Sunday, November 11, 2007

As far as I'm concerned, the most cogent issue in the debate between Juliana Spahr & Stephanie Young (on the one hand) and Jennifer Ashton (a debate discussed quite a bit recently in the poetry blogworld) is one that isn't explicitly part of either of their Chicago Review essays. It's a question placed at the meeting point of the issues of representation/privilege and anti-essentialism, and might be phrased:

"Can one be a materialist and anti-essentialist feminist?"

I want to give a positive answer to this question.

The anti-essentialist Ashton claims that anthologies of experimental writing by women reproduce the sex/gender categories whose radical critique is often a crucial part of the poetics and politics of the editors and writers whose work those anthologies represent:

When women's "innovative" poetry anthologies moved from an anti-discriminatory agenda to an aesthetic one [...] the continued insistence on the importance of the poems as women's poems transformed the contingent relation between the sex of the authors and the forms of their poems into a necessary one.
Chicago Review 53:2/3, p.117

A materialist response might be:
The facts show that women are still discriminated against and defined by their sex; therefore, the publication of a women-only anthology simply is still an anti-discriminatory act. Furthermore, the women-only listserv (another target of Ashton's critique) is a response to a situation in which, in public online forums, women still have to face social circumstances that can be intolerable; therefore, a listserv like this is needed so that conversations that might be aggressively disrupted, mocked, or simply drowned out otherwise can happen at all.

I'd say that Spahr and Young are materialists (the point of view that material conditions are the basis of other conditions). Since they're explicitly not particularly concerned with the question of essentialism, their essay and Ashton's response don't speak directly to one another. That's why I wanted to offer my own attempt at a response that's both materialist and anti-essentialist:

The argument is pretty simple. It assumes agreement with the connected claims:
1) The anti-essentialist project is not yet complete.
2) Being biologically female is still a powerfully (and negatively) defining cultural category.

Given (2), a biologically female writer will be seen/read as female whether she likes it or not (unless she works pseudo- or anonymously) . Assume an editor who considered all ideas about essential femininity to be inherently problematic and undesirable, an editor who wanted to put together an anthology of experimental writing that called essentialism into question. How might the anthology enact an instance of such questioning? I'd argue that a women-only anthology could be one perfectly valid response to the problem.

In any collection of entities of extraordinary variety, the individual entities are going to be grouped according to the most accessible cognitive categories available for grouping entities. It's only when attention is paid explicitly to a collection of entities "of the same kind" that one begins to note the differences between them, perhaps even coming to the conclusion that they don't belong in the same category at all, or that some of them seem to belong to multiple categories, thus calling the categories themselves into question.

Given (2), an anthology that contains a few women, or 50% women, will be read in terms of its proportional representation of two sexes ("twelve men and six women"), whereas an anthology of writing by women will, once one gets beyond its most superficial characteristic, sidestep that question, potentially offering instead the opportunity to see a wide variety within the category "women," and perhaps to ask "why do these varied relations to one's sex all fall into the same category?" If it's an anthology of "innovative writing by women," the common care for innovation might throw into even higher relief the unchosen, sex-based category.

This is actually all in Ashton's argument itself; she asks why "women" and "innovative" should go together in the absence of an asserted necessary connection between them. My argument is that they go together for contingent, materialist reasons: given the state of things at the present time, one way to exemplify the thought that would be appropriate to (and represent a movement towards) a more desirable state of things is to pragmatically frame a literary act in accordance with the present state, precisely in order to show its inconsistencies, its shakiness as a frame.



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