istory not continuous but cumulative. The records of the past are
left succeeding generations to read or not read, to burn or e√ace,
to ignore or to comb anxiously in search of signs of what the future
bring. Memories are annulled and trauma thrust back into the
recesses of the unconscious, where each succeeding generation locates a
new place to rethink its preoccupations against the background of a half-
forgotten past. Progressive history is written retrospectively. This mono-
graph draws attention to the intermittent quality of ongoing historical
events. The book is a history of the discontinuous accumulation of feminist
enlightenment in China in the past century and a consideration of the
theoretical labor that went into forging each new element of the modern
normative political order.
Over the years I devised a way of reading historical evidence for catachre-
ses. Conventionally, catachresis refers to a particular misuse of a proper
noun, where the term’s referent is, theoretically or philosophically speak-
ing, inadequate. A historical catachresis is my way of taking advantage of
the ellipsis and making its analytic inadequacy a positive value. When
reconsidered as historical catachresis, ubiquitous, descriptive, proper nouns
become legible repositories of social experience. For instance, the cata-
chreses nüxing and funü are pivotal in this history of women in Chinese
feminism. I do not read these terms textually or intertextually, however. I
read them historically: I stress their heterogeneous contents as well as their
centrality and instability, what historians would call contingency. I also
demonstrate the roles these terms have played in policy. This reinforces my
contention that historical catachreses’ power is political because these
figures are mediated or thought experience.
Like Raymond Williams’ notion of the key word, historical catachresis
stresses the specificity and singularity of people’s everyday norms or nor-
malized experience. Like Foucault’s genealogy, the histories of catachreses
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