[Copyright 1999. Kristyn Gorton.]
One of the most characteristic aspects of Diane Elam's writing is her placement of two seemingly contradictory movements next to each other: whether postmodernism and romanticism (Romancing the Postmodern), feminism and deconstruction (Feminism and Deconstruction: Ms. en Abyme), or feminism and feminism (Feminism Beside Itself edited with Robyn Wiegman). These "disruptive linkages" perform a central theme in her writing. Underpinning interdisciplinary concerns of aesthetics, politics, gender and history is a strong feminist cultural analysis. Elam's theoretical arguments extend beyond modernist horizons to produce critical works that engage with ideas; they raise debate yet resist turning themselves into prescriptions for social change or tools for critical use. The critical awareness in her writing resists attempts to sum things up or to offer a catchy phrase for theoretical consumption. Elam not only critiques the discourse she is analysing; she also takes to task both the limitations and the possibilities of the language she herself uses.
A recurrent theme in Diane Elam's work is an argument against the possibility of a complete and definitive representation of woman. The "disruptive link" she makes between postmodernism and romance in Romancing the Postmodern revalues the genre itself in terms of female desire and discourse. Her re-evaluation delivers the genre of romance from reductive categories like womens writing. In doing so, Elam draws important links to difficulties in contemporary feminism. As she states, "postmodernism may well be the name feminism can give to its escape from identity politics," (Romancing the Postmodern) an escape she explores in greater depth in Feminism and Deconstruction. Elam argues that the genre of romance shares an affinity of excess with postmodernism. A link is drawn between romance and postmodernism in that each, in their relation to history and representation, resist narrative limitations, established modes of representation, boundaries and final understandings. This link is extended to the problems of representation in feminism and the category/figure of woman. Gender plays a crucial role in re-figuring womans position in the genre of romance. Elam argues that postmodernitys non-linear trip down memory lane is predicated on a "re-engendering of the historical past as romance." (Romancing the Postmodern) The figure of woman, through the engendering of romance, allows the past to be represented, however, as Elam argues, the postmodern play of gender reveals the impossibility of a precise and exhaustive representation.
In Feminism and Deconstruction: Ms. en Abyme, Elam leaves the category of women open without dismissing the importance of historical events in the narrative of womens history. Elam argues that, "women are both determined and are yet to be determined." (Feminism and Deconstruction) She explains this contingency by recasting the term mise en abyme, a form of endless deferral, to include a feminist understanding, which she terms the "ms. en abyme." Elam uses the term "ms. en abyme" to suggest that attempts at determining or categorising women through representation do not end in an arrival of a distinct woman. Instead, these attempts suggest both the infinite possibilities of women and the failure of such attempts at a final meaning of woman. The "ms. en abyme" also problematises the construction between subject and object in representation. In the "ms. en abyme," the relationship between subject and object is fluid and changeable. The objects endless regression into itself escapes the subjects hold which leads to a destabilisation of the subject itself. Following out of this logic, women can be neither subject nor object; an important (de)construction in the discursive structures of desire and politics.
This limit of representation found in both works strengthens Elams argument against the role of identity politics in feminist theory. Although many feminists ground their own politics in essentialist constructions of women and appeal to identity politics, Elam questions whether these politics do not insist on uniformity and conformity which limit and constrain the multiplicity in women. She finds an alternative to an insistence on categorisation and identification in "groundless solidarity," a term she uses to define the politics that arise out of the link between deconstruction and feminism. "Groundless solidarity" is a politics that is not centralised around a stable and definite notion of a subject as are rights based and identity based politics. This kind of politics involves continual negotiation and "ethical activism." Community in Elams re-organisation of politics could be understood broadly to be a coalition of people with shared ethical commitments. The ethical responsibility to the Other is understood in these terms as incalculable, unpayable and one that both exceeds and precedes the individual (who recognises s/he is not only responsible for his/herself.)
Within Diane Elam's complex analysis of postmodernism, romance, feminism and deconstruction, there is an underlying wit that brings levity to the density of her ideas. For instance, in her explanation of subject/object relations in the "ms. en abyme," Elam writes: "Debbie may not be doing Dallas or the dishes this time, but when Debbie does driving she is still conforming to pre-existing, restrictive criteria in order to take up the subject position woman. Moving from the back seat to the front seat if not the same thing as getting out of the car" (Feminism and Deconstruction). The sense of humor that underlies these disruptive linkages supports the risks Elam takes in her placement of seemingly opposing movements together.
Romancing the Postmodern. Routledge, 1992.
Feminism and Deconstruction: Ms. en Abyme. Routledge, 1994.
Feminism Beside Itself. (co-edited with Robyn Wiegman) Routledge, 1995.
"Theoretical Modeling: Joyce's Women on Display," in Joyce's Languages. Ed. Laurent Milesi. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998).
"P.S. I Love You," in The Politics of Culture and the Ambiguities of Interpretation: Essays on Umberto Eco. Ed. Norma Bouchard and Veronica Pravadelli. (Peter Lange, 1997).
"Sisters Are doing It To Themselves," in Feminisms and Generations. Ed. Devoney Looser and E. Ann Kaplan. (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997).
"Why Read?" in English for the Millennium. (CCUE News, 1997).
"Feminism and the Postmodern: Theory's Romance," in The Feminist Reader. Ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (Macmillan Press, 1997).
"Romancing the Postmodern" and "Feminism and Deconstruction," in The Postmodern History Reader. Ed. Keith Jenkins. (Routledge, 1997).
"Generic Dreams," in American Dream: 1930-1995. Ed. Jean-François Cote, Nadia Khouri, and Dominique Michaud. (Univ. of Ottawa Press, 1996).
"Feminism Beside Itslef Again." Surfaces (1996).
"Disciplining Women: Feminism or Women's Studies?" Surfaces (1996).
"'Another Day Done and I'm Deeper in Debt': Dickens and the Debt of the Everyday," in Dickens Refigured. Ed. John Schad. (Manchester Univ. Press, 1996).
"Lost in the Post?: Feminism's Divided Relation to Postmodernism," in Language and Literature Today: Proceedings of the XIX Triennial Congress of the International Federation for Modern Languages and Literatures. (1996).
"Literary Remains." Oxford Literary Review 17 (1995).
"Speak for Yourself," in Who Can Speak?: Authority and Critical Identity. Ed. Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman. (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995).
"Getting into Theory," in Constructive Criticism: The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory. Ed. Martin Kreiswirth and Tom Carmichael. (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1995).
"Contingencies," (co-authored with Robyn Wiegman) in Feminism Beside Itself. Ed. Diane Elam and Robyn Wiegman. (Routledge, 1995).
"Poststructuralist Feminisms," in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden and Marin Kreiswirth. (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1994).
"Postmodern Romance," in Postmodernism Across the Ages. Ed. Bennet Schaber and Bill Readings. (Syracuse Univ. Press, 1993).
"White Narratology: Gender and Reference in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White," in Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literautre. Ed. Lloyd Davis. (SUNY Press, 1993).
"Doing Justice to Feminism." Surfaces (Wint 1992).
"Is Feminism the Saving Grace of Hermeneutics?" Social Epistemology 5 (1991).
"Ms. en Abyme: Deconstruction and Feminism." Social Epistemology 4 (1990).
"'We Pray to Be Defended from Her Cleverness': George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways." Genre 21 (Summer 1988).
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COPYRIGHT 1999 KRISTIN SWITALA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.