Writing (and) Independence: Gaytri Spivak and the Dark Continet of Ecriture Feminine / by Theresa M. Senft

by Redazione - Sunday 9 November 2008 - 3510 letture

This essay originally appeared in Women & Performance , Vol. 7, No. 2, Issue 14-15, Spring 1995. pp 275-286. Please feel free to reproduce this, with appropriate acknowledgements.

Let’s begin at the ending. Let’s begin at independence, the liberatory move by which oppressed peoples free themselves from their oppressors. Feminism aspires to a brand of independence. So do nationalist uprisings, especially when they are thought of as the fair fights of indigenous peoples for self-determination. For U.S. Queers, the Stonewall Riots serve as a historical mark in the struggle for independence from what Monique Wittig has termed, "The Straight Mind."

Let’s talk about writing and independence, about writing for independence, and writing from a position of independence. The most famous project of the continental feminists (which include writers like Wittig, Helene Cixous, and Gayatri Spivak) is called, "l’ecriture feminine." Roughly, l’ecriture feminine translates to "writing the feminine body." Continental feminists argue that the only way to move women from a position of objectified servitude to a position of full subjectivity is for women to write the truth of their bodies. Thus, the cry to produce embodied, personal, deeply felt "feminine" writing, in one’s true voice, serves as a call for independence. You are enslaved now, the argument runs, but write your truth and you will be free. In the last twenty years, many disenfranchised peoples have employed similar calls to "write the body." The queer "coming out " story, and the genre of writing known as "exile narrative" are examples of how Writing (to) Independence is still a call to arms in many communities.

Let’s begin at the ending, at writing, revolution, and independence, and work backward. Sigmund Freud was the first writer to suggest that women suffering from hysteria were in truth trying to communicate in a "lost language" fundamental, psychic truths about themselves. To cure these women, Freud went against conventional medical wisdom at the time and offered instead what he called "the talking cure"Ñencouraging women to tell their stories to him. Freud himself, however, proceeded on his own path to intellectual independence somewhat differently. From the beginnings of the history of women in psychoanalysis, writing has been a key issue, but writing was only prescribed for the doctor, not the (female) patient. In retaliation, many feminist practitioners and critics of psychoanalysis have literally written over the chronicles of male doctors who pondered from a distance the hysterical female body. Indeed, one of the critical accomplishments of feminism has been women’s’ reclaiming of the ’power of the pen’ from male doctors, in order to write new and more inclusive descriptions of women’s psychic lives. Lesbians, in particular, have produced a large body of writing, arguing that female homosexual desire, definitionally unavailable to the male imaginary, is in particular need of a written history. Lesbian theorists like Teresa deLauretis call the invisibility of same-sex female desire within psychoanalytic doctrine, "lesbian indifference." de Lauretis often cites the case of Dora, an hysteric Freud claimed he had "failed to cure" specifically because he was unable to read her lesbian desire for another woman, as the example par excellence of lesbian indifference in the history of psychoanalytic thought.

In his essays on hysteria, Freud made continual allusions to feminine sexuality as a Dark Continent, and urged psychoanalysts to travel to these metaphorical dark places of femininity in the human psyche, and "report on their findings." Freud’s invocation of feminine sexuality as a dark continent serves as a reminder that psychoanalysis often sees its quest as multi-faceted, and undertaken along many academic axesÑsome medical, some as literary criticism (Freud’s analysis of the Uncanny comes to mind here) and some as sheer anthropology. Lest anyone argue that the Dark Continent is a lone metaphor in Freud’s anthropology, let me quickly suggest a re-reading of Totem and Taboo. Nevertheless, it is hardly as if Freud’s work has gone uninterrogated in the last one hundred years. Continental feminists have done an admirable job critiquing the medical model of psychoanalysis, and queer theorists have made astounding observations based on the literary motifs in psychoanalysis (Eve Sedgwick’s work, especially.) Additionally, postcolonial psychoanalytic writers like Homi Bhaba have taken on Freud’s anthropology and its articulation in the western imaginary. My concern is that hardly any feminists have bothered to take on the figuration of female sexuality as a Dark Continent. When they have, the results are either slippery, or laughable. With predictable White Guilt, for example, Cixous and others argue that feminine sexuality is NOT a Dark Continent. In a strange move, Wittig argues that because lesbians are not women, lesbians are not subject to the narrative of the Dark Continent, and she refuses to grant Freud his mystery. Although Wittig’s is an interesting political strategy, her cry for independence from the Straight Mind that determines "womanhood" elides the fact that Freud was comparing not female, but rather feminine sexuality to a Dark Continent. Psychoanalytic thought would include feminine sexuality as part of any psychic subject, male or female, heterosexual or not. By this reading, lesbians are not exempt from Freud’s anthropological impulses.

Gayatri Spivak , a feminist theorist who is at once in and out of the field of continental psychoanalytic feminism, currently teaches postcolonial literatures at Columbia university. As a literary critic, rather than a proper writer herself, Spivak casts herself in a queer role in relation to l’ecriture feminine. For one thing, Spivak ’s form of writing, literary criticism (as opposed to novel or play writing) is always a "second hand" tale, and therefore it is always already denigrated within the idea of "true writing." Unlike the novelist or the manifesto writer, the literary critic plays a role similar to the anthropologist, or rather, the ethnographer, writing in exile about the imaginary nation that is "world literature."

Spivak strongly resists the argument that Dark Continents no longer exist in postmodern geographical spaces, or in a postmodern literary imagination. In her article, "Woman in Difference", she argues: We hear a good deal these days about the post- national status of global capitalism and post-coloniality. This ignores the ferocious power ...of the concept metaphor "nation-state" ...(101)

Spivak rejects the idea that the postnational global imaginary has placed readers "beyond" concepts like nation-states, much the way feminists in the U.S. question the use-value of the term "post-feminist" and transgendered activists have been wary of "cyborg politics," which would supposedly be, ’without gender." Writers like Spivak argue that even if we are in a state of multinational capitalism, cyborg bodies and transnational travel/exploration, the metaphors of the Dark Continent and of the nation are with us just the same. Much the way the Queer Movement turned the tables on the right-wing by abandoning the hope of creating a category of a "normal" homosexual, and instead resurrecting Queer as a category of perverse pride, Spivak inhabits the ill-logic of the statement, "Female Sexuality is a Dark Continent" and delivers an ethnographic report from the field.

Spivak begins her analysis at the ending, with an examination of the term "political independence." According to Spivak most citizens see the move from colonization, to independence, and then to nationalism as separate and discrete historical moments. Spivak argues that this separation is misleading: like Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic, colonialism, nationalism and multinationalism are of a piece, fully dependent upon one another. Much like the queer argument that the concept of heterosexuality is impossible without the concept of homosexuality, Spivak argues that the very idea of nation has at its core a feudal motif. Spivak complicates her Hegelian reading of political independence by adding to it a capital critique. She doesn’t want to think of political independence as a metaphysical construction only, and instead suggests thinking of independence as a market good which in turn helps spin the economy of nationalism. Spivak’s argument here is similar to that of queer theorists who have argued that the homosexual stands in as a third term to display the anxiety of two artificial genders, male and female. Independence, like the homosexual, operates the reversal which enables the viewer to see a phenomenon as either "this" or "that", when it is, in fact neither (or both). In Spivak’s reading of what might be called the psychic economy of nationalism, the concept political independence serves to activate a false sense of "reversal" or mastery for the citizenÑyou were enslaved once, it says, but now you are free. What is hidden within the magic trick of this reversal is the fact that there is always a surplus of colonialism within the very mechanics of nationalism. This space of recolonialized colonialism, she will later argue, is precisely that which fuel the economy of nationalism.

This brings to mind Marx’s classic definition of a commodity fetish. In a similar way, I would like to point out that in l’ecriture feminine, the act of Writing to Independence functions as a type of commodity fetish, within the academic economies of feminist politics. In the feminist utopia of l’ecriture feminine, writing operates, like political independence, as a good by which a "magical reversal" will supposedly occur. This reversal, ostensibly, is the shift which will confer to women legitimate status as speaking subjects. The problem here is that the very idea of "subjectivity" remains locked within the tropes of masculinity and heterosexuality. A return to the illogic of psychoanalysis further complicates matters. Freud argued that women could not be fetishists, that women could only THE fetish itself. Lacan stretched this argument into the field of linguistics, arguing that women could not have the phallus (the power of signification), that they could only BE the phallus. If political independence functions as a fetish within the psychic economies of both subjectivity and nationalism then the question must be asked: Whose independence would this be, anyway? And how would it be linked to writing?

Spivak takes great pains to separate what she sees as at least two types of dominant strains of writing in postcolonial space. The first, she calls the metropolitan migrant writers. This the more familiar writer on the international literary scene. Usually male, this writer is generally known as "the intellectual in exile" (i.e., Salman Rushdie) or the "neocolonial immigrant" (i.e., Edward Said). Spivak expands that observation, and makes a claim that behind every internationalist, city-dwelling (male) migrant writer, there are rural, non-writerly (often female) bodies, rendered mute, even as books by the likes of Rushdie and Said fill the western markets. The writers who speak of rural places, of bodies not yet granted subjectivity, are called by Spivak: decolonized nationals. Decolonized national writers like Mahasweta Devi write of women of color, rural laborers, prostitutes, untouchables. Spivak argues that throughout history, there have always been those individuals who "cannot share the energy of the reversal" from colonialism to nationalism, because they "never themselves had agency within the traffic of imperialism" to begin with. These people are sub-proletariat, sub-altern.

Ironically, because they write of subjects who never had subjectivity, decolonized national writers are, in truth neither decolonized, nor part of national literature per se. For this reason, postcolonial nationalist writers should be read and critiqued in conjunction with their cosmopolitan luminary counterparts. Salman Rushdie and Mahasweta Devi are of a piece: both the international and national, both the city and the country, both the masculine and the feminine tropes of world literature need to be read together, in order for the reader to see the contradictory moves at play in the phrase, "political independence." "To view one part of the equation without the other," as Spivak puts it—to naively believe that writing and independence are virgin terms without history or sexualityÑ"is to be part of the problem" of the violence that is the modern nation-state.

Not wishing to be herself "part of the problem", Spivak uses her international academic clout in order to read and critique Mahasweta’s story, "Douloti the Beautiful." "Douloti" is the tale of the daughter of a tribal bonded worker in rural India. Douloti, in the course of the story, is abducted by an upper-caste (non-tribal) Indian and sold into bonded prostitution. It is from the fictional world of Douloti that Spivak begins her field report, informing her international readership that Douloti’s tale, while a fiction, could very well be real:

In modern "India", there is a "society of bonded labor...below this is bonded prostitution...These bodies are connect to bond-slavery but are yet apart. (101)

Like many cosmopolitan academics who speak on postcolonial issues, Spivak uses a Marxist analyses to argue that capital works to create at least three categories of people: bosses, workers, and slaves. Spivak includes the bonded laborers in "Duoloti" in the slave class , arguing that they function as sub-proletariat peoples unaffected by the economic liberation that accompanied political independence in India. Adding a feminist critique to her Marxist analysis, however, Spivak points out that although bonded laborers and bonded prostitutes are both "humans turned into slaves...by the force of loans" (103), the de-humanization of the (female) bonded prostitute is a trickier tale, and one which Marxism cannot fully explain. Following feminists like Irigaray, Spivak argues that unlike the bonded laborer, the bonded prostitute does not sell labor, but rather, she sells her own body. In this way, she is twice alienated from capital: first, she does not control the price of her "goods", and second, she produces no good to begin with. The first move strips her of her right to be considered a worker. The second strips her of her right to be a human subject, since her the value of her sexuality (her subjectivity) is precisely that which has been determined for her by others. This alienation of the bonded prostitute from her own body is causes Spivak to argue that although both "women and men are collectively connected to this regulative logic of loans, the woman’s body is apart, it is elsewhere." (103)

Nationalist rhetoric often describes the workers as a body of collective labor that is mobilized to fight for political independence. Where is the subaltern woman’s body within this mythological collective body, and what are the mechanisms by which it is set apart and disallowed access to collectivity? Spivak argues that historically, the story of nationalism has been linked to the story of family, with a nurturing mother figure at its core. Like many lesbian theorists in the US., Spivak is deeply troubled by the extrapolation of nation from family that serves as the foundation for many repressive political agendas. In the U.S. , for example, the homophobic, misogynist deployment of the term, "family values" can be seen as an example of how the normative family = legitimate nation equation serves to disallow queer and feminist bodies access to the body politic. Additionally, much like feminists who have argued that the image of the ’whore’ holds up and reifies the national Madonna, Spivak points out that colonial and nationalist "families" have always been supported by the enforced husbandry of subaltern people (through breeding, bonding, prostitution.) In short, the modern citizen (and the modern subject) is founded on a humanist ideal that requires "non-female mothers" (i.e. Madonnas) and "non-human humans" (i.e. subaltern) to keep it humming along. The Madonna and the whore, the human and the beast, are of a piece in constructing the fantasy family of nationalism.

Freud himself pointed out that whores may serve as fetish objects for men who need to recreate the fantasy of an all-powerful mother (and yet still maintain their power as males in cultureÑwhich is why the exchange of money is so crucial to the psychic mechanics of prostitution.) Freud observed that men who frequent prostitutes often need to fantasize that they were children, and that the prostitute plays the role of either the good or bad mother, or both. Once the fantasy ends however, and money changes hands, power relations are restored in favor of the man. While Freud’s reading of the fantasy operations involved in prostitution have been widely read, however, many feminists have rightly pointed out that what Freud never does get to in his analysis is how prostitution functions for her— for the prostitute. By ignoring the prostitute as a psychic subject, Freud repeats the same "fantasy control" of which he accuses his male prostitute-frequenting patients.

Mahasweta, on the other hand, moves right to the Dark Continent of the feminine sexuality of the prostitute herself, and inhabits the space Freud abandoned. Spivak, explaining that bonded prostitutes are forbidden to keep their own children, explains that the women in "Duoloti the Beautiful" are not permitted, nor do they necessarily desire, recourse to the fiction of "maternal instinct." By deconstructing the "natural, biological truth" of maternalism, and by allowing the previously mute prostitute to speak, Mahasweta allows her readers the space to separate the emotional affect of "motherhood" from its fetish status in the dream of nationalism. It also points out that women are never themselves citizens or subjects, but only the (re)producers of such. Thus, Spivak argues:

Mahasweta moves us to a space where the family, the machine for the socialization of the female body through affective coding [reason plus affect], has itself been broken ... (101)

By wrenching the female body away from the nostalgia-fetish of mothering, and framing her within economic analyses, Spivak allies herself with lesbian academics in the U.S. Lesbians like Teresa deLauretis have argued that under the terms of heterosexuality, women can only produce (male) subjectsÑthey cannot themselves have subjectivity. Further, since lesbians are not interested in the project of being sperm carriers, they are exempted from any subject position at all. Spivak makes a similar claim, arguing that since bonded prostitutes have never been permitted ownership of their children, they too inhabit a space of non-subjectivity, as well as sexual indifference. In short, the subaltern is not a position of agency, subjectivity or sexuality, or citizenship, as these terms are commonly understood. Spivak cites the US. political struggle of lesbians to be considered appropriate biological mothers as an example of a valiant attempt to de-code heterosexist mother nostalgia-fetish from the national rhetoric of "family values." It is through the act of de-coding, Spivak alludes, that lesbians in the U.S. might be granted something like subjectivity and citizenship. In addition, I would like to suggest thinking of the U.S. Feminist Pro-Pornography movement as a similar move to de-code mother nostalgia-fetish, questioning as it does, the construction of the word, "whore." Spivak points out that the two most dangerous Enlightenment inheritances informing the modern nation-state are the twins spheres of so called empirical "reason" and emotional "affect." Reason, primarily operating through the modes of the hard and social sciences, combines with emotional affect (nostalgia, love, maternalism) to serve as a means by which to judge who will be a citizen of the nation-state. To get herself out of this Enlightenment trap, in the style of Fanon, Spivak cites Freud’s observation that psychoanalysis begins with an ordinary limiting "mistake" —it presupposes subjective affect for objective "science." This mistake confuses the psychic subject with the psychoanalytic object. Spivak capitalizes herself on this mistake, and uses the psychoanalytic term "sublation" (substitution) to describe the method by which the fetishized, maternal female body is made hyper-visible (in the fantasy life of the male subject) in order to cover up the violent whoring, the human subject-into-animal object-making, that is necessary to constitute the fallacy of the nation. She suggests, finally, that a psychoanalysis based on a theory of anti-subjectivity (patterned after Deleuze, perhaps), while it would confound the project of nationalism, might be just what is necessary to discuss the subaltern. What does happen to these non-subjective subjects, these bodies that comprise the underside of the seamless family-nation -postnational transformation? What happens to the subaltern, the prostitute, the whore, the lesbian, the non (re) productive man, or woman? There is a mistaken empiricism that argues people in developing nations have different sex than those in modern states. So called "Third World " AIDS Reports are particularly guilty of much of this affect-oriented social science. For this reason, Spivak points out the crucial connections between ideals of mothering and ideals of nation building, connections between sexuality and subjectivity of citizens. Unlike Mahasweta, who writes for an internal audience, Spivak specifically has the international community in mind when she writes:

To think therefore that the story [of Duoloti] is an evolutionary lament , that their problems are not yet accessible to our solutions and they must simply come through into nationalism in order to debate sexual preference is, I think, a mistake. (109)

The sexuality and the non-subjective subjectivity of the subaltern are the unspoken stories supporting nationalism. At the end of Mahasweta’s story, Douloti, the bonded prostitute, wasting with venereal disease, sees the cool clay upon which a map of India has been drawn, and lays down there to die. Spivak uses the image of Douloti’s dead body, spread across a sympathetic male schoolteacher’s floor-map of India, to demonstrate the price of the sublation (substitution) of maternal female body from the body of the whore. In this last scene, the dead subaltern female mutely serves as the sacrificial body upon which the national map is at once carved out. At this moment, nationalism itself is rendered an impossible project in the mind of the reader. In Mahasweta’s last passage, this is spelled out: Filling the entire Indian peninsula from the oceans to the Himalayas, there lies bonded labor spread-eagled, kamiya-whore Duoloti Nagesias tormented corpse, putrefied with venereal disease, having vomited up all the blood in her desiccated lungs. (112)

Mahasweta ends her story with the question, "What will Mohan [the sympathetic male schoolteacher] do now? Douloti is all over India." Spivak ends her field report with the useful vocabulary word: doulot. Doulot is Hindi, meaning "wealth." Douloti, the subaltern woman, and douloti, the capital that comprises the wealth of the nation of India, are two sides of a coin, literally. When Mahasweta asks, "What will Mohan do now?" she means, what is to be done, now that it is clear that the postmodern, postnational condition has as its base the violently used and abandoned body of the subaltern woman? As Spivak puts it: Such a globalization of douloti, dissolving even the proper name, is not an overcoming of the gendered body. The persistent agendas of nationalisms and sexuality are encrypted there in the indifference of super-exploitation. (113)

I will end this essay at its beginning, to return to the questions surrounding writing (and) independence. To rephrase a question from Spivak: Can the subalternÑthose who definitionally have neither subjectivity nor political statusÑwrite independently, of independence ? Who among us has the independence (and by this, I mean subjectivity, with all its attendant phantasmatic baggage) to write, and to what degree does my right to write re-inscribe the violence of my independence on the bodies of others? In short, for whom is writing an act of independence? Why is this, and more importantly, how does this come to pass?

Works Cited:

Gayatri Spivak, "Women in Difference: Mahasweta Devi’s Douloti the Bountiful," in Nationalisms and Sexualities, Andre Parker et al, eds. London: Routledge, 1992, 96-116.

Fonte: http://www.echonyc.com/ janedoe/writing/spivak.html


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