Critical Feminist Studies Paper 1

lrperry's picture

Laura Perry

October 3rd, 2008 

Middlesex is a record of a life of a specific view point, a specific embodiment through culture and history, written by Jeffrey Eugenides who does not share that viewpoint. This sort of literary imaginative act calls to our attention the politics of representation, of who is allowed to represent whom. In doing so, it questions the limits of both political and literary representation. The act of writing from a minority point of view which is not your own can be an oppressive act, but it can also be a political one. Writing from the point of view of those in the dominant discourse, those who most commonly see themselves reflected in literature and politics, can be political too, of course. But there is perhaps a feminist particularity to inhabiting and unraveling a minority subject, a subject about which there is silence and mystery in both the political and literary discourse. Investigating the specific political nature of Cal’s narration can provide a feminist literary model, in Cal’s ubiquitous and persistent connection of his own personal narrative with political events. Cal and his story suggest that there are damaging political inadequacies in literary representation, in elements as fundamental as language, but that these inadequacies can be overcome with imagination and a determination to engage with and connect with the world. Cal’s narration provides us with both a demonstration of the problem, as well as a possible solution.

Cal names language as patriarchal and inadequate, thereby figuring writing and representing as a political act. Because the inadequacies within language are connected with an oppressive political and social system, to work against those inadequacies, even for personal reasons, is a political act. It is an act which has ramifications not solely for one’s own specific narrative. Cal writes: “Maybe the best proof that language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling” (217). This statement involves both a political and feminist viewpoint about language, and in this way Cal explicitly links politics and representation at the most fundamental level. The nature of representation, of the available representation, is a political situation. It is a communal political situation, which does not cohere only around the choices of individuals. Language is a shared phenomenon; it is deeply bound to the act of dialogue and communication. Monologues may exist, perhaps, but Cal specifically sets up his narration as a dialogue: “I feel you out there, reader. This is the only kind of intimacy I’m comfortable with. Just the two of us, here in the dark” (319). That kind of intimacy is intensely personal, but it is not apolitical. Cal may deliberately attempt to cast this moment as private, as in a dark room with just two people, but it remains a public act. It is public not only because a published narrative is a public act, but also because interactions between two people involving representation are in some ways also political. The act of choosing language to express an idea or concept to another subject, because it involves not only an act of choice, but also an act of persuasion and dialogue, is a political move. It is a move towards a dialogue, but it is simultaneously a move towards creating a shared world view – a political platform. Cal acknowledges the political nature of this moment, as the inadequacies of language and the necessity of communication lead him towards becoming more engaged in his own story, in his own imaginative process: “I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. I can’t just sit back and watch from a distance anymore” (217). With this statement, Cal connects both the moment of coming to speech and the moment of becoming active in the world, in trying to change the world. It is this lack of representation of his own private subjective experience which leads him towards public and political action.

Cal similarly describes the lack of adequate representation of minority discourse in the medium of television.  In this case the representation is more clearly political, as it deals with a moment and a movement of civil unrest. That it involves a minority group coming to action and coming to speech about their own situation is particularly significant when connected to Cal’s assertions about the patriarchal nature of language, and its possible inability to represent the full spectrum of human existence. Like language, television shows itself unable to contain the fullness of the minority experience. Cal witnesses the 1967 Detroit riots, a personal and political witnessing, and from his own minority stance expresses a fuller and more subjectively imaginative narrative representation of this political act than the television. He writes, “It turned out that when it happened, the revolution wasn’t televised. On TV they called it only a riot” (251). Indeed, Cal works to name this act, to record it as specifically significant in the narrative of American political history. He calls it “The Second American Revolution” (248). In this way, Cal is using the patriarchal language to represent with importance an event that was diminished by the nature of its televised representation. Admittedly, there are difficulties that arise from working within the system, within a system that works to oppress one’s own subjectivity even as one works to express it. Cal’s act of naming, and his act of claiming that event which he witnesses as historically significant, fills the representational void left by the televised version of events. He works from his own particular point of view, already cast as a minority subject, to use what power he has as a namer, as representer, to recast and reclaim these events. He uses his personal view, and his personal act of witnessing, as a means of validation of his attempt to add to the political discourse.

Accordingly, the narrative tone consistently elides the difference between the political and the personal. Though the subject of Cal claims to be “apolitical” (319), the narrator as a subject works repeatedly with political material in the margins. In instance after instance, the smaller asides or descriptive phrases use political material. Indeed, this political content seems deliberately chosen, not only to provide a historical and temporal sense to the narration, as specific events are woven in and provide a backdrop for Cal’s own life, but also as a means to subtly make political comments. He writes of his mother, arguing with his father: “She didn’t surrender until after Japan had” (8). He writes of himself as an adolescent: “With Nixonian cunning, Calliope unwrapped and flushed away a flotilla of unused Tampax” (361). He writes of his house, of Middlesex: “A house that was more like communism, better in theory than reality” (258). For a supposedly apolitical narrator, Cal seems inordinately drawn to political metaphors and similes. The effect of these frequent yet seemingly insignificant metaphors is to constantly tie personal narratives to political narratives, and to tie political narratives to the personal. The two are not distinct in Middlesex. Rather, they inform each other, and each provides the limits and the possibilities for the other. Political events become metaphors for personal representation, and personal representation becomes a means of expressing political events, as with the riots in Detroit.

Cal as narrator is a particularly effective political literary subject because he inhabits multiple locations within the political system of society. He traffics not only as a daughter and son of immigrants, but as an ex-pat himself. He lives as a girl, he lives as a man, and he lives as intersex. He works as an underwater stripper and for the U.S. government. He lives in Berlin and he is homeless. He is in a position to notice the subtlety of privilege, and the perhaps inevitability of privilege while working within the current political and representational system. He writes, “I couldn’t become a man without becoming The Man” (518). As an outsider who becomes an insider, Cal notices the insidiousness of privilege. At this point Cal’s hermaphroditism can become almost metaphorical. He is straddling the line between privilege and non-privilege. He is a model for those groups who seek privilege, a one-man example of the dangers and responsibility of gaining privilege. His experience as ‘a man’ and ‘The Man’ is a useful and transferrable model to other outsider individuals. Cal may be seen as the ‘The Man’, but in his own self-conscious understanding of this privilege, and in his own representation of what makes him not-privileged, his minority narrative, he works against the structures which enable this name and this position.  

Cal as narrator can be used as a feminist model for literary and political representation. By acknowledging both his own privileged status and his minority status, Cal elides the two misleadingly distinct categories. All of us are privileged on some axes and a minority on others. His narrative mechanisms also work to explore the complex relationship of the personal story and the political story, and the means to change one by changing the other. The act of representation is at once an act of appearance, of images and reproduction, and an act of persuasion. Cal’s narration does not simply offer his story as a personal narrative, nor is it wholly political. Nor can any of us be. Eugenides writes from a standpoint which is not his own, but he performs a similar move to Cal’s naming of the Detroit riots. He brings to light a subjective experience which the modes of political and literary representation seek to disavow. He complicates our understanding of what it means to be political, and what it means to be personal. The imperfections of Middlesex are useful, because they work to demonstrate the limits of literary representation as well. That Eugenides has imaginatively created this personal and political narrative, and yet that we know he is not trans himself, reminds us that there is a gap between representation and reality. But it is that gap which makes imagination possible, and it is that gap which motivates change.

Works Cited

Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002.


Anne Dalke's picture

The Literary as Political

You've composed a thoughtful, deliberative inquiry, lrperry, into the nature of representation, and the political work that literature can do...your conclusion that "it is the gap which makes imagination possible" puts me in mind of one of the key ideas of my graduate education: Wolfgang Iser's "gap of indeterminacy," the cognitive space between the word and what it represents, between the representation and its interpretation. You make that space one of agency: not only a space of where representation, but also politics, can be negotiated...very nicely done!

My questions have to do with the limits of those claims. The first has to do with the relatively privilege of a position that can assume that to speak is a political act, one that can have consequences; I can imagine that there are positions in the world where speaking is not adequate, where it will not get the results that one needs or wants. I'm thinking of some of the theoretical work of Chandra Mohanty, for instance, who says in "Feminist Politics" that "There is an irreconcilable tension between the search for a secure place from which to speak, within which to act, and the awareness of the price at which secure places are bought, the awareness of the exclusions, the denials, the blindnesses on which they are predicated."

My second question has to do with the bi-directionality of the personal and the political in your essay; you allow each, @ different moments in both Eugenides' text and your own, to stand in for the other: "political events become metaphors for personal representation, and personal representation becomes a means of expressing political events." This is key to your argument, and well demonstrated; what I'm asking about is what might be lost in such an equation. I'm put in mind of a very famous 1955 letter in which the novelist Flannery O'Connor described a dinner party with Mary McCarthy:

She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.

Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist...when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.

That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
Does this question make sense? You've done a fine job of showing how the literary can be political; I am asking if the literary can ever be just, well, literal. Not symbolic, not standing-in-for, not representative....

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