chapter  7
26 Pages

Dispositives of silence: gender, feminism and Czech literature between 1948 and 1989

ByJAN MATONOHA

Introduction: feminist and gender agendas in Czech literary reception post-1989 Following the events of 1989, Western feminism was taken by surprise by the rejection of the idea of gender emancipation in Eastern Europe, including the circles (e.g. the dissent) where sensitivity towards various forms of oppression and inequality were to be expected (see, for instance, Einhorn 1993; Funk and Mueller 1993; Wolchik 1992, 1994). In regard to this situation, the following two facts motivated this study: (1) the extent to which the cultural community was characterized by a distinctive unwillingness or inability to reflect upon gender as an aspect of social relations and cultural background following 1989;1 (2) during the examined period (1948-89), the topic of gender appeared in various articulations; yet, with small exceptions, it was not formulated from feminist positions; on the contrary it was subsumed into higher discursive formations and ideological frameworks and thus – in the words of Hana Havelková (2007) – it was expropriated.2 The aim of this study is to contribute towards the illumination of the genealogy of those mechanisms that contributed to the almost visceral rejection of feminism and the constitution of the existing silence on the topic of gender. This objective will be reached by means of examining a select corpus of canonical literary texts. However, I use the concept of silence in this study to designate a broader range of phenomena and not merely the lack of interest in the given topic or the absence of a widespread debate addressing these issues. I also use this concept to designate the selfsame structural conditions of invisibility and rejection that grew from a strong dis-identification with the examined topic, which was viewed as something uncomfortable and borderline embarrassing. Many model values and features of gender culture were communicated by channels that enjoyed a great prestige, and they were endowed with a strong symbolic interpellation capital (for instance, literary fiction from the dissident circles or literature published in exile); thus they were not perceived as introducing ideology, pressure or conformity to the dominant official (and to a large extent discredited) culture. Due to the contraposition against the dominant policy and suppression generated by the government, the values disseminated by dissident

literature and literature published in exile achieved a position of hegemony in the sense proposed by Gramsci (Gramsci 1971 [1935]; see also Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Torfing 1999). The impact of this tendency can be traced deep into the 1990s and beyond.3 This study strives to elucidate particularly the factors that constitute the complicity of the subject in the hegemony of silence with the use of instruments that are less visible and less often thematized. I would like to append the above-described examination of the silence on the issue of gender with an analysis of literary texts that provide a dimension of discursive and interpellative formation of potentially affective – yet at the same time injuring – attachments and identifications that constituted forms of gender culture, which were in many regards regressive and in effect (jointly) prepared the ground for the rejection of feminism and constitution of gender blind spots in Czech society before 1989 and beyond.4 In regard to the theoretical background, this study examines literary texts as specific places that provide opportunities for certain interpellations (appeals, summons, incitements, temptations) of the subject that allow the subject to assume and accept a specific type of subjectivity and identity. The theoretical instruments employed in this study draw on the feminist approaches that perceive culture as a reservoir of social meanings and categories, as a discursive space that offers frameworks for experiences that can only be grasped via cultural and social categories (Scott 1992). Through this prism, literary texts are shown as a discursive space of establishment, circulation, sharing and negotiation of socially recognizable and acceptable values and identities (Belsey 1985); on the other hand, such texts are shown as actors who form the discursive terrain and meaningful and conceptual dominants that are valid for the whole society. Therefore, I consider literature as one of the types of discursive domains of distribution of cultural and symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1993), as a space of cultural constitution of identities and interpellations of the reading subject (Fetterley 1978; Althusser 1984 [1970]; Belsey 1985; Culler 1991 [1982]). In effect, I perceive literary texts as an integral part of broader discursive processes of constitution of the subject, formative processes, and technologies of the Self (Foucault 1995 [1975], 1998 [1976]), negotiation and stabilization of coherent and clearly readable subjectivity within the network of a multitude of interpellations. My methodology is based on feminist deconstructive reading (Johnson 1980) and resistant reading (reading against the grain) as introduced by Judith Fetterley (1978). By the same token, it is my intention to further extend this method of interpretation and demonstrate the internal complications that are posed to resistant reading by mechanisms of affective injuring interpellations and identifications (Brown 1995; Butler 1997) and their roles in the dispositives of silence (see below). With respect to the chosen methodology, it needs to be noted that in connection with the changes in gender culture, I am not addressing cohorts of women authors and authors but ‘generations’ of texts, i.e. I am addressing the literary and discursive production and analysis of the literary field. This approach allows for an examination of the interpellation potential of texts and their involvement

in the discursive emergence of silence. The criterion for the selection of the texts was their ‘canonicity’ (from the 1950s until present day) – and the interpellation potential arising therefrom – which was supported by the weight of symbolic capital that was enjoyed (and still is) by the anti-canonical and ‘dissident’ (or at least ‘avant-garde’, anti-normative) texts of that period.5 The texts selected in this study represent two criteria: time and place; together, they introduce a cross section of the whole examined period: texts from all four decades and all forms or types of publishing methods – including authors living in exile (published by 68 Publishers in Toronto), samizdat literature (series Petlice, Expedice), literature associated with the alternative scene (published by Unijazz), and authors representing the official literary production. The silence on the issues of gender and feminism (not only their rejection but also trivialization, disinterestedness or merely superficial interest) after 1989 can be examined on three different levels: general social level, cultural and literary level, and to a certain degree also the level of expert literary criticism. Here I will discuss briefly silence on the issues of gender on the latter two levels: cases of unwillingness of literary figures to expose feminism in a public debate as well as the resistance towards gendered approaches in expert literary discourse. As early as the mid-1980s, Václav Havel responded to a question posed by Italian feminists – after consulting his female dissident colleagues (they remained anonymous) who emphatically rejected the feminist agenda – that feminism was Dada (Havel 1992 [1985]). In the early 1990s, Josef Škvorecký trivialized the topics of sexual harassment and politically correct speech in a series of articles published in a prestigious Czech periodical (Škvorecký 1992a, 1992b). Due to the high measure of the symbolic capital and aura of prominent dissident and exiled figures, which both mentioned authors enjoyed, we can assume that their voiced opinions transcended the original scope of influence and contributed towards further delegitimization of feminism. Therefore, it is not too surprising that Eva (Kalivodová) Věšínová stated in a literary periodical Iniciály in 1992 that

[I]n case feminism by chance becomes a topic of discussion somewhere in the Czech Republic, the common reaction includes sneers and trivializing jokes that often betray utter ignorance of the subject. Participants in the discussion who are more inclined to remain unbiased show at least a sign of doubt, distrust, and suspicion.6