Arachne’s Web of Resistance
by Jelena Petrović

With annotations by Aslihan Demirtas and Erëmirë Krasniqi

The process of creating both art and politics through continuous metamorphosis of the archaic plot of Arachne puts into question the meaning of political art and its strength to break through the ruling social order and its im/material heritage, knowledge and existence. Arachne appears today as a lost, censored and forgotten mythological formula, as a political metaphor of marginalization and punishment of all the efforts to confront patriarchal, capitalist and colonial forms of power and exploitation. The Arachne’s web of resistance as well as many other inherited narratives that remain invisible or weak are blind spots of our common knowledge and politics. Blind spots that need to be revealed and revived through the future ideological transformation of society, transformation that uses art as a powerful tool for affecting political consciousness.

Weavers, Attic black-figured jug, 550 BC

Weavers, Attic black-figured jug, 550 BC

The epistemology of resistance articulated through the Arachne myth is based on the transformative (hyper/inter)textuality to which the existing myth presents the embodiment of women’s resistance in the continuous process of women-becoming1. In ancient texts women’s authorship was constructed through the activity of different mythological weavers, knitters and embroiderers who, while creating and producing material goods, fabrics and such, had often used the “texture” of this fabric to write down their messages, opinions and visions. They uses it as a subversive strategy to resist the patriarchy and other kinds of systematic oppressions, as well to resist different forms of strategic violence. Some of classical and late anthropological studies (especially, the French anthropological school2) have enabled conceptual/theoretical semiotisation of these mythological formulas that could be used as the basis for identification of subjugated im/material heritage and affirmation of political artistic actions. Feminist reading of the Arachne myth, through the lenses of material history (of the ancient world), reveals the knowledge of censored/punished textuality, and therefore also the basic epistemological postulation in theorizing the meaning of politically engaged women’s authorship.The basic principles of punishment and discipline, which are established over women’s creativity, especially when perceived as engaged or transgressive, are identified both in the myth itself, and in its mimetic inscription into socio-political practices, as well as into daily living settings.3

The Rape of Europa

Peter Paul Rubens. The Rape of Europa. 1630

The ancient myth presents Arachne as a young woman whose weaving skills and provocative creativity (depicting ‘romantic’ affairs of gods as violent, vain or frivolous) challenged the goddess Athena, inventress and protectress of the skill, to a weaving competition. Athena terminated the contest by ripping Arachne’s work (such as: the rape of Europe) into shreds, since it did not conform to the hegemonic knowledge generated by Gods. Arachne therefore decides to hang herself. Arachne’s post-mortem punishment of being metamorphosed into a spider stands as the key point of authoritative/corrective censorship which renders itself to ambivalent interpretations through later history.

Pallas allant voir tisser Arachné. Ovide, Métamorphoses, Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, Ms.742, f°97v, 1385.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses incorporated this myth into the story of how the spider came to be, of Arachne’s never-ending web weaving by means of her transformed body, which is at the same time the first known confirmation of the women’s authorship. By textualizing the very act of metamorphosis and focusing on the narrative of spider’s origin, Ovid translated the women’s weaver’s authorship into a zoomorphic archetype, thus marking its shift from the social order to the natural one, and suggesting in the final book of Metamorphoses that the spirit remains alive despite corporeal transformation.4

Arachne. llustration for Dante's Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series Gustave Doré 1868

Arachne. Illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series by Gustave Doré. 1868

In later texts, Christian most of all, Arachne became synonymous with hubris—sins such as pride, arrogance, recalcitrance, exaggeration, to the effect that Dante’s Virgil meets her in the first circle of Purgatory, where she personifies the very sin that lies at the root of the word bastard (hybrid). Perched directly above Lucifer’s Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy5, Arachne came to represent the madwoman, entirely demonized by Christianity, banished and thus denied the right to create, as well as the possibility to spread her women’s experience and knowledge. It is therefore not a coincidence that one of the first proto-feminist books (perhaps even the very first one) written by a woman features the myth of Arachne, liberating her semantically from the patriarchal semiotic connotations. Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies (1405) thus inaugurates Arachne as matriarch of new art and embodiment of the female creative genius:

“Truth to tell, God chose to provide the world with endlessly useful and important technics through the effort of those women as of many others too. One such example is an Asian maiden named Arachne, daughter of Idomnius of Colophon. Being extraordinarily resourceful and clever, this Arachne was the first person to create the arts of dyeing wool in different colours and of producing what we would call fine tapestries from weaving pictures on cloth to make them look like paintings. Indeed, she mastered every aspect of the art of weaving. There was even a fable about Arachne which tells how she was turned into a spider by the goddess Pallas whom she had dared to challenge.” 6

During the 1970s, the weaving process and the myth of Arachne were inscribed into essential meanings of text. In accordance with the etymological background, their mythological formula was applied in semiotic codification of the key post-structuralist term – theory of textuality. This theory refers to a cyclical rewriting of those forever-determined truths/notions, as well as the need for a deconstruction of the patriarchal canon, with the aim of interrupting the linear course of authoritative production of meaning (sense) and a transference of the entrenched positions of power. The first to emphasize this was Roland Barthes, defining text as tissue:

“Text means tissue; but whereas hitherto we have always taken this tissue as a product, a ready-made veil, behind which lies, more or less hidden, meaning (truth), we are now emphasizing, in the tissue, the generative idea that the text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving; lost in this tissue-this texture-the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web. Were we fond of neologisms, we might define the theory of the text as an hyphology (hyphos is the tissue and the spider’s web).“

More recent feminist theories, which insist on the potential parabola, that is, a critical modelling of feminist poetics based on the original myth of Arachne, set forth the category of gendered identity which corresponds to the notion of authorship and as such also invokes a possible figuration of creative and productive women in relation to the dominant culture. It’s a figuration based on the semantic relation between Arachne and Athena (feminocentric deconstruction vs. phallocentric transformation of dominant discourses). This feminist reading of the myth is also proposed by Nancy Miller, who introduced into the theory the notion of arachnology as a form of theoretical interpretation of the text:

“By arachnology, then, I mean a critical positioning which reads against the weave of indifferentiation to discover the embodiment in writing of a gendered subjectivity.“8

Textuality as weaving (in accordance with the etymological meaning of text itself) and the construction of knowledge as web (particularly well defined with the development of hypertextuality) constitute inherent elements of feminist theory, not only as a metaphorical re-imagining of women’s writing as the typically female skill of weaving, but also in the sense of “unravelling” the existing textiles/texts into their constituent textual forms/threads, which further enable the writing/reading of new textual meanings and emancipatory signification. The purpose of unravelling and reweaving is in the process of creating new forms of textuality, which allow for writing/inscribing resistant knowledge, as well as de-instrumentalising hegemonic aesthetics. The process of weaving implies, among other things, the absence of voice, so silence is metaphorically equated with a feminist concept which points on the one hand to the silencing of women’s voices, which has figured throughout history in the context of each new politics of memory, while on the other hand it refers to the subversive creation of textual space that is open to all “others” – those that have continually been excluded from the inaccessible textuality of hegemonic and dogmatic power structures.9

This epistemological value of the Arachne myth determines the concepts of women’s authorship and text is, in accordance with the myth narrative, open for the inscription of the feminist concept of the process of metamorphosis, used by Rosi Braidotti to indicate the need for positioning the resisting women’s subjectivity (constantly in the process of women-becoming) as the basic starting point for engaged (political) action which initiates new forms of expression and production, that is, for a permanent transformation of knowledge cartography which defines glocal positions of power. The notion of women’s authorship can analogously be determined by the following definition of feminist subject given by Braidotti:

“(…)the subject of feminism is not Woman as the complementary of Man and as his specular other, but rather a multi-layered and complex subject that has taken her distance from the institution of femininity. ‘She’ no longer coincides with the disempowered and oppressed second sex, which is the reflection cast by the masculine subject in his universalistic posture and imposture. She is the subject of quite an-other story, a subject-in-process, a post-Woman woman who may not even be a ‘she’ in any classical sense of the term. Some would say: a mutant, and proudly so. In any case, the feminist subject is one that has undergone some fundamental metamorphosis.“10

Paolo Veronese. Arachne or Dialectics. 1520

Finally, the Arachne myth points to the mapping of reality, engaged politics of the production of knowledge, but also the strife for social redistribution of capital and power, material production and its work conditions, in case we perceive Arachne as the archetype of woman, textile worker, oppressed and subsequently belligerent. Arachne is a symbol of women’s struggle for equality and social rights, as she signifies the social position of resistance to the dominant discourses of power and class relations which perpetuate oppression, violence and patriarchy. The web she produces is a symbol of texture, text/textuality, or textile, the cornerstone of emancipatory narratives, movements and productions, as well as structure of epistemological transformation of the concepts of sociality, equality and liberty. Accordingly, this lost, censored and forgotten mythological formula of metamorphosis indicates paradigmatic marginalisation, re-semantisation and punishment of all the efforts to dispose of repressive forms of power and exploitation, the patriarchal forms of social historicising of material practices, production and resistance.