Ballif, Michelle. — Re/Dressing Histories; Or, On Re/Covering Figures Who Have Been Laid Bare By Our Gaze

Ballif, Michelle. “Re/Dressing Histories; Or, On Re/Covering Figures Who Have Been Laid Bare By Our Gaze.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 22.1 (1992): 91-98.

In this essay, Ballif argues that attempts to rewrite women into histories of rhetoric reinforces the patriarchal, logocentric ideologies that silenced them in the first place (91-92). She argues the “traditional narrative paradigms – namely the Aristotelian Narrative of Linearity and the Freudian Narrative of Triangularity – are used to construct histories which are essentially patronymic and phallogocentric” (Ballif 92). For example, Aristotle requires unified, logical, and ordered narratives with hierarchies (Ballif 92-93). It is easy to see how such a system selects (a few great males) and omits (females in general) in a way that forces a narrative onto the many discontinuous events of history in a way mirroring Hayden White’s process of emplotment. In addition, this process insinuates hypotaxis (Baliff 93) or hierarchies by privileging some information while ignoring other information (otherwise the latter would be considered noteworthy). Freud’s psychoanalysis follows a similar need for unity and wholeness, or triangular shape (Ballif 94).

The metonymy required to construct such logical wholes enables the wholesale exclusion of women, even as some are included in history. When women are permitted into the canon, it is only by forcing them to conform to the violence of what Spivak calls the “tyranny of the proper” by which women are only considered valuable if they conform to the patriarchy (Baliff 92).

She points out the pervasiveness of these ‘good’ stories which are linear, progressive, and involve the ‘curing’ of an ailing protagonist (Ballif 94). This quest for a “unified self” follows the tradition of liberal humanism (Ballif 94-95). She argues that these narrative traditions are not natural but rather support patriarchal, hierarchical ideologies (Ballif 95). Therefore, attempting to write women into these histories is essentially unproductive because it does not challenge this “phallogocentric economy” that oppresses them (Ballif 95).

Her solution to this problem seems to be histories that tell of difference and follows Foucault’s example: they need to be told “genealogically […] local discontinuous, and illegitimate knowledges” in his words (Ballif 95). She argues that these “little narratives constructed moment by kairotic moment” could “unthank the Aristotelian and Freudian Grand Narratives of history” (Ballif 96). Rather than adding women to these monolithic histories, which would force them to conform to the patriarchy, we should revise the entire narrative structure (Ballif 96). She says it well when she claims, “Adding women to history is not synonymous with adding women’s history” (Ballif 96). Rather than revisionary histories or embarking on recovery efforts, we need “alternative paradigms, […] new idioms, by paralogical and paratactical and, thus, illegitimate discourses” (Ballif 96). Ballif argues that the subject can’t be “coherent, unified, and whole” without outright arguing against the individual as Beisecker does (96).

This essay helps us rethink how histories are constructed, acknowledging the violence required to create monolithic, unified accounts of the past. Our current paradigms require the exclusion and subsequent silencing of marginalized groups. This erasure of particular histories from the public memory is not always innocent, but rather privileges particular members of society. Her work helps us reconsider such acts of exclusion as a form of insidious, epistemic violence. Ballif’s revelation requires us to reconsider everything from how history textbooks are written, to what types of stories make the news.

In addition, her “tyranny of the proper” resists neoliberal beliefs that all humans, regardless of their socioeconomic conditions, can overcome systems of oppression if they simply work hard enough. Instead, it acknowledges that power structures often sponsor particular marginalized individuals if their inclusion in history conforms to cultural narratives that ultimately support the status quo. For example, celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. foster a sense of racial progressiveness in the U.S., even as many systems of oppression remain in place.

– Ashley Hughes

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