“Reading the silence” in Women’s Literature

I was really intrigued by Barbara Johnson’s notion of writing/literacy used as enslavement. Reading the Fredrick Douglas excerpt refreshed my memory about how severe a threat literacy was to people in power, and how it was important to keep the “others” ignorant of their own self worth and human rights, by intellectually incapacitating them.

This initially sparked an interest because of Johnson’s reference to women’s literature, and how she relates Derrida to a new (at least to me) reading of it. She emphasizes the significance of “reading the silence” in female lit, which, to me, meant zeroing in on the undertones of suppression and submission in women’s writing. However, it occurred to me that Johnson must be achieving something more in a deeper reading of this specific literature. In another class, I read Mary Wroth, an early Renaissance writer who, I would argue to be among the pioneer female authors who helped earn and establish a validated spot for female writing in a male dominated field. In analyzing her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, it was instinctual to read each sonnet within the bounds of its own time, i.e., primarily focusing on the implications of patriarchy on Mary Wroth herself, and how that, in turn, showed up in her writing. This caused my analyses and interpretations to be pretty generalized, as it could be related to any female author, at any time, writing through patriarchy. Instead, I decided to look for the “suppressed, distorted, or disguised messages that women’s writing has encoded.” (Johnson, 47) In doing this, the text went beyond my feminist implications of it being displaced in a general patriarchy, and focused on the value of women within the literacy field of Renaissance poetry, more specifically the ‘complaint’, which is basically a sonnet that expresses dramatic anguish about love.  In looking at the structure of her writing, I noticed she followed the traditional structure of a sonnet, but certain essential thematic values present in other traditional complaints were missing. Through these specific absences, Wroth expresses the value and ability of female writers, specifically regarding the male-dominated authorship of the complaint.

This is one way I felt like I could apply a part of Johnson/Derrida’s methodology in “reading the silence”, i.e., analyzing the absence of something and producing an interpretation with just as much merit, if not more, than it’s presence. It’s also something that I feel “takes full advantage of writing’s capacity to preserve what cannot yet be deciphered”, as the value of women in patriarchy is still questioned today.




Is Writing a Function to Enslave?

In Writing by Barbra Johnson she discusses logocentrism which is “words and language as a fundamental expression of external reality. It is a negative term used to turn down western thought.” She also mentions graphocentrism as a term used to describe the male sex as a dominate one. It is a term that is used to oppress those who are not European. She brings up the fact that the reason as to why European culture had power was because they knew how to read and write.  Having previously read The narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas,An American Slave, Written by Himself there is an understanding of the power reading/writing has on an individual and the world around them. Fredrick Douglas was a black slave who fought slavery because his white slave owner wanted  to oppress him as a slave who did not know how to read or write. Once Fredrick Douglas learned to read the newspaper he realized there were free slaves in the north he knew he could fight slavery as well. There is a contrast between Levi Strauss’s theory and Fredrick Douglas’s ideas but, unlike Strauss Douglas does not believe that the function of writing is simply used as a way of enslavement but, the way in which one is controlled in not learning how to write. Barbra brings up an excellent point and mentions ” What is needed is not less writing but more consciousness of how it works.” What I think Barbra Johnson is trying to state here is that there is an importance in writing that comes with control and the power words have on paper.

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