What determines the limits of gender and genre, social construction and textual form? Is there a link between the corporeal parts that define gendered bodies, and the rhetorical-grammatical ones that determine genre? As its title suggests, Shari Benstock's Textualizing the Feminine explores these questions about the gendered limits of genre. Looking beyond the "edifice" of image and metaphor that generally constitutes the focus of literary analysis, Benstock reads for the "bricks and mortar" (xv) of the text, the unnoticed supports that hold it together. Not only does she peek between the cracks of literature's visual structure; so doing, she also addresses the costs of the visible in the spaces that mark its failures.
Benstock accomplishes this by examining the textual organization of sexual difference, an ordering that reveals itself in apparently tangential elements of play: punctuation, marginalia, grammatical-rhetorical modes, and letters. She calls her method "psychogrammanalysis" (xvi), a mode of reading where the "two pathways" of psychoanalysis and grammatology converge as a "double band" and a feminist "double bind" (xxii), revealing the "feminine" spaces of oversight that nonetheless constitute the stuff of the text. In these blind spots, Benstock opens "woman-in-the-feminine"—a culturally sanctioned notion of woman that is bounded by the law of representation—to the self-difference of "the feminine"—the thing overlooked that escapes the borders of the representational law.
Benstock's thesis is thoroughly and convincingly grounded in her feminist psychoanalytic theoretical frame (chapters one and two) and her perceptive readings of Joyce, Derrida, Woolf and H. D.. The theory provides interesting insights into familiar arguments about the limits of visibility and the body as a metaphor for the feminine. Benstock clearly delineates the relationship between visibility in Freud, Lacan, and Derrida (chapter one) and the structure of the maternal metaphor in Kristeva (chapter two) in order to place her subsequent textual analysis within a psychosexual logic. Those readings—which include James Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Ulysses, [End Page 213] Jacques Derrida's The Post Card, Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, and H.D.'s Helen in Egypt —are the most impressive aspect of the study. Benstock not only offers brilliant and provocative interpretations of individual texts; her close readings also expand the book's opening theoretical questions regarding gender and genre.
Benstock also carefully contextualizes her queries within the domain of literary-historical problems of periodization. How are the marks of gender and genre linked to the boundaries that have come to be named Modernism and Postmodernism? Benstock does not provide us with definitive answers to these kinds of questions; in fact, the questions slip through, suggesting themselves between the lines of the textual analysis. Together, the readings and the cracks from which those questions emerge open, through a back door, toward the proleptic rupture of other questions and other readings.
Benstock thus intricately demonstrates both the sexual ordering of textuality and the textual organization of the psyche. More importantly, she shows not only where sexuality and textuality meet, but also where they fail or miss each other, thereby producing the "feminine" as "all that is lost, overlooked, or denied by the cultural category 'woman-in-the-feminine'" (xvi). At times her theoretical formulations sound like an all-too-familiar poststructuralist recipe for alterity: "Constructed as the Other within systems of representation, the feminine is the vanishing point of representation (as it is in theories of sexuality) that any system must posit and exclude in order to achieve a fiction of self-consistency" (xxx). But the performative dazzle of the readings themselves prevent such statements from reducing the study to jargonistic leftovers, and one comes away from the book with a sense of discovery and genuine insight.
The book's major flaw is its occasional lapse into a rhetorical flourish of its own that, symptomatically, reveals its inadequacies as a feminist interrogation of power. The chapter on Woolf is the most attentive to the complex connections between power and discourse, politics and tropes, particularly in its focus on justice. Even there, however...