Quilts, soaps, shopping, and the South: The risk of recuperation projects in contemporary women studies — Quilt Culture edited by Cheryl B. Torsney and Judy Elsley / A Southern Weave of Women by Linda Tate / No End to Her by Martha Nochimson / et al
Cheryl B. Torsney and Judy Elsley, eds. Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1994. $32.50 hc; xii + 197 pp.
Linda Tate. A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994. $40 hc; 240 pp.
Martha Nochimson. No End to Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992. $40 hc, $15 sc; xii + 237 pp.
Hilary Radner. Shopping Around: Feminine Culture and the Pursuit of Pleasure. New York: Routledge, 1995. $55 hc, $15.95 sc; 224 pp.
In what can unquestioningly be seen as one of the most influential theory texts published this decade, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble unleashed a destabilizing quake upon women’s studies projects, the aftershocks of which are still felt. In one fell discursive swoop, Butler puts into doubt the subject of feminism: “For the most part,” she explains, “feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued” (1).
Each of the books slated for this review, while not necessarily self-positioned as feminist theory, nonetheless sets forth its arguments, some explicitly and some implicitly, through a stabilized category of women. Cheryl B. Torsney and Judy Elsley look at women’s practices and narratives of quilting throughout U. S. history in Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern. In A Southern Weave of Women, Linda Tate offers a critique of the Southern literary tradition that focused solely on white women’s texts. Tate presents instead a more inclusive treatment of women writers from the U. S. South. Martha Nochimson brings an original perspective to her study of soap operas in No End to Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject: she traces the history of the soap opera heroine from her position as both academic scholar and former soap opera writer. Finally, in Shopping Around: Feminine Culture and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Hilary Radner locates market consumption and production as the overdetermined locus of contestation for feminine culture, and highlights how women reconstruct those spaces.
Quilts, shopping, soap operas, and southern landscapes. In terms of women’s cultural studies, who could ask for more? Each has functioned significantly in American women’s lives and experiences and each has received less than adequate representation in cultural theory. So, what’s the problem? And why is Butler an articulation point of the problem? Butler gets to the heart of the matter quickly in Gender Trouble. “The very subject of women,” she claims, “is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms” (1). At this point, Butler is not lodging a complaint against universalizing practices that imply a single vision of Woman, read usually as white, middle-class, and heterosexual. Even Butler concedes that this type of feminist project “no longer enjoys the kind of credibility it once did” (4). None of the four texts under review particularly falls into this theoretical abyss either. In fact, these texts are explicit critiques of such universalizing tendencies.
Butler’s critique extends further, however, to the assumption of the category “women,” itself. Even if the user of that category takes as a fulcrum the diversity of women’s positions, the differences between women’s experiences, and the polyvocality of women’s voices, that category is unstable. Working through Foudault, Butler explains that the “formation of language and politics that represents women as ‘the subject’ of feminism is itself a discursive formation and effect of a given version of representational politics” (2). The consequence of this for Butler lies in the premise that “the feminist subject turns out to be discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to facilitate its emancipation” (2). In Butler’s project, it is simply not enough to instantiate greater representation for “women” in language and politics–and, by implication, literature, popular culture, media, academia. Feminist critique, Butler insists, ought “to understand how the category of ‘women,’ the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought” (2).
By implication, Butler’s trouble with “women” forecloses on the huge market of academic recovery projects, undertakings that seek either to “discover” neglected writers and texts or to assign value to what has been unjustly devalued. Recovery projects have been a vital part of women’s studies and feminist theory. Most of these types of projects, however, use the category “women” in a stable, identificatory manner. When Butler destabilizes the category, in a theoretical frame, she does away with recovery projects that tend to assume a stable category of women whose experiences, practices, and productions await reassessment. The four texts under consideration here are all recovery projects of varying degrees. While Radner does problematize her analysis of feminine culture–and, therefore, is aligned more closely with Butler–quilts, soaps, the south, and, to a lesser extent, shopping function as sites of recovery for analyses of women.
So do we, as cultural theorists, abandon recovery projects as somehow theoretically out of date? Of course not. In fact, the academic market feeds on these types of books, perhaps for the very reason that Butler states: that these projects are theoretically funded by the same repressive discourse that constitutes the category to begin with. Recovery projects become conservative therefore because the categories for analysis (women) are already constituted by the structures of power that made emancipation a goal. Is it “safe” then to publish undertakings that revalue what has essentially been devalued? Yes and no.
Butler’s scene of inquiry and locus of debate may be the crest of the feminist theoretical wave, but one has merely to glance through the HQ section at the library or the women’s studies table at the bookstore to see that recovery texts have garnered a great deal of shelf space. Among other things, such texts help us as we design courses, and they invigorate debates about canon formation. And they put me in an awkward position right now. Theoretically, I locate myself within the problematic that Butler isolates. For me, reviewing these four books within the pages of College Literature a mainstream academic teaching journal, constitutes a different undertaking than if I were writing the review for an explicitly feminist journal. If I focus on the “gender trouble” of these texts, then I risk eliding all the good that revaluation projects seek to achieve. For that reason, I choose to acknowledge the troubled position that Butler puts me in and take her at her word when she insists that “trouble need not carry such a negative valence” (ix), that trouble can disturb and acknowledge displacement.
Noting that use of the metaphor of quilting has become “commonplace” in women’s writing, the editors of Quilt Culture suggest further that “quilts have become the blazon of the national consciousness as well as the balm to our collective guilt over national tragedies” (1). Torsney and Elsley, however, seek to dispel the idea of quilting as an egalitarian practice bound up in the sharing of experience. “On the contrary,” they contend, “hierarchies abound in quilt culture” (ix). The editors explain further that the collection will make readers think about the quilt’s “mode of production, its value to its makers and owners, its meaning in culture” (1), Torsney and Elsley isolate two key features of their collection: first, that their project focuses not on quilting as metaphor but on actual quilts and quilt-making in U. S. history; and second, that the practice of quilt-making hasn’t lived up to its egalitarian legend.
Most important for Torsney and Elsley, however, is that, within the scope of the anthology, the analysis of quilt production in women’s lives and women’s texts be reconsidered and revalued. “Be it old or new,” they suggest, “the quilt is probably the single most compelling metaphor of beauty, domesticity, diversity, and memory currently available” (6). The essays in the collection serve to make this point clear. The collection begins with a cautionary tale about appropriation as Torsney relates her experience with Lucille Sojourner, an African-American woman who has quilted since 1980 when she began serving a life sentence in prison. This experience leads Torsney to resist any romanticizing of quilting and their production.
The first series of essays in the collection treat quilting in literature. Anne L. Bower works towards “quilt-literacy” in her contribution by realizing that her lack of knowledge about “textile manuscript” had allowed her to live “for years without a full sense of women’s art, women’s voices, women’s traditions, and women’s strength” (33). Her essay offers a reading of quilt references in works by Joyce Carol Oates, Marge Piercy, Robin Morgan, and others–the point being that learning to read textile-y helps us to understand women’s lives. Margot Anne Kelley examines quilting aesthetics in contemporary African-American women’s fiction. Kelley argues that quilting images that occur in the works of Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Toni Morrison “help to place them in a continuum of black women’s creative efforts and to clarify the most significant features of that continuum” (49). Elsley then offers a reading of The Color Purple suggesting that “
uiltmaking, self-fashioning, and the construction of a woman’s text are all part of the same process” in Walker’s life and text (69). Finally, Cathy Peppers reads Toni Morrison’s Beloved with a focus on how “the recurring image of baby Suggs’s quilt represents the changing relationship between Sethe and Denver and the larger black community” (87).
Each of the treatments of literary texts makes use of the idea of fragmentation or bricolage that the production of quilts makes visible. Quilt production is characterized by the tearing of fabrics and then by the reconstitution of parts that combine to form a whole. Bower, Kelley, Elsley, and Peppers each put this motif to work to assemble a vision of agency in the literature. In one of the more interesting pieces in this section, Audrey Bilger links patchwork to the development of the novel in eighteenth-century England. Bilger locates the moment when patchwork and needlework become exclusively part of the domestic sphere and focuses on a reading of Jane Barker’s A Patch-Work Screen for Ladies, in which the newly devalued patchwork is defended by being compared in form to the novel.
The second series of essays in the collection evaluates the function and meaning of quilts in social practice. Page R. Laws includes a study of Michel Butor’s Mobile and its use of quilt and metaphor to make clear that quilting done by men can be “an essential healing experience” (107). In a compelling piece, Van E. Hiilard examines the cultural production of the NAMES Project Quilt commemorating those who have died from AIDS-related causes. Hillard notes that the appropriation of quilt practices from the home to a public sphere has “permitted corporate America to use the quilt’s iconography to readily purchase viewers’ sentiments” (115). Because the AIDS quilt “gains its power from its sheer size,” Hillard argues, it becomes an “ever-increasing commodity” (123). Nora Ruth Roberts and Susan E. Bernick reinvest quilting with a sense of purpose and tradition. Roberts works within Marxist frames to develop the idea of quilt-value, a term she finds necessary since use-value seems “inadequate to explain in economic or sociological terms the special value
in the quilt” (126). Bernick isolates three distinct quilt cultures and criticizes those who sever the quilt from its social matrix. In particular, Bernick looks back to the ways in which traditional quilt culture constituted artistic practice. In the final essay in this section, Susan Behuniak-Long examines how technology has altered and become an integral part of the production of quilts.
In its focus on the material practices of quilting, this collection is supposed to avoid the sometimes expected sentimentalizing and nostalgia that goes along with recovery and revaluation projects. When the editors close the introduction with the gesture “we think that the essays will hold meaning for us all” (10), the implicit celebration begins. The hierarchies of which they wrote earlier disappear in the actual presentation of the texts. Hillard’s essay on the NAMES quilt is a firm critique of quilt production but Torsney and Elsley seem uncomfortable letting that critique speak for itself. They caution that readers may “object to Hillard’s focus on the quilt itself as an assembled construct operating within a commodity culture” (8). The editors then turn Hillard’s point inside out to gloss over the unsentimental treatment: “As Hillard’s essay implies, the quilt is nothing if not a democratizing text that offers possibilities for plural readings” (8). Not willing to let Hillard’s critique stand, the editors salvage an innocuous blend of pluralism from his text. The negative emphasis of Hillard’s text is almost too much for the celebratory collection. Quilt Culture demands that quilts function as inherently valuable and the point of this project is to isolate the variety of fronts upon which that value is cast. Anything else falls outside the scope of the recuperation; anything else would be trouble.
Recovery projects do not often ask that one interpretation be replaced by another; instead much of the impetus motivating these undertakings is based on the necessary expansion of an interpretive field. Quilt Culture asks, in essence, that readers exchange the idea of he quilt as metaphor for a more varied and realistic portrait of quilts in social and literary practice. The point lies in creating an inclusive context to accommodate what has previously been elided. Neither the context itself nor its constitutive elements, however, is particularly challenged or troubled.
If Torsney and Elsley sought to bring forth a greater sense of authenticity with respect to the multiplicity of roles that quilts have offered in literature and social practice, then Linda Tate makes use of that textile trope in A Southern Weave of Women to orchestrate her own recuperation project. It is no coincidence that her first chapter is entitled “All the Women”: Tate’s argument lies with southern literary historians who don’t countenance the diversity in women’s literary efforts and with feminist critics who avoid attending to issues of southern identity and place when treating southern writers’ works. Tate argues early on that “narrow definitions of what it means to be southern–particularly what it means to be a southern woman–no longer suffice” (4). That she stakes her territory by means of syntax attests to the assumptive nature of recuperation projects: why in particular southern women? Tate anticipates the question and suggests that “the power of representation has not lain with the multiplicity of women who constitute the ‘southern woman’ but with the New York literary establishment and with Hollywood” (4). The same could, of course, be said for most isolated identities.
Tate explains that her goal is not to obscure but “to make room for difference.” As Torsney and Elsey sought to cauterize the image of the quilt by presenting essays that spoke more to the variety of quilting in literature and social experience, so does Tate seek to rectify a lop-sided view of the literary southern woman by presenting a more inclusive view of southern women. That space of inclusiveness, however, is precisely where Butler’s words echo. Butler doesn’t focus on the instability of the unifying category “woman,” as most recuperation projects do. She argues, instead, that Tate’s end product, a diversity of women’s voices, functions as an unstable category. Aside from isolating the gender trouble informing cultural theory, Butler also offers a reason to explain why recuperation projects remain ultimately conservative: the move from “woman” to “women” never investigates the coherence of gender and the assumptions and motivations that establish this subject of feminism.
Tate moves on to suggest that southern literary critics need to listen to disparate women’s voices and to “formulate definitions of southern literature that stress commonalty and points of connections among the many voices that make up the wealth of southern literature” (6). Not only has a particular vision of “southern woman” been an inadequate representation–not only, in other words, should “woman” be recast to a more inclusive “women”–but those reformulations of southern literature should foreground connections between presentations, and, consequently, weaving becomes a crucial image for this text. Those weaved connections offer, for Tate, the means through which “we begin to understand the South itself” (6). The connections, the “many lives mingling together” (6), are what Tate argues establish a realistic representation of southern women’s experiences. The contradictions, disputes, and erasures remain outside the frame.
Tate’s actual analysis of writers certainly treats many well-known figures. The analysis also does what recuperation does best–brings some not-so-well-known writers into the fold, particularly Appalachian writers. Tate begins her study of connections by exploring a lineage of southern writers from Kate Chopin and Elizabeth Madox Roberts to Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. These figures provide a frame for understanding contemporary southern writers’ texts. In the first chapters 6 the text, Tate examines the role of families in Jill McCorkle and Shay Youngblood, biracial friendships in Ellen Douglas and Dori Sanders, historical preoccupations in Rita Mae Brown and Lee Smith, and the relationship between geography and identity in Alice Walker and Bobbie Ann Mason. The final chapters attack quite specifically Hollywood’s representations of southern women’s texts by analyzing the films The Color Purple and In Country.
Tate’s weave of southern women stresses connections between divergent voices, and those connections bring otherwise ignored literary representations into the discussion. Martha Nochimson uses the trope of connection in her study of soap opera heroines, but her focus lies in the dramatic changes that writers have constructed for television soap stars. By working through the history of soap opera from radio through the early 1990s, Nochimson certainly traces a narrative of continuity in No End to Her, but it is a narrative that engages, even anticipates, the dynamics of discontinuity with respect to soap heroines. Before Nochimson reveals that she has in fact been a writer, consultant, and editor for five soap operas–a fact that makes for a rather refreshing perspective within academic discourse of popular culture–she explains her initial motivation. “I had always imagined soap opera in the demeaning terms in which it is conventionally discussed,” she says (1). When she found herself house-bound due to family and dissertation, she started watching soaps and surprisingly discovered that she liked them. That element of surprise leads Nochimson to her current project, which she describes as resisting “media marginalization of feminine discourse” (2) like the kind she finds in soap opera.
Nochimson rejects the persistent thought that, essentially, soaps are at best mindless entertainment and at worst advertising filler, and her unique position as both academic and soap insider create an interesting textual dynamic. When, after all, was the last time you saw an acknowledgments page where the author thanked both actors and provosts? Nochimson spends a good deal of time explaining the conditions of production of soap opera: the constraints of production time, the structural integrity d the genre, writing and storyline decisions, network and producer considerations. The book seems infused with an invigorating attention to material production. Nochimson makes use of her insider status to set forth what is perhaps the most valuable contribution in her text, that is, recognizing the form of soap across mediums from radio to television.
Nochimson begins with Mark Wiseman’s 1923 “selling drama” about the Jollyco family whose lives “revolved around soap” (12). The success of this campaign ushered in the radio serial drama Painted Dreams, created by Irna Phillips in 1930. Nochimson then traces the developments in Phillips’ next creation, Today’s Children, which competed with daytime radio serials. With her analysis of radio’s Guiding Light, Nochimson casts Kitty Foyle as soap’s first heroine, noting that “only the endless soap opera format can do Kitty justice” (15). Nochimson’s strategy therefore lies in introducing the heroines who revise the conditions of their predecessors. From As the World Turns’ Kim Reynolds to General Hospital’s Laura Webber to Days of Our Lives’ Kimberly and Kayla Brady to Santa Barbara’s Julia Wainwright, Nochimson insists that the changes brought about by the storylines of these characters “could have provoked serious critical interest in the soap opera form” (21) but did not.
The position of soap opera in the critical matrix, which casts the genre as unworthy of serious attention, lies, Nochimson contends, at the roots of such elision. Her objective is to recast soap opera as “an ironic recovery of the feminine through a most unexpected means” (4). The construction of femininity that soap opera offers, Nochimson suggests, has been ignored because the genre opera has usually been seen as a “cheap version” of melodramatic movies. Nochimson wants to argue , however, that television soap opera offers a fundamentally different screen fiction than film offers and the difference lies in its choice and production of protagonists. Daytime fiction, Nochimson argues, “chooses for its protagonists not the conventional conquering heroes but instead women who regard the will to power and domination with a real sense of distrust” (4). If film seeks to posit heroes who dominate and reconstitute the will to power, then soap opera operates on another premise as a “gendered screen fiction with its own aesthetics and narrative and visual technologies” (4).
“Soap opera,” Nochimson succinctly declares, “is about women and desire” (13). She wants to set the desire of soap opera against film’s reliance on Oedipal constructions of desire that locate narrative impulse in the hero’s will to power and mastery. She decenters the Oedipal myth by locating the difference in soap opera’s heroines in terms of the Persephone myth. When faced with an absolute choice in terms of primary bonding, Persephone, due to circumstances, is unable to choose. Nochimson sees how, in the myth, “cosmic circumstances and personal choice together mandate an inclusive bonding to both mother and husband” (37). What Nochimson sees in the Persephone myth is a female subject who, unlike her Oedipal counterpart, exercises influence through “unity, cooperation, closeness, and inclusiveness” (37). Consequently, closure is constituted not by narrative resolution but by the ability to move back and forth across filial gaps.
When Nochimson suggests there is “no end to her,” she isolates the trope that will organize her study of soap opera’s constitutive identities. She wants soap opera’s narratives and aesthetics to register as a “legitimate discourse” within narrative theory. She wants soap opera to “be accorded respect” (194). Nochimson primarily contests film’s Oedipal narrative hegemony and offers Persephone as the soap correlative. No End to Her is a revaluation project attempting to place daytime serial as a genre among other screen fictions. In this respect, Nochimson’s text resonates with Tate’s: the connections that would render the South more inclusively legible in Tate would function as the motivating trope organizing soap opera. Both texts use the idea of connectivity to offer counter-frameworks for understanding previously devalued or undervalued contexts.
Hilary Radner offers perhaps the most complex consideration of a “feminine” space in Shopping Around: Feminine Culture and the Pursuit of Pleasure. Rather than arguing, for instance, that women use shopping for a variety of purposes, and rather than suggesting that the practices of shopping constitute a certain feminine culture previously undervalued, Radner isolates shopping around as a particular discursive locus in which to ask what constitutes the pursuit of pleasure in contemporary U. S. consumer culture. Radner characterizes the issues addressed in her book as “the contradictions inflicted by feminine identities in which femininity is defined through a specular relationship to an image in which it is precisely the women herself who must take command of this image–of these images–even as she subjects her body to the rigorous disciplines of reconstruction” (xiii). The complicated syntax and semantic doubling back that Radner inscribes in her writing seems to be her enactment of the epistemology she seeks to define. In other words, Radner is interested in what women do with the conflicting and changing constructions of femininity that they see, experience, and reconstruct.
This is not a book about shopping and it is not a book about how women’s pleasure in shopping has somehow been misunderstood or undervalued by consumer criticism. As Radner explains, however, it is about the notion of identities defined not as a moment but as trajectories of perpetual movement within the confines of a specific social and cultural architecture” (xiv). Radner focuses on the consumer investments of emotion, on the movements produced by conflict, and on how that movement is constituted and reconstructed by the presentation of feminine identities.
Radner explains her theoretical frame for analysis and how the ideas of movement and conflict inform them early in the project. Placing herself in a materialist context, she argues that “textuality and practice are always overdetermined, produced by a combination of frequently contradictory demands or economies” (4). These overdeterminations occur within and without texts and within any number of practices. Radner finds in her studies that it is the body that becomes “contested terrain” (64), acting as the site where contemporary feminine culture “generates fictions of ‘worth’ that women borrow and reconfigure” (65).
In her analysis of the overdeterminations of feminine culture within contemporary U. S. consumer culture, Radner locates the trope of the shrew as a constructed site of struggle. Shakespeare’s shrew, Kate, as we know, cannot participate in feminine culture until she undergoes some changes. In contemporary remakes of the shrew figure lie the markers to unravelling contradictory and overdetermined feminine culture. With a remarkable analytic dexterity, Radner ferrets out literal citations of the shrew figure and then isolates the motivations and repercussions of those citations in their textual, multi-textual, and social reconfigurations.
In the first chapter, the literal citation is the television show Moonlighting’s episode “Atomic Shakespeare,” which casts Cybill Shepherd in the role of Kate. In this chapter, Radner demonstrates first how the figure of the shrew cannot remain unchanged–cannot remain shrewish–and then how Shepherd’s shrew needs not taming but love from her Petruchio. The second chapter focuses on the overdeterminations of the feminine in three realms: the se-help book that wants to change the shrew through “self -fulfillment,” mainstream feminism’s Gloria Steinem, whose shrew needs “self-esteem,” and women’s magazines (Radner brilliantly invokes Shepherd as the cover girl here) that inoculate the shrew via control over life and career. In her study of fiction, both romance and what Radner calls the middlebrow novel, she finds the shrew, respectively, relinquishing language or always out of place. Radner’s final chapter focuses on Jane Fonda’s workout books to analyze how a “specific formulation d public discipline in which both the panoptical model of ‘docile bodies’ and a new ‘culture of the self converge to produce a feminine body’ (145). The shrew figure becomes here not just a good body but a “body under control” (160).
Radner’s analysis of the overdeterminations of feminine culture is intimately linked with questions of feminist practice. Like Butler, and unlike the other texts under review here, Radner investigates the conditions of possibility for the categories under consideration. Radner does not want to reconcile the conflicting discourses of feminine culture even though she questions the consequences of those constructions. Radner is troubled, not so much by gender, but by feminine culture, but, like Butler, she doesn’t see trouble as a particularly bad thing.
But so, too, are Torsney and Elsley, Tate, and Nochimson concerned with the goals of feminist practice. Therein lies, perhaps, the impossible necessity of both types of projects. That recuperation projects ultimately belie a certain conservative structural edge doesn’t really mean that they do not inform feminist practice. Recuperative projects shed new light on heretofore marginalized topics. They are feminist practices that make content changes within an existing and unchanging practice. Gender Trouble sought to change the practice altogether and, ultimately, the threat lies there. Butler forces the question: What does it mean to de-essentialize “women” when most feminists–doing recuperation projects–thought that “woman,” not “women” was essentialist? To begin answering that question requires a fundamental change in the mainstream academic feminist cultural industry. It means moving from only doing recuperative undertakings to beginning to ask why those undertakings are so viable at such a moment in feminist academic history.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Copyright West Chester University Oct 1995
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