“Bringing me into the world”: Brossard’s Lovhers and the Domain of Linguistic Survival
Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative.1Toni Morrison
Since the 1970’s, Nicole Brossard has contributed substantially to the representation and legitimation of lesbian existence. Today, Brossard’s is a familiar voice in the context of lesbian feminist literary practice. Her work constitutes “one of the most articulate and persistent effortsto think [about] otherness…that have been produced in Québec” (Siemerling 173). Noteworthy in this regard is Brossard’s long poem, Lovhers.2With aid of theoretical writings of GayatriSpivak and Judith Butler, I explore the lesbian-feminist poetics of Brossard’s poem with specialfocus on the concerns of discourse and language it raises. Spivak’s notion of “worlding” and Butler’s speculations on the double movement and dual potentiality of injurious language helpunpack the political implications of the linguistic performance of Lovhers. Brossard fashionslesbian subjectivity by refusing heteronormative discourse, turning the violent language ofpatriarchy back upon itself; in turn, she remakes that language so that it may serve as the materialwith which to fashion a “domain of linguistic survival” for lesbian existence (Speech 41).Brossard achieves these effects by “worlding” lesbian subjectivity. Worlding, a termcoined by Gayatri Spivak and a major precept of postcolonial criticism, is one of a number ofprocesses of othering carried out through colonial discourse. To effect and maintain hegemoniccontrol over territories under conquest, colonizers take over the major modes of representation so as to produce rhetorically a common belief in the ‘natural’ inferiority and delinquency of nativesubjects and cultures (Said passim). One of these methods of othering Spivak calls worlding:specific colonial otherings whereby individuals and areas are presided over and inscribed byimperial figures in conspicuous, dramatic ways.3Through worlding, colonized natives and territories are defined in Eurocentric terms, translated through the colonial language and
designated as subject to Euro-imperial authority. As Spivak explains, worlding “effectively and violently [slides] one discourse under another” (“Simur” 133).Here, I translate Spivak’s colonial discourse theory into the milieu of sex and genderdiscourse theory. I want to consider the implications of this process for women’s sexuality and think about practices of gendered socialization as methods of othering. In my view, the worlding of heteropatriarchal dominance “effectively and violently” slides the discourse of lesbian subjectivity under that of heteronormativity. The heteropatriarchy is “worlded” through appropriations of not colonial space but the space of the female body. Women are marked byheteropatriarchal language in much the same way colonized populations and areas are markedEuropean in colonial discourse. Women are defined in heteronormative terms, translated through patriarchal language and designated as subject to male authority. Whereas native subjects areforced to experience ‘home’ as a colonial territory, lesbian subjects are compelled to experiencetheir bodies as patriarchal property—as such, women are likewise subject to “compulsory heterosexuality” (Rich 347 - 48). Heteropatriarchal dominance is a particular problem forlesbians—an emergency really—because it not only designates them inferior to men but also situates them inside a sexual identity deeply discordant with their being.Lesbian subjectivity in postcolonial conditions is a triply marginalized subject position,violated through and oppressed by processes of colonialism, patriarchy and
heteronormativity.Both in and outside colonial contexts, however, women’s bodies can be viewed as a ‘colonizedterrain.’ Not only is the lesbian thus ‘colonized,’ she is further proscribed by being denied aplace in discourse, a gendered form of displacement exacerbated by the fact that whenever shehas ‘snuck in,’ her lesbian existence has been rapidly extinguished. Several lesbian feministsmake this argument, and it is evidenced in any case by documentary history—the multiple
order of multiple Popes to burn Sappho’s work being only the oldest known example.4With herenigmatic poem, Lovhers, Nicole Brossard responds to the historical absence of lesbian existence, a problem likewise theorized in the work of Judith Butler. In Excitable Speech, Butlershows how what she calls “linguistic vulnerability”—the potential for being victimized and displaced through injurious speech—might develop into an empowering dynamic whereby “an unexpected and enabling response” is produced (Speech 2). My position is that the worlding ofheteronormativity is an excellent example of the injurious speech Butler theorizes. By countering the destructive processes of heteropatriarchal worlding, Brossard’s Lovhers realizes Butler’s“enabling response” in the context of lesbian subjectivity and dramatically demonstrates how“surviving takes place in language” (Speech 4).The manifestation of lesbian subjectivity performed in the poem problematizes itsdiscursive invisibility, exposes the always prior “worlding” of the heteropatriarchy and qualifiesLovhers as a significant instance of linguistic lesbian survival. In Butler’s terms we might say Brossard’s poem concerns the “social ritual[s] that decide, often through exclusion and violence,the linguistic conditions of survivable subjects” (Speech 5). Just as the inscription of empire on the colonial territory and subject is violent, the inscription of heteronormativity—the“interpellation” of the subject into spontaneous compliance with heterosexuality—is similarly violent for lesbians.5However, as Butler argues, “if to be addressed is to be interpellated, thenthe offensive call runs the risk of inaugurating a subject in speech who comes to use language tocounter the offensive call” (Speech 2). Butler further claims that because subjects are“interpellated within the terms of language, a certain social existence first becomes possible”through language, even as and when it is oppressive (Speech 5). Thus, discourse varyinglyharms, destroys and upholds the subject as we are “alternately sustained and threatened through
modes of address” (Speech 5). Victims can reverse the effects of wounding speech in such a way that the response “turn[s] one part of that speaking against the other, confounding theperformative power of the threat” (Speech 12).Butler’s speculations on the dynamics of linguistic exchange suggest a few things. First,in somewhat the way Spivak imagines colonial discourse as a mobile force ‘sliding around’ overother discourses, Butler views instances of speech as continuously running language threads thatricochet back and forth between speakers—including authors, books and readers. Rather than simply being delivered, and the delivery constituting the conclusion of the exchange, for Butler,language rebounds in a conceivably endless loop. This view attributes a plasticity to processes ofinterpersonal communication; and, it implies that discourse is a never-ending ‘conversation’ with no discoverable origin. As speech is received and responded to, words and phrases are translated by participants and hate speech is returned in new forms with new meanings (Speech 14).Moreover, when an instance of injurious speech is committed and the victim ‘catches’ theharmful words, the hegemonic ideas signified are likewise opened up to the possibility oftranslation and transcreation. Thus, along with victims, the very terms of the address are‘exposed’ and ‘under threat.’What this means ultimately is that hateful language could actually turn out to be thestimulus prompting an alteration of the terms of the discourse itself. As Butler argues, the“effects [the speech act] performs must exceed those by which it was intended” (Speech 14 –15).6She is also careful to stipulate that linguistic agency is not owned by single speakers orhoused within individual occurrences of speech because words acquire their power to woundthrough time. Instances of speech are, for Butler, “condensed historicit[ies]” (Speech 3),“extended doing[s],” and “never merely a single moment” (Speech 7). Specific words and
phrases are capable of injury only because they are part of a historical speech continuum and have been conventionalized. Accordingly, we see how, as Butler proposes, “loosening…the link between act and injury...opens up the possibility for…a kind of talking back” (Speech 15). As aliterary performance, Brossard’s poem exemplifies and enacts Butler’s theory of “talking back,”demonstrating how words can “become disjoined from their power to injure and [be]recontextualized in more affirmative modes” (Speech 15).Spivak and Butler’s theories complement Brossard’s work profoundly because, for allthree authors, place and being are inextricably and fundamentally connected—an idea plainly indicated in Butler’s notion of a domain of linguistic survival (Speech 41). Both theorists workfrom common ontological ground offering theories of being that are essentially spatial. WhereSpivak speaks of displacement through “worlding,” Butler speaks of the absence of “place.” The“place” for some members within “a community of speakers,” she tells us, may be “no place” atall (Speech 4). Despite its metaphysical character, existence or being must have a distinct,discernible place for these writers. Likewise, Brossard’s Lovhers is a spatial response to theproblem of lesbian displacement; when her speaker reads a discursive text, this activity “takesspaces away from” her (26).This explains why Brossard appropriates a form of worlding in a poem about forging and affirming lesbian existence. Colonial and heteropatriarchal worldings are
performativemechanisms designed to displace subjects in precisely the way Butler describes. These violentdiscursive gestures necessarily exclude other places of being and erase other possibilities forhuman relationship. Repairing exclusions and displacements inevitably involves carving out ormaking space in discourse. For example, worlding doesn’t merely indicate that the colonizer
dominates the territory represented, it also says that the place of the text was “no place” before itwas thus conquered and inscribed. And, just as colonial discourse legitimates colonial authority,heteropatriarchal worlding makes a place for male authority through men’s discursive dominanceover women’s bodies.7For all intents and purposes, private and public, ‘woman’ doesn’t existbefore her inculcation by a male figure. Woman is ‘nothing’ and ‘no one’ before a male gazesupon her, ‘wakes her up’ and seductively draws her into a prescribed existence. As Farwellexplains, “the traditional narrative is the movement of a mobile figure, marked male througha…passive space marked female. …[O]nly one gender has agency or subjectivity, and thisgender also has the ability to conquer and control its constructed opposite” (158).In addition, Brossard’s aesthetic choices are variously strategic—a transposed, subversivecounter-worlding is coupled with the feminist practice of body writing such that the poemfunctions at multiple levels of ‘place.’ Body writing is obligatory in lesbian counter-worldingsince it is the female body that is inscribed by and violated through heteropatriarchal discourse.Paradoxically, this is also what makes the appropriation of the practice of worlding an
effectivecounter-hegemonic strategy. The literary means of lesbian feminism practiced here involve thereconceptualization and reappropriation of this process through (what I am calling) “counter-worlding”—a response to the problem of ‘placelessness’ that is both empowering and liberatory.In Lovhers, Butler’s “enabling response” becomes a discursive place of survival through theworlding of an othered figure. Counter-worlding “talks back” (in Butler’s sense) to a priorinjurious worlding through the retrieval of ‘conquered’ space. It is a responsive, place-making‘counter-action’ designed to make room for a proscribed subjectivity: lesbian existence in theworld. More to the point, Butler arrives at the following conclusion in Excitable Speech:Indeed, as we think about worlds that might one day become thinkable, sayable,legible, the opening up of the foreclosed and the saying of the unspeakable
become part of the very “offense” that must be committed in order to expand thedomain of linguistic survival. The resignification of speech requires…speaking in ways that have never yet been legitimated, and hence producing legitimation innew and future forms. (41, my emphasis)Butler’s theory thus concerns the possibilities for and practices that would expand the space ofsurvival for Others. As we know, lesbian subjectivity is, effectively, a ‘homeless’ subjectivity.Through work produced by poets like Brossard, the lesbian subject moves from “no place” to “some place.” In this poem, Brossard uses counter-worlding to oppose the always already worlded heteropatriarchy, to expose the violence of that process, and to give her proscribed,historically invisible subject an avowed presence in the world.As a poetic performance, Lovhers radically frees ‘woman’ from heteronormativecaptivity. To accomplish this, the writer requires a counter-language. Hegemonic language lackswords in which the subject might ‘live’ or ‘reside’: “i put the number (4) before inscribing Lovhers and i can only make headway by initials” (25). To use language as it is given will neverpermit the inscription of lovhers for the writer has only fragments of language with which towork. As such, lesbian feminist literary practice necessarily involves the re-coding of language.The central metaphors for lesbian existence in Western feminist theory are simply not permittedexistences in the dominant language and its discourses—this includes, for example, Rich’snotion of the “lesbian continuum” articulated in “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” Wittig’scelebration of “the lesbian body” in her classic novel of the same name, Butler’s theory of the“lesbian phallus” theorized in Bodies that Matter, and Brossard’s lesbian “lovhers.” We mightsay that each of these metaphors constitutes a lesbian counter-worlding, a “response” (in Butler’susage) to the fact that their authors’ lived realities are not recognized as part of “the social realityof what a woman is” (Speech 68).
Brossard reconstitutes language—“so transform me, she said” (65)—by translating theinvisible reality of lesbian desire into the dominant language, reshaping that language to “fit” thesubject. The poet creates neologisms like “essenshe’ll” or “possibles” (81) and continually commits grammatical transgressions—the lack of capitalization, unconventional inventive usesof punctuation (parentheses, dashes, slashes), and the substitution of numbers for words, like“(4)” as “for.” She also plays with the way words appear on the page, such as in the line:“vociferating mythologies of voices caught in the cliché, cities, (in play)” (60). The words “in play” are noticeable as much for their parenthetical status as for their partial italics. The linesuggests two ideas. We can interpret “in play” in its Derridean connotation and we can read itwithout the “n,” as “i play.”8Consequently, Brossard intends to destabilize “vociferousmythologies,” or put them into play, and to ‘play’ with subjectivity—as in, ‘this is i play.’ Thesubjectivity being ‘played’ transgresses the mythologies referenced, an idea further signifiedthrough parentheses. In addition, the ‘missing’ period at the end of the line assigns a timelessnessboth to the discourses being contested and the deconstructive play of Lovhers.Lines like this remind us that the crisis of this poem is a crisis of language, that what isput into play first and foremost is language itself: its “(crisis)” is “linked to words / (machine fordivining symbols)” (46). Brossard’s subject is called “lovher,” a new word for a subjectforbidden historically; this transgressive word is itself a linguistic ‘dwelling place.’ In this poem,we see how language has been done to women—“This text was written before it happened to me” (26, my emphasis)—and in turn how women might do language in reply: “i am writing younow” (23, my emphasis). If the self is constructed in and by language, then identity can be re-constructed by the same means (Speech 5). As Parker claims, if “language mediates/constructsour perception and experience of ‘reality’...it is surely ‘political’ to intervene through
language, to operate on the image and the word in order to reconstitute…subjectivity” (10). The openingsection of the poem, “(4) Lovhers/Write,” establishes the text’s deconstructive aims—this is apoem in which the “texture of identities” will be confronted, analyzed and reformulated (15).“Texture” is a pun in this instance: it means texture as in the content, features and character ofidentity, and also implies texture as a verb—to perform the “texting” of or to “texture” an identity “(4) Lovhers” (that is, “for Lovhers”). As Siemerling argues, Brossard “has no qualmsabout the theoretical possibility of women’s access to subjectivity...through the praxis ofwriting” (175). Nonetheless, to accomplish this “texting” the author must “invert” the system—language—and it is “this text, under the eye,” Lovhers, performing that inversion (15).Note the last line on page one: “in reality, there is no fiction” (15). Fiction—the writingof culture, history, identity—opposes the self-fashioning “textured” in Lovhers. The latteridentity is “barred” (Lacan 146-75) from cultural ‘consciousness’ because it is denied a place in the cultural, national or colonial language. Brossard’s term “lovher” is a signified (a reality)without a signifier (a place in language). One suggestion Brossard seems to make is that lesbian subjectivity is part of Lacan’s “real order”—“real” but without language and thus outside social,normative, discursive “reality”—what he calls the “symbolic order.”9In fact, at times, Brossard engages Lacan in an explicit dialogue: “everything is in the beyond” (24). And later: “i’mdispersed / in the survived of things of the real” (43); still later: “i succumbed: that’s what dragsme / into the real…” (76). The lesbian subject is barred by the sign “woman” in its normativeconstitution, as well as signs like “wife” “mother” and, of course, “lover.” The “texting” of abarred identity is, in Lacanian and Kristevan terms, as also in Brossard’s, the subversive or“revolutionary”10movement from the real to the symbolic, a lesbian ‘coming out’ into alinguistic place constructed by
Brossard. Early in the poem and in striking ways, Brossard shows how women are “`put in theirplace’ by…speech” (Speech 4). “June the Fever” opens with an announcement, one of thechapter’s refrains: “i read the text of your project” (23). The constitution of identity is invoked not only through this refrain, but through another refrain that begins here and continues into thenext section: “I don’t stop reading/deliring.” Here, a woman is seated at a public café. She speaksin the first person. She reads “your text,” a text written by an unspecified “you” who writes“excessively as if nothing could stop you” (23). The text Brossard’s speaker reads is both thesingle text of an individual author and Butler’s “[whole] history of speakers” (Speech 52). Wesee its specificity in the way Brossard speaks of an ‘i’ and a ‘you’ and refers to a particular textfrom which “Murray” is quoted (23). At the same time, the generality of “your text” is also clearbecause this is “a shared reading facing the certainties i sometimes push away with tears, withforgetting or again with writing so as never to forget even if it is never entirely a question ofmemory” (23, my emphasis throughout). Some realities must be written down so as not to beforgotten, even when ‘writing-to-remember’ isn’t the only action called for—this would beespecially important for a subject without a place in her ‘world.’ But what is crucial here is thatthis reading experience is “shared,” thus discursive.What is more, the speaker feels that the text should in some way correspond with her self.After scrutinizing the book and trying to locate herself in it, she concludes: “i am obstinately looking for traces of everyday life in your work. nothing” (24). That she is compelled to makethis comparison insinuates “your text” as part of normative discourse, ‘written’ by those whohave had “the power to gender” (Speech 49). The speaker reads the language of culture in acompulsory manner. She seems somehow duty-bound to read this text. While reading, shereflects, “i go at your project in pieces because literally it burns me” (23). The speaker can only
handle a little bit of “text” at a time because it is hostile to her lesbian body and “burns” her. Notdesiring male intimacy, she is injured (“burned”) through the inscription of heteronormativity.Parts of the text threaten to become part of her, to define her within its terms: “each fragmentbecomes my ‘integral’ of you” (23). As Brossard later says, “THE (male) politics of the gaze ofsexual bliss is also the silence of bodies elongated by hunger, fire, dogs, the bite of densities oftorture” (85). It is heterosexuality that is “inflicted on women’s bodies” causing the “prolonged silence” of a certain “species of woman” (82). That species of subject has been “slid under” thediscourse of heteropatriarchy in Spivak’s terms, “injured” in Butler’s, and “tortured” inBrossard’s.With Butler’s help, we recognize that this oppressive action may also be potentially empowering. For example, just as Brossard uses burning to metaphorize the injurious power oflanguage, that burning morphs from pain into desire. Having ‘caught’ the normative address, thespeech of “your text” is now in the speaker’s hands. This language rebounds and is returned.Brossard’s subject desires to re-imagine this text: “i don’t know why but rather than reading what you have written, i’d like to imagine it” (23). The injurious language violates her, but thatsame violence produces in her the “desire for words, my appetite for what allows me to imaginethe real” (24). While reading “your text,” Brossard’s speaker narrates her thoughts and reactionsto it, addressing the text and replying to it. In order for “your text” to function it must be read byan ‘I’ capable of responding to it in unpredictable ways. The speaker’s response to the text isenabled precisely because she is made to dwell in and know its language. Since theheteropatriarchal hail is, as Butler shows, not simply a ‘delivery’ but part of a dialogic exchange,it actually ‘generates’ the possibility for a generative reply to the invisibility created through discursive worldings. Brossard “talks back” to this text—literally and in
Butler’s sense—by “[imagining] new customs with these same mouths that know how to make a speech” (Lovhers18).Importantly, Brossard’s speaker not only reads and speaks, she also writes. Moreover,Brossard carefully underscores the fact that her speaker writes in the world: “i am writing you now from a sidewalk café on St. Denis where i have been sitting for an hour. it is a fine day and all about there is an air of reality. this café is called La Cour, it has a little yellow fence” (23, myemphasis). She locates the speaker in a public café for which the details are remarkably precise.While many parts of the poem lack context, in this case Brossard gives the speaker a time (an hour on a fine day) and a place (La Cour café on St. Denis street in Montréal) with explicitcharacteristics (a sidewalk, a yellow fence). The counter-worlding fully realized by theconclusion of the poem commences in this early scene. At the close of Lovhers, Brossard relocates the speaker from this public café in Montréal to another public establishment in theworld, the Barbizon Hotel for Women in “America” (62). Throughout Lovhers, Brossard namesand occupies public places like this obsessively, and she sets the speaker down in explicit localesrepeatedly: “July the Sea” (29); “the island (4) loving women” (33); “Milan” (53); “space (mâ)”(63); “Lexington Avenue” (64); “the continent of women” (75). In addition, Brossard translatespoetic issues—history and desire, for example—into spatial metaphors time and again: “time ismeasured here in waters / into vessels…” (62); “tonight we are going to the Sahara” (65); “isuccumbed to the fury, the cities and the etchings” (70). The movement of this poem is always in the direction of spaces and geographies; this spatial inclination is in some way about creating “studios for correspondence”—places for lesbians to write themselves into existence (66). In thespirit of worlding, Brossard “run[s] the risk of conquest / so as not to be
non-sense”—for her, in order to exist at all she must ‘conquer’ and lay claim to these worlds. The lesbian subject will becounter-worlded in a terrain she is seen to preside over, inscribe and occupy.In subsequent chapters, Brossard makes use of the voice fashioned in this dramaticexchange between text (discourse) and reader (subject) to form a two-fold body: the lesbian subject (“the two women…in the narrow bed,” ) and the place of linguistic survival for her(“mâ,” [63, 89]). Late in the poem, for example, Brossard writes: “my continent of spaces ofreason and / (of love) like a history of space / where we can speak concretely aboutallegiance…” (91). In the end, for Brossard, the theory, the metaphor, the desire, the heart of thepoem itself—“it’s in space” (82). To get to the point where she can pen these lines, however,Brossard’s speaker must first recognize that the text she reads is injurious, that it threatens herlesbian existence. She concludes thus that the “strategy of the books must be unmasked” (26).Lesbians are read to and written upon erroneously; as a result they “leave foundering there in thecourse of the reading, [their] biological skins” (26). The “skin” of normative socialization will beshed so that the lesbian subject can “find [her] surfaces again” (26). She burns, fragments,founders as “your text” threatens to interpellate her, to displace her into a false version of herself:“i read the text of your project and i find it provocative. it takes spaces away from me” (26).But, the speaker resists, offering up a ‘threat’ of her own: “don’t confound the surfaces ofmeaning and the sense of this text” (26)—don’t confuse reality with “your” “convenient fiction”(23). Threats to the survival of the subject are countered through references like theconspicuously capitalized and italicized “Emerging” (31) or “thought takes shape” (33). Thefever of desire to counter heteropatriarchal hate speech and affirm lesbian existence is fertilized:“I run the risk of conquest so as not to be nonsense” (34). An idea is conceived, a creative actconjured as the speaker moves from reading to writing—“we can conceive anything” (36). She
“borrow[s] from the dictionary” (43) and “dive[s] head first into reality / such a compatiblewriting” in order to make “women in ink / calls forth the unrecorded” (44). The process ofemergence is figured as a veritable flood of unrecorded facts and formerly invisible desires:“open veins of biographies” (46).To manifest the place of being for Lovhers, Brossard must invoke the history of lesbian existence—which, in an inverse way, also evidences the worlding that proscribes and demonizeslesbian subjectivity, an othering Brossard dubs the “torture” that is “thousands of years old” (56).This history is represented by the days of the week which advance in reverse order. Because timemoves ‘backwards,’ the creator of this counter-world ‘reverses’ history, and, assuming timecontinues in the same direction, the day of creation for Brossard’s subject—the first page of thenext chapter, “The Barbizon”—is “sunday.”11In one of many discursive reversals, the subject is“texted” on the Christian Sabbath, the day of rest. This is significant not only because severalobvious references to Genesis follow it—the first being, unsurprisingly, “in the beginning”(53)—but because, as we know, the primary discourse under attack in Lovhers is defined throughthat story. It is not insignificant that the sub-section called “The Temptation” features theGenesis inspired refrain, “i succumbed”—a statement appearing a total of eight times in thissegment, at least once on all but one page. These allusions are important because they point tothe identity “texting” central to this poem and place that transgressive production within theframe of heteronormative discourse. In Butlerian response mode, the injurious speech of Genesisis translated, transcreated and returned: “(the moon came up at the same time as a thousand /women got up…)” (53).When “The Barbizon” opens, it is “sunday” and we are in the midst of a queer oblivion—set down in a discourse community where clocks run counter-clockwise and reality is
‘backwards.’ Now, lips open to utter Butler’s “enabling response” (Speech 2): “here the girls ofthe Barbizon / in the narrow beds of America / have invented with their lips / a vital form ofpower” (63). The celebration evinced on page one (a “love festival” ) is finally manifestthrough ecstatic moments of “spiraling” in which the speaker and her partner spiral downwards,as if falling through or into a transgressive vertigo. The speaker narrates her fall, saying: “isuccumbed to the impression.../ --life mobilizes itself / with the fine ardour of women showing forth / ...seized suddenly / in the most ritual amorous slownes s ex--- / temptation with allgravity / of ecstasy” (73). Brossard scripts the fall into lesbian subjectivity as the dropping “gravity / of ecstasy,” a “temptation beyond words / ...moving me towards the other woman”(76). Despite being outside normativity and thus “beyond words,” Brossard creates words to produce the narrative of her subject’s paradoxically life-sustaining fall.This lesbian ‘creation story’ celebrates the fall into a counter-worlded lesbian existence,the fall out of “the law of patriarchal heritage” into a reconstituted “symbolic order” and sign:“woman” (79). In this place, two women “[celebrate] the daily / emergence of temptation” (73).A key image reads: “that’s when we find the two women again in the narrow bed” (83). “Again”suggests the women have been together in the world in the past. Their placement in a bed is an overt suggestion of intimacy and, because the bed is narrow, there is no room for anyone else—specifically, that is, for a woman’s normative intimate: a male. I think it is essential to recognizenot only the way the “texts” of two female bodies operate in opposition to “your text” (15), butalso how each of these women functions as the other’s mirror image. Earlier, the speakerreflected: “in the taste of the kiss. i know that you are real to me/therefore” (28). It is significant,however, that she is real to herself by the same means. The subject is constituted by reading thebody of her partner—they become “my double” for each other (92), and as such: “doubled by the
startled bodies [they] [agree] to the awakening” (83). The women affirm one another’s lesbian existences, their mutual lesbian desire, their reciprocal lesbian bodies.12Thus, the body of another woman initiates Brossard’s lesbian subject. More specifically,replacing the patriarchal phallus here is a female-feminist ‘icon,’ the nipple of a woman’s breast.A certain “species of woman” (82, Brossard’s emphasis) is “coming showing the tip of a breastas though to signal the beginning of a cycle” (82, my emphasis). This is a “lesbian phallus”13imaged in the ‘language’ of the female body: “breasts get the better of breath / we find there/writing” (90). Both an erotic and a life-sustaining bodily site, the female breast replaces “yourtext” (15); in the wider symbolism of psychoanalysis, the mother replaces the father,representationally, and the nipple the phallus (Lacan 281 – 291). Brossard’s phallic nipple—“pupil essential in the unfolding” (92)—serves as a counter-interpellative sign to women lovhersto ‘come out’ and ‘come home.’ Thus hailed, Brossard’s speaker dramatically transforms into Butler’s “survivable subject” through the fashioning of both the subject and a ‘home’ for her(Speech 5).Spivak’s and Butler’s ideas are really helpful here because the completion of the subjectgoes beyond the space of the body or the psyche into the space of the world; Lovhers is, asBrossard says, “about the / spatial era of women” (81). The Barbizon Hotel for Women, La Coursidewalk café and My Continent—these are places in the world, places peopled by lesbians. “TheBarbizon” is a ‘book of genesis’ for lesbian subjectivity, but, it is a reverse-lapsarian apparatusin which the expulsion from Eden is desired so that a new ‘lesbian Eden’ (“mâ”) can beestablished (89). The final chapter broadens the horizons of the poem suggesting a movementfrom the individual (specific, unitary) terrain of a hotel to the communal (general, societal) spaceof a world, “My Continent.” And it is at this point that Brossard’s lesbian counter-worlding and
Butlerian “response” is fully realized. Brossard realizes the possibility of survival in a lesbian geography, “the continent of women” (75), a “domain of linguistic survival” apart from and beyond patriarchal society but still recognizably in the world (Speech 41). The subject isfashioned through a performative utterance of a very particular kind—a worlding that does notoppress but rather ‘de-colonizes’ discursive space, creates ‘breathing space,’ ‘houses’ and sustains an endangered subjectivity. We see the way the worlds and the women of the poem aremarked by and translated through lesbian language, defined in homoerotic terms. At the close ofthe poem, Brossard’s subject ‘names,’ ‘occupies’ and ‘conquers’ “mâ”: “My continent she nowhas” (89); “my continent woman of all the spaces” (90); “my continent of spaces of reason” (91);“my continent multiplied by those who have signed” (92); “my continent, I mean to talk about”(93). Here, the poet takes over and takes back terrains ‘colonized’ through patriarchy.Brossard’s aesthetic choices, especially in this regard, urge further consideration.Whereas the use of a phallus is complicated in any feminist context—as an appropriation ofmisogynist psychoanalytic thought it repeats the axiomatics of patriarchy—similarly, worlding ismired in the ‘conquistadorial’ politics of colonialism. On the one hand, reverse worlding and theemployment of a lesbian phallus are tricky because such strategies would seem to reiterate thehierarchies implicit in colonialism and patriarchy. On the other hand, perhaps it becomesincreasingly necessary to work with aggressive rhetorical constructs as and when the oppression is the most severe and the historical attack—the frequency and ferocity of hegemonicworldings—is the most extreme. Perhaps performances of this kind are productive if for no otherreason than that they powerfully inspire and convincingly affirm contingent readers. Brossard works from within the nexus of discourses that oppress lesbians; thus, she chooses to ‘fight’ theoppressor with ‘his own tools,’ and, representationally, to stay on ‘the battlefield.’ In
Butler’s view this makes it possible for Brossard to turn discursive violence into a dialogic battle thatmight transform the very terms of that discourse. As we know, the central argument of ExcitableSpeech rests on the assumption that “‘offense[s]’…must be committed in order to expand thedomain of linguistic survival” (41).Butler and Brossard would appear to agree that committing ‘offenses’ may be necessary to ‘survive’ ‘offensive’ worlds. In Bodies that Matter, Butler defends the use of the lesbian phallus on the grounds that it opens up this “signifying practice” to “resignification” such thatthe phallus can “signify in ways and in places that exceed its proper structural place within theLacanian symbolic” (89). Her understanding of the ‘use value’ of the lesbian phallus for sex and gender practice can be applied more generally to ‘uses’ Brossard makes of other oppressivediscourses, like worlding. Butler feels that “if the cultural construction of sexuality compels arepetition of that signifier, there is nevertheless in the very force of repetition, understood asresignification…the possibility of deprivileging that signifier” (Bodies 89). In the case ofBrossard’s poem, the phallus is “radically generated” in such a way that its use “underscores thevery plasticity of the phallus” and this might only be ‘perform-able’ through employment of thevery discourse by which one is oppressed (Bodies 89). As Butler shows, there is a contradictorydouble movement involved in the fashioning of a lesbian phallus:…it is and is not a masculine figure of power; the signifier is significantly split…it both recalls and displaces the masculinism by which it is impelled. Andinsofar as it operates at the site of anatomy [as with Brossard], the phallus(re)produces the spectre of the penis…to enact its vanishing.... (Bodies 89)As the principal figure of speech in Lovhers, this symbol is not only the primary device forinitiation of the subject but also (and importantly) for the emasculation of the heteropatriarchy.Brossard seems to feel that the lesbian subject must be fashioned by reiterating the injurious
language of psychoanalysis so as to enact its “vanishing” and that she must “recall” thediscourses of colonialism and heteropatriarchy in order to “displace” them.The line “My continent she now has” (89, author emphasis) denotes the two essentialmovements through which heteropatriarchal discourse is “displaced” and “vanishes”: the authorof the text creates a ‘habitation’ for the lesbian subject and two women love one another’s“continents” or bodies. These ideas are also interdependent. The love and erotic desire shared by two females is linked by and translates back and forth between mimetic female bodies and thematerial body of the text itself—they read one another as reciprocal mirrors in the same way thebook is designed to function as such a ‘mirror’ for Brossard’s reader. A related symbolic move isthe way Brossard allies herself and her poem with a group of actual lesbians; in the closing chapter, a total of twenty-four such women are named. As Robinson notes, Canadian lesbiansincluding Brossard “[cite] other women’s writings plentifully in their own and [use]intertextuality as a tool in the creation of a sense of group purpose” (193). Brossard characterizesthis group as “those who have signed: ...to write: the real/the skin clairvoyant” (92). Calling up women who exist in the world and in print as lesbians establishes historical lesbian existenceand recasts the history of ‘woman.’ Thus, just as lesbian desire is translated between representative women’s bodies and the material body of Brossard’s text, so lesbian existence istranslated back and forth between figurative lesbian bodies in the text and ‘material’ lesbian bodies in the world—now (Rich, Wittig, Daly) and throughout history (Jeanne d’Arc, Colette,Stein).Lesbian subjectivity, a hidden discourse concealed by the always prior worlding of theheteropatriarchy, is generated through the material and figurative bodies of “this text, under theeye” (15). Lovhers is at once a “theory of reality” and the bodying forth of a specific, formerly
proscribed “reality”: it represents the constitution of lesbian subjectivity and constructs materialand conceptual dwelling places for lesbians (16). In the process of re-molding language so as to enable the “committing” of an “offensive” utterance in which to ‘dwell,’ Brossard creates“domains” for lesbian “survival”: a book (a material body which is imitable or inspiring oraffirming), a domain (the fictional “mâ,” a conceptually habitable home), a “texted” body (thefictional lesbian figure with whom a reader identifies), and, a community of bodies (a lesbian collective that affirms the place of the lesbian reader). Through the construction of a place ofbeing for a historically denied subject, Brossard commits “the very ‘offense’ that must becommitted in order to expand the domain of linguistic survival” (Butler, Speech 41; myemphasis). Ultimately, Lovhers enacts the movement from heterosexual to lesbian, fromcomplicity to refusal, from invisibility to emergence in the world—or, as Brossard herselfexpresses it, its project is “bringing me into the world” (90).
Works CitedAustin, J.L. “How to do Things with Words.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkinand Michael Ryan. Malden, MA.: Blackwell, 1998. 96-100.Brossard, Nicole. Lovhers. Trans. Barbara Godard. Québec: Guernica, 1986.---. Picture Theory. Trans. Barbara Godard. Québec: Guernica, 1990.Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.---. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997.---. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” TheCritical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David Richter. Boston:Bedford, 1998. 878-89.Farwell, Marilyn. “The Lesbian Narrative: ‘The Pursuit of the Inedible by the Unspeakable.’”Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. Ed. George Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman. New York: Modern Language Association, 1995. 156-68.Knutson, Susan. Narrative in the Feminine: Daphne Marlatt and Nicole Brossard. Waterloo,Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2000.Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2000.Morrison, Toni. Lecture and Speech of Acceptance Upon the Award of the Nobel Prize forLiterature. New York: Knopf, 2000.Parker, Alice. Liminal Visions of Nicole Brossard. New York: Lang, 1998.Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs: Journal ofWomen in Culture and Society 5 (Summer 1980): 631-60.
---. “’When we Dead Awaken’: Writing as Re-Vision.” Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York: Norton, 2002. 10-29.Robinson, Christopher. Scandal in the Ink: Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth-century French Literature. London: Cassell, 1995.Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.Siemerling, Winfried. Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, HubertAquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994.Spivak, Gayatri. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present.Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.---. “Criticism, Feminism, and the Institution.” The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies,Dialogues. Ed. Sara Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990: 1-16.---. “The Rani of Simur.” Europe and Its Others: Proceedings of the Essex Conference on theSociology of Literature. Ed. Frances Barker. Colchester: University ofEssex, 1985. 128-51.Wittig, Monique. The Lesbian Body. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Notes12000, page 22.2The original title is Amantes.3For discussion and application of this term, see Chapters 2, “Literature,” and 3, “History,” inSpivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Perhaps her most widely read exegesis on worldingis her critique of Jane Eyre and analysis of the textual dynamics involving Jane, Bertha Mason and Rochester (see Chapter 2).4On the erasure of lesbian existence from historical discourse, see Adrienne Rich “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”5Butler discusses Althusser’s work in detail in Chapter 4 of The Psychic Life of Power.6On this point, Butler actually echoes Brossard, who writes: “she sometimes thinks between two spirals that excess is her double and her strength” (Lovhers 85).7A well-known example demonstrating these ideas is Kate Millett’s 1969 study, Sexual Politics.Of course Millett doesn’t use Spivak’s language, but essentially D.H. Lawrence, Henry Millerand Norman Mailer are shown by her to have “worlded” the heteropatriarchy by representing men and women in strictly normative terms. Millett demonstrates that while the spaces of both body types are cast in the terms of heteronormativity, male bodies ‘supersede’ women’s—‘active’ males define and dominate ‘passive’ females. See Millett, Part III “The Literary Reflection” (235-335).8Here, I refer to Derrida’s notion of “play” articulated in his essay “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”: “Play is the disruption of presence” (Derrida 101). Hesuggests that there is a tension between play (randomness, confusion, conflict, transgression) and presence (truth, or stable, fixed meaning). Play refers to the ‘transgressive’ movement ofelements within a structure or idea, elements which are supposed to remain stable and rigid.Brossard’s poem is deconstructive in this sense and she performs this in a self-conscious way in lines like the one discussed here.9See Lacan – Translator’s notes, Chapters 1, 3 and 5.10Reference to Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language, excerpted in Rivkin and Meyer’sLiterary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, 1998.11This reading works because Brossard frequently associates critical spaces of the text withcritical moments in the content—for example, the last page of “July the Sea” begins: “last day on the island” (39). And, history is metaphorized throughout via structural time metaphors, likemonths (“June the Fever,” “July the Sea”).
12I am reading this passage at least partially with Lacan this time, using his mirror theory of self-identification (see Écrits 1-7). Also see the “Introduction” to Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter.13See Butler’s discussion in Bodies that Matter, Chapter 2. Also discussed further in theconcluding segment of this essay.Maureen Fadem (email@example.com) is a doctoral candidate in the Ph.D. Program in English atThe Graduate Center of CUNY. Her research interests include 20th Century literature, literarytheory and Women's Studies. Maureen has published book reviews, interviews and articles injournals like Jouvert, Nimrod, South Asian Review and Kavya Bharati. More recently, her lyricessay "The Interval" was published by The Feminist Press in the new anthology, Word. On Being a [Woman] Writer (ed. Jocelyn Burrell, 2004). Ms. Fadem is a full-time Instructor atKingsborough Community College where she teaches composition and literature courses; atHunter College and Eugene Lang College she teaches courses in literature, literary theory and feminist theory.