Theorizing the New Rape Studies at mla 2019

organized by myself and doreen thierauf (north carolina wesleyan college). chaired by sandra macpherson (ohio state) and featuring papers by myself, doreen, zoe eckman (duke u) and a response by kathleen lubey (st. john’s university).

The goal of this panel is to provide new ways of approaching rape in literary studies in the wake of the #metoo movement. Energized by the political and cultural debates surrounding #metoo, we argue that feminist literary scholarship should pursue new rhetorical strategies of addressing rape in the context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. Frances Ferguson’s “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987), drawing connections between second-wave feminist work and eighteenth-century legal and literary accounts of rape, remains the most important analysis of the function of sexual violence in literature. Ferguson showed that novels’ demand for evidence of consent or non-consent, crucial for rape case testimonies, is itself a form of imposed violence. In 2017, Princeton University celebrated the anniversary of the essay’s publication with a day-long symposium featuring conversations between Ferguson and leading scholars in the field, including Claudia Johnson, Nancy Yousef, our panel chair Sandra Macpherson, and respondent Kathleen Lubey. This panel continues the symposium’s conversations about the contemporary resonances of Ferguson’s work while asking what comes next. Our papers suggest that “the new rape studies” favor intersectional approaches to sexual violence, de-prioritize the usual mode of evidence-gathering, and instead privilege women’s own accounts of their experiences.

In 2015, the V21 collective urged scholars to abandon “positivist historicism” in favor of presentism, “the awareness that our interest in the [past] is motivated by certain features of our own moment.” Our panelists approach historical and contemporary representations of rape as unrepentant presentists. Each paper considers ethical ways of reading spectacles of trauma and fetishizations of vulnerable bodies while attending to current cultural debates’ insistence that sexual violence reinforces structural inequality across generations. Is it possible to analyze literary and historical representations of sexual violence responsibly, that is, without reifying gender, racial, economic, and political hierarchies often stabilized by these depictions?

Opening the panel with “Rereading Rape in the Critical Canon,” Erin Spampinato identifies the trend of “adjudicative reading” in critical responses to Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, both paradigmatic rape plots. Adjudicative reading considers characters as legal subjects and imposes juridical categories of evidence and intent upon their actions. It traces characters’ motivations and the physical outcomes of their actions, treating the novel as if it can offer evidence, or lack thereof, of criminal conduct. Spampinato identifies the structural misogyny which undergirds this style of criticism, showing that such readings have replicated the prejudices inherent in historical rape law by privileging the rights of the accused character over and against the harm caused to the fictional victim of rape. Turning to the ways scholars can ethically treat the harm of sexual violence as it is represented in literature, and drawing examples from the work of Catherine Mackinnon, Sandra Macpherson, and Kathleen Lubey, Spampinato argues for a feminist phenomenological approach to rape in the novel.

Zoë Eckman’s essay, “Rape Culture and Visual Sexuality,” argues that contemporary cinematic depictions of sexual violence often fail to respond adequately to ongoing debates about the nature of consent. Eckman analyzes rape scenes and sexualized male aggression in visual media set in the eighteenth century, such as Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean and the Outlander series. She suggests that these productions are under intense pressure to negotiate historically accurate portrayals of rape culture with the need to render female characters’ sexual consent palatable to contemporary female audiences. Eighteenth-century conduct books and genres of domestic fiction promulgated the ideal of sexually ignorant women, putting the burden of expressing desire on men alone. Fictional romance since then has relied on male aggression and persistence, features of male heterosexuality that remain essential to young women’s sexual education in the twenty-first century. The recent “explicit consent” movement attempts to restructure the conventional sexual dynamics which take the male pursuer and female pursued for granted. However, visual media, particularly romance genres, still depict sexual aggression and intimidation as sexy. Eckman’s paper examines the difficulties inherent in depicting historically accurate sexual dynamics as the #metoo movement exposes structural sexual violations.

Doreen Thierauf’s paper, “Rape as Academic Inheritance,” maps out an ethical space in which to conduct research about the sexual abuse endured by women of color during British colonial slavery. This field of inquiry is limited by the fact that much evidence of sexual violence is mediated by the often intentionally titillating work of white female abolitionists. Her paper reflects on the role of scholars working on sexual assault and rape after the cultural earthquake of #metoo and argues that scholars whose work is motivated by historical crises must be willing to examine their own long-term investments in such crises. She challenges the academic convention of reproducing visual or lengthy textual representations of sexual trauma, arguing that such rhetorical maneuvers risk perpetuating the original splintering of identity occasioned by rape. This is doubly true for white scholars working on sexual violence under colonial slavery. She invites critics to shift away from symptomatic close readings of rape scenes, a mode that reproduces the traditional institutional disbelief towards abused women, towards commemorative reading, a stance that accounts for historical atrocity while cultivating an understanding of the body’s opaqueness.

In her response, Kathleen Lubey offers guidance to a new generation of scholars invested in tying the historical study of rape to contemporary debates. In her 2017 essay, “Sexual Remembrance in Clarissa,” Lubey challenges the traditional critical treatment of rape as an unspeakable act at the heart of the novel, showing that critics often ignore myriad acts of non-penetrative sexual violence. The novel forms itself around the need for “sexual remembrance” because eighteenth-century female subjectivity was shaped by the all-pervasive threat of sexual violence. By facilitating conversation between Lubey and three younger scholars, we hope to model generational exchange that invites scholars to interrogate their own mode of addressing rape. The panel is chaired by Sandra Macpherson whose work combines urgent questions about violence and sexuality with historical and philosophical analysis. Each paper, including the response, runs 15 minutes, leaving 15 minutes for a concluding Q&A.

Image: “Psyche’s Wedding” by Edward Burne-Jones - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4649115