- Women’s Experimental Writing: Negative Aesthetics and Feminist Critique by Ellen E. Berry
In Women’s Experimental Writing: Negative Aesthetics and Feminist Critique, Ellen E. Berry suggests that “the term negative aesthetics” indicates “a varied set of thematic concerns” related to “extreme, bizarre, or violent situations especially involving the female body” and other trauma-based relations inscribed into literary prose texts (p. 2). She argues that the use of negative aesthetics by a number of contemporary women writers embraces formal strategies that resist realism or narrative closure in the novel, that decenter both conventional plot structure and [End Page 505] the Enlightenment concept of self. Negative aesthetics are, in general, a product of literary postmodernism whose texts resist foundationalism and provide “a critique of all claims to universality or absolute truth” (p. 3). Postmodern texts tend to provide “thematic emphases on radical difference, heterogeneity, multimodality, [and] instabilities of identity,” suggesting “a breakdown in ‘the official story’ as formerly repressed voices (of women, minorities, queers, outlaws of all kinds) emerge into the mainstream” (p. 3). The version of literary postmodernism that Berry terms negative-aesthetic texts are not only inherently political by questioning the validity of signs and structures of meaning but also overtly feminist because they call into question—and even upend—the rules of “contemporary capitalist heteropatriarchy” (p. 2). Her book analyzes a myriad of diverse writers and their prose texts as they engage negative aesthetics for overtly political, dramatically feminist purposes in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
Berry’s introduction does an admirable job of linking recent literary criticism to her understanding of negative aesthetics—by specifically incorporating studies by Rita Belsky, Lisa Hoagland, Marie Lauret, and several others. However, while her review of postmodernism and its negative aesthetics is certainly informed, Berry’s introduction to her term might include a deeper theoretical grounding for such a study. I found missing at least some reference to Hegel’s concept of negation and a clear discussion of those who came after him. I would have liked to have read about Berry’s newly minted concept of negative aesthetics in the context of the larger historical-philosophical debates so important to the development of intellectual modernity. Her well-articulated and truly interesting analyses of various women’s texts in the following chapters make clear that negative aesthetics does, in fact, embrace and enhance concepts of Hegelian negation as forms of structural irony, made all the more vital for their potential political resonances within these feminist literary critiques of society, Western logic, and literature itself.
Chapter one’s analysis of the “apocalyptic feminism” inscribed by Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto (1967) reconsiders the critical neglect of what Berry calls this manifesto’s “uncompromising extremity and explosive negativity,” in which the narrator calls for the eradication of “the government, the economy, and the entire male gender” (p. 19). SCUM acts as a litmus test for Berry’s notion of a negative aesthetics through its ritualized uses of profanity, suffusion of “sardonic humor,” and even “homicidal rage” launched verbally against the male sex (p. 20). Negative aesthetics mirrors in SCUM the moral repugnance of those potential readers and critics who have avoided such work by offering the logic of a negation philosophy that reincorporates the abject as the social and psychical material that is [End Page 506] lost by institutional discourses, including some versions of feminism itself. What is truly inspiring is the way in which Berry teaches us how to read SCUM—not just as another critique of patriarchy but as a purposefully urgent if volatile text whose “feminist rant” functions as a textual “[site] of pure excess” (p. 29). By discussing Solana’s textual excess and setting a context for Solana’s explosive language, Berry suggests the energy it produces is not wayward but calculated for a certain affect and that the text undergoes its own process of achievement in feminist manifest discourses through its negation of both language and conventional terms. Berry convinces us that a text like Solanas...