- The Sounds of Feminist Theory
Ruth Salvaggio takes on a large task. As she acknowledges the ineffability of theoretical language, she announces that wanting to explain the luminous edges of that language is one of the purposes of her study: “Throughout contemporary theory, there is a sense that any permanent linguistic meaning is elusive, a scenario that might generate all sorts of altercations within language that accrue from the ceaseless mobility of words. Yet all too often for a range of contemporary theorists, the game of hide-and-seek metaphorically describes this process” (7). What Salvaggio does in The Sounds of Feminist Theory is force the reader to comprehend and then move past that elusiveness, and to understand the way the aural enhances, or sometimes supplies, meaning. Other premises of her book are that the study of orality and oral cultures should not be limited by ethnicity, as it often is; that the language of criticism itself has become “conspicuously unstable, vulnerable to deconstruction and an accompanying analysis of the cultural forces that give it shape and legitimacy” (14); and that “the feminist self-conscious engagement with narrative marks a unique site on the contemporary scene of criticism and theory: for it unsettles some of the very narrative assumptions on which feminist thought has been built” (43). The enormous range of Salvaggio’s interests seems comprehensible, [End Page 601] however, because she drives home a number of points through close readings of key texts. One chapter, for example, is devoted to readings of Trinh Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism; Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions; and Patricia Williams’s The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Another chapter manages to summarize what she calls “feminist reclamations of the female body,” a prolegomenon of both French and U. S. theory, including queer theory. Salvaggio’s comparatively brief study does a number of useful things. It shows us the value of precision and compression, but what is most effective about her lucid criticism is her willingness to use creative writing, as if the words of Susan Griffin, A. S. Byatt, and Olga Broumas had as much value as those of Homi Bhabha, Jane Flax, Judith Roof, or Diana Fuss. I think her wide readings—from poetry and memoir as well as theory, from American as well as British texts, and from a number of interdisciplinary stances—give her a creditable base for the knowledgeable fusion that occurs here. Readers can thank Salvaggio for going back to what she at one point calls “old smeared utensils,” borrowing from Adrienne Rich’s term and speculating on the way “some things become so familiar they seem blank” (8). The strength of this book is that she has ample help in her journey as she quotes from Rachel Blau DuPlessis quoting Virginia Woolf, “The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact” (8). The Sounds of Feminist Theory comes close.