labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
juillet/décembre 2011 -janvier /juin 2012  - julho /dezembro 2011 -janeiro /junho 2012


On Teaching Feminist Theory*

Teresa de Lauretis

(for the 10th anniversary issue of Labrys)



Conducting a doctoral seminar on feminist theory, as I did fairly regularly for twenty–some years since the early 1980s, has given me a measure of the passage of time and the changing conceptions of feminism and of women over two decades.  Of late, in the United States, to the extent that any feminism is claimed, it is global, ecumenical, ecological, transnational, transgender, and transpecies in its concern with world events, peoples and animals.  Its practices epistemic and activist rely on the discourses of disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics, and law, discourses in which women’s relation to language is not questioned but taken for granted: access to speech is presumed as one among other civil rights, guaranteed by the U.S. constitution. 


The Resistance to Theory


Teaching in this context is to encounter what Paul de Man called “the resistance to theory.”[1](de Man, 1986)  There is unintended irony in this situation in that “theory” has a prestigious and desirable status in the North American academy today.  Theory, of any kind—from cultural theory to film or literary theory, from poststructuralist to postcolonial, from feminist to queer to critical race theory—is taken to be a sort of intellectual capital.  The very word theory connotes something more elevated and exalting than run-of-the-mill academic subjects like history, biology, or literature.  And herein lies the paradox:  what de Man meant by “the resistance to theory” was in fact the resistance to language, and more exactly a resistance to the rhetorical or figural dimension of language that is explicitly foregrounded in literature.

When I decided, in Fall 2003, to conduct my feminist theory seminar with a reading list consisting mainly of novels, I knew it was a radical as well as risky shift in pedagogical practice.  Not that the idea is new or that the practice is unprecedented.  Indeed, reading fiction written by women, and writing about it, whether as literary criticism or history, was common practice in Women’s Studies in the 1970s and early 1980s, but that was not part of feminist theory as such, if by feminist theory one means a controlled reflection and self-reflection, not on women in general but rather on feminism itself as a historico-political formation.  There was, of course, theory—semiotics, poststructuralism, neoMarxist critical theory, and neoFreudian psychoanalytic theory; in literature studies, in particular, there was the literary theory associated with the name and the teaching of Paul de Man.  But all of these were not in the main, so to speak, feminist-friendly. 

Returning to that literary theory after two decades, with the advantage of the feminist theory that was subsequently developed, and in light of the legitimation and impasse it seemed to have reached, I saw in the literary fiction written by women the potential to reenergize feminist theory by the figures of resistance inscribed in certain texts.  In 2003, after two decades of identity politics and in a world ever more divided, traumatic, and enigmatic, those texts of the 1970s appeared to take on an unexpected relevance to feminist studies:  by reviving the attention to writing, to the figurality and otherness of language, literary theory offered a site of resistance to the new conformism—when it is not fundamentalism—that plagues most social movements and much academic work.

I tested in that seminar the wisdom of de Man’s contention that the resistance to theory is a resistance to reading; not to reading for the plot, for “information,” or for the “meaning” of a text, but rather a resistance to go with the figural movement of literary language, abandoning the stable, familiar ground of strictly referential meaning, and ultimately a resistance to the idea that language may refer primarily to itself.  Before I say more about my experiment to reanimate feminist theory through literature and about the students’ both expected and surprising responses, let me say something about how one might explain such a resistance to theory.

In the essay by that name, de Man accounts for the vicissitudes of literary theory, or what has come to be known as literary theory, in the United States since the mid 1960s, in the wake of imported critical trends such as structuralism and poststructuralism, semiotics, and post-Heideggerian hermeneutics.  “The advent of theory,” he states, “the break that... sets it aside from literary history and from literary criticism, occurs with the introduction of linguistic terminology” in speaking or writing about literature.  By linguistic terminology he means “a terminology that designates reference prior to designating the referent” (RT, 8), so that the object of study of literary theory is not the aesthetic, moral or truth value of literature, but rather literariness, the particular aspect of language, its figurality or self-referentiality, that is foremost in literary works, or in the language of literature. 

Literariness is not, of course, solely a property of literature; it is also present in various forms of writing and speech, most notably in advertising or political campaign slogans, whenever tropes such as paronomasia or other word play draw attention to the linguistic, not phenomenal nature of the utterance; that is to say, they draw attention to the reference, not the referent, to “the materiality of the signifier, not the materiality of what it signifies” (RT, 11).  If literature, as de Man says, is “the place where this negative knowledge about the reliability of linguistic utterance is made available” (RT, 10) most consistently; or, said otherwise, if literature is the site in which the self-referentiality of language is made most visible, this does not mean that literature denies the referential function of language:  if it did, no one would cry in reading a book, or feel moved or persuaded to action. 

The rhetorical or figural specificity of literary language does not deny or refuse to acknowledge the “reality” of the material world but questions its own ability to know it; as de Man soberly puts it, literature “is not a priori certain” that language can represent, more or less accurately, the phenomenal world.  To think of literature as language, therefore, is to doubt the “authority [of language] as a model for natural or phenomenal cognition.” This, in turn, blurs “the borderlines between literary and non-literary discourse” (RT, 11), upsetting all criteria for what counts as literature, as well as the established canon of literary works.  But further, once we consider literature, theory or science as discourses, or  distinct modalities of language constituting what Foucault calls discursive formations (his examples are medicine, economics, and grammar),[2](Foucault, 1972:37) then the opposition between fiction and reality breaks down.  And this, as de Man writes, seriously disturbs “the stable cognitive field that extends from grammar to logic to a general science of man and of the phenomenal world” (RT, 17).

While grammar and logic refer to an extra-linguistic and generalizable set of phenomena, rhetoric refers only to language itself, creating a tension of ambiguity, an undecidability between the literal and the figural status of words and phrases.  Thus, if grammar and logic, which are also necessary functions of language, confirm me as a subject of cognition, a subject for whom those phenomena are objects of inquiry, knowledge or action (no coincidence in that the terms subject and object, used in scientific and critical discourses, are in the first place grammatical terms), the rhetorical function of language undercuts that certainty, instigates a doubt:  in producing the possibility of misreading, it shakes up the ground in which I, reader or speaker, presume to be the subject, and the text or the other, my object. 

“Did you say ‘pig’, or ‘fig’?” flashed the grin of the Cheshire Cat.  Alice, whose confidence in the stability of meaning in bourgeois Victorian England is unshakable, remains undaunted even in the catachrestic world of Wonderland.  But for most of us, the ambiguity of figural language poses what de Man calls a “persistent threat of misreading.”  The resistance to theory, then, is a resistance to reading. For reading entails a confrontation with an otherness in the text that escapes my ability to grasp it, retain it, hold it in my head (as Roland Barthes said, “the work can be held in the hand, the text is held in language”).[3](Barthes, 1977:157)  The failure of the interpretive moment shakes up the ground of my hermeneutic self-confidence and the certainty of my position as subject.  In “open[ing] up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration,”[4] ( De Man, 1979:10)figurality confronts us with the intimation of a chasm between language and the real that indeed, and not coincidentally, can only be represented figurally, as in de Man’s metaphor of vertigo or in the metaphor I have just used, chasm, or in another that comes directly to mind, the graphic figure of a chaos-cosmos(“chaosmos”) in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

Another such figure is the core of silence at the heart of language figured in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the empty space of contradiction that, in the text, through the fictional figure of Judith Shakespeare, is indissociably linked to the nexus of life and death, existence and nonexistence, for women.  As a final reflection on the work of figurality in Woolf’s text, it is not insignificant that Freud’s view of psychic processes dominated by two primary classes of drives, life drives and death drives, which coexist in conflict and mutual contradiction in each person’s psyche, was first proposed by a woman analyst, Sabina Spielrein, in 1911.  In a paper much later acknowledged by Freud, she argued that the drive to the preservation of the species, the wish to procreate or give birth, contains a destructive impulse:  “As certain biological facts show [she wrote], the reproductive instinct, from the psychological standpoint as well, is made up of two antagonistic components and is therefore equally an instinct of [giving] birth and one of destruction.”[5]  (Spielrein.1982:191-195)

Read in this light, Woolf’s entwined figures of Judith Shakespeare and a room of one’s own evoke many another such figure inscribed in women’s writing across the historical and sociogeographical spectrum, from the “bell jar” that Sylvia Plath made into the objective correlative of her own “madness” to the inexpressible chasm in the self that Toni Morrison named Beloved.  Much like the eye of the tornado in Plath’s The Bell Jar, that still, empty place in which, for women, existence turns into non-existence is an effect rather than an absence of movement:  it is the meeting place of opposing drives, the site in which life and death cancel each other out.  Its figure is silence.


Figures of Resistance


The convergence of de Man’s literary theory with Woolf’s writing in A Room of One’s Own suggested to me how feminist theory might be displaced from its currently reified, if prestigious, status of academic object of study and revitalized as a living practice, imbricated in one’s experience of self and of the world.  After all, Woolf’s fictional address to the women of the British academy, ironically written by one who had had no access to it, was precisely about language and writing as a way to take part in “the common life which is the real life.”

Feminist theory, then, might be so revitalized by the process of reading intended as a practice of language, something like translation, a learning to confront the otherness of language—what one of my seminar students, Shannon Brownlee, was to call “the implacability of figuration”—in a text, and thus also confront otherness or alterity in oneself, and otherness or heterogeneity in the world.[6] So I designed my feminist theory seminar as a project of reading, with the goal of learning to stand on the shaky ground of an unstable cognitive field in which the “inhuman” element in language, as de Man puts it, resists the self-assurance of subjecthood; and thus of reading women writers who both create and dispel the illusion of full consciousness and self-presence in the subject of speech.

The literary texts I chose were written between the 1920s and the 1990s, spanning literary genres from the autobiographical and the pseudo-biographical to science-fiction and the prose poem; ranging from realist to experimental in style, and from modernist to postmodernist in terms of periodization.  They were Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, The Female Man by Joanna Russ, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body (regrettably in English translation), Written on the Body by Jeannette Winterson, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  We also read de Man, of course, and Barthes and Felman, and Walter Benjamin on “The Task of the Translator,” plus several examples of critical misreadings of those novels. I also included selected essays by the French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, whose reading of Freud is exemplary of the relation of reading to psychoanalysis, and whose theory of primal seduction, in envisaging the psyche as a space of translation, transfers beyond the clinical situation to the site of culture.

I titled the seminar Trans-figuration in Literature.  I wrote “Trans-figuration” with a hyphen, the better to convey its being itself a trope, a figure of transit or transformation, and meant it to refer to the conceptual aspect of the theory as well as to the thematic and properly figural aspects of the novels.  I asked the students to reflect on their own reading process, and to beware the pull of narrative; to focus on phrases, fragments, figures, rather than on narrative emplotment or overall “meaning.”  In the end, I asked them to write a paper addressing the question, Can one “do” feminist theory through literary fiction?  Their responses both confirmed my fears and surpassed my expectations. 

A few, unable to let go of the foothold of character and story, wrote of their likes and dislikes, honestly stating their inability to “make sense” of the experimental, anti-narrative texts of Russ and Wittig, for example, and otherwise looked for something in the diegesis, character or situation, with which they could identify or in which they could find some “universal” predicament or human values.  Reiterating received ideas about literature, gender, and women, their papers sketched bland, comforting notions of feminism.  Others, however, and in greater number, surprised me.  In some cases the surprise was their ability to read theory and literature together so that each one reverberated on the other, with no attempt to “apply” theory to literature with the cookie-cutter method, as the saying goes; that is, with no attempt to impose theory like a conceptual grid on the text and so produce an interpretation of the novel. 

Commenting on Felman’s view of literature as the place where madness can speak—madness as unreason, as resistance to rationality, subversive of the logic of constituted power, and hence madness as the place of otherness—Christina Stevenson asked the question I myself asked long ago, How can one speak from the place of the other?  If Orlando, despite his pursuit of logic, “cannot escape the unreason of language,” she noted, Felman’s equation of madness with literature and of the feminine with madness locates resistance and subversion in the woman character’s dying words, the moment when language turns into silence. [7] Thus, she concluded despondently, one is left like Orlando, with either “the renunciation of all linguistic endeavors” or “running face first into metaphors.”

How can one speak from the place of the other?  I suggested above (but had not done so in the seminar), that it is precisely by running face first into metaphors that Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, succeeds in speaking the silence within language and within women.  But that the question recurs with urgency in a young woman’s mind nearly a century later, confirmed the timeliness of reproposing the reading of literature and the theory of reading for feminist epistemology.

A greater surprise was the students’ intellectual excitement for the deconstructive negativity of de Man’s theory as well as Laplanche’s conception of the unconscious as an enigmatic, unknowable otherness in the self that we, Sysiphus-like, attempt nevertheless to (re)translate.  De Man’s contention that the figural dimension of writing makes every reading a misreading suggested to Brownlee that the feminist ethics of responsibility is not a natural consequence of feminist belief or political practice, as is too often assumed, but is the result of self-analysis, an awareness of the possibility of misreading not only texts or other people, but also the memory-text of one’s experience. To take and claim responsibility for one’s (mis)readings, she wrote, “brings interpretation into the political realm,” putting experience face to face with ideology.

The resistance of language to univocal meaning was brought home perhaps most directly by the personal pronouns in the novels by Russ, Woolf, Winterson, and Wittig.  The “she” in The Female Man, the he/she of Orlando, the “I” in Written on the Body, and the j/e in The Lesbian Body are tropes, figures that resist grammatical meaning even as they convey it, thus suspending the logic of conventional assumptions about gender identity and gender difference or, in the case of Wittig, altogether emptying the word gender of its meaning.  But if certain literary works “effect such a radical opening of language,” Anita Starosta argued, it is not only because literary language has the possibility of rhetorical displacement built into it, but rather because these particular novels “insist on articulating something inconceivable,” as Radclyffe Hall does in The Well of Loneliness, or provoke the reader with “figures of the unspeakable,” as Morrison does in Beloved

I was particularly pleased by the recognition that the novels I chose do not simply portray characters or images of women that do not accord to established conceptions of gender, sexuality, and race, but, while doing so, they also construct figures, at once rhetorical and narrative, that in resisting the logic of those conceptions, point to another cognition, a reading other-wise of gender, sexuality, and race.  This is the sense in which these texts “do” feminist theory and are not simply feminist fiction.  Beloved, Nightwood, The Female Man, Orlando, and The Lesbian Body are more than titles or narrative images. They are conceptual figures, figurations of social and psychic spaces, of interhuman and intrahuman relations—conflicts, passions, fantasy and desire, conscious emotions and unconscious drives. 

Whether or not they bear a mimetic relation to referential reality (Orlando clearly does not, the worlds of Stephen Gordon and Winterson’s narrator do, Beloved both does and does not), these texts perform a transformation, a transfiguration, of what we refer to as reality.  What enables passage from referential reality to the conceptual spaces that can only be designated as Nightwood, Well of Loneliness, Lesbian Body, or Beloved, is not solely the figurality inherent in language as one of its inescapable dimensions.  It is also, and constitutively, the figuration, that is to say, the writer’s work of linguistic invention that draws on the figurality, the otherness, of language in order to design that other space as one that opens onto the otherness in the world.  And what is theory if not the elaboration of conceptual figures in language?

Each in its own fashion, those novels inscribe the trope of transfiguration (transformation and transit to another space) thematically and diegetically, in their characters or events.  Moreover, they are themselves figures of translation:  while inciting or provoking different (mis)readings in different times and places, the novels bear witness at once to the obstinacy of language and to the creative potential of its figural dimension. For example, if the first-person narrator of Winterson’s novel figures a speaking subject beyond gender, it is because the grammatical and morphological structure of the English language makes it possible, if only in writing.  Such a figure of writing is nearly impossible in, say, romance languages, whose morphology is heavily inflected by linguistic gender:[8] when the Italian translation of Written on the Body (Scritto sul corpo), forced by grammatical rules to designate the gender of the narrator as either feminine or masculine, opts for the feminine, it necessarily resolves the ambiguity that makes Winterson’s “I” the figure of a transgender subject: the “I” is read conventionally, as a lesbian, and the resistance to gender figured in Winterson’s character is all but lost in translation.

On the other hand, Radclyffe Hall’s representation of the “invert” in The Well of Loneliness may seem to some dated, of purely historical interest; nevertheless, as Timothy Koths remarked, that text has been read and reread, since its publication in 1928, as the figuration of something otherwise unspeakable at quite different historical moments, such as the butch lesbian in the 1950-1970s and the transsexual subject in the 1990s.[9]

At a moment in which feminist epistemology seemed to me to presume the authority of referentiality, I reproposed for feminist theory texts that, in undermining the referential function of language, do not negate or disallow the reality of the phenomenal world but deny the absolute authority of language as the basis of cognition. The figures of resistance of this genealogy are figures of writing that, by disarticulating logic and rhetoric, question the self-complacency of referential language and the logocentric entitlement of the subject of speech.  Ironically, they do so entirely through language, or rather, by the hint of a silence at the heart of language.

“Did you say ‘pig’ or ‘fig’?” flashed the grin of the Cheshire cat.


* This article is a slightly revised version of the last few pages of my book Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory, ed. and with an introduction by Patricia White (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), pp. 251-260.

[1] Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory, Foreword by Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1986); hereafter abbreviated RT.

[2] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1972), 37.

[3]  Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in Image/Music/Text, selected and trans. by Stephen Heath (New York:  Hill and Wang, 1977), 157.

[4]  De Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” in Allegories of Reading (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1979), 10; emphasis added.

[5]  Sabina Spielrein, “Destruction as Cause of Becoming,” quoted in Aldo Carotenuto, A Secret Symmetry:  Sabina Spielrein Between Jung and Freud, trans. by Arno Pomerans et al. (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1982), pp. 191-195.  The original German paper was “Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens,” Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen 4 (1912): 465-503.

[6] I thank the following doctoral students in the departments of History of Consciousness and Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for their contributions to the seminar and hope they will take to heart Woolf’s exhortation that “so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while” (ROO, 118):  Felice Blake-Kleiven, Shannon Brownlee, Alison Davies, Catalina Forttes, Natalie Hansen, Timothy Koths, Isela Ocegueda, Anita Starosta, Christina Stevenson, Carra Stratton, Scott Thompson, Robin Tremblay-McGaw, and Kristina Valendinova.

[7] Felman’s reading of Balzac’s novella “Adieu” is in her “Women and Madness:  The Critical Phallacy,” cited above.

[8] One notable exception is the novel by the French writer Anne Garréta, Sphinx (Paris:  Bernard Grasset, 1986).

[9] For the former, see Esther Newton, “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian:  Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman,” Signs 9.4 (Summer 1984): 557-575 and Rebecca O’Rourke, Reflecting on The Well of Loneliness (London:  Routledge, 1989); and for the latter, Jay Prosser, “Some Primitive Thing Conceived in a Turbulent Age of Transition”:  The Invert, The Well of Loneliness, and the Narrative Origins of Transsexuality,” Second Skins:  The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1998), 135-169.



labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
juillet/décembre 2011 -janvier /juin 2012  - julho /dezembro 2011 -janeiro /junho 2012