July 14, 2008

Armstrong and Tennenhouse on the Violence of Representation: The Example of Jane Eyre

Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre

In the introduction to the volume, Violence and Representation (titled ‘Representing violence, or “how the west was won”’), Armstrong and Tennenhouse begin by considering the changes in attitudes to literary criticism at the time (published 1989). They note that ‘[f]or criticism that once questioned the whole literary enterprise to have found a comfortable home within the humanities means that the literary criticism essentially hostile to it has performed some subtle but profound act of appropriation’ (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 1989: 1). This change seems to have occurred as scholars extended ‘literary critical methods into new areas which have never been read before […] lining ideology to figuration, politics to aesthetics, and tropes of ambiguity and irony to instances of ambivalence and forms of political resistance’ (Ibid.). What Armstrong and Tennenhouse are concerned about is maintaining political self-consciousness in considering literary representations and engaging in criticism.

The volume that emerges out of this aspiration focuses on ‘western, European’ traditions, especially the Anglo-American. The authors agree that violence can be located ‘at very different places within cultural production,’ but that the feminists included in the volume divide into two ‘camps’: those who ‘are interested in the symbolic practices through which one group achieves and the others resist a certain form of domination at a given place or moment in time’; and those who believe that ‘writing is not so much about violence as a form of violence in its own right’ (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 1989: 2).

To explain this theorising of the violence of representation, Armstrong and Tennenhouse give the example of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, which they use to shed light on ‘a definition of violence,’ linking to de Lauretis’ idea that ‘the discourse of theory, whatever its ideological bent, constitutes a from of violence in its own right in so far as it maintains a form of domination – “that of the male or male-sexed subject”’ (A&T 1989: 3). Armstrong and Tennenhouse wish to critique ‘the power of this discourse’ using Jane Eyre, because it is a novel that ‘exemplifies the other (feminine) half of liberal discourse’ (A&T 1989:4). The critics explain that as a kind of liberal feminist text, Jane Eyre conforms to certain conventions and yet it resists them too:

Much like fiction that participates in dominant discourse – as virtually all canonized or “literary” fiction does – literary feminism generally accedes to the terms of a rationalist, social science discourse that locates political power in men, in their labor [sic], in the institutions they run, or else in certain forms of resistance to men or their institutions. Our reading of Jane Eyre suggests that while these constitute the acknowledged domain of political power, the site of its agency, the theatre [sic] of its events, and thus the source of historical change, such power is not necessarily that which actually shapes people’s lives in the novel; another source of power proves equally if not more compelling. (A&T 1989: 4)

Armstrong and Tennenhouse suggest that although Jane Eyre’s world is dominated by men, these men lose their power through events such as Jane’s uncle dying and Rochester’s diminishment: ‘In relation to these masculine modalities of power, Jane is the triumphant underdog’ (A&T 1989: 4). Armstrong and Tennenhouse know that Jane is lacking in social power with its accoutrements of family, money, professional position and beauty. However she ‘can read, speak, and write’ and this allows her to slowly develop a community of likeminded readers. Armstrong and Tennenhouse are adamant that ‘the violence of an earlier political order maintained by overt forms of social control gives way to a more subtle kind of power that speaks with a mother’s voice and works through the printed word upon mind and emotions rather than body and soul’ (A&T 1989: 4).

Writing depth: difference as otherness
Armstrong and Tennenhouse start thinking about violence in Jane Eyre by noting the violence represented as ‘“out there” in the world on the other side of Jane’s words’ (A&T 1989: 5). This is encountered through ‘bad relatives, bad teachers, bad suitors, and more generally, a bad class of pwople who have control over her life,’ a class of people whose ‘capacities of self are inferior to hers’ (A&T 1989: 5). In confronting characters such as these, Jane Eyre must use the power of speech and language, e.g. in her early encounters with Mrs. Reed. Armstrong and Tennenhouse believe that Bronte’s project was to create a heroine to outdo her sisters ‘by accomplishing everything that they [her sister’s heroine’s] did without money, status, family, good looks, good fortune, or even a pleasant disposition’ (A&T 1989: 6). In the creation of such a heroine, ‘violence is an essential element’ (A&T 1989: 6).

Why is violence essential? Well, Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue that ‘[e]ach time Jane is confined to a room, kept at the bottom of a social hierarchy, silenced, or humiliated, we have more evidence that there is something already there to be confined, silenced, or humiliated, something larger than its container, grander than any social role, more eloquent for all its honesty than those who presume to speak for it, and noble beyond their ken’ (A&T 1989: 6). This idea of the emergence of self through its very suppression is linked to Foucault’s theorising in The History of Sexuality I. Here Foucault writes about the contingency of self and the discovery of nineteenth century authors that ‘a regressive hypothesis’ of the suppressed self could become a more productive one. Armstrong and Tennenhouse use this idea to read Jane Eyre describing Jane’s fight against suppression and restriction as ‘a discursive strategy for producing depths in the individual – what we have come to think of as the real Jane herself – that have been stifled in order for society to exist’ (A&T 1989: 6-7). Armstrong and Tennenhouse conclude that in Jane’s discourse, ‘there is always more there than discourse expresses, a self on the other side of words, bursting forth in words, only to find itself falsified and diminished because standardized and contained within the categories contained within the aggregate of “society”’ (A&T 1989: 7).

In this reading, Jane is far from powerless. Armstrong and Tennenhouse even suggest that Jane manages to ‘ reconstruct[s] the universe around the polarities of Self and Other,’ fighting back in the violence of language (A&T 1989: 7). For example, in describing Blanche Ingram (Rochester’s supposed betrothed), Jane ‘deftly inverts Blanche’s position of social superiority to Jane by employing an alternative system of value based on natural capacities of self’ (A&T 1989, 7). Jane’s abilities in speaking are enough to silence those Others who would restrict, suppress or diminish her.

To earn the status of narrator, she [Jane] must overcome Blanche, Mrs Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, virtually everyone and anyone who stands in her way. This is the violence of the productive hypothesis: the violence of representation. To be sure, every mode of identity contending with Jane’s identity as a self-produced self poses a threat to that self. But in order for her to emerge as the knowledgeable spokesperson of other identities, these differences must be there and reveal themselves as a lack, just as Blanche ceases to be another person and become a non-person. The same process that creates Jane’s “self” positions “others” in a negative relationship to that self. The violence of representation is the suppression of difference. (A&T 1989: 8).

Jane eschews social power ‘as if her status as an exemplary subject, like her authority as narrator, depends entirely on her claim to a kind of truth which can only be made from a position of powerlessness’ (A&T 1989: 8).

Writing culture; how the representation of violence became the violence of representation

In response to their analysis of Jane Eyre, Armstrong and Tennenhouse note that they have made ‘a crude distinction between two modalities of violence: that which is “out there” in the world, as opposed to that which is exercised through words upon things in the world’ (A&T 1989: 9). In Bronte’s novel, this latter violence of representation ‘appears […] in its most benign, defensive, and nearly invisible form – a power one can use without even calling it such’ (A&T 1989: 9). One problem with the idea of the volume itself, according to Armstrong and Tennenhouse is the sense in which they as writers are ‘implicated in the very form of power [they] set about to critique’ (A&T 1989: 10). The editors admit: ‘Like Jane, we tend to think of ourselves as outside the field of power, or at least we write about “it” as if it were “out there.” That is to say, we situate ourselves in a “female” position relative to the discourses of law, finance, technology, and political policy. From such a position, one may presume to speak both as one of those excluded from the dominant discourse and for those so excluded. But doing so, we would argue, is no more legitimate than Jane Eyre’s claim to victim status’ (A&T 1989: 10). What the real project should be is the ‘tracing [of] the history of our own authority along with that of the modern subject’ (A&T 1989: 10).

Armstrong and Tennenhouse now summarise what essays and included and how they work within the scheme of the collection. It is well worth looking up these interesting essays, including de Lauretis’ essay on the violence of representation. However, what is very interesting is the way in which Armstrong and Tennenhouse sum up the focus and importance of the essays:

If these essays can be said to demonstrate a single point it is this: that a class of people cannot produce themselves as a ruling class without setting themselves off against certain Others. Their hegemony entails possession of the key cultural terms determining what are the right and wrong ways to be a human being. With this in mind, we have tried to provide some sense of the detailed process by which certain people, a relatively small group, at different times produced the Other in specific ways. In so articulating our project as a collective project, we want to insist that what we have offered is a story about the production of a culture-specific subject and only a very partial one at that; it suggests very few of what we believe were the myriad ways in which differences were suppressed in the process and positioned in a negative relationship to the ruling-class self. In this respect, our narrative will inevitably reproduce the very behaviour [sic] it set out to historicize. It will exclude points of view that are not of the dominant race, gender, class, and ethic group. (A&T 1989: 24)

Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse. 1989. ‘Representing violence, or “how the west was won”.’ The Violence of Representation: Literature and the history of violence. Ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse. London: Routledge. 1-26.

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