Tuesday, March 30, 2010

wordplay: herstory

There seems to be a subtle or (if you're a feminist insider perhaps) not so subtle dialectic (debate or conversation) going on between Audre Lorde and Mary Daly.  The one seems not as convinced as the other in the power of wordplay.  And yet both seem to use this tool, don't they?  Listen:
Gynocentric writing means risking.  Since the language and style of patriarchal writing simply cannot contain or carry the energy of women's exorcism and ecstasy, in this book I invent, dis-cover, re-member.  At times I make up words (such as gynaesthesia for women's synaesthesia).  Often I unmask deceptive words by dividing them and employing alternate meanings for prefixes (for example, re-cover actually says "cover again").  I also unmask their hidden reversals, often by using less known or "obsolete" meanings (for example, glamour as used to name a witch's power).  Sometimes I simply invite the reader to listen to words in a different way (for example, de-light).  When I play with words I do this attentively, deeply, paying attention to etymology, to varied dimensions of meaning, to deep Background meanings and subliminal associations.  There are some woman-made words which I choose not to use for various reasons.  Sometimes I reject words that I think are inauthentic, obscuring women's existence and masking the conditions of our oppression (for example, chairperson).  In other cases my choice is a matter of intuitive judgement (for example, my decision not to use herstory).
.... I prefer the power of  the term Prehistory to name the prior importance of interconnected significant events of women's living and dying.  Her-story, I think, shortcircuits the intent of radical feminism by implying a desire to parallel the record of men's achievements.  It fails because it imitates male history.  Inherently, it has an "odor" of mere reactive maneuvering, which is humiliating to women.  It conveys an image of history's junior partner.  The point is not simply that this term is "etymologically incorrect."  It is enlightening to compare this term with such woman-made constructs as man-ipulated or the/rapist, which are also "incorrect," but do succeed in targeting/humiliating the right objects.
....    Another delicate area has been the use of pronouns, especially the choice between we and they to refer to women.  Elsewhere I have stressed the importance of the pronoun we and avoided the "objective" they.  Obviously, there are times when the use of we would be absurd -- for example, when referring to the women of ancient Greece....  Sometimes, since the ambiguity about whether to use we or they is not clearly resolvable, there are difficult choices.  Since pronouns are profoundly personal and political, they carry powerful messages.  Despite the fact that many writers and readers ignore this pronominal power, subliminal clues are transmitted and received.  At times my choice of we or they is a means of realizing my identification with, or separation from, certain roles and behaviors.
--Mary Daly, 1975/78
Now, against Daly's piece of writing here and -- we might imagine -- in response to her process of writing, Audre Lorde writes.  Notice both what Lorde says and also how she says it.  Pay attention to the pronouns (i.e., "us" and "you" and "me" and "our") and to history (i.e., "herstory").  Catch the allusions to "ancient" and to what that includes for Lorde but what it has included, in a much more limited way, for Daly.  Eavesdrop on the subliminal ways that Lorde critiques Daly for "separation" and "reversal" and "erasure."  (The last line I've quoted below from Lorde is not directly addressed to Daly, but, in the context of Lorde's collection of essays, the comment is a profound statement to the white woman [i.e., Daly], who cannot and perhaps has not dismantled patriarchy.  Lorde's use of the word "master," as the daughter of a slave in herstory of race-based slavery, is profound wordplay indeed, a deep de-construction.  What house is being built?)  Listen.
      Have you read my work, and the work of other Black women, for what it could give you?  Or did you hunt through only to find words that would legitimize your chapter on African genital mutilation in the eyes of other Black women?  And if so, then why not use our words to legitimize or illustrate the other places where we connect in our being and becoming?  If, on the other hand, it was not Black women you were attempting to reach, in what way did our words illustrate your point for white women?
      Mary, I ask that you be aware of how this serves the destructive forces of racism and separation between women - the assumption that the herstory and myth of white women is the legitimate and sole herstory and myth of all women to call upon for power and background, and that nonwhite women and our hersotires are noteworthy only as decorations, or examples of female victimization.  I ask that you be aware of the effect that this dismissal has upon the community of Black women and other women of Color, and how it devalues your own words.  This dismissal does not essentially differ from the specialized devaluations that make Black women prey, for instance, to the murders even now happening in your own city.  When patriarchy dismisses us, it encourages our murderers.  When radical lesbian feminist theory dismisses us, it encourages its own demise.
      This dismissal stands as a real block to communication between us.  This block makes it far easier to turn away from you completely than to attempt to understand the thinking behind your choices.  Should the next step be war between us, or separation?  Assimilation within a solely western european herstory is not acceptable.
      Mary, I ask that you re-member what is dark and ancient and divine within yourself that aids your speaking.  As outsiders, we need each other for support and connection and all the other necessities of living on the borders.  But in order to come together we must recognize each other.  Yet I feel that since you have so completely un-recognized me, perhaps I have been in error concerning you and no longer recognize you.
....  The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.
--Audre Lorde, 1984


Jane said...

Thank you so much for this JK - hadn't read either of these extracts before

J. K. Gayle said...

Jane - you inspired me to clean up my confusing typos here. And, you encouraged me to share some of Luise von Flotow's thoughts (next post). Thank you for commenting.