Writing as a Practice of Resistance: Motherhood, Identity and Representation
Silvia Caporale Bizzini, Department of English Studies, University of Alicante, Spain
Keywords: identity, resistance, agency
1. Breaking the Boundaries: Re/writing Subjectivity, History and Agency: A Work in Progress
As a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Studies, my teaching load is at the moment divided between a compulsory second year Undergraduate Course on English Literature (19th Century) and a postgraduate course on Cultural Theory, Feminism and Literary Studies. I have built up my graduate and undergraduate teaching programme as a kind of historical (dis)continuum as my second year subject is devoted to the construction of the bourgeois identity in 19th-Century England - as well as the emerging forms of resistance within the hegemonic understanding of the Real - and my postgraduate courses focus on theoretical approaches to the (practical) possibility of new ontologies of the self.
My research work is also located within the University of Alicante’s Centre of Women’s Studies which brings together researchers from various departments and disciplines (see www.ua.es/cem∞). This detail gains heightened significance when considered within the main frame of the project Travelling Concepts. Josefina Bueno’s (also a member of the Centre and of our group for research on maternal identities) approach to a multi-layered study of the contemporary notion of gendered identity is representative of the historical, cultural and epistemological complexity of the task we are facing and of the multiple layers (Probyn, 1993) which compose gendered identities within the historical process (a must in our perception of the issue) (1).
The Centre is not yet a Research Institute (which in Spain means guaranteed funding from the University and a well-defined institutional status as well as Ph.D. students, etc.), but it is nonetheless treated as such, and will continue to be, at least for the next two years. The institutional context that frames and defines my everyday work (a full-time recognized senior lecturer with institutional responsibilities, but also a researcher whose field of investigation is located inbetween discourses) shapes my understanding of the materiality of (my) discourse as does an ongoing reflection on: a. what, how, to whom I am talking and why; b. how I situate/locate myself as a lecturer within the Spanish academy; and c. the emersion in Travelling Concepts (as a whole and without considering our enriching differences) within ‘the other(s)’ gaze.
The project’s position papers (understood as a reflection in progress with its own history and discontinuities) have clarified what I, evidently, already had in mind and have, at the same time, given a more ‘material’ meaning to – concepts such as knowledge, praxis, dislocation or subalternity. I owe much to most of them and the pages that follow now have a new meaning and more vibrant reason for their existence.
In this paper I will define my theoretical understanding of the relationship between motherhood, identity and representation by going through concepts and thinkers that have informed my approach to literary studies and hermeneutics. In a sense, the proposed analysis delves into the necessity of breaking and/problematising boundaries and, at the same time, analyzing how (some) women writers respond (or don’t) to this as resilient agents. Since the early nineties I have contextualized my understanding of the literary text and cultural production within a Foucauldian interpretation of the construction and questioning of normative identity, while opening up my field of research to a post-marxist reading of the historical process (2). By 1996, I had consciously folded the Gramscian concept of cultural hegemony into my work to delve into and problematise the notion of writers as intellectuals and resilient agents within symbolic capital.
I am conscious that my analysis focuses on literary discourse and that I do not delve into these concepts from a perspective related to, let’s say, political philosophy or social science. However, I am also fully aware that, as Laclau and Mouffe state: ‘Any discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a centre’ (2001: 112). In this sense, as a number of thinkers have stressed (Bourdieu, 1997; Bordo, 1993, 1994, 1999; Debord: 1990; Jameson: 1998), we need to carry out our analysis in a cultural context that considers the use of textuality within a society that heavily relies on a globalised understanding of the cultural (visual) product while weakening the meaning of the historical process in the formation of identity (3).
As Scott Wilson reminds us: ‘History and criticism … are in practice processes of reading … the past, as an object of fascination, produces the fantasy screen of “history”, the mirror in which “recognition” is always also a “misrecognition”‘ (1995: 12 & 13). This quotation must be understood within the broader intellectual critical project of Cultural Materialism. Wilson’s analysis of the possibilities of new historical readings stresses that reinterpreting the historical process that has forged the Real does not take away possibilities of change, but produces new tools to understand differently the (Western) historical process. These new forms of historical interpretation underlie the importance of resistance in the definition of new ontologies of the self and, as I will stress later, the role that, eventually, writing can play in the process.
My research mainly focuses on literary voices; it is thus within this context that I find useful to read history also (but not only) as representation. This approach illustrates how women writers (especially in autobiographical writing) defy, for example, Walter Benjamin’s thesis on the impossibility of voicing the historical experience of the oppressed (1968: 254). Margaret Sanger’s Motherhood in Bondage (1928), a collection of letters she received during the 1920s from women all over the United States, can be seen as an example of such use of writing. Passages from the auto/bio/graphical tragic experiences of many women are put together in this moving collection where the presence of women’s voices, otherwise silenced because of their gender and social class, simultaneously stresses their differences and common experience: the dark side of pregnancy and motherhood when being uneducated, poor and a woman. It is no coincidence that the subtitle of the book is Voices that Gave Rise to the Planned Parenthood Movement, signalling the links among writing, agency and political action.
One of the aspects we have to consider when analyzing the notion of subject formation is, as Fredric Jameson points out (1998), the pressing influence that a globalised and visual representation of society has on our understanding of ourselves as social subjects and how these hybrid discursive practices permeate the narrative of (resistant) writers, artists and intellectuals, such as for example, Don De Lillo, Fay Weldon or Jenny Holzer. In this sense, philosophers like Bordo and Debord, despite their different stating points, insist that the cultural shift towards a visual representation of the Real, is producing an ‘new’ symbolic order. Acording to Bordo, the ambiguous messages of this new order are contained in a trivialised and commoditised representation of the (autonomous) self:
Ours is an ‘infocommercial’ culture in which the desire to sell products and stories continually tries to pass itself off as ‘helping’ and ‘informing’ the public, satisfying their ‘right to know’. We get our deepest philosophies of life from jingles and slogans. The fantasy-governed, pumped-up, individualistic rhetoric of commercial advertisements – like ‘Just Do It!’ or ‘Know no Boundaries!’ or ‘I’m Worth It!’- has become the ethics, political ideology, and existential philosophy of our time, constituting what is probably the only set of communally shared ideas we have, providing people with the one coherent (if reprehensible) set of standards they draw on justifying their own behaviour. The ethical code of Nike and Revlon! Talk about puppeteers being in charge of reality! (1999: 12)
Wendy Brown underlines the ways in which disciplinary practices are defining ‘new’ subjectivities in order to update the mechanisms which conform the order of things: ‘Even as the margins assert themselves as margins, the denaturalizing assault they perform on coherent collective identity in the centre turns back on them to trouble their own identities’ (1995: 53). It is at this point that the centrality of the Foucauldian theorisation of power relations – and its applicability to feminist critical theory - comes fully to light. As we know, Foucault does not consider power as simply repressive but also as productive because power produces resistance: ‘Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are “free.” By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several kinds of conduct, several ways of reacting and modes of behaviour are available’ (Foucault, 1997: 342). Foucault’s understanding of power, here, allows me to refer to the strategic centrality of the theory of (cultural) hegemony and the role of intellectuals as ‘traditional’, resilient and resistant (in Foucauldian terms), and in my case writing, agents. As Hélène Cixous optimistically declares: ‘Writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement, of a transformation of social and cultural structures’ (Cixous, 1990: 319).
The use of both philosophers (Foucault and Gramsci) as a theoretical base to move on towards a more complex system of analysis has allowed me to widen my field of research and define more reliable teaching tools to carry out what Henry Giroux calls ‘a discourse of possibility’ (Hernández, 1997: 10) in the understanding of a complex subject. This subject, as Elspeth Probyn suggests, is: ‘a combination of acetate transparencies: layers and layers of lines and directions that are figured together and in depth, only then to be rearranged again. As such I see the self as material evidence of our fluctuating being as women; as a concept, this self designate a combinatoire, a discursive arrangement that holds together in tension the different lines of race and sexuality that form and reform our senses of self (1993: 1-2, my emphasis).
2. Hegemony, discursive practices and subjectivity.
The interlocking concepts of hegemony, discursive practices, subjectivity, and collectivity have been analyzed from both the Gramscian and Foucauldian perspective. In my analysis of contemporary writing in English by women, I have stressed what I see as common points while retaining an awareness of the theoretical tensions and gaps that exist between the two thinkers. In our proposed context, Gramsci’s stress on ‘collectivity’ is of basic importance as we refer to a gendered identity. If Gramsci works with the idea of subalternity in mind, Foucault’s steady interest in identity formation manages to introduce the theoretical tools that allow us to recognize, analyze, question and accept difference within the collective (normative or non normative) process of identity formation more clearly and in more contemporary terms. Buci-Glucksmann stresses that: ‘there can be no ahistorical, abstract approach to consensus in general: hegemony is differentiated according to classes and historical phases’ (1982: 120). Here is where, I believe, Gramsci and Foucault seem to converge so as to enrich our understanding of the construction of dominant discursive practices as well as the appearance of strategies of resistance within the cultural apparatus.
3. Intellectuals as Resilient Agents. Re/writing Gender
I also find interesting points of contact between Gramsci’s and Foucault’s concepts of intellectuals as specific and/or organic agents of change. Some hint of Gramsci's ideas can be found in Foucault's `specific intellectual', namely the intellectual that eventually moves into the political arena or public sphere (Said, 1993). In this sense, and up to a point, the Foucauldian idea of intellectual can modernize Gramsci’s; on the other side, Gramsci’s insights help - in the case of (subaltern) women writers - to more clearly situate the foci of power and, as a consequence, to signal certain `targets' to deconstruct or a more determined social structure to question.
But in order to get a complete picture, we have to consider the non Western world (communications, process of globalization, transnationalization, etc.) and consider the role of non Western intellectuals. It is in this sense that I also believe there might be a bridge between Foucault’s theorization of the construction of difference and Gramsci’s notion of subalternity (Foucault's marginal discourses). The histories of subaltern groups are fragmentary as they escape the frame of History (interpreted as hegemonic historical discourse): ‘the implication is, of course, that these differences became institutionalized as the groups were folded into the state in their distinct place that excludes the respective groups, as groups, from the exercise of power’ (Cochran, 1994: 141). For a gender perspective, I mainly rely on the work of Foucauldian feminists (e.g. Bordo, 1993, 1994,1999; Weedon, 1987; Sawicki, 1991 and Quinby, 1991) while incorporating the Gramscian idea of war of positions within a determined context: ‘Thus the strategy of the `war of position', in its concrete operation as the recognition of the different relations between rulers and ruled, gives rise to the analysis of the forms and apparatuses of hegemony’ (Vacca, 1982: 44). Within this frame of thought, Foucauldian and feminist perspective enable us to work on the fragmentation of the contemporary social context (history of the present, fragmentation of the history of the subaltern groups), a fragmentation that Gramsci had not wholly considered (Radhkrishnan, 1990).
The theoretical lines sketched above lead my research on textuality and representation, as applied to a number of authors and literary texts, and is at the moment being used to analyze the epistemological breaks and conceptual gaps in the cultural representation of motherhood in English since the nineties.
(1) The contextualization of my research and teaching practice has been greatly inspired by the project of Travelling Concepts as a whole and the discussions in Trento, Helsinki and London. The references to some of the papers have to be understood as offering inspiration for reflection, rather than in a traditional academic way. In this sense, the discovery of myself as a shifting other has given a new meaning to concepts such as location, materiality or subalternity (See in particular Skaerbaek and Van der Tuin).
(2) This is how Laclau and Mouffe broadly define ‘post-marxism’ in their introduction to the first edition of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: ‘Only if we renounce any epistemological prerogative based upon the ontologically privileged position of a “universal class”, will it be possible seriously to discuss the present degree of validity of the Marxist categories. At this point we should state quite plainly that we are now situated in a post-Marxist terrain’ (2001: 4). In the Preface to the second edition they insist on the idea: “To reread Marxist theory in the light of contemporary problems necessarily involves deconstructing the central categories of that theory. This is what has been called our “post-Marxism”. We did not invent this label … But since it has become generalized in characterizing our work, we can say that we do not oppose it insofar as it is properly understood: as the process of reappropriation of an intellectual tradition, as well as the process of going beyond it’ (2001: ix).
(3) ‘Increasingly, we are witnessing a world without memory where, to use Guy Debord’s metaphor, mere images of reality flow and merge randomly like reflections on water … Rather than concretizing history in narrative and popular memory, culture, in its degraded commodified form, serves to induce amnesia and thwart collective action’ (Best, 1995: xi-xii).
(4) Josefina Bueno’s paper also evidences, but - again - from an altogether different perspective, the role that writing plays in the construction of a strategy of resistance.
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