Reading the Mother Tongue: Psychoanalytic Feminist Criticism

Critical Inquiry 13 (2):314-329 (1987)

In the early seventies, American feminist literary criticism had little patience for psychoanalytic interpretation, dismissing it along with other forms of what Mary Ellmann called “phallic criticism.”1 Not that psychoanalytic literary criticism was a specific target of feminist critics, but Freud and his science were viewed by feminism in general as prime perpetrators of patriarchy. If we take Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics2 as the first book of modern feminist criticism, let us remark that she devotes ample space and energy to attacking Freud, not of course as the forerunner of any school of literary criticism, but as a master discourse of our, which it to say masculinist, culture. But, although Freud may generally have been a target for feminism, feminist literary critics of the early seventies expended more of their energy in the attack on New Criticism. The era was, after all, hardly a heyday for American psychoanalytic criticism; formalist modes of reading enjoyed a hegemony in the literary academy in contrast with which psychoanalytic interpretation was a rather weak arm of patriarchy.Since then, there have been two changes in this picture. In the last decade, psychoanalytic criticism has grown in prestige and influence, and a phenomenon we can call psychoanalytic feminist criticism has arisen.3 I would venture that two major factors have contributed to this boom in American psychoanalytic criticism. First, the rise of feminist criticism, in its revolt against formalism, has rehabilitated thematic and psychological criticism, the traditional mainstays of psychoanalytic interpretation. Because feminism has assured the link between psychosexuality and the socio-historical realm, psychoanalysis now linked to major political and cultural questions. Glistening on the horizon of sociopolitical connection, feminism promises to save psychoanalysis from its ahistorical and apolitical doldrums.The second factor that makes psychoanalytic reading a growth industry in the United States is certainly more widely recognized: it is the impact of French post-structuralist thought on the American literary academy. There is, of course, the direct influence of Lacanian psychoanalysis which promotes language to a principal role in the psychoanalytic drama and so naturally offers fertile ground for crossing psychoanalytic and literary concerns. Yet I think, in fact, the wider effect in this country has come from Derridean deconstruction. Although deconstruction is not strictly psychoanalytic, Freud’s prominent place in Derridean associative networks promises a criticism that is, finally, respectably textual and still, in some recognizable way, Freudian. Although this second, foreign factor in the growth of American psychoanalytic criticism seems far away from the realm of homespun feminist criticism, I would content that there is a powerful if indirect connection between the two. I would speculate that the phenomenal spread of deconstruction in American departments of English is in actuality a response to the growth of feminist criticism. At a moment when it was no longer possible to ignore feminist criticism’s challenge to the critical establishment, deconstruction appeared offering a perspective that was not in opposition to but rather beyond feminism, offering to sublate feminism into something supposedly “more radical.” Jane Gallop, professor of humanities at Rice University, is the author of Intersections: A Reading of Sade with Bataille, Blanchot, and Klossowski , The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis , and Reading Lacan . She wrote the present essay while awaiting the birth of her first child
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DOI 10.1086/448392
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