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Other Sexes: Rewriting Difference from Woolf to Winterson
Andrea L. Harris. Other Sexes: Rewriting Difference from Woolf to Winterson. Albany: State U of New York P, 2000. xv + 187 pp.
Other Sexes is a thoughtful, engaging, and sometimes frustrating attempt to embrace the possibility of a proliferation of sexual identities. Harris's goal is laudable: she wants to rethink the binary opposition on which current definitions of sex and gender depend and offer a new, more hopeful, approach to gendered identity. She describes her task as follows: "My project here is to explore the various ways in which women writers [. . .] explore the border between masculine and feminine, in other words, the place where these terms overlap and intersect, forming other sexes that cannot be described with the language at our disposal. This exploration involves crossing the boundary between masculine and feminine in order to discover genuine sexual difference." To do so Harris turns to four novels by women: Woolf's The Waves, Barnes's Nightwood, Hauser's The Talking Room, and Winterson's Written on the Body. These novels are treated in four separate chapters preceded by an introductory chapter outlining the feminist theory on which Harris relies.
The novels are wisely chosen. They each, as Harris points out, deal with the question of gender identity that is at the heart of Other Sexes. Because they each approach gender identity from very different perspectives, they open up new questions that, taken together, produce a provocative study. Nevertheless, I often found myself frustrated as I was reading this book. It may sound odd to call a book so immersed in the interrogation of gender identity old fashioned, but there is something old fashioned about Harris's approach. The old-fashioned cast of the inquiry is caught, for example, in the longing for a new language, rarely explicitly stated and yet often felt in the text, and in the quest, stated above, for "genuine sexual difference." This quest, of course, follows from Irigaray and yet it too often lacks the subtleness of Irigaray's thinking and the sensitivity of her language. This is not to say that Harris is not capable of radical and smart analysis; she is. Her readings of the novelists and the theorists can be penetrating and complex. I sometimes felt as if I were reading two books here, one somewhat predictable in its interpretations and the other innovative and new. [End Page 535]
Consider, for example, Harris's treatment of the word "beyond." On the one hand, Harris tells us in the preface that she seeks to move "beyond difference" and she notes that the "common goal [of the novels considered] is to move beyond the narrow constraints of one gender or the fiction of two genders [. . .]. This movement beyond into the true realm of otherness [. . .] involves, in each of these texts, a movement across borders and boundaries of all kinds." Similarly she applauds Woolf for opening up "possibilities by pointing to a realm of sexual difference beyond the one we know." On the other hand, Harris approvingly claims that Butler is not trying to move "beyond gender" and further argues, following Butler herself, that the "leap to the 'utopian beyond' is finally not much of a threat, because it leaves systems of power behind, and, thus, intact." Subversion, she notes, must come from within. It is as if the second book by Harris, embedded in the first, implicitly contests the desire to move beyond difference that the first book proposes. To be fair, Harris is clearly using "beyond" in two different senses here: we are always stuck with gender, there is no getting beyond it; but we may perhaps move beyond gender hierarchy to a place where a diffuse, polymorphic, proliferation of genders in all their diversity and splendor may flourish. And yet I wonder how much difference there really is between these two conceptions?
Other Sexes also would have profited by a closer analysis of "otherness" itself, a more careful application of "masculine" and "feminine...