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  • Reading Authority:Feminism and Joyce
  • Patrick McGee (bio)

The title of this essay designates the two lines of thought I intend to pursue. The occasion for writing, although it assumes the secondary position of subtitle, concerns the question of Joyce's relation to feminism: Why do feminists read Joyce? How do they read Joyce? Does Joyce anticipate this reading? What is the institutional effect of such a reading? The ulterior motive behind this essay, the purpose for which I seize this occasion, concerns the question or problem of authority. I stress at the outset my understanding of authority as the constructed repository of value or foundation of a system of values, the final effect of fetishism—in this case, literary fetishism. Reading—as in the phrase "reading authority"—should be grasped as the institutionally determined act of constructing authority, although such an act can rhetorically deploy its own negativity (in every con-struction there is an element of de-struction) and use it self-reflexively through the methodological practice of deconstruction. This essay cannot hope to escape its own authorizing effect, but it can circumscribe that effect with some deconstructive overturning. The point is not to make authority visible to the blind, because the institutional authority I have in mind must be visible in order to function. In the university as the factory of cultural production, the meaning of the "appeal to authority" [End Page 421] seems clear enough. Rather, I want to challenge the notion that authority emerges from and protects reality, that authority as law articulates a reality-principle. On the contrary, if authority is read in terms of its operation as a simulation model, it appears not to construct but to short-circuit the real by "concealing the fact that the real is no longer real" (Baudrillard, Selected Writings 172). Drawing out the implications of Jean Baudrillard's analysis, one can argue that cultural institutions increasingly find their model or masterplan in something like Disneyland. Even feminism risks becoming one more imaginary world in the gigantic amusement park of Western knowledge.

But first, why Joyce? Why does feminism turn to or turn on his authority? In order to sound this question, it seems useful to employ two citations that situate the name of Joyce in relation to feminism: the first by Julia Kristeva and the second (actually a response to part of the first) by Gayatri Spivak:

In "woman" I see something that cannot be represented, something that is not said, something above and beyond nomenclatures and ideologies. There are certain "men" who are familiar with this phenomenon; it is what some modern texts never stop signifying. . . . From this point of view, it seems that certain feminist demands revive a kind of naive romanticism, a belief in identity (the reverse of phallocratism), if we compare them to the experience of both poles of sexual difference as is found in the economy of Joycian or Artaudian prose. . . . I pay close attention to the particular aspect of the work of the avant-garde which dissolves identity, even sexual identities; and in my theoretical formulations I try to go against metaphysical theories that censure what I just labeled "a woman"—this is what, I think, makes my research that of a woman.

(Kristeva, "Woman Can Never Be Defined" 137-138)

I have already expressed my dissatisfaction with the presupposition of the necessarily revolutionary potential of the avant-garde, literary or philosophical. There is something even faintly comical about Joyce rising above sexual identities and bequeathing the proper mind-set to the woman's movement. The point might be to remark how, even if one knows how to undo identities, one does not necessarily escape the historical determinations of sexism.

(Spivak, In Other Worlds 144)

Kristeva conjures up the issue of woman's identity only to argue, in effect, that there is no such thing—at least, no such ontology. Immediately preceding the passage cited, she notes that "a woman cannot 'be'; it is something which does not even belong in the order of being" (137). She is willing to concede that the phrase "we are women" has some pragmatic value in the struggle for freedom of abortion or child care...


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pp. 421-436
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