Monday, April 9, 2018

Does Feminism Require Autonomy?

One of the central frustrations of being a feminist critic is that it is far too easy to get caught up in ultimately meaningless disputes about whether or not a particular writer (novel, poem, film, painting, etc.) qualifies as feminist, a question both irresolvable and constantly under debate, since art has no objective ideological content, inconvenient as that may be. Rarely do such disputes get at the crux of the issue, the theoretical problem at the heart of any classificatory system. In order to determine whether a given figure or work is feminist, we would have to define what feminism is. That's the particular, and massive rock, threatening in the shoals.

Though postcolonial criticism has problematized the conception of a universal feminism, there is still a strong tendency to assume that one's own feminism is the feminism. American feminism tends to be expressed in a rhetoric of empowerment, strength, and autonomy and thus, American feminist critics tend to seek out literature and art that reflects those particular values and enacts them through characters and the success of those characters. The blind spot for these critics (and I confess, I too have at times been willfully unaware of that blind spot) is Americentrism, the presumption that the American iteration of feminism is universal and universalizable. Classifying whether something is feminist or not isn't an especially enlightening exercise, but nevertheless that classification often determines the fate of a given work if it's written (composed, painted, etc.) by a woman. Women writers who can be assimilated easily into current American feminist paradigms stand a chance of being instated, or reinstated, into the canon, or at least the gender studies curriculum or woman-centric imprints of the publishing houses.

Witness the example of one of my favorite writers, Grazia Deledda. She was only the second woman to win the Nobel Prize and was publicly lionized by such writers as Giovanni Verga and D.H. Lawrence (who also translated one of her novels). She's one of the only women among her literary generation in Italy to achieve a lasting critical reputation, and, although she's not discussed as much as, say, D'Annunzio, she continues to have a presence in scholarly work and many of her novels remain in print. Such is the case in Italy.

In the United States, she is almost completely unknown. There are numerous reasons for this - few Italian writers have been enshrined in the canon established in the English-language world, only a tiny percentage of published works in English are translations - but Deledda could be recuperated, as other women writers have been, by feminist critics and scholars actively seeking out literature by women. In order for this to happen, more of her work needs to be translated. However, the claim that Deledda was a feminist writer (and thus worthy of institutional inscription in literature departments and publishing lists) is a tenuous one in the American context, simply because her books don't dramatize the specific, historically and culturally contingent values of current American feminism. Her heroines are not empowered in a contemporary sense; they are brave for daring to kiss a boy and accept a brother's beating afterwards, or for taking a train journey alone. They dress demurely and transgress the rules rarely and with trepidation, calculating their chances for success in secret. Her women do not enact autonomy by today's standards; they are not independent, not trendsetters, only rarely exceptional. Judged according to the standards of today's American feminism, this Italian writer who published her major works a century ago doesn't hold up.

The shame isn't that Deledda didn't anticipate the development of a future ideology in a foreign country; the shame is that this ideology is so narrow-minded that it can't conceive of a feminism that expresses different values. Deledda's female characters exist in a circumscribed world where any ambition, especially an artistic one, was looked upon as abnormal in a woman at best, sinful and outrageous more often than not. In today's America, despite structural and cultural limitations that are quite real, rhetorically women are expected to work, to have ambition - that is, they are expected to be autonomous. If autonomy is the yardstick by which we measure the worth of a woman's writing, then Deledda doesn't have much to offer. But, if that's the case, then feminist criticism is little more than a vigorously shaken sieve, sifting out the sand from what just might turn out to be fool's gold. Feminism has been theorized now for nearly three centuries as a philosophy of greater inclusion: what irony, then, that its current commentators are more concerned with excluding anything that might threaten its, and their, assumptions.