Feminism is sometimes portrayed as focusing on politics at the expense of aesthetics. Rita Felski’s Literature After Feminism (University of Chicago Press, 2003) shows how, on the contrary, feminism has enriched the reading of literature. Much of Felski’s work has looked at feminism and modernism, notably in her first three books, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change (Harvard University Press, 1989), The Gender of Modernity (Harvard University Press, 1995) and Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture (New York University Press, 2000), a collection of her essays.
This interview took place soon after the publication of Literature After Feminism. Since then, Felski has developed a neo-phenomenological approach to literature, which she explains in “Everyday Aesthetics,” her contribution to “The Credo Issue” of minnesota review (2009); she defends the study of literature in Uses of Literature (Blackwell, 2008) and Rethinking Tragedy (edited; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). In addition to her writing, she took over the editorship of New Literary History in 2009, where she has sponsored a number of special issues on new directions in literary studies, such as “New Sociologies of Literature” (2010) and “Context?” (2011).
Born in 1956, Felski received her BA in French and German literature at Cambridge University and her PhD in German at Monash University in Australia. She taught at Perth and Murdoch Universities in Australia, moving in 1994 to the University of Virginia, where she is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English.
This interview took place on 28 December 2004, in the midst of the MLA Convention in Philadelphia. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams and transcribed by Srila Nayak.
Jeffrey Williams: Your new book, Literature After Feminism, takes stock of contemporary feminism—as I take it, in the wake of the culture wars. Can you talk about that book and the situation it responds to?
Rita Felski: In Literature After Feminism, I don’t consider feminism as a whole; I consider feminism as a form of literary criticism. It is not a book about the way in which American feminism, or indeed feminism more generally, has succeeded or failed. I’m really trying to present an assessment of the pros and cons of what feminism has achieved as a mode of literary interpretation.
The book was inspired by a sense of rage and frustration, more than other things I had written. I wrote it quite quickly; I started it in about 2000, so that is relatively quick in academic terms. At that time, there was a great deal of stuff in the media about how feminists were ruining the study of literature, and it wasn’t long after John Ellis’s book, Literature Lost, had come out. I was incredibly angry about these claims that were being widely made—that feminist critics were harpies who read literature only to excoriate the sexism of authors, that feminist critics had no interest in aesthetics and literary qualities and style and form, that they only read for content, they were only interested in obsessing over the sexism of male writers. There were these constant caricatures coming out in the media.
Yet there seemed to be virtually no attempt made by feminists to refute these caricatures. The general perception seemed to be: “This is below us; this stuff is so obviously ludicrous, based on a complete ignorance of what’s going on in feminist criticism, that we don’t need to respond to it.” My sense of it was very different. We did need to respond because, for many people, the only information they were getting about feminism was this kind of account. Rather than congratulate ourselves on our ability to rise above vulgar stereotypes, we really needed to engage them in a much more upfront fashion. So, one reason for writing the book was a sense of outrage about the representation of feminist critics in the public sphere.
The second reason was that I had just done a stint as director of graduate admissions in my department, so I was reading the files and the statements of purpose of aspiring graduate students in English, and I was struck by how bad some of the statements were. Some of the students who wanted to do feminist work would claim that there were completely separate male and female literary traditions, and that writing by women was always X and writing by men was always Y. They had these simplistic, reflectionist, cut-and-paste analyses of literature. In three years they would probably be speaking a completely different theoretical language (and they might have learnt to think in much more sophisticated ways about questions of gender, essentialism, the relationship between authors and literary works and so on), but I felt that none of those ideas were especially complicated, and that it should be possible to communicate them at the undergraduate level.
So I tried to write something that would have some success as a textbook and give undergraduates a sense of the variety of debates—not just around the way in which gender is undercut by race and class (I think that’s now a very familiar idea), but also the ways in which the relationship between gender and writing is affected by the complexities of literary meaning and signification.
JW: The book is organized around standard and fairly traditional literary topoi: reader, author, plot and so on. And it’s in a remarkably lucid style. Maybe you can say something about your rationale for that plan.
RF: Part of the reason, as I mentioned, is that I wanted the book to be used as a textbook. I am not saying that in a negative sense; there was also something useful about reorganizing feminist literary theory in terms of these topoi, because, as you say, in one way they are familiar, but they are not usually the way in which descriptions of feminist literary theory are organized. I am really interested in the question of literary method—thinking not so much about what people say, but what they actually do, how they actually behave when they approach a text. Do they discuss the author? Do they think about the reader? Do they analyze context? How do they actually marshal evidence in order to interpret a literary work? (It does not have to be a literary work. It could be a film or a cultural phenomenon.)
So I thought it was important, rather than going along the usual route and classifying feminism in terms of theoretical frameworks (essentialist, poststructuralist, identity politics, Marxist feminism), to try to conceptualize the consequences of feminist analysis for literary interpretation by organizing these various feminist theories around the methodological categories of author, reader, plot and literary value. “Textbook” tends to make it sound like willed simplification, but it was also a way of thinking that made some things visible that have not quite been visible before, or brought them into new alignments, or put them in interesting juxtapositions.
JW: You mentioned that one of the things that motivated you was dealing with graduate students. They do seem to have a different relation to feminism than students did twenty years ago, and eschew or apologize for feminism (“I’m not a feminist, but…”). What do you see as the state of feminist literary criticism now in the academy?
RF: There is a certain sense in which feminist literary theory seems to be a little marginal now, precisely because of its institutional success. It no longer has the cutting-edge quality that it had, and it seems that we’ve moved on to queer theory, post-colonialism or various versions of cultural studies. There is also an obvious anxiety about where it should be going. (We have had a whole range of narratives about the malaise of feminism, by Susan Gubar and others.) My sense is that feminism is somewhat stuck at the moment. It has these existing methodological frameworks and they are not going to take feminism any further. The problems of identity politics are now pretty well rehearsed, and we have also had, for ten or fifteen years, theories about gender as performance, parody and so on. At one time it seemed that everybody applying to graduate school in gender work was citing Judith Butler, and too much of that material has worn itself out.
How can we find new frameworks to talk about gender? One person whose work I find interesting at the moment is Toril Moi. I was incredibly excited by her recent book, What Is a Woman? Toril is moving away from the kind of poststructuralist arguments that she was making earlier and has immersed herself in ordinary language philosophy, writing in a way that is informed by Cavell and Wittgenstein. I find her current work extraordinarily lucid and stimulating and demanding and rigorous. She is really challenging many of the standard assumptions of contemporary theory. She has a wonderful essay criticizing the whole notion of situated-ness and location and the need to identify where you are speaking from, that shows the theoretical weaknesses of that position. She has another very powerful essay about the inadequacies of the sex/gender system as theorized in feminism. She has found a new model of thinking, which is taking us out of what has now become an extremely rigid poststructuralist paradigm.
Another person whose work I really admire is Susan Stanford Friedman. She has written a wonderful book on feminist theory, and she is doing great work now on transnational modernism. Both Toril and Susan are feminist scholars who continue to reinvent themselves in terms of new theoretical frameworks, new ways of conceptualizing politics and texts and theory and ideas. That’s what is really invigorating about their work: They are not harking back and saying the glory days of feminism are gone—they are generating these very powerful new ways of thinking.
JW: What do you see as the current prospects for feminism? In part because it’s had some success, it has been absorbed and neutralized, so it does not have the force that it once had, or the energy has moved to queer theory or to sexuality studies or postcolonial studies.
RF: I think part of the issue has to do with the power of a certain notion of marginality. Feminism could once claim the position of the marginalized subject or the transgressive subject, and it can no longer make that claim quite so persuasively. Postcolonial studies now has a kind of political urgency that perhaps feminist criticism no longer has. But I don’t see that as a reason for giving up on feminist criticism.
I think a similar problem exists with cultural studies. Cultural studies has an overt political agenda, which can become limiting in certain ways. There is a way in which cultural studies gets tied up with the question, “Is the text transgressive or hegemonic?” This becomes intellectually uninteresting when you are asking it over and over again. There is a problem when any discipline tries to define itself too narrowly in terms of a political ideology—there are certain kinds of questions that can no longer be asked, and certain kinds of theoretical problematics that can’t be explored.
JW: In a way you are recuperating a certain kind of literary methodology in Literature After Feminism. How would you separate yourself from the current “return to literature” movement?
RF: My original reason for writing a book about literature and feminism, as opposed to pop culture or film and feminism, was primarily because of the debates around the canon, and feminism’s detrimental effects on it. Even though you also hear complaints about feminists teaching too much Madonna and not enough Henry James, more commonly, the claims were that feminists were teaching literature, but teaching literature badly. They had no sense of the complexity of literature; as a result, the students were being given no sense of aesthetic value, and so on and so forth. So what I wanted to do in Literature After Feminism was to set the record straight and to say, on the contrary, there is a vast body of feminist literary criticism that is very different from what it is often portrayed as being. The critiques of feminism were coming from people invested in the literary canon, and it’s obviously the case that quite a few feminists are also invested in the literary canon. My aim was, in large part, to offer a simple empirical correction to what I saw as a misguided and misleading account of what feminist critics were doing.
My own teaching has not been very concerned with literature. I tend to teach much more theory and pop culture, so in a way, the book was a shift for me. One reason I wanted to make the case for the aesthetic sophistication and subtlety of feminist work is that the feminist scholars who were teaching literature were not making the case in the public sphere. People who have been teaching Jane Austen for twenty years weren’t getting up there and saying: “Well, we do these very sophisticated feminist readings of Jane Austen.”
Having said that, I don’t want or need to make a case for a return to literature, because there is still plenty of literature around in English departments. But I think, on a personal level, I have experienced something of a return to literature—generated, in part, through writing that book. In the last year or two I have been teaching Antigone and Yukio Mishima and Thomas Mann, partly as a result also of becoming chair of our Comparative Literature program. I have also become more interested in literature as a form of philosophical thinking. That’s what I am grappling with at the moment, not always successfully: The question of literature as a mode of cognition, which is something that has been virtually banned from discussion for twenty years because of the critique of mimesis.
I am not at all prescribing a return to literature for the profession as a whole. It’s interesting for me personally, because I came out of teaching theory and cultural studies. In the case of the University of Virginia, which still has a relatively traditional undergraduate curriculum, you certainly can’t say the students are not being exposed to literature. We have only a few cultural studies courses. Of course, I can’t generalize from one specific context to the country as a whole, but I certainly don’t get a sense there is a deficit in the study of literature.
JW: Neither do I. MLA did a survey about the canon a few of years ago and found that what people teach, especially in survey courses, has in fact changed relatively little over the past thirty years. Contrary to rumor, literature is surviving quite nicely.
You mentioned that you wanted your book to reach a more general audience, and you’ve written it in, not only an accessible, but a lively style. I’ve been quoting the first line of your book to all sorts of people, and it strikes me as one of those great first lines: “I have been reading a lot about myself lately, and most of it is not very flattering.” In your 2004 essay in minnesota review, “Redescriptions of Female Masochism,” you give Richard Rorty credit for his style and also his political stance. Maybe you could talk about the idea of style and the question of a public voice.
RF: That’s one of the things I really admire about Rorty. Some of his theoretical and political stances I agree with, and some of them I disagree with quite strongly, but what I really like about his work is that he has a very powerful, and yet very accessible, way of speaking. He is able to explore these very difficult theoretical and philosophical issues, and yet to do so in an idiom that is quite powerful and compelling and idiosyncratic. He is relatively easy to read, but when you come back to the writing, it is not as easy as it looks. There are buried layers of complexity, and things are actually more subtle than they might appear at first sight, though there is also an engaging immediacy about the way he is able to express difficult ideas in very powerful images and in terse and eloquent phrases. He is one of the few, along with Toril Moi, who is able to engage with difficult theoretical questions in a very distinctive and accessible style of writing.
I’ve certainly been influenced by Rorty, but when I began writing Literature After Feminism, I actually thought of it as my Wayne Booth book! I was trying to write in a more accessible and engaging and friendly manner, as a way of luring people in who might not be interested in feminism otherwise. You are no longer speaking to the converted; you are trying to talk about feminism to people who may be indifferent, or hostile or skeptical. You are trying to speak to readers who do not necessarily share your theoretical beliefs or your political beliefs. So I wanted to have some way of bringing people in and getting them to stay until the end of the book.
JW: You were talking about the way that literature is a mode of philosophy, which brings to mind Rorty’s essay about “philosophy as a kind of writing.” On the other hand, there are plenty of people now talking about the philosophical value of literature, but what they mean by that is a certain version of the aesthetic and of beauty. How do you see literature as philosophical?
RF: I guess one parallel would be Rorty, because he is someone who suggests that literary works can make philosophical arguments. Martha Nussbaum also talks about literature as a form of moral philosophy. One of the ways in which both of those thinkers have been criticized is that they tend to rely on a mimetic view of literature—as giving accounts of real people who are engaged in moral actions, such that literature raises key questions about how we should live. But the difficulty here is a somewhat problematic view of literary meaning as a communication of certain kinds of exemplary content (political content, moral content) that becomes a model for your own behavior. That does not strike me as a sufficient way to engage with these issues.
This issue of the philosophical dimension of literature also reappears in the much trumpeted return to ethics. Levinas is obviously a key figure here: Those who buy his ideas often want to claim that the otherness of literature is in some sense analogous to the otherness of persons. My worry is that much of this talk about ethics ends up re-ontologizing literature as a sphere of mysterious ineffability.
One thing I am doing at the moment is puzzling over certain works of late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century literature (not just literature, but also film and opera), in terms of a book I am trying to write on tragic women. These imaginative texts, it seems to me, offer much more sophisticated ways of thinking about notions of structure and agency and contextualization than our political theories often do. The argument is not to say these works are important because there is some ineffable aesthetic realm that is opposed to the political. The point is to say that imaginative art may complicate and enrich our theoretical frameworks by revealing the impoverished nature of some of our political categories.
Take, for example, the whole debate about structure versus agency in feminism. On the one hand, the idea of independent subjectivity has been pretty much blown out of the water. On the other hand, there is a strongly deterministic position, which has become commonplace now, that we are completely inscribed by culture. Neither of those arguments seem to be satisfactory. Certain imaginative works of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries have much richer ways of thinking about the relationship between structure and agency. People are socially embedded, and yet capable of acting in ways that are often quite unpredictable and cannot be fully encapsulated by their environment. Our ways of thinking about context, structure and agency could be enriched by considering how these terms work in imaginative texts.
These ideas are somewhat embryonic at the moment. I am extremely invested, and identified with a historical and historicist mode of interpretation, but you inevitably reach the limits of a certain methodology; you start to think about what’s wrong with that methodology and what it does not allow you to do. Hence, I started to think about what contextualization cannot account for, and how works of fiction are often self-conscious meditations on the value and the limits of contextualization.
For example, I recently taught a course on gender and sexuality in contemporary fiction. The rationale of the course was not so much to use feminist theory and queer theory to read contemporary fiction, but to think about the ways in which fiction is writing back to those theories. Many contemporary novels are written by people who are quite familiar with feminism, queer theory and so on, and they are self-consciously engaging with and revising and criticizing those theories in really interesting ways. This often involves questioning the explanatory power of certain forms of political contextualization.
Similarly, it strikes me that an important antecedent for our contemporary socio-political theorizing is actually the nineteenth-century novel. The nineteenth-century novel is the first of its type to utilize sociological thinking, to be fascinated with the minute details and subtle variations of context and how they shape behavior, anticipating much of our contemporary language about situated-ness, location, etc. And yet many of these same novels also make it clear that aspects of human behavior resist being captured and categorized according to the calibrations of sociohistorical methods.
JW: You have criticized the avant-gardist or transgressive pose of modernism, but you said before that what you were trying to do in your writing was to see things anew, or praising Moi or Rorty for seeing things in a new way. In some sense, is what you are trying to do in criticism a kind of modernist aesthetic?
RF: That is an interesting point. Maybe you’re right, but the crucial difference is that I am interested in the defamiliarization of certain kinds of entrenched critical moves, rather than of literary styles. Moreover, my interest in new modes of thought is not packed together, in any kind of automatic way, with claims about being transgressive. One of the things I am most frustrated with now is the endemic nature of the appeal to the transgressive in contemporary theory. We work in a bureaucratized academic system, where you gain your professional credentials by showing how transgressive you are. There is a weird paradox about such a form of intellectual training, one might even say a form of bad faith.
I have written quite extensively on the idea of “the everyday.” One reason why I am interested in the idea of “the everyday” is precisely as a way of getting away from the model of the academic as this sexy, transgressive figure, which strikes me as a quintessentially avant-garde idea that I don’t have much time for. There is a rhetoric of novelty in terms of what I am arguing, but in fact it is largely about a return to notions of the everyday, sameness, ordinariness and the familiar.
JW: In The Gender of Modernity, you talk about standard notions of modernism. For instance, from Irving Howe, where he gives ten characteristics of modernism (like fragmentation) and you argue for a different version of modernism—a feminized modernism set slightly earlier than the 1920 version of high modernism. What was the impetus of that project and what were its stakes?
RF: One crucial thing to explain is that my book does not have “modernism” in the title. It has “modernity” in the title. I tried to make explicit a distinction between modernity and modernism (I am sure the distinction is familiar to you), where “modernity” is a term for a historical period starting somewhere between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century—depending on your disciplinary training, national background and particular set of intellectual proclivities—and “modernism” refers specifically to a literary and aesthetic movement roughly between 1910 and 1940. In France, it usually goes back to the 1850s, with Baudelaire.
So my book was originally intended to be an intervention, not so much in debates around aesthetic modernism, although that’s in fact where it has been more successful, but in debates about the socio-historical and philosophical project of modernity. All these claims were being made that modernity was bad for women, or that modernity was synonymous with rationalization, or that modernity led to the pushing of women into the private sphere. So my thoughts were: If you redefine modernity by taking into account female-centered phenomena, such as shopping, melodrama, motherhood and so on, then your very notion of what constitutes modernity will change quite dramatically.
The point was, on the one hand, to question the notions of modernity in sociology, which were very totalizing, which tended to focus on the instrumental rationality side and which ignored questions of the aesthetic, the erotic and so on. On the other hand, it was also to question theories of aesthetic modernism, insofar as they took certain works of literary modernism as being emblematic of the entire culture of modernity. Certain works were deemed to crystallize the entire ethos of the period. If you took a cultural studies approach to the question of the modern and looked at it in terms of a vast constellation of discourses and practices, and if you made gender central rather than peripheral, how would your understanding of the modern change?
JW: The Gender of Modernity is nearly ten years old. How would you revise it if you took it up now? Or would you leave it the same?
RF: I am still reasonably happy with what I wrote. The book was, perhaps, a bit too ambitious in the sense that it dealt with England and France and Germany. But I set it up in terms of a model of interlocking chapters, looking at various facets of modernity, and I made melodrama central to modernity, which hadn’t been the case before. I explored the links between the idea of sexual perversion and avant-garde aesthetics; I looked at sociological discourse, the way sociology often positioned women as an object of nostalgia. Those arguments I still hold by. But, after Gilroy’s work and all the debates around postcolonialism and modernity, I now feel that I could have dealt with the question of alternative modernities more substantially.
I tried to re-conceptualize the idea of modernity through a cultural studies rubric. In that sense I think that my book, among others, has had a certain impact; there is no longer the sense that if you work on the modernist period, you have to write on Pound or Woolf. Now there is much more openness to popular culture, to Rudolf Valentino movies or whatever. But in terms of the broader theoretical questions about the links between literary and sociological concepts of the modern, I am not sure there has been much change. Sociology has gone on pretty much the same way it did before.
JW: Let me ask you a question about transgression. What is the litmus test for good or bad kinds of transgression, or truly political and fake kinds of transgression?
RF: Well, the whole idea of the avant-garde worked itself through close to a hundred years ago, when we had Surrealism and Dada; it seems to me that we are caught in a weird moment of compulsively repeating avant-garde notions of transgression, and thinking that being shocking is a radical political act. That strikes me as absolutely deluded. My point is not to criticize purported transgression as not being transgressive enough; my point is that I don’t think transgression is an interesting concept to work with anymore. It does not seem to be doing anything.
JW: I’m always interested to find out the intellectual formation of people, and how they come to do the kind of things they do. At lunch you were saying that you’ve been at the University of Virginia for about ten years, and before that you were at Murdoch University in Australia. And you did your undergraduate training in England. I’m trying to figure out the timeline.
RF: I have had a weird trajectory, but one advantage has been that I had to engage in a process of complete retraining several times, which has been good for me. I did an undergraduate degree at Cambridge in French and German—a very orthodox, New Critical training in how to read texts. Then I went to Australia to do a PhD in German, at Monash University in Melbourne, which at the time had some quite remarkable people working there. Their orientation was basically neo-Marxist and Habermasian. I was taken in hand as someone who had been indoctrinated by the English ruling class, and was introduced to a whole new world of political and social theory. I ended up doing a dissertation on feminism, with an incredibly smart dissertation director who was not very sympathetic to feminism. He simply did not buy any of the forms of feminist literary theory popular at the time, so he would completely demolish any argument I made. That was painful, but ultimately very productive, because I ended up meshing my feminism with Habermasianism. The result was a dissertation that went on to be fairly successful.
JW: That was Beyond Feminist Aesthetics?
RF: That was my dissertation, with a few changes. Then I got my first job at Perth in Australia, and I had to undergo two new forms of training.
JW: What year was it when you got your first job?
RF: 1987. I went to Perth and all the significant intellectuals there were completely into poststructuralism. So I had a trial by fire, where I had to learn Derrida and Foucault, because all the first-year undergraduates were required to read Derrida and Foucault. I had to get up to scratch very quickly. It was an incredibly high-powered, highly charged intellectual atmosphere. A lot of great people were there. John Frow has gone on to become a major figure. Bob Hodge is an important figure in semiotics.
On the other hand, it was also a key place for cultural studies, which I also knew very little about at the time. A lot of students were interested in pop culture. John Hartley was there, and so were many other cultural studies people. So I got two new trainings—one in the history and theory of cultural studies, the other in poststructuralism.
Then I moved again, to the University of Virginia, and I was exposed for the first time to traditional, and actually Leavisite, ways of thinking about literature that I hadn’t really come across before.
JW: And there were people like Rorty there.
RF: Yeah, there was Rorty. There was New Literary History. Certainly when I arrived in 1993-94, it was still very much a traditional English department, but there was this other set of things going on at Virginia too, which was very exciting.
JW: You talk about your background in a couple of places, particularly in the essay that was in PMLA called “Doing Time,” about the lower-middle class. The great thing about that essay, I think, is that it revises the standard paradigm of the sets of classes, and inserts this class between the professional managerial class and the working class—that’s neither working-class nor fully middle-class either, in terms of salary and status. Anyway, what is your background and how do you think that it reflects on what you do?
RF: I find it hard to talk about my personal biography. My parents were from Eastern Europe. My father came from Poland and my mother came from Czechoslovakia, and I grew up in Birmingham in England.
JW: What did they do?
RF: My father was a draftsman, and my mother was a housewife. My father died when I was fairly young—I was 14. I am one of the grateful beneficiaries of the welfare state. We were living on a basic widow’s pension, probably equivalent to $200 a week now, or maybe less. Thanks to a social system that is now gradually being dismantled, I got free dental care and free medical care, and I went to Cambridge on a full scholarship.
JW: As a final question, what you are working on now? You mentioned a project called Tragic Women.
RF: I have two sets of interests at the moment. One relates to the state of literary and cultural studies generally, and addresses questions of methodology and method. We have become infatuated with making big political and theoretical claims about the world, but it seems to me that we often don’t think in enough detail about how to justify the arguments we make and the kind of evidence we use to substantiate them.
For example, I have been writing a fair amount lately about articulation as a central part of the methodology of cultural studies, and as a method that is fundamentally different from other politically motivated forms of textual interpretation.
JW: How do you mean articulation?
RF: I mean articulation as developed by Ernesto Laclau, Stuart Hall, Lawrence Grossberg and others—as a way of conceptualizing how texts may or may not relate to broader political frameworks. Take the model of a train that has a locomotive at the front and a whole series of carriages hooked up to it that can be replaced as necessary. This image crystallizes the notion of articulation, as a process by which connections between disparate phenomena are made, unmade and remade. Articulation is thus a way of conceptualizing how different elements of the social field may come together to form temporary unities, without us needing to think of society as an expressive totality whose entirety is reflected or crystallized in every one of its parts. Many forms of political criticism work with the assumption that doing a close reading of a particular work will generate miraculous insights into a broader sociopolitical structure, because that structure is condensed within an individual work, a microcosm that leads out into the macrocosm. Articulation rejects the idea that reading a grain of sand, as Grossberg says, enables insights into a broad social world, and argues that the meaning of the text can only be understood in relation to its changing and variable articulations.
One of Hall’s examples would be religion. Rather than saying that religion is patriarchal or bourgeois, the claim is that religion has no necessary meaning whatsover. It is articulated very differently as it is hooked up to competing interests and different groupings. At certain points specific articulations may be relatively stable, so it is not at all an idea synonymous with complete freedom and dispersal, but it does include a notion of contingency—so articulations can be unmade and remade quite differently in specific contexts.
My point is simply that the methodology of cultural studies and the Stuart Hall-Birmingham tradition has been closely tied to the idea of articulation. That’s precisely why close reading, in my view, is not central to the tradition of cultural studies, because close reading cannot give you an adequate understanding of the political meanings and effects of texts. These can only be understood by explaining how a text is hooked up to a constellation of forces in a particular moment.
JW: You said there were two things you were working on. Is the other the project on tragic women?
RF: I am also planning to write a book on tragic women, which looks at a whole range of texts from the mid-nineteenth century up to the present. I am including the obvious examples (Hedda Gabler, The Awakening, Madame Bovary), but also quite a few 1940s film melodramas, maybe Mildred Pearce or Imitation of Life.
It is this project that has inspired some of my current thoughts about the political and philosophical functions of imaginative art. Part of my argument is that tragic theory is woefully insufficient in terms of gender, because once you make women central to theories of tragedy, all the usual arguments about Promethean heroes and overweening ambition go out of the window. Tragic women are not tragic in those ways. Hence I engage at some length with the distinction between tragedy and melodrama. My argument is that a lot of 1940s film melodramas about women are, in fact, tragedies—but haven’t been recognized as such. So, on the one hand, I want to rethink tragic theory by looking at more mundane and popular works, and by taking women seriously as tragic protagonists. On the other hand, I also want to argue that these tragic texts have a great deal to teach feminism, aesthetically, politically and philosophically.