restricted access The Gender of Modernity (review)
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Reviewed by
Rita Felski. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. viii + 247 pp.

The “gendering of history” is the subject of Rita Felski’s study, explored through analysis of French, English, and German fin de siècle texts. Felski provides an exciting account of representative feminine figures associated with modernity—the hysteric (often the suffragette), the “voracious consumer,” the prostitute, the feminized aesthete, and the pervert—in order “to unravel the complexities of modernity’s relationship to femininity.” The book is divided into two parts: the first examines selected male writers’ representations of modernity, the second analyzes those of women writers. Critical of “totalizing” and “narrowly defined traditions of intellectual thought,” Felski’s own approach is exploratory and interrogative. Rather than posit an “overarching feminist myth,” she formulates her analysis in “multi-perspectival” fashion. The Gender of Modernity is an impressive book in its encyclopedic scope, in the sophistication and complexity of its critical stance, and in the comprehensiveness of Felski’s reading. At the same time, a carefully positioned foundation in the book’s introduction supports a rather slim series of analyses, incorporating a diverse array of texts, in the subsequent chapters.

Felski distinguishes between modernism, artistic production with certain aesthetic features, and modernity, the designation of a “multidimensional array of historical phenomena.” Her concern is with modernity, which she approaches as a comparativist cultural historian, meticulously contextualizing her exploration. To problematize the traditional divide between high art and popular culture—for modernity, the contrast between an experimental avant-garde and a purportedly regressive mass culture—Felski selects for analysis fictional and nonfictional, [End Page 912] canonical and noncanonical texts ranging from melodrama and the novel to political tracts and sociological treatises. Defining her sympathies as feminist, Felski has a special interest in the relations between power and discourse, yet her deliberate distancing of herself from certain feminist projects and strategies may irritate some early second-wave feminist literary critics.

Some of the most intriguing and sustained analyses in The Gender of Modernity introduce many lesser-known figures of the era: Georg Simmel, a founder of German sociology; English romance writer Marie Corelli; French novelist Rachilde, author of La marquise de Sade (1887) and Monsieur Venus (1884); Frances Swiney, author of the treatise The Awakening of Women (1899). Felski also includes relatively obscure texts by better known writers such as the novelist Olive Schreiner. Ultimately, the book is most exciting and informative in exposing little-known accounts of intellectual history. For example, chapter two, “On Nostalgia: The Prehistoric Woman,” provides a fascinating account of this period’s scientific thinking on nostalgia as a physiological ailment and on the value of the theorization of nostalgia for today’s environmental movement. This chapter also illuminates some rather unfamiliar modernist influences: the impact of Simmels on the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, the connections between the early writings of the women’s movement and the vast “encyclopedic treatises” on man’s history, or the production of a “glamorization of perversion” by the new discourses of sexuality or psychiatry.

In contrast to such innovative material, the treatment of canonical novels is relatively disappointing; after a substantive analysis of Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, his Nana and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary make predictable cameo appearances as voracious consumers to expose the “aestheticization of the commodity” and “commodity fetishism.” Felski’s discussion of The Picture of Dorian Gray establishes a provocative basis for analysis of the novel’s misogyny—and the misogynistic strain within the aesthetic movement more generally—only to glide over the issue. Because of the book’s scope, as well as the unfamiliarity of its texts, much space is of necessity devoted to summary, resulting in a distant, detached tone and treatment. To be fair, it must be clarified that Felski only asserts “certain claims to representativeness” for her texts, a logical consequence given the geographic and temporal range of the study. Nevertheless, she so insistently positions [End Page 913] and contextualizes her statements that ultimately one feels almost no claims or arguments can be made, explaining why this book has an approach but no thesis—perhaps an inevitable product of postdeconstructive cultural studies rather than a particular failing of...