Breaking the Fourth Wall: On Phallo(go)centrism, Context and Jouissance

by rooswijnants

Femme Algerienne 1960

In my extensive reading process on this research (and I am terribly sorry for the long radio silence), I am starting to dive deeper and deeper into the notion of ‘agency’, Islamic feminism and the embodied agent. Sinc e I still have a lot of reading to do, I will be dear to you my beloved reader, and feed you the information is small yet delicious chunks.

The first article I want to discuss is Nancy J. Hirschmann’s article ‘Western Feminism, Eastern Veiling and the Question of Free Agency’ (1998), or rather, I want to express my gratitude to this article. While reading Hirschmann’s rather dense and complex (but highly competent) article, I was eagerly looking for some sort of portals: statements, quotes, gaps, blanks, that allowed me to form a path to Cixous, Derrida and the question of agency/writing (and the veil).

The main focus of Hirschmann’s article is, as the title already tells us quite specifically,  on ‘free agency’ and the act of veiling and the ‘issue’ of the Western feminist perspectives on the (act of) veil(ing), deeming the veil as an oppressive cloth. Moreover, Hirschmann (and if we must believe her, many many other with her) is that the context in which the veil is being picked up (by either the ‘veiled woman’ or the Western Feminist) is a context created and constituted according to patriarchal norms and standards. She uses the Hijab as an example, which, in most Islamic countries, must be worn if a woman leaves her house or if she wants to work. On the one hand, then, Hirschmann argues, the veil is one some level liberating; it allows the woman to move through the streets, and have a proper job. On the other hand, these ‘norms’ or values (that a woman must cover her body, that she must be covered to move the streets) is constructed against male desire; the man may not be distracted by a woman’s physical appearance. It is easier for men to change the norms or rules of (patriarchal) culture/society than it is for women, since it are mainly the men that established and created these norms (obviously, there are a lot of cases where the opposite could be argued, but isn’t that the case with everything?). The veil, and the highly charged agency that is ascribed to it, raises another question:

The act of choosing is necessary, but not sufficient. What is also needed is the ability to formulate choices, and this requires the ability to have meaningfull power in the construction of contexts (Hirschmann 361)

She then continues by posing the question:

How can one make “free” choices to control and direct their lives if all such choices are circumscribed by patriarchy? (Hirschimann 362)

Hirschmann shifts the focus of ‘choice’, ‘free will’ and the ‘act of veling’ to the very notion of ‘spaces outside patriarchy’, since the current space from which we are aiming to view the ‘veil’ is mostly circumscribed by patriarchy, the very thing we want to address, if not scrutinize. Hirschmann’s article is an extremely complex article that not only focusses on instances where the veil may or may not be an act of agency, but also the very ontological and epistemological meaning of agency (and I highly recommend you read it).

After reading the earlier quoted statement about a context ‘circumscribed by patriarchy’ is the context in/through which we are considering the veil, the big eureka! moment hit me right in the face. In thinking about Cixous and (consequently) Derrida, their notion of the ‘phallo(go)centric’ order, as discussed earlier in my blog, comes in handy. That is to say that Hirschmann;s article inspired me to look at other aspects of poststructuralism and deconstruction in relation to this research; before, my focus lie on the liberating act of writing itself (not sure if I discussed this focus, but there you go), and now I suddenly realized that the space in which the act of writing takes place is also extremely significant. If indeed Cixous’ (and Derrida, as I shall in my next post) notion of écriture feminine (which is almost impossible to explain ‘theoretically’, since this term only lends itself to explain itself in its ‘own terms’, yet for those who want to see my effort in trying to explain it anyway, see my post on Cixous and the Laugh of Medusa) is a feminine writing that flourishes in a ‘space’ or a ‘state of becoming’ that is outside the phallo(go)centric order, and instead written from the (Lacanian?) jouissance, this ‘space of writing’ relates perfectly to Hirschmann’s posed question. Then again, as my supervisor of this research highly recommended me, Hirschmann’s article, how interesting it may be, is not the basis of my research, nor does the article is the very foundation on which my entire argument will support. First of all this will be a big misstep, since Hirschmann and my (poststructuralist) ‘other’ literature speak another theoretical language, and therefore do not share the same theoretical background. Second of all, I learned that one can also just be inspired by an article; how interesting and illuminating Hischmann’s article was, I feel like I must emphasize (and learn) to let myself be inspired this one time, without incorporating and inhabiting Hirschmann’s article until I am done with it.

Writing the body in a space that is not contextualized and framed by patriarchal circumscriptions allows the writer, and consequently the reader, to be immerged in an ‘feminine’ experience of the veil. Re-inscribing and re-claiming the (un)veiled body by veiling it in text, and veiling the text with bodily presence.  Obviously, this could be considered as a perhaps utopian, if not naïve way of hoping to provide an answer to the question of the veil, agency and Algeria. It could be, yes. But on the other hand it certainly does provide a fruitful link between writing, the body and the veil. For ages the ‘discussion of the veil’ has been central is debates between Western and Eastern feminists, so why not contribute to this debate with a different, fresh perspective? One that does not aim to judge the act of veiling nor the woman who (chose) to do so,  but rather one that seeks to locate a new space in which the debate can flourish?