(En)gendering texts

The last chapter of D.C Greetham’s Theories of the Text is dedicated to “Gender in the text”. It comes last for a good reason, since it actually allows him to put in perspective all the aspects – including the most intricate deconstructivist or post-modern ones – that are dealt with in a book that keeps pouring out scholarship 480 pages long. I am not knowledgeable enough to judge how relevant Greetham’s considerations on “ovarian” or “feminist” readings are. I don’t think either that an exclusively gendered reading of texts would be pertinent for the type of work I am doing. But I find most interesting what this approach does to the construction of authority in the text.

Editing has been – this is probably the one fact that no one can contradict in any way when considering text constitution, an otherwise highly contradictable topic – a mainly male activity over the centuries, which means that the history of texts has been, not only because most authors were men, but also because most of the editors were men, a patriarchal one. The moral norms reproduced were dominated by men, leading to a kind of self-comfortation of male authority that would leave only little space for women to find an authorial space.

Many of the arguments that Greetham exposes have to do with the fact that gendered readings tend to balance this situation by saying that female writing has developed in reaction, opposition, resistance to the male domination. The female writer is under the influence of the patronizing husband/brother/father, then dealing with a (in most cases) male publisher, and the patriarchal reproduction of text in editorial and literary history is then  pursued in the same logic.

The question of the relationship between author and editor is a central one, that deserves to be asked regardless of either’s sex. What is interesting about the gender perspective, is that the terms of the relationship are being posed in a much more radical way. It is so not only in itself, but also because the sex of the person writing about text/author/editor is also considered a bias. The spiral involves at least three levels of authority, three levels of time, three levels of self-consciousness of one’s role: the writer, the first publisher, the later editor/scholar. The gender perspective at the very least allows to consider the intricacy of the question, and makes it clear (to my eyes at least) that a great deal of historical knowledge is necessary to be able to assess the relevance of many of the aspects involved.

What am I really entitled to write, today, as a woman, about a woman who wrote in 1800 and published either at a male or at a female (there were those in Germany around 1800) publisher? Greetham’s argument (which is pretty much the core of mine as well) that it all comes down to accepting, as an editor or as a scholar, to consider one’s own practice with a certain amount of awareness for the traditions and the epistemological premises one works under, is reaching the limits of its feasibility. Would not, then, if one wanted to really trace back all relevant aspects, the epistemological caveats cover the actual text; would we not risk to lose the sense of proportion between the text speaking for itself and us letting/having it speak? Or, to consider it in a more post-modern light, how is it possible to make understand the misunderstanding?

Yes, one has to be grateful for economical arguments, since the epistemological ones would – obviously – lead mainly to intellectual paralysis.

Having to deliver in due time, we are happy to present Adelheid Reinbold’s “Literaturbrief”, a text dedicated to her mentor Ludwig Tieck and in which she situates him among his peers – writers like Goethe and Jean Paul. I will write more about the way writing about the mentor allows her to take her own position in the literary field in a later post. Before the end of the month, we will also put online Helmina von Chézy’s “Dieses Buch gehört Bettinen”, an unpublished text in which she stages a generational and sexual solidarity among women in literary Germany – a dream that never really came true: the letter did not reach its addressee.

But do they ever?


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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