Jean Morris’s PhD focuses on the female body between borders, exploring the ways in which it confirms and resists power, particularly through its relation to language. She is concerned with the biopolitical body and what might be seen as a riposte, abjection. Thinking about the monstrous, the unnatural and the grotesque, this extract from her work considers how writing might meddle with representations of female desire.
On Writing, and being a Dick-loving Cyborg-Monster [extract]
‘Monstrosity – the self as a machine’ is how Chris Kraus describes the female writer in one of the many letters she writes to ‘Dick’ in the eponymously titled I Love Dick (Kraus 2006, p.202). Donna Haraway makes a similar claim in Simians, Cyborgs and Women (1991) when she confronts the ways that women have been ‘biologised’. She draws on a variety of discourses from the medical to the anthropological in order to expose ‘femaleness’ as a patriarchal construct from which women must exit. Writing can be an exit tactic, particularly ‘cyborg writing’. Constructed with one aim in mind, cyborg writing aims for ‘the power to signify; but this time that power must be neither phallic nor innocent’ (Haraway 1991, p.175). If you find yourself loving Dick, then look at the source of its erection and reconfigure it with words. Haraway contests feminists who attempt to locate a pre-linguistic form which also implies a return to a state of innocence, ‘the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, or Man’ (p.175). Instead, the cyborg looks critically at the stories and founding myths that incarcerate women – Freud’s Oedipus being one of the most operative – and the all-too-prevalent discourses that exclude women from public life and essentialise their domesticity. Nothing is ‘natural’, all is a product of Western culture which began from the moment its stories were formulated.
Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism.
The freedom to move around within an idea, to explore its most questionable possibilities without being bound by the rules of form and logic, is the cyborg’s mission. The power to contradict oneself as a methodological principle pairs up with the notion of the moving self, the self that slips in and out of language, being a part of it, and apart from it.
There’s an echo here of the Nietzschean complaint when he says of philosophers that ‘under an invisible spell they always trace once more the identical orbit: however independent of one another they may feel’ (Nietzsche 2003, sec. 20). His version of the monster was the ‘superman’ who could free life from man himself thereby taking over the power to signify, to choose for himself what was ‘good’ and what was ‘evil’. Certain forms of literature are ways of releasing language by enabling words to break free from their signifying chains and redefine the world around them. They become ‘super-signifiers’, monstrous meddlers. Kraus uses language to separate her desire from the conventional love-conquers-all storyline. This decision is her ‘jumping off a cliff’ (Krauss 2006, p.195) into the abyss, diving into humiliation, rejection and abjection. Kristeva tells us that abjection is ‘what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’ (Kristeva 1982, p.4). For Kraus, the nature of the desiring woman, the ‘unspeakable grotesqueness’ (p.122) of the woman who desires as opposed to the woman who is desired needs an in-between form that might properly define it. She holds her letters together by standard plot structure, that of unrequited love, but she breaks it up with biography, performance, theory and art: she exposes the form, by exposing herself, as the super-suiciding monster. Why? ‘I’m doing it to save my life’, she says (p.176).
Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991)
Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2006)
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin, 2003)