Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
My dissertation, "The Seduction of Feminist Theory," comes out of my research on South African fiction and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and focuses broadly on feminist theory and the question of female power. Traditionally feminist theory has sought to empower women by insisting on their equality to men and by allowing their voices to be heard. But in trying to understand why women did not speak about their personal victimization at the TRC hearings, and why so many women characters in South African fiction are unable or unwilling to speak, I have come to see that women do not gain equality or "liberation" through equal involvement in an unequal system. What should be challenged is not women's silence but the system itself. The work of French theorist and sociologist Jean Baudrillard provides me with the conceptual model and critical vocabulary to reframe feminist theory. Baudrillard conceptualizes society as governed by the system of production. As a power structure, production functions to make meaning of everything from labor to sex to silence in an effort to confirm the authority of such ideologies. Yet such efforts have been harmful to women insofar as those women who do not conform to the social value of production are continually represented as disempowered. Baudrillard's theory of seduction provides an alternative discourse. According to Baudrillard, femininity actually has no meaning, though people constantly attribute meaning to it, and this very lack of meaning gives femininity its power over production. What seduces us, Baudrillard says, is that to which we cannot attribute meaning. My objective in this dissertation is to establish seduction as a feminist reading practice of resistance to production, and to uncover a history of seduction in feminist writing.
In the first chapter, I argue that Baudrillard has not offered feminism an entirely unfamiliar theory of resistance. It is more that feminists have yet to read feminism seductively. Baudrillard's theory allows me to accentuate seduction in earlier feminist writing that is either dismissed by more productive-minded feminists or championed for making apparently productive arguments. Virginia Woolf, I suggest, by avocating laughter as a response to patriarchy, was among the first feminists in whom we can identify seduction as a feminist practice. Once I saw laughter as a seductive writing practice, I began to perceive a resonance of seduction echoing throughout the work of feminists from French theorists such as Joan Rivière, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, to contemporary American scholars such as Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, and Trinh T. Minh-Ha.
The rest of my chapters take a historical approach, showing how a theory of seduction, and a reading practice based on this theory, change our understanding of feminism and literature from the turn of the twentieth century to the postmodern era. My second chapter addresses feminism of the Progressive Era and argues that focusing on productive discourse systematically disempowers women. The Progressive Era is primarily imagined as a period of social and labor reform. As such, the social world was inextricably linked to the lexicon of production. Quite literally one's social value and sense of self worth were defined in relation to the labor one preformed or what one produced. Progressive reformers sought to rationalize the labor system by investigating, measuring, and classifying working conditions in an attempt to assuage an increasingly disparate and volatile class conflict. In documenting the labor of lower-class women, reformers such as Cornelia Stratton Parker and Charlotte Perkins Gilman established feminism as a materialist practice grounded in production. Defining women's power in relation to production, however, does not further women's status in society; it only reinforces the hegemonic notion that production is the only form of power. An effective feminist movement would, alternatively, attempt to break down the idea of production as power, because, as Baudrillard argues, "the more the system becomes concentrated the more it expels whole social groups. The more it becomes hierarchized according to the law of value, the more it excludes whoever resists this law." As I show in chapter 2, there is no language with which to define women as powerful in the Progressive discourse insofar as it establishes production as the only form of social value. In this chapter, I re-read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) as resistant to the feminism promoted by reformers such as Gilman and Parker. Wharton, I argue, negotiates a seductive alternative in her characterization of Lily Bart.
My third chapter addresses the feminist insistence on sexual equality in the modernist era. I begin by presenting work of feminist sexual reformers such as Margaret Sanger, Mary Ware Dennet, and Helena Rosa Wright who argue that, in order to achieve full equality between the sexes, women must be allowed control over their reproductive function and enjoy sex on a par with men. However, such arguments unwittingly disempower women who do not confirm the social value of sex. In this chapter I explore the public social success of Irene Castle, an influential ballroom dancer of the 1920s, in relation to modern fictional characters such as Lorelei Lee (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1925), Myrtle Wilson (The Great Gatsby, 1925), and Florinda (Jacob's Room, 1922) to demonstrate that social mobility, as imagined by authors in the `20s, was contingent upon a woman's ability to seduce while denying engagement in sex--that is, not through sex, but through performing femininity. I explore the significance of this shift in relation to the work of Liz Conor who, in The Spectacular Modern Woman (2004), argues that the "modern appearing woman," far from being objectified, provides a way of rethinking agency outside of the terms provided by masculine discourse.
To bridge the gap between the modernist and postmodernist eras, I include a short piece, "Post-war Feminism: An Interlude," addressing the dearth of feminist scholarship on the post-war period. I argue that embracing the ideology of production has led feminists to assume that Betty Friedan was the only serious feminist writing in the post-war era. Recognizing seduction as a feminist reading practice allows commonly dismissed feminists, such as Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurly Brown and humor writer Shirley Jackson, into the feminist canon.
My fourth chapter examines what happens to the concepts of the modern woman and modern feminism in postmodern literature within a global framework. Rita Felski claims that the recent work of feminism attempts to incorporate a global perspective on women: "By refusing to give any specific content to the feminine, the feminist philosopher hopes to avoid the charge of ethnocentrism. Such a framework can include all rather than only some women"(120). While Felski acknowledges this approach as problematic because it fails to take into account the material conditions of women, I argue that the problem resides in the feminist adoption of post-Enlightenment ideals of equality and difference, which need to be critiqued before theorizing a global feminist reading practice. Moreover, in our postmodern condition, the dominance of mass media with its overproduction of meaning threatens to annihilate the power of seduction. Drawing on Baudrillard's insight, I explore the significance of silence as an untapped resource for the disruption of power in an era dependant on the proliferation of speech. Using Isabelle Allende's House of Spirits (1986), Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), and J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), postmodern novels which explore the proliferation of speech and information within the current postmodern condition, I show the way silent female characters function to thwart power in a global society contingent on the assumption that speech is an expression of the real.
My fifth and final chapter takes my analysis of literature and feminist theory into the social and political arena. My readings of women's silence in the post-apartheid hearings before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) explore the political significance of the shift from modern laughter to postmodern silence. In light of the discourse established by the TRC, where power is restored through public speech, it is important to examine the alternate ways in which women, like female characters in modern and postmodern literature, are able to expose the ideology of a social and judicial system that fails to adequately represent them. By paying close attention to the gaps and silences within the TRC testimonies, I seek to establish a new discourse recognizing silence as, in Baudrillard's words, "the immense, latent defection" from productivist discourse.
Holliday-Karre, Erin Amann, "The Seduction of Feminist Theory" (2011). Dissertations. 168.
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Copyright © 2011 Erin Amann Holliday-Karre