little problematising of the first person singular; consequently, one appeared when reading such writing to be encountering unified subjects who offer revelations about gender. In the name of that 'I', and in order to develop certain political agendas such as adding women to teaching institutions and to canons, questions of writing (in the Derridean sense) seemed a luxury women could not afford. Here then was a female metaphysics of presence, and here were new 'master'-narratives. Comparably, in ethnic minority writing, a harvest of first-person accounts has been used to fuel a tradition of oral history which began with efforts to insert class differences into the narratives of Australian history. Like the working-class, ethnic minorities were another disadvantaged group testifying to the democratisation of the history machine in Australia. Ethnic minority 'speech', rather than writing, served the larger projects of 'assimilation' and 'naturalisation', the latter being a term that very aptly labels those strategies which consolidate the bourgeois, male, European humanist subject as beyond question the natural, invisible and omnipotent embodiment of commonsense. Thus ethnic minorities and women were constructed not as subjects-in-process (in the sense derived from Kristeva,1980:124---47), but as apprentice subjects on the way to achieving unified subjectivity in the discursive formations of history and sociology. There women's problems became 'women as problem', and problems experienced by ethnic minorities similarly became 'the ethnic minority as problem' (Henriques, 1984:60---89). This schema represents a remedial approach to the question of culture or gender inequality that is reflected in the ways in which those writings are received: at best they are read as naive, and at worst as linguistically incompetent.
To stress different ways of reading is not to suggest that these texts should be read simply in terms of female otherness because, as has often been pointed out, the other is often designated as female (Jardine, 1985:31; Lloyd,1984), and the effect of such enterprises is to confirm and legitimate what is already known and said. It is more appropriate, therefore, to remember that a concept often excludes the conditions of its existence (Lyotard,1984:81). But how do we begin to think of such writings as not coming from everywhere but as having the history and positionality of writings from somewhere?
The hypothesis advanced here is that 'ethnic minority women's writing' signals more clearly than other kinds the ideological loadings of its 'hailing into being', precisely because it registers that interpellation as involving a split. Ethnic minority writing carries within it (to put it another way) the dead or repressed or fading subjects created by other and former interpellations. Hence the quotation as opening epigraph from Antigone Kefala's poem 'Inheritance':
My sealed tomb
Travels in my dreams.
Some of this writing breaks down any obvious reading of a subjectivity unified according to gender, class and culture, because it registers clearly its dissonance from the traditional processes of meaning. This is not true of all such writing, however, because some of it also plays the games of mimicry, 'passing', and creating familiar facsimiles of the subjects we all know. In the writings considered in this study--the work of Ania Walwicz, Antigone Kefala, Rosa Cappiello and Anna Couani--the use of the first person singular is overtly problematic. Nobody, of course, is ever fully interpellated as a subject, for there is always a misrecognition. But those who are interpellated in ways which so totally fall short of other reflections--that is, when the gap between imaginary relations and real conditions becomes an abyss--reach as a matter of survival for the first-person pronoun in order to establish some kind of foothold. It is precisely here, under those conditions, that 'truth' (in the sense of a reality beyond our experience) is signalled as contingent, as historically and culturally specific. And it is here also that subjectivity is fragmented into contradictory positions which are also historically and culturally specific.
In answer to her own formulation of the paradox being addressed, Alice Jardine locates the following answer:
I discovered that the differences between the male-written and female-written texts of modernity were not, after all, in their so-called 'content', but in their enunciation: in their modes of discourse ('sentimental', ironic, scientific, etc.); in their twisting of female obligatory connotations, of inherited genealogies of the feminine; in their haste or refusal to use the pronouns 'I' or 'we'; in their degree of willingness to gender those pronouns as female; in their adherence to or dissidence from feminism as a movement; in the tension between their desire to remain radical and their desire to be taken seriously as theorists and writers in what remains a male intellectual community; in the extent of their desire to prescribe what posture women should adopt toward the new configurations of woman in modernity; in the intensity of their desire to privilege women as proto- modernists. (Jardine, 1985:260---1)
The claims about proto-modernism are not unrelated to those advanced here on behalf of ethnic minority women's writing, although the emphases differ. In both cases, it is a question of when a subject-in-process speaks (history), how (enunciation), and from where (positionality). Such texts provoke in Australian reviewers what might be termed aggressive nostalgia. Australian culture is being transformed rapidly into nostalgic texts that solidify the last two hundred years into the 'way we were' in the course of consolidating the new republicanism. After all, Australian literature has been constructed into a literary tradition only recently. To question its national comprehensiveness at this stage (when Australian cultural pundits are busily enshrining nationalism in conjunction with identity) will of course provoke hostility. While such texts provoke a nostalgia which sends many Australian readers scurrying back to Anglo-Celtic cultural solidarity, they also carry their own kinds of nostalgia for Old Greece or Old Italy. As Cappiello's narrator remarks sardonically, 'Everyone's got a right to a glorious past' (Cappiello, 1984:55).
What Walwicz, Kefala, Cappiello and Couani have in common is their representation of consciousness by montage, a technique which is non-realist and resists narrative closure. 'There is only collage, cutting and splicing', writes Virilio. 'We're in the age of micro-narratives, the art of the fragment' (Virilio and Lotringer, 1983:35). These are the short narratives and atomisations to which Lyotard (1984:14---17) refers within the context of postmodernism. They also offer parodic readings of culture and gender, both in relation to 'Australia' and to 'Europe'. The question is always, for whom? We need of course to ask how these texts differ from other kinds of non-realist or experimental writing in Australia. They differ only in so far as they foreground specific historical and cultural socio-political questions about pronouns and positionality: who, from where, when and to whom? They remind those who have eyes to see that the enunciating positions are partial and outside, or overlapping with manifestations of other cultural codes. The first-person pronoun, when used, is more often than not parodic of the first-person confessional, as in Walwicz's two poems 'Photos' (Walwicz, 1982a: xx) and 'I' (in Gunew, 1987a: 134). Elsewhere, it is rendered as uncanny:
I have set my life aside
placed it in the shade
of the familiar room
where it waits speechless.
My other self moves now,
Laughs in the morning light,
watches the twilight, indigo,
the faint memory of a sensation
that has stirred in me sometimes,
vanishing with the evening. (Kefala, 1992:98)
Perhaps it is appropriate to emphasise here that ethnic minority writing is authenticated not simply by entering Australia with a foreign passport and a first language other than English. But if we agree with Teresa de Lauretis that experience includes the continuous construction of subjectivity (including processes of signification), then these texts clearly manifest a cultural and linguistic dislocation across gender, class, and so on, which averts easy closures.
Ethnic minority women's writings 'denaturalise' readings of them by outsiders, including feminists. They remind us that the subject-in-process--as derived from psychoanalytic and post-structuralist theory--has a specific historical context. In their use of irony and their appeal to double audiences, such texts undo the legitimations usually conferred on minority writing. The following chapters explore some of these claims further in relation to specific writers and texts.