This article appeared in the May 1996 issue of Postmodern Culture and is still archived at PMC. If you would like to know why I reposted it at this site, go here.

A Czech translation by Daniela Milton can be found here.

Copyright © 1996 Wes Chapman

Male Pro-Feminism and the Masculinist Gigantism of Gravity's Rainbow

Wes Chapman
Illinois Wesleyan University
P.O. Box 2900
Bloomington, IL 61702-2900

  1. The title of Tania Modleski's Feminism Without Women refers, Modleski explains, to a confluence of two political/intellectual trends: the subsumption of feminism within a "more comprehensive" field of gender studies, accompanied by the rise of a "male feminist perspective that excludes women," and the dominance within feminist thought of an "anti-essentialism so radical that every use of the term 'woman,' however 'provisionally' it is adopted, is disallowed" (14-15). The two trends are linked, Modleski argues, because "the rise of gender studies is linked to, and often depends for its justification on, the tendendency within poststructuralist thought to dispute notions of identity and the subject" (15). These trends are troubling for Modleski because she fears that, insofar as gender studies tend to decenter women as the subjects of feminism, they may be not a "new phase" in feminism but rather feminism's "phase-out" (5).

  2. My concern in this essay is with male-authored work on gender of the type identified by Modleski, and in particular with its intersections with anti-essentialism (which, for the purposes of this essay, I will define broadly as the belief that gender is socially constructed). Although not all male-authored gender criticism by men is radically anti-essentialist1, I believe that the confluence between anti-essentialism and male-authored work on gender exceeds mere theoretical justification. Anti-essentialism is both symptom and cause of a deep anxiety which I take to underlie much gender criticism written by men today, an anxiety about being a male subject in a society in which male subjectivity has been identified as a problem. On the one hand, an awareness of the social construction of the self can lead to a heightened anxiety in men about gender, as it implies an awareness of the complicity of male subjectivity with social structures which are oppressive to women. On the other hand, male anxiety about gender can encourage an anti-essentialist viewpoint, both because anti-essentialism appears to offers hope that positive changes in gender identity are possible and because anti-essentialism can diffuse personal responsibility by shifting the object of critique from the self to social codes which have "always already" constructed the self.

  3. In speaking in this way about "men," "male subjectivity," and the like, I am not at all presupposing that all men in contemporary culture are alike. I do think that the anxiety I am identifying is widespread, but it is not universal, and even for those men who feel such anxiety there are many ways to respond, including the direct backlash against feminism identified by Susan Faludi and others. My interest in this essay lies with a fairly narrow spectrum of men: those men who accept to some degree the charge that male subjectivity is a political problem of some kind -- male anti-masculinists, for lack of a better term, since not all can be considered pro-feminist.2 I wish to explore the relationship between anti-masculinism and anti-essentialism in male authors and to determine whether anti-essentialism is a viable political strategy for male anti-masculinists. To this end I shall examine a text by a male writer, Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, in which the relationship between an anxiety about gender and a anti-essentialist view of the self is particularly complex and revealing.3 I shall argue that, just as Modleski suggests, anti-essentialism in the novel does indeed serve to decenter women's perspectives, and that, while anti-essentialism has been and still is an important part of pro-feminist men's understanding of their gender identities, it is not a sufficient base for a politics which is not merely anti-masculinist but pro-feminist.

  4. Late in Gravity's Rainbow, the narrator describes a culvert in the middle of a narrow road. There is a variety of graffiti in it from those who have taken shelter there, including a drawing of a man looking closely at a flower.

    1. In the distance, or smaller, appears to be a woman, approaching. Or some kind of elf, or something. The man isn't looking at her (or it). In the middle distance are haystacks. The flower is shaped like the cunt of a young girl. There is a luminary looking down from the sky, a face on it totally at peace, like the Buddha's. Underneath, someone else has written, in English: Good drawing! Finish! and underneath that, in another hand, It IS finished, you nit. And so are you. (GR 733)4

    Like everything else in Gravity's Rainbow, the drawing resists rigid interpretation. The culvert where the drawing is found is the place where Geli Tripping will find Tchitcherine and turn him away from his obsessive quest to kill his half-brother Enzian; we could take the drawing as a foreshadowing of this event. In this interpretation, the man would be Tchitcherine, the flower would be Enzian (enzian is the German word, after all, for gentian-flower), and the elf-woman would be Geli, approaching to work her magic. If this interpretation is correct, then the drawing is a powerful symbol of the possibility for good in Pynchon's universe, for Geli's diversion of Tchitcherine is an important instance in the book where the power of love triumphs over a character's obsession with destruction.

  5. But there are too many ominous signs in this drawing to be so hastily optimistic. Indeed, the drawing can be seen as an icon of the modern state as Pynchon sees it, where sexuality is brought into the service of a routinized, militaristic state. If the flower suggests the enzian or gentian flower, then the man's intense attention to it is an ominous sign, for although the character of Enzian is presented sympathetically in the novel, his name was given to him by Blicero, the sadistic Captain in love with death, after "Rilke's mountainside gentian of Nordic colors, brought down like a pure word to the valleys" (GR 101-2). In Rilke's Ninth Duino Elegy, the gentian is that which partakes of both the permanent transcendent world which continues beyond death and the physical earth; it is the "pure word" which is physical reality transformed within the human spirit (69). Blicero's version of Rilke is more frankly sinister: he yearns to "leave this cycle of infection and death" by transforming the life which surrounds him into a "new Deathkingdom" -- the military industrial technocracy which produces and fires the Rocket (GR 723-4). As Khachig Tololyan points out, too, Enzian was the name of an anti-aircraft rocket which German military scientists worked on but did not complete before the war ended (41). The flower, then, is an emblem of the routinized, labyrinthine "structures favoring death" that the novel protests, of which Blicero is first patriarch.

  6. The Buddha figure in the sky, too, is an ill omen within the novel's world. Earlier in the novel Slothrop sees some figures in the sky, "hundreds of miles tall," which stand impassive like the Buddha5; these are quickly associated with the Angel that the narrator describes as standing over Lubeck on the Palm Sunday raid, one of the massive bombing raids on Germany which prompted the Germans to retaliate with the V-1 (214-215). This raid is figured as a scene of willing submission to sexual violence: "sending the RAF to make a terror raid against civilian Lubeck," says the narrator, "was the unmistakable long look that said hurry up and fuck me, that brought the rockets hard and screaming, the A4s" (215). The luminary smiling so benevolently upon this scene, then, is one of the malignant cosmic entities in the novel which look on with indifference as human energies are brought into the service of death.

  7. The Buddha has other disturbing connotations within the iconology of the novel as well: the amoral unification of subject and object which is the aim of Zen Buddhism becomes a metaphor for submission to the all-subsuming technology of the rocket. When a problem arises in the design of the rocket, Fahringer, one of the technicians at Peenemunde, takes his Zen bow into the woods to practice drawing and loosing.

    1. The Rocket for this Fahringer was a fat Japanese arrow. It was necessary in some way to become one with Rocket, trajectory, and target -- "not to will it, but to surrender, to step out of the role of the firer. The act is undivided. You are both aggressor and victim . . ." (GR 403)

    If human beings have stepped out of the role of firer, then the rocket has begun to fire itself, according to its own needs; technocracy has grown so far out of control that it no longer seems to serve human motives at all. The Buddha in the culvert scene thus again suggests the surrender of the personal and human to the technocracy, to Blicero's "structures favoring death."

  8. Finally, the caption of the drawing also suggests this movement towards death. Finish! urges the first hand. But the desire to finish, to close down, is shown in the novel to lead to determinism or death: Pointsman's obsession with the ultimate mechanical explanation and its determinism are a way of finishing the process of understanding; Blicero's "mission to promote death" is an attempt to be finished with death by somehow transcending it. The second writer acknowledges this: "It IS finished . . . And so are you."

  9. The political critique of this passage has two objects. Insofar as the flower is associated with Blicero and the rocket, the passage is a critique of a technology of war which is so far out of control that it seems to be serving purposes of its own, and of the routinization of society which makes that technology possible. But it is also a critique -- and this is my main concern here -- of the masculinist patterns of thinking which provide such a system its driving force. If, as Tchitcherine suggests, the great problem of the state is to "get other people to die for you" (GR 701), then one effective way to accomplish this is to sexualize the machinery of death. The state is therefore dependent on a masculinist coding of sexuality such that all its citizens will respond sexually to a scenario of dominance and submission. Hence the grotesque eroticism of the Rocket: "fifty feet high, trembling . . . and then the fantastic, virile roar . . . Cruel, hard, thrusting into the virgin-blue robes of the sky . . . Oh, so phallic" says Thanatz (GR 465). Paradoxically, this emblem of sexual violence and death promises a kind of eternal life, by transforming (in good Rilkean fashion) nature, where death and decay are the normal course of things, into something not in nature's sphere. This transformation is also figured as sexual conquest: "Beyond simple steel erection, the Rocket was an entire system won, away from the feminine darkness, held against the entropies of lovable but scatterbrained Mother Nature . . ." (GR 324).

  10. One of the mechanisms by which the System assures a sexual response to the rocket is pornography. In the culvert scene, the flower, shaped like a young girl's genitals, is an icon of pornography, and thus the deflection of sexuality from human partner to an economy of objectified images. The man in the drawing is oblivious to the woman in the background; he is wholly absorbed in the sexual image of the flower. The state is dependent upon this deflection of sexuality; "AN ARMY OF LOVERS CAN BE BEATEN," run the slogans on the walls in the Zone (GR 155). To love is to want to live, and to care for others; neither emotion is useful to the state, the great need of which has "always been getting other people to die for you." Pornography is one of the War's diversionary tactics, a means of drawing sexuality into its own service. As Vanya says of the slogan AN ARMY OF LOVERS CAN BE BEATEN,

    1. It's true . . . look at the forms of capitalist expression. Pornographies: pornographies of love, erotic love, Christian love, boy-and-his-dog, pornographies of sunsets, pornographies of killing, and pornographies of deduction -- ahh, that sigh when we guess the murderer -- all these novels, these films and these songs that they lull us with, they're approaches, more comfortable and less so, to that Absolute Comfort. . . . The self-induced orgasm. (GR 155)

    The masturbator, physical or emotional, is the ideal citizen: isolated from others by the steady stream of images which seems to be available for every need -- not only sexual needs, but spiritual ("pornographies of Christian love"), aesthetic ("pornographies of sunsets"), and intellectual ("ah, that sigh when we guess the murderer") -- he or she is unlikely to form the bonds with other people which threaten the effectiveness of the "structures favoring death" by affirming the value of life.

  11. Pornography, then, is for Pynchon a means by which the state wields power over its citizens at the micropolitical level. As such, it is also an important factor in the formation of sexual identity, particularly male sexual identity.6 "Pornography is this society's running commentary on the sexual for me," writes Stephen Heath (3). In the novelistic universe of Gravity's Rainbow, this is so thoroughly true that pornography seems to be specially tailored to every citizen. When Pirate Prentice, for instance, receives via rocket military orders written in an ink which requires an application of sperm to be visible, he finds included with the message a pornographic picture which has anticipated all of his private sexual preferences:

    1. The woman is a dead ringer for [Pirate's former lover] Scorpia Mossmoon. The room is one they talked about but never saw . . . a De Mille set really, slender and oiled girls in attendance . . . Scorpia sprawled among fat pillows wearing exactly the corselette of Belgian lace, the dark stockings and shoes he daydreamed about often enough but never --

      No, of course, he never told her. He never told anyone. Like every young man growing up in England, he was conditioned to get a hardon in the presence of certain fetishes, and then conditioned to feel shame about his new reflexes. Could there be, somewhere, a dossier, could They (They?) somehow have managed to monitor everything he saw and read since puberty . . . how else would They know? (GR 71-2)

    There is a vicious political cycle operating here. On the one hand, Pirate Prentice's complicity with the "structures favoring death" is assured by his response to the sexualization of those structures (he literally gets his orders by ejaculating on Their exciting new military equipment). On the other hand, his sexuality has been conditioned by the images which They have been providing him all his life. For Thomas Pynchon as for Oscar Wilde, life imitates art; the several discourses of society -- movies, books, opera, popular music, etc. -- create those who consume them. In Gravity's Rainbow, Von Göll's propaganda film about black troops in Germany precedes reports from Germany about the Schwarzkommando, as if the film had literally given life to the people. The gang-rape scene from Alpdrücken spawns shadow-children, both the literal flesh and blood kind like Ilse and a series of replays: Margherita Erdmann, continuing her history of becoming the roles she plays, replays the scene with Slothrop, who in turn finds that "someone has already educated him" in the fine art of sexual cruelty (GR 395-6).

  12. Social-constructionist theories of this type can be articulated in a number of ways. A pure anti-essentialist position holds that there is no "natural" self or "natural" order whatsoever, that identity is entirely constituted by discourse and that the concept of the "natural" is merely another social construction. A more Romantic position holds that there is a natural self or a natural order, but that selves are made over in unnatural forms by a unhealthy society. Pynchon's version has elements of both. An important figure of the "natural" in Gravity's Rainbow is the image of the Titans, an "overpeaking of life" from "the World just before men" (720), prehuman, pre-social, as originary as Rousseau's Nature. Humanity is described as being "Counter-revolutionaries" against this force, "nearly as strong as life, holding down the green uprising." But humanity is "only nearly as strong" as the Titans, because "a few keep going over to the Titans every day," go to see "all the presences we are not supposed to be seeing -- wind gods, hilltop gods, sunset gods -- that we train ourselves away from to keep from looking further even though enough of us do. . . ." (GR 720). Thus a "natural order" seems to provide a rallying point for the rebellion against the routinized technocrary of Blicero's "structures favoring death"; in general the image of the Titans, and nature generally, is invested with a powerful charge of political nostalgia and political hope.

  13. But Pynchon undercuts the political value of the "natural" even as he maintains it. Nature may contest the dominance of the "structures favoring death," but we perceive and understand nature only through social discourses -- and social discourses are ideological. Thus the Titans have an ambiguous resonance in the novel: on the one hand, they are associated with the "overpeaking of life" that predates death-obsessed humanity, but they also bring to mind the space helmets at the Mittelwerke (the helmets "appear to be fashioned from skulls . . . perhaps Titans lived under this mountain, and their skulls got harvested like giant mushrooms," GR 296-7); the image of the Titans thus suggests technological militarism as well as vital nature. How one sees is crucial, and Pynchon never allows the reader an extra-ideological perspective from which to see. For example, the language of the passage quoted above seems to imply that we can see the "wind gods, hilltop gods, sunset gods" of nature, if we cease to "train ourselves away" from them, and that we can "leave Their electric voices behind"; in short, that Nature will indeed offer a moment of redemptive vision. But that vision turns out to be highly ambiguous; it is a vision of "Pan -- leaping -- its face too beautiful to bear, beautiful Serpent, its coils in rainbow lashings in the sky -- into the sure bones of fright --" (GR 720-1). The Serpent recalls Kekule's famous (or, in Pynchon's universe, infamous) dream of the benzene ring, which Pynchon implicates in the rise of the German military-industrial complex (GR 412); the rainbow recalls the parabola of the Rocket. Moreover, in a typical Pynchonian narrative shift, the character through whose consciousness we experience this ambiguous vision changes over the course of the passage. It seems at the beginning of the passage to be Geli Tripping, the young witch whose magic is life affirming; as Marjorie Kaufman puts it, "Geli Tripping's nurture is clearly special and specialized; open to every natural and supernatural force of the universe, loving, 'World-choosing,' her magic is some antique survival, come undiluted from the fruitful past" (GR 204-5). But by the end of the passage the vision has become Gottfried's, who, as Blicero's lover and willing victim, the chosen passenger of the 00000, is firmly headed toward the Deathkingdom; he has turned away from whatever the Titans might have to say to him. More importantly, so have we, by virtue of the position the narrative puts us in: we approach the narrative with Geli and turn away with Gottfried, never to know exactly how the vision has been co-opted. Thus there are traces of the Romantic quest for revelation from nature in Gravity's Rainbow, but the reader perceives the "natural" only through a constantly shifting series of perspectives and discourses.

  14. The theory of ideology which is implied by Pynchon's qualified anti-essentialism can only be described as paranoid: the very complexity of the involvement in oppressive structures which is implied by an identity constructed or conditioned by discourse argues for some sort of hidden design. Much of the comedy in the pornographic scene sent to Pirate Prentice, for example, comes from its absurd specificity -- the De Mille set, the corselette of Belgian lace. Horrified that his most personal desires have been co-opted into the service of the state, Prentice can only wonder paranoically if They have monitored everything that he saw and read since puberty. Paranoia has enormous political significance in Gravity's Rainbow, for it implies an acute awareness of the self within larger political processes. Paranoia is not only, in Pynchon's words, "the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected" (GR 703), it is also a recognition of the place of the self within that constellation of connections: everything is connected, and it is connected to me. This is partly a sense of persecution, but just as importantly it is a recognition of complicity, of being used. For instance, the elaborate system of sexual coding implied by the pornographic drawing sent to Pirate Prentice seems to be designed not to destroy him, at least not immediately, but rather to use him; and the depth and complexity of Prentice's complicity in the War can only be measured by imagining paranoically that "They (They?) have managed to monitor everything he saw and read since puberty." Slothrop's paranoid quest for the Mystery Stimulus, too, is a way of acting out an anxiety about complicity in oppressive structures: in searching for information about who or what or how he somehow has been conditioned to respond sexually to the Rocket, he is in a sense asking about how he came to be coded sexually as he has been, how he himself has been written by the codes of dominance and submission. He finds no answers, just an infinite series of connections that do not add up to a coherent narrative. He cannot see the source of his coding as a male, because there is no outside point from which to see it: that coding is quite literally himself.

  15. What the novel offers as political praxis, then, cannot be a disentanglement from masculinism, for that would be an attempt to step outside of language and the self. Rather, what the novel offers is a disruption of coding in general -- a failure of coherence, a breakdown in the narrative. I began my reading of the drawing by noting that it does have an optimistic interpretation, that it can be interpreted as a foreshadowing of Tchitcherine's diversion from his quest to kill Enzian. By conventional standards, the story of Tchitcherine ends in anti-climax (pun intended). We expect, after hundreds of pages of build-up, that the hunter shall either find the hunted, or alternatively be killed by the hunted; that's the way hunting tales are supposed to go. Instead, Tchitcherine simply fails to recognize Enzian, begs from him cigarettes and potatoes, and passes by him on the road (734-735). The novel here, by defying our expectations of what stories are like, in effect denies our own desires as readers to "finish" the story; it says, in a sense, "it is finished, and so are you." In this way the novel mocks the masculinist coding that we ourselves bring to the novel -- our desire for that moment of "redemptive" violence (whether the hunter's or the hunted's makes no difference) which resolves all suspense, ties up loose ends, and leaves us with an illusion of control. Similarly, to read the drawing as a foreshadowing of this redemptive anti-climax requires that we ourselves will disrupt our masculinist patterns of reading, that we avoid subduing the text, forcing it to a single interpretation or a conventional expectation.

  16. Pynchon's politics of disruption is, up to a point, analagous to the politics of parody espoused by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. In this rigorously anti-essentialist text, Butler argues that a feminist politics does not require a concept of a subject as the agent of political change in order to be effective. Arguing that the subject is an effect of signification, and signification is a "regulated process of repetition" (145), Butler claims that new identities are possible, and only possible, by a process of "subversive repetition" (146):

    1. If the rules governing signification not only restrict, but enable the assertion of alternative domains of cultural intelligibility, i.e. new possibilities for gender that contest the rigid codes of heirarchical binarisms, then it is only within the process of repetitive signifying that a subversion of identity becomes possible. (145)

    Pynchon's rewriting of cultural codes, a replication-with-a-difference similar to the "repetitive signifying" advocated by Butler, also implies a "subversion of identity." The narrative of Slothrop's quest for identity, for example, does not end, as we feel such a quest story should, with a climactic realization, but with his gradual dispersal until he is "scattered all over the Zone" (GR 712). As Molly Hite puts it,

    1. Slothrop has lost his identity; he is no longer a unified character. However unsettling this outcome may be, one implication is that he has escaped control, for it his phallocentric identity that has "placed" him in the apocalyptic pattern. . . . He [has become] radically uncentered, a fate that brings him to the opposite extreme of his initial characterization as a personified penis. (118-9)

    The analogy between Butler's parody and Pynchon's extends only so far, however, because of the differences between their cultural positions. Butler is a lesbian feminist; the "subversive repetition" she has in mind is drag, which, "[i]n imitating gender . . . implicitly reveals the imitative nature of gender itself -- as well as its contingency" (137). But this reading of drag applies only within its cultural context. A straight male who, in the company of other men, dresses up in women's clothes in mockery of women is surely reinforcing the "naturalness" of gender roles within that circle of men by emphasizing the Otherness of women. Butler acknowledges this when she writes that "[p]arody by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony" (139). I would argue that one of the most significant factors in deciding whether repetitions subvert or reinforce the status quo is the cultural context of the act of repetition, including the cultural position of the person performing the repetition. The drag performer, by subverting codes of gender and sexuality, opens up a space for an alternate sexual identity disallowed by hegemonic culture. The performer brings a particular sexual history to the performance, and thus is prepared to occupy the space consituted in the act of performance. But what cultural space is opened up by a performance of subversive repetition by a straight male, whose identity is thoroughly legitimated by the hegemonic culture? The space which straight men are prepared to occupy by their sexual histories is simply their usual cultural positions. This is why Slothrop must simply disperse at the end of the novel; as power operates in and through his identity, and there is no alternate identity for him to occupy, his only political recourse is to cease to occupy any subject position whatsoever. What R.W. Connell calls "exit politics" -- the attempt "to oppose patriarchy and . . . to exit from the worlds of hegemonic and complicit masculinity" (220) -- is imaginable only if there is an alternate state or position to which to exit.

  17. Non-existence is not a viable subject position, so the novel's necessarily incomplete rewriting of masculinism cannot help but reduplicate the masculinist ones it renounces. Thanatz and Blicero we might expect to revel in the imagery of sexual sadism, but it is the narrator who describes the Rocket as a system "won . . . away from the feminine darkness," the narrator who describes the RAF raid as the look which says "hurry up and fuck me." It is as if the novel is protesting a gender coding which it has itself set up. This is, I would argue, exactly what it is doing, quite self-consciously; the point is precisely that the coding of sexuality and gender that ensures our complicity in oppression are not "out there" somewhere, apart from us, but inside ourselves. Eschewing the possibility of ever standing outside of ideology, the novel can only gesture to a position outside the problem, a position which it cannot itself imagine, by a kind of masculinist gigantism which reveals its own absurdity. The technic of the novel is like the male minstrel shows Roger Mexico and Seaman Bodine give at the end of the novel in which they belt each other with "gigantic (7 or 8 feet long) foam rubber penises, cunningly detailed, all in natural color. . . . Seems people can be reminded of Titans and fathers, and laugh . . ." (GR 708).

  18. This masculinist gigantism can is by no means self-evidently pro-feminist. Gravity's Rainbow often reads like a male fantasy gone out of control: the phalli are a little too large, the female characters too eager to bed down with Slothrop, the victims of sadists far too eager about their own pain.7 And because the narrative doesn't offer final readings, it is never quite clear how much really is mockery or disruption and how much is the residue of real assumptions about gender. These exaggerations self-consciously invite a feminist critique, from an outsider's perspective. But the novel itself does not supply that critique; it can only inflate or dislocate the discourses of its own crimes, and so at once gesture to a newly written self and reduplicate an old and tiresome one.

  19. That this politics of discourse may tend to decenter women as the subjects of feminism is suggested by the one direct and I think suggestive reference in the novel to a contemporary feminist, M. F. Beal.8 Felipe, one of the Argentinian exiles, makes "noontime devotionals to the living presence of a certain rock" which, he believes, "embodies . . . an intellectual system, for [Felipe] believes (as do M.F. Beal and others) in a form of mineral consciousness not too much different from that of plants and animals" (GR 612). M. F. Beal was (or is) a friend of Pynchon's, author of two novels, Amazon One and Angel Dance, several stories, and Safe House: A Casebook of Revolutionary Feminism in the 1970's. David Seed, who has written most about the relationship of Pynchon and Beal, explains that the reference to Beal in Gravity's Rainbow refers to a conversation that Pynchon and Beal had about "the limits of sentience" (227): "Beal implicitly humanized the earth's mantle (containing of course rocks and minerals) by drawing an analogy with skin. . . . " (32) In effect, Beal was espousing what we would now call a Gaia philosophy9; as Seed writes, "[i]f there is such a thing as mineral consciousness then the earth's crust becomes a living mantle and man becomes a part (a small part) of a living continuum instead of being defined against an inert environment" (227). There is a version of this belief in "mineral consciousness" in Safe House:

    1. Only recently have a few modern men begun to learn anything about life and what they are learning is that the only difference from the point of view of chemistry between living and non-living substances is their ability to reproduce themselves. (86)

    As in her discussions with Pynchon, Beal here minimizes the distinction between plants and animals on the one hand and "non-living" beings like minerals; if the "only difference" between them is the ability to reproduce, then in other ways they are the same (so, perhaps, rocks are sentient, as Beal had argued to Pynchon earlier).

  20. One tenet of Gaia philosophy is that the Earth acts as a conscious organism to protect itself. In Safe House, Beal speculates that one mechanism by which the Earth might be trying to protect itself is what she calls a "strategic retreat" -- the possibility that "adult women given the choice will choose to live without [men] -- to eat, sleep, work, rear children and dwell without them" (87) -- in other words, female separatism. Beal wonders whether the contemporary urge toward separatism might be not just a conscious choice by particular women but a manifestation of some larger biological necessity:

    1. Could it be that we are witnessing an unfathomably significant genetic reflex for species survival? Could it be that the DNA code has been triggered by some inscrutable biological alarm system from the threat of male violence and annihilation? Could it be that this is some ancient reoccurring pattern which has activated female response over the millennia to withdraw, to protect and defend themselves and their progeny? (87)

    For Beal, man has turned away from the earth to "violence and annihilation," just as for Pynchon humanity has turned away from the Titans to the "structures favoring death." But for Beal, this turning away is specifically coded according to gender; the "man" in the previous sentence refers to men, not to humanity. Conversely, women are a key part of the Earth's counter-struggle: the earth is triggering in women, who are open to the message of survival because they "have always known all things are alike and precious," a "genetic reflex for species survival," which consists of a disentanglement from "male violence and annihilation." In Gravity's Rainbow, the genderedness of Beal's vision is lost; the Titans in Greek mythology were half male and half female.

  21. Safe House was published in 1976, three years after Gravity's Rainbow, so it is impossible to be certain whether Beal had in fact worked out within a specifically feminist framework the belief in "mineral consciousness" which Pynchon attributes to her. But it seems to me likely that she had, or at least likely that Beal was a feminist by that point, and that that feminism was part of her discussions with Pynchon. If the critique of masculinism in Gravity's Rainbow was influenced by Beal, then we can see the novel a kind of appropriation and recentering of feminism; Pynchon subordinates his critique of masculinism to a critique of militarism, and in so doing defuses the genderedness of his subject. Within the play of pluralized discourses in the novel, none of them privileged, none of them untainted by the structures of power, the issue of gender is subsumed within the issue of gender discourses. But if everyone is trapped within masculinist discourse, then masculinism is not a problem of men at all; it is a role one takes on or steps out of, as Greta Erdmann steps so easily out of the role of masochist in Alpdrücken and into the role of sadist with Bianca.

  22. That this dispersal of responsibility may serve to conceal rather than challenge gender roles is made particularly apparent by those passages where the novel addresses the reader directly, for, as Bernard Duyfhuizen points out, the "you" to whom the narrator speaks is male or male-identified.10 For example, the narrator addresses the reader at one point as a viewer of a pornographic movie:

    1. Of all her putative fathers . . . Bianca is . . . closest to you who came in blinding color, slouched alone in your own seat, never threatened along any rookwise row or diagonal all night, you whose interdiction from her mother's water-white love is absolute, you, alone, saying sure I know them, omitted, chuckling count me in, unable, thinking probably some hooker . . . She favors you, most of all. (GR 472)

    The word you in this passage, as throughout the book, disallows the reader any distance from the objectifying, abusive attitudes which it critiques. But to the extent that this passage and others like it assume that the narrative's you and we include everyone, it falsifies the actual positions of men and women with respect to social discourses. I doubt very much that many female readers can feel comfortable identifying with the "you" who says "count me in" and "probably some hooker." Men are by far the greater consumers of pornography; men constitute by far the larger proportion of rapists and sexual abusers; women are far more frequently the victims of rape and sexual abuse. "We" may all have been at the movies, as the narrator says, but we have been watching different shows, and more importantly have watching the shows from quite different cultural positions. Gravity's Rainbow conceals this positionality with its dizzying profusion of discourses; what Susan Bordo calls the postmodern "dream of being everywhere" collapses in key moments to a "view from nowhere" which is in fact a male-centered view (143).

  23. One of the values of anti-essentialist theories for pro-feminist men has been their ability to provide pro-feminists with a critical distance from their own subjectivities, and thus to help make visible and problematic what has been transparent. The masculinist gigantism of Gravity's Rainbow serves this end well, writing out in extra large letters the cultural codes that form male gender identities. But the example of Gravity's Rainbow also shows that while an awareness of the social construction of gender may be necessary condition for the disruption of this transparent male-centeredness, it is not a sufficient condition. Post-modern moves to decenter the self, to argue that the self is nothing more than an interweaving of "larger" discourses, can marginalize women's issues quite as easily as the most traditional of humanisms. Male pro-feminists must take account of the power of social discourses to constrain, define and constitute identity, but at the same time, they must take account of their position within social discourses, as members of a particular gender, class, race, geographic region, religion or creed, educational background, age, language, etc.

  24. Judith Butler argues that the "etc." at the end of such a list of positions is a "sign of exhaustion as well as the illimitable process of signification itself. It is the supplement, the excess that necessarily accompanies any effort to posit identity once and for all" (Gender 143). I don't disagree with this, but the key phrase here, in my opinion, is "once and for all." It is surely true that identity cannot be posited once and for all; words such "woman," "man," "straight," "gay," "middle class," etc. are all totalizations of massively complex sets of practices, discourses and conditions which are not self-identical even within a particular culture at a particular time and are still less so when viewed historically and cross-culturally. These sites of instability are, as Butler makes clear both in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, potential sites of subversion and democratization, and the task of thinking beyond the limits of these terms, whether by deconstruction or redefinition, must continue. Yet if these terms cannot be fixed, nevertheless they can and must be deployed, because they continue to deploy us. Butler herself makes this argument cogently in Bodies That Matter: ". . . it remains politically necessary to lay claim to 'women,' 'queer,' 'gay,' and 'lesbian,' precisely because of the way these terms, as it were, lay their claim on us prior to our full knowing" (229). Here too, the differences in subject position matter considerably. The context for this remark is a discussion of the affirmative resignification of "queer"; "men" and "male," while surely in need of resignification, hardly need the same kind. But the claim that masculinity and male privilege has on men, "prior to our full knowing," must also be acknowledged, not to fix male identity but to identify clearly what is at stake in it. As Michael Kaufman reminds us, what is most important in thinking about gender is not "the prescription of certain roles and the proscription of others," but rather that "it is a description of actual social relations of power between males and females and the internalizations of these relations of power" (144).

  25. Gravity's Rainbow also shows, I think, the limits of a pro-feminist politics based too exclusively on anti-essentialist theories. Simply to disperse one's identity throughout the cultural fabric, as Slothrop does in the end of the novel, is not a viable alternative; nor is it adequate simply to gesture to the complicity of one's own identity in oppressive structures. Ultimately, pro-feminist men need to work towards positive subjectivities which neither co-opt feminism nor revel masochistically in self-abasement,11 but reconcile self-fulfillment with recognition of women as subjects. Because these are subjectivities which must be lived as well as theorized, the complexity of factors which make up subjectivity cannot be accounted a single theory, whether essentialist or constructionist; it is always necessary to deploy a number of ways of seeing even to negotiate, much less account for, such complexity. My last point, then, is that some of those ways of seeing require a notion of self, of personal identity. Such a notion need not be essentialist, in the sense of supposing that there is some self which pre-exists and is outside of social discourses. But we must find a way to speak not only of constructed selves and signification but also of personal motives and individual responsibility, kindness or self-deception, housework and personal relationships. No single discourse will be adequate to the task.

    return to Wes Chapman's home page


    1For example, Victor Seidler is openly hostile to post- structuralist theories of gender construction, in part because they make it difficult for men to "recognize the poverty of one's experiences and relationships," discounting the very category of experience as "exclusively a construction of language or discourse" (xii-xiii). back

    2In the introduction to Against the Tide, Michael Kimmel distinguishes among three kinds of response to feminism: anti-feminist, masculinist, and pro-feminist (9-15). These categories, I would argue, are useful for characterizing direct male responses to feminism, but require the addition of an additional category, that of anti-masculinist, to take account of indirect responses to and appropriations of feminism, such as Pynchon's. Feminism has entered into men's consciousness in subtle and concealed ways; the results have often been positions which call for a redefinition or repudiation of masculinity but which are not necessarily feminist. For discussion of an early example, see my "Blake, Wollstonecraft and the Inconsistency of Oothoon," forthcoming in the Summer 1997 issue of Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. back

    3The male-authored texts Modleski discusses date from the 1980's, but I see this particular era of "feminism without women" as part of movement with longer historical roots. (In my discussion below, I will mention only texts which respond to or appropriate the most recent wave of feminism and thus fall approximately into the same historical moment as the texts discussed by Modleski, but texts by writers such as William Blake and James Joyce can be seen as examples of the same phenomenon associated with earlier feminist movements.) Early Men's Liberation texts such as Warren Farrell's The Liberated Man (1974) and Jack Nichols' Men's Liberation (1975), roughly contemporary with Gravity's Rainbow, are predicated on the assumption that gender is socially constructed, and are suffused with an anxiety about gender (sometimes in the form of overcompensation, as when Farrell attempts to negate the idea that "women's liberations is a threat to men (italics in original) by outlining "twenty-one specific areas in which men can benefit from what is now called women's liberation" 175). Texts like these, along with writings by Derrida and Lacan (for discussion of whose appropriation of "woman" see Heath 4, 6-7), are important male-authored pretexts for the outpouring of male gender criticism in the 1980's. Jonathan Culler's "Reading as a Woman" in On Deconstruction (a text which does not seem to me to reveal significant gender anxiety) is the earliest Anglo-American male-authored text I know of (besides Pynchon's) which deconstructs gender. Jardine and Smith's Men in Feminism (1987), some essays of which are discussed by Modleski, was a high point of male self-consciousness of gender anxiety, focusing to a considerable degree on the "impossibility" of men's relationship with feminism identified by Stephen Heath in "Male Feminism" (1984) and on women's skepticism towards male feminism, exemplified by Elaine Showalter's "Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year" (1983). This "impossibility" is discounted by Joseph A. Boone in "Of Me(n) and Feminism: Who(se) is the Sex That Writes," the opening essay in Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism (1990), a volume which, aside from the opening and closing essays, consists not of feminist criticism but of male-centered gender criticism. The distinction is made clearly in Claridge and Langland's Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism (1990), despite that volume's origin in an MLA panel called "Male Feminist Voices." Although in general male gender critics have followed this trend away from feminist criticism toward gender criticism, issues of gender anxiety still resurface in such texts as Roger Horrock's Masculinity in Crisis (1994) and R.W. Connell's Masculinities (1995). back

    4Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 733. References to Gravity's Rainbow are id in the text, abbreviated GR. back

    5Slothrop and Geli Tripping also create huge shadow-figures in the sky when they stand (and dance, and make love) on the Brocken at sunrise (I am indebted to Molly Hite for making the connection between this scene and the impassive figures associated with the Palm Sunday raid). As are so many scenes which feature Geli, this is a scene of ambiguous possibility; Geli and Slothrop in effect occupy the same position as the Palm Sunday bombers, but within that position they make love, they attend to their own pleasure rather than the needs of Blicero's deathkingdom. This ambiguity is reinforced by the passage's reference to Titans, an image the ambivalent political value of which I will discuss below. Clearly the impassive figures in the sky, angels of death though they may be, are not all-powerful, even if their influence is inescapable. back

    6See "Against the Avant: Pynchon's Products, Pynchon's Pornographies" in Marginal Forces/Culture Centers: Tolson, Pynchon and the Politics of the Canon, in which, reading Pynchonian pornographies as a form of "anamnesia," Michael Berube also argues that pornographies are crucial in forming and controlling sexual identities (252-255). back

    7I am implicitly disagreeing here, albeit mildly, with Marjorie Kaufman's conclusions in "Brunnhilde and the Chemists: Women in Gravity's Rainbow," surprisingly one of the few critical works on this novel to use an explicitly feminist methodology. Kaufman takes issue with a letter by Adrienne Rich which asks, "What are the themes of domination and enslavement, prurience and idealism, male physical perfection and death, 'control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort,' 'the turning of people into things.' . . . the objectification of the body as separate from the emotions -- what are these but masculinist, virilist, patriarchal values?" (225). Kaufman replies that "If what Ms. Rich means is that male-oriented literature supports those 'themes' as positive values, then Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow can be read as a thinly disguised treatise written to support the views of radical feminism and its analyses of 'patriarchal history' and 'patriarchal society'" (225). She continues on to say that "such a reading commits violence to the novel," asserting that "Ms. Rich's conflation of events turns the complex world into a simplistic dogma of sexual means and ends" (225). While I agree that an image must be read in a particular context, and that the political valence of an image can be complex, I don't find it "simplistic" to ask whether a preponderance of masculinist images carries a load of political baggage regardless of how any individual image is used or undercut. back

    8Given the scarcity of biographical data on Pynchon, it is difficult to identify precisely just how indebted Pynchon was intellectually to the feminist movements of the 1960's. Although Beal is the only feminist directly identified, I suspect that Pynchon's debts to the feminist movement were both broad and deep, for there were several feminists interested, as Pynchon was, in the confluence of sexuality and militarism. A few well-known examples: in the "SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto," Valerie Solanis lists a series of crimes for which the male, because of his "obsession to compensate for not being female" is responsible; the first of these is "War" (578). In "No More Miss America!," woman's objectification as sex symbol is linked directly with the military: "The highlight of [Miss America's] reign each year is a cheerleader-tour of American troops abroad-last year she went to Vietnam to pep-talk our husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends into dying and killing with a better spirit. . . . The Living Bra and the Dead Soldier" (586). The fact that Geli Tripping is a witch may allude to the "phenomenon" (the word is Robin Morgan's, 603) of WITCH, a loose collection of feminist groups or perhaps simply a style of feminism of the late 1960's. As for other feminist groups of the time, for the WITCH covens patriarchy, militarism, and economic exploitation were interlinked; thus the Washington D.C. WITCH coven hexed "the United Fruit Company's oppressive policy on the Third World and on secretaries in its offices at home ('Bananas and rifles, sugar and death,/ War for profit, tarantulas' breath/ United Fruit makes lots of loot/ The CIA is in its boot')" (Morgan 604, Morgan's emphasis). Gravity's Rainbow does not directly allude to the documents identified above, and Pynchon may never have read them. However, they show that some of the gender issues that Pynchon was interested in were current in feminist circles at the time; Pynchon, presumably living within some kind of countercultural network at the time, could have been exposed to these issues from similar sources. If this is so, then what I identify later in this essay as a marginalization of women's issues is all the more acute. back

    9I am indebted to Stuart Moulthrop for making this connection. back

    10I am indebted to Molly Hite for pointing out to me the implicit maleness of the "you" in the novel, but see Bernard Duyfhuizen's "A Suspension Forever at the hinge of Doubt: The Reader-Trap of Bianca in Gravity's Rainbow." back

    11Modleski, discussing the masochistic element in some male feminist criticism, notes that the masochist does not necessarily cede power to the punitive mother nor call into disrupt the hidden power of the law of the father (69-74). back

    Works Cited

    Beal, M.F., and friends. Safe House: A Casebook of Revolutionary Feminism in the 1970's. Eugene, OR: Northwest Matrix, 1976.

    Berube, Michael. Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.

    Boone, Joseph A. "Of Me(n) and Feminism: Who(se) is the Sex That Writes." In Boone and Cadden, 11-25.

    ---, and Michael Cadden. Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    Bordo, Susan. "Feminism, Post-modernism, and Gender-Skepticism." Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.

    ---. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    Chapman, Wes. "Blake's Visions and Revisions of a Daughter of Albion." Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly (forthcoming).

    Claridge, Laura, and Elizabeth Langland. Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1990.

    Clerc, Charles, ed. Approaches to Gravity's Rainbow. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1983.

    Connell, R. W. Masculinities. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

    Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

    Duyfhuizen, Bernard. "A Suspension Forever at the Hinge of Doubt: The Reader-Trap of Bianca in Gravity's Rainbow." Postmodern Culture 2.1 (1991): 37 pars. Online. WWW.

    Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1991.

    Farrell, Warren. The Liberated Man, Beyond Masculinity: Freeing Men and Their Relationships with Women. New York: Random, 1974.

    Heath, Stephen. "Male Feminism." Dalhousie Review 64.2 (Summer 1984): 70-101. Rpt. in short form in Jardine and Smith, 1-32 (page refs. are to this volume).

    Hite, Molly. Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1983.

    Horrocks, Roger. Masculinity in Crisis. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

    Jardine, Alice, and Paul Smith, eds. Men in Feminism. New York: Methuen, 1987.

    Kaufman, Marjorie. "Brunnhilde and the Chemists: Women in Gravity's Rainbow." In Clerc, 197-227.

    Kaufman, Michael. "Men, Feminism, and Men's Contradictory Experiences of Power." Theorizing Masculinities. Ed. Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994. 142-163.

    Kimmel, Michael S., and Thomas E. Mosmiller. Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States 1776-1990. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

    Modleski, Tania. Feminism Without Women. New York: Routledge, 1991.

    Morgan, Robin. Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement. New York: Vintage-Random, 1970.

    Nichols, Jack. Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity. New York: Penguin, 1975.

    "No More Miss America!" In Morgan 584-7.

    Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Viking, 1973.

    Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. Trans. C. F. MacIntyre. Berkeley: U of California P, 1961.

    Seed, David. The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1988.

    Seidler, Victor J. Recreating Sexual Politics: Men, Feminism and Politics. London: Routledge, 1991.

    Showalter, Elaine. "Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year." Raritan 3:2 (Fall 1983). Rpt. in Jardine and Smith, 116-132.

    Solanis, Valerie. "The SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto." Excerpted in Morgan, 577-583.

    Tololyan, Khachig. "War as Background in Gravity's Rainbow." In Clerc, 31-67.

Copyright © 1996 Wes Chapman