Your Tongue is a Feminist
[edited 3/3/12 for formatting]
The feminism of the tongue is an inescapable idea of the trajectory of our course this semester. The tongue serves as a tripartite motif, representing three distinct but tightly interwoven branches. Food, language, and sex, especially sex that occurs between women, are all captured in the motif of the tongue. All three have been heavily represented in the feminist exploration through literature that is the project of our course, and the reasons for their consistent recurrence is the feminist nature of the tongue itself, with licking as a uniquely feminist mode of inquiry and understanding. I take as my primary example the text of Licking Belly by Gertrude Stein, but it is not the only example we have studied.
Gertrude Stein’s Lifting Belly is wholly exemplary of this tripartite motif of the tongue. The idea of tongues is present in Lifting Belly on the aforementioned three levels. Firstly, it can be seen in the way in which Stein uses language. In her highly avant-garde and experimental writing style, Stein pushes the constraints of usage of language. Stein values the tongue as the site of language, focusing in this way on the “taste” of her words. As such, her words are not chosen for their representational meaning correlated from word to image or concept but rather chosen for how they are as letters and sounds. Stein explores the surface of words--a surface that is not seen but explored by the tongue in verbalization. The second layer of the importance of the the tongue to Lifting Belly is the motif of food that permeates the piece. Stein’s constant references to food--figs, peaches, salmon, nectarines, apricots, jelly, butter, and many others-- serve to provide a particular sort of sensuality. The titular phrase “lifting belly,” true to the nature of the poem’s use of language, seems to serve as a stand in for a variety of ideas. The use of the word “belly” is definitely evocative of a connection to food. In any case, food is an important element to Lifting Belly that is heavily involved in the idea of tongues. The third layer is the sexual nature of the poem, Stein’s focus on the intimate sexual relationship between two women, also tied to the tongue motif due to the nature of lesbian sex, especially the sexual act of cunnilingus. “Lifting belly” can easily be taken to indicate some or various aspect of sex, like the arching of the back associated with pleasure and orgasm. All three branches involved in the motif of the tongue are heavily present in Lifting Belly, arguably the tongue and the sense of taste carries the full weight of the sensuality of what is primarily a sensuous poem.
The motif of tongues is not limited to Licking Belly but rather has been infused all throughout this semesters explorations. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is another piece we have looked at in which the feminist project of the art is accomplished by evoking all three aspects of the tongue motif. The thesis of The Dinner Party is that there are a great deal of historically significant female figures that get omitted from the conventional narrative of culture, and Chicago’s response is to try to bring these women forward out of obscurity. The mechanism of representation used by Chicago is to invite them to dinner, their place at the table given to them quite literally. This serves the motif of the tongue in multiple ways. The grand dinner party implies delicious foods, of course, providing this food as a forum. Effectively, they “break bread together” and their dinner party cements them as a coalition, a group of women who eat together and are raised from obscurity together. Aside from the food itself, the imagery of a dinner party evokes the tongue motif in that the “place at the table” provided by Chicago’s piece is a position as a participant in discourse. The Dinner Party’s guests can hardly be imagined to sit around and eat in silence. The project of the art piece is very much to bring voices--language--to the women represented there. Also important to note is the vulva representations in the plates at every setting, certainly recognizably attributable to the historical moment in which Chicago was working, meant to give positive depiction to the form of the female genitals. It is a fascinating imagery, to have the plates be depictions of the vulva when plates are to be eaten off of-- the suggestion of cunnilingus is fairly potent, as is the lesbian nature of the act. It is women, after all, who are to be seated at the dinner party, eating off of plates laden with the imagery of the vulva. Once again, the tripartite motif of the tongue carries this feminist project, language, food, and sex all present in Chicago’s attempt at a feminist message. Still more of the other pieces we have used in our course invoke the very same themes. The sensuality of Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti as it lavishes the reader with salacious descriptions of food, especially fruit, in which we as a group saw themes of sexuality and potentially lesbian themes. We read The Book of Salt by Monique Truong, whose main character is Binh, a Vietnamese cook living in Paris and working for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, also takes a lot of care in its sensualist descriptions of food and focuses on language, both Binh’s issues of communication and the meta-level of the language that is the book itself. “Canzone” by Marilyn Hacker explores explicitly “the three functions of the tongue: / taste, speech, the telegraphy of pleasure”.
But what is it about the tongue and feminism? Could it be that taste is a feminist sense? Kathy Neustadt in her essay “The Folkloristics of Licking” argues that the Western privileging of sight as the basis for analysis is flawed, and advocates for licking as a new and valuable mode of analysis. “Sniffing, tasting, touching (licking partakes of all three): they are so immediate, so intense, so of the body,” (Neustadt, 185) and “of the body” is an incredibly anxious position for a society that prefers it’s analysis to be grounded in sight, which is far less messy, dirty, bodily or direct. In fact, Neustadt argues that the cultural associations with things that are of the body, “bodily needs and bodily pleasures” are described as “natural, physical, irrational, sensual, emotional, animalistic, and erotic” (Neustadt, 185). These same words are also culturally associated with the “Other,” including the feminine. So to correct the omission of this entire form of sensory perception and analysis from the discourse, and one that is so associated with femininity to boot, is undoubtedly a feminist project.
The very nature of licking as analysis employs methods that are inherently feminist. The closeness of licking as opposed to “sensory distance, occular focus, objectification and decontextualization” (Neustadt, 186) of sight results in an intimacy that removes the threat of systematic oppression. Licking is “‘non-sense’; because it is not a ‘system’--not even an organ--but a composite of experiences and, therefore, a more-totalizing reality” (Neustadt 193). The emphasis on a fuller, richer, more encompassing understanding, while preserving the intimacy and subjectivity of experience is so tied up in our work in class discussions, our professed feminism leading us to strive to respect the experiences of as many people as can be included without erasure or exploitation. Perhaps it is what has led us to our many conversations about food, taste, language, sensuality that we never realized depended on tongues and licking.
The language of Lifting Belly is not visual, but rather, it licks. It does as licking does, and as feminism does. It experiments, explores. The clarity of sight would never allow for the dancing around the phrase “lifting belly” that is employed by Stein. Stein explores “lifting belly” with the trial and error nature of “licking and learning” (Neustadt, 191), describing its traits as they are discovered. To taste is to test, a reiterative and contemplative exploration of what something is or isn’t-- “Lifting belly is so strong” and “Lifting belly is no joke” and “Lifting belly has charm” (Stein, 6). In Licking Belly, the content and language are intertwined. “Licking is about more than just the tongue; it is about sex,” (Neustadt, 190) and from Stein’s licking language emerges eroticism and sensuality. The repetition of short simple sentences punctuated with longer sections of prose all gives a rhythm to Licking Belly that reflects the “licking and learning and loving” (Neustadt, 193), the testing for what is true or isn’t true that occurs in licking as learning and the testing for what gives or doesn’t give pleasure in licking as loving, fused by the prose into the same act.
Truong, Monique T. D. The Book of Salt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Print.
Stein, Gertrude. Lifting Belly. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad, 1989. Print.
Neustadt, Kathy. "The Folkloristics of Licking." The Journal of American Folklore107.423 (1994): 181-96. JSTOR. Web. 23 Feb. 2012.
Marilyn Hacker. “Canzone.” <http://reassignedtime.blogspot.com/2007/11/poetry-friday-marilyn-hacker.html>
Rosetti, Christina. "Goblin Market." Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems. Project Gutenberg.