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  • Radical Indulgence: Excess, Addiction, and Female Desire
  • Karen Kopelson

The notion of excess has for some years now served as a productively disruptive trope for feminist theories working to recuperate feminine desire and to outmaneuver patriarchal structures of containment. Yet a particularly derided form of excess that has not been as thoroughly redeployed to feminist ends is that of addiction or intoxication. While addiction has certainly been fully problematized—by feminist critics and many others—this essay works from the premise that such discussions have so stalled as to remain figurative: they study representations of addicted subjectivity in media texts, for example, or, more often, make addiction allegorical of other phenomena. This essay, conversely, analyzes the ontology of addiction as it is embodied by the female subject, and works to rehabilitate excessive drinking/drug use as another form of women’s lived, embodied protest against patriarchal structures that work to contain subversive feminine desires. —klk

What exactly is morally objectionable about excess?

—Stuart Walton, Out of It

By Way of (an Excessive) Introduction

In the introduction to The Female Grotesque, Mary Russo writes that feminism has often “stood for and with the normal”; that in efforts not to alienate men (or other women) made uneasy by departures from “proper” femininity, feminists have made sure we do not make “spectacles” of ourselves, consistently offering “reassurances that feminists are ‘normal women’ and that our political aspirations are mainstream”—efforts that have resulted, in Russo’s view, in a “cultural and political disarticulation of feminism from the strange, the risky, the minoritarian, the excessive, the outlawed, and the alien” (12). Yet in the midst of these efforts, and sometimes as corrective responses to them, feminism has also undeniably linked itself with the alien and excessive. Indeed, the notion of “excess” has for some years now served as a productively disruptive trope for a variety of postmodern feminist theories working to counter and subvert dominant, masculinist logics. Both psychoanalytic and sexual-difference theories, for example, have made use of ideas of excess to release feminine desire from its supposed basis in “lack” and refigure it as fluid, abundant, overflowing, and diffuse. Alternatively, but to similar ends, these and other theories have reclaimed the prevalent cultural associations of female desire with excess—with a “formlessness that engulfs all form, a disorder that threatens all order” (Grosz 203)—to capitalize on the potent force of these longstanding associations. In other contexts, French feminist writers have posited excess as an insurgent characteristic of feminine language/writing, one that can derail phallogocentric, disciplinary expectations for discursive linearity and closure. Feminist discussions of body image as well, academic and activist alike, have for over two decades attempted to recuperate excess, in the forms of voluptuousness and largeness, as modes of what Susan Bordo and others have repeatedly called “embodied protest” against cultural demands that women at once contain their appetites and remain diminutively un-threatening to men. More recently, queer feminist theorists have appealed to excess, at least implicitly, in conversations that have sought to extricate sex from gender, sex and gender from sexuality, and to multiply all of the above beyond any notions of correspondence or of binary construction. In short, excess has become a postmodern feminist rescue-trope, if you will, with some of us even suggesting that excess can rescue feminism from itself—and not only in the sense that Russo describes, but from dualistic models of generational conflict, or, conversely, from demands for transgenerational “paradigmatic coherence,” both of which would prohibit non-identical feminist practices, and diverse theoretical assumptions (see Weigman).

Yet a particular, and particularly derided, notion of excess that has not been as thoroughly redeployed to postmodern feminist ends is the excess of addiction and/or intoxication.1 I must note immediately that in making such a claim I hardly mean to suggest that the concept of “addiction” has not been thoroughly interrogated and problematized. Culturally dominant understandings of alcoholism, addiction, and drug use have been contradicted, and convincingly up-ended, from historical, sociological, anthropological, literary-critical, philosophical/ theoretical, and medical/scientific perspectives alike, and, as I show in this essay, feminist theorizing has played no small role in advancing this broadly...

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