All entries for June 2006

June 24, 2006

Woolfian Boundaries: 16th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf

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Carol Dell' Amico, California State University
'The bounds of sympathy: Mrs Dalloway and Mcewan's Saturday '

Dell' Amico defines Mrs Dalloway and Saturday as flâneur novels and using Glissant’s The Poetics of Relation describes these books as ‘texts of errantries. The protagonists are global wanders that consolidate their root identity through wandering. Thus Joyce’s Ulysses becomes a novel of Irish independence. There are relational root identities: groups, polarities etc. The flâneur leaves home in order to find selfhood.

Dell’ Amico discusses the ironic shipping out of English identity in Mrs Dalloway and points out that it relies on many stereotypes of English life: different classes and ethnicities. A relation is set up between the self and other selves, nations and other nations.

In Saturday, the central character of Henry Perowne is rather like Clarissa Dalloway, while his double in the piece – the working class Baxter – becomes a Septimus Smith type figure. In this book, the relationship between self and nation are problematised: how should one respond to other nations? Mcewan describes Perowne walking through a fish market and imagining the howls of anguish that would be heard if fish could express their suffering. Here is the question of moral sympathy and how to extend it to fish, foxes and Jihadists?

Interestingly, both books present reactions to a world crisis: the Armenian crisis in Clarissa Dalloway’s case and the attack on the World Trade Centre in that of Henry Perwone.
Dell’Amico heer brings in the example of when Clarissa Dalloway thinks of (what now is known to be) the Armenian genocide. Can Clarissa care about more than the local and personal?

And people would say, ‘Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt’. She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again) – no she couldn’t feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? But she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?) – the only flowers she could bear to see cut.

Here Dell’ Amico brings in Saul Bellow’s Herzog and its notions of suffering. She notes the courtroom scene in which Moses watches the abusers and the abused and is overwhelmed with empathy for their distress. Are there limits to one’s ability to eradicate suffering? Becoming a sponge for suffering certainly results in paralysis and madness in this novel.

Why are the characters at the centre of Mrs Dalloway and Saturday bearers of limited sympathy? Is because as in Herzog , to feel unbounded sympathy is untenable? In spite of their limits, Clarissa Dalloway and Henry Perowne are open to be being touched, to being sympathetic yet this remains within the limits of the local and personal. This however is a way of reforming the world even if it is in a local, personal sense.

Jocelyn Slovak
‘Ethel Smyth: Insider or Outsider’

This paper focuses on Dame Ethyl Smyth – composer, musician and suffragist – whom Woolf regarded in an ambivalent manner. I found this paper interesting in relation to my own, because Slovak presents an account by Woolf about Smyth that admires how Smyth ‘loses self–consciousness completely’. As I argue in my paper, to be unconscious of the scrutiny of others is a state much desired by Woolf. Interestingly, Woolf also stated that she loathed egotism and this is the source of her ambivalence about Smyth.

Sophie Blanch, University of Sussex
‘Woolf, writing, wit: pushing back the boundaries of the serious’

Blanch writes this paper to bring out the playfulness and pleasure in Woolf that is often ignored. Humour can be an inflammatory device that performs transformations. Humour is dangerous and laughter is a refusal.

Woolf thought that to have one’s character as a mouthpiece for one’s views would create a distortion and cause weakness. One should be an artist rather than a performer, a butterfly rather than a gadfly. However, many comic techniques performed transformational gender play.

Blanch gives a number of examples. Rose Macauley’s Dangerous Ages in which humour and dislocation coexists in a middle aged lady’s perception of ‘twinkling irony’. In Elizabeth Bowen’s short story, ‘Daffodils’, a spinster school teacher fears being laughed at and The Heat of the Day considers women laughing at other women. Blanch concludes that there is a doubleness between the comic and the serious here that allows the writers to damn certain kinds of behaviour obliquely.

Blanch concludes by noting Woolf’s reaction to Laycock’s study of humour, Frenzied Fictions. In a study (essay or book?), ‘Loud Luaghter’ (1918), Woolf admires the tangled rubbish of the music hall because it has something to do with human nature. She also admires the wit of Stern, Swift and Dorothy Osbourne.

My notes run out here, but I was rather interested in this paper in relation to my own work, because I think that farce is an important part of Mrs Dalloway and Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight . The authors encourage identification with the heroine via a stream of consciousness, yet then that heroine is deflated. Perhaps I need to bring out this farcical element in writing on these books.

June 18, 2006

'The gulf between the arts and New Labour is growing wider'

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See the above article by Martin Kettle, which suggests some worrying political trends regarding cultural value and the funding of the arts.

Thinking is My Fighting

'This idea struck me: the army is the body: I am the brain. Thinking is my fighting.' (From Woolf's diary).

This is a great image. The first idea of 'the army is the body' evokes the embodied self as a swarm of tiny fighting men. The body seems to disintegrate into the individuals that make up the whole army. There is a kind of jostling, yet also a collective purpose. The body is deadly, aggressive, hostile.

Woolf views herself as existing in the soft material of the brain. There is a sense of withdrawal, interiority. Yet this too can be hostile because thinking is Woolf's fighting. How does this relate to women novelists' interior realism and the psychoanalytical idea of the unconscious (Laing)?

Abstract for Paper at Virginia Woolf Conference

'The Flesh of Spectators: the Self–Conscious Flâneuse in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight'. Woolfian Boundaries. University of Birmingham (22nd – 25th June 2006).

The purpose of this paper is to explore R.D. Laing’s portryal of the self–conscious subject in relation to the heroines of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight. I begin by commenting on the interior realism that has dominated many women novelists in the twentieth century and the backlash against the Angel in the House or feminine perfection. I briefly survey Laing’s definition of self–consciousness and consequently proceed to analysis of the key texts. The perambulatory heroines of Mrs Dalloway and Sasha are tied by a number of key elements that refer to Laing’s self–consciousness: the expectation of a critical gaze, self–interrogation, confusion about the value or legitimacy of one’s own being and fear of the penetration of one’s identity. I compare the different versions of self–consciousness in Woolf and Rhys and I explore why Mrs Dalloway escapes self–consciousness but Sasha does not. Finally, I address the irony of the characters’ creation as objects for consumption and I argue that the abject presentation of these women is subversive and useful for feminist questioning of what it is to be a woman.

June 15, 2006

Modern Nostagia (published in New Design Magazine No 41)

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Modernism was a movement with such power and intensity that even now it provokes nostalgia. In a new century, there is reminiscence for the potency of modernism. In the preface of Vanishing Point, an anthology of new modernist poets published last year, John Kinsella writes how the ‘avant–gardes that emerged out of modernities, have worked to challenge a status quo, or to assert their differences in perception. A more just way of expressing, or expression comes into play. It’s to do with “seeing”, and conveying the politics of that seeing.’

Art and design are always concerned with “seeing”, yet there is significance in Kinsella’s phrase the “politics of seeing”. Modernism championed design as a means of promoting political agendas and it was as much a statement of one’s ethos and ‘style of life’ as it was design.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A’s) new exhibition is entitled ‘Modernism: Designing a New World 1914 –1939’ and it focuses on the international rise of modernism in the designed world, yet modernism is a slippery term. As Vassiliki Kolocotroni writes, ‘modernism is not a movement’ but ‘a term that masks conflict and upheaval and any number of contradictory positions’. First used as a term to describe a movement in literary studies, modernism entered the language of design via Clement Greenberg who defined modernist art as that of the avant–garde. In design, however, it is only in hindsight that movements such as New Architecture and the Modern Movement are described as modernist. Christopher Wilk, the curator, seeks to define a precise era of modernism in the time period of this exhibition. ‘It tells the story of modernism from the end of world war one to the end of world war two’, explains Wilk.

This is an eclectic show including artefacts that stretch the boundaries of conventional definitions of design. Alongside the photograms of Man Ray are Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Beside the earliest modern fitted kitchen, designed by Margarete Schutte Lihotzky, is presented Dziga Vertov’s film, Man with a Movie Camera . Wilk’s choice of artefacts represents his view that ‘modernism was not conceived as a style, but was a loose collection of ideas’. The ideas selected by Wilk includes the idea of utopia, the relation of design to the machine, experimentation in representing the modern and expressions of freedom via the human body.

Much of the exhibition concentrates on the utopian desires of modernist designers. ‘Modernism began in the aftermath of the First World War’, states Wilk. ‘The outrage and horror set many designers on the path to reinventing the world.’ The exhibition begins by outlining Russian constructivism, a movement led by Alexsei Gan, who after the Russian Revolution, proclaimed that the artist should give up the bourgeois pursuit of painting and instead take up the position of industrial designer. In his 1922 polemic, Constructivism, Gan wrote: ‘The technological system of society, the structure of its tools, creates the structure of human relationships, as well’. He continued: ‘Art is finished! It has no place in the human labour apparatus. Labour, technology, organization!’

Leger -Still Life with Ball Bearing
The synthesis of art and the machine is an appropriate focus for this exhibition, since as Enrico Prampolini asked in 1922, ‘Is not the machine today the most exuberant symbol of the mystery of human creation?’ The work of Fernand Leger is highlighted in the exhibition including extracts from his short film Ballet Méchanique (Mechanical Ballet) finished in 1924 and his Still Life with Ball Bearing (1926). Both pieces are obsessed with the working parts of machines via different mediums. Ballet Méchanique uses rhythmic cutting from images of machines working to create one magnificent working machine. Still Life with Ball Bearing uses the utmost control in oil painting in order to create mechanical shapes on the canvas. The control is reminiscent of machine production and the implication is that the painter is comparable with an industrial designer.

Often the obsession with the machine and technology had a utopian design. ‘The machine became an agent to create a new world’, states Wilk. The German Bauhaus are one such movement outlined in this exhibition. The Bauhaus was a school of art and design founded in 1933 and influenced by such teachers as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and others. Once again there is a modernist overlapping of different art forms as the Bauhaus school thought that there was no fundamental difference between fine arts and design. Walter Gropius was the first to write of a Bahaus movement in 1919. ‘Schools must be absorbed by the workshop again’, stated Grobius. ‘The world of the pattern–designer and applied artist, consisting only of drawing and painting, must at last and again become a world in which things are built.’ The Bauhaus was both utilitarian, meeting the needs of society, and innovative.

Photographs of the Bauhaus achievement are part of this exhibition, including a picture of the Bauhaus Dessau building designed by Gropius himself. The Dessau building was a workshop for the Bauhaus and the technical college linked by a bridge and it demonstrates the asymmetrical design and the principle that different spaces should reflect their different functions. The Bauhaus workshop contains open spaces and a three storey glass wall, while the technical college has smaller windows and intimate rooms for teaching.

Much of this exhibition is concerned with the theoretical aspects of modernism: its manifestos, its values and its movements. Yet there is also a great deal of information on the practical process of designing and redesigning. The chair was one product that offered endless design possibilities as modernists struggled to make a chair from the least number of components possible. Pride of place is given to the various designs of the cantilever chair (inspired by Ledwid Mies van der Rohe’s prototype). This design takes the weight of the chair on two legs.

‘It’s difficult to imagine just how revolutionary this chair with two legs was at the time’, explains Wilk. ‘In fact it’s said that some people in 1927 were afraid to sit on such chairs because it would fall down. There were metal café chairs at the time and there had been metal furniture in the nineteenth century, but the idea of using shiny metal furniture in the home, in the domestic interior was a completely new idea. This chair is now more than eighty years old which is rather hard to believe when it still looks absolutely modern and up–to–date and is still used widely in both domestic and commercial settings.’ Chair design was an integral part of modernist innovation. As Marcel Breuer said in 1927, ‘In the end we will sit on a resilient column of air’.

In considering the practical uses of modernist design, Wilk also places an emphasis on fashion. Alexander Rodchenko’s Production Clothing (1922) relies on principles of functionality with the androgynous uniformity of its grey wool and leather. In contrast, Giacomo Balla’s Futurist Suit created in 1920 expresses the lively human spirit in its bright colours of orange, black and yellow. Balla’s irregular triangular patterning manifests a desire for the disorder inherent in being different, in being unique. Sonia Delauney’s Swimming Costume of 1928 reveals a liberated attitude to the human body and like Balla, Delauney uses the factor of simultaneity in which the complexity of modern life is conveyed by colour. Costumes for ballets and stage productions are also significant, one example being the Bauhaus costumes for Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet during the 1920s. These costumes recreated the dancers as puppets and abstractions of the human body.

A few British examples of modernist design exist amongst the proliferation of Continental artefacts. On display is Henry C. Beck’s 1931 Sketch for London Underground map , that iconic symbol of London which has been in contnous use since 1933. Beck took the factors of simplicity and functionality to create a map based on connections rather than geography. However, it seems that British modernism developed later than in other countries. Wilk describes how modernism came ‘late to Britain when émigrés from commonwealth nations began to arrive.’ Yet British design may have a great deal to learn from modernism and this massive exhibition provides much inspiration.

A comprehensive study of modernist design is now available as a companion to the current exhibition edited by Wilk. Covering all of the modernist movements, from De Stijl to Bauhaus, and making connections between design and the arts, Modernism: Designing a New World provides good source material for designers interested in modernism. Like the exhibition, it makes connections between modernist design and art, literature, dance and stage production and in doing so represents the eclectic spirit of modernism in all of its guises.

The V&A modernism exhibition runs until 23rd July. For more information, please see their website:

June 06, 2006

BBC Wales Reading at the Senedd Tonight

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The Midnight Heart

“Zona de plagas donde la dormida come / lentamente / su corazón de medianoche” – Alejandra Pizarnik

Night ramblings of insomnia, and day ramblings for the sleep deprived.

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