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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.3 (2001) 128-165

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The Thing in the Poem: Maud's Hymen

Matthew Rowlinson

Embodiment, hymen, foreclosure

In the section of Gender Trouble on heterosexual melancholy, Judith Butler proposes that what she calls heterosexuality's "literalizing fantasy" of the connection between desire and the body derives from the foreclosure of homosexuality. Let me quote at some length:

The conflation of desire with the real--that is, the belief that it is parts of the body, the "literal" penis, the "literal" vagina, which cause pleasure and desire--is precisely the kind of literalizing fantasy characteristic of melancholic heterosexuality. The disavowed homosexuality at the base of melancholic heterosexuality reemerges as the self-evident anatomical facticity of sex, where "sex" designates the blurred unity of anatomy, "natural identity," and "natural desire." [. . .] The loss of homosexuality is refused and the love sustained or encrypted in the parts of the body itself, literalized in the ostensible anatomical facticity of sex. Here we see the general strategy of literalization as a form of forgetfulness. (71) [End Page 128]

From these observations, I want to retain above all the notion of literalization as a form of forgetfulness. In what follows, I shall be concerned both with the implication of literal bodies in the structures of symbolic exchange that constitute heterosexuality and with the embodiment of letters in things. Both kinds of embodiment, I shall argue, entail the encryption of an utterance that they render impossible.

The "literal" part of the body with which I will be concerned is the hymen. The word "hymen" designates both an institution and a membrane. As the OED has it: on the one hand, "[m]arriage; wedlock; wedding, nuptials"; on the other, "a fold of mucous membrane stretched across and partially closing the external orifice of the vagina." The word's first sense is figural, even theological in origin: it derives by metonymy from the Greek word for a wedding song, which, according to ancient writers, was originally the name of a legendary quasi divinity. 1 The second sense seems literal, "hymen" in this sense being the unambiguous name of an anatomical feature. My concern in this paper will be with what Butler would call the literalizing fantasy by which the two senses of the word are crossed; by which, for instance, the institution of marriage is embodied in the rupture of a membrane or an issue of blood. Historically, this fantasy may not only attach symbolic meaning to the body; it may be literalizing in the stronger sense of actually producing the literal body that supports it. For the hymen, in its current anatomical sense, had no existence in the Graeco-Roman world. It was unknown to Hippocrates and Galen and formed no part for ancient Greeks in the symbolization of the virginal female body (Sissa 107-17). 2 Its discovery occurred in the Christian era and coincided with the transformation in sexual representation and practice that the new era brought about. Most notably, for our purposes, it accompanied a reconfiguration of sex by which the dimorphism of penetrator and penetrated was replaced by that of female and male. 3 The "discovery" of the hymen as a trait specific to women played a part, if not in the eventual invention of heterosexuality, then in the investiture of what we would now call heterosexual practices with a new set of functions and privileges, and in the concomitant relegation of male-male sexual practices to the sphere of the extrajudicial or the pathological.

Hymen thus came to embody what Derrida terms a "loi du genre"--a term that has been translated, or not translated, as "law of genre" but that can of course also be rendered "law of gender." 4 In readings of Mallarmé and Blanchot, Derrida characterizes a trait that both [End Page 129] constitutes a genre as such and is also subject to a chiasmatic interchange of traits between genres. In Derrida's account, the concept of genre, which is also to say that of gender, is unsettled by...


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pp. 128-165
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