Domestic wilderness: American gothic, sexuation, and skepticism
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“Domestic Wilderness: American Gothic, Sexuation, and Skepticism” asserts that the American gothic tradition is a unique response to European skepticism and that it takes the form of narrativizing the problem of sexual difference. The gothic rhetoric of the American cultural tradition is inseparable from the question of sexual difference, a question most fully addressed by psychoanalysis, particularly in its Freudian-Lacanian forms. Based on an unprecedented theoretical conjunction between Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory and Stanley Cavell’s philosophical investigation of the modern manifestation of skepticism, I argue that the ghostly feminine figure is a direct manifestation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s theories of skepticism and moral perfectionism. The groundbreaking alliance of these claims enables us to open a new chapter in the literary and cinematic reflections on the spectral form of the feminine in gothic rhetoric. Psychoanalytic theory argues that sexual difference does not immediately refer to biological sex. Rather, sexual difference names a social link, forged within language. This link, or relation, is asymmetrical rather than complementary and thus fails to constitute masculinity and femininity as parts of a harmonious whole. An irreducible tension characterizes this relation and, beyond this, social relations in general. Historically, however, the masculine subject has conformed to the totalizing assumption of language and relies on the presupposition that 1) there can be an absolute mastery of social discourse and 2) marriage is the social institution that secures this mastery. The male fantasy that marriage represents women’s fulfillment subtends these assumptions. The feminine subject does not share these masculine beliefs in a centripetal universal law of language. She is characterized by a courageous reliance on her own unique law. The feminine subject is more centrifugal in her effect. On this point, the feminine subject of psychoanalysis comes irresistibly close to exemplifying Emerson’s concept of “self-reliance.” The Emersonian self is courageous enough to be true to herself, follows her own inner “gleam of light,” and refuses blind conformity to the external authority. She acts as her own trustee and seeks to actualize herself, without ever fully doing so. I examine the reasons for this impossibility and the important consequences it has for a notion of community. This notion of the unattained self has the potential to deconstruct the patriarchal fantasy of totality both aesthetically and politically. The unfinishable project of self-actualization is, Cavell argues, the moral practice of the finite speaking being. Cavell’s Emersonian ethics involves an infinite commitment to the otherness of an unattained self and the unknowable status of others’ minds. Through his remarkable philosophical reading of Emerson, Cavell reveals that the Emersonian moral subject is structurally similar to both the Kantian subject of mathematical sublimity and to the feminine subject of psychoanalysis. Like the Emersonian subject, the female subject of psychoanalysis has a plasticity that resists destruction. She engages in the infinite task of approaching an unattainable limit and succeeds precisely by failing to do so. There has been an asymmetry in the theorization of sexual difference; masculinity has been taken as the standard and the first term, while femininity has been conceived as the exception and secondary term. Gothic rhetoric, with its insistent focus on the spectral form of the feminine, suggests that this procedure should be turned around. For, her spectrality is a form of immanence rather than exception, and we must try to understand how this immanence impacts the conception of masculinity and of community. The ghostly thing, I argue, is an acknowledgment of the residue that refuses dissolution in self-identity. Through unfinishable moral action a diverse, democratic, and heterogeneous community emerges, for which self-opacity evidences the self’s openness to others and serves as the very motor of social discourse. Henry David Thoreau, another representative of Transcendentalism, states his sense of wonder about this structure of the world: “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?” The origin of American gothic tradition has long been considered as the return of the repressed history of white supremacy. What I would like to stress, however, is that the dominant account fails to explain both the consistent trans-medium repetition of the gothic rhetoric of sexual difference and its ethical assumptions. This repetition, and its relation to the constitution of a heterogeneous American community, is a subject that has not yet received adequate attention. As “Domestic Wilderness: American Gothic, Sexuation, and Skepticism” demonstrates, Cavell’s philosophical reading of Emerson’s skepticism enables us not only to shed new light on the American Gothic tradition, but also to open a dialogue between American ordinary language philosophy and French psychoanalytic theory, a prospect that has not been envisioned before now.