NWSA Journal 15.1 (2003) 172-176
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Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing by Ann Vickery. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000, 354 pp., $24.95 paper.
Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender by Anna Livia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, 237 pp., $49.95 hardcover, $29.95 paper.
One of America's first women to earn a doctorate of Rhetoric, Gertrude Buck, alerts us early to what she terms "The Muddle of Criticism" (1916). In many ways Buck's thoughts now resound in two quite current books, Ann Vickery's Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing and Anna Livia's Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender. Each of these recent books pursues social criticism as an activity based in making language. Approaching a feminist genealogy of Language writing, Vickery invites her readers to join Language writers in the act of making meaning while acknowledging their activities and meaning as constructed in our own lives. Livia gets down into the micro-aspects of language and demonstrates the linguistic, and therefore social, problem of the marked—as are wo-men—who attempt to think and function within the realm of blatantly gendered English and French. She then offers a number of strategies used by women authors to resist that marking.
Writing from the last turn of the century and advocating what she calls an "aesthetic criticism," Buck would have us receive these new books (and others) as "certain activities, or, . . . a single, continuous activity" (19).
This activity may . . . be separated into the writer's action and reader's reaction; but neither of these can in itself constitute a book. A book is, in philosophic terms, the writer's action transforming itself into the reader's reaction at the point of print. And the printed words thus reduce themselves to a mere sign of this transformation, not constituting literature but only making it possible. [End Page 172]
The act of reading has . . . become a process rather than a product, something that takes place rather than something which has been made. . . . [It is] a great continuous activity, which goes on through and by the reader, [with] participation constituting its final state, as organically related to it as the writer's function itself. (18-9)
The active-minded reader finds that in order to think the writer's thought after him, he must [I retain the archaic gender-marked language], for a time in the very truth, be [emphasis added] the writer. (21)
It is in this spirit of aesthetic criticism that Vickery and Livia invite us to engage in activity with language.
Vickery works with her authors and her readers in Leaving Lines of Gender to have us experience a feminist genealogy of Language writing not as an historical description or an objectifying documentary, but as a topography and climate available for the reader to inhabit and experience. In a sense, Vickery offers us—her community of readers—a fabric in which we can ply our needles. She begins with some background regarding Language writing, careful to avoid such academic potholes as defining (and so making the activity finite) and privileging theory above practice as she deftly alerts us to the cultural gendering thereof. 1
Having set the framework, Vickery then takes us through various situations of Language writing: publishing, archiving, presses, radio, workshops, speeches, etc. Within a discussion of these situations Vickery seemingly invites her readers to "make theirs" such occasions as "[T]he inclusive form of [Rachel Blau] DuPlessis's essay [that] signaled a willingness to disrupt the traditional hierarchies of academic discourse" and excitement about "nonlinear feminist textuality" (89). And, threading actual women's works-as-processes within those various situations, Vickery involves the reader in a collaboration of sorts through the Language activities of Kathleen Fraser, Bernadette Mayer, Joan Retallack, Susan Howe, Tina Darragh, Hannah Weiner, Rae Armantrout, Fanny Howe, and Lyn Hejinian.
The content of our language use customarily changes from social occasion to social...