feminist aesthetics and the politics of modernism
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Ewa Płonowska Ziarek, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, 288pp., ISBN: 978-0-2311-6149-7, $32.00 (Pbk)
In this theoretically dense book, Ewa Płonowska Ziarek daringly revitalises exhausted debates about the very possibility of a feminist aesthetics. Refusing the dichotomisation of aesthetics and politics, Ziarek builds a theory of revolutionary ‘potentialities’ that begins from the relationship between living matter and the materiality of the aesthetic object. She locates this unique praxis in both women’s political militancy in the early twentieth century and the modernist literature by women. Ultimately, her argument is most intriguing because it is, as Ziarek herself notes, ‘counterfactual’: it suggests that the ‘ongoing exclusion of women from political participation and literary production can be transformed into new possibilities of writing, sexuality, and being in common’ (p. 7). The result is a provocative work whose value lies in its reaching some of the antinomies that persistently vex feminist theory.
The argument is divided into three parts. In the first, Ziarek begins with a novel reading of British suffrage militancy, doubly rooted in the work of political philosopher Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory. Here she argues—contra common denunciations of suffragettes’ ‘reformist’ tenor—that British suffrage activism had a revolutionary character, being concerned with ‘women’s right to revolt’ (p. 24). This chapter is followed by a primarily theoretical meditation on melancholia, in which Ziarek draws on Freud, Kristeva and Étienne Balibar to offer a complex rereading of the melancholia in women’s modernist literature and art as generative. Modernist women’s work, she suggests, ultimately uses insights about the death and erasure of the feminine and blackness to move towards a social renaissance. In the final chapter of this section, on Virginia Woolf, Ziarek examines this generative quality in more detail, suggesting that Woolf’s formal experiment enacts the dual destruction/inauguration upon which feminist revolution depends.
In the second part of the book, Ziarek redefines materialism, repudiating the split—left over from debates over poststructuralism—between the matter of living bodies and the object world, and the materiality of the work of art: ‘the experimental literary works I analyze’, she writes, ‘provide a new model of interconnection, or mediation, between damaged materials, violated bodies, and literary form’ (p. 127). To that end, Ziarek’s next chapter—the most thought-provoking and even dazzling of the volume—makes a provocative series of connections between Giorgio Agamben’s theory of bare life and post-Marxist theories of abstraction. Borrowing from Orlando Patterson’s theory of the enslaved, she introduces the concept of ‘social death’—useful because it implies the disavowed presence of the absent and formally excluded—as the scaffolding on which to generate rebirths, new forms of life. This is followed closely by a chapter that reads feminist political action as the ‘mobilisation of the devalued possibilities of aesthetics’ located in feminine and black bodies; political strategy is parsed for its aesthetic import. Finally, in the third part, Ziarek advances a ‘feminist aesthetics of renaissance’, exemplified by Nella Larsen, whose revolutionary force is contained in the formal qualities of her novels.
The book stands out as a significant reading of currently influential political and aesthetic theory—such as that by Balibar and Agamben—against an interdisciplinary range of feminist work. Ziarek helpfully counters the tendency to view feminist theory as partaking in a closed and self-referential conversation, and underscores the affinities of feminist and gender theory with a much broader set of theoretical debates. In this sense, her work intervenes not just in the internal politics of feminist theory but also at the level of the configuration of theoretical domains. A similar argument can be made about Ziarek’s concentration on the modernist period; although some of the claims she makes are specific to early twentieth-century cultural formations, the book makes plain the significance and interest of this period to feminist and critical scholars more generally.
The book’s strong theoretical contribution is perhaps the source of its weakness as well. For this ambitious study sometimes falters through overgeneralisation and abstraction. Although Ziarek is a dexterous and widely read theoretician, sometimes theoretical argumentation is not evenly balanced by evidence from the case studies. This is more the case in the material about suffrage militancy than about Woolf and Larsen’s literary works, which perhaps points to Ziarek’s greater facility with literary than political analysis. Some claims remain strangely abstract. Further, the wish to sidestep stale debates, although understandable, leads to some confusion. For example, rehashing the constitution of the category ‘women’ may feel banal at this point in the history of feminist theory; presumably this is why Ziarek entirely avoids definitional work and identity politics. Yet, the oversight leads to unresolved questions: Why is it that the women’s modernist experiment contains this revolutionary potential? Do all women’s experiments contain it? Where does it come from? From the Kristevan category of the ‘maternal’ that intermittently haunts these pages? The failure to work through these questions contains the potential to alienate readers, who will wonder—although Ziarek keeps race in analytical view alongside gender—about just who constitutes the privileged category of revolutionary women.
In sum, this is a dazzling piece of theoretical work that will unquestionably advance a handful of debates both inside and outside of feminist and gender studies. However, in not attending to the specificities of the bodies that generate the political and aesthetic interventions that Ziarek defines, the book’s reach is potentially limited.