Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought (Harvard U P)


Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought by A. Bergren
published by the Center for Hellenic Studies, distributed by Harvard University Press (2008)

“Greek women do not speak, they weave,” writes Ann Bergren, Professor of Greek Literature, Literary Theory, and Contemporary Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. This reality appears throughout Weaving Truth, a collection of ten revised essays by Bergren. For those unfamiliar with the classics the book is a dense read, containing a raft of references unfamiliar to this reader. But even for readers who struggle, as I did, to do justice to all the discipline-specific material (often accompanied with a Greek transcription), there are moments certain to be of interest to those thinking about the textile.

Bergren sets the stage when she explains on the first page that “In Greek thought, truth in language has a special relation to the female by virtue of her pre-eminent art form, weaving.” She then moves to consider why language should be thought of in terms of gender, again evoking the textile: “To pursue this question, I will compare this “female” language with the sign-making activity of women par excellence in Greek, namely weaving. This comparison will reveal that the tricky ambivalence ascribed to the speech of women is consonant with the semiotic character of weaving and of graphic art in general, and that it finds its intellectual counterpart in the Greek concept of mêtis or ‘transformative intelligence’.”

Freud’s assertion that women invented weaving to conceal the shameful “castration” represented by the female anatomy is apparent throughout the collection of essays. This line of thinking may, quite fairly, may not be to every reader’s tastes. But if Freud can be put aside (by those that need to, at least), Bergren also deploys the textile in far more complex terms, likening her collection of essays to a “tapestry” and a “text of a text, a graphic translation of Homer’s Odyssey in which Penelope unweaves her weaving of Laertes’ shroud.” In these terms, we can understand Bergren’s writing, as well as her reading, not only to consider the textile, but also to be a textile.

Bergren temporarily suspended her teaching career in 1996 to earn a Master’s of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Chapter 8 “Weaving in Architecture: The Truth of Building” reveals these dual research interests. Here Bergren explains Penelope and Odysseus to be “among its [architecture’s] founding figures… by virtue of their mêtisMêtis means both the working and the work of ‘transformative intelligence.’ It embraces both mental and manual prowess, both language and material.” What better way to also describe the textile, a creative process demanding both mental and manual engagement and a structure that is both a material and a template for structuring text?

It is the latter essays of the collection, which I am assuming are the most recent, that contain the most sustained references to the textile. “Female Fetish Urban Form”, the collection’s final chapter, has been expanded for this publication. Here Bergren considers Aristophanes’ comedy Ecclesiazusae, “in which the women of Athens, under the leadership of their new “general”… disguise themselves as men” and “vote to overturn the male controlled order, putting in its place a ‘communistic gynocracy’.” Bergren notes: “Here articulated for the first time in Western thought is an idea at the heart not only of architecture, but also of sculptural and graphic design – that of space as a distinct aesthetic phenomenon, a relation between solid and void creatable by the deliberate placement of serial repetition of any material object.” Again, perhaps without intention, the structure of woven cloth (solid and void in repetition) is used to communicate observations that can now be applied to broad range of disciplines.

Textile: the Journal of Cloth & Culture (volume 8, issue 2, 2010: 249-250)