Kaye Mitchell (Manchester) - Constraint and Corporeality: Reading Brooke-Rose and Garréta’s Gendered Experiments (ELCW International Women's Day Lecture)

Wednesday 1 May 2024, 5:00pm to 6:00pm


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Dr Kaye Mitchell, Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, discusses her current research on gender in women's experimental writing.


In this paper, I discuss what have been decried as the ‘masculinist tendencies of most constraint-based writing’ (Elkin and Esposito, 79), in order to identify – and complicate – the gendering of the critical language around experimental writing, which tends to read cognitive and conceptual practices as ‘masculine’ and to associate the feminine with more ‘embodied’ experimental practices. My own approach aims both to challenge this narrow view of constraint as a ‘masculine’ strategy, and to unpick the corollary narrative of unconstraint in women’s experimental writing (i.e. its association with flux/flow/spontaneity/illogic, etc.).

In the first part of the paper, I consider the historical debates around gender, constrained writing, and the Oulipo – including Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s feminist performance critique of the Oulipian constraint, ‘foulipo’. In the second part of the paper I offer readings of Christine Brooke-Rose’s 1968 novel Between and Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (1986; tr. 2015).

In Between, questions of gendered embodiment and identity are inextricable from that novel’s particular ‘constraint’ – the omission of the verb ‘to be’. Brooke-Rose’s novel goes beyond mere conceptual inventiveness in its representation of the female body as translating ‘machine’; the (apparent) rigorous formalism of the linguistic or grammatical constraint in fact facilitates an attention to bodies. In Sphinx, the constraint (the total omission of linguistic markers of gender) produces what Dennis Duncan describes as Sphinx’s ‘profound corporeality’ (2019, 154), rendering desire as ‘carnal’. The constraint in Sphinx stimulates also a linguistic excess, due to the unavailability, in French, of certain verbs; while the multilingual punning of Between repeatedly takes us back to the sound and feel of words – and thus, by extension, to the body.

In these texts, gender itself emerges, in different ways, as a ‘constraint’ – a fraught, rule-governed practice – while the figuring of desire and the body via the use of constraints works to complicate gendered notions of desire as excessive/unconstrained and of the female body as that which always overflows its boundaries. Finally, both novels raise questions about translation as both an embodied practice and as itself ‘a form of writing under constraint’ (Briggs 2006, 43).

Dr. Kaye Mitchell is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Director of the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. She has published three monographs, most recently Writing Shame: Contemporary Literature, Gender and Negative Affect (EUP, 2020). Her editorial publications include a collection of essays on the British author Sarah Waters (Bloomsbury, 2013), a special issue of Contemporary Women’s Writing (2015) on women’s experimental writing, and a co-edited collection of essays (with Nonia Williams), British Avant-Garde Fiction of the 1960s (EUP, 2019). Kaye was for six years the UK editor of the OUP journal, Contemporary Women’s Writing, and is on the editorial board of Open Gender in Germany.


Kaye Mitchell

University of Manchester


Contact Details

Name Catherine Spooner


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