Desiring a feminism that exploits difference-toward-newness

(On textiles, handcrafts, and a woman's text)

Last week I questioned the idea of “a woman’s text” and I foreshadowed this week’s textile poetics commentary by touching on the feminist desire to legitimize handcrafts within the world of art as perhaps comparable to the idea of of “a woman’s text” that needs advocating in literature.

Do women make work—literature, art—that is bound to be different, bound to insist on femininity?

Of course it is not possible to talk about this without talking about power. And I understand anthologizing efforts that aim to bring women’s writings into view—as well as the ongoing debates around craft versus high art that seem inextricably bound to sex difference in art critical discourses. Efforts to level access to power are deemed necessary because of persistent imbalances in publishing and art.

But while I understand these efforts and may even benefit from them, I simultaneously question those projects’ adherence to the kind of concern with sexual difference that may perpetuate two things: hardened identities (women write differently) and the over-valuation of a certain kind of equality (feminism resulting in the leveling up of power, toward positions often occupied by men, designed for men). These two concerns, toward which much of feminism has been dedicated, usually signal a desire for collective power in order to gain entrance into male-oriented structures, institutions.

These goals can eclipse the more radical life possibilities that a feminism attuned to sexual difference and the proliferation of differences can help bring into existence.

I find comfort in philosopher Elizabeth Grosz’s theorizing and her wishes for feminism. In Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art she writes:

“I am more interested now in those differences that make us more than we are, recognizable perhaps for a moment in our path of becoming and self-overcoming but never fixed in terms of how we can be read (by others) or how we classify ourselves, never the basis of an identity or a position, even a fractured identity and multiple positions.”

Grosz is interested in materiality—in forms beyond language and even concept that are allowed to emerge when we remove ourselves from the task of calling out difference via language and category. She points out that for Gilles Deleuze, who theorized difference differently than Derrida, “(t)he sign and signification . . . are the means by which difference is dissipated and rendered tame.” Matter is the field in which the self plays around and not only reproduces, but innovates.

Upon seeing two mentions of the “feminine” of textility in didactics in major New York City museums, I wished for more un-tame, radical claims.

And as a poet, I like to think that we can help make language once again wild—and categories also. I wondered, is this wildness possible if we are using language and inherited categories to solidify, to mark identity off clearly according to what has come before? In other words, instead of something like “these works bring in textiles in order to signal femaleness, to restore femaleness”—

What if the museum didactics read, “these works by women show what painting can be” or “this work lays out a new lexicon for stitching itself” or “these works teach us to read the often-hidden textility of nearly all the works in this museum, regardless of the sex of the maker.”

Indeed, textiles are all around—for example:

In “Evolutionary Yarns in Seahorse Valley: Living Tissues, Wooly Textiles, Theoretical Biologies,” Sophia Roosth explains that it was “geometer” Daina Taimina who figured out how crochet could model the illusive hyperbolic plane. This lead to the proliferation of the “hypberbolic crochet” and a sequence of installations of collaboratively crocheted coral reefs facilitated by The Institute for Figuring: Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s organization that is, as Rooth explains, “a confluence of physical and mental labor.” The Crochet Coral Reef Project is “a project that melds biological and evolutionary apprehensions with ecological activism” and it needed a handcraft plus science to get there.

So what is remarkable is not necessarily that Daina Taimina is a woman, but that as a geometer and woman who knew how to crochet, she pushed mathematics further and helped spawn a global activist art project.

Segue to literature and writing. Is there “a woman’s text”?

Toward a discussion of this question—and in fact to show the impossibility of any answer, I go to two sources: Elaine Showalter’s essay “Piecing and Writing” and Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, particularly a section toward the end of her book entitled “The Sex of a Text.”

Showalter argues that “piecing” as narrative strategy is akin to the organization of labor in the domestic sphere: women, raising children, have to be open to interruption in their work—in their textile work. A quilt, she points out, is pieced, just as a short story by a woman author is composed in small blocks of time and may be put together to make a longer work such as a novel, published over time in journals and magazines. A whole “woman’s text” is necessarily pieced.  

It is interesting that Cixous presents the idea that a woman’s text is characterized by not being cut—by no difference between public and private—and that a woman, lacking the two-column identity structure that a man would have, moves between worlds “naturally.” For a woman, and Cixous presents this idea using Clarice Lispector as specific example, “the whole of her text is so necessary, she has descended so exactly to the place of writing that no matter where we are, we are always in the middle of writing.” This reminded me of the idea that for a woman, sexual pleasure is not fixed—it is diffused all over her body—and I have never been exactly sure I agree with this. For Cixous, Lispector’s text is in contrast to Genet’s, where cuts “keep interfering.” The sex of Lispector’s text is like “taking a knife to cut water.” To be fair to Cixous, though, this section concludes with the pronouns “her” and “him” referring to the possibility to compose this kind of dispersed, uncut text—she seems to imply that a feminine text may be written by a man also. And admitting this helps us remember, reading Showalter, that there are numerous examples of novels by men—such as the work of Charles Dickens—that are also composed serially, pieced over time.

What both Showalter and Cixous might miss—Showalter being perhaps a Marxist feminist, and Cixous, a radical feminist concerned with embodied epistemologies, though perhaps she is tipped toward Deleuzian ontology—is what Grosz proposes and what excites me:

That instead of a feminist concern with a unified, stable and defensible identity, text, way of knowing, and compositional structure, “difference is the undoing of all stabilities, the inherent and immanent condition for the failure of identity” and the impetus for something brand new. Something ontologically future-oriented.

Grosz also reminds us that “(t)he acts that constitute oppressions also form the conditions under which other kinds of inventions, other kinds of acts, become possible.”

So if the under-representation of women in literary publishing and in art museums persists, we might see this absence as a way to see what women are doing elsewhere everywhere with language, with fiber, with objects in homes and in workplaces away from books and museums, on the street, in shops, on the phone. We may see a woman’s text elsewhere than the bound anthology: perhaps virtually, endlessly scrolling. We may hear the text in two women talking on the subway, or in their act of looking at each other’s shoes, handbag, “check out her outfit,” the lure of textile and body as a magnetic, living text. We may see the textile inside so many objects of art. The tight drum of canvas receiving paint like the stretch of skin receiving touch.  This “elsewhere everywhere” is what happened to me in those museums a couple weeks ago, in the city that was once home.

Instead of an articulation in defense of inclusion and equality, tracking only the space of institution or book as the space that matters, valuing difference can tune our ear and eye toward altogether new new views, new objects, forms, ways of being, mattering, and disseminating.

Finally, yes, it is true that women learn some things from their mothers, including handcrafts. Today, April 6, I memorialize my mother’s passing, and, anticipating this date and its annual return, in January I embarked on a project of repairing her quilt. Here is the result, a film and text published in Small Po[r]tions, through which I found the archeology of her stitch to be everywhere, including inside a city whose cars follow designed, intricate pathways, but whose walking citizens defy this grid in endless vectors: life and matter interacting, reproducing, defying, innovating.