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Carla Kaplan’s book combines a re-reading of key works of the American feminist literary canon with a more general argument for developing a new communicative ethics within feminism. Noting that recent theories of communication and conversation developed by Rorty and Habermas have been largely ignored by feminist literary critics, Kaplan sets out to demonstrate the relevance of such models for the feminist enterprise. Both feminist criticism and the women’s writing it has sought to recuperate, she suggests, are heavily invested in models of conversation and dialogue. However, while feminist critics have often conceived their relationship to women’s novels in terms of an empathic dialogue between female narrator and reader, a closer look at those same novels reveals a more complex, and often more pessimistic, vision of the possibilities of communication and its inevitable failures.
Kaplan’s first chapter introduces what will be a central, if rather murky, distinction for the argument that follows: the politics of voice versus the erotics of talk. American feminist criticism, she argues, has traditionally been invested in a politics of voice: identifying the mechanisms by which women have been silenced, they have defined their project as one of recovering “lost, silenced, devalued or misunderstood women’s voices.” Noting the limitations of such a recuperative model (its often essentialist premise of commonality amongst women, its celebration of speaking out as a sufficient condition for social change), Kaplan proposes an alternative framework, entitled “the erotics of talk,” as a way of thinking about women’s writing. The value of this model seems to lie in its dialogical emphasis on the relationship [End Page 1051] between speaker and listener as well as its recognition of the nonrational dimensions of communication. A utopian desire for an ideal listener is a recurring theme of much women’s writing and indeed of feminist criticism itself, Kaplan argues, yet at the same time she wants to explore the inevitable failure of such desire.
This premise is further developed in the following chapters. In readings of three well-known stories of the feminist canon, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “A Jury of her Peers,” and “The Blank Page,” Kaplan exposes the problematic erotic investments underlying celebratory feminist interpretations of these texts. Her reading of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl questions the assumptions that literature can provide a “talking cure” for social ills and that the act of coming to narration should be seen as an inherently empowering one for the black female subject. In both Jane Eyre and Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character expresses a yearning for an idealized listener. Feminist critics have not failed to place themselves in that role, yet at the cost of ignoring the dystopian aspects of both novels, their depiction of the failure of discourse and its inability to change lives. Finally, The Color Purple serves Kaplan as an instance of a novel that does in fact affirm the transformative magic of discourse, its power to create authentic community, but which can only do so by repressing dissent, conflict and, difference. In her conclusion, Kaplan hazards some further speculations on the current state of feminist theory, seeking to combine recent theories of language as performance with aspects of the feminist tradition of consciousness-raising.
Kaplan’s desire to connect feminist criticism to theories of communication, conversation and the public sphere is a laudatory one, and many of her specific comments on the dilemmas and blind spots of feminist theory are insightful and intelligent. So, too, are her provocative re-readings of feminist classics, though the literary analyses are not always adequately connected to the broader philosophical and social-theoretical argument she wishes to make. In this regard, Kaplan’s “erotics of talk” remains an underdeveloped and curiously amorphous concept. It is never quite clear whether the term denotes a new model for feminist communicative practice or simply a redescription of the forms of conversation that already exist. At the beginning of the book, it is presented as an explanatory framework for understanding communication generally...