Of the Virginia Woolf criticism that I have read over the past several months, my favorite books include Gillian Beer’s Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground (1996), Karen Levenback’s Virginia Woolf and the Great War (1999), and Melba Cuddy-Keane’s Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere (2003). All three writers practice a fine historicism that emphasizes and shapes dimensions of Woolf’s life and work that often go unnoticed (e.g., her interest in science, her concern with war, her teaching and education background, as well as her pedagogic style). The three books also offer fine “readings” of Woolf’s work itself: both of her novels and her nonfiction. Although I enjoy these books and these critics a great deal, however, I see a common thread running through all of them. My small intervention in Woolf criticism (and modernist criticism in general, perhaps) concerns the problem of the Nietzschean concept of the “Untimely” (a notion that interests many philosophers, including Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze) and its relationship to art. I’ll expand on this in the second part of this post.
1. Consider the following passage from Cuddy-Keane’s book:
[Woolf’s] historical critical praxis . . . involves three separate but interweaving activities: locating the text in a discrete historical period known by its unlikeness to the present, reflecting on the way the present is interrogated through this comparison, and translating both past and present (always problematically and provisionally) into the continuous now. Difference implies periodization, the discrete character of each era, the distinctive characteristics in the way people lived, the way they used language, the forms to which their emotions were attached. Continuities imply an ahistorical mode, a strand of anti-periodization that focuses on the persistence of the same. Woolf’s essays advocate both the periodizing and the ahistorical consciousness. Recognizing difference is disruptive of the self; it prevents us from subjecting others to our own limiting views; it is a way of resisting false universalisms and appropriation and/or subjection of the other. But perceiving difference of the other is also disruptive of the self in a formative, expansive way: as the different voices sink into our unconscious, they help us to recover abandoned or latent parts of ourselves. Continuities then give us a hold onto permanence in a world of flux and change. Recognizing sameness, we come to feel part of the larger human community, to feel the bonds of both love and responsibility that constitute our human ties. To negotiate between difference and sameness is to understand the nature of human community as composed of contrasting but continuous selves. — Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere, pg. 156
It appears that Cuddy-Keane is inconsistent in her use of “recognition.” In the second case of its appearance (i.e., in the recognition of sameness), she uses the verb in its primary sense: identifying something previously encountered or known, something that resembles the self and that opens up a space for sympathy and solidarity. Cuddy-Keane also employs the verb in its second sense: acknowledging or validating a sameness that makes possible the sympathy or solidarity that one enters into with others. We acknowledge others because they share something with us; they resemble us; they are us. (But why acknowleding sameness means that one must feel cosmopolitan “bonds of both love and responsibility” goes unsaid.) In the first case, however, (i.e., the recognition of difference) Cuddy-Keane can only use the verb in its second sense, that is, in a simple “acknowledgment” or “perception” of the other.
One need not be a philosopher to see the conflation here of two highly contested and complex concepts: “Recognizing difference . . . perceiving difference.” Is perception of difference a recognition of difference? This is not a simple question, and I think it is worthwhile to linger over it. “Difference” in-itself, I argue, (echoing Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition) cannot be something known or something familiar or something one has encountered before; “it” is always new. I agree that “difference is disruptive of the self,” but it is disruptive precisely because one cannot recognize it when one perceives it (or, better, when one encounters it). The “self” is a construct that Difference dynamites! Difference necessitates a misrecognition: “That is not something I know.”
I also agree that “difference . . . is . . . a formative, expansive” phenomenon, but not because it is tied to or subordinate to the identity of another. Someone other is certainly different (in a colloquial sense), but he or she is not Difference in-itself. The grammatical categories matter a great deal here. When the noun “Difference” becomes the adjective “different,” it undergoes a major transformation; “different” differs and distances itself from “Difference,” becoming a qualifier subordinate to the identity of another noun, of another identity. Also: the formation or expansion that occurs in the encounter with Difference does not lead to a recovery of some “abandoned or latent part of ourselves.” How could it? If it did, would not “difference” just be “sameness”? Or, at the least, resemblance? Is sameness the same thing as resemblance? Does this not suggest that we have some latent (and thus authentic) part of ourselves?
No conduit exists, no dialogism occurs, between Difference and Sameness because Sameness is a dimension of representational logic (which includes, according to Deleuze, semblance, opposition, and analogy [perhaps one might argue that Cuddy-Keane sweeps “sameness” and “similarity” under Sameness and “opposition” and “analogy” under Difference]). Difference, I think, serves as the groundless ground for representation as well as that which overflows representation, that which introduces a radical into this logic. If this is the case, I see no relationship between periodization and Difference. Is not periodization the “discovery” or “invention” of continuity? Aren’t histories, which connect the present to the past, written in order to provide “a hold onto permanence in a world of flux and change”? With just a little pressure of scrutiny, the oppositional/dialogical analogies that Cuddy-Keane constructs between the present and the past, the self and the other, sameness and difference do not hold up.
2. But what does this have to do with the Untimely or the “To Come”? Cuddy-Keane’s analogies exemplify something particularly troubling about Woolf (and modernist!) criticism: a simultaneous romanticizing, idealizing, and fixing of modernist authors within their own historical moment. This might not make much sense, so to earn this provocative (and self-admittedly reductive) claim, I want to share a passage from Douglas Mao’s and Rebecca Walkowitz’s Bad Modernisms:
In 1960, Levin wrote that ‘[s]tupidity has decidedly not been the forte of the Modernists,’ that ‘they were preoccupied with the minds of their characters, and . . . make serious demands upon the minds of their readers.’ What Levin does not quite say is something that almost always goes not-quite-said in summaries of modernism—perhaps because it seems so obvious, perhaps because it exposes too painfully how ‘modernism’ is entangled with scarcely admissible antipathies belonging to intellectuals as a class. This point is that encounters with ‘difficult’ artifacts or performances, whatever elation or frustration they may otherwise engender, hold always a capacity to hearten inasmuch as they seem to confirm how intelligence, complexity, and curiosity have been alive in the world (and draw life again from just such confrontations between perplexed audience and elusive object). Could it be, then, that the new-old appeal of modernism lies partly in a consolation of this sort, emerging from its very negatives? If so, we will not be surprised to find modernism holding special allure in times when the future of thinking seems uncertain, when anti-intellectualism seems ascendant, when resistance to all but the simplest positions and solutions has arrogated to itself the mantle of the good. — Bad Modernisms, pp. 15-16
I quote Mao and Walkowitz not because I disagree with their claim (I find many modernist texts attractively consoling for this very reason). However, I find the notion of “consolation” itself to be particularly troubling. Do we not see in these sentences a repetition of that which old criticisms of modernism accuse writers like Eliot and Pound, that they are merely nostalgic for the “good old days” when things weren’t quite so complicated, that they withdrew into classics and other languages at the expense of thinking their own moment? Cuddy-Keane’s book is very pertinent to the situation in which literary studies finds itself in our own here and now. However, in analyzing Woolf’s pedagogy of reading and her historicizing of Woolf’s complex attitudes toward lecturing and “plain prose,” she places Woolf’s past and Woolf’s present in a frame that does not take advantage of the most important facet of Woolf’s style: the cracking open of possibility for a “to come” that is not today. Encapsulating Woolf in her present moment, “periodizing” Woolf as much modernist criticism rightly does certainly makes Woolf relevant to our own problems, framing her work as the greatest of academic and intellectual consolations. But what of the future? What of the “to come” (i.e. the “Untimely”)? Perhaps we too quickly assume that we are already the potential of Woolf’s future . . .
To think of history and only history in the way that Mao, Walkowitz, and Cuddy-Keane (and others!) do is to lock us within a closed (even if heterogeneous!) system, one in which “consolation” or “encouragement” seems to be the best one can cull from scholarly interest in modernist texts. If we merely read past texts in order to learn that our problems are “new-old” and to learn about our “present” through the lens of a “past,” in what way can we answer to the Difference that the present can introduce into history? Does not all of Woolf’s work attest to an experiment in holding open the present in order to make a future possible? The insistence that modernism is “Timely” certainly neglects the importance of the “Untimely.”
Compare the quotes above to the following passages from Deleuze:
But there will always be breaks and ruptures, which show clearly enough that the whole is not here, even if continuity is re-established afterwards. The whole intervenes elsewhere and in another order, as that which prevents sets from closing in on themselves or on each other — that which testifies to an opening which is irreducible to continuities as well as to their ruptures. It appears in the dimension of a duration which changes and never ceases to change. It appears in false continuities [faux raccords] as an essential pole of the cinema. False continuities can come into play in a set (Eisenstein) or in the passage from one set to another, between two sequence-shots (Dreyer). . . . False continuity is neither a connection of continuity, nor a rupture or a discontinuity in the connection. False continuity is in its own right a dimension of the Open, which escapes sets and their parts. It realises the other power of the out-of-field, this elsewhere or this empty zone, this ‘white on white which is impossible to film’. — Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, pp. 27-28
Cinema? Note how Deleuze theorizes the relationship between an Outside-Open-Whole and its relationship to sets. This is precisely the relationship that he theorizes elsewhere between “becomings” and “history,” between “lines of flight” and “lines of molarity/molecularity.” It is not that history (or biography!) does not exist. It does! However, something else exists, that is, the “whole . . . which keeps [a closed set] open somewhere as if by the finest thread which attaches it to the rest of the universe” (Deleuze 10). Art, literature, cinema . . . these sites which preserve thought-from-and-of-Outside make our own encounter with Difference, that is, with the thread of the Whole, possible: a line of flight from things as they are to a potential “To Come” (a notion important both to Bergson and Nietzsche: philosophers of great import to modernist thinkers). Continuity and history is no doubt important, but the historicism of modernist scholarship, if this is all we do, is perhaps not taking enough advantage of the thread that Woolf and her contemporaries weave, the “To Come” that they make possible within their art and makes our own “To Come” (which we share with them) possible.
What the hell am I talking about?
To be fair to Cuddy-Keane, I offer the final sentence of her book:
[Woolf’s] sense of community is based on the ideal of an inclusive, dialogic mix of voices, able to express their differences without violence . . . If the cultural dynamics embodied in Woolf’s dialogic model of reading can offer such a distinct alternative to the war-torn history of society, then her vision of democratic highbrowism might well mark, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the most promising global pathway to a more peaceful, productive world. — pg. 196
Is my criticism (and this long post) misguided? What is this final sentence but a comment on the future? On the “to come”? While I do not quibble with Cuddy-Keane’s sentiment, one need only read Three Guineas, I think, to see how sentimentalized her image of Woolf is. Inclusion and democracy are no doubt abstractions that remain important to us, but the violence of Woolf’s imagery in that text and the very notion of the “Outsider” itself suggests another, more radical and potentially more moving image of politico-ethico-aesthetic engagement with the world, with others, and with the “To Come.”
Perhaps I’m being unfair and ungenerous . . .
Reading on . . .