History, Critical Theory, and Women's Social Practices: 'Women's Time' and Housekeeping

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Author: Thomas Foster
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 11,768 words

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[(essay date autumn 1988) In the following essay, Foster examines Julia Kristeva's feminist critique of women's liberation in her essay "Women's Time" and applies Kristeva's theoretical perspective toward a critical analysis of Robinson's Housekeeping.]

The value of the deconstructive critique to feminist theory and the form it should take within a political reading practice continue to be debated by feminist critics.1 However, the relevance of Julia Kristeva's essay "Women's Time" to this debate has not been generally acknowledged.2 "Women's Time" offers a historical model of recent developments in the women's movement, a model that presents feminist expropriation of deconstruction as a possibility generated by (at least) Western women's historical situation. Kristeva suggests that there is a material basis for feminist use of deconstructive strategies, but her model of the forms feminist self-consciousness can take also implies that those forms stand in specific relation to historical materialism, including its use of dialectics in critical analysis. Feminist practices as Kristeva presents them function as an immanent critique of both materialist and deconstructive theories, while implying the need to retain as well as modify their analytic categories and procedures. Kristeva's essay presents itself as a commentary on the European women's movement, particularly in France and Italy, but the questions it raises find enough correspondence in the work of socialist feminists and critics engaged in politicizing deconstruction to interest Anglo-American readers.3 As a literary representation of the lives of several generations of women, Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping shows how an analysis like Kristeva's might organize a narrative of women's resistance to the historical limitations imposed on them.

Living (in) History

"Women's Time" (1979) begins with two examples of collectivities that cut across the linear history of the nation-state and unsettle the national identity founded on that shared history. Harking back to the student revolts of May 1968, women and young people are the examples Kristeva gives of groups causing this "loss of identity" through their participation in what she calls "monumental time" ("WT" ["Women's Time"], 32). In an early essay, Kristeva defines monumental history as "a plurality of productions that cannot be reduced to one another," in contrast to the unitary narrative posited by "the concept of linear historicity."4 In "Women's Time," this heterogeneity results from the "diagonal" relation established between European, North and South American, Indian, or Chinese women who retain their own particularity but also share a "structural place in reproduction and its representations" ("WT," 33). Kristeva's historical model distinguishes three "generations" in the women's movement according to whether women seek to synchronize their time with the progress of linear history, affirm a cyclic or monumental time with archaic connotations, or establish a prefigurative practice that both exists in the "Now" and belongs to a different future.5

The first two moments in this model correspond to the "oscillation between power and denial" Kristeva described in an interview, five years before writing "Women's Time."6 In the emergence of a third moment, Kristeva finds an alternative to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053080