What Echo Writes: Feminist Écriture and the Otic Omnitextual

“Perhaps we need to change the ocular language of the image in order to talk of the social and political identifications or representations of a people.”

                                                            – Homi Bhabha, “The Commitment to Theory” [1]


            What is a text? Or rather, what isn’t a text? In the methodological field, there is no absence of method, or of field. It’s texts, texts, all the way down.

            All is text. This is a constructive (and, I would submit, feminist) restating of the ominous, “there is nothing outside the text,” with its masculinist, grumbling, thunder-in-the-clouds.[2] Who wouldn’t prefer a more affirmative reconstruction? All is text. Call it “omnitextuality.”

xxxxxxxTemporally and spatially, text is everywhere, text is primary; it comes even before language. Text encompasses the “mark,” the limit beyond which text-as-context exists, but language doesn’t yet.[3] The deconstructive insight – meaning relies on presence, and because nothing is outside the text, there is no such thing as pure presence, and therefore, there is no meaning – errs toward the negative and therefore gets it all exactly wrong. Presence, itself, is a text, as what isn’t? Omnitextuality asserts a totality of interrelated meaning, an absolute presence.

xxxxxxxBut “text” is more than just a totalizing metaphor; it works also in practice. What we do as creative and productive human beings is treat the world and other human beings as meaningful. We treat each other as texts.

xxxxxxxAnd how do we see in this way? The short answer is: we don’t. We hear. And how do we hear? We escape the ocular masculinist dialectic by way of the aural feminine.

            The fierce, brief history of literary criticism has been a gradual, beautiful, and literal coming to terms with the utter contextuality of everything, including the unutterable: the world is everything that is the case, and at the end of the world, whereof one cannot speak, one must be listening.[4] This, according to the revision, or rather, the reauralization of the feminist. And to what must we listen? “To the sum total of physics and metaphysics,” the feminist whispers. Is the unsaid “unsayable,” or merely, “as yet unsaid?” The feminist asks, but can men, dialectically deafened (deadened), even hear? A post-sexual state begets an appropriately tortured grammar.[5] Not that feminist criticism has been looking in the wrong place, but that feminist and every other criticism has been looking instead of listening.

            The phallic eye of masculinist criticism comes, and then, deflated, retreats. The yonic ear remains, in waiting, listening for (but also beyond) the next masculo-optic thrust. The ear, the “otic,” marks a more significant hearing than any semiotic (half-hearing) poststructuralist masculinity can construct. Feminist écriture has focused on the laugh of Medusa, a laugh which can never be seen without dire consequences, only heard. The shift away from dumbing visuals to voluminous orals and aurals is furthered by Echo – like Medusa, an embattled ancient Greek mythological female who suffers the eternal consequences of woman-on-woman rage – doomed to repeat the last words she hears. Echo’s punishment enacts a gentle (if annoying) commemoration of the other, where Medusa’s plays out a violent transference. Crucially, Echo does not repeat mere sounds – a singing bird, for instance, she may listen to without imitating. But when the sound carries meaning – a signifying sound with the presence of a voice behind it, a sound with identity and agency – then Echo is compelled to say it back.[6] A laugh, being a kind of universal signifier – cutting across translations, the same in any language – is a sound that forces Echo’s mouth. But the laugh of Echo is never her own. Such is the cast of Echo’s self-alienation, mimicking masculinist narcissism, unable to laugh when she’s happy, but nonetheless laughing all the time. Eventually, Echo’s body rotted away in a cave, and only her voice emerged to haunt the hollows. If this has been the fate of feminism, up till now, then how do we fashion an empowered criticism on the ghostly repetitions of what we’ve just heard? We must do so through writing, by fashioning the new pansexual body of the text, imagining what Echo would write.

            We find a similar instruction in the figure of Eurydice, who could’ve easily made it out of hell, hard on the heels of the primal Orphic poet, if only that self-obsessed masculinist singer had thought to have her sing behind him, maintaining voice-contact, so that he never had to turn around. But, of course, men never listen, in love too much with the sounds of their own voices. Eurydice’s and Echo’s significant others were catastrophically self-involved. And in very peculiar ways, this self-involvement deafened them.

            Regardless, Zeno, the inventor of dialectic, halved and halved again his pathway toward, but never to, the unreachable other. This asymptotic, and therefore unconsummated, relationship to alterity could have served as a cautionary tale to masculinist dialecticians, and their investigative method of thrusting and retreating before they come to conclusion, but instead, dialectic has been entrenched by men as the method of western theory. In that process is progression, yes, but never transcendence. The straight-ahead blundering of the blunt-headed phallus divides and divides and never conquers, precisely because it thinks that the point is to conquer.

            Alternatively, the many-minded woman sings in always already othered voices, by way of a wily empathy, a (m)othered vocalization that she aches to make her own and only. With her many womany minds, the woman writes a shadowy circularity – feminist écriture – threaded Ariadne-style through the maze-like byways of felt-thought, as mazing as the graduated canals of the vagina, or the circular threaded canals of the ear screwing itself into sounds, quietly waiting and eventually securing the piecemeal interlocking immanence of what masculinist thinkers call “opposites.” There is always some play between screw and thread, but in feminist écriture, the reassuring certitude is the play itself. The non-central central concept of feminist engagement is the active play (active listening) of its own engagement. The immanent is present on many levels (on all levels, in fact), a concept masculinist dialectics can only intermittently understand.[7] But it isn’t “play-then-not-play.” It’s an ongoing “play-within-a-play-within-a-play.”

            There is, first and finally, an indelible lag in language. There is also a gauge, however misconstrued. These puns are informative. The masculinist sign-seeker pursues his truth by centering in on the logos, defining “center” by delineating dualistic opposites. This bleak course buries margins, ephemerizes overlappings, figures away resistances, shadows over enigmas, and all the while idealizes the One True Light of truth. After 2,000 years of all this authoritatively masculinist either/or-ing,[8] we are beginning to embrace both/and. We call it, fittingly, “femininity.” And critical theory is finding itself ready for the complexity of cultural study, the many (womany) truths of CONTEXT. Theorists, now performing the obscurities they once denied, discover that everything is structured like a language, and they begin to interpret the previous discords accordingly. Everything is structured like a language. This does not mean that everything speaks or writes, but rather that everything expresses itself textually (even the unexpressed), and may consequently be “read,” if we are open for reception.

            What I mean when I say “everything is a text” is “everything may be treated as a text.” To illuminate this distinction, think of a police department where every death is a homicide, as opposed to one where every death is treated as a homicide, until such time as detectives determine how to pursue justice. (I use this example as a nod to the relation between ontology and suspicion, how mortality has ingrained in us the sense of every scenario as a worst-case scenario.)

xxxxxxYour fork, your desk, your bed, that movie you just saw, anything and everything in between and even beyond, may be treated textually. I differentiate here between literary text and text; they may be treated the same, but one of them is made of words and the other is made of many other things. After a textual treatment, literary texts may be read and enjoyed more fully, and non-literary ones are still quite useful: you can pick up your fork and eat with it, you may sit in your desk, sleep in your bed, and hate that stupid movie. I’m saying that textuality is a pervasive fact and quality which is laid over (tissue-like) any other fact and quality. And what does it mean to treat a thing textually? It means that each and every thing speaks a language (not JUST the sub-conscious), everything is a hieroglyph; it may be analyzed, interpreted, and understood in relation to other texts, in context. Every single thing speaks a language, and we must be listening.

            What is my critical condition? I seek a perilous, desperate, life-threatening analysis. Now that the men have finally begun to learn to think outside themselves. And now that the women are no longer merely trying to imitate the men. Not dialectical, but multilectical, exploding the dialectic, beautiful plurality.

            Like the impertinence of a text that declares its emancipation from an author, or the impertinence of a sentence that declares its freedom from grammar, the feminist wrests itself from the masculinist. Impertinence? As in, “the opposite of pertinent?” That is, “irrelevant?” Or rather, the insolent lip of the oppressed?! A woman’s place, yes, but that place is every place, the immanence of an integral holism that refigures hierarchism and its inevitable hegemonies. And that is how we escape. The route that becomes us leads inexorably through the oppressed, an emblem of which is woman.

            “Thetic” is etymologically aligned with “topos,” where thetic is “to put in place.” An aesthetic, therefore, perceives the topic in its beautiful place. Isn’t the woman – the one who, societally, “knows her place” – therefore, fundamentally aesthetic? As opposed to political? Are aesthetics and politics a binary? There are not merely two sides to this story. The post-feminist multilectician comes at such things from all sides. Our topia (at once u- and dys- and hetero- and homo- and multi-) is to be wild in any place. Our topia is to encompass topiae. We are a topical salve, playing on worlds/words. My place (like yours) is no place, every place. Our method becomes, first, to feminize, next, to lesbianize, and last, to explode deliriously in waves of innocent jouissance.

            So, where the dialectician moves from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, the wily multilectician strives among the lines to recognize contingencies that render illusory the anti– in antithesis. One aspect of dialectic which is always glossed over, and which multilectic includes from the start, is the inescapable presence of the speaker and interlocutor themselves – the inevitable bias, and, more often than not, the maleness and whiteness of writer and reader, speaker and listener. Socrates wanted to improve our souls by freeing us from unrecognized errors, but the irony is that Socrates was speaking as a white man – to another white male, Plato – with no concept that what he was saying was exclusionary and mono-cultural. Socrates thought he was speaking for humanity.

xxxxxxBut the feminist political voice, freed of echoing, freed of silence? What does she say? Mr. Speaker, I make a motion that we fix, or rather, neuter, the wording of the United States Declaration of Independence, one of the great founding documents of democracy. Let’s start our political program there. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal. [9] And then we can do away with declarations of independence, as that implies dependence. And then we can do away with countries and borders altogether.

xxxxxxA dialectic with a series of recognized contingency plans – a multilectic – is necessarily messy, but theory must deal with that. Our criticism simply must negotiate toward a baroque, post-gendered mode, beyond singularities, encompassing perspectives. Sexual oppression is so pernicious that we even find it grammatically inscribed: to “emasculate” is to weaken, to take away manliness, yet, “effeminate” is not a transitive verb, not even a verb at all, but rather a passive descriptive that is already weakened. Emasculate, effeminate. The two words are near synonyms, but with a layer of liminal and subliminal irony between them. You emasculate me, and I become effeminate. You effeminate me, and . . . ? I become immaculate!

xxxxxxxMisogynist? I’m a philogynist. (Here’s a kind of syllogism: I think men should be culled for the good of humanity. I am a man. Therefore? I hope no one listens to me, as I myself try to become a better listener. Also, I try to write feminist theory.)

            A multilectic works to square everything, even the body, whose plasticity is augmentable, liposucted, botoxed, dragged, and gender bent. A body, realm of essence, a housing, feminist or masculinist, a trace of presence, a residue, a mark. A text, of course. Hardly essence in and of itself, a body is merely a beautiful trace. To write with the body, then, is to write with writing, to write with what is already written, to use a text to make a subtext. So, although a “white ink” issues from the body, it is not the body that writes. Giving the variegated essence of feminism to the body is like giving the writing to the pen. It isn’t merely the pen that writes, either, although, without the pen there would be no writing. Now here I go down to where the id in us, libidinous, freely speaks. It speaks the it of it, not anybody, nor any body. Masculinist, feminist, these are merely instruments in the writing, the textuality of life. Masculinist, feminist, call them lenses, in dire need of refocusing (toward aurality). And anyway, men have their white ink too.

            If everything is textual, then no single reading counts as privileged. Not even the democratic ideal – “our readings agree, so you don’t have to read for yourself, you can take our word for it” – outplays the utter translatability of the omnitextual for every person. This idea even grafts over scripture, asserting (accurately) that anything and everything might be recognized for its scriptural qualities. Contextualization is about an ongoing hybridity, text plus text, the win-win realization that the “best” model will always radically include even the most opposite-seeming appositions. The textual a-temporal. The text across time.

            In process, then, what is the good in asserting the textuality of all? (Although I wish to assert nothing. Rather, merely to acknowledge. To recognize.) In the case of omnitextuality, what I recognize is that the world is word, and legible.


[1] This essay is a Cixousian interplay with Helene Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa

[2] Jacques Derrida On Grammatology

[3] According to Derrida, “the mark” is the pre-linguistic possibility of language,

where everything exists in pure relation to everything else.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstien Tractatus Logico Philosophicus

[5] Imagine French without le and la

[6] Giorgio Agamben Homo Sacer

[7] Deleuze and Guattari A Thousand Plateaus

[8] Soren Kierkegaard Either/Or

9 Elizabeth Cady Stanton The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments

***

Geoff Bouvier’s first book, Living Room, was selected by Heather McHugh as the winner of the 2005 APR/Honickman Prize. His second book, Glass Harmonica, was published in 2011 by Quale Press. Recent writings have appeared in American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Denver Quarterly, jubilat, New American Writing, Western Humanities Review, and VOLT. He received an MFA from Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts in 1997, and a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University in 2016. In 2009, he was the Roberta C. Holloway visiting poet at the University of California-Berkeley. He lives in Canada with his partner, the novelist SJ Sindu, and teaches at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

 

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