MARIANNE MORRIS
A STARLING FOR MORNING: CRITICAL IRONY AND GENDER IN EMILY CRITCHLEY’S LOVE / ALL THAT / & OK
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I’d like to explain what I meant when I referred to Emily Critchley’s book, Love / All That / & OK, as creating ‘a space for a new kind of anti-misogynism in poetry’ (Critchley, 2011:back cover). The construction of the phrase ‘anti-misogyny’ itself suggests a strategy of attack that necessarily incorporates its anathema. This sounds obvious, but I want to unpick the structure of this attack in a bid to trouble the efficacy of irony as a political weapon.

Incidentally, my comment was adapted from a blog post written after seeing Critchley perform with Jow Lindsay at Dartington College in 2009. The two took turns to read, thus enacting a kind of strange dialogue, highlighted by the fact that many of Critchley’s poems take the form of direct, intimate address. She read in the guise of a wounded lover or exhausted wife scolding her partner (sometimes reading seated at a piano, sometimes standing demurely next to the flailing Lindsay); and though whilst the two performers did not address each other directly, their physical proximity as male provocateur and affronted female could not help but underscore the question of gender. As Lindsay’s verbal experiments moved into greater and greater tests of his audience’s sense of propriety (lyric jokes about paedophilia, racism, gender, sexuality, etc), the combative elements of Critchley’s work became more pronounced, whilst at the same time her plaints went unheeded by Lindsay, whose work was not structured in a similar mode of pointed address, nor concerned with gender as an expression of an opposed male-female binary (at one point during the performance, Lindsay told a vignette detourning the generic riddle that relies on the idea that most people hear the word ‘nurse’ and imagine a female. ‘Did you think the nurse was a man?  You’re a disgrace if you did.  The nurse was a DOG.  IDIOT.’).


* * 

Craig Owens (1980, p.71) describes Robert Rauschenberg’s artistic attempts to undermine the institution of the museum as a gesture that is: 

‘both economic and strategic, for if, in his works, Rauschenberg enacts a deconstruction of the museum, then his own deconstructive discourse […] can take place only within the museum itself. It must therefore provisionally accept the terms and conditions it sets out to expose.’

In the alternative poetries of 21st century Britain, this critique that eats itself is a regular feature of poetic responses to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Take, for example, Barque Press’s IRA Quid (2004), a collection of poems written in response to the Abu Ghraib scandal: poems ugly enough to put even a dedicated counter-culture-vulture off her food, in which a ‘speculum opens the rotted wound to congress inspectors’ (in Andrea Brady’s ‘Saw Fit’), where ‘he prefers the / broom handle it can go all night’ (in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Song of the Wanking Iraqi’), and in which JH Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’ urges you to ‘Brutal finish / this sentence, go on do it. Till they yelp’). The method is not concerned with whether we like to read such material or not, but about how to construct resistance against ugly things. For the poets of IRA Quid, the answer is that violence and ugliness can only be fought with their mirror images, and the ensuing poetic manoeuvre is then one of a deep irony that risks its products being read as fetishism, the glorification of violence, or simply not read at all; because those mirror images cannot be understood as critique unless they are received as irony. Without it, they are just ugly images. But irony says that the repetition of the ugly image is the only way to designate the target of attack with certainty, and that in its repetition, the image is removed from the ideology-riddled conditions in which it originates, and made transparent. The problem with this manoeuvre, which I shall refer to throughout this essay as ‘critical irony’, is its complicity with the thing it seeks to critique—a complicity which ensures that the thing being critiqued remains the focus of attention, and prevents the dialogue from advancing beyond it.

In trying to grapple with some of these ideas, irony provides a useful handle. For what Owens refers to is a kind of irony: the artist who critiques the museum from inside the museum might be a Nietzschean ironist, ‘a liar in the service of truth [who] simultaneously asserts two or more logically contradictory meanings such that, in the silence between the two, the deeper meanings of both may emerge’ (Brown, 1983:544). It is also a Kantian irony, calling for a separation of the artist’s agency into two parts: the physical subject, who is attached to the words she produces, and the knowing other, who acts as the puppeteer, stage managing the deployment of these words in full knowledge of their various problematics and ideologies. This bifurcation of identity creates a number of problems for the efficaciousness of critique, partly because, in the wrong context, the knowing other can so easily fall away, and partly because these two identities can so easily cancel each other out. (Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’, for example, ironises the academic into two parts: the one which critiques on paper, and the other for whom critique on paper acts as a foreclosure on other forms of critique.) 


* * *
	
Keeping the device of critical irony in mind, I will turn back to Critchley’s work. The question of gender can be found at the forefront of her poetic project as early as 2007, in the opening to her poem When I Say I Believe Women:

When I say I believe women & men read &
write differently I mean that women & men
read & write pretty differently.				(75)

These lines bring Critchley’s approach into focus with the central claim of écriture feminine of Hélène Cixous, i.e., that writing can be categorised into masculine and feminine styles. Cixous’ definition is unsatisfactorily vague; she outlines only broad aspects of difference. Women’s writing, she says, is grounded in the body. Its meanings are fluid, ‘it is always endless’, it is ‘difficult to read’ (1981:53). Écriture feminine is about subjectivity, a woman ‘must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies’; and her writing is characterised by ‘struggle against conventional man’ (1976:875). While it would be impossible to lay down absolute rules for classifying any writing as masculine or feminine, many of Cixous’ definitions can be applied to Critchley’s work: it is often unclear where the poems in Love / All That end or begin; her frequent use of the slash character designates not line breaks but ambiguities of meaning and intent, constantly halting and re-directing the reader to alternatives (’missing / not missing’ (37), ‘fountain / belonging’ (38), ‘distant disappointment / constant as lovers’, ‘sure / lovely’ (43). And the poems openly rail against ‘conventional man’, often through an unrelenting depiction of absolute subjectivity, the poetic voice of which is often difficult to wrench from an idea that the reader might have of Critchley’s own. In ‘To His Uncool Mistress’, for example, the poet attempts to present an alternative to Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, organising her alternative around the question of gender:

Had I but half a wit & space in which
Personal ambition didn’t saturate everything
I did or sought to do; were I a man […]			(49)

By its own direct and frequently combative address, often deployed as monologue addressed to male love interests, Critchley’s poetry struggles against this ‘conventional man’ so pointedly that it risks piquing the defensive in and alienating its male reader, who may take himself collectively for the ‘you’ addressed in the poems. When Critchley’s struggles in the same poem veer into cruel wit, the effect is withering:

Your little
Ball once rolled & offered isn’t quite
The same at all. 					(50)

The ‘little / Ball’ mimics the shape of and slang for male sex, and in ‘roll[ing]’ it out, this figure both offers himself and makes himself small – a rolled ball for play, or genitalia rolled and thereby made bite-sized, gift-shaped, and soft. The sexual ball becomes a playground object, rejected here by its intended recipient in mockery of the notion of ‘Pleasure on a level footing’ that appears in the previous line. For Critchley, there can be no leveling of the playing field when the ground has been uneven for so long; the poem’s nod to Marvell ironises the speaker’s address to her male counterpart, qualifying it with a backdrop of persuasive male seduction and then functioning as a riposte to it. Many of the poems in Love / All That / & OK read as ripostes made in response to an offense that is unspecified and which the reader has to imagine. The poems therefore can be alienating: both by design and through their reference to unstated material. Many of the sonnets begin amid assumed private knowledge: ‘You jerk you didn’t write me back’ (31), ‘You’re such a flake ~ I can’t’ (36); and the book’s poems overall display frequent recourse to the word ‘that’ (even in its title), a perpetual referent to difficulties exacted and established elsewhere.

Some of Critchley’s poems read like intimate speech that has spilled out accidentally or unreservedly from a speaking mouth:

About yr last email, causing
so much. About other things too, really,
I feel. & liquid becomes me ~
or matching what’s said with pouring			(20)

In these lines from ‘I have been thinking’, the poet addresses this spillage, likening her ‘feel[ing]’ to ‘liquid’, the ‘pouring’ mimicking an uncontrollable flow. But this is also an ironisation, as ‘feel[ing]’ is a phenomenon at once delivered and analysed by its speaker in full self-awareness. ‘[L]iquid becomes me’. The self-awareness confirms that this style of unfettered and untempered address constitutes a deliberate strategy for expression, and is a further mark of écriture feminine. ‘Write,’ says Cixous, ‘let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you.’ (1976:877) Cixous has to urge this in the imperative due to the implicit knowledge that what must be said must also be what might otherwise be held back, whether for the sake of propriety, social shame, or politeness, and she views this as the task for women who write—not only that they express themselves unreservedly, but that they do so at the risk of alienating readers whose cognitive synapses are conditioned to patriarchal structures of language, or who are accustomed to linguistic structures that presuppose intelligibility through adhering to norms. This spilling of the self in writing, then, is the flood whose force breaks expectation and tradition. This spilled force of self-expression is also significant as an antithesis to hysteria.

Cixous called silence ‘the mark of hysteria’ (1981:49) because early psychoanalytic case studies (like Freud and Breuer’s Anna O) frequently portray hysterical patients as suffering from linguistic disorders, including: the inability to speak, ‘disorganization’ of speech (Freud, 1955:25), stammering, and in some cases where the patient was multilingual, a confusion of languages. The first physician to study and promote hysteria, Jean-Martin Charcot, photographed and toured his patients around Europe, treating them as spectacles and turning their symptoms into curios for social entertainment (see Didi-Huberman, Hunter, and Showalter). When his patients did speak, he was inclined to treat their words as insignificant—in other words, he studied their physical condition endlessly, but did not listen to them. Freud and Breuer’s work on hysteria was revolutionary in that it emphasised the need for listening and understanding patients’ speech, and led to the first incident of the psychoanalytic ‘talking cure’ (a phrase coined by Anna O herself). 

The typical patient in early case studies of hysteria is a highly intelligent and creative woman who is permitted no outlet for her intellectual energy—but rather, made to sit sewing, made to sit in silence, made to marry bores and bear children, utterly enslaved to her social role as a woman. Many theorists have taken the silence of hysterics as a protest against the patriarchal order of language (Hunter), and as a refusal to speak on pre-ordered terms (when spoken to, or like a lady, perhaps). In this context, the explosive nature of female speech signifies the return of ‘the “repressed” of their culture and their society’ (Cixous, 1976:886); but it is also the inevitable result of not being listened to.

Critchley’s poetry is highly sensitive to these matters and their relation to the politics of contemporary poetry, often making an explicit case for what it perceives as the silenced female poet, as in these lines from ‘The Avaunte Garde’:

Curiously a hero fakes a discovery of poetic significance

Coincidentally Euridice flows into a wall of fire, an outburst, a
starling for morning

Leaving her fake birds clothes behind she flung at the wall & was vaporized

At that all her words got replaced by signs   			(62)

Euridice’s ‘outburst’ of song, ‘a starling for morning’, coincides with this male hero’s ‘discovery of poetic significance’, and gets her noticed, the result being that she must remove her ‘birds clothes’ (garments in which to sing), and get ‘vaporized’. In the myth of Orpheus, Eurydice disappears when her husband turns to look at her; in Critchley’s poem, the analogy suggests that to be seen as a female writer is immediately not to be heard. Like Cixous’ Dora, whose hysteria ‘is a powerful form of rebellion against the rationality of the patriarchal order’ (Showalter, 1987:160), Critchley’s Euridice is active in her own ‘vaporiz[ing]’. The myth is detourned: the verb ‘flung’ is used intransitively, giving her agency in her predicament. Euridice leaves her own clothes behind, flings herself against the wall, sacrificing in doing so ‘her words’, which get ‘replaced by signs’. The poem ends not just with Euridice’s words being replaced by signs, but Critchley’s own, as this is also where the poem ends, showing itself out with three unutterable arrow signs. 

The poem’s ending seems emblematic of the problematic position that Critchley’s poetry, through the task it designates for itself, often finds itself in. In seeking to establish a woman’s writing that challenges certain patriarchal linguistic norms, it chooses combat—resistance—as its primary mode of attack. This creates problems for the poetry in its decision to use critical irony both to identify and attack its target. In Critchley’s work, critical irony draws a kind of outraged attention to what it views as egregious statements of gender, and then attempts to deal with them by making its own egregious statements, using the gender divide as a pivot. It is then trapped within the binary structure of gender (both the ‘Eurydice’ of ‘Orpheus-and-Eurydice’, as well as the ‘anti’ of ‘anti-misogyny’), constrained by the rules of this binary, and forced into modes of rebellion that leave it few options beyond defense or silence. 

Whilst the female predicament is now far less explicit than the enforced sewing nightmare undergone by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hysterics, residues of prejudice remain, both socially and intellectually. As unknown, irrational categories, emotions have been associated with the feminine since the earliest creationist myths, pitted against their rational, male counterparts (see Raitt, 1980:418-9), and derided in turn. As Alison Jaggar notes, ‘[w]ithin the Western philosophical tradition, emotions have usually been considered potentially or actually subversive of knowledge.’ (Jaggar, 1997:188) And so there is clearly a need to push for feeling as its own mode of knowledge, as Critchley’s poetry constantly tries to do, using feelings as reactions to questions of gender politics that help us to sketch the outlines of that politics. But because her feelings are often deployed in combat—defensiveness, anger, rejection—they get swallowed up by critical irony, constituting the fuck-you of a feminist response that re-works and then redeploys the ugliness in which its enemy originates. The inevitable result is that such responses lose their battle. Take her critique of sexualised metaphor in the poem ‘My Notes / Notes About Me’:

& so I have to ask: WHAT ARE OUR DIFFERENCES
WHAT ARE THEY ARMS & LEGO PIECES because I like you
Love you hate you, most of all I not regret nothing
‘xcept for those “sexual ambitions” & the strobe politiks
The fuckups in Kabul Yr Chinese power tool. (i)

& did you use yr tool out there & was it hot slash
very successful






(i) Josh Stanley, ed. Hot Gun!				(45)


The object of criticism here is Josh Stanley’s journal of poems and essays on contemporary poetry, ‘Hot Gun!’, which was published in 2009. Critchley here criticizes both what she perceives to be the content of Stanley’s journal, as well as his choice of title. But her critique goes beyond basic gender metaphors into the question of gender in contemporary poetry more broadly, drawing attention to the title ‘Hot Gun!’ as indicative somehow of phallocentric criticism: in other words, nothing wrong with a hot gun, but what’s it doing there?

Critchley deals with the hot gun by flattering it sexually: it is a ‘hot slash / very successful tool’. But she offers this alongside a parody of the contemporary penchant for political proper naming in poetry. The line about ‘fuckups in Kabul Yr Chinese power tool’ makes a nonsense of what these proper nouns might hope to designate by decontextualising them, instead implying by juxtaposing them with this ‘tool’ that they are markers of masculine language. In this case, Critchley’s critique is based on a gendered reading of Hot Gun!’s title, blurring ‘hot’ with heat and sexuality, ‘gun’ with weapon and phallic object, and ‘hot gun’ with power tool. One does not have to go very far to make such deductions, the implication being that Stanley’s title encourages such a reading and thereby posits that contemporary poetry, the journal’s subject of inquiry, is a gendered phenomenon. Her response, then, however provocative, is reasonable. But there is also the question here of the absence of vulvar imagery with which to neutralise these phallic metaphors, the fact that engagement with this imagery reinforces the gender binary. 

Euphemisms for the female sex are not associated with weaponry: typically, the male sword is removed from its sheath in order to be sunk into a body that bears its own sheath; the metaphor of sex as violence is implicit in phallocentric metaphor, and female physiognomy has no weapon with which to counter, instead fueling the fire by bleeding accommodatingly in both menstruation and childbirth. In her essay on 17th century pornographic poetry and politics, Rachel Weil explains that poetic metaphors for the violence of female sexuality were based on a violence of insatiability, quoting from the Earl of Rochester’s 1680 poem ‘Deep in an unctious vale, twixt swelling hills’:

Cunt shakes her angry locks, worries the prey
Sucks out the blood and throws the skin away	(Weil:148)

(calling to mind the ‘little / Ball’ rolled and quoted earlier). Metaphors for the masculine and feminine sex, then, operate in entirely separate spheres, and Critchley’s ironic attempt to seduce this ‘hot gun’ might be considered a sensible means of drawing it into dialogue. What inevitably happens in Love / All That / & OK, however, is that once drawn into the intimacy of sexual relations, ‘conventional man’ inevitably fails in a number of other ways, and must be taken to task, such as Luke, who ‘didn’t write me back’ (31), or the ‘silly boys’ with their ‘exhausting parabolas’ (35); and these failures are coupled with the failure of the other half of that binary, which finds itself dissatisfied with being ‘a sex doll with a PhD’ (89). Although critical irony is heavily involved in the deployment of this image, it nonetheless can also be read as an auto-victimisation which sets its own gender up as the target in a masculine shooting gallery.

The malevolent seduction of the phallic metaphor of ‘Hot Gun!’ (as well as the poetic riposte to Marvell, and the sonnets to Luke), enact a critical strategy of binarism: subject and object. The subject is the ironic seductress, the object the phallic gun of male language. This binarism is also visible in the identification of the ‘Hot Gun’ as an affront, and in the affront made in turn, which combats with its available weapons of seduction and irony, cutting its line of attack at ‘was it hot slash’, the latter word functioning here as the signifier of the oblique stroke that separates different elements of a text and the violence of the line break, as well the slit of the female sex—’hot slash’. Having countered, the poem then can only abdicate from the pressures of verse and prosody by deploying the image of the glue gun, the very personification of ineffability, and a refutation of the power of language on grounds of its distasteful complicity, both with orders of patriarchy as well as with irony, whose very structure requires the poem—in this case literally—to get into bed with the enemy.

This is where the armour of critical irony begins to show its cracks. These cracks are made more explicit in ‘You jerk you didn’t write me back’:

You jerk you didn’t write me back. (i)
& when you did, yr smile was Cambridge~shaped, judgmental.
I’m sick of all you bourgeois boys ~ who haven’t read Catullus
or understood him ~
so I think you into the same shape,
& knock you into the same size,
like this & this & this.

That way, the next time you come in the room
I’m primed & ready with my gluegun.
To wipe up tears & spill the beans,
to make it so much worse
& arm you to the teeth wth all my paranoia,
O lovely paranoia; I give it you freely.
Go fuck yourselves ~				(31)

Cixous’ urge to write without reservation returns (as does the gluegun, now wielded by the poet herself). Not hiding, not apologising, the poem gives away its weapons – ‘arm[s] you to the teeth’. In releasing these ‘freely’, the poem totalizes itself, giving way quickly into characters all ‘the same shape’ and ‘the same size’. The ineffability and comedic softness of ‘this & this & this’ as a proxy for the poem’s totalizing attack on its ‘boys’ somewhat irons out the poem’s earlier barbs, such as the ‘jerk’, and all of the words too awkwardly big for their own prosody (’Cambridge-shaped, judgmental’), as the poem’s initially specific ‘you’ becomes a vague masculine plural. The protagonist’s pointed confrontation of the ‘jerk’ of the first line becomes a series of pre-meditated gestures (ready and waiting for ‘the next time’): holding a gluegun, ‘wip[ing] up tears’, ‘spill[ing] the beans’, and finally forcing the protagonist to admit that her methods only serve to arm her enemies. Having reached the end of this attack, and having nothing left to focus on, the poem abdicates from the pressure of verse (as it does with the jpeg in ‘My Notes / Notes About Me’), exiting with a literal flourish: ‘Go fuck yourselves ~’, having indeed made it ‘so much worse’.


* * * * 

Hegel’s discussion of lordship and bondage, in which self-consciousness exists only through its acknowledgment by another consciousness, posits a binary structure of dependence not dissimilar to that of critical irony. 

Each sees the other do the same as it does; each does itself what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only in so far as the other does the same. Action by one side only would be useless because what is to happen can only be brought about by both. (Hegel:§182, p.112)

The difference between this relationship and that of critical irony is that, in the latter, the mirrored action itself is ironised, in the Kantian sense, by being split into empirical and transcendental halves, one performing the gesture, the other standing apart from that performance in full awareness of its significance. Through this overt performance of self-awareness, critical irony aims to transcend ideology: I critique this gesture in full knowledge of its damaging properties/I am not innocent of the power of this gesture. But the very separations required by this binary relationship must also become ideology, because the line dividing these mirrored identifications and thereby linking them is one of desire. The subject and object are opposed to one another, but are inextricably linked and defined by the power of their opposition, where critique is an engagement of the most fascinated order.

More wretchedly than this, perhaps, and the strongest imperative for the abandonment of critical irony, is that it is simply another way of re-positioning the subject-object binary that has preoccupied aesthetic theory for centuries. In critical irony, the subject identifies itself with the object through critique, alters its shape to fit—and is then immobilised by the fact that the object, once set in the subject’s sights, is immutable. Critical irony is a technique that presupposes the rigidity of the roles of subject and other, thereby ensuring that the dialogue remains one of extremes, within which power is transferred back and forth, rather than achieving resolution or feeling its way into new roles.

In other words, resistance that takes the form of critical irony may not necessarily be progressive.


* * * * *

And so, onto making it better. 

Because I am shouting
at you, silent, &
want you of course, but also have been thinking ~

Still, there’s so much still not to be said
separately & from our different positions,
like a failure to meet here
or at any point
With me, but grateful.				(19)

Having seen Love / All That / & OK falter between silence and noise, it seems fitting that Critchley is able to escape the constrictive dichotomy of misogyny and anti-misogyny through a commingling of the two, as above in ‘I have been thinking’, in which the ‘shouting / at you’ is ‘silent’, and mixed with desire (’want[ing] you of course’) and thought. The poem repeats the phrase ‘I have been thinking’ three times, reiterating the busy silence of consideration in which ‘there’s so much still not to be said’, as if in tacit acknowledgment that authentic exchange must be kept out of spoken language because ‘our different positions’ makes it impossible to meet on equal footing. 

There’s not much left, of trust or ~
because c.f. everything.

This does weigh heavy some times too,
sticks to things in thick air ~
& myriad chances, like returning back toward
the same Orpheic point,

but of course				
I have been thinking!				(20)

Trust is antithetical to ‘everything’—here again is the unspecified external referent that reappears continually throughout the book, the signifier that constitutes all the unstated events against which the poems react, ‘the same Orpheic point’ at which the female of the story disappears under the weight of her own role, as she does in ‘The Avaunt-Garde’. The reiteration of ‘I have been thinking’, as a counterfoil to this stuckness that ‘weighs heavy’ on the ‘thick air’, could be viewed as the poem’s attempt to escape this repeated pattern of disappearance, and to access the subjectivity coursing underneath. It is also a counterfoil to the poem’s almost complete preoccupation with feelings:

I feel. & liquid becomes me ~
or matching what’s said with pouring
to go down, come down,
one of us, any which way.			(20)

This rewrites Jaggar’s phrase, quoted earlier, about the philosophical assumption that emotions are ‘subversive of knowledge’, as Critchley’s subject can only become visible through the cracks in her critical irony where thought and feeling are intermingled, and where thought is performed as feeling. For this poem does not display critical thinking, but the tender thinking on a lover that seeks to resolve difference into wholeness—’so we mustn’t be sorry’. This recourse to thinking constitutes a break in what in Love / All That / & OK frequently sees as the violence and hurt caused by language, as the lip-service language inevitably plays to pre-established order, and the harm that the book’s poems do to themselves in seeking to take on and smash that pre-established order. In ‘I have been thinking’, this violence has the force of a physical mutilation:

	cutting little holes in faces~
	deeds out of words 				(20)

Critchley’s poems occasionally escape the violence of critical irony and achieve fluidity or unfixity of identity when they are at their most vulnerable—when the language floods out in the dam-burst of écriture feminine, but before there is time for the ideas to be drawn into the trap of critical thinking and irony. This happens in ‘Past Filmic Tense’, which urges towards a more unfettered treatment of language, and which shows the potential lyricism of feminine writing that affirms itself as a complete subjectivity, rather than pitting itself against an unworthy adversary, whether real or imagined. I’m going to let this fluidity speak for itself—

e.g. can sunlight be responsible thus for this shimmer, this photondance?
A beam in darkness: let it burst out of its language to comfort
our gloom

come quickly the idea, leave your building behind you
 			   come light without memory come come come come      (56)



____________________
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