A Review of Sexual Violence in Western Thought and Culture: Chaste Rape by Victor J. Vitanza, 2011; Palgrave Macmillan
Ryan Skinnell, San José State University
(Published: May 31, 2016)
Victor J. Vitanza’s Sexual Violence in Western Thought and Culture: Chaste Rape is incredibly hard to read. The book is expansively theoretical, drawing heavily on postmodernist, poststructuralist, psychoanalytic, critical, cultural, and feminist theories; but Sexual Violence is not hard to read only, or even primarily, because of the playful, postmodern prose. In fact, Vitanza’s signature stylistic disruptions are comparatively limited, at least through the first half of this book. Rather, Sexual Violence is so hard to read because Vitanza’s central claim is relatively easy to understand: rape, sexual abuse, abduction, harassment, and torture (sexual violence) are profoundly linked to habituated ways of thinking, reading, and writing in Western culture (canon formation) which teach people how to treat one another (pedagogy). Sexual Violence in Western Thought and Culture is Vitanza’s attempt to work through the complexities of sexual violence as a cultural practice that pervades Western thinking, reading, and writing.
“It became rather clear to me while writing [Negation, Subjectivity, and The History of Rhetoric],” Vitanza writes, “that rape (sexual violence) was a, if not the, hidden founding principle for the constitution of Western cultures” (xii). This realization is central to Vitanza’s project, and within this claim is a [hidden] double articulation. On one hand, Vitanza argues that rape (sexual violence) is the founding principle of all Western cultures. He makes the powerful case that sexual violence cannot be understood simply as an act of (unwanted) sex, or violence, or even sexual violence, though it is all those things. Nevertheless, the physio-biological acts that constitute rape are inextricably tied up with accounts of Western civilization’s origins. He draws on an extensive catalog of historical, philosophical, and literary texts to demonstrate that the mythical founding events of Western “civilization” are taught via canonized rape narratives deriving from the innumerable abductions and rapes of mythic women: Korê (Persephone); Leda; Helen; Rhea Silvia; the Sabine women; Lucretia; Mary of Nazareth; and countless more (xiii-xiv). Rape narratives serve as a set of common topoi that underwrite Western cultures (xiii).
On another hand, Vitanza argues that despite the ubiquity of sexual violence as a constitutive topos, or in fact because of it, rape is hidden and silenced—made chaste—by the supposedly redemptive consequences for Western civilization. Civilization (community) is celebrated and the acts of sexual violence on which cultures are founded are silenced (made chaste) by virtue of this celebration. Put differently, to confront the rape of the Vestal is to challenge Rome’s glory. Consequently, Vitanza writes, “[N]o act is more impossible to think, read, write than rape” (xii). Rape is impossible to think, read, and write because it hides chastely in plain sight. The combination of: (1) countless daily acts of real sexual violence, (2) canonized rape narratives, and (3) frequent affirmations of community-building resulting from the trauma of rape, silences critical discussions—including survivors’ testimonies—about sexual violence.
Sketched in these terms chaste rape may be seen as merely a philosophical quandary, but Vitanza identifies this book’s exigency as something different. According to Vitanza, the canonized spectacles of sexual violence against mythic women permit, and in fact teach, members of the “community” of Western civilization how and who to rape. Rape narratives are pedagogical. Vitanza contends that rape is linked to Western ideas of subject-formation, and rape narratives persistently teach the lesson that one is either a rapist (subject/citizen) or a victim (object/abject). These lessons are realized in daily, mundane, punitive acts of sexual violence. Putting an end to rape, then, requires rewriting the foundations of Western civilization that inculcate rape culture. The arguments about rape narratives as pedagogy will not be exactly new to many people, especially feminist, queer, and trans scholars who write about rape and/in culture, but Vitanza’s proposal to rewrite the Western canon explores uncommon territory.
Vitanza outlines the above thesis, plus his methods and goals, at some length in the “Preface” of Sexual Violence. He then works through the implications in a mixture of chapters and not-exactly-chapters. A quick disclaimer about the “Preface”: a colleague of mine accessed Sexual Violence as an e-book through his university library, and the “Preface” was not included. The preface is, however, an indispensible touchstone for making sense of the larger project, and I strongly urge readers to find a copy of the text that includes it.
Following the preface is the introduction, “The Basement: Toward a Reintroduction”—a 26-page “orientation.” If the preface is the theoretical touchstone, the “Reintroduction” is the corresponding emotional/material touchstone. In it, Vitanza conducts a close study of Kate Millet’s The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice, a historical reconstruction of the imprisonment, torture, and murder of sixteen-year old Sylvia Likens. Vitanza warns readers that it “will not be chaste writing by Millet or by me and consequently not chaste reading by any means” (1). He is true to his word—it is explicit. Sylvia was imprisoned and tortured for four months in 1965 by her putative caretaker, Gertrude Baniszewski. Through threat of retribution, Gertrude enlisted the help of neighborhood children, including Sylvia’s sister, to participate in Sylvia’s torture.
Millet describes the sexual violence against Sylvia in “obsessive” detail, and Vitanza quotes Millet at length. I will not rehearse the details here, but I do not avoid Millet and Vitanza’s descriptions because they are gratuitous. Nauseating though they may be, they are not gratuitous. Vitanza revisits Millet revisiting Sylvia and Gertrude in order to draw out the salient themes of sexual violence, pedagogy, and canonization that serve to orient readers to the larger project of Sexual Violence. He elaborates these themes throughout the “Reintroduction.” This opening section of Sexual Violence is grotesque, horrifying, and haunting in its details. But it is also sadly familiar, no less so because of its uncanny timeliness. When I first read this book about a girl tortured to death in 1965, the news was filled with stories about Ariel Castro’s so-called “House of Horrors,” where several young girls were imprisoned, tortured, and raped over a decade until they were freed in May 2013. Crimes in which women are abducted, enslaved, sexually abused, stripped of humanity—“wasted” in Vitanza’s formulation—are commonplace.
Such crimes are unthinkable. But for Vitanza, these “unthinkable” acts of sexual violence rehearse well-worn, even banal, scripts, which are reinforced (canonized) by medico-scientific, criminological, and judicial protocols. According to these scripts, targets of sexual violence, usually women and/or children, are sacrificed for pedagogical goals: to teach victims, as well as witnesses, their “proper” place. Gertrude and the neighborhood children “teach” Sylvia the consequences of female sexuality, Gertrude and Sylvia “teach” the neighborhood children that girls should be “proper,” and all together they teach readers again and again about the traumatic ordinariness of sexual violence. As I noted, this introductory section is the material touchstone that counterbalances Vitanza’s theoretical touchstone in the preface. Sylvia and Gertrude reappear at various points throughout the remainder of Sexual Violence as Vitanza recalls readers’ attention to the material consequences of the theoretical work he is undertaking.
In Chapter One, Vitanza embarks more directly on his theoretical investigation. He returns again to the problems raised in the “Preface” regarding thinking, reading, and writing rape. Chapter One is assembled around two provocative questions: “who, if anyone, can seek justice [for rape] in the name of vengeance?” and “who can and cannot write about rape?” (29). In answer to the first question, Vitanza writes, “Often, thinking-reading-writing rape is an alibi for revenge” (29). Revenge, however, is not restricted to rapist and victim, especially since victims are silenced. The community that results from sexual violence exacts revenge, but not justice; and the process of exacting revenge causes additional suffering and additional violence.
In confronting the second question, “who can and cannot write about rape,” Vitanza directly addresses the most likely criticisms of his book: how can he, as a man who has not been raped, discuss rape? How can he discuss rape as a philosophical-rhetorical problem when it is a physical-material trauma for so many women? These questions are as necessary as they are unavoidable. “My counterquestion to those who ask me ‘why?’—and I am constantly asked—is: Why aren’t you writing about rape? How can you not!” (34-35). As it stands, victims cannot be heard but non-victims cannot talk about rape either. It is a double bind in which victims are the only people who can legitimately (authoritatively) talk about sexual violence, but the community of non-victims cannot hear them. Sexual violence is, in Jean-François Lyotard’s formulation, a differend. Vitanza’s discussion of who can and cannot write about rape is far more elaborate and nuanced than this summary can possibly indicate, and although it may not convince all his critics, no one can accuse him of proceeding carelessly. In addition to providing a deeper sense of his exigency, answering these questions allows Vitanza to ask a larger guiding question: how do we think, read, write rape?
In Chapter Two, Vitanza revisits Millet to explore new directions for thinking-reading-writing rape. He casts the sexual violence against Sylvia Likens as “the most typical, for it includes all that rape can be,” (59) including a female rapist, and describes it in terms of a sacrificial economy. Vitanza argues that Sylvia’s rape and murder can be read as a (virtuous) sacrifice in the service of community building. The shared sense of connection, grief, and revenge that arises from Sylvia’s death and Gertrude’s punishment seems to transcend the physical torture. In other words, any number of communities (legal, scholarly, victim's rights, and so on) can claim some measure of success because Gertrude was brought to justice. But Sylvia is still sacrificed. Moreover, her sacrifice was a necessary condition for founding these communities of which she cannot be a part. Reading Sylvia’s rape as sacrifice enables “us” to transcend her physical suffering in the attempt to create community around shared meaning.
Following Chapter Two, Vitanza digresses. “Excursus: The Assessment-Test Event” is a transition between the first and second half of the book. Presented as a bullet-pointed list, Vitanza issues a series of questions that recall end-of-chapter assessment questions in textbooks. Among them: “Why does Vitanza introduce Chaste Rape with a reading of Kate Millet’s The Basement?” (97) and “Now that you have read and reread-studied Vitanza’s Chaste Rape, go write your own book on thinking-reading-writing rape” (100).1 These questions will no doubt strike some readers as unbecoming the seriousness of sexual violence. They seem inappropriate and improper. As I reread the excursus to write this review, I caught myself not wanting to answer Vitanza’s “improper” questions about rape. I did not want to think about real rapes, honestly, including those discussed in the first half of the book. I will not purport to guess Vitanza’s intent, but I cannot help but think that my resistance to his questions enacts the will to silence he has been describing. I announce it here not to indicate that I overcame this will to silence, but as an occasion to restate my opening claim about how hard reading this book is. In some ways Sexual Violence resists being read. Reading it is to be confronted by provocations—rapes—that one would prefer not to confront, but which are nevertheless always already lurking.
Following his excursus, Vitanza recommences with theorizing a non-sacrificial economy. In the first half of the book, Vitanza’s writing is relatively restrained, and he is at his most evocative as a consequence. In the second half, Vitanza’s signature performative disruptions are more prominent. He works by way of paralogics of conduction, nomadic drifting, and heuretic (choral) invention to investigate and confront the philosophical foundations of chaste rape. The second half is less affecting, but it is more theoretically nimble, and frankly, more hopeful.
In Chapter Three, Vitanza turns his attention to Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis to investigate possibilities for resisting the symptoms associated with sexual violence. He contends that Freud connected rape to pedagogy and canonization through seduction theory early in his career. Later, however, Freud retracted his theory of adults seducing children and replaced it with infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex—children seducing adults. Vitanza theorizes Freudians’ consequent reliance on a sacrificial economy, which Vitanza calls (following Avital Ronell) an “Oedi-pedagogy,” to explain hysteria, obsession, and neurosis. This pedagogy sadly rehearses the sacrificial formation of communities and silencing of sexual abuse victims.
Through the first three chapters, Vitanza demonstrates the pervasiveness of chaste rape, its inextricable links to sexual violence, and the need for new connections. In Chapter Four, he asks: if rape is endemic to Western civilization, how do we see new possibilities? Vitanza introduces theories of topology, which concern “re(con)figuring the shape of natural objects, bringing into existence what has not been in nature except by mistake, or adaptation, mutation, due to coding errors” (148). He gives as examples Möbius strips and Klein jars, which introduce impractical disruptions to “natural” epistemic practices. By practicing topology, we can use old materials to begin to see in completely new ways.
Vitanza takes up topologies in his final chapter, “Excursus: Rebeginnings.” This chapter is vintage Vitanza. He makes the case for drifting, oscillating, and refolding excesses—this excursus is a rumination on and invitation to discovering third places that resist canon/ization and pedagogies of sexual violence. Vitanza’s ultimate goal is to rewrite Western civilization by writing “what was not,” which involves rewriting Western civilization through imaginative amplifications that do not begin with sexual violence, and which enable the elaboration of a corresponding non-sacrificial pedagogy. It is with this hopeful proposition that Vitanza leaves us.
Typically reviews summarize a book’s thesis and contents and suggest its contributions. I have summarized at length, and the contributions to the field—any field, really—should be clear as well, because we are all implicated in the pedagogy of sexual violence. Given its incitement to ending sexual violence, I am somewhat surprised this book has not been more widely reviewed, and anyone who thinks, reads, and writes about Western civilization in any capacity would be well served by reading it. The analysis of writing and thought in Western civilization make it particularly relevant to scholars of rhetoric, philosophy, media, trauma, rape, and rape culture.
What remains, then, is my brief evaluation. Frankly, I want people to read Sexual Violence. Since finishing it, I regularly find myself reading other texts through the lens of chaste rape. As a father and husband, I often find myself thinking about Sylvia. As a teacher of rhetoric, I think more frequently about how I represent Helen, Lucretia, Mary, and others. I think this is a good outcome. And yet, the truth is I hesitate to “recommend” Sexual Violence in Western Thought and Culture: Chaste Rape. I cannot imagine teaching it, especially to undergraduates, and I feel vulnerable even admitting to having read it. I can only envision discussing it in the most philosophical—i.e., chaste—terms. I have slowly come to realize (with prompting) that my “chaste” feelings about this book are not inseparable from the authority I claim as father, husband, (male) teacher—I can afford chastity. But this is exactly Vitanza’s point—no one can “afford” chastity. Everyone pays for it. What ultimately makes this book so challenging and so significant, then, is also the central dilemma of reviewing it: readers must inhabit the unchaste writing of Sexual Violence to realize its full effects, but recommending the habitation of unchaste writing and thinking about rape is a scary—even potentially dangerous—act, even for people like me who otherwise oppose sexual violence. Which is to say, I strongly recommend that Sexual Violence in Western Thought and Culture be read widely, but I am still coming to grips with the fact that I shudder to do so.
Ronell, Avital. 2002. Stupidity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Vitanza, Victor J. 1997. Negation Subjectivity, and The History of Rhetoric. Albany: SUNY Press.
- 1. Kendall Gerdes pointed out to me by that Avital Ronell, who Vitanza cites often, does the same sort of assessment test in her book, Stupidity.