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March 15, 2010

Franco Moretti’s Trees

Follow-up to Franco Moretti's Maps from The Midnight Heart

In his recent study, Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti takes his analytical models ‘from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary history’ (2007: 1-2). Moretto distances himself from academics that look to ‘French and German metaphysics’ and he commends instead the methodologies of ‘the natural and social sciences’ (2). I am going to discuss his findings in three blog entries:

• and Trees.



Darwin’s tree was more than just a diagram. Moretti describes Darwin’s kind of mapping as creating ‘morphological diagrams, where history is systematically correlated with form’ (69). Playing on evolutionary theory, Moretti suggests that ‘divergence pervades the history of life, defining its morphospace – its space-of-forms’ (70). But the question is, how does this work for literature?

Moretti begins to consider this question by focussing on British detective fiction, where divergence was dictated by ‘the literary market’ and its ‘ruthless competition – hinging on form’ (72). British detective fiction developed through the sophisticated presentation of clues in the narrative and Moretti explores which strategies worked and which were unsuccessful. What he discovers is that the ruthless market makes ‘writers branch out in every direction’, sometimes forcing them ‘into all sorts of crazy blind alleys’ (77). Consequently, ‘divergence becomes indeed, as Darwin had seen, inseparable from extinction’ (77). If there is divergence, there must also be convergence, but Moretti is keen to note that ‘Convergence […] only arises _on the basis of previous divergence, and its power tends in fact to be directly proportional to the distance between the original branches (bicycles and internal combustion engines)’ (80).

Having explored the evolution of a particular genre, Moretti turns to mapping a specific literary technique: free indirect style. Moretti suggests that free indirect style has a ‘composite nature’ which ‘made it “click” with that other strange formation which is the process of modern socialization: by leaving the individual voice a certain amount of freedom, while permeating it with the impersonal stance of the narrator. And the result was the genesis of an unprecedented “third voice”, intermediate and almost neutral in tone between character and narrator: the composed, slightly resigned voice of the well-socialized individual, of which Austen’s heroines – these young women who speak of themselves, in the third person, as if from the outside – are such stunning examples’ (82).

Moretti maps various branches and streams of free indirect speech in international fiction, such as British and Irish modernism and Latin American dictator novels. Moretti notices though that one convergence that was not possible is that of free indirect speech with dialogism. Interestingly, in response to this fact, Moretti comments that ‘Culture is not the realm of ubiquitous “hybridity”: it, too, has barriers, its impossible limits’ (85).

Overall, in mapping British detective fiction, or the use of free indirect style in international literature, what Moretti is suggesting is a different way for academics to analyze the novel. Ultimately, he asks us to ‘Take a form, follow it from space to space, and study the reasons for its transformation’ (90).

Further Reading

Moretti, Franco (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. London and New York: Verso.

Franco Moretti's Maps

Follow-up to Franco Moretti's Graphs from The Midnight Heart

In his recent study, Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti takes his analytical models ‘from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary history’ (2007: 1-2). Moretti distances himself from academics that look to ‘French and German metaphysics’ and he commends instead the methodologies of ‘the natural and social sciences’ (2). I am going to discuss his findings in three blog entries:

• Maps,
• and Trees.


Three Mile Cross

In this section, Moretti focuses on Mary Mitford’s Our Village (1824-1832) which is based on a town in Berkshire called Three Mile Cross. Moretti makes a map of volume one of Our Village and shows that geographically the town is in the centre of a concentric pattern of events which spiral out into the surrounding countryside. The narrative space of the book circles around the village always returning to the centre.

Moretti explains that the first time he discovered this shape was in mapping Our Village and he had never encountered it before. In thinking about the concentric pattern of Our Village, Moretti suggests that the space reflects ‘the older, “centred” viewpoint of an unenclosed village’ (39).

Other texts that engage with the village as the centre of human society also show a concentric pattern like the one in Our Village. Moretti points us to Walter Christaller’s study Central Places in Southern Germany , where the centre is the target settlement which provides the most specialized services and trading. Around this target settlement grows a ‘market region’ and it is encircled by smaller versions of the largest, central town. Moretti maps this concentration of services and trade in Our Village too, noting that the characters have to make more and more journeys to urban centres to access their specialised services and shops.

Like John Galt’s Annals of the Parish (1821), Our Village represents simple, everyday life occasionally punctuated by surprises and remarkable events emerging from the urban centres. This contact with the urban and the national becomes more sinister though in Berthold Auerbach’s Black Village Stories (1843-1853), where outside interference in village life becomes oppressive and regulatory. Moretti concludes: ‘In their animosity towards national centralization, village stories diverge sharply from the provincial novels with which they are often confused, and are if anything, much closer to regional novels’ (52).

Out of these debates on these village stories, Moretti begins to think that his maps are not so much geographical, as they are diagrammatic. These diagrams map the object of the characters’ desires in some instances. For example, Moretti analyzed the Parisian novel and found that the young male protagonists all lived on the opposite side of the Seine to their lovers. The diagrams, however, can also map forces. Moretti explains that this involves ‘[d]educing from the form of an object the forces that have been at work; this is the most elegant definition ever of what literary sociology should be’ (57). Consequently, Moretti finds that in the Our Village stories from in and around 1828, the map of narrative space becomes less concentric, and Moretti suggests that this change is due to historical unrest at the time reflected in the 1830 Peasant Uprisings. The narrative space of the British novel can no longer be concentric, because such village idylls were being killed by industrialization. According to Moretti, Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrayal of rural life in Cranford (began serialization in 1851) ‘is Madame Tussaud’s idea of a village story’ (63).

While these insights may not be exactly new, it is fascinating to look at literature with Moretti’s approach and what is offered here is certainly a fascinating view of international writing and the space of narrative. The comparison of Mitford with Christaller, Galt and Auerbach is very convincing, and the chapter on ‘Maps’ does offer a new mode of reading literature through the ‘matrix of relations’ that makes up the social fabric of the novel (54).

Further Reading

Moretti, Franco (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. London and New York: Verso.

March 12, 2010

Franco Moretti's Graphs

In his recent study, Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti takes his analytical models ‘from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary history’ (2007: 1-2). Moretti distances himself from academics that look to ‘French and German metaphysics’ and he commends instead the methodologies of ‘the natural and social sciences’ (2). I am going to discuss his findings in three blog entries:

• Graphs,
Maps ,
• and Trees.


The first section of Franco Moretti’s study Graphs, Maps, Trees is of course on graphs and it poses some interesting ideas about how critics formulate literary history. What Moretti plots on his graphs is the rise and fall of the novel in various cultures from Britain to Nigeria. From these graphs, he discovers ‘[a]n antipathy between politics and the novel’ (12), and he quotes Michael Denning who tells us that in times of radicalism ‘writers have usually chosen shorter and more public forms [to express the zeitgeist], writing plays, poems, journalism and short stories’ (Denning qtd. Moretti 2007: 11).



In mapping novelistic trends, Moretti wants to discover whether there are any patterns that emerge from approaching literature with such a broad, comparative scope. For example, he wonders whether the fall of novel reading in Japan has any relation to the decline of the novel in Britain or elsewhere. Is there some kind of historical pattern emerging? Between Braudel’s notion of longee durée and isolated events in literary history, Moretti poses ‘the – unstable – border country between them’: this is the cycle which is both repetitive and temporary (14).

Moretti likens cycles to genres, because both are ‘temporary structures’ and both have a limited ‘life-cycle’: ‘Instead of changing all the time and a little at a time, then, the system stands still for decades, and is “punctuated” by brief bursts of invention: forms change once, rapidly, across the board, and then repeat themselves for two-three decades’ (18). Thinking about why such cycles occur, Moretti suggests that, though evolution of genres is specific to the time (e.g. in eighteenth century Britian ‘amorous epistolary fiction being ill-equipped to capture the traumas of the revolutionary years’), it is ‘too much of a coincidence’ when a number of genres ‘disappear together from the literary field, and then another group and so on’ (20). Moretti believes the cause to be generational: ‘[W]hen an entire generic system vanishes at once, the likeliest explanation is that its readers vanished at once’ (20).

I find Moretti’s argument very interesting, but I do have some questions. For example, it is true that ‘amorous epistolary fiction’ declined during revolutionary years in eighteenth century Britain, but one might argue that it was reinvented in the novels of the nineteenth century in writers like Wilkie Collins (especially The Woman in White). So is it false to separate genres out in this way? Might not the Sensation novel be just another reinvention of the amorous epistolary novel? (This links to what Moretti writes about in the section on ‘Trees’ which I discuss later.)

I also have questions about Moretti’s discussion of cycles in relation to gender. Discussing the work of April Alliston, Moretti suggests that the ‘Great Gender Shift’ in the mid 1700s is merely part of an oscillating pattern: ‘[I]n all likelihood they are all observing the same comet that keeps crossing and recrossing the sky: the same literary cycle, where gender and genre are probably in synchrony with each other – a generation of military novels, nautical tales, and historical novels á la Scott attracting male writers, one of domestic, provincial and sensation novels attracting women writers, and so on’ (27). I find this statement to be rather worrying, because it seems to assume that women would be attracted to ‘domestic’ stories and it could be used as a very easy explanation for gender bias, when in fact many women writing subversive and powerful fiction did have problems when they tried to publish it. I don’t think that Moretti necessarily means to excuse the sidelining of women in literary history, but I think that this statement could use a qualification.

Overall though, I am sympathetic to Moretti’s ideas about ‘graphs’ and I like the idea of the cycle as the ‘hidden thread of history’ (26). The comparative approach is also very useful as Moretti demands ‘a theory, not so much of “the” novel, but of a whole family of novelistic forms’(30).

Further Reading

Benzon, William (2006) ‘Signposts for a Naturalistic Criticism’ Entelechy. Access online at HTTP: (accessed 12 March 2010).
Moretti, Franco (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. London and New York: Verso.

January 07, 2009

Digest of Kristeva's study Strangers to Ourselves

I am posting here for my MA students an index of the various posts on this blog which constitute a digest of Kristeva’s Strangers to Ourselves. The index covers most of the study (all except the last chapter which you are reading!). It might be useful to put the chapter in context, so do feel free to have a read.

Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner

The Greeks Among Barbarians, Suppliants, and Metics

The Chosen People and the Choice of Foreignness

Paul and Augustine: The Therapeutics of Exile and Pilgrammage

By What Right Are You a Foreigner?

The Renaissance, “so Shapeless and Diverse in Composition”

On Foreigners and the Enlightenment

On Diderot

On Fougeret de Monbron, a Cosmopolitan with a Shaggy Heart

On Hegel

On the French Revolution

September 09, 2008

‘The Buried Letter’ by Mary Jacobus

In this essay on Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Mary Jacobus begins by comparing that novel with another by Bronte, Shirley. Jacobus argues that Shirley is the ‘seed’ of Villette and that her earlier ‘assertion of the unalienable rights of self’ in Shirley leads to the situation of Villette where ‘repression returns vengefully on the heroine in the form of a ghostly nun’ (1986: 40). The idea of Villette being a ‘buried letter’ crops up early on and Jacobus refers to the letters of ‘Reason’ and ‘Feeling’ that Lucy Snowe writes to Graham Bretton: ‘one for his benefit […], the other for hers, an outpouring of her innermost self’ (p. 41). This sense of revelation and concealment is also clear in the narrative of the novel:

The narrative and representational conventions of Victorian realism are constantly threatened by an incompletely repressed Romanticism. Supernatural haunting and satanic revolt, delusion and dream, disrupt a text which can give no formal recognition to either Romantic or Gothic modes. The buried letter of Romanticism becomes the discourse of the Other, as the novel’s unconscious – not just Lucy’s – struggles for articulation within the confines of mid-nineteenth century-realism. The resulting distortions and mutilations in themselves constitute an aspect of the novel’s meaning, like the distortions of a dream text (p. 41).

Jacobus argues then that Villette is haunted by Romanticism, which was at the time being rather superseded by the rationalism and empiricism that had dominated since the Enlightenment period. Yet Jacobus also adds that Villette is haunted by other ghosts: ‘the unacknowledged phantom of feminism and […] the strangeness of fiction itself’ (p. 42). Fiction is apparently a ‘peculiar reserve both of repression and of the Unheimliche – the uncanny’ (p. 42). Jacobus concludes: ‘Lucy’s haunted self-estrangement encodes the novel’s alienation from its ghostly subject’ (p. 42).

Interestingly, in relation to narrative voice, Jacobus points out that both Matthew Arnold and Kate Millett have seen the narrator, Lucy Snowe, as being one and the same as the author, Charlotte Bronte (although Arnold uses this as a stick to beat Bronte with and Millett uses it to portray Bronte as a woman meditating on a ‘prison break’). Jacobus suggests that Bronte invites the reader to make such an identification only to then pull the rug from under us frustrating any equivalence between the narrator and author. There is a discussion of Lucy’s lies and her unreliability as a narrator. Jacobus suggests that Lucy forces the reader to ‘misread’ her, even while her hidden thought break through is imagery of the supernatural and the Christian Passion.

Lucy Snowe is of course the narrator of other people’s stories. She tells the story of Polly (Paulina) for example and her lament for the girl’s weakness might be a kind of displacement for her own feelings of hopelessness and despair. This might also apply to her identification with the spinster, Miss Marchmount, and with the deranged woman who she cares for at the Rue Fossette during the vacation from her teaching work. Jacobus sees both figures as ‘aspects of Lucy’s repression’ and she is adamant that Lucy’s ‘regression from child to invalid to cretin parodies and reverses the Romantic quest for self’ (p. 44). Many characters find Lucy enigmatic and want to discover her true self, but instead she is simply ‘a blank screen on which others project their view of her’ (p. 44).

Not even we, the readers, discover who Lucy is. For example, Jacobus refers to Lucy’s refusal to identify Dr. John as Graham Bretton, a reticence that suggests to Jacobus that ‘Lucy prefers to retain her social invisibility’ (p. 44). Instead she prefers to watch the acting out of other people’s relationships. In thinking about this acting out, Jacobus touches on the scene where Lucy does act in a play, but she is ‘impersonating a man while clad as a woman from the waist down’ (p. 45). Jacobus sees in this a ‘nonsubservience to her spectator’s role’ and the transformation of ‘her part into an unorthodox piece of intersexual rivalry’ (p. 45). I wonder whether there is also something more here. Why does Lucy refuse to become completely “male” by dressing up in the full costume? Is there some kind of anxiety here about being dislocated from her sex?

In any case, role play is obviously significant. Jacobus talks about the roles of middle-class women and she emphasises that ‘[t]he governess is peculiarly the victim of middle-class sexual ideology, for the only role open to her is that of bringing up children while marriage and motherhood themselves are paradoxically taboo for her within the family that employs her’ (p. 45). Falling between categories then, Lucy has to play a very unfulfilling role and it is no coincidence that she prefers teaching in Madame Beck’s school to being a governess or companion. Jaconus quotes from Bronte’s letters to show that Bronte had strong views about the role of the unmarried woman:

when patience had done its utmost and industry its best, whether in the case of women or operatives, and when both are baffled, and pain and want triumph, the sufferer is free, is entitled at last to send up to Heaven any piercing cry for relief, if by that he can hope to obtain succour. (Bronte in Jacobus 1986: 46)

Jacobus associates this ‘piercing cry’ with the actress, Vashti, who is such a strong presence in the book. To Jacobus, Vashti is a typical Romantic protagonist: ‘the satanic rebel and fallen angel whose damnation is a function of divine tyranny’ (Jacobus 1986: 46). Lucy’s reaction to this is of both ‘revulsion and admiration’, while Graham Bretton only feels ‘indifference to the spectacle’ (p. 46). In fact Graham Bretton brands Vashti as ‘a fallen woman, a rebel against conventional morality’ and ‘a demonic symbol of sexual energy created by a woman’ (p. 47). Vashti is the opposite then of what Jacobus describes as ‘the static, male-fabricated images of woman’ that Lucy views in the gallery (p. 47). Lucy may appear to be more like the gallery women, but M. Paul recognises in her pink dress the possibility of a ‘latent scarlet woman’ (p. 47).

This mingling of the familiar and unfamiliar brings us back to the uncanny and Jacobus notes how Freud who wrote a seminal essay on the uncanny found that quality particularly in works of fiction. This is especially the case in Villette in which Bronte is ‘suspending the laws of probability for those of the mind’ (p. 47). Jacobus emphasises that the narrative of Villette is dislocated and that it ‘insists on the irreducible otherness, the strangeness and arbitrariness, of inner experience’ (p. 47). Jacobus concludes:’The real becomes spectral, the past alien, the familiar strange; the lost home (heimlich [meaning “homely”]) and the uncanny (unheimlich [literally “unhomely”]) coincide’ (p. 47).

In considering home, Jacobus notes that Lucy cannot be at home in Bretton, but Polly/Paulina as the angel in the house rather than the fallen angel can make herself at home. Yet it is Lucy’s inner drama that is more interesting than the romantic plot of Lucy and Graham, because its supernatural manifestations ‘challenge the monopolistic claims of realism on “reality” – to render its representations no less fictive and arbitrary than the Gothic and Romantic modes usually viewed as parasitic’ (p. 48).

Jacobus now turns to the ghostly nun noting that realist readings of the nun have analysed her symbolism as merely a technique of ‘Gothic machinery’. Jacobus challenges such a view suggesting that the appearance of the nun ‘symbolizes not only Lucy’s repression, but the novelist’s freedom to evoke or inhibit the Unheimliche; to lift or impose censorship’ (p. 48). Jacobus considers now the moments when the ghostly nun appears:

1. When Lucy goes to the garret to read Graham Bretton’s letter.
2. When she buries Graham Bretton’s letters under the pear tree.
3. When M. Paul tells Lucy in the garden that they are alike and have an affinity.

Jacobus considers the ambiguity of the nun’s status, which, though it is revealed as a prank near the end of the novel, is never fully explained. Jacobus wonders whether the nun might actually represent Lucy’s ‘quest for identity and […] her self-estrangement’ (p. 51). There is a long list of women who are represented and constructed by Lucy, who are created through her telling of them: Mrs Bretton, Mme. Beck, Ginevra, Zelie de St. Pierre and Paulina. Jacobus comments; ‘No other woman in the novel has any identity except as Lucy bestows it’ (p. 51).

The whole novel is made by Lucy’s imagination and perhaps her fantasy, especially in creating M. Paul. Jacobus states that M.Paul ‘is animated by a wish fulfillment which it is surely justifiable to see as Charlotte’s own’ (p. 51). In the reflection and affinity of M. Paul and Lucy, Jacobus sees ‘not so much the rehabilitation of the plain heroine, as the persistence of the Lacanian mirror phase’ (p. 51).

[Lucy] is the joker in the pack, the alien, ex-centric self which no image can mirror – only the structure of language. Like the purloined letter in Lacan’s reading of the Poe story, where the meaning of the letter (the autonomous signified) lies in its function in the plot rather than its actual contents, the nun derives her significance from her place in the signifying chain. She has one function in relation to Lucy, another in relation to M. Paul, and another again in relation to Ginevra. The different meanings intersect but do not merge; the threads cross and intertwine without becoming one. (p. 52)

In response to this multiplicity of meanings with regard to the ghostly nun, Jacobus considers how, especially during Lucy’s delirious night walk through the city, the nun comes to represent ‘the external obstacle to marriage between Lucy and M. Paul’ (p. 52). As Lucy glides through the city, the families of the story flash before her eyes; the Homes, the Brettons, the Becks, M. Paul’s adopted family and M.Paul himself alongside his ward. While on the one hand it seems that Lucy is yet again an ‘excluded spectator’, Jacobus asserts that she is also ‘metteur en scene in a drama of her own making’ (p. 53). It seems that the nun has now become a ‘bourgeois belle’, yet Lucy’s commentary on the matter is far from clear and leaves us wondering if this is another fabrication. The nun does return one more time though as the costume left behind by de Hamal, who in leaving it on Lucy’s bed ‘labels her as the nun of the Rue Fossette – at once accusing her of animating the spectre from within herself and forcing her to recognize its true identity’ (p. 55).

At this point, Jacobus moves on to the final evasion: the conclusion of Villette. Just as Lucy writes two letters to Graham Bretton, there seem to be two endings to the novel:

The entire novel, not just its ending, bears the marks of this compromise – between Victorian romance and the Romantic imagination, between the realist novel and Gothicism. The relationship between the two texts is as arbitrary as that between the two letters; as the signified slides under the signifier, so the buried letter bears an ex-centric relation to the public version. This is not to say that the real meaning of Villette, “the TRUTH”, lies in its ghostly subtext. Rather it lies in the relationship between the two, which points to what the novel cannot say about itself – to the real conditions of its literary possibility. Instead of correcting the novel into a false coherence, we should see in its ruptured and ambiguous discourse the source of its uncanny power. The double ending in reversing the truth/fiction hierarchy, not only reinstates fantasy as a dominant rather than parasitic version of reality, but at the same time suggests that there can be no firm ground; only a perpetual de-centering. (p. 55).

Jacobus, M. 1986, Reading Women: Essays in Feminist Criticism, London: Methuen.

Further Reading
Millett, K. 1970, Sexual Politics, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

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.

July 01, 2008

‘Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian’

Thomas Docherty offers some interesting insights into the Northern Irish poet, Medbh McGuckian, in his essay, ‘Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian.’ Docherty begins by discussing the seemingly pointless nature of McGuckian’s poetry, but this is not a criticism. Rather Docherty is aware that ‘[t]he verse often reads as if the language itself, a language devoid of a consciousness, were directing it’ (Docherty 1992: 191). Docherty notes that the ambiguity about language also applies to identity as ‘it is difficult to locate any single location from which the poem can be spoken’ (192). Docherty sees this ambiguity as a kind of ‘blank phenomenology’ where ‘the relation between the speaking Subject or ‘I’ and the Object of its intention is mobile or fluid’ and ‘instead of a stable “persona,” all we have is a potential of personality, a voice which cannot yet be identified’ (192). Docherty’s reading of ‘a postmodern McGuckian’ suggests that ‘her writing offers a way of breaking away from the “place-logic” which is central to the formulation of a national culture, tradition or lineage’ (192).

In studying this breaking away, Docherty notes that McGuckian is often concerned with ‘initiation rites’ and ‘transgressions of borders or boundaries’ (193). These are not geographical borders but ‘symbolic borders, such as the boundary between infancy and adulthood; the border between an Edenic garden and a secular world’ (193). (Later Docherty writes of McGuckian’s focus on ‘puberty, a shift from infancy into adulthood, from “non-speaking” (infans) into a voice’ and he notes how her poetry often forms around ‘a mythic moment of a beginning or birthing’ overlapping pregnancy with ‘the mythical; biblical beginning in the fall from grace’ (194).)

McGuckian rejects ‘the kind of explicit or mythic politics found in other contemporary Irish poets’ and instead she adopts ‘a “French-born” idea, le temps perdu’ which is complemented by ‘a governing figure of “seduction” or temp-tation’ (193). Docherty summarises:

A postmodern sublime lies available here. We have the necessity of a transgression, the idea of a breakthrough across some threshold of perception, together with the recalcitrance which the transgression provokes: this is the pleasurable pain of interpretation in McGuckian. It is like the seduction of a letter unread, a letter which remains tantalisingly visible or within its envelope; but the tearing open of the envelope reveals that the letter is not there after all: what we thought was a meaningful missive turns out to be a pattern on the envelope. (200)

The play on temp is extended when Docherty notes ‘the linguistic slippage between “tempt” and “temporal”’ in McGuckian’s poems (201). This creates another aspect in which poetry becomes ‘a call to a critical historicism: not just an awareness of time past, but an awareness that one must “disappoint” the history or narrative seemingly determined by time past: time past must be misplaced, perdu’ (204).

Most of all though, McGuckian’s poetry is characterised by seduction, which Docherty describes as ‘taken in a sense close to that proposed by Baudrillard: it is not simply a sexual event; rather, it describes a state of relation between powers or forces, and one which explicitly excludes production. Production here would mean the end of seduction’ (205). In focussing on seduction as an ongoing, endless process, McGuckian ‘questions the modern belief of availability in identity’ (206).

This rejection of certainty is described by Docherty as ‘a turn towards nomadism. towards a chosen ground, which is, strictly speaking nowhere in particular’ (207). McGuckian is then ‘[a]lways in flight’ and her poems ‘are never foxed in historical time or geographical space: their meaning is always untimely, never present-to-themselves, and hence never “available”’ (207). In adopting this poetics, Docherty suggests that McGuckian is more like the nineteenth-century decadents or the twentieth-century surrealists than Irish poets. This outward looking set of influences also concords with McGuckian’s linguistic strategy in which she combats her Anglo-Saxon words against those of other idioms: Malaysian, African languages, Polish, Spanish and Persian. Using this kind of language ‘suggest[s] an alienation in McGuckian’s own relation to her language’ and ‘[t]here is no single governing Logos, no monotheology of Truth here, no originary language’ (208). McGuckian ‘does not live between English and Gaelic, but between English and the languages of Europe, Asia, Africa’ (208).

Such linguistic instability smacks of surrealism according to Docherty, yet McGuckian tends more towards the superreal than the surreal. Recalling Baudrillard’s theory of the postmodern simulacrum, Docherty wonders whether McGuckian ‘can question the very principle of reality itself by its parodic duplication’ (209).

Reality in her writing constantly slips away , leaving a reader to puzzle where she or he stands. Her sentences meander from éstrangeté to bizarrerie, dislocating metaphor and being ‘easily carried away’ in this language which is dictated by no consciousness, and leaving a reader stranded in flight from multivalent realities. (209)

Docherty Thomas. 1992. ‘Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian.’ The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland. Ed. Neil Corcoran. Bridgend: Seren, 1992. 191-211.

Frances Ferguson on ‘Rape and the Rise of the Novel’

ReaderIn ‘Rape and the Rise of the Novel,’ Frances Ferguson has some interesting things to say about the discourses of ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ especially in cases where the testimony of the rapist is pitted against that of the one (often the woman) who was raped. The demands of the courtroom create a conundrum, a catch-22 that disenfranchises women forcing them to remain in a rape script that renders them powerless.

Even as the political and fictional logic establishes the woman’s truthfulness, the link between her truthfulness and her powerlessness itself comes to function as an inevitably self contradictory formula. It thus imposes a limiting term on the very capacity for subversion or compensation that political reform and visionary fiction might hope to provide. Were a woman to become powerful, she would lose the weakness that is the very condition of the strength of her testimony. That is, her very lack of power guarantees her truthfulness; her not counting makes her words count. The question of authentic testimony about rape thus approaches something of a paradox of statutory rape in which the possibility of radical self-contradiction is defined as the easiest case, the most determinate and determinable reality (Ferguson 1989 :97).

Ferguson concludes that there have been three treatments of the history of rape:
1. there has been the determination of truthteller by gender – man or woman;
2. there has been a fictitious certainty defining rape in formal terms that involve possibility of self-contradiction;
3. and there has been competition between the story and the narrator, reality and the telling of it.

Ferguson suggests that the questions raised above appear in some of the pioneering examples of the novel form. She mentions Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson, but mainly focuses on Richardson’s Clarissa comparing the novel with Ovid’s tale of Philomela. [For more info on Richardson see: ].

While the metamorphic account of rape (Philomela) gives the shape of a memory to the story of an unspeakable act (the story of the rape of the Levite’s wife), Richardson rewrites the rape story to create the psychological novel. The novel is psychological, moreover, not because it is about the plausibility of its characters but because it insists upon the importance of psychology as the ongoing possibility of the contradiction between what one must mean and what one wants to mean. […] Clarissa becomes a psychological novel, then, not just in representing the ambiguity of forms and the struggles inherent in interpretation. In adapting the spirit of Lovelacean stipulation that nonconsent can be consent, Clarissa answers Lovelace not just by refusing her retroactive consent to the act of rape but by living the stipulated contradiction that his act and his construction of it have made it visible. Stipulation, trying to put a limit to ambiguity by defining the understanding of a term or a situation, is potentially infinite. (Ferguson 1989: 109)

Ferguson, Frances. 1989. ‘Rape and the Rise of the Novel.’ Misogyny, Misandry and Misanthropy. Ed. R. Howard Bloch and Frances Ferguson. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press. 88 – 112.

Tanya Modleski on Representing Rape in Harlequin Romances

The novels [Harlequin Romances] perpetuate ideological confusion about male sexuality and male violence, while insisting that there is no problem (they are very “different”). The rapist mentality – the intention to dominate, “humiliate and degrade,” which as Susan Brownmiller shows, is often disguised as sexual desire – is turned into its opposite- sexual desire disguised as the intention to dominate and hurt. The message is the same one parents sometimes give to girls who are singled out for mistreatment by a bully: “he really has a crush on you.” This belief is of course an enormously difficult one to sustain in real life, and romantic literature performs a crucial function in assuring us that although some men may actually enjoy inflicting pain on women, there are also “bullies” whose meanness is nothing more than the overflow of their love or the measure of their resistance to our extraordinary charms. (Modleski 1982: 34-35)

Modleski, Tanya. 2008 (1982). Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women. London: Routledge.

‘Introduction: Rereading Rape’ by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (p. 1–11)

Higgins and Silver begin their introduction by recalling Beckett’s question, ‘What does it matter who is speaking?,’ a question imbedded in postmodern questioning of identity. However, for Higgins and Silver the question of who is speaking is very important when one is speaking about sexual violence and its representations in literature, since as they state, ‘the politics and aesthetics of rape are one’ (1).

Higgins and Silver are adamant that their project is not only in the imagination, but in the world: a world where ‘rape cultures’ are accepted and remain unquestioned. What Higgins and Silver find most worrying and intriguing is the ‘obsessive inscription – and an obsessive erasure – of sexual violence against women’ (2). In opposition to this erasure, ‘[f]eminist modes of “reading” rape and its cultural manifestations, displacements, and transformations of what amounts to an insidious cultural myth’ (2).

Part of this feminist project involves highlighting the fact that representations of rape in art and literature often contain the same assumptions and prejudices that are seen all too often in the courtroom. Higgins and Silver suggest that ‘representations of rape after the event are almost always framed by a masculine perspective premised on men’s fantasies about female sexuality and their fears about false accusation, as well as their codified access top and possession of women’s bodies’ (2). The onus is on the woman to prove her own innocence in the courtroom and often in literature.

Unsurprisingly then, rape often appears in literature as ‘an absence or a gap that is both product and source of textual anxiety, contradiction, or censorship’ (3). Higgins and Silver add that it can also be represented via a kind of ventriloquism where accepted platitudes surrounding rape are repeated, rather than more authentic and thoughtful explanations being offered. This needs to be challenged, because what is at stake is the very nature of gender relations. As Higgins and Silver intimate, ‘rape and rapability are central to the very construction of gender identity and […] our subjectivity and sense of ourselves as sexual beings are inextricably enmeshed in representations’ (3).

It is obvious then that the project is significant and admirable, but how are Higgins and Silver to go about creating it? The critics reply that there must be an ‘unravelling’ of ‘cultural texts that have obsessively made rape so pervasive and so invisible a theme – made it “unreadable”’ (3). To combat this, one must adopt a tactic of ‘listening not only to who speaks and in what circumstances, but who does not speak and why’ (3). Theirs is a strategy of recuperation as they ‘listen for stories that differ from the master(’s) story’, as they ‘recuperate what has too often been left out; the physical violation and the women who find ways to speak it’ (3).

To sum up, Higgens and Silver endorse the following tenets in creating the collection, Rape and Representation:
1. that the essays will focus on women representing themselves searching for ‘breakthroughs’ whereby ‘rape gets represented in spite of its suppression’ (4);
2. and that in the essays, it will be recognised that rape is a bodily violation contradicting its reframing as ‘a metaphor or a symbol or represented rhetorically as titillation, persuasion, ravishment, seduction, or desire (poetic, narrative, courtly, military)’ (4).
There are a number of other challenges recognised by Higgens and Silver in the list of questions below:

Do women who write of rape – and until recently, especially among white women in the Anglo-American tradition recently, these have been few in number – find a way out of the representational double binds confronting those women who attempt to escape their entrapment in the patriarchal story? Do women of colour within the United States or “third world” women, who have addressed the taboo subject more often and more openly, offer subversive perspectives? It is also necessary to recognize the disturbing fault lines that appear within men’s texts and to ask what role male authors play in uncovering the structures that brutalize women’s bodies and erase their subjectivity. Do these texts reveal traces of masculine sexual anxiety or guilt? And are even male authors who recognize their complicity in the violence of the gender system ultimately caught in its powerful meshes? (4-5)

Higgens and Silver don’t answer these questions now, but they outline the five sections of the book in detail.
1. Prior Violence. This section goes back to some the earliest stories about rape in Western culture and it studies the legacy left by such tales in our culture.
2. The Rhetoric of Elision. Here the focus is ‘the scene of elision in male texts about rape’ and there is discussion of male authors’ (von Kleist, Hardy, Forster) ambivalence about the violence in the text (5).
3. Writing the Victim. This section questions to what extent literary texts (Shakespeare’s Lucrece, Yambo Ouloguem’s Le Devoir de violence, Soni Labou Tansi’s La Vie et demie, various novels by Clarice Lispector) contribute to ‘social and narrative acts of victimization’ (6).
4. Framing Institutions. The analysis here ‘shifts the emphasis from writing the victim to the institutional discourses in which rape occurs’ e.g. ‘Medieval legal codes and judicial practice […]; Renaissance political structures and the heroic ethos of courtly love […]; slavery and its legacy – racism – including their enactment in lynching’ (6). The critics seek to undermine each frame in which sexual violence is naturalised.
5. Unthinking the Metaphor. To conclude, the final essays focus on ‘aesthetic categories’ whether that be the Western lyric tradition or the multiple narratives of postmodernism.

Higgens, Lynn A. and Brenda R. Silver. 1991.‘Introduction: Rereading Rape’. Rape and Representation. Ed. Lynn A. Higgens and Brenda R. Silver. New York: Columbia University Press. 1-11.

Further Reading
Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse eds. 1989. The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence. New York: Routledge.
Castle, Terry. 1982. Clarissa’s Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson’s “Clarissa”. Ithica: Cornell University Press.
de Lauretis, Teresa. 1987. ‘The Violence of Rhetoric: Considerations on Representation and Gender’. 1987. Technologies and Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Bloomington and Indianopolis: Indiana University Press. 31-50.
Estrich, Susan. 1987. Real Rape. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Ferguson, Frances. 1987. ‘Rape and the Rise of the Novel.’ Representations 20: 88-112.
Froula, Christine. 1986. ‘The Daughter’s Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History.’ Signs 11: 621-644.
Herman, Dianne. 1984. ‘The Rape Culture.’ Women: a Feminist Perspective. Ed. Jo Freeman. Palo Alto, Calif.: Mayfield. (no page numbers given).
Herrera-Sobek, Maria. 1987. ‘The Politics of Rape; Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction.’ Americas Review 15: 171-181.
Kappeler, Susan. 1986. The Pornography of Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Mackinnon, Cathrine. 1983. ‘Feminism Marxism and the State: Towards Feminist Jurisprudence.’ Signs 8: 635-658.
Modleski, Tania. ‘Rape versus Mans/ laughter: Blackmail.’ The Women who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. New York: Menthuen, 1988. (no page numbers given).
Reeves Sanday, Peggy. 1986. ‘Rape and the Silencing of the Feminine.’ Rape. Ed. Sylvana Tomaselli and Roy Porter. Oxford: Blackwell.


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