Lesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire

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With hair slicked back and shirt collar framing her young patrician face, Katherine Hepburn's image in the 1935 film Sylvia Scarlett was seen by many as a lesbian representation. Yet, Amy Villarejo argues, there is no final ground upon which to explain why that image of Hepburn signifies lesbian or why such a cross-dressing Hollywood fantasy edges into collective consciousness as a lesbian narrative. Investigating what allows viewers to perceive an image or narrative as "lesbian," Villarejo presents a theoretical exploration of lesbian visibility. Focusing on images of lesbians in film, she analyzes what these representations contain and their limits. She combines Marxist theories of value with poststructuralist insights to argue that lesbian visibility operates simultaneously as an achievement and a ruse, a possibility for building a new visual politics and away of rendering static and contained what lesbian might mean.
Integrating cinema studies, queer and feminist theory, and cultural studies, Villarejo illuminates the contexts within which the lesbian is rendered visible. Toward that end, she analyzes key portrayals of lesbians in public culture, particularly in documentary film. She considers a range of films—from documentaries about Cuba and lesbian pulp fiction to Exile Shanghai and The Brandon Teena Story—and, in doing so, brings to light a nuanced economy of value and desire.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Lesbian Rule is a challenging yet rewarding book. Its insights are original, provocative, and far-reaching."—Steven Cohan, author of Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties

“Once you read Amy Villarejo’s ingenious recontextualizations of the lesbian presence in documentary film, lesbian visibility will never look the same again. Studded with brilliant theoretical insights about fetishism, archives, diaspora, and more, Lesbian Rule’s surprising juxtapositions make even the most obscure cultural object ‘shimmer with history.’ Best of all is the dreamy prose—witty, elegant, and full of delight.”—Ann Cvetkovich, author of An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Amy Villarejo is Associate Professor in the Department of Theater, Film, and Dance at Cornell University. She is coauthor of Queen Christina and coeditor of Keyframes: Popular Film and Cultural Studies.

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Read an Excerpt

Lesbian rule

Cultural criticism and the value of desire
By Amy Villarejo

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3192-6

Chapter One

Lesbian Rule

The task of this book is mirrored in its structure-modification, displacement, not jettisoning or replacing. It is not a book about "the lesbian" but about a lesbian modification, not the noun, but the adjective. It is not an argument that seeks to take the place of another but instead to modify, reshape, redraw. Were there not a critical literature and an effulgent cultural sphere of the lesbian self, this book would not have been possible to conceive. Similarly, were there not a sustained conversation about the limits of the self, the borders of representation and the displacements constitutive of that very domain called sexuality, this book would have no interlocutors.

Lesbian Rule is a sustained exercise in reading sexual rhetoric, particularly the rhetorical construction of the lesbian in documentary cinema. Queer theory has gravitated toward visual culture in its metaphors, in its examples, in its central tropes, and in its offhand figures. By noticing the ways in which visual reference preoccupies philosophical or theoretical reflection, I seek to develop amore nuanced and supple mode of reading "the lesbian" wherever it is that she may appear, whatever she may conceal. Reading lesbian as a catachresis allows me to examine the slippery movement that lesbian appearance reveals andconceals between sexual difference and social relations; next, I examine several influential and provocative conceptions of fetishism, providing as that discourse does one model of understanding what happens when meaning is produced from a clash in value-codings, and fixed on an object. Fetish discourse, understood as a theory of affective value, explains why lesbian works as a catachresis: it is a discourse that has attempted to manage the very slippage a catachresis names, and fetish discourse-influential as it has been in lesbian theory-can thus be read as a cover story itself. The politics of fetish discourse require investigation for their historical underpinnings and for their ramifications for queer politics today. My goal is to develop the beginning of a model, elaborated in the second chapter as well, for understanding how lesbian might also name that clash: the visualization of a possibility of something else.

Lesbian Morphology I: Catachresis

What does it mean to treat the name lesbian as a catachresis? The term catachresis is central to Gayatri Spivak's deconstructive Marxist feminism, much of which has derived from a reading of Jacques Derrida that I follow in order to gloss the term, although not to restrict it. In the most general way, then, words used as metaphors shimmer with history. The empirical, everyday, and idiomatic meanings entailed in the history of language constitute the narrow sense of any given word; these haunt the general sense, the register of the conceptual and metaphorical within which a privileged word is meant to function discursively, within a philosophic, literary, scientific, anthropological, sociological, or psychoanalytic system. This haunting, the spectrality wherein the general sense cannot escape the ghosts of the narrow sense, is what Derrida calls the burden of paleonymy. As Spivak has noted, nowhere in his writings does Derrida offer a systematic explanation of this divide, the extent to which the narrow and general senses always blend into one another, "cracked and barred" in language generally as in his own writings in particular.

For Spivak's reading of Derrida, more important is the way in which the divided relationship between the narrow and general senses "makes for the necessary lack of fit between discourse and example, the necessary crisis between theory and practice that marks deconstruction." One can exploit, in other words, the slide from the general sense to the narrow sense. To notice the disjunction and to move within it is to acknowledge the requisite gap between discursive registers, the ways in which theory and practice (or whichever names one wants to bestow upon the registers) modify one another. What Derrida stages through his own use of the words which carry this divided charge in his writing is movement within disjunction, the necessity of risking decision in the face of the impossibility of deciding, and the limits of determination and therefore of representation as an effect-structure.

Reading and writing (as well as trace, differance, parergon) function as two such concept-metaphors in Derrida's early writing, and they are densely imbricated with the double bind that founds deconstruction. Spivak glosses them to problematize transparent claims to epistemological power on ethnic or cultural bases, not to dismiss the embrace of limited or practical identity claims but to trouble the efficacy of collective validation by invoking the discontinuity between the subject of epistemology and that of ethicopolitics.

Writing and reading in such general senses mark two different positions in relation to the uneven many-strandedness of "being." Writing is a position where the absence of the weaver from the web is structurally necessary. Reading is a position where I (or a group of us with whom I share an identificatory label) make this anonymous web my own, even as I find in it a guarantee of my existence as me, one of us. Between the two positions, there are displacements and consolidations, a disjunction in order to conjugate a representative self.

Noticing the quotation marks around "being" in this passage, one sees a kind of translation at work, a movement that discloses the enabling lack of fit between the narrow sense and the general sense. The philosophical significance of Being (ontology) is both referenced and displaced by the lower case (being), signaling in its wake the importance of the distinction between the ontological and the ontic for Derrida's reading of Heidegger; the narrow sense, the ontic (the intimate and inaccessible) sense, of being is thereby summoned in the general sense. The necessary disjunction between reading and writing-what Derrida calls the graphematic structure-is further necessarily situated within the very possibility of thought: the mechanics of starting assumptions, a structure of repetition posited as self-evidence, finessed or suppressed in order to get anything going.

In Spivak's reading of Derrida, this catachrestical movement between the narrow and the general sense is precisely what is enabling about deconstruction, the recognition, in other words, that the subject is always centered.

Deconstruction persistently notices that this centering is an effect-structure with indeterminable boundaries that can only be deciphered as determining. No politics can occupy itself with only this enabling epistemological double bind. But when a political analysis or a program forgets this it runs the risk of declaring ruptures where there is also a repetition-a risk that can result in varieties of fundamentalism, of which the onto/epistemo/ethicopolitical confusion is a characteristic symptom.

Such confusion, I think, marks writing on lesbian, precisely because the name lesbian seeks to encompass each of these valences; unlike the relationship between women and feminism, there is no ethicopolitical counterpart name for lesbian, although queer is beginning to do that work of designation. I seek to establish specifically the specular morphology of lesbian in contradistinction to the claims of ontological self-evidence and representational priority which characterize postwar politics of sexuality, particular in their demands for visibility. Reading lesbian as a catachresis, as both figurative and literal, produces a disjunctive field traced by the name lesbian as a value-coding of the differential produced by gender and sexual indeterminacy, which differential can only be deciphered as determining. To modify my initial claim, it is therefore not only a task of reading "the lesbian" wherever it is that she may appear, but, perhaps more pressingly, to interrogate the operation at work in making the lesbian visible, to examine those specific conditions of legibility or recognition that underwrite lesbian as image. Between the narrow sense of lesbian and its general sense deployment as a name for a political program, there is movement, disjunction, slippage; to read lesbian as a catachresis is to begin to generate a sense of the value of desire, of affective value.

Affective Value

To say that the name lesbian traces a field produced through value-coding is to allege a point of contact or convergence between the interior and the exterior, between affect and economy, between the psychic and the social. The more powerful attempts theoretically to locate such crucial mediators have come, to my mind, in readings of performativity and fetishism, both alternatives to models of false consciousness, both preserving a sense of agency, both capable of functioning as theories of affective value. The following chapter will take up the idea of mediation and translation in more detail in an extended discussion of Derrida's Droits de regards. Here, however, I turn to an essay that similarly contributes to such an undertaking of stitching the psychic to the social, one to which I return regularly in order to pick at the abstraction it ultimately produces: "affective value." What is it, and might it provide an alternate or companion name for the type of value-coding produced through the name lesbian?

Affective value arises in Spivak's essay, "Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value," an essay that begins to treat the question of value through the predication of the subject. The essay proceeds from the assumption that subject-predication is methodologically necessary, a starting point that functions as an implicit (or occasionally explicit) jab at theoretical enterprises that betray "metaphysical longing" (154) or tacit traces of idealist subject-predication. The idealist subject-predication is consciousness, "not thought" but rather the subject's irreducible "intendedness" (154) toward the object. Her real focus in the essay is, however, the materialist predication of the subject such as Marx's. The materialist subject-predication is labor power, "not work (labor) but rather the irreducible possibility that the subject be more than adequate-super-adequate-to itself, labor-power" (154). If the issue of subject-predication is a generalized theoretical task, Spivak uses, as a practical context for its exploration, the issue of canon-formation and contestation. Such a context provides for her an opportunity to distinguish domination (a designation for power relations in a general sense) and exploitation (a specific maneuver of capitalism in extracting surplus value from labor power), as well as stages her incessant attention to the discontinuous opposition between theory and practice we saw above.

Spivak's project in "Scattered Speculations" is to challenge continuist inscriptions of Marx's work, with a reading emphasizing instead the textualization of the chain of value, rendering the materialist predication of the subject on labor-power indeterminate. Her reading of the first sixty pages of Capital, volume one of the Grundisse, along with "The Chapter on Money" and "The Chapter on Capital," goes something like this: Marx sought to examine the "concept-phenomenon" money (a seemingly unified concept) and lifted the lid (Spivak's metaphor of cooking) on a boiling mess. The name for that mess is value, a "contentless and simple" (inhaltslos und einfach) thing which makes possible everything: exchange, communication, sociality. Value escapes the ontophenomenological question, "What is it?" To investigate value is instead to map a chain of relationships. The chain is this: Value (representation)-Money (transformation)-Capital. There are many carefully crafted steps in between, but what is cooking in Spivak's essay, among other things, is a calculated counterargument to the vestiges of continuist reading in Jean-Joseph Goux's structuralist domestication of Marx, through which he wrenches an isomorphic relationship between the development of the money-form and the Lacanian account of the emergence of genital sexuality: gold equals the phallus. Goux's argument, in Spivak's reading, is an instance of the structuralist desire to translate morphological similarities in discontinuous sign systems into isomorphic identities. By so doing, in Spivak's view, it becomes however necessary "to exclude the fields of force that make them heterogeneous, indeed discontinuous" (156).

My interest in Spivak's textualization of the chain of value, to which I turn in a moment, lies in her ability to generate a category-affective value-that can address the relations between these discontinuous sign systems (economy, psyche), not rigidly mapped sexual identities, through the production, circulation, and coding of value. Affective value preserves the discontinuity of sign systems while at the same time fore-grounding their interdependence, the extent to which they are severed from the general text at a cost. "Sexuality" might not, as a result of her understanding, be preserved on the side of social reproduction (birth-family-home-growth) and/or interiority (as it is for psychoanalysis), but rather thought of as a complicated strand of sociality not easily cut.

Let me rehearse briefly Spivak's argument as I understand it. The continuous reading of Marx's scheme of value (whereby one emphasizes the uni-linear progressive account of the emergence of the money-form) betrays indeterminacy through its inability to answer the onto-phenomenological question, "what is value?" Its consideration of use-value and exchange-value excludes modes of thinking (dialectical and deconstructive among them) other than analogy or isomorphism, in order to elide problematic discontinuities and in order to emphasize a distinct beginning, middle, and end of an argument. Continuist and structuralist versions of Marx's scheme of value, while they read through the "straining logic of Marx's metaphors" (157), tend nonetheless to escape the onto-phenomenological question through a reliance on the idea of excess. Through the example of the emergence of exchange, Spivak shows that Goux's reading collapses the intricate differences between use-value, exchange-value, surplus-value, and money by seeing the exclusion of money from the commodity form as due to being-in-excess rather than as due precisely to the requirement that the money-form not operate on two registers at once, "measuring and carrying Value" (157). A deconstructive reading, rather than emphasizing linear or analogical relationships in the concept-phenomenon value, posits its textuality.

In order for something to be textual, it must be open at both ends. Spivak shows that the continuist attempt to insert labor at the beginning of the chain of value, to posit its origin as labor-power, seals off the movement of the dialectic and thus the indeterminacy of value that opens other possibilities for thinking labor's relation to other social determinations (such as Gayle Rubin and others have taken up in regard to the complicity between patriarchy and capitalism). This is Spivak's way of saying that the designation of "representation" involves a differential rather than self-adequation. By tracing each step of Marx's materialist dialectical analysis of value, Spivak reveals indeterminacies in the chain. Position: the money commodity is defined in its separation from itself, in its doubleness, on the one hand, "as a specific product whose natural form of existence ideally contains (latently contains) its exchange value, and in the other aspect as manifest exchange value (money) in which all connection with the natural form of the product is stripped away again-this double, differentiated existencemust develop into a difference" (Marx, cited in Spivak, 159).


Excerpted from Lesbian rule by Amy Villarejo 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

Introduction 1
1 Lesbian Rule 27
2 Droits de Regards/Right of Inspection: For Agnes and Inez Albright 55
3 Archiving the Diaspora: A Lesbian Impression 83
4 Absolut Queer: Cuba and its Spectators 123
5 Forbidden Love: Pulp as Lesbian History 159
Conclusion: Straight to Video 191
Notes 209
Index 231
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