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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) i-ii

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Writing in the Realm of the Senses. Introduction

Rey Chow

As a collective project, this special issue is offered as a critical intervention at a time when many scholarly discussions have tended, in our view, to become overly idealist and/or reductively positivistic. The former tendency sometimes disguises itself as "theoretical" by simply rehearsing "ideas" or "concepts" without being able to deal with formal and representational issues, while the latter often claims to be "historical" by facilely appealing to all kinds of marginalized experiences in the name of resisting high theory. As editor, my task has been to bring together a set of essays that are both theoretically astute and historically informed as to the ineluctable relationships between what may be loosely termed perceptive, sensorial, or affective phenomena, on the one hand, and the more concrete, because semiotically chartable, issues of representation, on the other.

In some ways, of course, this topic is not a novel one. One thinks, for instance, of the semiological differentiation between seeing and reading, between vision and poetic language, in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's treatment, in the eighteenth century, of the classical statue of Laoco├Ân, or of a contemporary argument such as Linda Williams's (in Hard Core) about [End Page i] the gender as well as visual politics inscribed in the "money shot" (of an ejaculating penis) typical of many pornographic films. It soon becomes clear, however, that the human sensorium itself stands as a terrain of competing functions, with the result that certain senses, such as sight and hearing, have traditionally enjoyed a kind of hegemony and dictated the representational issues being discussed. This has in turn led to a tendency on the part of scholars to concentrate on those forms and genres that have the most to do with the eyes and the ears. While several of the essays in the present volume do return in fascinating ways to issues of visuality, sight, and blindness (conjured by paintings, prose narratives, and films, as well as personal experience), the rest ask explicitly or implicitly what kinds of theorizations are possible with other types of sensorial events (orgasm, architectural space, train commuting, panic, topophilia, and performance of ideological jouis-sense) that may have been less subject to academic debate but that are nonetheless of comparable significance to the historically evolving configurations of everyday experiences.

Each in his or her own imaginative manner, then, the contributors have approached this topic by engaging with select literary and cultural texts that highlight the inextricable linkages between the sensorial, the aesthetic, and the sociological. Together, by demonstrating how even "raw" sensations are always mediated by signs, themselves historical events, their readings provide refreshing insights into the politics of knowledge production in the face of large periodic markers such as the Enlightenment, romanticism, modernity, postmodernity, colonialism, and postcoloniality.

As many readers will recognize, the title of the special issue is in part borrowed from the 1976 film by Nagisa Oshima, in which the erotically obsessive relationship between a wealthy merchant and one of his housemaids culminates in her strangling him during intercourse and then cutting off his penis. Our undertakings, with their shared emphasis on the non-transparency of writing, are somewhat more modest than Oshima's story--but hopefully no less provocative.

Rey Chow is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Brown University, where she teaches in the Departments of Modern Culture and Media, and Comparative Literature. She is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which is Ethics after Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading (Indiana University Press, 1998). She is also editor of Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory: Reimagining a Field (Duke University Press, forthcoming).



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pp. i-ii
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Archived 2004
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