Contents of spoon-archives/french-feminism.archive/Lubbock.abstracts/droppleman

Exposing Norms: Chantal Chawaf's Unruly Ecriture Feminine Elizabeth Droppleman bdroppl@grove.ufl.EDU Combining startling sensuous images with flowing lyrical prose, contemporary French novelist, playwright and philosopher Chantal Chawaf has published a staggering 17 works in the last 20 years. Praising Chawaf's literary talents, critics emphasize that her dazzling combinations of words, images and metaphors forge new possibilities for conceptualizing the body, particularly the female body. Nonetheless, she remains a controversial figure among feminist and literary critics who insist that traditional archetypes of woman and established literary convention contaminate her avant-garde practice of "ecriture feminine" ("feminine writing"). The epithet "ecriture feminine" groups together an eclectic corpus of texts by radical female intellectuals writing from the early 1970s to the present. Jaded by their male counterparts in the revolution of '68, these authors initiated their own revolt; they purloined the intellectual and literary weapons of this still too conventional peer group whose modus operandi was grounded in the questioning of all established convention. On what grounds, then, can critics repudiate Chawaf's version of a practice that epitomizes the seditious values of "ecriture feminine?" Through a rereading of Chawaf's first and best-known novel Retable-La Reverie, "Exposing Norms" contests the limits such critics have imposed on Chawaf's ecriture "feminine," in order to demonstrate how her project is a quintessential example of this radical practice; in effect, her texts not only subvert traditional literary and generic norms, they work within, yet against, the establishment of "ecriture feminine" itself to expose and expand the boundaries of this avant-garde writing practice. Understudied and misunderstood, Chawaf's work has been viewed as fundamentally contradictory in both content and form. Despite a plethora of original narrative techniques, critics declare her overt conformity to norms of genre to be cliched. Although her poetic style aims to represent the body in innovative ways, feminist critics claim her texts reiterate an unenlightened paradigm of woman's nature. Like the Virgin Mary and Dante's Beatrice, her female characters are presented as closer to nature than males, and as the medium of access through which man can communicate with higher spiritual forces. In this paradigm, her critics claim, woman functions only in relation to man; passive, she serves only in his quest for self-knowledge. Chawaf's subversive avant-garde practice seems deeply flawed to readers who enter her texts searching for radical innovation, yet find there the very conventions they wished to escape. I will argue, however, that her excessive displays of convention are by no means gratuitous. On the contrary, these displays form an integral part of what I call her mimetic strategy, similar to Luce Irigaray's mimicry. Rereading Chawaf's texts through the optic of mimetic strategy can shed light on her poetic and narrative strategies as well as her marginal place within the avant-garde practice of "ecriture feminine." In turn, the analysis of her work can broaden our notion of generic categories, and the strategies available, however controversial, of "ecriture feminine." While "mimesis" traditionally denotes the faithful representation of nature, Chawaf's mimetic strategy entails a hyperbolic performance of gender and genre norms which actually parodies them. This parody exposes not only the nature of representation itself as a construction, but the norms of gender and literary convention as just that, conventions. In doing so, her parodies undermine not only literary and gender norms, but the patriarchal values that support and sustain them. Whether using the tools of feminist criticism, psychoanalytic discourse or literary convention, Chawaf actually exploits these discourses as "discourses" in order to expose their aporia to her own ends. Part I of this paper lays the theoretical foundation for understanding Chawaf's mimetic strategy, focusing on Irigaray's critique of phallogocentric logic and her work towards opening this discursive system which prohibits a feminine symbolic. Part II explores Chawaf's use of biblical and psychoanalytic tropes, ones which historically have served to marginalize women, in her first novel Retable-La Reverie. I contend that she employs these tropes in a subtle yet paradoxical way to displace them. Instead of reinforcing stereotypical conceptions of the female body, her use of hyperbolic poetic language coopts them, in an attempt to expose and revise them. The final section investigates Chawaf's creative use of conventional literary norms which set boundaries for their very transgression, putting into question the notion of genre itself. Far from operating transparently as critics suggest, I argue that Chawaf's lavish use of the most commonplace of generic constructs in Retable-La Reverie is part of her radical mimetic strategy for interrogating the authoritarian pretense of textual closure. Whether strategically using psychoanalytic and biblical tropes, or boundary markers of genre, her radical practice of "ecriture feminine" remains faithful to the subversion of all established convention, and presents an example "par excellence"of innovative avant-garde feminist writing.

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