Towards a Loosening of Categories: Multi-Mimesis, Feminism, and Hypertext

Towards a Loosening of Categories: Multi-Mimesis, Feminism, and Hypertext


Jess M.  Laccetti presents a theory of “multi-mimesis” as a way to redefine female subjectivity.

Re-vision - the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction - is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival … We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently… (Adrienne Rich)

Reading the articles under the heading Postfeminism in the Electronic Book Review’s collection, I noticed a similarity other than the articles’ shared emphasis on feminism. However disparate the points of views or the works reviewed, each author, in her or his own way, seems to employ the problematics of language as a guiding, if at times oblique, principle. Conceiving one’s position as “postfeminist” might be as problematic as articulating “any single meaning” (Yaszek) for the term. As Lisa Yaszek explains, “postfeminism seems to be simultaneously elegiac and celebratory, descriptive and proscriptive, a fait accompli and an impossible dream” (Yaszek). Whether postfeminism is seen as a linguistic attempt to recuperate the “feminism [that has] become a dirty word” (Bolotin) or as a sign “that shows us the organism formerly known as feminism has grown into something far more complex than its liberal origins would lead us to expect,” (Guertin, “Hackers” ) it is always already entrenched in a provisional language. A language, which Elisabeth Joyce notes in reference to Susan Howe, “is inherently problematic.” Although, as Carolyn Guertin points out, the word postfeminism might initially incite apprehension, it should not “imply that feminism is dead and gone, any more than Donna Haraway’s “postgender” and N. Katherine Hayles’ “posthuman” mean the death of those old shoes” (“Hackers”)

To the extent that feminist (post or otherwise) politics are bound up with a certain kind of language, any contemporary feminist act must negotiate this language in order to articulate and implement specific goals and aims. Indeed, the fundamental connection between (post)feminisms and language not only puts into question the possibility of such a separation but seems to invoke a necessary revision. Significantly, Geniwate’s title “Language Rules” performs an attempt to navigate this double bind: working with but simultaneously against language. For her, “the appropriation of programming code” became an explicitly feminist act. In a similar way I would like to “stretch language” and literary theory so that certain “traditional” terms might be revised in the light of current feminist and narrative thinking. What follows is one attempt to “loosen the categories” (cited in Olsen).

Mimesis, as Prendergast acknowledges, is one of the oldest, most fundamental concepts in Western aesthetics which has had a long and complex history and now suffers at the hands of “our postmodern condition” (1). Within mimesis, it seems, certainly at the most general level, a formula for language and its object has been created that has the assuring, consoling quality of the obvious.According to Boyd, since the erosion of Aristotelian mimesis, words have become nothing more than transparent vehicles for the transportation of knowledge, 206. It has been founded on the common-sense presumption that the imitation must have an original. The acute authority of this equation and its apparent transparency has made the mimetic approach to literary analysis and criticism very appealing for its certainties: mimesis depends on a notion of what the world already is.See Lukács as an advocate for a classic theory of realism. He perceives the production of a text as a translation of an act of seeing. Mimesis, for Lukács requires that the identity of an image and its significance assume a pre-existence of a representable totality: “Art is no longer a copy of the world, but instead, a ‘created totality.’” (Derwin 9.) This overarching authority and mediated meaning is questioned by postmodernism. The postmodern tendency, from structuralism onwards, has been to call what Docherty calls the reality-principle into question (119). More specifically, postmodern theory provides a critique of representation and the belief that literature mirrors reality, and that all cognitive representations of the world are historically and linguistically mediated.Recognising that both experience and its representation are subject to ideological implications, Alter explains that “language can never give us experience itself but must always transmute experience into rÈcit, that is, into narration, or if you will fiction.” Experience then, can never be innocently represented as it is always already an interpretation. (Alter 64)

1.2. A Postmodern Debate: To Represent or Not to Represent?

In a world where Baudrillardian simulacra, virtual realities, constructed realities and `deconstructed’ textualities reign, the means of representation, the signs, seem to dissolve and become autonomous semiotic agents in the ongoing process of infinite semiosis.Baudrillard alleges that postmodern culture has become so reliant on models and cognitive maps that it has lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and, according to Baudrillard, determines the real world: “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory - precession of simulacra - that engenders the territory.” (Baudrillard 1) This crisis of representation, Lyotard declares, is due to the perception of a world in which signs have lost their power to represent anything. Words are deprived of their referent, images are no longer anchored in “reality,” media become more and more self-referential, and the result is a world of virtual realities or hyperrealities.

Pondering this relationship (between imitation and imitated), certain theorists suggest that postmodernism is caught in a double bind: the more postmodernism wishes to extricate itself, or at least distance itself, from representation the more it discovers how deeply representation and its consequent scepticism are wed. Thus, as Prendergast and others have argued, postmodernism declares traditional representation as no longer easily or innocently possible.

1.3. Re-presenting Representation: Towards a Contemporary Feminist Mimesis

A feminist mimesis, much like feminist narratology itself, sees women (and their narratives) as sites of differences (de Lauretis 14). Therefore, the figuration of a speaking agent, an “I” as a reformulation of a new female feminist subjectivity, “disrupts [masculine] privileging [and] disrupts external notions of essence, of sameness: the cultural text of femininity,”“Once the female ‘I’ has spoken, the subversion is begun.” (Frye 50) which has historically construed women as objects. This figuration allows women not only to bear witness to their experiences but to write them as well. Braidotti notes that “the historical contradiction a feminist postmodernist is caught in is that the very conditions that are perceived by dominant subjects as factors of a `crisis’ of values are for [her] the opening up of new possibilities” (Patterns 2). Thus, instead of enacting the “death” of the subject, as masculinist postmodernisms such as McHale’s have posited, a contemporary feminist mimesis revitalises the voice (and authority) of the author,Irigaray herself verifies the importance of women’s voice as a political act asking: “But what if this matter [woman] began to speak?” (Irigaray, Speculum 148) emphasising subjectivity as fundamental to the formation of a politicised feminist identity. As Hutcheon explains, the construction of female subjectivity cannot be adequately elaborated within the anxious postmodern oscillation between complicity (representation) and critique (scepticism). Consequently a feminist mimesis, as borne out in the theories of Hutcheon, Irigaray,For Irigaray, mimesis is a double process: according to a process of mimesis as “repetition with a difference” she resubmits women to stereotypical views in order to call the views themselves into question. More precisely: “[i]t means to resubmit herself … to ideas, in particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, but so as to make ‘visible’, by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language.” The strategic turn is that the stereotypical views are not repeated faithfully. According to Irigaray, the very possibility of repeating a negative view unfaithfully suggests that women are something other than the view expressed. (This Sex 157, 76, 78) Butler,Butler, like Hutcheon and Irigaray, views parodic imitation as potentially subversive. In terms of gender, which Butler sees as a fiction itself, one can “act” a gender in ways which will call attention to its constructedness. “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself - as well as its contingency.” The question for Butler remains, “not whether to repeat, but how to repeat, or, indeed to repeat and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself.” (137-138, 148) and Braidotti, must not only manipulate signification (as postmodernist parody does) but develop it as a pedagogical tool in order to “(re)construct the structures of subjectivity” (Hutcheon 168).

1.4. Towards a Theory of Multi-Mimesis

The result of this new reality is a “new language” (Guertin, “Buzz-Dazed”). Guertin describes this new language as “the disorienting intersection of text and image,” and likens it to McLuhan’s “next logical step.”According to McLuhan, “The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favour of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt by Bergson. The condition of ‘weightlessness’ … promises a physical immortality, may be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.” (84) The next step, Guertin writes, is “to arrive at a state of weightlessness and speechlessness” (“Buzz-Dazed”). This is Braidotti’s and Larsen’s cyberfeminism. Hypertext invites a subjective and nomadic associative state which “threatens to corrupt all standards, to exceed all limits, and to transgress every law” (Shaviro 26). Like Braidotti, a “nomadic subject” who does not follow prescribed figurations or hierarchies and has a way of “blurring boundaries without burning bridges,” (Nomadic Subjects 4) female-authored hypertexts such as Deena Larsen’s Disappearing Rain are an example of elaborate, multidimensional and multirepresentational spaces “woven of subversive bridges” (Guertin, “Buzz-Dazed”).

Consequently, as a sort of echo of Guertin, multi-mimesis provides a new language for representation. Creating a new, more positive version of mimesis within linguist structures follows Irigaray’s and Cixous’s critical questioning of the construction of women within phallogocentric systems. Since multi-mimesis builds upon mimesis it is an example of Irigaray’s subversion from within. This is how to linguistically dismantle the “master’s” phallogocentric house. In this way, then, multi-mimesis represents a redefinition and a rethinking, not only of mimesis, but also of how certain hypertext authors constitute and represent themselves as female subjects. No longer grouped under a reductive account of `woman,’ these hyperfiction authors represent subjectivities which are, as Braidotti might say, “a dazzling collection of integrated fragments” (Patterns 282) much like the hyperfictions themselves. Oscillating between modes of multi-mimesis the represented subjectivities, experiences, and hyperfictions perform a “dance between possibilities of representation” (Glazier 15) which is “provisional, conditional and characterised by multiple renderings” (ibid). What is at stake, finally, is the use these women hyperwriters make of multi-mimesis to authorise/show/tell their translations of their own complex and subversive stories with the full knowledge that, in feminist techie-speak, what you see is not necessarily what you get.

1.5 Multi-Mimesis in Action

Recognising Larsen’s desire to create complicated narratives, and her theory that each of her hyperfictions presents “a new way of seeing the world,” (“Re: Children’s Time”) one should also note that the narrator does not profess, like the narrator in Adam Bede, “to give no more than a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in [her] mind” (221). Instead, the narrator of Disappearing Rain relies on the use of photographic images, references to places and people which exist in a contemporary reader’s life, links to real-life web sites such as The University of Berkeley, Macintosh, IBM, and even local CCTV footage, to represent the complex and continually evolving realities of Anna’s world. Upon closer inspection one can see how Larsen’s hyperfiction shifts from being a very detailed and precise account of specific material lives, to something which acknowledges its partiality, its inability to represent, even with the abundance of technology and descriptive prose: for the reader never actually meets the main protagonist, the missing University of Berkeley student, Anna.

Larsen, like Eliot, uses description to help the reader visualise the scene and to persuade the reader of its accuracy: “Sophie leaned against the wall, letting the sun play with her thin gray locks … [b]ut the waves of hatred tore down any unity … waves hunch and crest in empty air.” Larsen also adds references to history: “They let Sophie into school, but dragged her out again in `42. Then in `44, the War Relocation Authority took the West Coast Japanese, stripped them of everything and sent them to relocation camps (“Retreat To,” Disappearing Rain).

Fig. 1 Images from external link contained within Larsen’s “Retreat To, Disappearing Rain.

In addition to this type of material detailing, Larsen, again like Eliot, allows the complex detail of the plot to be dramatised through what Genette calls a covert heterodiegetic narrator. The heterodiegetic narrator describes Kit telling the “story as if she were summing it up for a jury,” which is reminiscent of the narrator in Adam Bede promising to repeat the story as if he (or she) “were in the witness-box narrating [the] experience on oath” (221). The legal imagery in both Eliot’s novel and Larsen’s hyperfiction works similarly. The final result is that readers recognise that the evidence itself is as true as the narrator/witness is honest. The narrator-as-witness affirms her (or his) own trustworthiness in both texts but, where Eliot’s narrator is grounded in language, Larsen’s narrator, like multi-mimesis itself, can employ other media.

Fig. 2 Image from Larsen, “Retreat To,” Disappearing Rain.

With Anna’s immersion into education (University of Berkeley) and independence - “she was the doer, the go-getter and could always persuade anyone to do anything” - comes a plunge in the wider world, symbolised by her immersion into the actual Internet. Anna’s transformation from a material being living in a reality which “appears as an always already cultural reality, linked to the individual and collective history of the masculine subject”(Irigaray, Je, Tu, Nous 35) to a fluid, diffuse, and multiple subject is essential. As Irigaray also argues: “[w]omen’s entry into the public world, the social relations they have among themselves and with men, have made cultural transformations, and especially linguistic ones, a necessity” (ibid 67). Once Anna affects her transformation Larsen can only represent her as a static photograph. When Anna starts “becoming” and creates a new fluid life, the hypernarrative finds it impossible to represent her. Anna can only be represented in the time before she started becoming. Rather than founding continuity,For example Lukács’ theory develops issues of similarity as does Auerbach’s mimesis which “constitutes itself in reciprocal relations” and in “[t]he unity of Western Culture.” (Gerbauer and Wulf 11) multi-mimesis in Larsen’s hyperfiction, like Irigaray’s mimesis, is tactical; it is disrupted by difference. Once Anna changes, the condition and possibility of her being represented cease to operate. Consequently, as Anna “escapes the bonds” that hold her, the hypernarrative is unable to represent her becoming reality. Therefore the story itself emerges only through Anna’s absence.

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