Montreal's was a desiring feminism

A review of 'Theory, A Sunday'

Theory, A Sunday

Theory, A Sunday

Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, Gail Scott, Louis Cotnoir, and Louise Dupré. Introduction by Lisa Robertson

Belladonna 2013, 162 pages, $18 ISBN 9780982338780

In a post-riot-grrrl world, it’s hard for those of us who were too young for the theoretical debates of the eighties to understand the amount of collective cognitive labor that was required to move us from feminism’s second wave to its third. We easily take for granted the radical cultural shifts that had to take place for Kathleen Hanna’s emergence on stage with the word ‘slut’ written on her belly to be seen as a populist punk feminist act, until we are kindly reminded otherwise. I was politely offered this “otherwise” recently by a sentence in Louise Dupré’s essay “Four Sketches for a Morphology,” in Belladonna’s recently published translation of Theory, A Sunday, originally published in French in 1988 by Éditions du remue-ménage in Montréal. When I read Dupré’s claim that “Feminism can only survive by recognizing the feminine as difference” (95), my initial reaction was, “well, yeah.” Luckily, I was alone when I thus betrayed my origins as an ungrateful and privileged adolescent of the deconstructionist nineties whose college green seemed to be nothing if not a carnivalesque sea of celebrated differences, because as I continued my read of the essays and literary work in Theory, A Sunday, it became clear that the kind of political struggle and intellectual labor in these texts made possible the relatively utopic feminist intellectual world in which I emerged as a young queer writer. 

It makes sense then, that Belladonna published Theory, A Sunday as the inaugural piece in its new “Germinal Texts” series, for the text documents the kind of feminist thinking enabled by French poststructuralism. More importantly, it shows how this inquiry aided a particular group of French Canadian women writers in feminist interrogations of literary culture and of language itself. The publication also serves as an homage to the rich dialogues that have been taking place between American and Canadian women writers for several generations. In the afterword, Belladonna founder Rachel Levitsky stresses the importance of the “Canadian feminist avant-garde” for offering her a model for expanding the politics of an experimental American literary scene that, in the aftermath of Language poetry, believed “language dissonance and disruption was political in and of itself” (152–53).

As a literary project, Theory, A Sunday presents critical and creative productions that emerged from a women writers’ study group started by Nicole Brossard in the early eighties and included Louise Cotnoir, Gail Scott, Louise Dupré, France Théoret, and Louky Bersianik, whose work make up the volume. In its multiyear effort of Sunday meetings (hence the book’s title), this group worked at defining feminist consciousness through the poststructuralist theory emerging from France. Poststructuralism’s emphasis upon the slippery nature of the sign, its ability to question philosophical binaries through its interrogation of linguistic representation, provided these writers a means by which to move beyond the essentialisms of second-wave feminism and to ponder how one might exhibit a feminist consciousness on the page. Fans of Gail Scott will be excited to read her essay “A Feminist at the Carnival” and a short work of fiction, “‘The Kiss’ of Edvard Munch, Revisited.” Scott’s meditative essay on being a female writer, a work richly layered with novelistic elements, highlights how well the narrative techniques of her novels have always served philosophical thought. Though at times the reader will feel the great gap of time between ‘now and then’ when encountering, for instance, Dupré’s mention of “the teen idol of the moment,” Madonna, this distance disappears with her interrogation, “Where is the feminism in all of this?” a question I lately feel compelled to ask each time I open up my Internet browser (91). Miley Cyrus on a flying hot dog, I believe, does not a Kathleen Hanna make, though argue with me, if you wish. It’s a slippery space. Similarly, Louky Bersianik’s piece “Aristotle’s Lantern,” with its deconstruction of the academic critical apparatus and its detrimental effects on the reception of women’s writing, interrogates and dismantles canonized patriarchal forms and reminds us, in light of our dismal twenty-first-century VIDA numbers, that, “Baby, we haven’t come (too) far.” 

Nicole Brossard’s opening essay in the collection offers a strong example of what poststructuralism made possible for the Montreal group and an introduction to the kind of theoretical work one will discover in this volume. Early in her essay Brossard announces that Western feminism “presents us with a wholly new historical phenomenon, because it questions the imaginary, symbolic, and psychological construct of everything through which the inferiorization of women has been programmed” (19). Though her vocabulary teases the reader into expecting a Lacanian analysis, another Frenchman aids Brossard in the heavy lifting of articulating the relationship between a psychological patriarchy and the linguistic phenomena it produces. It’s Brossard’s turn to Barthes that I found to be the most compelling moment of the essay. Brossard understands “misogynist antagonism,” i.e. patriarchal ideology, in narrative terms, specifically as a narrative we inhabit (25). For this reason it is subject to the same contradictions and disruptions inherent to all narratives. She is able to make this important move, one that will allow her to shift from a discussion of a general feminist project to the specific role of the writer in this larger political movement, by invoking Barthes, for whom the form of narrative “is essentially marked by two powers: that of extending its signs through the whole of the story, and that of inserting unforeseeable developments within these distortions” (25–26). That is, according to Barthes, narrative suffers from something like an excess of itself. In its self-perpetuation, narrative produces a proliferation of signs that may or may not serve the same end. It’s these “unforeseeable developments” that allow for feminist consciousness to emerge. Though all women find themselves struggling within the master narrative of patriarchy, Brossard outlines how this proliferation of patriarchy’s signs provides an opportunity for self-consciousness.

Up until this moment Brossard had discussed patriarchy and its narrative as an extra-literary phenomenon, the sociopsychological story we are all asked to buy into. But Brossard’s turn to Barthes opens up the possibility for literary narrative to disrupt this sociopsychological phenomenon. Through the act of writing, a woman creates the necessary distance — the space between signifier and signified — to gain a critical perspective upon her own story, which is also the story of patriarchal order: “In fact, if it weren’t for what this subjective (diaries, biographies, letters) and novelistic narration of our lives exposes to our consciousness, we should have no other alternative, for lack of any other perspective, than to debate amongst ourselves using the contradictory and hierarchical binaries that the male imaginary constructs” (26). Patriarchal narrative, through its proliferation into a woman’s written self-narration, exposes her to its form as a sociopsychological narrative. The externalization of this “master” narrative through the act of writing creates the necessary self-consciousness to begin a feminist interrogation. For Brossard this gap between signifier and signified is where feminist consciousness begins.

Such theoretical headiness, Gail Scott reminds us in her remarks in the afterword, emerged not from isolated intellectual practices, but from fruitful Sunday gatherings, suggesting that the community produced through this collective study became at least in a partial way an answer to what a new feminism and a new feminist consciousness might look like:

Arriving at noon at someone’s house, each brought a page in French on a topic … The texts were the product of our most recent discoveries in writing, in reading, or had been scored in the heat of political intervention … During the discussion of our texts, we drank coffee, then out came the wine and the food, so the discussions evolved into a kind of camaraderie of sharing and reflection. I remember the meetings that lasted from noon till almost midnight, full of passion and instruction. (151)

In her affectionate introduction to the book, Lisa Robertson emphasizes that these efforts, which took place in the city outside of the auspices of any academic institution, forever altered the landscape of Montreal. She writes, “Thinking about and reading the work of these Montreal women now, twenty-five years later, I am brought to the realization that feminism is one of the scintillating companions of the culture of cities. Feminist culture, discourse, and resistance has shaped contemporary urban experience and urban space” (11). Robertson’s understanding of feminist intellectual activity as a means of altering urban space once again underlines the fact that the publication of these texts continues a dialogue between generations of avant-garde women writers in North America. Where the social and intellectual practices of the Montreal group altered the landscape of that city twenty-five years ago, Belladonna as a reading series and publishing group has been helping change the landscape of New York literary life since the late nineties. As Levitsky notes in her commentary in the afterword, she was only able to conceive of such an intervention through the legacy of these women. Their collaborative literary practices, social and intellectual, “offered [her] permission” (153). Belladonna’s publication of the results testifies that Sunday meetings have been happening ever since and will continue happening in cities all around us.