Theory of the Novel
English/Lit 890S: (M 4:40 – 7:10 PM, 306 Allen)
Instructors: Armstrong and Garréta
Intended for graduate students and advanced undergraduates who want to pursue some area of novel, fiction, or narrative studies, this course examines a set of concepts that should provide them access to 1) the modes of thinking that characterize novels across the modern and contemporary periods and several different national traditions, 2) the various ways that critical theory has defined those concepts, and 3) reading the novel as a concept-driven argument in relation to other disciplinary discourses, especially critical theory.
The course begins by considering a long and robust tradition of critical theory focused on the novel. Why does the attempt to think about the modern world in dialectical terms encounter some kind of historical limit where that thinking stalls or breaks down? On what basis do novels nevertheless continue to be written, taught in classrooms, and circulated for the pleasure and edification of literate populations? The uneven development of theory and fiction in this respect invites us to go back to the modern founders of novel theory—Georg Lukács and Mikhail Bakhtin—and see whether their respective concepts of the novel form still helps us understand late twentieth and twenty-first century fiction.
The last third of the course will turn the tables on theory. Reading certain critical concepts through the lens of the novel, we want to consider whether novels have taken up the task of critique and how they ask us to modify our critical thinking accordingly.
Consistent class participation, the facilitation of a seminar, a stint as class reporter keeping track of the concepts discussed and summarizing our findings for the class meeting, and a 12-15 page final written assignment. In preparation for the course, we ask you to read 4 core texts that we will use throughout the semester’s discussion of novel theory:
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence.
We assume that you have read at least one, if not all of these novels and trust you will enjoy reading the rest over the holiday break. The required critical readings will be listed on the syllabus and, if marked with an asterisk, available either through Sakai or online.
For the final writing assignment, we have in mind a Vademecum of Critical Concepts to which each student contributes a significant piece. This assignment takes it as given that the novel “thinks” with certain concepts—some of which do double duty as components of critical theory—and asks the reader to do the same. At some point after spring break, the class will decide which concepts merit inclusion in this handbook, and each member will select one as the basis of his or her contribution to this project. This assignment will require you to provide a state-of-the- art definition of the concept as it operates in critical theory and then select two or three novels that provide for an assessment of the relative advantages and limitations of that concept. How, if at all, do these novels require us to correct or supplement critical theory’s formulations?
(The full bibliography of texts in consideration in this seminar will be built and updated on our Sakai site.)
Syllabus — Foundations of the theory of the novel
W Jan 8-M Jan 13 Introduction: Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (pp. 15-44, 259-314) raises the questions we shall pursue during the semester: Why now? Why rethink the theory of the novel now? Can we read the form of the novel as its own best theory?
In addition to Jameson (https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Fredric-Jameson-The-Antinomies-of-Realism-2015.pdf) we may take a look at:
- Armstrong, “How Novels Think,”*
- Leys, “The Turn to Affect,”*
- Bewes, “Free Indirect.”*
What do they mean by “the subject of the novel”? How do we account for changes in that concept.
M Jan 20 Martin Luther King Day
M Jan 27-M Feb 3 Totality: Lukács:
- “The Inner Form of the Novel”* and “The Historico-philosophical Conditioning of the Novel”* from The Theory of the Novel (70-96);
- “Class Consciousness”* from History and Class Consciousness;
- “Narrate and Describe”* from Writer and Critic;
- “Critical Realism and Socialist Realism”* from The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.
Second order concepts include: dialectic, fiction, class consciousness, perspective.
F Feb 7 A Conversation with Fredric Jameson (1:30 - 5pm, Nelson Music Room)
M Feb 10 Temporality and spatial form:
- Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and the Form of the Chronotope of the Novel”* and “Discourse in the Novel”* from The Dialogic Imagination.
- Jameson, “The End of Temporality”*
Second order concepts: chronotope, genre, language, discourse, heteroglossia
M Feb 17 Narrative Temporality I:
- Deleuze “What is a Dispositif?” (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/gilles-deleuze-what-is-a-dispos…).
- Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”* (narrative as problem solving device)
Second order concepts: ideology, structure, grammar, semiotics, narratology.
M Feb 24 Narrative Temporality II:
- Althusser, “On Ideology”*
- Barthes, “The Reality Effect”* (narrative as form) https://ctlsites.uga.edu/eberle/wp-content/uploads/sites/78/2017/08/Barthes-The-Reality-Effect-1.pdf
- Greimas, “The interaction of Semiotic Constraints”*
- Barthes, from The Neutral (pp.52-73) http://www.sholetteseminars.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/The-Neutral-R.-Barthes.pdf
Second order concepts: structure, narrative, ideology, literature, antinomies, neutral
F Feb 28 Colloquium on the contemporary Turkish novel
M March 2 Midpoint debrief and test case:
- Deleuze, “Rhizome”*
- Rancière, “The Concept of Anachronism”*
How do we read Pamuk?
Select, articulate, and demonstrate the critical concept(s) that work best for you.
F March 7 – S March 15 Spring Break
M March 16 Objects in the novel I:
- Marx, “The Commodity Fetish and its Secret”*
- Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”*
- Foucault, “Las Meninas” from The Order of Things*
- Auerbach, “The Brown Stocking” from Mimesis*
- Schor, “Female Fetishism” from Bad Objects*
Second order concepts: Fetish, Aura, Representation, Mimesis.
M March 23 Objects in the novel II:
- Freedgood, “Souvenirs of Sadism” from The Ideas in Things*
- Bennett, “The Force of Things” from Vibrant Matter*
- Boxall, “Introduction” to The Prosthetic Imagination*
Second order concepts: thing, souvenir, materialism, intentionality, prosthesis.
M March 30 The novel as object I:
- English, from The Economy of Prestige*
- Illouz, “Best Sellers and Our Social Unconscious” from Hard Core Romance*
- Brouillette, “Book Hunger” from UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary*
- McGurl, “Fiction in the Age of Amazon.”*
Second order concepts: economy of attention, cultural capital, global markets.
M April 6 Workshop I
- Select one or two critical concepts that you have found key to grasping how novels indicate the need for and perform some strategic revision of the formal apparatus bequeathed them by the tradition in which they think. Is the novel’s internal argument one already explained by some concept or set of concepts spelled out in the secondary materials for this course? Please post these preliminary thoughts on the Sakai Forum we have set up for this purpose.
- We make a first attempt at identifying the cluster of concepts that this class will contribute to our new glossary of updated critical terms.
- Abstracts to be discussed in class and during scheduled office hours.
M April 13 Workshop II
M April 20 Workshop II
M April 21 Concept papers due by 4PM in Box
Theory of the Novel: A Glossary of Useful Critical Concepts
Collaborators: Anvita Budhraja, Brendan Chambers, Jessica Ginocchio, Tatiana González Buonomo
Ejuerleigh Jones, William Williamson IV, Muyun Zhou
William Williamson IV
The meaning of anachronism varies with the discourse where it occurs, but these meanings share in common a preoccupation with the chronology of relationships in time. In criticism and philosophy, an anachronism is generally regarded as an error, but for historians, says Jacques Rancière, it is an “unforgivable sin (21). For historians and critics, it entails the intrusion of another, usually contemporary, framework within a time not our own, the assumption being that what we take for granted today will necessarily differ in important respects from a moment in the past which must be assessed in its own terms. Thus the commonsense definition of anachronism is a faulty assessment of the past through the lens of the present, which reflects the reader’s lack of sophistication. In literature or art, too, anachronism can be seen as an infelicity or even a mistake, some reference to an object or use of language that would not have been available within that timeframe.
Occasionally though, anachronism is excused as inevitable or necessary, particularly in literature, and especially in the novel. Retrospective narration, for instance, might be considered a necessary rather than infelicitous use of anachronism, whereby the present tense of narration inevitably shapes the past narrated, filtering that moment through perspective not native to it. In other words, we have a spectrum of anachronisms—from the necessary anachronism of memory that we barely notice to historical investigations framed by an obviously incongruous perspective.
In the hands of a historian or literary critic, anachronism carries out a disciplinary purpose as the standards and protocols that ensure scholarship remains consistent in distinguishing the present attitudes, assumptions, and practices from those of the time period being examined. Before we can screen them out, this implies, we must identify which of our attitudes, assumptions, and practices are strictly products of the present. Novels confront the difficulty of identifying such anachronisms, insofar as the form itself depends on having the time of narration intrude in that of the events narrated. This fundamental anachronism in the novel indexes the moment of time, or chronotope, that limits how the novel can imagine events unfolding in time, and this chain of events in turn acquires flexibility in and through its narration that allows any number of digressions to be introduced and expand certain moments beyond their respective spaces in sequential time. We might indeed say that the novelist uses anachronism to make visible the existence of alternative chronotopes, while allowing both plot and reader to move between them.
The chronotope, as formulated by Mikhail Bakhtin, describes the “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (84). It is the means by which “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole” that “defines genre and generic distinctions” (84) Bakhtin identifies the ancient chronotopes that culminate in the novels of Rabelais, which opens up a world in which the novel can come into being as the means of giving this boundless network of natural systems a human form that distinguishes it from matter: “[Chronotopes] are the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied. It can be said without qualification to them belongs the meaning that shapes narrative” (250). For Bakhtin, the chronotope is “plot-generating.” While poetic images also have “chronotopicity,” the chronotope is especially necessary to the novel in that it provide the in which plots become legible as they materializing the world of the novel (251).
At the same time, he acknowledges that anachronism unavoidably attends nearly any narrative endeavor:
If I relate (or write about) an event that has just happened to me, then I as the teller (or writer) of this event am already outside the time and space in which the event occurred. It is just as impossible to gorge an identity between myself, my own “I,” and the “I” that is the subject of my stories as it is to lift myself up by my own hair. The represented world, however, realistic and truthful, can never be chrontopically identical with the real world it represents where the author and creator of the literary work is to be found. (256)
Bakhtin here describes the anachronistic, disjointed relationship between the chronotopes of the narrative and the spatial framework in which events are narrated. The narrative, though, or the novel, contains within it a number of different chronotopes and complex interactions among them, specific to the given work or author; it is common moreover for one of these chronotopes to envelope or dominate the others (such, primarily, are those we have analyzed in this essay). Chronotopes are mutually inclusive, they co-exist and may be interwoven with, replace or oppose one another (252). The chronotopes of earlier literatures provide the material out of which the novel unfolds its version of the modern world.
Anachronisms signal this interaction, in that they tell us where and when chronotopes coexist, are interwoven, replace, or contradict one another. In so doing, anachronisms register the forms of time the novel considers possible within its timeframe and which are not. In a more positive sense, anachronisms point out alternative timeframes that might materialize. Such anachronisms can always be regarded as mistakes on the author’s part for the critic to correct, lest alternative ideologies seem reasonable. Whether corrected or enjoyed, however, anachronisms in the novel disclose the instability of the present. They multiply and illuminate the different temporalities that compose the present, offer alternatives to disciplinary worktime, and so expose the modes of discipline that help to maintain the hold of the present on accounts of past events and future possibilities. The novel form seems uniquely able to produce these tensions between temporal frameworks that anachronism exposes and the one that dominates the present moment.
This proclivity to bring alternatives to light, according to Jacques Ranciére, is the reason why such historians as Lucien Febvre consider anachronism the “unforgivable sin.” Febvre makes an example of Abel Lefranc’s argument that Rabelais was a covert unbeliever and that in his writing it is possible to detect this coded unbelief. If one way of defining anachronism for the historian is ascribing to historical figures motivations that come from the point of view of a different time, Febvre takes things a step further: he claims Rabelais could not have been an unbeliever because his time would not have allowed it.
Rancière argues that Febvre establishes the question of Rabelais’s belief or unbelief, and indeed the concept of anachronism that Febvre calls unforgivable, not through the terms or methods of history but through a set of “poetic procedures for the construction of historical narrative” (Rancière 22). The historian claims to work in a science; really historians construct their claims through a “techne for the construction of a plot, for the arrangement of its parts and its appropriate mode of enunciation.” Anachronism is part of an aesthetic organization of time and history, one that keeps everything and everyone in its time and place—in its chronotope—and that identifies the possible with the existent. The proscription on anachronism attempts to maintain a unified whole, an official time with an associated theology that tends towards progress and unification. Bakhtin identifies the novel—specifically the novel of Rabelais—as resisting this kind of official time, a reified “false picture of the world” consisting of “false hierarchical links between objects and ideas” (Bakhtin 169). He suggests a similarity between Rabelais’s time, which demanded a new chronotope, and our own: “In the era of developing capitalism, the life of society and the state becomes abstract and almost plotless” (Baktin 209). Rabelais suggests to him the possibility of “the re-creation of a spatially and temporally adequate world able to provide a new chronotope for a new, whole and harmonious man, and for new forms of human communication” (Bakhtin 169).
It is no accident that both Bakhtin and Rancière feature Rabelais so prominently—or that Febvre is at such pains to make him identical with his time, to suppress what Lefranc—and perhaps Bakhtin—identify as radical in his novels. The historian, says Rancière, works in a “truth regime . . . constituted in a specific connection between the poetic logic of a necessary or likely plot (intrigue) and a ‘theological’ logic of the manifestation of the order of divine truth in the order of human time” (26). In other words, the historian makes history look necessary—the events that make it up did not occur by chance but by “providence,” a theological rendering that tends, says Rancière, upwards, towards an eternity in which everything that occurs had to be (26). His historian works almost as a novelist would, making events cohere and eliminating what does not fit—unless, that is, we conceive of the novelist as Bakhtin does, bringing together in different, often conflicting, ways different chronotopes.
Rancière argues for a “positive sense” of the anachronism which he calls anachronies. These moments that do not try to make time more identical with itself, or to make a world that conforms to a fictional theology, he contends, are “events, ideas, significations that are contrary to time, that make meaning circulate in a way that escapes any contemporaneity, any identity of time with ‘itself’” (47). The word or event that has “left ‘its’ time, and in this way is given the capacity to define completely original points of orientation (les aiguillages), to carry out leaps from one temporal line to another” have the potential to disrupt an official time, or to conflict with the time of another character, or to move between or create new chronotopes (47). These anachronies, though, are also subject to discipline, the way that Lefranc’s claims come under attack by Febvre.
in Viriginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Smith comes under this variety of discipline under the care of Dr. Holmes, first, but particularly Sir William. Even as the novel, punctuated by regular chimes of the clock, establishes an emphasis on a shared, official time, traumatized Septimus flashes back to the battlefield, unable to coincide with himself. The problem, according to Sir William, is one of “proportion”:
health is proportion, so that when a man comes into your room and says that he is Christ (a common delusion), and has a message, as they mostly have, and threatens, as they often do, to kill himself, you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months’ rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve. (Woolf 99)
Proportion is Sir William’s “goddess,” the one that allows him and England to “prosper” (Woolf 99). He “secluded [England’s] lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion” (Woolf 99).
Sir William enforces Proportion through “a sister, less smiling, more formidable”: “Conversion is her name and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace” (Woolf 100). Proportion and Conversion make up a regime of discipline that the novel implicates time in particularly:
Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a ship in Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one. (Woolf 102)
Septimus feels the full weight of the regime of Proportion and Conversion when he is hospitalized. Hugh Whitbread “ruminate[s]” on another form of the discipline when he hears the Rigby and Lowndes clock: “subconsciously one was grateful to Rigby and Lowndes for giving one time ratified by Greenwich; and this gratitude (so Hugh Whitbread ruminated, dallying there in front of the window) naturally took the form later of buying off Rigby and Lowndes socks or shoes” (Woolf 102). The ratified Greenwich time is heard all across the country simultaneously—it is the standardized time of industrial capitalism, regulated to keep the trains that connect the city and the country on time, and expanding from Greenwich throughout the British Empire. The ratified time both suppresses and generates anachronism—previously, locales were out of sync with each other, anachronistic in relation with each another, but Greenwich mean time defines a norm that, as the novel suggests, is often, even inevitably, deviated from. It suppresses, in other words, the particular relationship of time and place, in favor of a time that synchronizes heterogeneous spaces. Bakhtin identifies Einstein’s theory of relativity as source and example of this chronotope (Bakhtin 84). His theory necessarily involves the particularity of time to a space, a particularity that builds anachronism and disjointedness into any possible presence, and resists the power of an official, ratified time to subsume or determine the experience of time across spaces.
Clocks like the one Whitbread hears—reminders of the presence of an official time—chime on the hours and half- hours through Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that, from its first page, works regularly through anachronism:
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?—was that it?—“I prefer men to cauliflowers”—was that it? (Woolf 3).
Multiple temporal lines, in Rancière’s phrase, open up here—Mrs. Dalloway, going out into the morning, hears (in the narrative present? Or in memory?) the French windows opening up at Bourton. Details of her perceptions are interrupted by the parenthetical reminder that the perceptions are those of “a girl of eighteen,” Clarissa, who is herself not identified entirely with that moment, but is anticipating “something awful” while looking at the flowers and the rooks. Anticipating, at least, until a further interruption, one that Mrs. Dalloway cannot completely recall.
Based on his reading of a scene in To the Lighthouse, Erich Auerbach would identify the technique through which Mrs. Dalloway’s consciousness collapses into her past, with its anticipations and interruptions, as she goes into the London midmorning, as “a transfer of confidence”:
the great exterior turning points and blows of fate are granted less importance; they are credited with less power of yielding decisive information concerning the subject; on the other hand there is a confidence that in any random fragment of a life at any time the totality of its fate is contained and can be portrayed. (Auerbach 547)
Auerbach here describes a subject, not one determined by decisive moments, but by the potential for anachronism, for the connections between and intrusions of disparate times and chronotopes that make up a subject. At the same time, though, like her counterpart Mrs. Ramsay, Mrs. Dalloway dramatizes the pressure on consciousness to cohere and the support it finds in a disciplinary structure: Proportion and Conversion; the subconscious gratitude that prompts you to buy new shoes.
To do so, a Woolf novel will exploit the necessary anachronism built into the form and its model of retrospective narration, as it registers the presence of an official time and the apparatus that enforces it. In this scenario, Sir William operates much like the historian Febvre. Where he would make sure each character observed the limits of his or her place and time, a novelist like Woolf will allow her characters to move through the discrepant times that have made up her life, ending up “there” in the novel’s final line, as Clarissa—a past self the novel makes present, and a present self the novel maintains even through the anachronistic reappearance of her teenage name. As the center of her own diminishing social world, Mrs. Dalloway takes for granted and deploys the “multiplicity of other temporal lines, even of senses of time, included in the ‘same’ time” that Rancière takes as the “condition of historical activity” (Rancière 47-48). The novel, though, brings these timelines under discipline—while some senses of time expand the subject and enrich the everyday, others confine will inevitably institutionalize that subject. Thus, while some anachronisms can be managed, others must be eliminated. Whitbread is aware of subconscious gratitude at being supplied with the ratified time, and worries that it compels him to buy new shoes. He “ruminate[s], dallying there in front of the shop window.”
So he ruminated. It was his habit. [. . .] He had been afloat on the cream of English society for fifty-five years. He had known Prime Ministers. [. . .] And if it were true that he had not taken place in any of the great movements of his time or held important office, one or two humble reforms stood to his credit; an improvement in public shelters was one; the protection of owls in Norfolk another; servant girls had reason to be grateful to him; and his name at the end of letters to the Times, asking for funds, appealing to the public to protect, to preserve, to clear up litter, to abate smoke, and stamp out immorality in parks, commanded respect. (Woolf 102-103)
Whitbread ruminates—he might not buy socks or shoes. He intervenes in public matters. Even as other times, other temporal lines, other senses of time, intrude on him and the other characters floating on the cream of English society, hosting parties, writing legislation, they do not disrupt the other time that Rancière invokes: the distribution of time that decides who has it and who does not.
Time thus assures the equivalence of a social distribution and an epistemic distribution. It separates the different ways in which to take part in the task of the city, thereby imitating the eternity of justice in the time of human affairs. On the one hand, there are those who have time to concern themselves with contemplation of the divine model and the forms of its temporal realisation. On the other hand, there are those who have not the time for this, and who, as a consequence, only imitate eternity passively, by the fact of not having the time to do anything but the work to which their nature predestines them. (38-39)
Can the novel intervene in this distribution, beyond identifying a multiplicity of temporal lines? In other words, can we read the novel for anachronies (and can novelists write it for them?)—with the attendant possibility of affecting the distribution of time—rather than just anachronisms—different regimes of time and its passing in the novel? Woolf reorganizes time, but her novel does not seem to redistribute it. Bakhtin, though, understands the reorganization of time in the novel as radical—that is, as intervening at the root of time and its distribution. He traces this potential in Rabelais:
Amid the good things of this here-and-now world are also to be found false connections that distort the authentic nature of things, false associations established and reinforced by tradition and sanctioned by religious and official ideology. Objects and ideas are united by false hierarchical relationships, inimical to their nature; they are sundered and separated from one another by various other-worldly and idealistic strata that do not permit these objects to touch each other in their living corporeality. These false links are reinforced by scholastic thought, by a false theological and legalistic casuistry and ultimately by language itself—shot through with centuries and millennia of error—false links between (on the one hand) good material words, and (on the other) authentically human ideas. It is necessary to destroy and rebuild the entire false picture of the world, to sunder the false hierarchical links between objects and ideas, to abolish the divisive ideational strata. It is necessary to liberate all these objects and permit them to enter into the free unions that are organic to them, no matter how monstrous these unions might seem from the point of view of ordinary, traditional associations. [. . .] On the basis of this new matrix of objects, a new picture of the world necessarily opens up—a world permeated with an internal and authentic necessity. Thus, in Rabelais the destruction of the old picture of the world and the positive construction of a new picture are indissolubly interwoven with each other. (Bakhtin 169)
Bakhtin identifies a positive and a negative task with Rabelais, both of which Rabelais “prosecutes” by means of anachronism: the return, in the positive, creative task, of “the contiguity of objects” with their natures before “other-worldly idealism” displaces and dematerializes them, through “folklore and antiquity,” and in the negative task, destroying reified relationships, through “Rabelaisan laughter—directly linked to the medieval genres of the clown, rogue and fool, whose roots go deep back into pre-class folklore” (170).
The anachronistic move back brings together what is otherwise kept “separate, in pharisaical error” (Bakhtin 170). Bakhtin, like Rancière, describes this error in terms of division. The chronotope, he insists, works through a “profoundly spatial and concrete” time that “is not separated from the earth or from nature” (Bakhtin 208). The “unified” space and time of the chronotope has an analogue in history: it corrects a situation in which there has “emerged one scale for measuring the events of a personal life and another for measuring the events of history” (Bakhtin 208). The social whole has “bifurcated”: “The plots (occasions) of history become something specifically separate from the plots of personal life (love, marriage)” (Bakhtin 208). Official time distributes between the levels of plot the events of history and the events of the personal life, the power to participate in plots: “There were not many personal plots to choose from, and these could not be transferred into the life of the social whole (the state, the nation)” (Bakhtin 208)
Rancière equates the violation of this distribution, the appropriation, in Bakhtin’s terms, of other plots determined by other chronotopes, with anachrony, the positive sense of anachronism. The city of Platonic philosophy, he says, is governed by a strict distribution of occupation and leisure, of “ways in which to take part in the task of the city” that are assigned according to who has the time to participate—people like Hugh Whitbread and Sir William—and who does not—Septimus Smith (Rancière 39). “What threatens the scientific city,” according to Rancière, “of history are words and thoughts that leave behind the strict obedience to belief similar to time”—words and thoughts that acknowledge alternatives to what already exists (Rancière 39). Plato’s city is a chronotope that hopes to avoid acknowledging its chronotopicity—that is, it aspires to organize space and time to the exclusion of other chronotopes, other dispensations of space and time, with other attendant potential organizations of “ways to take part in the city” and to divide leisure and work. Though the chronotope of Plato’s city aims for full power and discipline, it is a chronotope like others—waiting to be brought into anachronistic, contradictory, constructive, new relationships with other chronotopes.
When the protagonist returns to Europe at the end of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, he arguably submits to a chronotope with similar organizational power and aspirations. Back in Europe, Robinson finds that he is, surprisingly, not all that much of an anachronism, even though he has been away for many years: the property regime he reenters has provided, in the absence of his official death, for years of economic accumulation that smooth his reentry in a society based on exchange value. While Robinson produced and reproduced his life on the island, a legal zombie was profiting in Brazil, Portugal, and England. Though he returns to England as a “perfect stranger” and finds, except for a few sisters and nephews and nieces, “all the family extinct,” Robinson also finds that, “as there was no proof of my being dead, [his universal heir] could not act as an executor until some certain account should come of my death” (Defoe 269-272). Following a series of notarizations, affidavits, and procurements, to recollect his property in Brazil and the proceeds of that property abroad, Robinson finds “indeed, that the latter end of Job was better than the beginning [. . .] especially when I found all my wealth about me”:
I was now master, all on a sudden, of above £5000 sterling in money; and had an estate, as I might well call it, in the Brazils of above £1000 a-year, as sure as an estate of lands in England. And in a word, I was in a condition which I scarce knew how to understand, or how to compose myself for the enjoyment of it. (Defoe 275-276)
Robinson returns not as an anachronism—thirty years out of date after his life of near isolation on the island—but as the beneficiary of a transatlantic property scheme that has transformed the very ground on which people now tread. Although the ratified Greenwich time that Hugh Whitbread imagines has not yet been instantiated, Robinson returns to a world that has nevertheless maintained his estate across oceans and decades, one with the capacity to expand into new territories. By the end of the novel, Robinson has revisited “my new colony on the island” populated by the Spaniards who succeeded him and left them with “supplies of all necessary things, and particularly of arms, power, shot, tools, and two workmen” (Defoe 295). He finally divides the island into parts, “reserv[ing] to myself the property of the whole” but distributing tenants’ rights among the Spaniards and “engag[ing] them not to leave the place” (Defoe 295). By the end of the book, in other words, Robinson’s island has come to spatialize another moment in history than the one he left. The one to which he returns has been incorporated into a global system for distributing time and space, work and leisure, and money. Before he makes it back to the island, though, Robinson must traverse the intrusive space of “adventure time.” Taking a detour through the Pyrenees Mountains to avoid a riskier trip by sea, Robinson and Friday find themselves surrounded by wolves “in hopes of prey” (Defoe 290). Having killed “about threescore of them,” the pair are surrounded by the rest as they travel through the night to the sound of the “the ravenous creatures howl[ing] and yell[ing] in the woods” before they arrive at a village to find in “a terrible fright” that the wolves had attacked the night before (Defoe 291). The episode, says Robinson, surpasses anything he experienced on the island:
For my part, I was never so sensible of danger in my life; for seeing above three hundred devils come roaring and open-mouthed to devour us, and having nothing to shelter us or to retreat to, I gave myself over for lost; and as it was, I believe I shall never care to cross those mountains again. I think I would much rather go a thousand leagues by sea, though I were sure to meet with a storm once a week. (Defoe 292)
On his approach to the village in the Pyrenees, presumably just another stope on Robinson’s journey to England to reclaim and keep his “new discovered state safe about me,” the narrative jumps the guardrails of the modern chronotope. He enters a space fundamentally incompatible with the world of property, a change in the rules governing the disposition of space he finds more terrifying than any encounter since the anonymous footprint on his island he takes for the presence of cannibals (Defoe 292). His newly discovered and recovered estate is made possible by a chronotope that has not yet encompassed the entire present moment. Reading novels for the lesions in the chronotope, where anachronisms meet anachronies and times come out of joint, affords us exactly this understanding of the limits of the official hierarchies that organize time and space.
Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination.
Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.
Rancière, Jacques. “The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth.” InPrint 3, no. 1
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, 2002
Tatiana González Buonomo
The term “anachronism” is derived from the Greek prefix ana- meaning “against” and the Greek word chronos which means “time” and it is generally used to refer to a thing found in a period in which it does not belong, oftentimes a thing that is old-fashioned. Jacques Rancière expands the concept of anachronism in compliance with the principle that “belonging to a time is strictly identical to belonging to a belief” (33). What this means is that the conditions of a given time allow for certain possibilities of thought and action while forbidding others. To accuse someone of committing the sin of anachronism is to claim that person has attributed some thought or action to a certain moment that could not have been imagined or performed at that time. In order to identify anachronism, he contends, we have to ask “is it possible that this could have happened?” and not “is it true that this happened?” Should the event not meet those conditions of possibility, then we are dealing with anachronism, and the thought or action in question cannot be considered faithful to the time that it is supposed to represent. In short, anachronism escapes the logic of verisimilitude, it is incompatible with its surroundings, unsuitable, a detail that does not fit. This term is also used by historians to identify an author’s location of a fact, a use of certain terms, or a character type in the wrong time period in order to identify a mistake in successive time. Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence displays such a detail in the German-made clock on a wall in the home of the protagonist’s beloved. This type of large chiming clock with a pendulum was popular at the end of the 19th century and has no place in the Istanbul of the late 1970’s, where time is governed by modern wristwatches and television programming. Given that “the device by which the Keskin family actually kept time was the television,” we must consider the clock in conspicuously anachronistic (286). Its survival into the world of the television set encapsulates the conflict of traditional Turkish life with the Western modernity that has displaced it.
Successive time: Rancière describes Aristotle’s temporal paradigm as the time of mere succession, in which events occur one after another as particular and contingent facts. This form of time follows the laws of succession and is limited to the chronological sequence of events which operates, in his view, in opposition to what Rancière calls “epochal time.” Epochal time marks specific regimes of truth, order, and power--a coagulation of times that ignore succession. Jameson specifies the concept of successive time as “the regime of the past-present-future” (25), the familiar tripartite system to which “the ignorant man” belongs, namely the man so circumscribed by his time that he cannot be occupied with anything other but his own affairs. In the capitalist mode of production, Rancière maintains (after Lukács), the working man is supposed to remain ignorant and focus his energies entirely on the labor at hand rather than consider how things might be otherwise. Workers, he contends, do not “have” time to think beyond the limits of their moment. The Museum of Innocence problematizes Rancière’s notion of people whose thought is restricted to their moment in history.
At first glance, it would appear that character of the beloved (Füsun) is just such a person insofar as she subscribes to the conservative morals and values of traditional Turkish society and submits to an older man who later marries her in order to preserve her honor. Her economic situation prevents her from scaping the limits of family obligations and social norms that subjects her to the condemnation of traditional Turkish society. At the same time, however, she is acutely aware of the fact that her social position and financial resources have limited her options. To appease her jealousy over his relationship to the woman his family intends for him to marry, her lover contends she is superior to the other woman. “She’s studied in Europe, he claims, but she’s not as modern and courageous as you are,” to which Füsun retorts, “Actually, I’m not modern or courageous!” (51). She reveals, in other words, that she is quite aware of the powerless position she occupies in relation to an older and wealthy man who happens to be engaged to another woman. Fusün understands herself as an anachronism.
Kemal’s close friend and social equal, Zain, on the other hand, is far a better candidate for Rancière’s category of the ignorant man. “You-Deserve-It-All Zaim”, so dubbed by Kemal’s intended, Sibel, is consumed by the idea of thriving among the rich Istanbul bourgeoisie. His major concerns in life are his affairs with models and actresses, the success of his business with the urban rich, and Western innovation. The slogan for his Meltem brand soft drink, Kemal’s family business, “You Deserve It All,” encapsulates his proclivity for wealth and luxury. Blinded by capital, he is stuck in a glitzy money-making loop to which he devotes his energy.
The eternal present: Rancière considers, “How does a time resemble eternity? In being a pure present” (34). This is time that has escaped the constraints of successive time and exists as a detemporalized present, or time without chronology. The eternal present materializes as a museum in Pamuk’s novel. Jameson explains “this absolute present [as] a new kind of freedom, a disengagement from the shackles of the past ... as well as from those of the future” (710). Rancière in turn identifies the scholar as the historical agent who can break away from the restrictions of successive time and enter the atemporal spatial flow of the eternal present. The scholars are those who “cannot not think what their time alone presents as thinkable” and rupture the resemblance with their time. In other words, these men “do not resemble their time, insofar as they act in breach of their time, in breach of the line of temporality that puts them in their place by obliging them to use their time in some way or other” (46). Contrary to the ignorant man, the scholar is the one who has time and therefore the power to “make” history. In The Museum of Innocence, Kemal Bey appears, like Rancière’s scholar, acutely aware of “being outside Time” (355) at the Keskin house and he wishes to create a museum where his visitors can enter this similar state of “not really living in the present moment” (421). He believes that by harvesting the relics of enough happy moments he can overcome successive time and materialize timeless happiness in the present moment.
Anachrony refers to a new link between disparate times. As Rancière describes it, “An anachrony is a word, an event, or a signifying sequence that has left its time and in this way is given the capacity to define completely original points of orientation to carry out leaps from one temporal line to another” (47). It “makes meaning circulate in a way that escapes any contemporaneity,” and in so doing it can travel freely between lines of temporal succession. Kemal materializes such time in assembling his museum. As he says, “It is through my reproduction of that enchanted space that museum visitors can wander, as if through Time” (355). While each museum visitor has his or her own experience of the museum, he or she assembles a narrative that transforms the materials in the museum into a world of happiness. For Rancière, the capacity to leap over and between temporal lines creates spaces for new possibilities. By contrast to anachronisms that find the possibilities of anachronistic thought as a “mistake” in understanding one’s moment in successive time, anachronies identify points of digression or deviation from the conventions that confine on to his or her time. Nor, in doing so, do anachronies violate the hierarchy of epochal time when they create new positions in time that operate like railway lines that switch our thinking to a different temporal track. Anachronies provide a way of circulating meaning that is free to make new connections and has the potential to “make” history. Scholars who “leave behind the strict obedience to belief similar to time” have the potential to make history (39), provided they establish a new temporal line that disrupts the truth regime prevailing at their moment in time.
In designing his museum, Kemal creates such pathways by displacing historical space and time by means if the arrangement of his collected “artifacts.” Indeed, he moves into the house that he transformed into a museum and lives among the objects in his collection. In a metafictional moment, the novelist himself appears as a character from whom Kemal seeks help in telling his story. In April 2012, this museum ceases to be simply a work of fiction, as Orhan Pamuk opens a museum based on his novel in Istanbul and fills it with objects that resemble those Kemal collected in the novel. It is fair to say that the creation of a four-story museum in Çukurcuma, a neighborhood originally populated by poor immigrants, “makes” history in that it created a tourist site that succeeded in revitalizing the neighborhood. In the Beyoğlu district where Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is located “the buildings once inhabited by the Greeks and Armenians are now occupied by new minorities... now home to French, Italian and British writers and artists, drawn in part by its disheveled and haunting charms” (26). As it is featured in city guidebooks, the museum is the main attraction of a neighborhood that no longer belongs to its moment in time but fits into a gentrified neighborhood that appeals to cosmopolitan tourists.
The Past Made Present
Pamuk writes: “In Physics Aristotle makes a distinction between Time and the single moments he describes as the present. Single moments are – like Aristotle’s atoms – indivisible, unbreakable things. But Time is the line that links these indivisible moments together” (287). This understanding of time is troublesome given that Aristotle did not believe in atoms and he argues that “time does not exist independently of the events that occur in time” and reduces time to “temporal relations among things and events”. As carried out in his novel, Pamuk’s theory of time calls attention to certain inconsistencies, which serve as openings for the reader to examine at what cost Kemal’s collection transcends successive time. Pamuk mangles the Aristotelian theory of temporality in order to call attention to the discrete moments in time that escape the linear relationship of successive events.
Kemal Bey’s obsession with Füsun leads him to make a series of highly questionable decisions, the most outlandish of which is his compulsive collection of artifacts that in some way recall how he feels in her presence. Ranging from china dogs to doorknobs, butterfly barrettes to a ’56 Chevrolet, there was no limit to what he would collect. Imbued with talisman- like properties, these artifacts initially served as a palliative to soothe the pain provoked by Füsun’s absence. As if he were taking care of an open wound, Kemal would stroke his neck, cheeks, and forehead with these objects, reveling in the powers of consolation they held. As his collection grows, he realizes he has become addicted to collecting relics of his moments that promise a future with Füsun that cannot materialize, and those relics start to take a new role. They serve as a bridge from successive time into the eternal present. The quality of the objects transforms as well. The actual objects that she had touched, seen, or worn so essential to Kemal’s ritualistic ceremonies (e.g., taking them to bed and stroking his skin with them) loses that cult value and acquires exhibition value as he opens his museum to tourists. Indeed, whatever value they might have had because Füsun had touched them vanishes, as Kemal replaces the objects he steals from Füsun’s home only to steal these substitutes in turn later on. The process of collecting these objects makes original and copy interchangeable.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin explains that ceremonial objects that maintain the identity of a cult will be emancipated from the ritual that gave them meaning if they are reproduced mechanically. As Benjamin explains this transformation, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” Kemal seems to acknowledge as much when Füsun’s Aunt Nesibe asks him what has become of the china dog that was perched on the television. Kemal speaks as the modern man when he replies, “[t]hey say the Chinese used to believe that things had souls” (378). When, in the last chapter of the novel, he contemplates his entire collection, Kemal reflects, “like a shaman who can see the souls of things, I could feel their stories flickering inside me” (512). The essence of the artifacts or what Benjamin would call the aura may wither as they enter the museum to be viewed by crowds of visitors and later reproduced as objects to be bought in the museum gift shop. At the same time, he finds the objects necessary stimuli that provide him with personal life—one that he did not lead. These fetish objects serve as the substitute for the emotional investment in Füsun he never made.
As the number of evenings spent at the Keskin house increases, it becomes clear that the interior of the house is disconnected from the outside world where time observes the principle of linear succession. Kemal claims that these objects “seem to exist out of time”, isolated in a separate realm that they have created themselves. The objects are free from the constraints of successive time and exist in an “enchanted space,” another name for Rancière and Jameson’s eternal present. What is his preferred artifact but the 4213 cigarette butts in his collection, which illustrate the form as well as the content of the eternal present? One cannot tell when a cigarette had been smoked or who had smoked it. Kemal is well aware of Füsun’s various methods used to put out a cigarette, the way she hid her smoking from her father, how her mood affected her style of inhaling, and even the myriad shapes of the cigarette butts he gathered. To another person, however, they are indistinguishable. Their value rests entirely, he admits, on what he brings to these objects, “I sometimes think that our love of cigarettes owes nothing to the nicotine, and everything to their ability to fill the meaningless void” (98). Indeed, there is nothing particularly remarkable about any of the objects he hoards:
And so looking at any of the things gathered in the Merhamet Apartments, even only to remember them, was like looking at the cigarette butts: one by one, they would recall the particles of experience until I had summoned up the entire reality of sitting at the dinner table with Füsun and her family. (398)
The objects are the foundation upon which he builds an eternal present that promises to heal aesthetically what time has taken from him. As he puts it in a chapter titled “The Consolation of Objects,”
For a week, I had been aware that in the ashtray now resting there was the butt of a cigarette Füsun had stubbed out. At one moment I picked it up, breathing in its scent of smoke and ash, and placing it between my lips. I was about to light it, but I realized that if I did there would be nothing left of the relic. Instead I picked it up and rubbed the end that had once touched her lips against my cheeks, my forehead, my neck, and the recesses under my eyes, as gently and kindly as a nurse salving a wound. (156)
His fondling of old moist cigarette butts may seem nauseating, but the act has a remarkably soothing effect. To him, the cigarettes were expressions of her emotional life and licking the trace of her lipstick from the filter amounts to consuming that life (395). As such, the cigarettes mark important moments in the novel. Long uncertain as to whether his love reciprocated, he learns that it is until one afternoon in the İnci Patisserie: “Exuding self-assurance, she took out a cigarette. As I leaned forward with my lighter, I looked into her eyes and... I told her once again how much I loved her” (456), to which Füsun replied: “I feel the same way.” In that each object in his collection was linked to a specific moment of contact with his beloved, “it [now] seemed as if these remembered moments expanded and merged into perpetuity” (398). This new temporal present is not limited to artifacts, however, but fills a space within the city. While the Keskin house is located in the corner of Çukurcuma Avenue in the old section Istanbul and the story takes place during the period from 1975 to 1985, Kemal does not see it that way: “This realm’s defining property was timelessness” (286). Within this timeless space, he finds a curious form of “solace,” or compensation for the life not lived.
Before his affair with Füsun, Kemal visits the Merhamet Apartments, where his mother stored household objects that were no longer in use. Being there recalled moments from his youth and “it seemed as if these artifacts had the power to calm [his] nerves” (21). In that this apartment was where his father met his long-term mistress, we cannot be surprised that these relics embody a childish eroticism similar to the objects stolen from Füsun and distinct from the commodities that flooded into a modernizing Turkey. As their love blossoms, he stores these feelings in the Merhamet Apartments on the assumption that Füsun would return and enchant more objects with her presence. Having failed her university entrance exams the day after Kemal and Sibel’s engagement party, she never returns to the little paradise in 131 Teşvikiye Avenue. The objects thus become signs of her absence, from which Kemal extracts a form of gratification that she will never provide him directly. In other words, these objects become fetishes—he calls them “talismans”--that activate the erotic feelings he could no longer experience with Füsun herself.
On searching for her at her parent’s apartment house on Kuyulu Bostan Street, he receives the devastating news that she no longer lives there. Under the spell cast by her absence, he steals a standard lycée ruler he had once given her when helping her study for her exams. The ruler becomes the first of many pieces in his collection, all of which are distinguished by an addictive appeal “both healed me and reminded me of my affliction” (178). As the withdrawal symptoms reach an unbearable pitch, he returns to the Keskin’s apartment house to find the entire family gone, and proceeds to collect pieces of wallpaper, a door handle, the porcelain handle of the toilet chain, the arm of a baby doll, a large mica marble, and a few hairpins to enshrine in the Merhamet Apartments. Reestablishing relations on a new footing with Füsun, now a married woman, he spends his evening at her Aunt Nesibe’s home, eating dinner, watching television, and stealing objects for his collection. During his darkest days in the last months of 1979, he
…managed to see Füsun three or four times a week, and as happy as this made me, with each week I still took from her house three or four things, sometimes as many as six or seven, and during the most miserable phases, between ten and fifteen, and having got them to the Merhamet Apartments, I felt triumphant (372)
While the pair does reunite after Füsun’s father’s death and the departure of her husband, it is anticlimactic and momentary. She dies in a car accident, and the objects in the Merhamet Apartments acquire the power of relics.
During his visits to the empty museums in Paris, Kemal discovers his own future: “it was as if I had entered a separate realm that coexisted with the city’s crowded streets but was not of them; and in the eerie timelessness of this other universe, I would find solace” (495). By definition, museums are anachronistic. Their purpose is to remove objects from their original place in time and position them in a new—exhibition—time, so that they might artificially reproduce a sense of something that is no longer there. Finding that these museums put him in a state resembling intoxication, he thinks along what Rancière would call a new temporal line. Although his state of intoxication puts him in a past that he had not actually experienced firsthand, he experiences that moment as if it were in fact his personal memory, and with this feeling in mind, he starts building his own museum so that visitors will also “lose all sense of Time” (520).
Through the specific arrangement of otherwise unrelated artifacts, a multiplicity of situations belonging to different moments can coexist in a single moment. In doing so, in. my view, Kemal’s carefully curated collection of items provides a model of what the novelist does with anachronism. Pamuk joins different objects, facts, events, or thoughts that follow various temporal lines to create an artificial totality that defies successive time. In this artificial moment, different concepts of temporality interact. Readers witness an interplay of successive time (the moments of contact with Füsun that follow one after the other), of anachronism, (the sequential placement of artifacts in Kemal’s museum), and anachronies (the unity of moments out of time). As an artificial moment out of time, moreover, the museum progressively invades the modern world of sequential time, as Pamuk’s imagined museum generates a museum catalogue, and the catalogue inspires Pamuk to buy a building in the old section of Istanbul that meets the novel’s description of building that houses Kemal’s collection. Just as those objects are necessary for the museum, the concept of anachronism is necessary for the novel.
Benjamin, Walter. Underwood. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Penguin Books, 2008.
Jameson, Fredric. The Antinomies of Realism. Verso, 2015.
Jameson, Fredric. “The End of Temporality.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 29, no. 4, 2003, pp. 695–718.
Markosian, Ned. “Time.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 24 Jan. 2014, plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/.
Mazer Crummey, Nicholas. Cosmopolitan Facades: Historical Diversity as a Tool of Exclusion and Destruction in The Tarlabaşı Urban Renewal Project. 2016. Sabancı U, M.A.Thesis. http://research.sabanciuniv.edu/34814 /1/NicholasMazerCrummey_10158510.pdf
Pamuk, Orhan. The Museum of Innocence. Vintage International, 2010.
Rancière, Jacques (2015) “The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth.” InPrint: vol. 3, no. 1, article 3, 2015.
Aura is a theoretical concept that Walter Benjamin coined and developed in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935). He defines it as an intrinsic element common to both natural objects and art objects, which Benjamin also considers historical objects. He begins his development of this concept through art objects. Aura, in his view, is embedded in art objects by their physical existence, “presence,” in a particular time and space to which it testifies. Consequently, aura is linked to historicity and tradition. Its physical existence allows us to track its movement through space and time from the moment of its emergence. Benjamin argues that manual production determines the aura of original objects, determining their aura. Embedded in the art object by manual production is the authority of historical testimony earned by the object’s presence within a particular history, tradition, and the place in which that history occurs. Aura both affords and is afforded by a sub-concept: authenticity. The physical existence of a manually produced art object of a particular space and time affords its authority of that time and space. Once removed from that time and space, its authority diminishes and, with it, credibility of its historical testimony.
Distance further refines the concept of aura by giving it a social/human base and a second conceptual layer. Benjamin hones in on the experience of aura through sense perception. Linked to experience rather than an artistic process and product of history and tradition, the aura of nature derives from the distance between a person and natural objects—be they a mountain range or the branch of a tall tree—as the condition of our experience. One’s perception of this distance provokes a desire for closeness, which implies that distance provides a barrier or gap between perceiver and object perceived. The appeal of aura rests on the paradox that certain objects provoke a desire for closeness that they cannot satisfy. Aura, as intrinsic to the authentic products of manual production, cannot survive the evolution of modes of social existence, evolution that proceeds in tandem with changes in sense perception that demand new forms of mediation between perceiver and the world of objects. In contemporary life, this demand is so all-encompassing that it surpasses the demand for traditional art forms and their objects. Benjamin writes:
A painting has always had an excellent chance to be viewed by one person or by a few... Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience... The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. (8)
In the age of mass mediation, aura becomes inherently exclusionary. Benjamin is especially attentive to the ways that traditional media have become outdated by changing modes of existence and sense perception. The aura “of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition is thoroughly alive and changeable” (4). He uses the transition from art as an object embedded in religious ritual to art as mass medium to explain what happens to aura in the early twentieth century. This shift from religion to politics frees art from the rituals that maintained its distance from business as usual and releases it into media forms that can be experienced immediately, forms capable of transforming collective experience.
As this implies, Benjamin considers aura antithetical to the value that it acquires in its mechanical reproduction, and he goes on to clarify the concept of aura by explaining how it is dismantled by mechanical reproduction. The manufacture of such objects results, he says, in “a tremendous shattering of tradition [and] the liquidation of traditional value of the cultural heritage” (3). If aura can neither be captured by nor transferred to the mechanically reproduced object, then mechanical reproduction destroys the distance maintained by the occult object. In doing so, mechanical reproduction consequently satisfies “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” (3). He accuses mechanical production “prying an object from its shell, to destroy its aura [and e]xtracts it even from a unique object” (3). This image of the oyster deprived of its living core conveys a clear sense of how the unique properties of an object vanish into a “universal equality of things” that he considers directly related to the “increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life [and which recognizes] the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura” (3). Mechanical reproduction extends the experience of art objects to virtually anyone at the cost of stripping the object of its aura. It does so by removing the art object from its time and place in history, subdues its authority as an authentic work of art, and destabilizing its capacity to serve as a historical witness. Liberated from tradition and the limitations of manual reproduction, the art object can provide a bridge between the public and the critic, as it elicits reactions from the former that provoke a reaction that critics must explain and evaluate. Art becomes political in the sense of a “progressive reaction” (8).
Film and photography are mechanically reproduced art forms that afford this simultaneous collective experience. To illustrate this point, Benjamin argues:
Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons [during the second half of the nineteenth century], there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception... With regard to the screen, the critical and receptive attitudes of the public coincide (8)
At stake in stripping objects of their aura is the ability to adjust reality for mass perception so that the masses can better adjust to a rapidly evolving reality. Mechanical reproduction affords a closer look at objects unobstructed by distance or historicity. This sense of immediacy generates a desire for more: “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction,” inspiring the inventors of photographic and film technology to provide a closer view of the object than can be experienced with the naked eye. Benjamin argues that the mechanical lens has the advantage of being
adjustable and choos[ing] its angle at will... Enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision... Technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations...out of reach for the original itself... [It] meet[s] the beholder halfway (2).
By allowing the beholder to experience this apparent closeness to the object and consequently “extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives, [while] managing to assure us of an immense unexpected field of action” (9).
As this statement suggests, the aura of an object establishes a certain form of distance between itself and its beholder. Inasmuch as aura is the preserves traces of another time within a space, inhabited by the original, the art object’s ability to provide historical testimony, that is, the experience of aura, will necessarily be retrospective. The spectator experiences traces of an object’s history when he or she engages with an authentic object, which is to say “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (2). On this basis, aura can be understood as the event of a spectator bearing witness to historical testimony. This historical testimony is inextricable from the object’s materiality which displays the work of its particular maker. Because the present mode of mechanical reproduction obscures precisely that work, Benjamin argues, the mass-produced object will lose the authority of historical testimony. But as much as he seems to lament the loss of aura, Benjamin still insists that its loss is a gain for society as a whole.
Here, I must stop to consider the basis for his resistance to historical testimony: Under what conditions might a close encounter with the past be somehow deleterious? Benjamin would seem to be saying that historical testimony in not a good thing if it maintains the limits of traditional art. “Tradition,” and the modes of perception caught up in that term, are for him problematic because perception necessarily changes with changes in the mode of production, especially with the development of new technologies of perception. As if bent on closing the distance between object and spectator, modern societies devise new technologies for reproducing and distributing their culture. When the drive to close this gap succeeds—as it does with the invention of calotype photography in the 1830s followed by the cinematic image six decades later—spectators become participators in a collective experience, he argues, and “the critical and receptive attitudes of the public coincide” (8). This, it would seem, is what Benjamin means in claiming human sense perception was evolving toward an ability to grasp universal equality of things. In this trajectory, mechanical reproduction operates as an equalizer.
The paradox of aura—that it provokes a desire for a closeness that new forms of mediation are by definition incapable of fulfilling—generates an urgent need to recapture the lost dimension of the object through artistic innovation. To put it simply, the problem of the distance produced by mediation is resolved through artistic innovation, specifically by forms of mediation that, like film and photography, appear to do away with mediation. The new technology of transparent images destabilizes the traditions of art and sets a precedent for future art objects, which sees to it that “[t]ransitions that in literature took centuries have come about in a decade” (7). During the twentieth century, film became the exemplary medium for registering the artistic response to changes in public sensory perception. Film was not only a medium of reproduction; it also became an art form in its own right. Hence “[t]he cathedral leaves its locale...the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room” (2).
MRS. DALLOWAY AS TEST CASE
Written in 1925, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway provides a test case for the novel’s response to the loss of aura in the face of new technologies of reproduction. The novel does not make us aware of this displacement of traditional modes of perception by such innovations as the skywriting over Trafalgar Square, so much as by the ways it calls attention to itself as a mechanical reproduction of its own narrative form. To unfold a narrative that bears resemblance to the traditional machinery of the bildungsroman, Woolf mines film and photography to produce a series of close shots—transitions between people and moments that escape the conscious notice of Woolf’s characters as they bustle through the events of an ordinary day. By means of these techniques, Woolf magnifies the subtle transitional moments that escape the naked eye when one is in the process of negotiating an ordinary day. Woolf calls attention to her technical virtuosity in dilating the novel’s perceptual lens by striking a compelling contrast between her novel and the Western canon. In this respect, we might even say that Mrs. Dalloway operates as a mechanical reproduction of literary history.
While, as Benjamin insists, the mechanical reproduction of art “destroys aura” as a means of conserving the tradition of art in order to favor of art forms intended for reproduction. In reproducing the novel itself through the medium of print, Woolf succeeded in placing herself among an international group of modernists who sought to elevate the novel to literary status by means of direct and indirect references to the Western canon. In a novel that intentionally departs from tradition, then, she made clear just what aspects of the tradition she was departing from and earned her fiction inclusion as the end point of Erich Auerbach’s canonical study Mimesis.
The impact of this gesture can be understood in relation the ways that technology and its relentless progression impacts the production of art objects in general. Thanks to improvements in printing by the time Woolf wrote, the novel was at the forefront of the mass production of literary art objects. Novels had to compete for readers in an ever-expanding marketplace for popular fiction, and any attempt to the fiction of one’s time to the past tradition was bound to produce some formal rupture. Woolf simultaneously compounds and resolves this problem by drawing on the art of the moving image, as it was developing in innovative ways during the period between World Wars.
Example 1. MRS. DALLOWAY AND THE WESTERN CANON
Clarissa asks herself, “What was she trying to recover?” as she is “dreaming” of the past and mourning a way of life that is now largely memory (Woolf 9). She reminisces about “the book,” though never citing Cymbeline or Shakespeare specifically, and while contemplating an evening that promises to recover something of the past, she raises questions of that past that can only emerge in retrospect. As a spectator of what has past, she aspires to a closeness that modern culture disallows. What does this say about her relation to Cymbeline, which has been sliced, copied, and pasted into this novel, as of to distinguish it from any other? Shakespeare’s immortal words gain a form of immortality quite apart from their traditional status, as they are reproduced mechanically, detached from their source, fragmented, and dispersed. The two lines—“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages…”—would seem to bring the original work of art and space of performance object close to the reader. Instead they call attention to the artificiality of an excerpt from an original work of literature that has already been mechanically reproduced many times over and scattered throughout the culture of the novel. How did these passages find their way into the novel, we must wonder, if as Clarissa says of her education, “[s]he knew nothing; no language; no history; she scarcely read a book now...How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fräulein Daniels gave them she could not think” (8). These fragments confirm her claim that “she sliced like a knife through everything,” but they don’t explain why the novel neglects to name “the book” their origin. While she may not have been “properly” educated, the novel indicates that she has encountered Shakespeare at least second or thirdhand. By the same token, neither do these passages indicate the author’s erudition and a signpost for reading the novel. By flaunting its casual use of Shakespeare, the novel reminds us that the publication industry in which the novel thrives has usurped the position once occupied by public theater as the primary literary expression of the ruling class.
When Shakespeare and his work do appear by name, it is to invoke Richard Dalloway’s remonstrance that “no decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes” (Woolf 75). Later still, the shattered victim of combat, Septimus Smith, reminisces about his encounter with Antony and Cleopatra, the words to which remain unquoted. Woolf displays her literary education throughout the novel; the characters give voice to its history through indifference, criticism, and praise. Where Clarissa is self-admittedly ignorant and her husband Richard, dismissive, young Septimus, by contrast, wanted nothing more than to “[devour] Shakespeare, Darwin, The History of Western Civilisation, and Bernard Shaw” (85). As Benjamin explains, “[t]he situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated” (2). Indeed, this depreciation is evident throughout Woolf’s reproduction of literary history in the novel. Establishing just how this happens is a precondition for examining aura and the revolutionary structure of threaded narrative in Mrs. Dalloway.
Example 2. THREADED NARRATIVE
According to Erich Auerbach, stream-of-consciousness narration came into its own during the early decades of the twentieth century. The intersecting, crisscrossing, simultaneity of the characters’ movements in extended moments of interiority is not only rebellion against tradition, but, more fundamentally a response to cultural evolution prompted technological innovation. There is no denying the connection between the development of cinema techniques and the narrative structure of interiority that distinguishes literary modernism. Certainly, what is evident in both media is the premium they place on “closeness.” Benjamin writes:
The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses... By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film...extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives... The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. (9)
By contrast to the stage, film visually bridges the distance between actor and spectator, giving the spectator a sense of closeness to things, ideas, and human beings that he or she can then presume to know intimately. In that film is produced for a viewing audience, it troubles the tradition of the stage. Mrs. Dalloway not only aspires to the cinematic “close-up” but also reproduces magnified snapshots to anchor the narrative structure. As a result, there is no singular optic, or central consciousness, with which we can identify the authorial perspective; there is only the movement of narration through one character’s thought processes to another’s. One might argue that this novel takes the cinematic close-up further than it can take itself as narration penetrates the invisible stream of thought and reproduce it for a readership, while film was then limited to public theaters, regional viewings, community censorship, and racial restrictions. Woolf brings us close to a form of interiority that is presumed to exist within each of us but cannot be represented by the visual arts, at least not directly. The poignancy of this mode of art is its language—the element of literary art objects, through which we read the evolution forms of life and community. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s account of how mechanical reproduction destroys aura and dismantles its testimony to its moment in history holds true for this novel as well.
Mrs. Dalloway opens as Clarissa reminisces while walking through London. She stops in at Mulberry’s on Bond Street, but there is a “violent explosion which made Mrs. Dalloway jump” (14). As a result of this event, the novel enacts its first transfer of interiority from Clarissa to Septimus. Amongst the “passersby who, of course stopped and stared,” is Edgar J. Watkiss who speculates that the mysterious vehicle is “the Prime Minister’s kyar.” Septimus Warren Smith, “who found himself unable to pass, heard him.” True to form, Septimus’ thoughts are not self-enclosed but interwoven with information about the people around him and what they have in mind: “Mrs. Dalloway, coming to the window with her arms full of sweet peas... Old ladies on the tops of omnibuses” (15). Although he fails to pay particular attention to the protagonist, the reader understands that these movements happening around him indicates the movement that links and separates streams of consciousness, allowing the novel’s free indirect discourse to shift from one to another at will to make us experience the simultaneity of individual experiences.
Once “[t]he car had gone...had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street,” Clarissa is notably ‘absent’ for eleven pages (17). In the meantime, “the sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd... White smoke...curled and wreathed upon the sky in letters” (20). She emerges again while standing at her front door, asking the maid, “What are they looking at?” (29). Although this sentence begins a new section of the novel, the question Clarissa has posed is carried forward in time and elsewhere to make her present by virtue of her absence in the social interactions that follow. This begs the question of what Clarissa was thinking about that made her miss out on the action. A return to the novel’s opening reveals the missing thread that ties her to this event. Contemplating the extent to which Big Ben is embedded in London life, she notes a “strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead” (4). In capturing the complexity of daily life in which introspection is neither self-enclosed nor cut off from the environment that prompts it, the novel might have lost track of this moment of collective focus in the catalogue of her surroundings that Clarissa provides, had Woolf not recalled it from oblivion at a critical moment in the novel. In short, nothing is wasted here. The novel attends to the most subtle movements and stillnesses of consciousness, opening them to the glimpse of those readers willing to take the time to see.
“Remember my party to-night! she cried having to raise her voice against the roar of the open air, and, overwhelmed by the traffic and the sound of all the clocks striking” (48). Clarissa issues this plea to Peter Walsh as she is standing on the landing and Peter turns to make his way down the street. The plea makes a seamless transition from a fixed location inside the contained space of the Dalloway home, where their minds interact and they exchange dialogue, directly into Peter’s consciousness and his path through London. Although their conversation was over and Peter had already gone, the novel’s thought process reaches out in pursuit of his, even as it leaves her behind for a while. As he continues to ruminate on that plea and the frustration prompted by painful recollections of their past, her call to come to “my party to-night” threads its way through multiple people to the time of multiple clocks.
The novel makes the tenacity of this thread explicit in the following description of Peter’s thoughts the next day at a lunch with Lady Bruton, Hugh Whitbread, and Richard Dalloway:
And they went further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin thread (since they had lunched with her) which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London; as if one’s friends were attached to one’s body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, which (as she dozed there) became hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing the service, as a single spider’s thread is blotted with rain-drops, and, burdened, sags down. So she slept...let the thread snap; snored. (112)
Looking back down this thread to Clarissa’s encounter with Peter, one sees her plea as a thread that Peter picks up and stretches throughout the day, allowing it to extend in various directions through his interaction with others and theirs with still others, until it is barely discernible in Lady Bruton’s exchange with Hugh and Richard and snaps as their consciousnesses separate and Lady Bruton chooses sleep over, continuing within the stream of consciousness. By making the members of Clarissa’s social circle the keepers of the thread, the novel suggests that they, rather than the author, determine where the novel’s thought will wander next. This sense intensified at those moment when a character’s consciousness seems to digress from the character’s purpose. Richard, for example, walks a short while with Hugh but is soon agitated because “Hugh was becoming an intolerable ass” (114-115). This detour is the more annoying because Richard is “very eager, to travel that spider’s thread of attachment between himself and Clarissa; he would go straight to her” (115). The wayward threads then return to their socially consolidating patterns of thought when, at luncheon, Lady Bruton announces that Peter is back in London. Whereupon, Richard Dalloway recalls that “Peter Walsh had been in love with Clarissa” and resolves to “go back directly after lunch and find Clarissa...tell her, in so many words, that he loved her” (107). Indeed, one could argue, this narrative structure holds a mirror to social relations, how they form and reinforce one another and so endure over time.
It is difficult to imagine how this way of pulling a dispersed social class together over the course of one day could have been accomplished at another period in time. Drawing on the camera’s ability to capture a moment of history within the space of a shot and either render it reproducible as such or the evolution of cinematic techniques from those of a magic show to an instrument of realism. Just as “close-ups of the things around us [focus] on hidden details of familiar objects...exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, [so] the film...extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives” (9). Woolf shows that the novel can do for half formulated thought processes and interpersonal communication what cinematic techniques could do for visible phenomena: which is to show that human beings are an integral part of one another’s inner lives, lives therefore composed both of the people and things one thinks with.
Leaving Regent’s Park, Peter notices Septimus and Lucrezia “having an awful scene”: “And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them” (70). This is a short and seemingly casual transition that demonstrates the variety of characters that Woolf can assemble by softening the boundaries between those who happen to be in Regent’s Park. The reader sees both the struggle between the couple’s interiorities and Peter’s experience in the park as he tunes in briefly to Lucrezia’s frustration with Septimus. With his observation of the pair, the relies on Peter’s thought to carry the thread of social life to the novel’s next section.
Example 3. THE AUTHORITY OF TIME
We progress through the time of the day leading up to and immediately following Clarissa’s party. The fact that the novel marks time through the chiming of Big Ben and subsidiary clocks only heightens our awareness that successive time does not mark the movement within and between streams of thought. The narrative thread of Mrs. Dalloway maintains another form of time that is punctuated by shifts in consciousness rather than the chimes of the clock. Woolf’s emphasis on the transitions between interiors strikes a contrast between the keeping of time and the passing of time, which allows Woolf to emphasize the relative independence of the movement of consciousness from the passing of time and how human movement marks the keeping of time. The keeping of time is nevertheless there, always near, as marked by the movement between past and present as characters reminisce.
Aura is so inextricably connected to the keeping of time that we might think of the phenomenon as the keeper of tradition, as Benjamin understands the term. To explain how the keeping of time as tradition is related to the passage of time is the task that Woolf undertakes with Mrs. Dalloway. By contrast to the process by which human beings think through the events of an ordinary day, Big Ben is impersonal, monotonous, demanding, but constant and unchanging. The conscious processing of information is unwieldy and spontaneous and largely dependent on factors outside oneself. The concept of aura—as the keeping of time—deals with the discrepancy between the conscious experience of time and the passage of time. It is in keeping of time that historical changes in sensory perception take place and art helps a readership/audience adjust to those changes.
“One feels...a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense...before Big Ben strikes” (4). Big Ben is established as the authority of time early on in the novel. However, this is written through Clarissa’s interiority which immediately casts doubt on this claim because “it might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza.” She follows this with a rumination on Londoners’ mysterious affection for the clock. “Such fools we are, “she thinks, “building it round one, tumbling it, creating every moment afresh.” At the same time, she equates the daily events of keeping time with life in London and how one can’t help but love it. There is illuminated, here, a contrast between keeping time (Big Ben) and passing time. The passing of time is marked by people’s eye: “they love life... The swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motorcars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging, brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle... Can’t be dealt with...by Acts of Parliament.” The authority of time “speaks” in moments but is forgotten in the keeping of time by the people living within time; “The leaden circles dissolved in the air.” The keeping of time and the passing of time contrast a macro/micro dynamic. Contrasted here is the structure of time, as embodied by Big Ben, with the perception of time. That is, the passage of time is continuous, but its keeping is not.
The timekeeper captures our attention again and again, if only for that moment. Perhaps, this is the “suspense” and “indescribable” pause to which Clarissa refers. Even as people forget the timekeeper, the authority of its rhythmic presence is embedded in the group consciousness. The difference between keeping and passing time is a permanent feature of modern time must be negotiated by each individual in his or her particular social space. So, too, must the artist negotiate the gap between the tradition and the development of new techniques. Although it may not present itself as to us as a negotiation, the MR work of art responds to and incorporates aura even as it intentionally departs from it.
The intricacies of passing time in Mrs. Dalloway are manifest in its threaded narrative, which proves, for all the estrangement among the major characters demonstrates that human experience is not self-enclosed. Clarissa, Septimus, Richard, Peter, Lucrezia—their stories are not told as separate narrative segments, but moments within a single stream of time. Understood retrospectively, the experience aura requires one to “look back” and acknowledge distance; aura is a preservation of what was, of what traditionally embodied the authority of authentic experience. Big Ben, the keeper of time, is challenged the passing of time accentuates the tension Woolf maintains throughout the novel. That keeping and passing is always in conflict is reinforced by all the clocks throughout the city:
Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority...until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street announced...that it was half-past one... Subconsciously one was grateful to Rigby and Lowndes for giving one time ratified by Greenwich; and this gratitude (so Hugh Whitbread ruminated, dallying there in front of the shop window), naturally took the form of buying off Rigby and Lowndes socks or shoes. (102)
What manner of time is being authorized, here? The clocks of Harley Street “counsel submission” to the authority of time as a dissemination of the “mound of time”? At this point in the novel it is only Big Ben, with its “direct downright sound,” that informs the time (4 11am; 49 11.30am; 70 11.45am; 94 12pm; 102 1.30pm). This authority travels throughout London, from the clocks of Harley Street to Oxford Street. Doubly, the mound of time operates as a transition between interiorities, from Lucrezia Smith to Hugh Whitbread. The presence of its authority metaphorically materializes in “leaden circles” that “dissolve in the air” (4, 48, 94). So present is Big Ben that there is a subconscious gratitude for this dissemination and the proprietors that provide it. Though “subconsciously one was grateful,” Hugh does more than that. He attempts to express that gratitude by keeping “guard at Buckingham Palace, dressed in silk stockings... He had been afloat on the cream of English society [Lady Bruton] for fifty-five years” (103). With the character of Hugh, Woolf makes the point that there is no clear break between keeping and passing time. Hugh’s way of passing time as a palace guard is inseparable from his keeping of time.
Through Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf responds to the diminishing aura of the novel as a function of updating the novel as the means of mechanical reproduction. By drawing on cinematic techniques that fragment and artificially reassemble various moments in time changes, Woolf expands the inner lives of characters at the points of their intersection to follow the thread connecting those lives through a day in the life of modern London. While the novel’s narrative adheres to the passage of the hours of a single day, Woolf slows down that narrative by zooming in and expanding certain moments when the inner life eclipses “real-time.” The moments on which I have focused are but a few of many in which the novel departs from clocktime, and these departures invariably close the distance between individual human interiority and allows the reader to see the past that informs its relation to the present moment. As Benjamin contends:
Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride...The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. (9)
Such is the effect of the threaded interiorities that we follow through the day: to magnify the moments of transition from one human consciousness to another as they move through social space in relation together.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Translated by Harry Zohn. Marxists Internet Archive. Web. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Harcourt, 1925.
In “The Brown Stocking,” the final chapter of his seminal work, Mimesis, Eric Auerbach analyzes a short selection from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In this novel, the protagonist Mrs. Ramsay measures a stocking intended for the lighthouse keeper’s boy, using her own son, James, as a model. The “action” of the scene is obviously minimal: Mrs. Ramsay holds the stocking up against James, scolds him twice for fidgeting, concludes that it is “ever so much too short,” and bestows a kiss on his forehead as an apology for some over-harshness in her chiding (Auerbach 527). These external occurrences receive Auerbach’s attention only in passing. Instead, the interludes between these actions, composed of internal processes (i.e. reflections and recollections of characters within and without of the scene), as well as the method of their narration, form the basis of his analysis. There are three significant interludes. The first is composed of Mrs. Ramsay’s reflections on the degradation of the summer house’s furniture over time, her children’s contributions to it, and a moment with her homesick Swiss maid; the second, a meditation, delivered in the voice of “people,” on the source and nature of Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty; the third, a recollection, from the point of view of a Mr. Bankes, of a long-ago phone conversation with Mrs. Ramsay during which he too pondered her beauty and character.
Auerbach is fascinated by the manner in which these scenes are narrated: “The essential characteristic of the technique represented by Virginia Woolf is that we are given not merely one person whose consciousness...is rendered, but many persons, with frequent shifts from one to the other” (536). This use of free indirect discourse, says Auerbach, represents a radical shift away from traditional modes of narration for two reasons. First, its point of view; it eschews “unipersonal subjectivism which allows only a single and generally very unusual person to make himself heard and admits only that one person’s way of looking at reality” in favor of multiple experiences and understandings (536). And second, in its manner of plot selection and ordering; whereas traditional narration engages in a largely arbitrary process of identifying those moments it deems important and ordering them in an intelligibly causal sequence, Woolf’s technique mimics “processes of consciousness,” wherein each successive moment is in “perfect continuity” with the one before it, “not objectively”—that is, chronologically—but rather thematically (Auerbach 533-538). The narration of a scene, then, progresses not from one moment to its chronological successor as viewed through the eyes of a single subjective or objective narrator, but rather through the viewpoints of a number of different personages, each one connected to the others by a “theme [that] carries over directly” from one consciousness to the next (Auerbach 534). The effect of this technique is that the passage’s object—its theme (in this scene “Mrs. Ramsay, her beauty, the enigma of her character, [etc.]”)—“is as it were encircled by the content of all the various consciousnesses directed upon [it]...[in] an attempt to approach [it] from many sides as closely as human possibilities of perception and expression can succeed in doing” (Auerbach 536).
In order to understand the implications of this reading for the concept of “form,” let us turn to another passage that exemplifies Woolf’s narrative technique—the final scene of Mrs. Dalloway. With both the novel and the day coming to a close, Clarissa Dalloway’s soiree is at last coming to fruition. Guests appear slowly, then all at once, arriving in cabs which are “rushing round the corner, like water round the piers of a bridge, drawn together,” her old friend Peter says, “because they bore people going to her party, Clarissa’s party” (Woolf 250). The list of attendees is extensive and various. We hear their names announced by Mr. Wilkins, hired specifically for this party and for that purpose: “Sir John and Lady Needham,” “Old Lord Lexham,” “Colonel and Mrs. Garrod,” “Sir Harry” (an artist), “Professor Brierly,” “Sir William” (a psychiatrist), and even “The Prime Minister” (254; 259; 260; 267; 277; 261). Though the party is initially slow to gather momentum, stoking Clarissa’s fears that it will be a failure, with “people wandering aimlessly, standing in a bunch at a corner,” it eventually falls into a rhythm, as guests mingle and chat with one another, satisfying Clarissa that it was indeed a successful event (255).
What materializes during this scene are two networks that operate in parallel—linked by contingency but constructed independently of one another. The first is the social network that Clarissa conceives of and constructs, in the form of the guest list. It is self-consciously contrived so as to be well-rounded and to represent the full diversity of social life. There are politicians (Richard Dalloway and his colleagues, as well as the Prime Minister), artists (Sir Harry, Willie Titcomb, and Herbert Ainsty), aristocrats (the undifferentiated stream of Lords and Ladies), academics (Professor Brierly), and medical professionals (Sir William Bradshaw). Though it is a description originally directed at the Prime Minister, it could just as easily be put to the party’s attendees, that the guest list is representative of “what they all stood for, English society” (Woolf 262). Here I want to attend to the potential dual meaning of “stood for.” While it can indicate their belief in and support of the elite classes of society, we should not overlook their synecdochal relationship to society as a whole, that what the guests may feel is that they represent the larger social order in miniature. Clarissa has attempted to recreate the organic network of society within the arbitrary confines of a dinner party in order to give rise to new and interesting interactions, or, as she says, to allow people, “to say things you couldn’t say anyhow,” or anywhere, “else” (259). She felt that “it mattered, her party,” because it offered the opportunity to generate these new possibilities (255).
Ultimately, however, she fails on both counts, in synecdochally representing English society and in engendering new social experiences. Although representatives from various professions and walks of life present within the social network of the party, they hardly form a complete picture of society as a whole. We see this first with the presence of Lucy, a housemaid, and Mrs. Walker, the cook, on the periphery; they are at the party without being in the party. We see it as well with Septimus Smith, not invited but undoubtedly an indispensable piece of British society as a result to his service in World War I; he “intrudes” on the event by way of the Bradshaws who discuss his suicide and thereby provoke Clarissa’s ire that “in the middle of my party, here’s death” (Woolf 279). In the end, though Clarissa feels the event is a success, it does not produce anything new. The attendant coterie have and will continue to do “this sort of thing every night of the season” (256); despite any superficially extraordinary interchange, “as the night grew later, as people went, one found old friends,” leaving behind generative possibilities in favor of a continuity with the status quo (290). The party fails to achieve its ends because any attempt to translate English society to the form of the party would result in an inevitable distortion that is reflective of the translator’s—in this case, Clarissa’s—own subjectivity. Just as none of the “translations” of Mrs. Ramsay manage to reveal her true self or explain the source of her beauty, Clarissa’s transformation of the organic form of society in an artificially constructed and exclusive conception of “English society” produces a network that is neither accurately representative nor generative.
The idea of intrusion or exclusion in an organic society is a contradiction in terms, as every node (in this case, every member of society) is always already incorporated. This is the narrative network that the novel is intent on bringing into being. The technique by means of which Woolf attempts to do so resembles, in this respect, the passage that Auerbach quotes in “The Brown Stocking.” While there is a greater emphasis here on the external trappings of social interaction—who is arriving at the party, how they are mingling, etc.—we nonetheless receive information in the same manner, through rapidly shifting points of view and with a freedom of movement in time. The scene of the party opens with Lucy,
running full tilt downstairs, having just nipped into the drawing-room to smooth a cover, to straighten a chair, to pause a moment and feel whoever came in must think how clean, how bright, how beautifully cared for, when they saw the beautiful silver, the brass fire-irons, the new chair covers, and the curtains of yellow chintz: she appraised each; heard a roar of voices; people already coming up from dinner; she must fly! The Prime Minister was coming Agnes said: so she had heard them say in the dining-room, she said, coming in with a tray of glasses. Did it matter, did it matter in the least, one Prime Minister more or less?
And then moves into the consciousness of Mrs. Walker:
It made no difference at this hour of the night to Mrs. Walker among the plates, saucepans, cullenders, frying-pans, chicken in aspic, ice-cream freezers, pared crusts of bread, lemons, soup tureens, and pudding basins which, however hard they washed up in the scullery seemed to be all on top of her, on the kitchen table, on chairs, while the fire blared and roared, the electric lights glared, and supper had to be laid. All she felt was, one Prime Minister more or less made not a scrap of difference. (Woolf 250-251)
From there, on to Mrs. Walker’s concern that the salmon was underdone, to the remembrances of Mrs. Barnet, who maintains the coat check, to Lady Lovejoy and her daughter Alice, to Clarissa and then off into the consciousnesses of the partygoers. While in the party we encounter extended meditations from Peter, Clarissa, and a pitiful cousin named Ellie Henderson all focusing on the theme of change—about both the people around them and the ways of the world. Immediately obvious in comparison to Clarissa’s superimposed social network is Woolf’s greater diversity of participants. Rather than excluding individuals on the grounds of class distinction, this network of interconnected consciousnesses, “comes upon the order and interpretation of life which arise from life itself: that is, those which grow up in the individuals themselves” (Auerbach 549). Instead of attempting to impose an order upon life, Woolf mimics the way in which life organizes itself. The form of the party is not its capricious selection of attendees, nor its arbitrary ordering of those present into guests and servants, “society” and workers. Instead, it is composed of the organically arising interactions between all in attendance which create a network that reaches through and beyond any arbitrarily defined boundaries to form a sprawling, unconstrained plane of relations.
What Woolf demonstrates, by way of these dual networks, is a clearly defined understanding of the nature of form. The reason that Woolf herself is able to give form to these objects—her characters—in a way that Clarissa cannot is as a result of her privileged position outside of the text as its author. The objects to which she gives form do not preexist her manifestation of them. Clarissa, by contrast, is attempting to impose form on an object that exists alongside her within the text; by virtue of their simultaneous existence, it necessarily preexists her formal imposition—thus she translates the object rather than manifesting it. This failure is as representative of Woolf’s grasp of form as the success of its narration. Clarissa’s aims are doomed by this understanding as much as the network of free indirect discourse is bound to succeed. However, Clarissa’s misconception of the nature of form and subsequent failures as a hostess are relatively harmless, given their containment within the text. To see the logical quagmires and dangerous political potentialities inherent in Clarissa’s understanding when brought into the real world, I suggest that we turn to Caroline Levine’s most recent work, Form: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, and Network.
Levine’s monograph lays out a revised methodology and case for a return to formalist analysis. “New Formalism,” she argues, sidesteps the pitfalls of its predecessors by incorporating contexts outside of the “overarching artistic whole”—in other words, bringing in sociopolitical influences that fall beyond the boundaries of the text per se (1). By doing so, she claims, critics will be able to collapse the distinction between “the formal” and “the social,” thereby engaging in more holistic analysis. Her justification for the elimination of this distinction rests on a broadening of the meaning of the word “form.” Whereas a traditional formalism, like that of the New Critics, attends to “formal elements”—that is, constituent pieces of the formal whole—Levine proposes conceiving of forms more broadly as “ways of organizing heterogeneous materials” (56). Under this conception she can then propose a method of analysis that envisions its object as this form or that form; if forms are generalized and iterable across contexts, then they are capable of being imposed on objects. For example, one “form” that she proposes is “rhythm.” The rhythm form organizes its materials in terms of temporality and repetition. In her chapter devoted to it, she suggests we think of institutions as rhythms, thereby illustrating how they “organize social time,” and perpetuate themselves “because participants actively reproduce their rules and practices” (57-58). The stakes of this reconceptualization are high, from both an aesthetic and political perspective. By bringing together the social and the literary under the broad umbrella of form, formalist analysis of texts can now engage the interactions between the two, for example, imagining how the form of the Bildungsroman collides with the form of the gender binary (15-16). By engaging in “this analysis of forms,” she says, we can construct “a new understanding of how power works” (8).
While this approach offers what appears to be an exciting and progressive reconceptualization of the form in formalism, a closer inspection raises the question of whether it obfuscates more than it generates in the way of bases for alternative readings. The weakness in the claims that Levine puts forth—that her theory produces new information and political possibilities—become crystallized when viewed in conjunction with the networks I have sketched out above. Levine’s New Formalist methodology uncannily mirrors Woolf’s narrative technique as described by Auerbach. Like Woolf’s free indirect discourse, first of all, Levine’s theory constitutes a series of “attempts to fathom a more genuine, a deeper, and indeed a more real reality” (Auerbach 540). By bringing different forms to bear on an object—say, the form of rhythm and then the equally abstract form of hierarchy on the object of the institution as—Levine engages in an attempt at “a close approach to objective reality by means of numerous subjective impressions” (Auerbach 536). Under this new formalist regime, such objects of study as the hierarchical order of British society as constituted by Clarissa, “are not seen directly,” as Auerbach maintains, “but by reflection” (541). What Levine’s theory fails to take into account is the inherent a priori existence of objects as forms, the fact that, by their very existence, objects are forms prior to their reconceptualization as a rhythm (or hierarchy, or whole, or network). This being the case, then the concept of an object as a form necessarily involves a translation from one form to another. This translation, in turn, constitutes a transformation of the object of study insofar as different aspects of the object of study are emphasized, deemphasized, excluded, or reshaped in order to position it within another order of things. These transformations of the object do not bring us closer to some objective truth about its character, but simply generate a plurality of equally subjective reflections, what Roland Barthes means by connotations, each one necessarily shaped by the character of its reader. So much for the striking similarities between Levine’s New Formalism and Woolf’s technique.
What I consider the most important different becomes apparent when one considers the relative positions of these observer and their respective objects of study. Woolf operates both within the discourse of literary history and criticism, as well as the privileged space of fiction, and she brings the novelist’s talent for imagining subjective perspectives other than her own to both. Despite her ability to convince us that each character harbors a distinctive inner life partly unknown even to him or herself, and regardless of the fact that inner life shapes that character’s perspective on the world of objects, the fact remains that no such form of subjectivity can pre-exist its objectification in her novels. In creating these forms of subjectivity, even those she calls her own, she is not translating into linguistic form a pre-existing subject, much less some fluctuation of its inner life. Like Proust, she makes use of free indirect discourse to foreground the subjective work of self-reflection, whereby any encounter with an object generates multiple points of view that yield “overlapping, complementing, and contradict[ory]” concepts of the object, but not the object itself. Rather than a coherent objective rendering of the world-as-it-is, Woolf and Proust offer something more on the order of “a synthesized cosmic view,” which serves as “a challenge to the reader’s will to interpretive synthesis” (Auerbach 549). Levine’s proposed formalism, by contrast, aims at generating objective information about the character of objects that pre-exist her engagement with them. By viewing objects in the guise of different forms, they question is, do we actually, as she contends, get to know their objective nature? To presume that we can do so, it seems to me, one must occult his or her own subjectivity as it materializes through the work of translation and transformation that it performs. What I am suggesting is that Levine has assumed the position of Clarissa Dalloway rather than Virginia Woolf’s and given form to an object of study (in this case the novel) that, by its very existence prior to the act of reading, already has a form. On this basis, her proposed act of discovering or understanding a novel’s form is clearly a translation.
It is not difficult to see Levine’s work as a reactionary response to developments in materialist thought exemplified by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, thus as a return to an Aristotelian approach, that Deleuze and Guattari would consider a new species of hylomorphism. Aristotelian hylomorphism (hylo- meaning wood/form, and -morph meaning matter) takes as given that the replacement of one object with another is an act of destruction rather than the production of knowledge. John Protevi offers a succinct definition of hylomorphism as “the doctrine that production is the imposition of formal order on chaotic or passive matter”—as the guest list in relation to society or rhythm in relation to the institution (8). This view assumes that there must be continuity between one form of an object and another, and that the two must share some common element. To account for the sameness in difference, Aristotle postulated that objects have two separate constitutive elements: matter and form. In that matter is what undergoes change, matter must be what the object and its changed form have in common. Form is the actualizing principle that shapes the matter in its changed state.
As demonstrated by both Clarissa Dalloway and Caroline Levine, the belief that an individual can impose form on matter rather quickly encounters a logical impasse. Gilbert Simondon offers a useful analogy between the hylomorphic conception and the process of producing a brick. While it is true that the plastic clay (matter) and the brick mold (form) come together to produce a brick, Simondon notes, this is a far from a complete accounting of what has occurred. The analogy mischaracterizes the clay as passive and ignores the part played by its resistance to form and the pressure that must be brought to bear on it in order to produce a brick:
the clay fills the mold, it is not enough that it is plastic: it is necessary that it transmits the pressure that the workman presses on it...clay is pushed in the mold which it fills; it propagates with...the energy of the workman...It is necessary that the energy that pushes the clay exists.
The process is also affected by the wood of the mold, the skill of the workers, how tired they are, and so on. What Simondon is getting at is both the intrinsic heterogeneity of the matter and the mutability of form. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari point out that hylomorphism “assumes a fixed form and a matter deemed homogeneous” and “thereby leaves many things, active and affective, by the wayside” (408). The fact that it does so demonstrates the insufficiency of the model to account for the fact that objects are not simply made of “form” and “matter.” This analogy is insufficient to the task of describing the process of translation by which one discovers form. As they say, “it is always possible to ‘translate’ into a model that which escapes the model.” In the case at hand, we cannot translate the production process into the interaction of matter and form “without a distortion that consists in uprooting variables from the state of continuous variation in order to extract from them fixed points and constant relations” (Deleuze and Guattari 408-409).
What Deleuze and Guattari offer here is a generalized criticism of the reading method both Clarissa Dalloway and Carolyn Levine bring to bear on their respective social and literary texts. For Clarissa, the instability of the interwar period drives her to “extract...fixed points and constant relations” from a rapidly changing cultural order in an attempt to retrieve an already nonexistent past. For Levine, a slide into epistemological relativism provides the vantage point for gaining and affixing objective knowledge. Whatever their reasoning, the method through which they attempt this extraction is simply not up to the task, which leaves the literary critic in the position of one of Woolf’s protagonists, i.e. bereft of a sociopolitical and epistemological foundation. It is important to note, however, as Deleuze and Guattari do, that the criticism of hylomorphism is not strictly academic inasmuch as the implications of the worldview it supports extend beyond the limits of the academy. In a fascinating article, Trevor Parfitt correctly points out that hylomorphism is “an intrinsically authoritarian formulation” (423). Returning briefly to Protevi’s argument, it is not difficult to see how the “imposition of formal order on chaotic...matter” might offer a fascistic political perspective on one’s subject matter. The introduction of a strongman who offers to bring order from chaos through the imposition of a top-down regime is the political manifestation of hylomorphism, which Protevi compares to a “master-slave” dynamic whereby form tells matter what to do, and matter complies.
So, what is to be done? Is there an understanding of form and network that might offer more promising political possibilities that apply outside as well as inside the experimental limits of fiction? Deleuze and Guattari offer a possible solution. In opposition to the hylomorphic view, which they describe as a “plane of transcendence” from which difference, and thus form, emerges to impose itself on inert matter, the pair proposes a “plane of immanence.” As they imagine it, the plane of immanence is “the totality of existence (including the conceptual and the material)” present in a “monadic or singular plane” (Parfitt 422). The plane consists of ongoing processes “of continual creation where forces act on each other to create new agents and phenomena in an unceasing flux of becoming” (Parfitt 423). Deleuze and Guattari liken this conception, as well as the attitude that it produces, to that of the artisan (as opposed to the architect). Whereas the architect tends to impose his or her plan on “unformed” matter, the artisan “takes account of the characteristics of the matter” in the process of production, such as when “a carpenter works with the grain of the wood in making a piece of furniture” (Parfitt 424). In other words, the artisan recognizes that matter is heterogeneous within itself and always already possessing a form. Where the architectural process will attempt to organize beings and concepts into hierarchies by authoritarian means, the artisanal process is self- ordering and suggests a democratic, pluralist ethos. By flattening and combining the hierarchical binary of form and matter, one moves from a reactionary, conservative approach to one that offers what Parfitt calls “emancipatory possibility” (424).
To conclude, I suggest that we examine the concrete model of this concept provided by Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome in conjunction with Levine’s hylomorphic notion of the network form that bears resemblance to a tree. The model of the rhizome requires us to rethink traditional structures of knowledge as manifestations of the plane of immanence. Traditional structures are arborescent structures that organize concepts like trees; like the architectural model, trees are hierarchical, proceeding upwards from roots to trunk to branches. This is the structure of genealogical progression in the domain of ideas (e.g. “the great chain of being”) or of human beings (e.g. the “family tree”). The tree structure is also severely limiting, by virtue of its linearity, singular direction of movement, and process of development (wherein one branch becomes two, two branches become four, and so forth). The rhizome, by contrast, models a network that “connects any point to any other point,” with “neither a beginning nor end, but always a middle” and is “neither subject nor object” (Deleuze and Guattari 21). To understand the rhizome as a plane of immanence is to imagine an interconnected totality engaged “in an unceasing flux of becoming” (Parfitt 423).
This conception—the plane of immanence manifested as a rhizome—consists not simply of abstract philosophical propositions, but of potential concrete implementation as well. With this in mind, we can begin to move beyond what Deleuze and Guattari call the Enlightenment-era “root-book”, which is arborescent and proceeds from (chapter/idea/plot point) one to three only by way of two. We can begin to imagine a rhizomatic book, which could be entered and exited at any point, viewed in its totality, and connected from any one moment in it to any other. To formulate such a book, they explain, “would be to lay everything out on a plane...on a single page, the same sheet: lived events, historical determinations, concepts, individuals, groups, social formations, [etc.]” (Deleuze and Guattari 9). A Thousand Plateaus is itself such a book, as each chapter can be connected to any other, all of its concepts being deeply and inextricably tied to one another and capable of generating infinitely more. Returning now to Levine’s more arborescent notion of form, we can see that the emancipatory possibilities toward which she gestures would require us to flatten out the very difference between form and content on which that notion of form depends.
Auerbach, Erich. “The Brown Stocking,” Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard B. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953: 525-553.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Protevi, John. Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida and the Body Politic. London: Athlone, 2001.
Parfitt, Trevor. “Hylomorphism, Complexity and Development: Planner, Artisan, or Modern Prince?” Third World Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2006): 421-441.
Simondon, Gilbert. L’individu et sa Genese Physico-Biologique. Translated by Taylor Adkins. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Modern Library, 1928.
What is Heteroglossia? The simplest definition of heteroglossia (raznorechiye) in Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel” is “the social diversity of speech types” (263). What does this mean? In the early sections of this essay, Bakhtin explains the unique quality of artistic prose, particularly when it takes the form of a novel:
The novel as a whole is a phenomenon multiform in style and variform and speech and voice. In it the investigator is often confronted with several heterogenous stylistic unities, often located on different linguistic levels and subject to different stylistic controls. We list below the basic types of compositional-stylistic unities that the novelistic whole usually breaks down.
- Direct authorial literary-artistic narration (in all its diverse variants);
- Stylization of the various forms of oral everyday narration (skaz); Stylization of the various forms of semiliterary (written) everyday narration (the letter, the diary, etc.);
- Various forms of literary but extra-artistic authorial speech (moral, philosophical or scientific statements, oratory, ethnographic descriptions, memoranda and so forth);
- The stylistically individualized speech of characters.” (Discourse 262)
This description of the novel’s style must strike the contemporary reader as all but obvious, familiar as we are with novels that contain letters, newspaper articles, diary entries, songs, poems, screenplay scenes, and text messages. Indeed, some classic novels are composed entirely of such forms—Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1787) or Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk (1844)—and those that come to us as a novel, feature narrators of all types, who speak in any number of voices. In the late twentieth century, or postmodern era, novels step up this tendency. We must consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) the masterwork of this form heteroglossia that integrates a long poem with elaborate academic commentary into the form of the novel. A fellow scholar of the Russian tradition, Nabokov produces a new and one-of-a-kind novel by combining these essentially hostile discourses. Three decades later, we find David Foster Wallace incorporating a greater range of academic-style footnotes, which contain everything from chemical formulas to bibliographic entries in Infinite Jest (1996), while Mark Z. Danielewski layers an editor’s notes and a reader’s commentary on an academic study of a film to weave a compelling narrative in House of Leaves (2000). Just these examples should be enough to suggest that the recent novels feel perfectly comfortable usurping the discourse of the scholar-critic.
These modern innovations aside, Bakhtin makes very clear that his notion of heteroglossia is a response to the critics of his time, who at best view novels through the same lens as poetry and at worst as simply unliterary. Literary criticism of the nineteenth century in Russia focused largely on thematics, or the treatment of subject matter that indicated how a novel had engaged the major social issues of its time. It wasn’t until the formalists of the early twentieth century (e.g. Viktor Shklovsky) that the novel’s form came into analytic focus. To grant proper heft and significance to Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, we must keep his relation to the literary critical establishment in mind.
The Russian term for heteroglossia is raznorechiye, which emphasizes primacy of speech (“rech” meaning “speech”) in a way that the Greek-derived English translation does not. Although this concept enjoys critical currency across linguistic boundaries, it is a mistake to ignore either its dependence on examples from the Russian literary tradition or the linguistic heterogeneity of early twentieth century Russia, which made the possibilities of heteroglossia necessary to the conduct of both literature and everyday life. To make this point, Bakhtin provides the example of a code-switching peasant, used to moving between different languages in different spheres of life. Indeed, the Russian Orthodox Church, a powerful presence in Russian life until 1917, used Old Church Slavonic in its services and texts. As this suggests, Russia developed a secular literary culture rather late when compared to countries of Western Europe. Witness the facts that non-liturgical literature did not really exist until the eighteenth century and that Alexander Pushkin, widely considered Russia’s greatest poet, is credited with the invention of a native Russian literary language at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This all points to the reasons why novels, as a vernacular form, did not appear in Russia until the nineteenth century as well. In a culture that had separated the written from the spoken word for so long, it only makes sense that the Russian novel would turn out to be an experiment in heteroglossia.
I certainly do not mean to imply that the novel took on the task of incorporating the “vulgar” or commonly spoken forms of language into literary art. This was, after all, how William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the mission of writing their Lyrical Ballads in “a selection of language really used by men” (568). Of particular men in a simple and rural setting, they famously claimed:
the language....of these men is adopted...because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions (568).
Arguing for the heteroglossia of British Romanticism, they contend that a poet has “selection of language” even within the relatively standardized English language, then there are indeed any number of possible sub-languages to choose from. Wordsworth and Coleridge understood their insistence on maintaining the heteroglossia of the English language as a means of defending certain spoken dialects from the relentless hegemony of the print vernacular that accompanied the so-called “rise of the novel.”
The distinction between Wordsworth’s poetry and the novel, as Bakhtin would understand it, is that Wordsworth is choosing just one, singular language from among the many spoken varieties that were disappearing with the relative autonomy of local and regional dialects. Novels, by contrast, incorporate plural languages and make them available to those with reading literacy, which is distributed to a significantly narrower demographic group that than those only conversant in a spoken dialect. It was as they subordinated the many varieties of spoken English to a relatively standardized print vernacular that novels paradoxically acquired their apparent ability to represent the social world in all its multiplicity. Where Wordsworth and Coleridge sought to preserve the qualities of spoken English against the standardizing force of modern print culture, Bakhtin sees heteroglossia as the very foundation of the novel form: “This internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its historical existence is the indispensable prerequisite for the novel as a genre” (Discourse 263). In other words, he understands heteroglossia as a quality of social life that the novel captures as a literary form. Bakhtin is very clear that heteroglossia is not a feature of just some novels, but the very thing that sets them apart from other forms of verbal art: “These distinctive links between utterances and languages, this movement of the theme through different languages and speech types, its dispersion into the rivulets and droplets of social heteroglossia, its dialogization–this is the basic distinguishing feature of the stylistics of the novel” (Discourse 263).
Bakhtin begins his essay in direct response to a tradition of literary criticism that he accuses of “[ignoring] the social life of discourse outside the artist’s study, discourse in the open spaces of public squares, streets, cities and villages, of social groups, generations, and epochs” (Discourse 259). To mount his critique of a tradition of stylistics that brings the formal standards of poetry and the epic to bear on the novel, he relies on the work of the Russian formalists, Shklovsky and Boris Eikhenbaum, who departed from the nineteenth century critical tradition by considering novels from a formal perspective.
Heteroglossia and Polyphony
In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin puts forward the concept of polyphony (polyphonism) to address the reader’s sense that, with Fyodor Dostoevsky,
one is dealing not with a single author-artist who wrote novels and stories, but with a number of philosophical statements by several author-thinkers–Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor, and others. For the purposes of critical thought, Dostoevsky’s work has been broken down into a series of disparate, contradictory philosophical stances, each defended by one or another character” (5). These characters seem to have their own free and independent consciousnesseses apart from that of Dostoevsky; they are “treated as ideologically authoritative and independent,...the author of the ideological conception of his own, and not as the object of Dostoevsky’s finalizing artistic vision. (Polyphonic 5)
This “plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices, he contends, that is in fact “the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels” (Polyphonic 6). Just as the novel incorporates the many languages, genres, and styles that exist out in the world, then, the voices within the novel are diverse their form and sound as well as what they are expressing. Although polyphony, like heteroglossia, emphasizes a diversity in sound, Bakhtin considers the former merely a metaphoric drawn from music, which he means “as a graphic analogy, nothing more” (Polyphonic 22). Polyphony does not ask the reader to focus on the phonemic dimension of language in any traditional formal sense; polyphony is about ideas.
Bakhtin agrees with the critic B.M. Engelhardt who argues that
what [Dostoevsky] wrote were not novels with an idea, not novels in the style of the eighteenth century, but novels about the idea. And just as the central object for other novelists might be adventure, anecdote, psychological type, a scene from everyday life or from history, for him the central object was the ‘idea' (Polyphonic 23).
Yes, these ideas come from Dostoevsky, but he sucks them into the novel from the social circumstances and public dialogue of his time. For testimony to his well-known involvement in the polemics of his day, we need look no further than the first half of his Notes from the Underground (1864). Writing in response to the radical Fourierist utopian vision presented in Chernyshevsky’s novel What is To Be Done? (1863), Dostoevsky drew inspiration from current events and crimes in the newspaper to such an extent that it is reasonable to consider his social historical milieu a virtual sandbox for modelling his perspective on that world in the form of the novel.
To work with the term “heteroglossia,” thus loosely construed, we need to attend to the subsidiary terms by means of which Bakhtin accommodates it to the subject matter at hand. While in “Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Novel,” his emphasis is on “voice,” in “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin depends on “discourse,” “speech,” and “language.” Although he seems to dismiss “polyphony” as merely metaphorically referring to sound, he nevertheless brings back the phonemic component of language in the term “speech.” For all intents and purposes, then, his shifting use of subsidiary terms suggest the interchangeability of “discourse,” “speech,” and “language” in his discussions of “heteroglossia,” the Russian term for which, “raznorechiye,” translates literally into “various speech-ness.” Here, “speech” refers both to the operation of the human vocal tract to produce meaning and to the genre of written speech commonly used by politicians.
What I want to emphasize by returning to the term “rech,” meaning “speech,” is its capacity to refer to the language of a particular speaker including that speaker’s characteristic diction, syntax, and grammatical constructions. The term places emphasis on the relation of form to sound, in that “rech” involves choices and markers that link the particular speech act with a particular “discourse.” “Discourses” are in turn spheres of language use that operate in the world of communication broadly speaking, in which the reader as well as the author participates. Academic discourse, as we know only too well, has its own set of bylaws and expectations, as does that of rural people, and both discourses are sub-languages of, say, Russian or English. These discourses differ from dialects in the latter tend to be geographically locatable speech habits like those of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lake people. Discourses, by contrast, are specific to a social class, profession, or genre-based language task, like a piece of journalism that has its own norms. Such dissident literary works of the twentieth century as Platonov’s Foundation Pit (1930), drew on Soviet bureaucratic discourse and propaganda for purposes of satirizing the Soviet system. Because it is invariably colored by ideology, one cannot say that “rech” is purely about sound and form. Units of language come with ideological baggage before we put them to some particular use. Furthermore, a novel reader presumably participates in a number of discourse communities and has achieved fluency in multiple sub-languages. Insofar as these languages can be called a voice, which Bakhtin tends to do, each of us has a capacity to recognize and respond in a number of voices. The point of polyphony is that the novel seems to be populated by many such voices rather than that of a monovocal author.
Together, the terms heteroglossia and polyphony situate the author at removal from the novel. Thus, as Bakhtin says of heteroglossia,
a prose writer can distance himself from the language of his own work, while at the same time himself, in varying degrees, from the different layers and aspects of the work. He can make use of language without wholly giving himself up to it, he may treat it as semi-alien or completely alien to himself, while compelling language ultimately to serve all his own intentions. The author does not speak in a given language (from which he distances himself to a greater or lesser degree), but he speaks as it were, through language, a language that has somehow more or less materialized, become objectivized, that he merely ventriloquates. (Discourse 299)
Bakhtin therefore means it when he says in a footnote, “the words are not his.” Similarly, as he says of polyphony, the ideas of the characters do not belong to the author:
In no way, then, can a character’s discourse be exhausted by the usual functions of characterization and plot development, nor does it serve as a vehicle for the author’s own ideological position (as with Byron, for instance.) The consciousness of a character is given as someone else’s consciousness, another consciousnesses, yet at the same time it is not turned into an object, is not closed, does not become a simple object of the author’s consciousness. ...it sounds...alongside the author’ word and in a special way combines both with it and with the full and equally valid voices of the other characters” (Polyphony 7).
If “the prose writer does not strip away the intentions of others from the heteroglot language of his works” (Discourse 299), then the polyphonic novel contains the presence of other people besides the author in the form of its multifarious ideas. Even though the characters that embody these ideas are inventions of the author, the ideas themselves nevertheless come fully formed from the real world and the people actually inhabit it. These barely formulated ideas drift into the polyphonic novel, where they find fertile ground and grow into autonomous characters free of the author who facilitates their creation.
This way of giving independent life to idea is unique to the novel form, by contrast to the language of poetry, which Bakhtin sees as monologic and unitary:
[I]n the majority of poetic genres, the unity of the language system and the unity (and uniqueness) of the poet’s individuality as reflected in his language and speech, which is directly realized in this unity, are indispensable prerequisites of poetic style. The novel, however, not only does not require these conditions but (as we have said) also makes the internal stratification of language, its social heteroglossia and the variety of individual voices in it, the prerequisite for authentic novelistic prose. (Discourse 264)
I cannot help but notice how much this “variety of individual voices” invokes the concept of polyphony, as both are linked by the term “authentic,” which has to do with the novelist’s relation to the outside world, as opposed to the poet whose world is shaped by personal vision. But while Bakhtin uses the novel’s heteroglossia to contrast its authenticity to that of poetry, he turns to the concept of polyphony to distinguish the novel from drama. By contrast to Dostoevsky’s great works of fiction, he laments,
[l]iterature of recent times knows only the dramatic dialogue and to some extent the philosophical dialogue, weakened into a mere form of exposition, a pedagogical device. And in any case, the dramatic dialogue in drama and the dramatized dialogue in the narrative forms are always encased in a firm and stable monologic framework...The whole concept of a dramatic action, as that which resolves all dialogue oppositions, is purely monologic (Polyphonic 17).
Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia positions the dialogism of the novel against the forces that seek to unify, to condense, to monologize. Similarly, polyphony is opposed to forms of discourse that reduce the different voices of its characters to expressions of the author’s monologic frame of reference. On this basis, we might say that both “heteroglossia” and “polyphony” argue for conflict and against entropy. As an active participant in a world of conflicting discourses, the novel does not aim at harmony but rather at capturing within itself the same dynamics of discord that animate the discursive world outside the novel—the conflict of discourses that constitute its historical milieu.
My comparison of heteroglossia and polyphony calls attention to an obvious question. If Bakhtin argues that heteroglossia is arguably as close as he comes to defining the novel form, then why is polyphony feature specific to Dostoevsky’s novel and not to the novel form itself? Although he acknowledges such precursors as Shakespeare, Dante, and Balzac, Bakhtin insists that Dostoevsky is the origin and master of this phenomenon.
We might see Erich Auerbach’s reading of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as an attempt to extend this principle to Woolf’s free indirect discourse. In his concluding chapter of Mimesis, Auerbach elaborates a diversity of voices that prevents the voice of narration from unify these voices in much the same way that Bakhtin identifies the consciousness of a Dostoevsky novel as inherently resistant to unity:
The writer as narrator of objective facts has almost completely vanished; almost everything stated appears by way of reflection in the consciousness of the dramatis personae...This goes so far that there actually seems to be no viewpoint at all outside the novel from which the people and events within it are observed, any more than there seems to be an objective reality apart from what is in the consciousness of the characters (Auerbach 534).
What we have here is a multiplicity of consciousnesses and perspectives that seem to operate independently, much as Dostoevsky’s do. The author’s viewpoint outside the novel cannot operate as a controlling force, which leads me to the last point I want to consider, namely, the relationship between Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia and other theoretical concept that address the question of the novel’s boundaries.
I doubt any member of this group considers the novel a hermetically-sealed, monadic form, born solely from the intellect of a writer who is also monadic in character. We have been assuming that the novel engages in some form of dialogic exchange with certain language(s) of the real world, which it has incorporated in its model of that world. What this means is that the language of the novel, down to the individual word, can never stand on its own but makes sense only in relation to its use in the world that it happens to be modelling. Its use of language will ensure that the novel deeply connected to a given society and deeply familiar with the social currents and historical forces that shape the use of language in that society. The novel is composed of social elements, which the novelist sculpts but does not create out of thin air.
No word, no piece of language remains unsaturated with the reality of the discourses in which it has already been used: “Only the mythical Adam, who approached a virginal and as yet verbally unqualified world with the first word, could really have escaped from start to finish this dialogic inter-orientation with the alien word that occurs in the object” (Discourse 279). To imagine a relation to the world of objects that does not start from an exchange between two already constituted entities, the worlds inside and outside the novel, one is tempted to borrow from Deleuze’s image of the rhizome, whose tendrils and shoots draw life and character from the terrain that they transverse with no respect for boundaries of any kind, and you have some sense of how Bakhtin imagines language into the novel from the discourse communities that supply the novelist’s materials. No work of narrative art can control connections forged in a dynamic relationship with an ever always changing world of discourse.
The porousness of the boundary between the inner and outer worlds of discourse resemble the assumptions undergirding the narrative models of structuralists like Claude Levi-Strauss and A.J. Greimas, especially the assumption that no work of narrative art can stand on its own, sealed off in formal isolation from everything except the author’s creative imagination. To the contrary, narrative is at its very core composed of linguistic elements charged with the semantic energy to calls forth certain constellations of features and functions and to repel or simply suppress others. For Lévi-Strauss, a particular myth shares the same deep semantic structure with other narratives that negotiate the contradictory poles that organize a given culture. Despite Bakhtin’s emphasis on the extraordinary heterogeneity of linguistic expression and the diversity of dialogic positions, he too shares this opposition. He may ascribe a rhizomatic quality to the process that forms the novel and to its relation to the larger world of discourse, but the novel is nevertheless unthinkable for Bakhtin without the difference between world and model—namely, the dialogic relation of novel to its discursive milieu and the dialogic relations within the novel that composes a model of that milieu. The job of the novel in his view is the same as that of Lévi-Strauss’ notion of myth, to negotiate the difference between world and model.
Auerbach, Erich. “The Brown Stocking.” Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953: 525-553.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
- - -. “Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Novel and Its Treatment in Critical Literature.” Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Translated by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Third Edition. Edited by Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2018.
Space, real and imaginary, materializes the subject as a social identity. The subject acquires a social identity, according to Althusser, as it is hailed into a category that assigns it the place it occupies in the given socioeconomic order. The subject may be hailed into numerous such spaces at once physical and imaginary, material and constructed, resulting conflicts within their inner world, or subjectivity. The modern novel unfolds a narrative composed of such spaces so that readers can imagine how a protagonist finds a social identity, or place within the given social order, and in the process internalizes a conflict central the cultural classification system where he or she must find a place, condemning the protagonist to oscillate between the subject who strives to fill a ready-made place in society and the restless subject who strives to become someone else, which entails actively seeking a space elsewhere and not yet specified. The vocabulary of becoming and belonging that modify one’s identity take the form of movement through space, as the subject resists one identity and goes looking for another. In what is arguably the first English novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe rejects the security of the pursuit of law, the position his father chose for him, and goes to sea. By contrast, Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway lives in Westminster, an affluent London neighborhood; her character, her experiences, and her movements across the city are determined by her position as hostess of a dwindling elite society, as indicated by her address. Insofar as not only hers but each character’s identity is given a precisely spatial location, the subject of the novel is a spatialized subject. It propels a narrative that distributes characters within an imagined spatial order.
Thinking in these terms, I can see much the same spatialized distribution of identity emerge in structuralist theories of the novel that also see the modern subject tossed between the dilemma of special capture and mobility, being and becoming someone. As I suggested above, the concept of interpellation that Althusser spells out in On the Reproduction of Capital makes use of spatial metaphors to explain how specific state apparatuses like the church or education form “the concrete subject,” a category that he considers both the destination of ideology and “constitutive of all ideology” (188). In his view, there can be no ideology if there is no attempt to classify individuals as subjects. Each time it fixes an individual to a position in a social classification system, ideology materializes as that system. Thinking of identity as a form of spatial capture, he endows the subject of ideology with a capacity for spatial thinking, or cognitive mapping. He further emphasizes that ideology would be nothing without its material functioning (the interpellated subject), which inextricably links his key concept of interpellation to a subject that materializes in space. Rather than see the process of acquiring an identity simply as a succession of moments of self-recognition, Althusser depends on a vocabulary of spatial terms to show his reader how to imagine the process of interpellation as stepping into a space with a name. As he proceeds to demonstrate in three iterations of this process, the interpellated subject is a spatialized subject (189).
In his first illustration, Althusser asks us to think about a friend on the other side of our door (189). The figure of crossing a threshold explains not only how an individual steps into the category to which he imagines belonging, but also how cultures offer categories to which their subjects may feel that they belong. In both cases, movement is key. To recognize the term “friend” means that one already belongs to that category, or at least recognizes that he or she does. One’s location within a social classification system predisposes the individual to belong to one category or another and is key to the process by which that individual materializes the ideology that produces a particular system of identities. To refuse to be a friend is not to situate oneself elsewhere but to situate oneself in relation to the category of friend. Either movement across that threshold or the option not so to move cements forms the identity of the individual within a hierarchical system of such identities. Althusser offers two other examples of this principle, both of which occur on the street and ask us to imagine the individual stopping, say, if a policeman hails him, thereby confirming the spatial thinking that informs his concept of ideology.
In the first of these examples, he asks to imagine that we recognize a friend on the street by calling out to that individual and shaking his or her hand. I find it significant that Althusser adds this layer of ritual to the call of recognition from across the street (189). Although there is no explicit movement through space on the part of the subject so hailed, we must infer that the manner of hailing arrests the individual in place so that the handshaking ritual might “take place.” In the second and most frequently referenced of Althusser’s examples, a person is hailed by the police on the street and turns around, recognizing that he or she as the one being hailed and, in that act of turning, becomes a subject (190). The turning around, which Althusser calls a “180-degree physical conversion,” is an action that arrests the individual in space and fixes him to the spot where he/she was hailed (191). That Althusser describes this turning toward the one who hails as a physical conversion makes the point that interpellation is not only a speech act, but also the means of arresting the individual body in a designated space: this turns the individual itself into a concrete subject. The process of interpellation in this respect encapsulates the operations of ideology that compel us to interpellate ourselves. There is consequently a psychological dimension to this process that Althusser calls to our attention by placing the police behind the individual’s back as he or she moves down the street (190-191). This staging of interpellation has the individual recognizing him or herself in the hailing without actually knowing the police are doing the hailing or whom they have in mind.
Before exploring this psychological dimension of interpellation, I want to pause and consider the connotations of the French verb “interpeller,” a legal term for questioning a person who has been detained, a capture that presupposes the prior arrest of someone’s movement sanctioned by the law. The translator’s gloss on “interpeller” suggests a meaning of the word beyond Althusser’s sense of a hail, namely, the conversational use of “interpeller” to mean” ‘to shake up,’ ‘to really get to’” (188 n17). The suggestion that hailing disrupts rather than making order more so than spatial capture is necessary to acquiring an identity.
Insofar as we interpellate ourselves by turning, argues Althusser, one might say we are always already interpellated. The difference between the individual sauntering down a street and the subject who turns around to acknowledge that he or she is the one being hailed of hailing transfers the spatial metaphor from the street into the mind (191). That inner, or imagined, space is already there as category into which one steps even to reject being so classified. As a result, the identity is always reinforced, and through repeated hailing, becomes second nature. Althusser the simple reflex of turning around not only to reveal the unconscious dimension of subjectification that makes us perform it without realizing that we are doing so, but also to conceal the significant transformation of this inner space that occurs in the process of turning around. If, on the street, interpellation manifests as a spatial placement, then in the inner space, interpellation performs a spatial displacement. For the person to recognize itself as “the subject” of interpellation, there must be movement, or change, in the way that individual has already discerned itself as a “subject.” To use Althusser’s term, the person “recruits” him/herself as “the subject” (190), a psychological gesture that implies a distance from which the individual can view the self he/she is recruiting. A version of the self must be put out of place in order to be so regarded. The recruited self, viewed from outside, becomes an object in relation to the self who only then becomes the subject. The inner displacement lies in such self-objectification.
The word “recruit” also suggests the form of self-surveillance implied by interpellation and necessary to the operation of ideology. Althusser asks if the person turns and recognizes himself as the subject merely because of a guilty conscience or if something stranger is at play: Ideology hails people into the categories and identities, a placement that leads to a displacement, which in turn constitutes ideology. We step into a space and acquire a social category (a woman, an immigrant); we are subjects, but we are subjected to ideology’s categories. Using Althusser’s example, this inner process of displacement operates in an analogous manner to the recognition of a friend on the other side of the door. The self-as-subject recognizes the social position or identity of the self-as-object displaced by that recognition to the other side of a threshold.
The subject requires a place to locate its self and view the world of objects. Changes in this location necessarily change the subject-object relationship. If positioning in a set of such imaginary spaces makes one a subject, then changing that position will also change our place within ideology but not the fact that we are in it and hence our status as subjects. Althusser’s spatial metaphor leads us inevitably to pose the question: How can we be outside of ideology if ideology provides the categories of our identities (191); to leave one is to cross the threshold into another that materializes as we occupy it. Althusser asks us to imagine ideology as an expanding circle with no point of exit.
If we understand interpellation as a simultaneous placement and displacement of the self, then a sense of movement and its lack as key to this process. Each shift of identity to another spatial location within ideology produces a disruption and/or expansion of self, despite the fact that such movement achieves quite the opposite result of fixing, or subject, the subject to a social category that consequently appears to pre-exist that subject. It is in this sense that, as Althusser says, “the existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing” (191).
The character of Septimus Warren Smith, a tragic figure that haunts post WWI London in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, is no stranger to this circular logic. Recruited to fight in the war, Septimus returns to London having lost all sense of the national community for which he has fought. He is stuck in the War in Europe along with his dead squadron. Septimis enters the novel near the beginning of the novel, as an important-looking black limosine backfires, arresting the movement of people in the streets in reflexive response to the sound of an explosion. The importance of the street for both Woolf, as for Althusser, is evident here. The street is the space where people as a group interact most directly with each other and the state that requires their orderly interaction. Most importantly, the city street puts the population in movement from one location in the city to some other, a process during which they must still belong to their respective subject-positions. In this respect, an event that arrests the normal movement on the street will reveal the relation between the street and those imagined spaces.
Septimus, lost in his thoughts, sees the motor car as the center of his world, only then to imagine: “It is I who am blocking the way, he thought. Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted there, rooted to the pavement, for a purpose? But for what purpose?” Septimus is a locatable subject, one who has indeed fixed himself in a space where he is visible to others, a place where traffic has stopped. Before his brief moment of introspection, Woolf made it clear that “everyone looked at the motor car” and “the crowd [was] staring at the motor car” (111-112). Only Septimus sees himself, as if from outside, as the object at which everyone is staring because he is responsible for stopping the car. This displacement is mirrored in the narrative as it picks up Septimus’ thoughts, as they move from the third-person impersonal (“it”) to the first person (Septimus as subject) in the statement “it is I,” and from “I” to the third person “he,” in the next statement, “was he not being looked at” (where Septimus becomes an object to himself). Septimus’ cognitive distance from himself is evident even in the sentence that introduces him: “Septimus Warren Smith, who found himself unable to pass, heard him” (Woolf 110). The articulation “found himself unable to pass” produces an inner split, that dislocates Septimus from the self-as-object he observes that seems rooted to the spot. The irony here is that this moment of self-recognition fixes him as a subject in the category of a disruption of rather than a participant in the flow of ordinary London life.
Damned by an inability to feel (when his officer dies, when he marries Lucrezia), Septimus tragically confirms Althusser’s claim that no one is outside ideology. To recognize his failure to occupy the position he is expected himself to fill in relation to his fellow soldier, he already occupies that category. When in an ultimate act of spatial displacement, he throws himself from the window in the conclusion of the novel, he raises this question: Does Septimus jump in order to escape his identity as a citizen and married man, or does he jump because he is arrested by his still unfulfilled responsibility on the battlefront and is hailed by his dead officer to fulfill it by dying with his fellow soldiers? It is impossible to say whether, in jumping, Septimus escapes the classification soldier or whether the atemporality of that identity confirms his present position is a disruption to normal society. The announcement of his death hails him into Clarissa’s party as a question mark and, for her, as a dark space and point of exit from that world she called together at that party.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (D&G) developed their figure of “the rhizome” to model a way of thinking that can travel across seemingly incompatible social spaces and levels of ontology, in the process calling into question Althusser’s claim that the subject only expands ideology’s domain by imagining alternative spaces. D&G’s rhizome is a form in motion, a process, that move through rather than occupying space. In this respect, it allows us to reconfigure the spatial locations that constitute identity as we have understood them so far. The sense of motion with which D&G endow the rhizome is inherent their definition of the term “multiplicity”: “Multiplicities are defined by the outside [...] by the line of flight or deterritorialization according to which they change in nature and connect with other multiplicities” (D&G 9). Their deterritorialization is related to Althusser’s notion of subject formation as a chain of displacements in which one is always on the way to becoming someone else. The rhizome provides those points or hubs where multiplicities form the connections that allow them to move from one to others, a process that entails a simultaneous deterritorialization and reterritorialization of both, as each is transformed by its incorporation in the other.
Where the figure of “hailing” places the emphasis on what exists on either side of the encounter, the rhizome stresses the encounter itself as the convergence or crossing of lines of development that disrupt the process of becoming someone or something by opening up the possibility of becoming many other things. Perhaps the most memorable model of this principle, in an essay composed of a multiplicity of such models, is drawn from Darwin’s memorable instance of co-evolution, the mutually deterritorializing relation between various species of orchid and their insect pollinators. Here, the hermaphroditic orchid develops specialized petals that simulate the fuzzy back and markings of a female wasp, luring the male of the pollinator species into a position where he inadvertently picks up pollen sacks and carries them on to another orchid. This elaborate simulation of the mating of wasps facilitates the cross-pollination of orchids, as both wasp and orchid are deterritorialized from their own species and reterritorialized as part of a wasp-orchid rhizome (D&G 10).
There is neither recognition, nor imitation, nor incorporation in D&G’s revision of Althusser’s process of hailing, to the contrary, they ask us to think of the wasp-orchid encounter as the “exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjugated by anything signifying” (D&G 10). In so escaping the grasp of language, I would guess, D&G meant to expose the structuralist mechanics of inner displacement as a process that produces only imitations of some type of norm—selves, as I have argued, that already exist prior to the moment of encounter that reshapes them. In their view, imitation (D&G call it a tracing) observes the binary relation of imitation to original. When a tracing is superimposed on the map of which it is an image, neither tracing nor map can change that binary logic. Insofar as it observes a similar logic (performance-model or norm), interpellation reproduces only what presumably already exists rather than some genuinely new form of life. Deterritorialization, on the other hand, assumes that it is in the very nature of living beings to evade categorical confinement and the trap of becoming some thing. If interpellation-displacement observes a circular logic with no point of exit, then deterritorialization-displacement conjugates the flows of deterritorialized subjectivities that expand the map into unknown territory (D&G 11). How might we read the behavior of Woolf’s shell-shocked veteran, Septimus Smith, differently from this perspective?
If Septimus is unable to participate in the life of society as someone with his identity (war veteran) is supposed to, Woolf suggests, that is because the categories in which he is placed are just not the same as those in which he compulsively places himself, thanks to his liminal position in the trenches. In his case, the vocabulary of placement—recognizing, arresting and detaining that understands identity as being fixed to a place—proves only too literal, detaining him in a position that no longer historically exists except for the dead. Urged to assume the place of husband beside his wife in the postwar world, Septimus is doomed to be always outside himself. Confronting a space divided into discreet identities in which the individual steps out of the flow, Althusser’s individual is in one spot or another, in one category or another, either behind a closed door or opening another. D&G provide a contrastingly fluid concept of the subject, as one (more like the narrator of Mrs. Dalloway) in constant movement across a social forcefield and most itself when it is in between the positions that it momentarily occupies. Her identification of life with the subject in motion argues against the arrested movement on the street that produces such stable characters as Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread.
Deterritorialization allows Septimus to live within the bounds of English society while remaining attached to his vanished life on the battlefields of Europe. In doing so, D&G would stress, Septimus challenges English society to integrate that other space within a day in postwar London. Resolutely amnesiac, Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw fail to meet that challenge in lieu of the authority they gain by relegating Septimus to the category of the abnormal. Sir William Bradshaw’s diagnosis of Septimus is appropriately spatial—a lack of “proportion” (Woolf 221). One can almost imagine Sir William dividing the mind into categories that could be arranged in a tree structure with commonsense and devotion to home restored to a position of command. Woolf, on the other hand, makes it clear that the man who loved poetry and Shakespeare has been de- and reterritorialized by the experience of actual horrors, eliminating the difference between metaphor and actuality, memory and present experience. In this way, Mrs. Dalloway, like To the Lighthouse, brings an end to realism.
To conclude, let me return to the moment at the beginning of the novel when Lucrezia and Septimus sit on a park bench together and Lucrezia asks him to look up at the advertisement in the sky. Although Septimus answers her call and looks, he and does not see. The sight of a plane in the sky over London and the population looking upward transports him elsewhere, to a place in time where the trees talk to him and Lucrezia cannot engage but only interrupt him (Woolf 119-124). Dr Holmes enjoins Septimus to look, just as Lucrezia “implores” him, at the real things surrounding him, establishing an opposition between the factual and fictional, that is to say, between the world Holmes inhabits and the one in which Septimus is trapped, between a social cure and exclusion. The insidiousness of this binary logic lies in the heartbreaking resolution that Sir William Bradshaw, the champion of the normal, finds it necessary to separate Septimus from his wife, until he wants to join her within the space of normative ideology. If anyone needs a line of flight beyond these relentless binaries, they do. In the moments before Septimus’ suicide, Woolf perhaps offers a glimpse of this possibility, in a moment of a wasp-orchid meeting of minds between Septimus and Clarissa Dalloway.
Althusser, Louis. “On Ideology.” On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. New York: Verso, 2014: 171–207.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. “Introduction: Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
“displacement;” “territorialize.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
In the realm of novels, “the subject” is not a ready-made “thing” to be named but rather a processual “voice” that acquires being in the process of speaking. Although we tend to imagine such a voice issuing from a source prior to the process of speaking itself, we cannot grasp it through some act of discovering its origin, intact and pure. For one thing, the speech act that generates a novel in not a single voice. There is of course the grammatically active voice that “subjectivates” as in this statement: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” This voice speaks what it desires, and in doing so, it manages to escape the given categories of being in the world and transforms the world into its own object of desire (Deleuze 345). But this voice implies a grammatically passive voice that is always already “subjected,” or fixed to a place in society. Thus when Robinson Crusoe explains, “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull,” his voice acknowledged the dominion of categories into which he has been born and reveal the hold of their grammatical articulation on his consciousness by the restrictions thereby placed on his voice (Althusser 199). In order to grasp the subject of the novel, then, we must ask how these seemingly incompatible voices interact as a single process of becoming.
Althusser’s concept of interpellation provides a working model for the interaction of these opposing principles—"subjection” and “subjectivation”—in the process of becoming what he calls “the concrete subject.” The event of interpellation is triggered by “a hail.” When a person is called by a name, even so vague as “Hey, you!,” that person is subjected to that name at the moment he/she acknowledges that he/she has been so named. Thus when a woman walks down the street and someone whistles at her, catcalling her a “girl,” that woman already occupies that category as she turns her head in recognition. Hearing that whistle, she not only already acknowledges her status as the object of someone else’s desire, but also steps into that position. In doing so, she becomes such an object to herself.
How does this everyday instance of interpellation resemble Althusser’s grandiose example of Moses’s interpellation by God (Althusser 195)? As Althusser tells the story, once Moses recognizes God’s voice naming him as His servant — “Moses!” — he cannot become anything other than what he already is: the servant of God. Althusser uses the story of Moses to demonstrate that ‘the subject’ is not a fixed concept, but rather a process of simultaneous subjection and subjectivation. Subjection occurs as Moses becomes who he already by virtue of the fact that he believes in God, and subjectivation occurs as Moses changes his servitude by making it his own and the very thing he desires. For interpellation to succeed in producing the concrete subject, the two processes must not only take place simultaneously but also repeat this performance over time. Why?
First of all, subjectivation needs subjection: it is not that Moses cannot imagine anything other than what God calls him to be, or even that he lacks the potential to become something else. Rather, it is the case that Moses does not desire himself to become anything other than what God calls on him to be. Because he has internalized the idea that he is nothing if not God’s servant, Moses has already chosen at the moment of hailing to be God’s servant. At the moment of subjectivation and subjection are as one, any alternative seems excessive. God’s servant is who he is.
Looking at this process from the other side of this equation, we find that subjection is equally dependent on subjectivation: Moses recognizes that becoming God’s servant is the highest position to which a human being can aspire, precisely because God is “the Subject par excellence,” the form of subjection that is greater than any alternative subjectivation. To serve men in name of God, he is himself a God, a preferable position to that of an exile and shepherd, which he occupied the moment before he hear God’s voice. So long as Moses can see himself in “His mirrors, His reflections” (197), his subjectivation can never, by definition, exceed the category to which he willingly subjects himself.
In Althusser’s model, a name is an ideological category. Hence, by naming, the process of interpellation locates the individual within ideology, where a succession of names limit his or her possibilities of subjectivation, eliminating the possibility of the subject getting outside of ideology. Nonetheless, the logic of Althusser’s ideology is undergirded by a Christian imperative: the subject must be embodied, because the logos, which asserts its authority in the names of “God,” “Subject,” and “Ideology,” emerge and fashion, at the same time, a body and a subject bound at once to the body and to God.
The subject of the novel, by contrast, is a subject in writing and fictional writing at that. Under these conditions, is “the subject” necessarily and embodied subject? Can the novel imagine 1) the body without a subject, or 2) the subject without a body? To address this question is to open up the possibility of a human body without a human subject, as well as a human subject without a human body. To open up these possibilities is automatically to question the ideology that undergirds both the concept of the liberal subject and the Christian concept of the incarnation, potentially freeing the subject to form other relations with the biological body, including the possibility of a subject that formulates itself outside of ideology.
In Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, we indeed confront this possibility in the figure of the cannibal. Although this figure is that of a human being, the figure is not in fact human because it cannot be interpellated within a modern society. In devouring human bodies, the cannibal nullifies the subject that defines those bodies as human rather than as food. Crusoe confronts this limit on two occasions, once when he names Friday as a “friend,” in effect rescues his potential humanity, and again when he similarly rescues Friday’s father, a gesture that makes his friend symbolically human by birth. On both occasions, the cannibal’s captives do little or nothing to rescue their own humanity, as Crusoe is quick to observe:
While I was thus looking on them, I perceived, by my perspective, two miserable wretches dragged from the boats, where, it seems, they were laid by, and were now brought out for the slaughter. I perceived one of them immediately fall; being knocked down, I suppose, with a club or wooden sword, for that was their way; and two or three others were at work immediately, cutting him open for their cookery, while the other victim was left standing by himself, till they should be ready for him. (Chapter XIV)
Within an Althusserian framework, the two captured cannibals have effectively been classified as food. In that they do not resist that classification in the name of their humanity tells Crusoe that are not in fact human. One might argue for an exception when the second cannibal has a spasm of subjectivity and attempts to flee from his captors. Still, even after this brief exercise of agency on behalf of the self, that cannibal willingly submits to Crusoe’s naming him Friday and making him a slave. As such, he does not understand himself as subject, in some small way a reflection of his rescuer, but rather as the object possessed by the subject who owns the labor of the slave’s body. Even in this exceptional case, the cannibal represents the limit of the human body without a subject.
Having confronted the cannibal and effectively hailed two such non-subjects into the position of friends, Crusoe proceeds to explore the opposing limit—the possibility of becoming (like Moses’s God) the subject without a body—as he uses his voice to constitute a government for the island. Before other English men wash up on his shores, Crusoe has plans to leave the island in the hands of a Spaniard whom he rescues from the cannibals on their second visit to the island. Soon thereafter he encounters an English captain abandoned on the island by a mutinous crew, though, he confronts the problem of dealing with the mutineers, or bad subjects, who have forcibility tried to remove their captain from a position superior to them. By means of a process that emphasizes subjection—or the spatial disposition of the body—rather than its multiple capacity to become, Crusoe uses his voice to name and detain these subjects in isolation, ventriloquizing an invisible governor who speaks with the voice of the law:
“Well,” says I, “my conditions are but two; first, that while you stay in this island with me, you will not pretend to any authority here; and if I put arms in your hands, you will, upon all occasions, give them up to me, and do no prejudice to me or mine upon this island, and in the meantime be governed by my orders; secondly, that if the ship is or may be recovered, you will carry me and my man to England passage free.” (Chapter XVII)
Here, one can see where how Crusoe fulfills the story of a secular Moses, whereby he, as the servant of the Law, takes on the sovereign power to speak with the voice of the law in a perfect convergence of subjection and subjectivation. The laws are those of British colonialism and would blanket whole territories of the world outside Europe, virtually anywhere that no such body of law existed, alongside the mission of the church. This historically specific form of interpellation fragments the body of British subject. From the moment he arrived on the island, Crusoe was already two subjects, one housed in an experiential body that explores the island and records its sensations; the other expresses itself through the written voice of a narrator who recalls and analyzes that experience. As other men arrive on the island, we see Crusoe split again between the disembodied voice of the law and the agent of interpellation who hails the hostages into the social categories protected by the law. In this role, he is “the person” whom he, in the role of “the governor[,] had ordered to look after them.” (Chapter XVIII). The true subject that, like god, hails Crusoe into these categories,” is the Law itself, a subject without a body.
The body without a subject and a subject without a body define the opposing limits within which he must oscilate between in becoming the subject of the novel, as are both possible, if not entirely “human,” in a fictional realm governed by the ideology of modern individualism. The space between these two outer limits allows a range of possibilities for becoming the novel’s subject. In this respect, we can say that the subject of the novel destabilizes the process of becoming the concrete subject in Althusser’s model of the process whereby Christian ideology sutures the subject to the body as essential to subject formation (Jameson 37).
In becoming the protagonist of the novel, as I have explained, Crusoe oscillates between the limits defined by the cannibals on the one hand and the bodiless voice of the Law, on the other. The discovery of the single human footprint on what he thought was a deserted beach provides the pivot where Crusoe confronts the question of how to become an embodied subject that can neither be incorporated in any other body without becoming food nor removed from his one and only body without becoming the disembodied voice of narrating the journal that he keeps. In triggering the fictional alternatives of a subjectless body and its opposite, the bodiless subject, the footprint challenges the first premise of “interpellation”—the human being as embodied consciousness. The episode begins with Crusoe’s encounter with the footprint, and his failure to put his physical response into words: “I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition. I listened, I looked round me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one; I could see no other impression but that one.” The fact that he cannot translate this experience into conscious understanding turns his body into something that Crusoe does not know, no longer integral to the self.
After this initial moment of shock that separates Crusoe’s the subject from his body as object, a drive to remap the entire island emerges. Because the footprint signifies the presence of other people on the island, whom he must assume are enemies out to render him an object rather than friends with whom he could socialize. Leaving his refuge in the cave, Crusoe first tests the hypothesis that the footprint is the imprint of a human body with a consciousness compatible with his own. When that effort is shown to be false, he proceeds to divide the island into separate territories for himself and for the other from whom he must keep himself apart for fear of losing his identity. He assumes that self and other belong to mutually hostile categories. Without secular institutions in place, Crusoe falls back on theology: “I considered that this was the station of life the infinitely wise and good providence of God had determined for me” (Chapter XI). Here the novel shows us what Althusser does not, namely, how the theological apparatus continues to work even after secular Law comes into conflict with and displaces the commandments of God through Moses.
Crusoe renames and divides himself as he switches his name from “the governor,” to “the governor’s men,” and then to an English man of property, or citizen. In doing so, as the progression of names suggest, he indeed avoids becoming subject to no higher authority than himself. In becoming the voice of law—the Subject that simultaneously subjectivates and subjects the embodied subject—he cannot be fully embodied in either one. At the same time, though simultaneous, the processes of subjection and subjectivation are fundamentally opposed and cannot be harmonized. In becoming the disembodied subject, Crusoe mitigates the risk of becoming a subjectless body. As he negotiates the perplexed relationship between himself as experiential body in the world and the consciousness that deals with that experience in the name of humanity, Crusoe becomes the protagonist of a novel. But who is the subject of the novel?
In order for us to be reading this account, there must be a subject who speaks to the reader in and through writing, specifically through writing that came to be recognized as a novel. This subject cannot be the first-person “I” of the novel, who is, in this case, that vocal component of the protagonist we call the narrator, the one in a position to give us a firsthand report of how the protagonist negotiated the conflict between the self as subject and the self as object. The subject of writing can neither one inasmuch as it is the process that makes itself known to us as something about to come into being elsewhere and in the future. For example, when I say “I,” I am calling a second person, “you,” into being as my listener or reader and presuming that person the conversation will recognize and respond to me at some future time (Benveniste). In Robinson Crusoe, the adventures of the individual named Robinson Crusoe is written up in his journals, the act of writing which is interspersed throughout Daniel Defoe’s novel. The future of the experiential time of the protagonist is, first of all, the time of narration in which the consciousness of journal writing emerges to recall/acknowledge the circumstances, impulses, hesitations, and decisions of the protagonist. If the future of the protagonist is the narrator who records his adventures, then the future of narration rests on the reader of the journal, which requires the protagonist to return to England with his story intact. Who or what coordinates the relation between the time of Crusoe’s experiences and the time of the writing “I” (Deleuze 345)?
The process of writing ‘calls out’ a writing subject. To be recognized as an author, the person who holds the pen has subjected him or herself to a whole constellation of rules and becomes an author only as s/he carries them out in writing. These rules are not those as stated by Crusoe the journal writer: “As I have troubled you with none of my sea journals, so I shall trouble you now with none of my land journals; but some adventures that happened to us in this tedious and difficult journey I must not omit.’ (Chapter XIX). The rules that Defoe observed were invisible laws that the governed the relation between that narrator and his experiential counterpart, the protagonist. Since he went to the trouble to create a fictional character who was the only person available to describe his experience on an initially deserted island, we know that Defoe is neither one. We also know that neither one is responsible for the curious experiment in writing that entertained the possibility of a subjectless body, on the one hand, and the disembodied subject on the other. We might see the experiment to come as the subject of the novel, and the novel as the material body of this writing subject. To conclude: the subject is a complex process of becoming that encloses itself within the circular logic of subjectivation and subjection.
Althusser, Louis. “On Ideology.” On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. New York: Verso, 2014: 171–207.
Benveniste, Émile. Problems in General Linguistics. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Miami: University of Miami Press, 1973.
Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Seeley, Service & Co. Limited, 1919. Project Gutenburg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/521/521-h/521-h.htm.
Deleuze, Gilles. “What Is a Dispositif?” In Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995. Translated by Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006: 343-352.
Jameson, Fredric. The Antinomies of Realism. New York: Verso, 2013.
 skaz: this untranslated term comes from the Russian word skazat’ (to tell, to say) and is appears frequently in Russian Formalist criticism. A well-known example from the Russian critical tradition is Boris Eikhenbaum’s essay “How Gogol’s Overcoat Is Made.” Caryl Emerson glosses it as a “technique or mode of narration that imitates the oral speech of an individualized narrator” (Polyphonic 8 [footnote])
 Deleuze, “What is Dispositif,” 345: “This going beyond the line of force is what happens when it bends back, starts meandering, goes underground or rather when force, instead of entering into a linear relationship with another force, turns back on itself, acts on itself or affects itself. This dimension of the Self is not a preexisting determination that can be found ready-made. Here again, a line of subjectivation is a process, a production of subjectivity in an apparatus: it must be made to the extent that the apparatus allows it or makes it possible. It is a line of flight. It escapes the previous lines; it escapes from them. The Self is not knowledge or power. It is a process of individuation that effects groups or people and eludes both established lines of force and constituted knowledge. It is a kind of surplus value. Not every apparatus necessarily has it.”
 Althusser, “On Ideology,” 199: “It remains to show, using a few concrete examples, how this whole extraordinary (and simple) machinery functions in its actual, concrete complexity.
Why ‘simple’? Because the principle of the ideology effect is simple: recognition, subjection, guarantee – the whole centred on subjection. Ideology makes individuals who are always-already subjects (that is, you and me) ‘go’.
Why ‘complex’? Because each subject (you and I) is subjected to several ideologies that are relatively independent, albeit unified under the unity of the State Ideology. For there exist, as we have seen, several Ideo logical State Apparatuses. Hence each subject (you and I) lives in and under several ideologies at once. Their subjection-effects are ‘combined’ in each subject’s own acts, which are inscribed in practices, regulated by rituals, and so on.”
 Althusser, “On Ideology,” 195: “And Moses, interpellated-called by [appele] his name, having recognized that it ‘really’ was he who was called by God, recognizes – yes indeed! – recognizes that he is a subject, a subject of God’s, a subject subjected to God, a subject by the Subject and subjected to the Subject.”
 While I stick to these names of action, it is alarming to see that ‘subjectivation’ is not really part of Althusser’s vocabulary for subject formation. The reason is Althusser believes what subjectivation can achieve is always implied and limited within process of subjection.
 Jameson, on “affect,” from Antinomies of Realism, 37: “So in reality, it is not existence and meaning which are incompatible here, ...it is allegory and the body which repel one another and fail to mix.”
 Benveniste, from Problems in General Linguistics: “...by introducing the situation of ‘address,’ we obtain a symmetrical definition for you as ‘the individual spoken to in the present instance of discourse containing the linguistic instance of you.’ These definitions refer to I and you as a category of language and are related to their position in language.”
 The novel’s process of forming the subject is comparable to “the archive,” which Deleuze uses to describe Foucault’s process of subjectivation. The written journal and novel provide themselves as archives, subject to the consciousness at a given time. Deleuze, “What is Dispositif?” 345: “History is the archive, the design of what we are and cease being while the current is the sketch of what we will become. Thus history or the archive is also what separates us from ourselves, while the current is the Other with which we already coincide.”