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Women’s History Month Blog Post #1 – “Break the Old Circuits:” Revising the Patriarchy During the Pandemic

Guest Contribution from Elizabeth Scheer

In a recent conversation with a fellow writer friend, we found ourselves on the subject of Helene Cixous’s écriture feminine—a post-structuralist theory of language that aligns non-linear, stream-of consciousness narrative structures with the female psyche and, in turn, the female body. Cixous contends that female writers must “write themselves,” which is to say, female writing ought to embrace multiplicity, intuition, and the ineffable; the feminine consciousness is the “other,” a hidden signifier irreducible to the blunt binaries that characterize (male) structuralism. Written in 1975, Cixous’s The Laugh of the Medusa will register as somewhat dated for a contemporary reader. Nonetheless, Cixous’s thinking was radical in its time, and paved the way for second and third generation feminist thinkers in the decades to follow.

As writers ourselves, my friend and I were specifically curious about the relationship between Cixous’s écriturefeminine and the process of revision; do female writers revise manuscripts differently than our male counterparts? When confronted with a dead end, a false start, are women, whose very bodies are physiologically adapted to constant change, inherently more amenable to re-imagining their stories in a range of possible ways?  The conceit felt at once deeply anachronistic and, in the intimate domain of our discourse, quietly plausible. Unable to arrive at an answer that satisfied us, we settled on the observation that revision is an adaptive process; a means of adjusting an old narrative in accordance with newly-revealed truth. Moreover, in the aftermath of the pandemic, which has disproportionately driven women out of the workforce, America is in dire need of a revised narrative about gender and equity.

Like the Latin word for “fit”, aptus, from which it is derived, adaption describes a process of adjustment and re-arrangement, of suiting oneself to the demands and restrictions of a given moment. Merriam Webster defines adaption as “to change behavior so that it is easier to function in a particular place or situation.” Revision alters the behavior of a story, shifting its course of action. A story has a beginning and an ending. In this sense, a story’s capacity to change its behavior rehearses an existential problem: when an old way doesn’t work anymore, how does one adapt to a new reality? How does one change one’s behavior to flourish and thrive within a finite amount of time? It’s hard to change the way you write, let alone the way you live.

While the word “change” could signal a shift in one’s internal composition, “adaption”—in its concern for conduct and manners–has a performative and therefore social quality. The performativity embedded in processes of adaption is part of its social violence; in situations when I have adapted my behavior to suit a social space guided by patriarchal codes, I have sensed my own unspoken complicity in structures that need to be reimagined. It’s a fine line, I think, between survival and complacency; if a woman fits herself too expertly to the patriarchy, both she and it disappear from view.

In the domain of revision and the writing process, however, adaptability seems elemental to a project’s emergence. A story’s capacity to be re-framed, re-imagined, and re-invented by its writer appears directly proportional to the idea’s inchoate caliber and, in turn, its resiliency; in writing, a buried truth is enhanced, not diminished, by an incessant process of re-working.

For my friend and me, the pandemic has underlined the need for women to overhaul own narratives and to attend to new historical contingencies. While the #MeToo movement exposed longstanding power imbalances in the workplace, the pandemic has revealed how the patriarchy insinuates itself into domestic life, as many women working from home have been forced to shoulder the bulk of childcare duties at the same time. But of course, the pandemic also urgently calls for the nation as a whole to reconceptualize its understanding of itself.  What the year has laid bare is that the story that the country had been telling itself about itself hasn’t been true or complete.  The structures that have been put in place to protect us—from our law enforcement to our healthcare system—have failed to keep us safe. Moreover, the pandemic has debunked our national credo of e. pluribus unum; America is a country defined, in large part, not by its unity but by its economic disparities and its ideological fracture. There is a lot of pain that accompanies these recognitions. It hurts to be lied to, to feel like a chump, and America, as a capitalist democracy, seems to be especially susceptible to stories with happy endings where everyone gets home safe. As Rachel Cusk writes, though, a story breaks down when it strays too far from the truth: “when I write a novel wrong,” Cusk writes:

eventually it breaks down and stops and won’t be written any more, and I have to go back and look for the flaws in its design. The problem usually lies in the relationship between the story and the truth. The story has to obey the truth, represent it, like clothes represent the body. The closer the cut, the more pleasing the effect.  (110)

As vaccines are rolled out and the world opens up again, how do we revise the national story so that it cuts closer to the truth about our character? How do we adapt to a new reality where we’ve seen the worst in ourselves and one another?  I think there will have to be flexibility involved in this painful revisionary process; a graciousness and amenability to a range of opinions and beliefs. There will have to be other kinds of narrative softness, too, like levity and romance.  Most importantly, however, as with every act of revision, we’ll also have to know when re-working the current story is impossible and the only option is to start over.  Woman, non-binary person, or man: humans can only be flexible up to a point. Then, as Cixous writes, “it’s up to you to break the old circuits.”

 

Elizabeth Scheer (escheer@wisc.edu) recently completed her Ph.D. in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on the relationship between emotion and history in British-Romantic literature.