Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory

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Figures of Resistance brings together crucial essays and unpublished lectures of internationally renowned theorist Teresa de Lauretis, spanning twenty years of her finest work. De Lauretis's rigorous thought and elegant writing interrogate how cinema, literature, and psychoanalytic theory construct and deconstruct gender, sexuality, and ways of knowing. This collection invites us to reflect on the history of feminist theory and its power to envision anew issues of representation, reading, and epistemology. Essays include "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation," "The Lure of the Mannish Lesbian," "Eccentric Subjects," "Habit Changes," "The Intractability of Desire," and the unpublished title essay "Figures of Resistance." An introduction by feminist film scholar Patricia White provides an overview of the development and essential contribution of de Lauretis's thought.

About the Author:
Teresa de Lauretis, professor of the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is crucial work. What we find here is a scholar at the top of her form paying attention to her field, in its broadest contours and attempting to make sense of it at a key moment of transition. In terms of feminist writing on cinema, there is nobody else in de Lauretis's league."
B. Ruby Rich, author of Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement

"De Lauretis's work is stimulating, innovative, and groundbreaking. Readers from a wide range of audiences will be grateful to have in a single volume the works of one of the most important feminist theorists working today."
Judith Mayne, Distinguished Humanities Professor, French and women's studies, Ohio State University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252074394
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Teresa de Lauretis is a professor of the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema and other books. Patricia White, an associate professor and chair of film and media studies at Swarthmore College, is the author of Uninvited: Classical Holywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.

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Read an Excerpt


Essays in Feminist Theory
By Teresa de Lauretis


Copyright © 2007 Teresa de Lauretis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03197-7


Thinking Feminist Patricia White

Teresa de Lauretis is among the foremost feminist theorists of the past several decades; her thought has set terms of debate at key junctures, and it helps renew the relevance of feminist theory for our current moment. Just as her background bridges Europe and America, her work links continental theories with U.S. feminism in mutually productive ways. Having edited and introduced the 1991 special issue of differences entitled "Queer Theory," she is a founder of that academic discourse who has nevertheless remained an astute critic of the status of feminist and lesbian theory within it. Her writing, evoking that of such feminist prose stylists as Virginia Woolf even while analyzing it, is at once demanding and thrillingly precise.

The eleven essays in this collection, written over the two-decade span from 1985 to 2005, demonstrate the scope and impact of Teresa de Lauretis's thought and its ongoing promise. Organized into three parts, "Representations," "Readings," and "Epistemologies," the book includes benchmark pieces as well as harder-to-find interventions. The essayshave been gathered and contextualized to illuminate their interconnections, with an emphasis on the constitution of subjectivity within representation, sexuality, and epistemology. While the volume will be welcome to readers familiar with de Lauretis's work, it can also serve as a introduction for teachers and students of women's studies and lesbian/ gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) studies, as well as for the many readers from a variety of disciplines and from outside the academy who will find de Lauretis's thinking and writing uniquely stimulating. The selections consider representations of women and lesbianism, present readings of texts that theorize and invite desire and fantasy, and construct ways of thinking about feminism and subjectivity. Sometimes they double back on each other, detour to discuss related developments (while inevitably neglecting others), and introduce concerns adjacent to feminism and theory. Taken together, they show a writer and thinker who, despite her indisputable originality and a sometimes almost intimidating command of language and concepts, is deeply dialogic.

These essays invite the reader to join in a process of revisiting and revising that de Lauretis has demonstrated is central to the project of feminist theory. In keeping with two central discourses in her ongoing work-semiotics and psychoanalysis-the concepts and practices of feminism and theory in which she engages are reciprocal and open-ended. In her work, as in the work of such contemporary feminist theorists as Donna Haraway and Chandra Mohanty, no single, static notion of feminism will do. Moreover, as feminism cannot be circumscribed in object, scope, or period, the concept of postfeminism makes little sense. Neither does de Lauretis use the term "theory" as a scientist might, as a proven postulate, "a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts"; rather, she refers to her writing and the theories she critiques as "passionate fictions." This designation, with its evocation of desire and narrative, demonstrates one way in which, for de Lauretis, feminism cannot be defined in isolation from theory or the speculative. Indeed, as I will argue, feminist specificity lies in a subjective way of knowing.

Poststructuralist theories of the subject-psychoanalytic and linguistic, cinematic and semiotic-are key to her work and to that of many of her peers, and they resonate with the feminist insight "the personal is political." This resonance is perhaps clearest in de Lauretis's concept of "the subject of feminism." The term implies "an understanding of the (female) subject as not only distinct from Woman ... the representation of an essence inherent in all women.... but also distinct from women, the real historical beings and social subjects who are defined by the technology of gender and actually engendered in social relations." That Woman and women are distinct from each other-and that therefore, despite and within the mythology of Woman, women can indeed be subjects of speech and desire, can even begin to represent Woman otherwise-is an insight eloquently elaborated in de Lauretis's transformative 1984 book Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. It is in her next book, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction (1987), that she introduces the "subject of feminism" as a third, conceptual figure, representing the tensions between idealized representation (Woman) and actual experience (women), and in particular the consciousness of this tension.

The mode of definition de Lauretis uses ("not only distinct from ..., but also distinct from ...") can frustrate some readers' and students' desire for an affirmative feminism. And yet the method enacts the thought: de Lauretis's concepts move in and out of contexts where they take on meaning in tension with other formulations. For example, the essay "The Technology of Gender" ends with a paradox. The subject of feminism is spatially and temporally located "here and now. That is to say, elsewhere." The contradiction here, possible in language if not in space, reformulates de Lauretis's assertion that the subject of feminism is both "inside and outside the ideology of gender." That is, women are constructed through gender (and other forms of) ideology, and feminism is the practice and consciousness of that ideology's limits, a "de-re-construction." The category of the subject, entailing the knowledge and the experience of being (constructed as) a woman, is central to de Lauretis's theoretical project. And the subject, as in topic, of feminism is her domain as a theorist.

The histories and itineraries of feminism shape de Lauretis's work and have in turn been shaped by it. Born in Italy in 1938 and educated there in literature, classics, and modern languages, de Lauretis emigrated as a young mother to the United States in the mid-1960s, where she taught in various Italian departments before moving to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1968. The Milwaukee campus was an epicenter of the U.S. reception of French and British film theory and a favorable environment for her first publications in film and feminist theory. The book that emerged from this period, Alice Doesn't, made an important intervention in both feminist theory and the male-dominated academy with its erudition (a few of the many discourses engaged are narratology, experimental cinema, and psychoanalysis) and its graceful rhetoric, which often delivered withering critiques of masculinist theory. Alice Doesn't brought wide visibility to emergent feminist theoretical work on film, articulating such concepts as the male gaze and "woman-as-image" together with narrative theory and semiotics in a way that is still authoritative. De Lauretis pushed debates beyond the rigorous but circumscribed work on language and textuality being undertaken by Anglo-American feminist psychoanalytic scholars in the 1980s, and feminist film theory quickly found a place at the cutting edge of feminist thought. "Just as important, through theorizing such apparent givens as "experience," she ensured that the political concerns of women's cultural production and women's studies programs remained pertinent to a sometimes insular feminist film theory. The very title of Alice Doesn't-drawn from a piece of ephemera, a feminist banner dated October 29, 1975-is provocative." It joins the concrete and the abstract, conjuring a heroine (Lewis Carroll's, or perhaps another Alice) and a gesture of unspecified, ebullient refusal. For me, the slogan anticipates one of de Lauretis's most important formulations about feminism: "[T]he critical negativity of its theory, and the affirmative positivity of its politics-is both [its] historical condition of existence and its theoretical condition of possibility." This interdependence of theory and activism, history and potential, describes a (women's) movement rather than a condition of stasis.

In 1985 de Lauretis herself moved, accepting her second long-term academic position. She joined other sui generis thinkers such as Haraway, James Clifford, and Hayden White in the interdisciplinary History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. De Lauretis has taught at UCSC ever since, with increasingly frequent, significant sojourns in Europe. Technologies of Gender, published a few years after this move, is informed by Santa Cruz's multicultural feminist inquiry and activism. In this collection and in such influential essays from the late 1980s and early 1990s as "Eccentric Subjects" and "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation," which appear in the present volume, de Lauretis, in her inimitable and inspiring prose, recasts feminist histories of cultural production, reframes debates around sexual difference that had seemed exhausted, and generates far-reaching concepts-the subject of feminism, the technology of gender-that keep sharp the revolutionary edge of feminist theory as it abuts other, crucial discourses. Work by lesbians and women of color, burgeoning in U.S. feminist culture and thought of the 1980s, is central to her redefinition of gender "beyond sexual difference," the difference of woman from man that is precisely indifferent to divisions of race, class, and sexuality. Foucault's concept of a social technology, in which subjects are en-gendered (he would say produced) differentially but not oppositionally or (purely) oppressively, is rethought by de Lauretis in feminist terms that emphasize gender and experience. Her insistence on "differences among women as differences within women" bypasses the impasse of identity politics premised on coherent, volitional social agents by emphasizing multiple alliances and notions of division. It is lesbianism in particular that allows de Lauretis to specify the condition of being at once inside and outside the ideology of gender, constructed within and as the blind spot of sexual difference (that is, the institution of heterosexuality), constrained by its definitions yet critical of its precepts. Finally, the book's readings of women's texts demonstrate that feminist de- and re-constructions are themselves technologies of gender, thereby envisioning change as a local process of resignification and shifting consciousness, but one with global implications.

De Lauretis's The Practice o f Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire appeared in 1994 when lesbian scholarship found contexts not only within the women's studies curricula that had first fostered it but also in the antihomophobic literary and cultural criticism of Eve Sedgwick, the gender philosophy of Judith Butler, and other works of queer theory. 14 In this book de Lauretis aims to think through lesbian subjectivity with and against psychoanalysis. She accounts for what she calls sexual structuring, akin to the process of engendering outlined in Technologies of Gender, which engages and shapes private fantasies and practices in relation to public representations ranging from the patriarchal family to the movies. The book challenges and refreshes feminist and queer theory alike with its insistence on retaining feminist concepts of gender in its primary consideration of sexuality.

In more recent published work and work-in-progress, de Lauretis continues to think through psychoanalytic concepts-notably, that of the drives-to understand the relationship between psychic structuring and the possibilities and practices of a given social context and moment. While these concerns are not explicitly those of feminist theory, which de Lauretis defines as "a controlled reflection and self-reflection, not on women in general but rather on feminism itself as a historico-political formation," they share a feminist epistemology, or way of knowing, with earlier work. It is this quality of thinking feminist that makes de Lauretis's contribution vital at the current juncture, both for queer and psychoanalytic theory in particular, and for early twenty-first century feminism in general, as it approaches issues of human rights, globalization, and new media technologies.

The recent history of the concept of gender-a historical reconceptualization to which this current volume contributes-helps us map some important shifts in feminist theory since it was first practiced in the academy, by de Lauretis and many others, in the 1970s. At that point gender was likely to be deployed as synonymous with sexuality, defined by Catharine MacKinnon as "that which is most one's own, yet most taken away." Alternatively, gender was the organizing term of social constructionism, as elaborated in Gayle Rubin's concept of the sex/gender system. But accounting for race and ethnicity and, more recently, postcolonial and transnational positions in feminism complicated assumptions of gender as a common bond-either of victimhood or sisterly solidarity-with the realization that "the experience of gender is itself shaped by race relations, and that must be the case, however different the outcome, for all women." A definition of gender as simply sexual difference or complementarity also failed to grasp the institutional nature of heterosexuality, what Monique Wittig ironically calls that "core of nature within culture." De Lauretis suggests a more Foucauldian understanding of the "technology of gender," one that in some ways complies, and in others competes, with the theories that gained prominence in the 1980s of gender as a performative effect. Certainly the accounts share an emphasis on discursive construction; however, de Lauretis insists on gender's rootedness in the experience of the body and in a social subjectivity at once constrained by ideology and capable of creativity.

It seems to me that the current vitality of gender as an analytical and activist category testifies to the usefulness of de Lauretis's conceptualization. Such diverse formations as, for example, Muslim women's participation in democratic government and the rap music of Missy Elliot do not conform to universalizing definitions, nor are their effects purely performative. They exemplify de Lauretis's sense of the "movement in and out of gender as ideological representation ... between the positions made available by hegemonic discourses and ... the elsewhere ... those other spaces both discursive and social that exist, since feminist practices have (re)constructed them ... in the interstices of institutions, in counter-practices and new forms of community."

Another key dimension of de Lauretis's under-construction definition of gender is the way it is experienced in her writing. Across contributions to feminism, film, literary, cultural, and semiotic theory, Teresa de Lauretis's prose is at once dense and lucid, syntactically complex and tropically vivid. Even casual contact with her work lets the reader know that the language is irreducible; the work of thought takes place in and through writing, as concepts evolve from sentence to sentence. Teaching de Lauretis entails teaching ideas, but also, crucially, reading. Of course, she shares an attention to rhetoric and the figural with other prominent feminist thinkers-literary scholars Shoshana Felman, Barbara Johnson, and Jane Gallop, and film and cultural theorists Kaja Silverman, Mary Ann Doane, and Rey Chow, to name just a few who are based in the United States. Language-oriented French feminists Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva influenced this work, and the European connection runs deep in de Lauretis's case. She sometimes writes in her native Italian and remains engaged with Italian and wider European feminist theory, and her work is widely translated. But beyond a complexity of syntax one may be tempted to attribute to her facility with romance languages, the lack of linearity in de Lauretis's arguments and other distinctive features of her writing are structural manifestations of her feminist project that set it apart from the work of her colleagues. Writing is what she identifies as a "self-analyzing practice," germane to feminist thought, and the effects of her essays are experienced cumulatively.


Excerpted from FIGURES OF RESISTANCE by Teresa de Lauretis Copyright © 2007 by Teresa de Lauretis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Introduction: Thinking Feminist   Patricia White     1
Rethinking Women's Cinema     25
Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation     48
When Lesbians Were Not Women     72
The Lure of the Mannish Lesbian     85
Letter to an Unknown Woman     160
Public and Private Fantasies in David Cronenberg's M. Butterfly     118
Eccentric Subjects     151
Upping the Anti [sic] in Feminist Theory     183
Habit Changes     199
The Intractability of Desire     217
Figures of Resistance     235
Notes     261
Name and Title Index     303
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