Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism

Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism

Ewa Płonowska Ziarek
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/ziar16148
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  • Book Info
    Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism
    Book Description:

    Ewa Ziarek fully articulates a feminist aesthetics, focusing on the struggle for freedom in women's literary and political modernism and the devastating impact of racist violence and sexism. She examines the contradiction between women's transformative literary and political practices and the oppressive realities of racist violence and sexism, and she situates these tensions within the entrenched opposition between revolt and melancholia in studies of modernity and within the friction between material injuries and experimental aesthetic forms. Ziarek's political and aesthetic investigations concern the exclusion and destruction of women in politics and literary production and the transformation of this oppression into the inaugural possibilities of writing and action. Her study is one of the first to combine an in-depth engagement with philosophical aesthetics, especially the work of Theodor W. Adorno, with women's literary modernism, particularly the writing of Virginia Woolf and Nella Larsen, along with feminist theories on the politics of race and gender. By bringing seemingly apolitical, gender-neutral debates about modernism's experimental forms together with an analysis of violence and destroyed materialities, Ziarek challenges both the anti-aesthetic subordination of modern literature to its political uses and the appreciation of art's emancipatory potential at the expense of feminist and anti-racist political struggles.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53090-3
    Subjects: Philosophy, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction: On Loss, Invention, and the Dilemmas of Feminist Aesthetics
    (pp. 1-16)

    It is always surprising to see the final shape a book has taken. This experience has been more pronounced with this project than with my previous books because here I approached feminist aesthetics without any presuppositions about main concepts, themes, or even a theoretical approach. Given the paucity of studies on feminist aesthetics, I cast my net widely, without limiting myself to a particular philosophical tradition or theoretical orientation. I followed only two guiding threads. The first one was that my reflections on the possibility of feminist aesthetics would have to be based on my field of expertise in literary...

  6. I. Revolutionary Praxis and Its Melancholic Impasses
    • 1 On Suffrage Militancy and Modernism: Femininity and Revolt
      (pp. 19-50)

      In studies of Western modernism and modernity we encounter an unresolved and endlessly replicated contradiction between “revolutionary” and melancholic politics and art. How should we interpret this contradiction rather than reproduce it by privileging either the revolutionary or melancholic side of modernism? How is the divide between revolt and melancholia implicated in gender and race politics? And what are its implications for the status of women’s literary practice in modernism? I argue that the exclusive focus on melancholia is a symptom of the forgetting of the revolutionary tradition in modernity. By contrast, the celebratory insistence on revolution and subversive art...

    • 2 Melancholia, Death of Art, and Women’s Writing
      (pp. 51-85)

      Like its uncanny double, melancholia follows closely in the footsteps of the “revolutionary” side of modernism. Not surprisingly, many influential critics of modernism, like Gregg Horowitz, examine not “the affirmative achievements of aesthetic theory” but rather its mournful encounters with the past.¹ Such an analysis is necessary because the oscillation between revolution and melancholia reveals the contradiction between multiple forms of domination coexisting with particular struggles for freedom. In the context of politics, melancholia reveals an impasse of the revolutionary struggle, a destruction of the very grammar and syntax of practice. In the context of aesthetics, melancholia responds to a...

    • 3 Woolf’s Aesthetics of Potentiality
      (pp. 86-120)

      The contradictions between revolutionary and melancholic modernism I explored in the first two chapters of this book is central to Woolf’s reflections on the possibility and impossibility of women’s literature. To explore this contradiction in Woolf’s writings, I would like to turn to her literary essays, her best-known aesthetic manifestos on the stakes of modernism and gender politics. Of these essays, recently collected and published in a four-volume set but still only a fraction of the enormous corpus of Woolf’s essay writing, the best known isA Room of One’s Own. An instant best seller since its first publication on...

  7. II. Female Bodies, Violence, and Form
    • Introduction: Rethinking the Form/Matter Divide in Feminist Politics and Aesthetics
      (pp. 123-127)

      In part 1 I have worked through the opposition between the narratives of female revolutionary and melancholic modernism in order to propose a feminist aesthetics of potentiality. In part 2 I want to confront more directly the issue that was already implied in the previous chapters, namely, the relationship between female embodiment, aesthetic form, and political violence. At first glance, this heterogeneous constellation of form, violence, and materiality brings seemingly apolitical, gender neutral aesthetic debates about experimental forms in modernism together with a gender/race politics of the body. I argue, however, that form and materiality are both feminist political and...

    • 4 Abstract Commodity Form and Bare Life
      (pp. 128-156)

      In this chapter I diagnose the violence inflicted on women’s bodies by the abstract formalism operating in political and social life. I argue that the problem of abstraction in political life (the forms of citizenship and sovereignty) finds its correlative in economic violence in civil society (the relations of production and exchange). I develop this argument through the juxtaposition of different paradigms of power that have not yet been thought together: the commodification of female bodies, the damage of enslavement, and the biopolitics of sovereignty. More specifically, I focus on Irigaray’s analysis of the commodification of women’s bodies, Hortense Spillers’s...

    • 5 Damaged Materialities in Political Struggles and Aesthetic Innovations
      (pp. 157-190)

      The diagnosis of the violent severance between destroyed materialities and abstract political forms discussed in chapter 4 reveals a new task for feminist, antiracist political struggles and new stakes for aesthetic innovations. The task is to contest not only racist and gendered injustice but also the severance of symbolic political forms from bare life because such severance itself is the source of violence. In chapter 1 I showed that the suffragettes’ militant struggles for inclusion in citizenship and political rights redefine the politics of recognition as a revolt aiming to create a new organization of political life. In the context...

  8. III. Toward a Feminine Aesthetics of Renaissance
    • 6 The Enigma of Nella Larsen: Letters, Curse, and Black Laughter
      (pp. 193-228)

      Recovered in the 1980s, thanks to the labor of the numerous black feminist theorists and literary critics, as a major writer of the Harlem Renaissance, modernism, and the “feminist literary canon,”¹ Nella Larsen has been praised for her exploration of racial, class, sexual, and linguistic dangers and ambiguities.² However, despite her prominence in literary, cultural, gender, and race studies, Larsen has not yet entered into the canon of philosophical aesthetics, which predictably tends to reproduce mostly male and mostly white writers as its exemplary figures. And yet the structure of Larsen’s novel interrogates the crucial philosophical questions of art’s autonomy...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 229-250)
  10. Index
    (pp. 251-266)