RECLAIMING THE YUGOSLAV WOMEN’S AUTHORSHIP (draft)
By Jelena Petrovic
Within literary studies which are still grounded in the academic heritage of the authoritative and falsely universal literary canon, women’s authorship and de/construction of gender in literary production represent marginalised fields of research, delved into mainly by contemporary gender studies and feminist scholars in different, but often mutually connected disciplines. Based on the gender research corpus and extensive legacy of women’s text and textuality, I intend to indicate possible strategies of reading and reclaiming women’s, and especially feminist authorship, in the period which had been ushered in by the formation of the first Yugoslav state (1918) and concluded with the outbreak of the Second World War (1941), in the so-called interwar period of Yugoslav literature.
The frames of Yugoslav literature in the interwar period, canonised in the existing histories of literature, but also in literary theory and criticism, are nowadays perceived to be narrow, as well as insufficiently explored or defined, and when it comes to the issue of gender in literature, also consistently exclusive. Convergence of literature and study of textuality, bridging the gap between strictly divided disciplines of humanities and social sciences, and primarily feminist theory and practice have facilitated the unravelling of a firmly tied knot of traditional literary values – founded by patriarchal models of knowledge production. When we look back at the period of modernism, at the turn of the century, and especially in the period after the Great War we notice a ‘blurred’ area in the published, established, curricular and awarded histories of literature which deal with its dominant literary movements, such as: avant-garde, expressionism, social realism, etc., as well as in their corresponding ideological, historical and theoretical framework. Close reading of literary canon uncovers: certain ‘anachronisms’ in the interwar literary movements, forced differences/similarities in creating a common Yugoslav literary space (artistic and cultural), artfully suppressed conflicting opinions, manipulative revisions and censoring during the turbulent twentieth century, as well as missing references in the construction of literary canon, primarily pertaining to the literature created by women, and by other ‘outsiders’.
Even if the establishing of the common cultural space and comparative literary practices was mentioned as being relevant in the analyses of and critical essays on the Yugoslav interwar literature, the issue of women’s authorship was addressed ever so occasionally and fragmentarily, and this mainly in recent years, due to contemporary women’s studies research programmes developed in the post-Yugoslav countries, usually not recognized by state (educational) institutions. This concerns decades’ long oblivion, patriarchal censorship and historical amnesia in reading and studying so-called universal literature, whose false universality has, over time, become the argument for ignoring and denying women’s literary production and practice. Authoritative (patriarchal) instrumentalisation and the politics of falsely universal collectivisation of both literary and public space have simply excluded female gender and work, obstructing the insight into women’s experience and knowledge transference through the positioning of women as historical, political and social subjects. Therefore, the book further focuses on mapping the interwar Yugoslav space and its women’s creativity, with the aim to draw attention to the necessity of establishing a different emancipatory politics of memory, and primarily provide insight into and understanding of this significant yet forgotten period of women’s authorship, its great agility and practices.
The literature produced by women’s and feminist authors in the interwar period in Yugoslavia, included a range of different genres; it created particular, socially and culturally conditioned discourses, stimulated progressive ideas, uncovered tabooed subject matter which transcended the boundaries of social dominant imaginary and constructed gender representations, as well as those of the assigned female roles (of a ‘travelling companion’) in the public sphere of the time. Even though it includes some of the characteristics of literary axiology inherent to the interwar, as well as the subsequent periods in (post)Yugoslav space, this substantial women’s literary production still fails to establish itself within the present confines of literary canon. The reason for this primarily lies in the fact that the literature written by women which dealt with emancipation and deconstruction of patriarchal social norms, has always been in ‘conflict’ with the misogynist politics of establishing official literary canon which was explicitly expressed, and quite frequently so. Aware of the marginalised position of their literary endeavours, as well as of their consistent exclusion from public life, women of the period were actively engaged in establishing women’s associations, institutions and media, i.e. creating preconditions for an independent liberating literary production. Claiming space of their own, they make public their social engagement and literary and cultural work.
Adding the prefix female (Fr. féminine) to the aforementioned literary concepts and terms does not actually represent a parallel and isolated ‘female’ revision of the existing literary canons, but rather a demanding phase of emancipating and (re)articulating the literary knowledge which, even though it is not overtly designated as ‘male’, has indeed been such from its very establishment. In this context, women’s authorship, localised and temporally situated in the interwar Yugoslavia, represents the literary theory which includes the notions of genre hybridity, cultural and spatial transgressions, discursive polyphony, historical dis/continuity, polyglossia/translation, as well as intertextuality – in the context of feminist politics which is not homogeneous in itself. Deconstruction of textual femininity, re/construction of women’s authorship and research on interconnecting, mapping and situating of all those common places (topoi) of women’s literary and cultural production, thus indicate the possibility of creating new inter/textual webs of reflecting, understanding and learning about women’s emancipating knowledge. I named this feminist literary approach as Arachne method, that is, the epistemology of transformation. This politically engaged epistemology – referring to the concept of metamorphosis in the materialistic theory of becoming introduced by Rosi Braidotti – proposes the category of gender is inevitable starting point for the social transformation of textuality, not exclusively literary, but in a much wider sense of everyday textuality within social modes of (re)production.
The Epistemology of Transformation: Arachne’s Web
The Arachne method which was inspired by this extensive research is thus based on the concept of the transformed (inter)textuality to which the existing Arachne myth was not implemented straightforwardly, as merely anthropological matrix of the text, but also as the embodiment of women’s authorship in the continuous process of women-becoming. In ancient texts, as well as in those that followed, women’s authorship was constructed through the activity of different mythological weavers, knitters and embroiderers who, while creating/producing material goods: fabric and such, had often used “texture” of this fabric to write down their messages, opinions and visions, using it thus as a subversive strategy to resist the limitations of gender roles perpetuated by patriarchy. Anthropological (classical) studies of gender have actually enabled conceptual/theoretical semiotisation of these mythological formulas as the basis for identification and affirmation of women’s material culture and artistic creation – first and foremost weaving as a typical, as well as one of the main activities of all women in history, regardless of their social standing (from female slaves to queens). Using the mythological narratives of Arachne and other women from ancient myths who engaged in weaving, Svetlana Slapšak – in her book about women’s icons of the ancient world – introduces this anthropological textual matrix conditioned by gender in the following way:
“Weaving was most certainly not an exclusively female job, yet images and meanings which proliferated pertaining to weaving have established some highly significant differences between the identities of sexes, as they permeated some important mythological tales related to weaving (…) Due to interlacing of the threads, and two distinct sets of them – warp and weft threads, with passive and active characteristics – weaving is undoubtedly related to sexual intercourse. Weaving is the main activity in preparing the wedding, and often the major part of the dowry which bride brings to her new home. However, weaving is also related to reading and writing – collecting and writing down signs, so that the word “text”, which is actually of Latin origin, has the original meaning of weaving, that is, fabric or textile. Sexuality, clothes or covering of the body, reading and writing – weaving certainly covers a vast expanse of sexual and cultural identity.”
Feminist reading of the Arachne myth, through the lenses of historical anthropology (of the ancient world), reveals the knowledge of censored/punished female textuality, and therefore also the basic epistemological postulation in theorizing literary authorship. The basic principles of punishment and discipline, which are established over female creativity, especially when perceived as engaged or transgressive, are identified both in the myth itself, and in its subsequent incorporation in other literary narratives and mimetic inscription into socio-political practices, as well as into daily living settings.
Jelena Petrovi? is a feminist scholar, cultural theorist and art-worker. She is (co)author of many articles, event and cross-disciplinary projects related to post/Yugoslav issues – particularly to mis/interpretative models of (post)Yugoslav history, memory, culture, art-theory and feminism, working on new epistemological models of knowledge production. She completed her BA degree at the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade in Serbia, and her PhD studies at the Institutum Studiorum Humanitatis – ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities in Slovenia. Until 2014, she was affiliated with the postgraduate program at the ISH as an assistant professor in humanities and with several faculties in the region as guest lecturer. In parallel she was a member of the art-theory group Grupa Spomenik/The Monument Group active in the broadly conceived fields of art practice and theory, dealing with (im)possiblilty to produce a political space to enable a discussion on wars of the 1990s and the existence of the post-war collectivities in the region.
Petrovi? is co-founder and member of a feminist curatorial group Red Min(e)d dealing with the relation of contemporary art and feminism in the post-Yugoslav space (since 2011). She founded MINA, Institute for Socially Engaged Art and Theory in Ljubljana (2009), as platform for cooperative art-theory practices, which is also a co-organisational background for the Red Min(e)d long-term project The Living Archive and other informal and collective projects grounded in the political (feminist) friendship and art-theory work.
At the moment, she is teaching about feminist curating and contemporary art practices at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, University of Ljubljana. Her main areas of interest are: emancipatory politics of knowledge production, politics of memory, politics of love/community and friendship, (post)Yugoslav feminism and art-theory practices, (non)work and (non)family politics, social imagination/utopia and political articulation of possible futures.