- Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism by Ewa Plonowska Ziarek
Ewa Ziarek takes on a monumental task in her book, Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism. She aims to explain the ways [End Page 200] in which women’s voices were silenced in writing and in art through lack of education and lack of access to training through modernity. Certainly this is not the first account of this, but Ziarek’s account is one that is comprehensive and compelling. Unfortunately, her prose is unnecessarily dense and jargon-laden and many of her arguments and explications will likely bypass readers as they struggle to understand sentence by sentence. Ziarek’s book could be much more effective by not getting bogged down in unnecessarily complex prose. Certainly it is ironic that a book about women’s muteness and lack of educational access would be made inaccessible by the mere fact of the over articulation. That aside, I think the book is worthwhile but will not be comprehensible to any except the most committed of readers.
Ziarek begins her account with the theme of women’s muteness, the inability both to speak and to be heard. This literal and metaphorical silence is directly connected to the violence inflicted against women. Modernism’s emphasis on creation, recreation, and especially self-recreation in art and literature was unfortunately coupled with a historical period that denied women the opportunities to engage these expressions in the way that men did. The first part of Ziarek’s book examines “the unresolved and endlessly replicated contradiction between ‘revolutionary’ and melancholic politics and art in Western modernity” (4). In the second part she deals with the political and aesthetic problems enabled by materiality, violence against women, and the matter-form dichotomy brought to us from the ancients. Ziarek attempts, from the beginning, to rearticulate what a “feminist aesthetics” might look like in modernism, as there is certainly no essentialism she would appeal to, nor is the field very well articulated as it is even now. Ziarek explains that her “investigations of the possibilities and impossibilities of a feminist aesthetics revolved around the gravitational pull of the unresolved tension between ‘dumb’ muteness and literary innovation, between women’s transformative practice in politics and literature and the devastating impact of sexist and racist violence on women’s lives and bodies” (3). Avoiding essentialist claims, Ziarek opens feminist aesthetics to a new and different question not yet addressed: “the question of the political and aesthetic implications of the suffragettes’ redefinition of the right to vote as the right to revolt” (4). She uses extended examples of women’s lack of access to education, denial of the right to vote, and eventually the important aspect of race to explicate the ways in which women were denied the possibility to emerge as legitimate voices (and to be heard, seen, or be visible at all) in this time. Ziarek claims her most important contribution she wants the book to make is “the argument that loss and violence could be aesthetically transformed into new, multiple possibilities of what literature and femininity might [End Page 201] mean and might become” (7). She suggests that we study this not to see or understand what modernism was but rather to ask what it might mean otherwise.
Ziarek develops the argument of the book with extended chapters on the suffragettes, notions of revolt (from activism to inactivism through hunger strikes), melancholy, and the powerful role of the voice for women in the advent of modernism. She connects her approach to feminist aesthetics to the production as well as lack of production of women artists, and makes the further connection to the notion of melancholy as well. She shows that historically, melancholy has been associated with complex emotional states only white men were credited with being capable of experiencing. She explains that “in Western cultural tradition melancholia is associated not only with a mental disorder but also with the exceptional, if paradoxical, status of genius and creativity” (53). She attempts to make the argument that this complex emotion...