Hypatia 16.3 (2001) 166-169
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The Sounds of Feminist Theory
The Sounds of Feminist Theory. By Ruth Salvaggio. Albany: SUNY Press, 1999.
In The Sounds of Feminist Theory (1999), Ruth Salvaggio begins by claiming that the "metaphor of visibility" is a limited way of understanding the complexity of language in all its operations, and particularly in the theoretical register. Salvaggio suggests that we pay more attention to the sound of language--something she insists is neither "voice," nor the spoken word, nor metaphor: "I mean the actual effects of sounding, wavering language in critical and theoretical writing--a distinctive turn toward the oral within the panorama of contemporary thought" (2). Her project is to trace these effects through feminist critical [End Page 166] and theoretical writings, which she believes are particularly attuned to the resonances and possibilities of language. Feminist theory, she argues, offers an "indulgence in the transmutive potential of words, their ability to affirm and question and resist and endlessly suggest meanings, to be used for everything they are worth, and more" (5). Her chapters address questions of voice, narrative, the body, the lesbian body, and the poetic. Throughout the book, her method is to quote a wide variety of theorists, looking for the ways that they are attuned to sound, and then to point out the strength of the writing. In other words, her goal is not to offer us a traditionally organized, comprehensive assessment of feminist writings, their claims, and their place in the tradition of theory. Her book might more properly be called celebratory. She quotes theorists often only to add her thoughts to their ideas; she moves easily and quickly from one writer to another, with connections that are connotative and evocative; she slips easily into the first-person experiential voice, offering us her reactions and memories; she frequently employs double adjectives and adverbs in order to work an alliteration or to emphasize a contrast. Above all, her writing does not seek to clarify the theoretical claims of those she reads; in fact, she is highly critical of "the most prized scholarly writing [which] strips words of their potentially ambiguous turns and holds tight their meandering metaphoric significations" (99).
In her first chapter, "Vocal Critics," Salvaggio writes that "this enactment of sound in writing works like a voice" (16), and cites a stunning range of writers, from Walter Ong to Elaine Pagels. In many ways, this chapter serves as a second introduction, delimiting the field within which she will work and offering us a sample of all that it contains. It is introductory also because she makes no claims about how sound and voice are related in texts, but rather looks for the ways that texts find multiple voices, concluding that "we are beginning to get in touch not with some voice emerging from silence, but with the sounds and voices that haunt feminist critical writing" (29).
Her second chapter, "Narrative Resonance," points out how feminist theory has "capture[d] what I mean by narrative resonance--a dynamic, sometimes rambling, often intensely polyvocal engagement with stories that carry critical thought" (38). Looking more closely at Trinh Minh-ha, Donna Haraway, and Patricia Williams, Salvaggio argues that all three not only understand the rich voices that inhabit narratives, but also respond with their own complicated prose. So, Trinh "not only questions strict boundaries between critic and artist, but also between the kinds of literate, linear narrative told by critics and the more mobile and expansive narratives allowed in literature" (45). Haraway's writing "relies on the dynamics of narrative to resonate, to generate and regenerate stories that expand the possibilities of thinking and writing" (51). And in concluding her section on Williams, Salvaggio writes, "I have no critical narrative to offer that straightens out these tangles of sound and voice. But [End Page 167] Williams's critical narrative draws me into them. This may be the promise of such stories--that we are 'tangled' in their 'gleaming, bubbled words'" (Salvaggio 1999, 62, quoting Williams 1991, 208).
The next two chapters, "Resounding Bodies" and "Queer Curves," focus on...