The Promise of the Imaginary

The beauty of my research project–of what will grow up big and strong one day to become my dissertation–is the rage that it forces me to convert into something productive.

Ok, “force” is too strong a word. I’ve designed the thing to put me in that position.

That is:

The locus of my research are contemporary evangelical rhetorics of female sexuality and desire. That’s a wank-tastic way of saying that I’m looking at how the evangelical church in the US talks to women about their sexuality and how women in the church talk amongst themselves about their own experiences with sex, gender roles, and desire.

Here’s the trick, though: as a casual glance at this blog (hell, at the previous freaking post!) might suggest, my notions of sexuality and desire don’t fall in neat alignment with those of the Christian church, despite (or perhaps because of?) 18 years in the Southern Baptist faith—an experience my brother neatly dissects here. So the easy move, from a personal and a scholarship perspective, is to spend 150 pages dismissing these rhetorics outright in favor of:

Chad Michael Murray cosplaying as Dean. Obviously.

Because, dude. Come on.

Take this example from a book called The Love Dare, featured in the recent Kirk Cameron direct-to-video flick, Fireproof: The MovieThe purpose of The Love Dare is to present couples with 40 “dares”–activities or conversation starters–to stage over 40 days as they seek a stronger connection. An entirely reasonable purpose (allusions to that pesky Ark aside).

But inscribed within many of these marital Double Dares are explicit assumptions or expectations about gender roles—and, in the case of the example below, the role of women’s fantasies in their everyday lives:

Wives–you have a role as protector in your marriage. You must guard your heart from being led away through novels, magazines, and other forms of entertainment that blur your perception of reality and put unfair expectations on your husband. Instead you must do your part in helping him feel strong, while also avoiding talk-show thinking that can lure your attention away from your family. (Dare #23, “Love Always Protects,” Kendrick 113)

Right. Because “women reading” = “men feeling bad about themselves.” Worse, this dare suggests, implicit in a woman’s act of reading is an inability to separate fiction from reality, one that might encourage her to identify a lack in her relationship with her husband or (gasp) in the man himself.

It reminds me of something Judith Butler talks about in Bodies That Matter; that is, her discussion of the imagination as “authorized” space of resistance:

Disobedience to the law becomes the promise of the imaginary and, in particular, of the incommensurability of the imaginary with the symbolic. But the law, the symbolic, is left intact, even as its authority to compel strict compliance with the ‘positions’ it lays out is called into question. (Butler 106)

In Butler’s reading, the law has recognized the imagination–particular that of women–as a “safe” space of resistance to the law as written, because any resistances staged there can’t be easily translated back into the “real” world of the law (which she also calls “the symbolic”).

I’m glossing here, but let’s carry her construction into The Love Dare example above. In contrast to Butler, the author of The Love Dare suggests that the imagination is never safe in the hands of women, given as they are to succumbing to blurring the imaginary (fed by novels–how very 19th century) and the symbolic (the law of their husbands). In this way, any “resistance” that might occur in a woman’s imagination via her consumption of pop culture is constructed as a clear and present danger to her husband’s symbolic role as the head (as HER head) of household.

The author of The Love Dare is straight-up (ha) scared of a woman’s imagination–at least when she’s in the role of wife–and thinks that you, fair reader, better be frightened, too.

Suffice it say, this tangle of fantasy and reality is one that I’ve come back to again and again, this notion of the female imagination being a contested space whose productive power is a source of fear within the evangelical church. I find this fascinating, particularly given the ongoing angst in feminist circles in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey over what kinds of fantasies are kosher for feminists to embrace. There’s a parallel discussion happening in the evangelical church that also uses Fifty Shades as an axis; see Shannon Ethridge’s The Fantasy Fallacy, for example (it’s actually pretty interesting so far).

But. This means I’m gonna have to actually read Fifty Shades, doesn’t it?



Anyway, from a feminist perspective, a lot of this evangelical discourse on female sexuality is freaking laughable, on its surface. And most of the academic scholarship in my field of rhetoric and writing that takes on texts like these–and believe me, such work is pretty damn scarce–takes just such an approach, a classic feminist missionary trope of: oh, if only we could show women who believe this crap the Truththey’d kick their husbands to the curb and burn the church down to the rafters.

Or a slightly more politic version of that, anyway.

But I’m not interested in taking that approach to these texts, to these evangelical perspectives, even though my first reaction is often one of fire-breathing rage.

Instead, I’m taking an affirmative approach to these texts, to the women who practice and engage in them. That is: my goal is to take a fundamentally rhetorical approach to the texts I’m studying–like this, this, and this. Fundamentally, I want to listen to what these texts are saying and figue out how they’re working, how women in the evangelical community are using them, and to what ends.

But, as the wee example above suggests, it’s going to be a challenge.


Basically, I want to avoid what I see as the easy way out: writing 150 pages of criticism in which I tear these rhetorics apart and explain how we Good Feminists can intervene in the lives of these poor evangelically-minded women who’d really all be better served by embracing their imaginations and taking ownership of their bodies and their desire, damn it, rather than serving themselves up wholesale to their version of God.

I could write that shit right now, but who the hell would care? Rhetoricians wouldn’t give a shit; in general, we stay the hell away from discussions of religion beyond the discursive structures of sermons or something. And evangelical women would, rightly, dismiss me outright.

gtfo cas

As you say.

So I’m going to try something a little different, using my beloved John Muckelbauer‘s notion of affirmative repetition  as a starting point.

Miles to go before I write. Haven’t even taken my comprehensive exams. Hell, I haven’t even finished working through my reading lists yet.

You can understand, I think, why there are times when I feel the need to balance my research with some really smutty porn. Just to keep my imagination on its, uh, toes.

2 thoughts on “The Promise of the Imaginary

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