Annette Kolodny, “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,”
in E. Showalter, ed. New Feminist Criticism (1980), pp. 144-5; 159-63
I was quite taken with this excerpt from Kolodny. She is a careful thinker committed to both “intellectual honesty [and] hard-won insights,” both of which she displays in spades in her writing. I find it difficult to create a summary of this excerpt; I found so much that was enjoyable and noteworthy in it that I fear my summary may be longer than the excerpt itself. In any case, here we go.
Kolodny opens with a discussion of the history of the definition of “feminist literary criticism.” She traces its evolution from a practice that largely consisted of “exposing the sexual stereotyping of women in both our literature and our literary criticism” to a “catalyzing force of an ideology that, for many of us [feminists], helped to bridge the gap between the world as we found it and the world as we wanted it to be.” Particularly illuminating for me, as a male reader, was the following phrase from Kolodny’s introduction: “a painfully personal distress at discovering whores, bitches, muses, and heroines dead in childbirth where we had once hoped to discover ourselves.” This quote reveals to me, from an angle that I’ve never quite seen before, the experiential motivation for (some) females undertaking feminist literary criticism.
As something of a nonsequitur, I found it noteworthy that all three of the feminist critics I read directly mentioned Adrienne Rich; such pervasive reference seems to present Rich as something of a “voice of the movement.”
Kolodny then recognizes what she calls “the most explosive threat” leveled against feminism, the allegation that “feminist literary criticism appears woefully deficient in system, and painfully lacking in program.” Kolodny concedes that most critics are, in their “heart of hearts,” structuralists seeking order and meaning among apparent disconnection and hence find a certain sense of dissatisfaction with feminist literary criticism’s apparent lack of organization. However, she follows this concession by stating that feminist literary critics aren’t truly seeking to offer a definitive structure or methodology and that they are instead merely seeking to be recognized as legitimate voices in the crowd of an ever-more-subjective world.
Turning a rhetorical corner, Kolodny suggests that feminist criticism’s diversity is not only not a weakness but in fact a great strength (she also claims that it is “the only critical stance consistent with the current status of the larger women’s movement”). She references the (supposedly stuffy and outdated) Russian formalist belief that there are not simply true or false readings of a text but instead “‘readings that are more or less rich, strategies that are more or less appropriate'” to underscore the legitimacy of such an understanding. In her ensuing rebuttal to potential criticism of the value of feminist criticism’s diversity, Kolodny writes with such clarity and reason that I will step out of the way for a moment and let her speak for herself:
“Adopting a ‘pluarlist’ label does not mean, however, that we cease to disagree; it means only that we entertain the possibility that different readings, even of the same text, may be differently useful, even illuminating, within different contexts of inquiry… at the very least, because we will have grappled with the assumptions that led to it, we will be better able to articulate why we find a particular reading or interpretation adequate or inadequate… just because we will no longer tolerate the specifically sexist omissions and oversights of earlier critical schools and methods does not mean that, in their stead, we must establish our own ‘party line.'”
While Kolodny is specifically speaking of feminist literary criticism, I think that all critics can learn from her elevation of truth and mutual understanding over any one particular ideology or strain of an ideology. Indeed, in her call for “a playful pluralism, responsive to the possibilities of multiple critical schools and methods, but captive of none,” Kolodny articulates, to me, the most useful application of literary theory: the development of a set or sets of interpretive tools that allow us to better understand both literary texts and, by extrapolation, the world (or, to respect Kolodny’s pluralism, the worlds) around us. In her call to “generate an ongoing dialogue or competing potential possibilities among feminists and, as well, between feminists and non-feminist critics,” Kolodny paints the kind of ecumenical vision of literary theory that I think will ultimately be most profitable.
For all her idealistic language, however, Kolodny is careful not to slip too far into the realm of wishful fantasy. She acknowledges the difficulty of what she describes, but insists that “we do not give up the search for patterns of opposition and connection – probably the basis of thinking itself; what we give up is simply the arrogance of claiming that our work is either exhaustive or definitive.”
After all this time spent carefully defining what feminist criticism is not, she finally positively identifies it as “an acute and impassioned attentiveness to the ways in which primarily male structures of power are inscribed (or encoded) within our literary inheritance; the consequences of that encoding… and… a shared analytic concern for the implications of that encoding.”
Of course, much of this writing and quoting could be summed up with Kolodny’s penultimate assertion, namely that “If feminist criticism calls anything into question, it must be that dog-eared myth of intellectual neutrality.” However, I like Kolodny’s writing and thinking too much to simply leave it at that.
Her final assertion, that individual scholarly work in feminist criticism, while to some degree intrinsically valuable, is most worthwhile and worthy when it is in service of the goal of improving the lives of all women, underscores one of my most fervently held beliefs: namely, that theory is only valuable insofar as it affects practice. To paraphrase Brian McLaren in “a Generous Orthodoxy,” orthodoxy (right thinking) is only useful to the extent that it leads to orthopraxy (right actions).
I suppose that it truly is evidence of a patriarchally controlled world that the portrait presented to most people of feminists is (to use mild hyperbole) one that consists only of indignant militants and not one of such delightful, impassioned, and brilliant thinkers as Kolodny.