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Laura Mandell. Misogynous Economies: The Business of Literature in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999. ISBN 0 8131 2166 7. Price: $42.

  • Jacqueline Labbe

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  • Jacqueline Labbe
    University of Warwick

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In Misogynous Economies, Laura Mandell argues that misogyny is neither aimed at "real women" nor "necessary," but that instead it functions to allow the formation of a masculine literary canon by associating the disgusting body with women and thereby freeing men from corporeality. The end result is that men's writing, especially in the eighteenth century, achieves transcendence, and readers of such writing themselves come to know the gift of the loss of the body. By "abjecting" women's bodies, women's texts also become embodied, and therefore relinquish their hold on the aesthetic. The end result is a canon composed of men's texts, and the "forgetting" of women's. When we read texts, we are in certain ways participating in misogyny; not to do so requires an understanding that aesthetic value itself depends on misogyny. Although she does not use the term, Mandell seems to mean institutional misogyny; like institutional racism, this is less an active hostility than a passive, thoughtless acceptance of the status quo. The "business of literature," then, is predicated on the rejection of the female.

This is a difficult book, and in many ways an exciting one. Deeply indebted to Freud and to a lesser extent to Laplanche, the book can be hard reading; sentences are entangled in their own verbiage and there are some notable oddities ("thingified," "to adequate"). The theory itself is complex and takes several readings to clarify, but this is one of the exciting things: Mandell's is not a book to be skimmed and forgotten. It takes concentration and dedication, but both are rewarded. One of the most interesting chapters discusses the rise of the anthology in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, and its direct influence on the formation of a literary canon. The anthology has been attracting attention recently, partly as critics continue to explore previously ignored sources of women's writing. But as Mandell makes clear, there is a signal difference between the "miscellany," which is historically grounded and often contained women's writing, and the "anthology," which seeks to construct a national tradition of writing free of historical constraints, and contained hardly any women's writing. As Mandell argues, this is because of misogyny: women and their bodies had by this time become so associated with the disgusting, the physical, and the temporal that there was simply no way a collection of women's writing could be anything other than a curiosity. Men's writing, on the other hand, defined against women's and hence disembodied, pure, and uncorrupted, was patently of national and atemporal importance. The miscellany/anthology duality is one way of figuring this opposition.

Another is through the clever and not a little confusing application of the terms sadism and sadomasochism to the act of reading. For Mandell, sadomasochistic reading allowed for the assumption of multiple points of views, and characterized the earlier part of the eighteenth century. Sadistic reading, however, clamped down on pleasure and point of view, insisting on singularity. This represents Mandell's ability to open up definitions and apply psychoanalytic language laterally, across concepts. Hence, "people get pleasure from literariness in the same way as does the person who fantasizes a sadomasochistic scene: from continually shifting 'perspective'. To say 'get pleasure from' is, however, to misconstrue the sadomasochistic economy: pleasure is not a return on the investment; it comes from the activity of spending or investing psychic energy, from expending interest" (14). Since this is a book that links the growing dependence on misogyny with the growing construction of literature as "business," the economic terms are not used carelessly. Mandell wants us to see that reading is as much an erotic experience as fantasizing, and that both can be put in the service of capitalism.

The book's other chapters discuss "Misogyny and Literariness: Dryden, Pope, and Swift," "Capitalism and Rape: Thomas Otway's The Orphan," "Engendering Capitalist Desire: Filthy Bawds and Thoroughly Good Merchants in Mandeville and Lillo," "Misogyny and Feminism: Mary Leapor," and "Transcending Misogyny: Anna Letitia Barbauld Writes Her Way Out." Each provides a series of close readings of a variety of texts, canonical and non-canonical, to establish the point that misogyny was a regular player in the literary market. Each, as well, challenges the reader with provocative statements like "In literary history, misogyny and feminism are interdependent: there is a temptation to misogyny in the writing of the a [sic] feminist literary history dedicated to recovering women's voices" (88).

Misogynous Economies is, of course, not perfect. There are the odd phrasings mentioned above, and the presence of typos as in the sentence just quoted. There are times when the argument moves seamlessly from a proposition to a definite; again, the sentence just quoted describes a "temptation to misogyny" but only two pages later this has become "inherent." Occasionally the book seems to forget its own contents: where Chapter 3 discusses Mandeville in some detail, in Chapter 4 the same text is mentioned as if it has not yet cropped up in the discussion. The adherence to Freud and his terminology leads to some pretty dense writing, heavy with jargon and hard to unravel. But overall this is a work of intelligence and originality, proposing that we view misogyny not as the hatred some men feel towards women, but rather as a cultural, and acculturated, force which has infiltrated something perhaps previously viewed as innocent: the act of reading itself. As Mandell concludes, "what makes misogyny virulent is the refusal to understand language's fundamental literariness. Misogynous texts use the figure of woman to abject sexual desire and materiality from the realms of both proper business and great literature" (157). It is up to the critic to release literature from sexism and hence expose misogyny for the unreal, unnecessary blind that it is. Mandell's book provides the template for doing just that.