Just for general interest, critique/argue if you like...it's quite long, ~1800 words.
Righting the Wrongs of Woman: Feminist attitudes in Eighteenth century literature
For all the advances in understanding offered by the Enlightenment, the Eighteenth century remained, for women, strictly patriarchal and phallocentric. A position of submission was less encouraged than enforced: even the word of the law seems to encourage the superiority of men and their dominion over women, with a judge in 1782 ruling that it was "perfectly legal for a man to beat his wife, as long as he used a stick no thicker than his thumb" (Jarret 125). Despite this prevalence of misogyny in English society, a small though vocal group of women authors did contend with their masculine counterparts, producing works of political discourse, poetry, satire and novels that expressed the fury and frustration of the subjugated female. In this context, this essay will closely analyse and compare Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, the novelistic successor to Mary Wollstonecraft's treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with a collection of poems by and about women written during the Eighteenth century.
The satire on women is a literary tradition dating back millennia, characterised by the misogynistic and often patronising attitudes of their male progenitors. Such works call attention to what are perceived to be the faults of women, often enumerating and exaggerating them ad absurdum. Swift's well known excremental poem The Lady's Dressing Room (1732), for instance, takes as its object the romantic illusion of woman's innate beauty and cleanliness, conjuring a grotesque version of Celia's private chamber with now-infamous vulgarity:
Thus finishing his grand survey,
The swain disgusted slunk away,
Repeating in his amorous fits,
"Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia ****s!" (115-118)
As with more contemporary Feminist thought, the body, and in particular the 'sexed' body is located as a site of difference (Butler, 2490-91), and the anxiety suffered by Strephon, Swift's protagonist, seems to call specific attention to this site of gender/gendered conflict.
Swift's satire did not go unanswered, however, and the response by Lady Mary Montagu is in many ways typical of the attitude taken by women writers to satire of this kind. The Reasons That Induced Dr. Swift to Write a Poem Called the Lady's Dressing Room, as the response in question is so cumbersomely titled, mimics the form of Swift's poem, replicating its rhyme scheme and metre, and uses this as a basis to upset what may be seen as an overtly male form, given the utter dearth of female satirists and the absence of female/Feminist subject matter.
Further, where Swift produces Celia as an absent object, focussing his satire on her reconstruction through Strephon's account, Montagu's Betty possesses agency enough to subvert "the staticity of the masculinised gaze . . . [and represent] woman as bearer of the look" (Weise 720). The assignment of agency to female characters in this context remains one of the cornerstones of Feminist writing, and is an important aspect of the writing of other women poets as well as female novelists including Mary Wollstonecraft.
Unlike Swift, Montagu targets the moral and psychological deficiencies of men, rather than their physical shortcomings, coyly concealing the physical climax, as it were, of the poem:
But now this is the proper place
Where morals stare me in the face
And for the sake of fine expression
I'm forced to make a small digression. (31-34)
This character appears common to a great deal of women's writing of the time--a preoccupation with manners seems at times to stifle expression, whilst simultaneously calling attention to the necessity of such acts of censorship by women. In this poem, the effect is pronounced, and when read alongside Swift's poem, Montagu's seems all the more refined and elegant as a result.
The double-edged sword of feminine manners is also of interest to Mary Leapor, who finds that any trait possessed by a woman can be turned against her (Abrams 2603). Despite her youth, Leapor is sensitive to the traps constructed by a patriarchal society into which women inevitably fall. Again appropriating the familiar Heroic couplet with its Masculine rhyme, Leapor's poem An Essay on Woman expounds on men's duplicitous treatment of women. By contrasting the ostensibly virtuous and fair qualities of women with the resultant mistreatments by society, Leapor deconstructs the romantic myths of woman, albeit while stressing a womanly softness or, perhaps, weakness:
Woman--a pleasing but a short-lived flower,
Too soft for business and too weak for power (1-2).
The emphasis on softness pervades the text more deeply still; throughout, there is a sense of restraint, even confinement, conferred by the rigidity of the structure, a structure inherited from male writers. In this way, the poem itself comes to represent the repression and circumscription of female identity according to the privileged patriarchy. The mode of expression allowed to women is itself a masculine product, meaning that female poets are forced into a contested intermediate position where they are allowed to participate in writing and discourse only by adopting the voice of a man (Mermin 341). Of course, this was not necessarily an act of reluctant submission: Leopar, for instance, willingly modelled herself on Alexander Pope, whose themes as well as structures she borrowed in her Essay (Abrams 2603).
The problem of operating in male-dominated forms informs Mary Wollstonecraft's more political works. Political discourse arguably represents the most masculine form of writing in the Eighteenth century, connotating as it does that most ostensibly male trait, reason. Nonetheless, Wollstonecraft's Vindications form the backbone of Western Feminism, and show that such gendered distinctions are readily thrown off by the greatest writers. This claim holds true, too, of her forays into the novel. Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, published posthumously in 1798, harshly criticises the patriarchal systems of marriage and manners, which she considers akin to slavery.
As a heroic protagonist, Maria occupies an unusual position. In the early chapters of the novel, she is presented quite consistently as well educated, reasonable, though overtaken by grief to the extent that she has lost her reasoning faculties. She realises that by being (and appearing) sympathetic to her keeper that she may gain preferential treatment, and uses this relationship to acquire literature and political writings in French and English. In this way, Wollstonecraft establishes her heroine as a woman who possesses the finest virtues of both the sexes: the compassion, empathy and emotional sensibility of a woman along with the reasoning and education of a man. Upon her meeting of Darnford, Maria’s character is made clear through a comparison of the two:
Maria impatiently wished to see her fellow-sufferer; but Darnford was still more earnest to obtain an interview. Accustomed to submit to every impulse of passion, and never taught, like women, to restrain the most natural, and acquire, instead of the bewitching frankness of nature, a factitious propriety of behaviour, every desire became a torrent that bore down all opposition. (25)
Wollstonecraft’s subtle critique of societal norms that restrict women is made all the more potent by the fact that it is used to expose the inferiorities of a man; the fact of Maria’s life of submission becomes a celebrated trait.
However, as the relationship with Darnford continues to develop, the nature of Maria seems to change quite considerably. Prior to this point, Maria seems to yield to her passions when her thoughts turn to her past, and to events that had transpired to bring her to the asylum, however such moments are tempered by her displays of restraint and good manners. Thus, her sudden infatuation with Darnford comes as somewhat of a surprise. Even before she has met him, his books take on a sacred importance to her, foreshadowing what is to come (Todd 18). The author herself suggests the progression that will unfold: “Fancy, treacherous fancy, began to sketch a character, congenial with her own” (Wollstonecraft 18). Maria obsesses over her new love interest, watching for him from her window, perusing his handwritten marginalia and notes, desperately begging her minder to arrange meetings. Here, Wollstonecraft’s heroine reverts to what may have passed as a stereotypical love-struck woman, driven to distraction by an apparently insurmountable passion. As Patricia Howell Michaelson notes, there is no overt indication in the text that Maria should be understood as an ironic character, which makes this sudden vicissitude all the more problematic (250).
The user of Facebook leads a double life. One of these is comprised of lived experiences in the physical world. The other, too, is an assemblage of experiences, interactions within a series or social and political discursive structures. To say that these experiences are 'lived' by the user, however, is misleading. At best, they are experienced vicariously via the digital doppelganger of the Profile, though really it is most correct (and, unfortunately, most unpleasant) to imagine this second life as taking place in an inaccessible, digital dimension, reconstituted by the user from fragments of relayed information delivered to the screens of their computers and mobile phones. Yet to deny the reality of this alternate series of structures on the basis of its distance from the real user is a serious error; not only is are these new cyber-social structures very real, but they have the power to displace the social structures and power relations that exist in the physical world.
Facebook, and indeed all internet social networks, have at their heart one of the fundamental traditions of Western science and politics--"the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other." Firstly, the network itself is conceived as a digital reproduction of the networks that exist in the physical world, an attempt to recontextualise those "lived social relations." However, given the almost endless variety of ways in which two (or more) people may interact with each other, and the resultant variety of relationships that may exist between those people, the creators and rule-makers of Facebook have reduced the entire spectrum of social relations to one single form: Friendship.
Secondly, we find the self reproducing itself as a reflection of the other in the creation of the Profile. The Profile, and its contents, represent the user. And here, too, we see only an imitation of very limited capacity. Only the most basic of personal information may be provided by the user--name, date of birth, location--meaning that for the Profile to effectively represent a complete person, that user must engage in the creation of a social network so that through interaction with Friends, the sharing of images, information and experience, the Profile becomes a more accurate and convincing facsimile of the user.
The rule-makes and -enforcers of Facebook are its moderators. Their guidebook is the Rules of Conduct document, and their authority in enforcing it is absolute. However, they cannot possibly be everywhere at once, and with millions of profiles to monitor, they cannot hope to catch all breaches of their conditions. This rather complicates the (popular) idea that Facebook operates as a Foucauldian panopticon. While the spatial dimensions of the Facebook network suggest that the overseers reside in a central 'tower' from whose vantage point they can monitor the Profiles, organising these Profiles as a ring of separated and adjacent 'cells' seems counterintuitive when the aim of the site is to reconstruct the complex social networks of the physical world. Further complicating this reading of the structure of Facebook is the fact that if it is indeed described as a panopticon, then it is at best a panopticon by proxy, never containing any real people or real behaviours, but only the reproductions and results of their actions in the physical world.
Nevertheless, this situation, although merely an approximation of the device described in Foucault's interview 'The eye of power,' the hierarchical system of surveillance still has the capacity to act as an apparatus "through which power is produced and individuals[' Profiles] are distributed in a permanent and continuous field." Thus, as within Foucault's ideal panopticon, the user is forced to internalise the moderator's (imagined) disciplinary gaze and "[inscribe] in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection."
So far, these cyber-social and -power relations have proven to be merely replicas of real-world structures. However, Web 2.0 and social networking have created a context in which several new behaviours and models of power relations have been born.
The Profile is a performance, just as any other social relation is, in part, performed. Unlike these real-world performances, however, the Profile is permanently public; it is always available to both moderators and those in your network. This means that the emulation of real-world interactions is not always in the best interest of the user. Expressions of anger or resentment, or acts of the same, are unlawful within the context of Facebook, therefore, having internalised the laws and their punishments, the user will likely check themselves, and refrain from publishing their negative sentiments on their public Profile. Facebook, then, ceases to accurately represent the real social relations and interactions of its users in favour of a Utopian social system in which relationships are always either positive or nonexistent.
This, obviously, is markedly different from the social structures of the physical world, in which negative and neutral relationships are just as important in the networking of people as positive ones. The reason for this divide is Facebook's narrowing of all possible relationships to Friendship. Family members, partners, colleagues and acquaintances are given a single, equal classification. By definition, no link in the network can be of any more importance than any other. As such, and given the success of the site, we are forced to acknowledge an epistemic shift in the definition of Friendship. The closest definition offered by the OED to the use on Facebook is as follows: Friend is "Used loosely . . . applied to a mere acquaintance, or to a stranger, as a mark of goodwill or kindly condescension." As such, the dynamics of power that one would expect to observe in an interaction in the physical world are absent from interaction online, given that both parties have agreed to accept the mutually inclusive term Friend.
Given the vast divide between the understanding of the meaning of Friendship in the physical world, and its cyber-social counterpart, we are led to conclude that the motives for Friendship are different in each case. As socially-minded beings, creating meaningful and reliable relationships that will bring us benefit has evolved into a biological imperative. We are born into relations of power, and into systems that necessitate the continuing formation of new social relations in order to remain functional. Our success in this context is defined by our ability to construct significant and valuable relationships.
Facebook removes our ability to qualify our relationships. Every person-to-person interaction occurs in a single social context, which means we cannot define social success in the same way it is defined in the physical world. The only indicator of social success here, then, is the Friend Count, the number of links in our newly-formed network.
In order for a network to grow successfully, each of the Profiles it contains must be in accordance with the rules of Facebook. To not conform is to discredit both yourself and the network to which you belong. To this end, moderators give users a unique utility that allows them to exercise power over their dissenting Friend by silently reporting them to a moderator. In the physical world, there is no comparable action--if your friend is behaving in an undesirable way, the only option is to take negative action by distancing yourself from that person. Facebook offers no such interaction, only enabling users to sell their friend out to the authorities in order to preserve the integrity of their network. Thus, power and responsibility are deferred from the users to the moderators. When one user reports another, they are vicariously exerting power over that user, although it cannot be recognised as such by the 'victim' as the identity of the reporter is obscured, only implied by the sudden presence of a moderator.
The Friend Count and cyber-social success are not directly proportionate in their relation to one another. If the count is too low, indeed, it does suggest that the user is incapable of performing the necessary role and, as a result, will not prove to be a valuable addition to a network (though the case may simply be that the user refuses to compromise the physical- world's definition of friendship by beFriending people to whom they would not bestow that title outside of the cyber-social context; an admirable stance, though entirely oppositional to the ensuing redefinition of social codes). Too high, however, and the integrity of the links is weakened. While it is understood that the term Friend differs in significance in the context of Facebook, there is still a very definite threshold beyond which point adding links to the network devalues the Profiles of that user and those users associated with him.
The Friend Count also has a second significance besides acting as a signifier of cyber-social success. Given the physical absence of the user, one must be sceptical when considering the Profile of any user. It is entirely possible (an, in fact, common) for companies and scammers to set up fake accounts to generate automated advertising messages or to distribute viruses. In order to be successful, these Profiles must reach as many people as possible, usually attempting to network thousands of people at a time. Thus, those with too high a Friend Count risk compromising their own status as human.
This man dispenses truth as readily as he breathes out air. That is how much his rule is taken for granted. Right now he has just about had it with women, so he says. See, there he is, yelling that all he needs is this woman. His woman. There he is, as unknowing as the trees all around.
Elfriede Jelinek's Lust is an oddly compelling novel. Extraordinarily violent, unashamedly graphic and disquietingly amoral, it thoroughly deconstructs the myth of marriage and romantic love with corrosive and scouring yet intricate and effective prose.
The novel centres around Hermann, the manager of an Austrian paper mill and his wife Gerti. From the outset, Gerti is established as an object, a possession. The omniscient narrative ensures that the reader is kept distant and unattached. From our place well outside the relationship, we watch. We watch Gerti submit masochistically to her husband, watch him pour his juices into her. There is a constant reiteration of the Man as Father, the Man as Direktor, the Man as God, and while Gerti fights against this hegemony she never succeeds in escaping it.
Gerti's fight somewhat sympathetically observed by Jelinek, whose voice is omnipresent, guiding us through the text, pointing out the anomolies of married life and sexual relationships that may otherwise go unquestioned in our reading.
And that is certainly her intention here. This is never a novel that lets you escape into it; this is no comfortable fantasy. Every sentence drips with blood. The contempt for men, for subjugation, for the cliches of society seethes below each letter, threatening to flood into the empty space of the page. Jelinek, however, always in control of her prose, never gives it the chance. The novel is completely devoid of dialogue in a traditional sense. If a character's speech is recounted--and it rarely is--it appears alongside all of the prose. As a result, each paragraph is a perfectly aligned rectangle of text, a visual echo of the heavy, solid Man that dominates the world of the novel.
This structure, this style, is exhausting to read, though never unenjoyable. Jelinek's prose is lyrical in a way that authors like Cormac McCarthy aspire to, though no other author I've read has acheived so successful a style. Indeed, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for "her musical flow of voices and counter-voices. . .and. . .extraordinary linguistic zeal," and the award was well earnt. The omnipresent narrator speaks in a voice that is nothing short of poetic; precise, cynical and confrontational. Each paragraph flows at a tumbling pace, linking images, ideas and exposition in such a way that forces readers to organise them into a correspondance themselves rather than have the novel's meaning and significance spoonfed to them. In this, there are obvious parallels with the work of Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke (who adapted another of her novels, The Piano Teacher).
So in closing, this is certainly not a book for the casual reader. There is a huge deal of enjoyment to be taken from this masterpiece (if not in the appreciation of its totally unique aesthetic, then in the truly inspired word-play and absurd humour that runs through the novel), though the reader is expected to work for it. It is challenging, deeply disturbing at times, and exhausting to decode, but the rewards are so great that any cost to reach them is negligible. In a time where so many mediocre works are filling bookshelves, this novel will remind you why literature is important.
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