Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse Joni Susanto English Lecturer of STIBA MALANG Abstract: the emergence of feminist interpretation seems to be promising in literary studies since the war - thus it is becoming more well-established. However, it appears that the conception of 'feminism' itself has always been the controversial issue at debate. Over the past decade, feminists have used the terms 'feminist' and 'feminine' In a multitude of different ways. This essay intends to urge that only a clear understanding of the differences between them can show what the crucial and theoretical issues of contemporary feminist criticism really are. In the first place, it is suggested that feminist interpretation needs to be seen in a wider context than the literary critical since the major priority of feminism is to promote social and political change. On the other hand, it can be argued that the feminist criticism must seek to reconcile the politics of feminism and literary contemporary theory. Indeed, what is likely to keep feminist criticism at the forefront of literary interpretation is that it incorporarates within itself and in a particularly powerful form conflicts and tensions that are central to contemporary literary interpretation in general and which may develop most interestingly and productively within a feminist context. For this reason, it seems certain that feminism will have a powerful role to play in literary interpretation for the foreseeable future. Keywords: feminist, female, feminine, politics of feminism Feminist criticism has in a sense no beginnings. When in the seventeenth century Esther Sowernain and Bathsua Makin pointed out that many classical texts identified powerful deities and influential muses as women, they were reading from a feminist perspective. When Mary Wollstonecraft at the end of the eighteenth century argued that sentimental novels encouraged 103 Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 104 women to see themselves as helpless and silly;.,. she was practicing a form of feminist criticism (see Belsey and Moore, 1 '197). The power of feminism within Western culture since the late 1960's has had a particularly powerful effect on literary criticism in Britain and America because of the fact that women constitute a large majority of the students in the higher education who study literature. Student interest and demand have been responsible for feminist courses being offered in most literature departments, especially in America and this has necessitated appointing those capable of teaching such courses. Thus more women have been given teaching posts, although literature departments still tend to be dominated by men. Increased attention has also been devoted to women authors and attempts have been made to combine feminism with various innovations in critical theory. Besides, the politics of gender entered a new phase and since that time feminist criticism has been developed, debated, institutionalized, and diversified as never before. In 1970 three revolutionary books appeared within a few months of each other. The bestseller books were Germaine Greet's The Female Eunuch, Kate Millet's sexual politics and Eva Figes' Patriarchal Attitudes. Millet's book had a particularly strong impact, but it raises a fundamental question: Is it more important to change the world than to write criticism that is powerful purely in critical terms? Or if there is a conflict, can it be resolved? Sexual politics studies the work of several male writers from a committed feminist angle. Their works are judged negatively if they are seen as expressing views or ideas which are anti - feminist. Significantly, when Millet goes on to deal with literature after having discussed theoretical, historical, and political questions, 105 she then recalls Marxist reflection theory. Her criticism is from the standpoint of readers whose main interest in literature and in an analytic criticism that attempts to do justice to it, as relentlessly "monological" form of interpretation. She suggests that there needs to be a break from formalist and traditional historical criticism (Millet, 1972: 12). The method by Millet demands more emphasis is on an author's ideas rather than matters as artistic structure hence she admits that there is a tension between her interpretative approach and the question of aesthetics. This tension between the aesthetic and moral or political dimensions of texts has been central to the school of feminist criticism that has been strongly influenced by Millet. Donovan (1983) suggests that the Feminist's role as interpreter is to determine the degree to which sexist ideologist controls the text; which involves a refusal to accept any separation between aesthetics and morals. The goal of this form of feminist interpretation is indeed political since its aim is to create a situation in which 'literature will no longer function as propaganda furthering sexist ideology (Donovan, 1983:52). Donovan's conception of aesthetics itself is narrow, having much in common with late nineteenth - century aestheticism in that a work can be considered a masterpiece in terms of art even though what it is expressing may be totally objectionable - a form is said to be separable from content. However, despite its limitation at the level of both practice and theory, it created the basis for later feminist criticism in its various manifestations. Another direction in feminist interpretation moved toward the establishment of a specifically female tradition of writing. Showalter (1979) has coined the Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 106 term gynocritics to categorize her approach which is concerned with woman as writer. Gynocritics directs its attention to female culture and consciousness. Showalter (1977) attempts to show that there is a distinct female tradition in the British novel, from the mid-nineteenth century up to the present. She sees this tradition as having three phases namely "feminine", "feminist" and "female". Writers in the first group set out to emulate the achievements of male - centered culture, those in the second group protested about the situation of women and those in the third group aimed at creating a distinct female-centered fiction. Many of the women writers discussed by Showalter would unfortunately be regarded as minor in Canonic terms, but virtually ail of the novels she discusses would be accepted by women is generally regarded as having no artistic merit. This has led to attempts to undermine the basis of the judgments that underlie the construction of the traditional canon and to efforts being made to create a critical discourse that can make such works interesting for the purpose of literary interpretation. Tompkins (1986) has endeavored to demonstrate that Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is not merely an important cultural document because of its great influence but that both it and the 'sentimental novel' of which it is a part can stand up to critical scrutiny. She both attacks the traditional literary criteria for being governed by male prejudice as to what is of artistic interest and argues that such novels cannot merely be diminished as being without artistic merit on the grounds that they are sentimental. Tompkin's approach, however, turns out to raise problems because of its potential to generate reductio ad absurdum responses that may lead to feminist interpretation being attacked or diminished by 107 certain elements within literary tradition. If the kind of sentimental fiction that she discusses is artistically valid then what about romantic fiction? Could Barbara Cartland's novels not be defended as works that are wrongly judged by the stylistic, psychological, and epistemological criteria normally employed to decide on artistic merit when they should be seen as embodying a radical critique of society from a Christian point of view? In fact, many male critics would accept that feminism has altered interpretative perspectives to such an extent that it is legitimate to question the established canon, but few would be likely to go as far as Tompkins in setting aside traditional aesthetic criteria. What should such criteria be replaced by? If it is felt that feminist criticism and criticism from other previously 'marginalized' standpoints - undermines any basis for literary discriminations, then it will meet strong opposition not only from traditional forces within the literary institution, which are still powerful, but also from certain contemporary approaches which are reluctant to abandon the notion of literary value. Meanwhile, Meese (1985) argued that feminist criticism needs to resist being neutralized politically by the pluralism of literary institution, which will regard feminist interpretation as merely another 'approach'. She suggests that many critics have generally been content to accept Stanley Fish's idea of the literary institution as made up of "interpretive communities" - which entails pluralism - because it appears to allow for freedom of interpretation without abandoning controls, yet such controls are benign since they are not asserted by force of authority. Meese claims that this situation is illusory for the 'interpretive community' is in fact the 'authoritative community'. Members of such communities control the Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 108 admissibility of texts, facts and evidence, as well as the norms constitutive of reasonableness in argumentation. If feminists' criticism is to resist the apparently benevolent but in fact oppressive embrace of the institution it must assert itself at the level of both politics and epistemology. THE FIELD OF FEMINIST CRITICISM TODAY The field of feminist criticism today could be divided into two main categories: female criticism and feminine criticism. Female criticism, which per se only means criticism which in some way focuses on women, may then be analyzed according to whether it is feminist or not, whether it takes female to mean feminist, or whether it conflates female with feminine. The great majority of American Feminist Critics nevertheless write from an explicitly feminist position (Moi, 1977). Meanwhile, the feminine theory refers to theories concerned with the construction of feminity. From a feminine perspective the problem with this kind of thought is that it is particularly prone to attacks of biologism and often unwittingly turns into theories about female essences instead. At the same time, even the most determinedly 'constructionist' of theories may vary well not be feminist ones. The works of Sigmund Freud, for example, offer a splendid illustration of a theory formation which, while in no way feminist, provides a crucial foundation for a non-essentialist analysis of sexual difference. The alternative, a theory of essential female qualities, on the other hand, would simply play the patriarchal game. Although psychoanalysis still needs to be creatively transformed for feminist purposes, the fact remains that feminism needs a non-essentialist theory of human sexuality and desire in order to understand the power relations between the sexes. 109 It should be noted here that the case of feminist or feminism would seem to be somewhat different. The relationship between words like feminism, sexism, and patriarchy seem to be more complex than in the case of female/male or feminine/masculine, possibly because of the political nature of these terms. What is notable is that the battle between feminist theories and the patriarchal knowledge seems to be constant. Postmodern theory, which emerged as new current in feminist thought, is mot concerned with laying claim to the truth of what it means to be a woman or a gay or straight, black or white. Rather, it calls into question the very possibility of absolute knowledge or universal meaning, and doing so it radically exposes the political interests that are at stake invoking metaphysical categories such as Nature, Reason, Science, Justice to legitimate the 'truth' of a culture, gender, race, or language. In the history of patriarchal knowledge woman has figured as a metaphor for non - truth, non - knowledge, everything, in other words, falls outside the confines of 'male reason'. Yet, it should be noted that the marginalization of woman to the perimeter of patriarchal meanings simultaneously produces a space from which to counter the 'truth' of patriarchal accounts of the world including that of the sexual identity itself. To the degree that postmodernism implies a fundamental question of the' great truths' of Western patriarchy, it is compatible with a feminist politics of change. For it is the linguistic culture, not nature, that constitutes the range of meanings available in any time or place, then it follows that there is no single truth, no absolute knowledge, which would hold others in place. However, it is precisely post modernism's incredulity towards the truth of sexuality that Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 110 simultaneously brings it into conflict with feminist interest in identity politics. Certainly, as Jardine has argued, when feminism participates in the enlightenment project of establishing the truth of woman, it is radically incompatible with postmodernism. A number of theorists have maintained that in so far as feminism depends upon a relatively stable and unified model of female subjectively, postmodernism's refusal to ground meaning in any pre-cultural transcendent truth inevitably entails a revision. From its -conception, feminism has continually been under revision. The post modem movement testifies to the wide diversity of feminist theories, each pointing towards different possible futures and allowing the feminist reader to peruse a range of narratives other than the male stories told so far. THE PROBLEM OF GENETIC FALLACY "The Intentional Fallacy", wrote Wimsatt and Beardsley (1951) "is a confusion between the poem and its origins, a special case of what is known to philosophies as the genetic fallacy." In those days, their argument was against a historical or biographical criticism that wanted to move from information about an author. Usually drawn from letters or journals or recollections of friends, to a claim about what some text bearing that author's name must mean, by virtue of embodying the traces of a unique personal or psychological history. The theory of literary autonomy as Wimsatt developed (Wimsatt, 1964) had a negative and a positive thrust. The positive idea was that of a speaker or narrator wholly internal to the work. Even the older biographical historical critics against whom Wimsatt was writing had 111 in certain cases been compelled' to make a distinction between author and speaker or narrator - the distinction, say, between Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, or Browning and Fra Lippo Lippi. To do so, as Wimsatt saw, was already in some sense to understand the work as a sphere of reality existing independent of the writer who had composed it. Wimsatt's radical move was to extend this distinction to anything understood as a literary work, to insist that the "Keats" who speaks in When I Have Fears is no less a voice within the text, created and sustained by its discourse and belonging to its world, than Huckleberry Finn or Fra Lippo Lippi. The 'personal,' on this account, event at its most intimate or self-revelatory, must always nonetheless be seen as an effect of language in its public aspect as literary discourse. Humphreys (1980) argued that much discussion of the body in the feminist criticism has been a way of smuggling in an essentialist idea of gender that is, strictly speaking, forbidden to such criticism by its own postulates - a more generalized version, in short, of two genetic fallacy as discussed in this paper. To the extent that feminist criticism takes seriously the notion of the 'female' as a cultural construction, Humphreys argues, and to the extent that it is able to grasp sexuality as a primary site of such construction, feminist criticism must by its own lights be guided by "a recognition that gender difference functions as a trope, subject to reversal and substitution." This is the sense in which the literary work, even for the most politically engaged feminist critic, "already contains the antidote to phallocentrism." In other words, its very textuality subverts the logic of essentialist or "natural" categories on which an ideology of domination must, on the account of gender criticism Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 112 itself, be ultimately based. The answer to this sort of argument by feminist theorists has been that it, too, is made of male domination. Thus, for instance, de Lauretis (1987) puts: This kind of deconstruction of the subject is effectively a way to recontain women in feminity and to reposition female subjectivity in the male subject, however, that will be defined (de Lauretis, 1987: 24). In this way, men of economy position themselves in a certain sphere, including the lawless sphere of instinctuality that is his unconscious. There is, as it follows from this 'denial', the absolute refusal of his conscious mind to register or acknowledge intolerable truths about himself. To argue that contemporary gender criticism rests on the genetic fallacy is simply to make a theoretical point made long ago by Wimsatt and Beardsley. But to be told that this sort of point is itself one of the ruses of masculinist or patriarchal domination - that theory as such, as de Lauretis says in an influential formulation, is a 'technology of gender' - is abruptly to reach what at least feels like a dead end. As with the Freudian Psychoanalyst, one does not see exactly how one could enter a meaningful objection to a system defend in this way. Wimsatt and Beardsley were theorists of literary autonomy. That theory, though it has been politically denounced, has not yet been shown on any persuasive theoretical grounds to be mistaken. In recognition of that fact, perhaps, even though they passed from the scene long before the arrival of gender criticism might have said "the poem is not the critic's own and not the author's." It is detached from the author at birth and goes 113 about the world beyond his or her power to intend about it or control it. Literature belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar obsession of the public, and it is about the human being, the object of public knowledge. REFERENCES Belsey, C. and Moore, J. (eds.). 1997. The Feminist Readers. London: Macmillan. de Lauretis, T. 1997. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Donovan, J. 1983. Beyond the Net: Feminist Criticism as a Moral Cristicism. Denver Quarterly 17: 40-57. Humphreys, J. 1988. Troping the Body: Literature and Feminism. Diacritics 18: 1 Meese, B.A. 1985. Sexual Politics and Critical Judgment. In G.S. Jay and D.L. Miller (eds.). After Strange Texts: The Role of Theory in the Study of Literature. Alabama: University of Alabama Press. Millet, K. 1972. Sexual Politics. London: Sphere Books. Moi, T. 1997. Feminism, Female, Feminine. In C. Belsey and J. Moore (eds.). The Feminist Reader. London: Macmillan. Showalter, E. 1997. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Bronte to Lessing. Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 114 Princeton: Princeton University Press. Wimsatt, W.K. 1964. The Verbal Icon. New York: Farrar, Strauss.