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What Will Ye See in the Shulammite? Women, Power and Panopticism in the Song of Songs

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image of Biblical Interpretation

The Song of Songs, until recently imprisoned in male-dominated allegorical interpretations, has now become an important resource for feminist readers. By and large, these critics have understood the female figure(s) in the Song as its empowered Subject-a reflection of the Song's gynocentric social context. Such readings presuppose that this female Subject is a self-constituting individual. Another approach to the question of the Subject, that of Michel Foucault, results in a different reading of the female Subject of the Song. Foucault's use of the Panopticon serves as a model for reading the Song. The Panopticon, an ideal prison, renders prisoners constantly and unavoidably available to be watched by an unseen watcher. The prisoners thus assume they are always being watched and become their own guards; they internalize the disciplinary gaze. By doing so, they are constituted as Subjects within a field of power relations. The Shulammite is, in this reading, shown to be the object of a male gaze from which she cannot escape, unlike the male figure. Thus she becomes a Subject through a regime of discipline. While the female figure is the Subject of the Song, this status does not mean that the Song must be heard as liberating for women. Indeed, just the opposite may be true.

Affiliations: 1: Richmond, Virginia


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