Political Bodies and a Touch of Pain: An Interview with Darlene Juschka, Part 1

Darlene Juschka is a cross-appointed Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Regina, in Saskatchewan Canada. Juschka is well-published in both fields; her works include Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader, (ed. 2001) and Political Bodies/Body Politic: The Semiotics of Gender (2009), along with many articles and chapters for books. In her more recent work she has focused on the ideology of gender/sex in the Eurowest and its deployment in multiple sites through myth, ritual and sign-symbol. Her current research offers a post-structuralist analysis of pain in the Eurowest, which we will touch upon in the second part of this interview (see here).

Matt Sheedy: In your book Political Bodies/Body Politic: The Semiotics of Gender, you set out to develop a semiotics of gender/sex in order to better understand (and critique) how this type of formulation is coded in the modern world. With this thesis in mind, could you say something about the main theorists that guide your thinking?

Darlene Juschka: I like that question Matt because it allows me to discuss the various theorists who have influenced my work. I think I would be inclined to break these influences into areas so that it becomes evident how these people assisted in my development of the semiotics of gender/sex.


I really can’t name all the feminists who have influenced me, and so the list I am providing has been abridged. First off, those feminists I’ve been taught by and worked with are important, such as Marsha Hewitt who shaped the critical edge of my feminism and introduced me to critical theory.  In many ways, then, Dr. Hewitt shaped the feminist path I would take. Equally, JoAnn Aiken, another professor of mine during my PhD, set the ground in feminist literary criticism that allowed me to think in terms of signs and discourse, and not things.

In terms of feminist authors, Christine Delphy’s argument that gender goes before sex and indeed it is gender that provides the ideological apparatus that defines sex was important since generally feminisms of the “second wave” tended to treat gender as mutable, but sex as fixed. Linda Nicholson asked about the coat-rack of sex to which gender is affixed, while Delphy did a complete deconstruction of the play between gender and sex, the problems therein. This was important for my theory of the semiotics of gender in that I was able to argue that all three domains are products of discourse.

Joan Scott’s feminist poststructural work engaged the concept/category of experience, as it was playing out at the time (1990s), and demonstrated that experience could not be separated from the social and historical, and indeed experience is shaped by the contexts we occupy. So, for example, that I might identify an experience of gender/sex oppression only makes sense within the context of feminist theory because feminist theory names it as oppression.

Judith Butler’s work on performance added the final piece I needed to begin to define how I understood gender/sex. Linked with critical theory and Stanley Tambiah’s work on performance in ritual, Butler’s work made absolute sense to me. Butler’s work on gender and the body allowed me to see myth, ritual and sign-symbol as a representational narratives.  Since reading Butler, folks like Donna Haraway, Anne McClintock, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Sara Ahmed and others exert their influence on my work. Currently, I spend time reading postcolonial theories of the poststructural bend.

Critical theory

The Frankfurt School introduced to me by Marsha Hewitt was central to my work on understanding ideology – in the specific sense of mystification of social relations. It was during this time of my PhD work that I began to read Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, all of whom, as the fathers of suspicion, call into question ruling systems and their deployment of ideology. However, it really wasn’t until I read some of the work of Slavoj Žižek, Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan, while writing my dissertation, that I understood better the process of being an object/subject in ideology. This then allowed for increased critical analysis and indeed moved me away from the standpoint of feminist epistemology to feminist poststructuralism.


I’ve always been interested in systems and their structures, particularly how myth, ritual and sign-symbol play out therein. Ferdinand D. Saussure, Emile Durkheim, Claude Levis Strauss, J. Z. Smith and Bruce Lincoln exerted a strong influence on how I approached my analyses.  If you look at the schematics I use you can see this influence, and equally my focus on language as modeling and not simply communicative is very much a structuralist position.  Understanding language as constitutive and constituting of existence is at the center of my work. But under the influence of poststructuralism I extended language to include all forms of representation.

Poststructuralism Sexuality/Queer Theory

Again, during the work of my dissertation, so in the mid-to-late 1990s, I encountered the works of Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault and with both I knew I had my way into my dissertation work on myth, ritual and sign-symbol, and it remains my way now, although I have nuanced the work of both to fit mine. By this I mean that I disagreed with aspects of their theorizing; Bathes’ view that scientific narrative was non-ideological, and Foucault’s that power deploys evenly through social bodies in terms of effects. Instead, like other poststructuralists like Chris Weedon and Stuart Hall, I held to my neo-Marxist view that power in some hands can be far more destructive than in other hands, e.g., the military, the elite etc., as they have the resources to create a greater effect. Hayden White and Michel de Certeau have also had an influence on my work in terms of the deconstructive reading of a text, something he exceled at and I used as a model for my own work.

Linked to my poststructural theoretical development is queer theory, which is itself markedly shaped by feminisms and poststructuralism. Gayle Rubin, Michel Foucault, Gilbert Herd, Angela Carter, all influenced my efforts to think about the discursive framing of sexuality linked to gender/sex, race, class, and geopolitical location. My work on the category of sexuality commenced when I developed and began to teach a Women’s and Gender Studies course entitled Mapping Sexualities: From Sappho to Madonna.  I happily read Butler, David Halperin, Eve Sedgwick, and Thomas Laqueur, among others, and it was really this aspect that allowed to me completely deconstruct gender/sex  as a category of analysis and to theorize how it acts as a discourse that profoundly shapes, and often limits, all our lives.

Matt Sheedy: In your book you draw on the categories of myth, ritual and  sign-symbol in order to help explain how gender/sex is given shape within the “body politic,” so to speak. This follows from your adherence to Marxist materialism, where the social realm, as the site of all human production, is seen to mediate between the metaphysical and the biological domains. In this sense, myth is produced through social relations, manifesting in rituals via human bodies (biological) and sign-symbols (metaphysical). Could you say something about these dynamics and how they play out in relation to formulations of the bodies of both women and men.

Darlene Juschka: Well the first thing I’d say is that this is how I theorize these dynamics – so my argument is never one where I claim an objective position. So with this in mind, I’d emphasize that all the domains belong to the social, but myth is the one that is represented as emerging from this domain. The biological and the metaphysical domains are those used to anchor myth to truth, e.g., hierarchy is a fact of nature according to late 19th and early 20th centuries social Darwinism or deity(ies) established this mode of being as seen in the great chain of being.

When, for example, we have an Ancient Athenian mytheme whereby girls/women suffer from a wondering womb, a thing which rises up and chokes her, we have adjoining ritual (biological domain) and sign-symbol (metaphysical) that give credence to the mytheme.  In terms of ritual, we find marriage at a very young age for those marked as female and a much older age for those marked as male. Equally, during the festival for Dionysus, the Anthesteria, on the last day of the festival one rite enacted was that of young girls swinging. The myth commonly associated with this rite was that of Erigone, who hung herself after her father Ikarius was dismembered by farmers after having given them the gift of wine. But equally linked to this rite of swinging is the idea of an unmarried young girl’s self-destructive act (Erigone), something that evokes the threatening and risk filled time of the female’s transition to reproductive status (represented by the wandering womb). The representation of young girls’ swinging is embodied in ritual and acts as sign-symbol of this precarious time. Equally, it was further deployed as a motif that gave credence to the truth of the narrative of the female/feminine as threatened and threatening.

In the Athenian context, the female/feminine must of necessity be contained and controlled within the family – however that is manifested among differing statuses of people in ancient Athens. As for those marked male/masculine, theirs will be a different set of representations that intersect with the normative rules of maleness and masculinity that operate in this context. In relation to this mytheme, the properly masculine man must be in control since “she” is incapable of self-control. Young men must come to this masculinity by and through intersecting with older proper Athenian men. They cannot and must not be ruled by the female/feminine (there are of course exceptions, for example Pericles and Aspasia) and if he is, his is a failed masculinity.  Marriage at a much later age, generally the 30s, was prescribed for the Athenian male. Intersecting, upholding, and legitimating, myth, ritual, and sign-symbol are powerful devices that provide and support ontological paradigms in the past, as in Athens, and in the present.

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