Saturday, 5 July 2014

Beginner's Guide to Écriture féminine



Is the obsession with logic and rationality a limitation imposed on the free flow of writing by the hegemony of patriarchal men?

Is it possible to interrogate order and structure in writing has a masculinised project of control; to think of it as a phallocentric, a logocentric project?

On first inspection, it is an odd notion that writing is a pre-determined product of the shape of our bodies. But the anatomical difference between the female and the male body has been considered a sufficient criterion throughout most of recorded time -  and across the majority of societies - to constitute a major difference between the sexes. It is a short step from the recognition of difference to the creation of a system of unequal treatment and discrimination.



The idea that writing as a cultural production participates in this project, perhaps even perpetuates it, is clearly not far-fetched. This critical feminist approach claims that the body is written into our daily discourse. Indeed, the project of feminism has not been merely to challenge social, cultural and economic inequality, but to interrogate the complicity of language at all levels in this process of construction of differences. But is it the case that women’s writing is essentially or necessarily different from men’s? Is it more accurate to attribute stylistic, technical or structural differences to social opportunities, educational experiences and unchallenged cultural conventions?


In different way, the binary opposition has been expressed as a conflict between men and women, nature and art, or between what we are essentially and what is merely a product of social construction. The idea that there is a marked difference between the writing styles and practices of the two sexes has been a contested topic in the academic field since the surge in feminist scholarship of the 1970s. 

Écriture féminine has emerged as the key term that celebrates and explores the qualities at work in women’s writing which are produced by the female body and by female difference. Writers such as Hélène Cixous, Monique Wittig, Luce Irigaray, Chantal Chawaf and Julia Kristeva have been influential in the interrogation of language as a male domain, and in offering a creative and critical challenge to the dominant discourse. Admittedly, the work of poststructuralist feminism has taken many different directions, with different results, and continuing controversy about its use and effectiveness for the emancipation of women. 

The starting point has been the assertion that women’s sexual pleasure has been denied; that deployment of language by men is oppressive; that jouissance, play, metamorphic mobility and transgression should be adopted as techniques and strategies for liberation from the patriarchal order. While the slogans and rhetoric are often exhilarating, and the refusal of logic, order and reason is enigmatic and engaging, it does not seem unfair to ask whether the project has enhanced the quality of women’s lives or brought about a revolution of consciousness. 
  

In order to form an opinion of écriture féminine the reader is advised to sample some of the key texts by the writers listed above. Some readers will be inspired by the approach taken while others will be frustrated and alienated by this species of writing. Similarly, the refusal to adopt a clear plan, and a linear structure that may be observed in works that adopt a ‘schizoid’ approach. This is a kind of anti-methodology, with planes and zones, and a nomadic tendency, rather than strict linear and logical progression. In Thousand Plateaux, for instance,  Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari explored this approach. It is the second volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and the successor to Anti-Oedipus (1972). The aim was to challenge the phallogocentric project which may be regarded as courageous experiments of flawed and failed enterprises.


One criticism is that écriture féminine, like poststructralism, has failed to live up to its ideals and that it has become a high-level theoretical game with limited impact on women’s lives and real world practical issues. Whether as a product of market forces, cultural resistance, or inherent weakness, modernist and postmodern writing has failed to activate a major shift in mainstream creative production. Traditional forms of writing practice are therefore still predominant in the sphere of industry, entertainment, and institutional education. There appears also to be a potential discrepancy or difference between the joy of writing such works, and the difficulty of reading them. This brings us back to a critique of reading as consumption, but perhaps it also returns us to the desire for transparency in communication, rather than a dream-like, impenetrable opacity. As the previous sentence suggests the inevitability of analysis falling back on a linguistic structure derived from the male body and masculine domination alerts us to the notion that the playful inner connections and coherence of écriture féminine appears to resist intrusive analysis derived from the exterior.


Nonetheless, the sceptical reaction to écriture féminine ought to be corrected by a recognition that in key respects contemporary writing and reading practice is shifting away from the traditional forms and modes. On one level, the tyranny of institutional moderation and commercial approval has been disrupted by the ability to express oneself by self-publishing. Nowadays one can easily participate digitally as a commentator and critic in both the ‘high’ official or the ‘low’ transgressive forums, with the result that sharp cultural hierarchies are being broken down. Writing is increasingly a dialogue, a conversation, and a flow, rather than a top-down imposition. Writing is increasingly fragmentary and ephemeral rather than structured and pre-determined in advance. For conservative critics this new age of writing has produced a dumbing-down of discourse and a free-for-all of unpleasant and rude amateurism. On the other hand, the reading process is also less linear. Increasingly,  reading is a mobile and shifting process, whimsical, diversified, aleatory and unlocked from the confines of the sentence, paragraph, the page and the essay. We leap between associated ideas or jump into unfamiliar and unexpected zones.

Yet all of this is manipulated at another level, with the prescription and anticipation of our existing taste preferences and local milieu. Also, we are reduced to the parameters of the data collected and arranged to suit the needs of increased consumption of the corporate product. The social life of the link is also the guided tour of corporate manipulation and metrics. In these respects, gender and sexuality are part of a complex set of force, but they are not the whole story.

Dr Ian McCormick served as Professor in the Arts at the University of Northampton. His most recent book is The Art of Connection. [Quibble Academic, 2013]