- Annamarie jagose (Author)
Lesbian Utopics. Routledge (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Patrice McDermott (Author)
Politics and Scholarship: Feminist Academic Journals and the Production of Knowledge. University of Illinois Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Susan Knutson
In her dedication, Annamarie Jagose writes that while working on Lesbian Utopics, she visited her father in hospital. He spoke of his pride in his children, but neglected to mention her name.
"What about me, Dad? What do you say about me?" He seems surprised to see me still at the side of his bed. "Ah, you, I say you are most beautiful," he says. I persist. "But what do I do?" "I don’t know," he says. . . . "I have it written down somewhere."
Jagose reminds us of the communication failures which often distance people from academic discourse, and she signifies the additional complications of gender and generation, which may widen the gap, as they do here. Yet the silences she points to are those her book will reenact, as she turns her critical gaze towards the purely academic, as if such a thing could exist. And this is ironic because, as Patrice McDermott ably demonstrates, a vigorous and sustained effort to create dialogue between the voices of the community and the voices of the academy characterizes the best feminist scholarship of the twentieth century.
Politics and Scholarship studies the evolution of three feminist academic journals, Signs: A Journalof Women in Culture and Society (University of Chicago Press), Feminist Studies (based at the University of Maryland), and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies (housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder), in order to explore how "rigorous scholarship and effective politics converge in the production of feminist scholarship." McDermott documents the complex dynamics linking community-based activism and academic institutions. Feminist Studies was created in 1969 by women involved in Columbia University’s Women’s Liberation Group, a women’s studies lecture series at Sarah Lawrence College, and community activism in New York City. They felt the need for a "publication (which) would meet the standards of scholarship but. .. would also reflect the neglected values, interests, and experiences of women. As the title implied, the content and purpose of Feminist Studies would be explicitly political and scholarly." Although Feminist Studies achieved academic legitimacy, it was not initially housed at a university but was edited and managed from the New York apartment of editor-in-chief, Ann Calderwood. As feminist discourse became more diversified and complex, and as the broader political situation became more conservative, the distance separating the community from the university became increasingly difficult to negotiate. In 1977, Feminist Studies moved to the University of Maryland, and Calderwood resigned. The feminist scholars who edit the journal have, however, maintained and even intensified the editorial focus on community issues.
Whereas "Feminist Studies began as an unaffiliated, community publication that addressed issues of scholarship, the editors of Frontiers positioned their journal as a university-based publication that addressed issues of community activism." They made explicit the journal’s intention to "bridge the gaps between university and community women. . . . If we are to practice what we all seem to be saying—that the women’s movement will eventually fail if it is middle class and academic in its orientation—then we must constantly work to encourage and to use the efforts of our sisters in the ’real world’." Twenty years later, the journal has been restructured; its independent ownership, institutional arrangements, editorial structure and review process resemble those of Feminist Studies; like Signs, Frontiers now rotates host editorships among competing institutions. The commitment to diverse and evolving communities remains.
Signs was founded in 1974 by the University of Chicago Press, under the editorial leadership of Barnard College feminist scholar, Catharine Stimpson. From the beginning, "Stimpson’s strategy was to achieve legitimacy, and with it institutional power for the political programs of women’s studies, by producing a journal of impeccable academic quality under the auspices of one of America’s most distinguished university presses." Signs conformed rigorously to the traditional forms and styles of academic discourse, initially eschewing, for example, "the speculative essays, experimental forms and creative work that Frontiers had found so effective as a means of incorporating community interest." While Signs won complete academic legitimacy for feminist scholarship, it maintained its connection to the community by means of an unambiguously feminist editorial policy. And, like every other feminist magazine, Signs has been subject to the debates and schisms which have characterized the women’s movement over the last twenty years. McDermott’s well-documented and even-handed account of a series of important historical watersheds is just one of several reasons why anyone interested in the history of women in this century will want to read Politics and Scholarship.
Patrice McDermott has given us a model of historical materialist feminist scholarship. Annamarie Jagose, on the other hand, has written a book which exemplifies a recent trend in feminist deconstruction theory, a trend critiqued by Susan Bordo in "Feminism, Foucault and the Politics of the Body."
Jagose begins by constructing a rhetorical model. Arguing that lesbian theory, both in the lesbian feminist community and in certain theoretical and creative texts, constructs "lesbian" as both invisible and as everywhere, she remarks that, "a more accurate position statement might be ’lesbians are elsewhere.’" Proceeding as if this were, indeed, a commonly held position, she continues: the lesbian is positioned "in some liberatory space beyond the reaches of cultural legislation." Noting, on Foucault’s authority, the impossibility of transcendence, she asserts, "This space held by ’lesbian,’ is a utopie space characterized by a disavowed dependency on those very economies from which it distinguishes itself." She concludes, "The tendency to figure ’lesbian’ as utopie and outside dominant conceptual frameworks essentializes that category as transgressive or subversive." In successive chapters, this rhetoric is tested against selections from Luce Irigaray, Nicole Brossard, Marilyn Hacker, Mary Fallón and Gloria Anzaldua. Jagose finds that each author recuperates, in some way, the patriarchal law to which she is ostensibly opposed.
It is Jagose’s own rhetorical model, however, which produces this repetitive misreading. The model presupposes a monolithic lesbian theory which Jagose is always able to deconstruct. Her straw lesbian is generated, quite incredibly, by yoking together Julia Kristeva, Monique Wittig, and Luce Irigaray, who are found to be saying the same thing: "Despite the different stances towards the lesbian body in the work of these three theorists, it is their collective location ofthat body outside cultural legislation which undermines their arguments, demonstrating their belief in the ontological priority of the lesbian body before the repressive mechanisms of power as well as the distinction between the two." It takes a certain audacity to accuse these three French theorists of this level of philosophical naivety. If they agree about one thing it is probably a critique of metaphysics.
Jagose is unable to cite a lesbian theorist who actually figures the lesbian as "elsewhere." Lesbian invisibility is a metaphorical reference to "the overlooking of the lesbian in public policy documents, familial formations and educational syllabi," as Jagose notes. The slogan "lesbians are everywhere" counters the public and discursive erasure of lesbians by asserting that they actually exist, in significant numbers, in most if not all communities. An acknowledgement of lesbian existence is a prerequisite to legal, social and cultural equality. Jagose argues that feminist texts essentialize "lesbian" as transgressive and subversive, but she does not consider the fact that "lesbian" has long been so constructed in a variety of non-feminist discourses. The deployment of lesbian sexuality in Decadent Romantic and contemporary pornography demonstrates that the essentializing of "lesbian" as transgressive owes little to recent feminist texts.
Jagose (mis-)takes Nicole Brossard to be a Québécoise Irigaray, an essentialist who "disavows . .. the always already ambiguous and plural nature of language." Brossard is accused of the "unexamined reproduction" of the "problematic concept" of "women." As evidence, Jagose cites Brossard’s statement that, "Whatever our ethnic or religious origins, we all belong quite visibly to the category ’women’." She argues that Brossard here implies both "the transcultural notion of patriarchy and the fundamental homogeneity of the category ’women.’ In a cunning maneuver (sic),all the more so for being unacknowledged, the concepts ’patriarchy’ and ’women’ reinforce each other" (my emphasis). Jagose’s analysis of Brossard is apparently based on a partial reading of the English translation of The Aerial Letter. If she had read further, she might have learned that Brossard’s deployment of the concept "woman" is anything but unexamined.
Brossard’s oeuvre, like Wittig’s, is associated with a feminist utopianism which flourished in the late 1970s. Bonnie Zimmerman notes that this tendency was visionary and idealistic, suggesting that lesbians create outposts of a lesbian nation now, rather than struggle collectively to transform the social and political structures of a capitalist patriarchy. United around the single issue and image of lesbian identity, women-identified women would create a new Jerusalem. But this political ideal, seemingly based on concrete lived experience, soon was attacked for being naive, theoretical, and exclusionary.
The appearance of This Bridge Called My Back and Nice Jewish Girls heralded the internal and international feminist critique of the women’s culture movement and its Utopian tendencies. As Zimmerman puts it, "women of color .. . pointed out that the notion of lesbian nation or lesbian tribalism is a white women’s dream and that an effective lesbian politics will have to be based on diversity and multiplicity, not on a sameness that melts all women down into one mold." This was an important political critique of lesbian utopianism; Jagose, however, distances herself from it.
As deconstruction, Jagose’s book suffers from predicability and repetitiveness. As feminist scholarship, it falls short because it ignores the vital dialectic linking feminist theories and actions, scholarship and communities. Her readings are situated exclusively in terms of a rhetorical model which is unable to do justice to the texts she examines.
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MLA: Knutson, Susan. Feminist Debates. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #159 (Winter 1998), Gay and Lesbian Writing in Canadian Literature. (pg. 178 - 181)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.