July 01, 2008

‘Introduction: Rereading Rape’ by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (p. 1–11)

Higgins and Silver begin their introduction by recalling Beckett’s question, ‘What does it matter who is speaking?,’ a question imbedded in postmodern questioning of identity. However, for Higgins and Silver the question of who is speaking is very important when one is speaking about sexual violence and its representations in literature, since as they state, ‘the politics and aesthetics of rape are one’ (1).

Higgins and Silver are adamant that their project is not only in the imagination, but in the world: a world where ‘rape cultures’ are accepted and remain unquestioned. What Higgins and Silver find most worrying and intriguing is the ‘obsessive inscription – and an obsessive erasure – of sexual violence against women’ (2). In opposition to this erasure, ‘[f]eminist modes of “reading” rape and its cultural manifestations, displacements, and transformations of what amounts to an insidious cultural myth’ (2).

Part of this feminist project involves highlighting the fact that representations of rape in art and literature often contain the same assumptions and prejudices that are seen all too often in the courtroom. Higgins and Silver suggest that ‘representations of rape after the event are almost always framed by a masculine perspective premised on men’s fantasies about female sexuality and their fears about false accusation, as well as their codified access top and possession of women’s bodies’ (2). The onus is on the woman to prove her own innocence in the courtroom and often in literature.

Unsurprisingly then, rape often appears in literature as ‘an absence or a gap that is both product and source of textual anxiety, contradiction, or censorship’ (3). Higgins and Silver add that it can also be represented via a kind of ventriloquism where accepted platitudes surrounding rape are repeated, rather than more authentic and thoughtful explanations being offered. This needs to be challenged, because what is at stake is the very nature of gender relations. As Higgins and Silver intimate, ‘rape and rapability are central to the very construction of gender identity and […] our subjectivity and sense of ourselves as sexual beings are inextricably enmeshed in representations’ (3).

It is obvious then that the project is significant and admirable, but how are Higgins and Silver to go about creating it? The critics reply that there must be an ‘unravelling’ of ‘cultural texts that have obsessively made rape so pervasive and so invisible a theme – made it “unreadable”’ (3). To combat this, one must adopt a tactic of ‘listening not only to who speaks and in what circumstances, but who does not speak and why’ (3). Theirs is a strategy of recuperation as they ‘listen for stories that differ from the master(’s) story’, as they ‘recuperate what has too often been left out; the physical violation and the women who find ways to speak it’ (3).

To sum up, Higgens and Silver endorse the following tenets in creating the collection, Rape and Representation:
1. that the essays will focus on women representing themselves searching for ‘breakthroughs’ whereby ‘rape gets represented in spite of its suppression’ (4);
2. and that in the essays, it will be recognised that rape is a bodily violation contradicting its reframing as ‘a metaphor or a symbol or represented rhetorically as titillation, persuasion, ravishment, seduction, or desire (poetic, narrative, courtly, military)’ (4).
There are a number of other challenges recognised by Higgens and Silver in the list of questions below:

Do women who write of rape – and until recently, especially among white women in the Anglo-American tradition recently, these have been few in number – find a way out of the representational double binds confronting those women who attempt to escape their entrapment in the patriarchal story? Do women of colour within the United States or “third world” women, who have addressed the taboo subject more often and more openly, offer subversive perspectives? It is also necessary to recognize the disturbing fault lines that appear within men’s texts and to ask what role male authors play in uncovering the structures that brutalize women’s bodies and erase their subjectivity. Do these texts reveal traces of masculine sexual anxiety or guilt? And are even male authors who recognize their complicity in the violence of the gender system ultimately caught in its powerful meshes? (4-5)

Higgens and Silver don’t answer these questions now, but they outline the five sections of the book in detail.
1. Prior Violence. This section goes back to some the earliest stories about rape in Western culture and it studies the legacy left by such tales in our culture.
2. The Rhetoric of Elision. Here the focus is ‘the scene of elision in male texts about rape’ and there is discussion of male authors’ (von Kleist, Hardy, Forster) ambivalence about the violence in the text (5).
3. Writing the Victim. This section questions to what extent literary texts (Shakespeare’s Lucrece, Yambo Ouloguem’s Le Devoir de violence, Soni Labou Tansi’s La Vie et demie, various novels by Clarice Lispector) contribute to ‘social and narrative acts of victimization’ (6).
4. Framing Institutions. The analysis here ‘shifts the emphasis from writing the victim to the institutional discourses in which rape occurs’ e.g. ‘Medieval legal codes and judicial practice […]; Renaissance political structures and the heroic ethos of courtly love […]; slavery and its legacy – racism – including their enactment in lynching’ (6). The critics seek to undermine each frame in which sexual violence is naturalised.
5. Unthinking the Metaphor. To conclude, the final essays focus on ‘aesthetic categories’ whether that be the Western lyric tradition or the multiple narratives of postmodernism.

Higgens, Lynn A. and Brenda R. Silver. 1991.‘Introduction: Rereading Rape’. Rape and Representation. Ed. Lynn A. Higgens and Brenda R. Silver. New York: Columbia University Press. 1-11.

Further Reading
Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse eds. 1989. The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence. New York: Routledge.
Castle, Terry. 1982. Clarissa’s Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson’s “Clarissa”. Ithica: Cornell University Press.
de Lauretis, Teresa. 1987. ‘The Violence of Rhetoric: Considerations on Representation and Gender’. 1987. Technologies and Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Bloomington and Indianopolis: Indiana University Press. 31-50.
Estrich, Susan. 1987. Real Rape. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Ferguson, Frances. 1987. ‘Rape and the Rise of the Novel.’ Representations 20: 88-112.
Froula, Christine. 1986. ‘The Daughter’s Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History.’ Signs 11: 621-644.
Herman, Dianne. 1984. ‘The Rape Culture.’ Women: a Feminist Perspective. Ed. Jo Freeman. Palo Alto, Calif.: Mayfield. (no page numbers given).
Herrera-Sobek, Maria. 1987. ‘The Politics of Rape; Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction.’ Americas Review 15: 171-181.
Kappeler, Susan. 1986. The Pornography of Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Mackinnon, Cathrine. 1983. ‘Feminism Marxism and the State: Towards Feminist Jurisprudence.’ Signs 8: 635-658.
Modleski, Tania. ‘Rape versus Mans/ laughter: Blackmail.’ The Women who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. New York: Menthuen, 1988. (no page numbers given).
Reeves Sanday, Peggy. 1986. ‘Rape and the Silencing of the Feminine.’ Rape. Ed. Sylvana Tomaselli and Roy Porter. Oxford: Blackwell.

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