Sunday, February 07, 2010

Suzan Zimmerman, Introduction to Erotic Politics

Susan Zimmerman, Introduction to Erotic politics: the dynamics of desire on the English Renaissance stage, Routledge, New York, 1992

...Renaissance eroticism—or Renaissance sexuality, the larger category of analysis to which eroticism is obliquely related… (1)

One influential theoretical formulation of recent date, that of cultural materialism, suggests the dimensions of the problem. Deployed with great effectiveness in the dismantling of liberal humanism and in legitimating a focus on the political context of cultural production, cultural materialism has sought to undermine universal, essentialist notions of human nature; …Thus, although it borrows from Marxist economic theory, cultural materialism eschews all totalizing narratives, including the narrative of classical Marxism, emphasizing rather the discontinuities and heterogeneity of Focault’s historical ‘epistemes’. … Not surprisingly, therefore, the status of psychoanalytic theory among adherents of cultural materialism has been exceedingly suspect. Yet, ironically, any materialist theory which insists on a radical historical contingency inevitably establishes a set of binary oppositions (transhistorical/contingent, essential/existential) which not only psychoanalytic theory but also post-modern linguistic theory is distinctively enabled to deconstruct. Moreover, a rigidly synchronic approach to cultural analysis precludes the development of a theory of human sexuality because any theory of sexuality must recognize the interdependence of … collective social formations and inter-subjective phenomena. (1-2)

…some scholars of Renaissance sexuality, including cultural materialists, are now attempting to mediate the tension between psychoanalytic and materialist theory. For example, in his ground-breaking study of Sexual Dissidence (1991), Jonathan Dollimore, acknowledging that neither material nor psychoanalysis, in isolation from each other, can generate an adequate ‘account of social struggle and change’, positions his own analysis at ‘the point where [they] converge with, but also contest each other’ (1991: 34). (2)

If, as postmodern linguistic theory would have it, language (words, sounds, notations) is a material process of signification, then a theory inscribed in the operation of language, such as that of psychoanalysis, is also a theory of the material. (2)

By appropriating postmodern linguistic theory in an elucidation of Freud, and thus recasting psychoanalysis in a materialist framework, Jacques Lacan has served as a catalyst for the reformulation of other materialist theories as well. His influence has been especially marked in such neo-Marxists as Louis Althusser and Fredric Jameson, who have worked to position the Freudian-Lacanian theory of the unconscious within Marxist historical materialism. (2)

Indeed, in the end the materiality of the Lacanian unconscious and its centrality in the operation of desire must be accommodated by all postmodern cultural criticism, particularly as such criticism focuses on the study of sexuality and erotic desire. (3)

The division is also sexual: the induction of the subject into language coincides with an induction into culturally coded sexuality coded sexuality through the intervention of a third term—the ‘paternal metaphor’, the Phallus, or the Law. All the mental impulses prohibited by language and the Law, or what Lacan terms the symbolic order, must be repressed: thus consciousness and the unconscious come into being simultaneously in the human subject. Further, in the fissure or gap of the subject’s radical split, desire is born. (3)

…Lacan provided historical materialsm with the means to develop what Fredric Jameson calls the concept of a ‘political unconscious’… (3)

In ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’ (1971a) and what might be considered a companion piece, ‘Freud and Lacan’ (1971b), Althusser attempts to do for Marx what Althusser claims Lacan did for Freud. That is, Lacan undergirded Freudian technique and practice by providing a theory of the unconscious; similarly, Althusser sets out to supply a theory for the Marxist concept of ideology. … In appropriating Lacan’s theory of the unconscious to his theory of ideology, Althusser has two objecteives: to rescue historical materialism from a discredited positivism and simultaneously to demonstrate that psychoanalytic theory inheres in historical materialism. The rescue operation is in effect a takeover. (3-4)

Althusser … ‘you and I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition’ (1971a: 172). This ‘recognition’ is, of course, illusory, a misrecognition, providing a false but practically effective sense of personal coherence: ‘ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ (ibid: 162). (4)

The Marxist ideological paradigm has been justly criticized as reductive of Lacan’s theory of desire. (4)

In a fundamental sense, the transformational process of social change— …is a central concern of most postmodern cultural criticism, which assumes that change occurs as a result of social struggle, but that the process of social change cannot be abstracted into a theory of historical linearity. At the same time, the process is not wholly random, as a radically deconstructive theory of history would maintain. If, then, such a transformational process is not random, it should be possible to construct a theory for it, … The construction of this theory is the challenge that confronts cultural criticism today… (5)

Since ‘the hegemony’ in any society—particularly one as economically and socially conflicted as that of the English Renaissance—is a plurality, ideological domination by ruling groups is not likely to be uniform, but rather an organization of disparate meanings which may themselves be internally contestatory. (6)

It is then in contradistinction to a variety of social formations that Renaissance theatre presents what in a Bakhtinian context are carnivalesque representations of eroticism. Unlike the theatrical traditions in England prior and subsequent to the Renaissance, the Renaissance stage, at the juncture between ‘emblematic and realist modes’ (Belsey 1985: 26) was transgressively carnivalesque in the sense of calling attention to its own artifice. That is, it disrupted the metaphysical fixities of unity, identity and causality by licensing a plurality of contestatory perspectives through the agencies of role reversal, dialogic interactions and experimental sexual fantasy. (6)

This is not to say that all Renaissance drama challenged some aspect of hegemonic social discourse… (6)

It seems probably that among the many contestatory discourses in the Renaissance concerned with sexuality and eroticism, only theatrical representations provide Bakhtin’s ‘doubles’ or ‘parodies’ of hegemonic attitudes, and thus theatrical representations should serve as the primary decoders of these attitudes. (7)

…sexual dimorphism… Ironically, this cultural construction has been heavily reinforced by the modern deployment of Freudian theory, which has codified and rendered normative certain of Freud’s developmental sequences (for example, that of sexual maturation), while marginalizing revolutionary discoveries such as polymorphous perversity and the structure of the unconscious. (7)

‘Homosexual, which according to Foucault did not come into existence as a category until the nineteenth century (and again was misappropriated by neo-Freudians)… (7)

Cross-dressing, or transvestism, is a convention alien to the mainstream of modern theatrical practice, at least in the West, but central to the erotic dynamic of Renaissance drama. (8)

If for Stallybrass the English Renaissance theatre stages its own transvestism, for Catherine Belsey it ‘remorselessly dramatizes desire itself’. Belsey’s Lacanian analysis demonstrates the frequency with which this theatre problematizes the notion of the self by staging desire’s excess—and its destructive potential—in a variety of extravagant modes. (8)

Smith argues that the theatrical representation of male homoeroticism, shaped by patriarchal norms which both produce and deny it, finds full, transgressive expression oly in the ‘violent, political and male world’ of tragedy. Traub, undertaking the formidable task of problematizing a female erotic dynamic which is absent in the theatre, but frequently in an ‘elegiac’ mode that falls outside conventional categories of signification and political definition. (9)


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