- Reviewed by
Language Unbound: On Experimental Writing By Women makes a spirited contribution to neo-empiricist thinking about female subjectivity and women writers "as such." It skillfully interrelates the work of three modernists—Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson—and three post-modernists—E. M. Broner, Ntozake Shange, and Monique Wittig—as experimentally achieving, despite man's historical monopoly on the means of self-representation, what Gray calls "an ungendered access to language" and thereby the inscription of specific, diverse female subjectivities.
Using Teresa de Lauretis on the patriarchal logic of narrative and, as partial antidote, her rethinking of (female) experience as a dynamic, semiotic exchange between consciousness and environment, Gray argues that in the twentieth century it manifestly has been possible for women to "be themselves" and to write as such. This they have accomplished and continue to accomplish, but not by devising or discovering a so-called feminine language, one that dispenses with referential or semantic functions, is wholly new and other, or can be called common to women as such. Rather, certain [End Page 443] women writers, accepting language as it (already) is—"as itself"—have unbound it from categorical, oppositional thinking, from its traditional ideological function of reproducing male subjectivity in and as narrative, and indeed from dominance by any single aspect of its existence, symbolic or material. Their "experiments" neither transgress a norm nor evoke some kind of pre-Symbolic utopia—strategies often identified with female writers, but which for Gray remain symmetrically determined by the same logic that constitutes the phantom "Woman" as Man's eternal, silent Other. Indeed, Woman is the very phantom that haunts the woman writer, whether in the guise of Woolf's famous "Angel in the House" or as the privileged avatar of a still-androcentric poststructuralism.
Gray's "Post-phantom" writers instead treat language as, in Stein's phrase, an "intellectual recreation" that requires above all rigorous attention, like Stein "using everything" about language without respect for its mythic-ideological status as Law—that which makes it (appear as) the matrix of an exclusively male Subject, but which also succumbs to the craft of alert language users. The acts of attention solicited by their work are a kind of knowing disengaged from the Subject's traditional quest for knowledge as possession. Gray registers her own necessary involvement as a particular female reader in such processes of knowing, foregrounding her own attending "I" in a critical idiom that moots the distinction between style and method, and between formal and informal inquiry.
Stein is an excellent model of uncategorical writing and point of reference for analyzing the primacy of experience and linguistic practice among her peers. But Gray's own discourse is not quite "simple through complexity" (Stein's, and apparently her own, ideal): it remains simply complex, I think because it is not complex enough—her brilliant theoretical turns frequently restated but not fully theorized, her readings brilliant but not really historicized (despite her own emphasis on the contextual nature of experience). The book, nonetheless, is rich and important reading for theorists and feminists of all stripes.