After Anger: Negative Affect and Feminist Politics in Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas.
This article follows Marcus in asserting that anger and other negative feelings continue to have political currency, while complicating her claims by questioning the idea that feminist emotions are authentic only when they emerge from personal experience. The problem of women's personal anger--how and when, if ever, to express it and in what context--has been a major concern of Woolf scholars and of feminist critics more generally. The expression of the personal, whether it implies the exposure of autobiographical information, emotion, or personality, is a historically fraught issue for women writers who have felt and continue to feel pressure to adhere to masculine standards of intellectual objectivity in order to avoid accusations of writing from a subjective, gendered place. Beginning in the 1970s, feminist scholars such as Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and Kate Millett demonstrated that gender and the personal are serious categories of literary analysis, while others later applied this idea to critical writing, with Nancy K. Miller arguing that "autobiographical performance" within personal criticism is not just political, but also inherently theoretical (1). Jane Marcus, Brenda Silver, and others pioneered the exploration of Woolf's work in relation to these questions, establishing the narrative of Woolf's anger as suppressed early in her career and in A Room of One's Own until it was unleashed in the form of "an angry old woman" or a "guerilla fighter in a Victorian skirt" in Three Guineas (Art and Anger 123, 73). This narrative establishes what I believe to be a specious relationship between personal, feminist politics, and the expression of emotion in Woolf's nonfiction, one which implicitly suggests that her early "impersonal" writing is an avoidance of gendered subjectivity, or one which insists that Woolf's instances of anger in Three Guineas are personal. Here, formulating impersonality as an affective and political stance that strategically embraces "weak" emotional states and avoids autobiography, I propose an alternative reading, locating impersonal anger and other negative emotions as essential to Woolf's feminist project in Three Guineas. Indeed, despite feminist scholars' efforts to destigmatize the personal, the notion of impersonality continues to carry gendered associations and this affects many critical readings of Woolf. When the term is applied to a woman, it often suggests that she is insufficiently warm or emotional, and that she is avoiding autobiography and the performance of "personality" often required of women. In short, it is a way of accusing a woman, sometimes even in feminist discourse, of failing to use an appropriately gendered affective register--a failing from which feminist critics have tried to "save" Woolf, even as they implicitly accuse her of it.
In contrast to the idea that Woolf's anger represented a "submerged truth" or was (intentionally or not) concealed, I will argue that in Three Guineas she conveys anger impersonally in a challenge to conventional gendered understandings of the relationship between politics and affect. My understanding of feminist emotions and impersonality as compatible builds upon recent work in affect theory that attends to the politics of minor and negative affects. Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings follows Martha Nussbaum and Brian Massumi in defining emotion as intentional (expressed by a subject toward an object) and defining affect as "less object- or goal-oriented," "intentionally weak," and as associated with a less specific, global perspective (26). Ngai refuses to lean on this theoretical distinction, however, understanding emotion and affect as existing on a continuum of degree, which makes possible an analysis of "weaker," less passionate emotions--such as envy, irritation, and anxiety--that have more in common with affect than with "grander passions like anger and fear" and "morally beatific states like sympathy" (6). I am interested in Woolf's engagement with negative emotions, that is feelings, unlike desire or fear, that involve a turning away from an object, or, in Ngai's terms, those that are "organized by trajectories of repulsion rather than philic strivings 'toward'" (11).
The idea of impersonal anger might seem to defy the logic of an affective continuum of degree, as it suggests that it is possible to approach a traditionally passionate emotion, one that involves an attachment to an object of anger, with an impartial stance. However, in contending that anger can work impersonally, I am aligning anger with those less passionate emotions that Ngai associates with affect. Following Sara Ahmed's theorization of feminist unhappiness in The Promise of Happiness, I suggest that it might be possible to formulate a feminist political response that begins with affective disengagement from objects understood in the dominant culture as "good," such as patriotism and nationalism. To contextualize my approach to impersonal anger, I turn to feminist theories of anger that use a cognitivist approach to emotions and to Woolf's impersonal method, through which she avoids personal narrative, speaks for the collective of the "daughters of educated men" and the Society of Outsiders, and explicitly demonstrates her narrator's imperviousness to emotional appeal. Focusing on "weaker," negative feelings is not meant as an avoidance or invalidation of Woolf's anger, but as an attempt to shift the focus from discovering its sources to paying close attention to the way that she uses language to convey affect as part of a feminist methodology. In the second and third parts of the essay, I turn from anger to other negative feelings in Three Guineas that have received less critical attention, such as indifference and lack of sympathy. I read the negative emotional stance of the Society of Outsiders alongside Sara Ahmed's concept of the "feminist killjoy" and argue that Woolf's juxtaposition of images and text allows her to reveal the limitations of sympathy in forming a political response to injustice. This essay ultimately suggests that Woolf provides a model for a collective feminist politics that complicates the teleological narrative of feminism in which emotion operates as a site of truth.
Impersonality, Anger, and Feminist Methodology
Feminist reassessments of anger and other emotions during the 1970s sought to assert their value as tools of the oppressed. The understanding of emotions that supported this trend involved a particular understanding of how emotions operate. Sara Ahmed explains that this debate has historically been split between those who believe that emotions are tied to bodily sensations, involving an "immediacy [which] suggests that emotions do not involve processes of thought, attribution or evaluation," and a cognitivist approach, which understands that emotions "involve appraisals, judgments, attitudes or a 'specific manner of apprehending the world'" ("Introduction" 5). While the bodily view of emotions understands them as producing automatic reactions, such as an instinctual flight from a situation caused by fear, the cognitivist view recognizes emotions as having intentional objects. The relationship between these two views is more complex than it is possible to illustrate here, but my purpose is to show that the cognitivist approach to emotions has allowed feminists to challenge the notion that the emotions of women and other oppressed groups are "out of control," instead representing them as rational, less immediate, responses to injustice. Naomi Scheman's "Anger and the Politics of Naming" argues that the discovery and naming of emotions transforms them into political acts, as the recognition "that some state of affairs counts as oppression or exploitation" involves attributing anger to external circumstances, rather than mere personal dissatisfaction, and therefore calls attention to the need to address collective forms of injustice faced by all women (181). Elizabeth V. Spelman historicizes oppressed groups' access to discourses of anger and, like Scheman, affirms anger's potentially subversive power. Spelman traces the idea that anger is an appropriate response to injustice, rather than an irrational emotion, back to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, but explains that anger has only been associated with justice and reason when it is expressed by politically and culturally dominant groups (264). Dominant groups use emotion to maintain unequal power relations by associating women and other oppressed groups with unruly emotional expression and the body, which maintains their own association with reason and the mind. Drawing a distinction between anger and other emotions, Spelman writes that though oppressed groups are "expected to be emotional...the possibility of their being angry will be excluded by the dominant group's profile of them" (264). She suggests that in keeping anger for themselves, dominant groups demonstrate their understanding of anger's difference from other "irrational" emotions and the potential danger it poses to them in the hands of the oppressed. Adhering to a cognitivist approach that involves recognizing the role of judgments and beliefs in shaping emotions, Spelman asserts that "being angry involves judging that some wrong or injustice has been done," which contrasts with the idea that emotions are mere "dumb events" (265). This view of emotions understands the anger of oppressed groups as a "negative evaluative judgment" about a person or situation, transforming it into an "act of insubordination" (266). Spelman cites Peter Lyman's "The Politics of Anger" in asserting that "anger is the 'essential political emotion,' and to silence anger may be to repress political speech" (272).
Feminist theories of anger, then, claimed the power of anger as a political tool by reevaluating its epistemological status. When anger is informed by a judgment, it also has an object, and can therefore address personal experiences of injustice that affect collective groups. As Brenda Silver explains, this shift in understanding anger changed the conversation about Three Guineas, transforming earlier critics' charges of Woolf's "'resentment,' 'grievance,' and 'complaint' into collective public concepts associated with social and political change" (361). Silver notes that this change occurred in the late 1970s, with the publication of several critical essays "that explore the increasing recognition of Woolf's political vision" in 1978 alone (361). Marcus's call for feminist anger in "Art and Anger" is part of the wave of criticism that developed out of feminist reassessments of the political value of anger, asserting the subversive potential of women's collective expression of emotion, while also suggesting that this expression of emotion is validated by its personal source. Indeed, Marcus's deployment of Woolf's anger as an example for--and warning to--younger women contains two claims that are common in one of the predominant second-wave feminist approaches to understanding anger. The first is the implication that women's anger is repressed and in need of expression and the second is the related notion that anger almost always has a deeply personal and gendered source. The repetition of these ideas occurs on multiple levels of feminist discourse: while one of the primary concerns of feminist literary criticism has been the project of reclaiming and uncovering women's writing of the past in an effort to establish a canon, a similar process of unearthing and reclaiming occurred at the level of the unconscious, as women uncovered and expressed their feelings of anger, unhappiness, and resentment. An essential aspect, then, of the feminist project has been conceptualized in psychoanalytic terms, as women's "truth" has been understood as hidden deep in archives and minds conditioned by patriarchy.
The idea that women's expression of the repressed truths of their personal experience, through emotions such as anger, would not only allow them to claim power and authority, but could also be a source of creative and political energy, is an essential contribution of feminist theory and activism. However, these ideas, despite Woolf's investment in describing the sources of women's oppression and her interest in depicting women's interiority, do not align with her beliefs about the expression of the author's personality and emotions. Woolf maintained that the personal is inappropriate to both the essay and fiction in several of her essays, beginning with "The Decay of Essay Writing" in 1905, which accuses contemporary essayists of using their writing as a vehicle for the unnecessary display of personality, writing that the essay, "owes its popularity to the fact that its proper use is to express one's personal peculiarities so that under the decent veil of print one can indulge one's egoism to the full" (4). In "The Modern Essay" Woolf similarly argues that personality is the essayist's "most dangerous and delicate tool" and that when it is misused," [w]e are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print" (217). Woolf expressed related ideas about personality in literature, praising Greek literature as the "impersonal literature" because it is free from authors' personal association, which has "preserved them from vulgarity" ("On Not Knowing Greek" 23). Woolf most explicitly demonstrates her stance on the relationship between personality, gender, and the emotions in A Room of One's Own, where she criticizes literature that is tainted by personality or emotion. The narrator explicitly warns women against writing "in rage" or of themselves through the example of Charlotte Bronte's distraction by "some personal grievance" (AROO 68, 72). Critical evaluations of Woolf's impersonality often focus on this aspect of A Room, with Elaine Showalter describing Woolf's impersonality and her argument for androgyny as an avoidance of gendered subjectivity and the body (263-64). However, Woolf's impersonality has also been considered in relation to modernist impersonality, which is usually associated with formalism and the authoritative aesthetics of T.S. Eliot and other male modernists. Rochelle Rives' and Christina Walter's recent work attempts to complicate the story of modernist impersonality by showing how the impersonal might also serve as the site for a radical critique of subjectivity. (1) Lisa Low challenges the idea that Woolf's impersonal style indicates her avoidance of gendered subjectivity by arguing that she used it "not for its authoritarian potential, as Eliot might, but because it is empathetic and democratic" (259).
Critical evaluations of Woolf's anger are in tension with her actual use of impersonality. The application of feminist theories of anger to Three Guineas was widespread in second-wave criticism, even though there is danger in suggesting that Virginia Woolf, a notoriously impersonal writer, sought to make her previously repressed personal anger public. In her essay, "Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)," Sara Ahmed maintains that a "feminist call might be a call to anger, to develop a sense of rage about collective wrong," but warns against making "feminist emotion into a site of truth," as assuming the universality and authority of personal emotions often undermines attempts at collectivity. (2) Marcus argues that Woolf "first learned to say 'we' as a woman...thinking back through her mothers gave her her first collective identity and strengthened her creative ability. Her whole career was an exercise in the elimination of ego from fiction in author, characters, and readers" (83-84). Despite this, Marcus and other second-wave feminist critics, a generation that solidified Woolf's iconic status as a feminist and a canonical woman writer, have tended to represent Woolf's anger as a repressed source of personal truth. Indeed, accusations that Woolf was too angry or not angry enough continue to proliferate, revealing the extent to which the appropriate expression and use of anger continues to anger feminists. Although she is writing about A Room, Adrienne Rich finds Woolf's anger inadequate: "It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and even charming in a roomful of men..." (37). Rich assumes that Woolf censored herself by using an "objective" tone, as opposed to an emotional or angry one, to sound less threatening to men, implying that Woolf would have been more candid, more personal if she had not been repressed. Brenda Silver, however, argues that for Woolf, anger was a source of her text's authority, and the act of recognizing and writing about her tone in literary criticism is a political one. At the same time, Silver implies that the source of anger's authority is its previous repression, both by Woolf herself and by earlier male critics who failed to recognize it. Silver asks, "what voice would be 'natural,' what tone 'appropriate,' for a woman writing a feminist complaint or critique of her culture, a feminist polemic?" (358). Marcus compares Woolf's anger to Adrienne Rich's poem, "The Phenomenology of Anger," arguing that "the burning rage produces a kind of angry truth-telling, fulfilling, one feels, Woolf's demand that women tell the truth. That 'the truth' is synonymous with anger is testimony to its power and the rich history of its suppression" (152). Contemporary criticism continues to perpetuate similar ideas about Woolf's anger, with Kathleen Helal, for example, arguing that anger is Woolf's "submerged truth" (78). While these critics have been essential to the project of feminist efforts to assert the epistemological validity of the emotional and personal, the dominance of their ideas and their application to Virginia Woolf's anger might prevent critics from recognizing that anger and impersonality are not necessarily irreconcilable aspects of a feminist project. Indeed, the notion of impersonality as divestment of personality and a turning away from emotional immediacy pervades Woolf's oeuvre, and its manifestation in Three Guineas presents an opportunity to think of impersonality and other negative feelings, not as attempts at assuming a "neutral" masculine subjectivity, but as a potential source for feminist politics.
The Personal is Factual
Three Guineas has been considered primarily in relation to anger since its publication because it is Woolf's most explicitly feminist text, in which she argues that an essential aspect of pacifist politics involves the recognition that fascism and the gender relations associated with it emerge from fundamental structures of patriarchal society, namely, the family and public institutions. Written in the context of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of European fascism, Woolf begins her epistolary essay as a response to a gentleman's letter asking her, "How in your opinion are we to prevent war?"; however, before answering this letter or giving money to his cause, Woolf must first respond to a request from a woman's college and a society for professional women (5). The responses to these requests allow Woolf to articulate the idea that women must first achieve independence through emotional, material, and intellectual disengagement from British patriarchal institutions in order to consider the problem of war. Woolf speaks for the specific class of the "daughters of educated men" and a "Society of Outsiders" through the epistolary essay, a complication of public and private distinctions that allows her to simultaneously write in a traditionally personal and private genre while speaking for a collective group of women. Woolf bolsters the effect of her essay through her inclusion of photographs and evidence drawn from newspapers and journals; women's biographies, memoirs, and letters; and historical and academic texts. What Jessica Berman refers to as Woolf's "documentary impulse" is evident in her creation of scrapbooks of documentary materials clipped between 1932 and 1938 (63). Indeed, Jane Marcus suggests that Woolf's composite text and her "erudite set of notes and references" provide "a reading list for an alternative history" (TG lix). I argue that Woolf resists using the personal and the emotional as sources for intellectual authority, both in the methodology she employs to support the evidence for her feminist claims and the language she chooses to present that evidence. I demonstrate how Woolf inverts the gendered binaries of the personal and factual and of emotion and reason, allowing her to suggest that women's anger is factual, while men's anger is inseparable from their personal emotions. This allows for a differentiation between two forms of anger: anger that comes from personal injury, which can only respond with its own concerns, and anger about injustices affecting groups.
Although Woolf's letters and diaries demonstrate that she felt incredible rage about women's lack of education and professional opportunities, she does not draw from these personal empirical sources, but channels her emotions into an argument that refuses to rely on her own lived experience. Instead, Woolf takes her facts from biography, a "largely untapped aid to the understanding of human motives," to the exclusion of her own lived experience: "There is thus no longer any reason to be confined to the minute span of actual experience which is still, for us, so narrow, so circumscribed. We can supplement it by looking at the picture of the lives of others" (TG 9). Woolf demonstrates that she regards biography as an important resource because it provides a variety of experiences from multiple real women's lives for use as evidence, which transforms the individual personal lives of women into collective facts, and allows biography to stand for authoritative history. In a letter to Ethel Smyth, Woolf describes her inability to include in A Room her personal experience of the injustice of not receiving an education, explaining that if she had said, '"Look here, I am uneducated because my brothers used all the family funds'--which is the fact--they'd have said, 'she has an axe to grind'" (L5 195). Even though this story and the anger behind it is a "fact," it will not be treated as one because it is "personal," so Woolf transforms it via biography from an angry-sounding anecdote to an impersonal fact in Three Guineas with the example of Mary Kingsley, whose only paid-for education is "being allowed to learn German" (6). Woolf explains that "Mary Kingsley is not speaking for herself alone; she is speaking, still, for many of the daughters of educated men...she is also pointing to a very important fact about them, a fact that must profoundly influence all that follows: the fact of Arthur's Education Fund" (TG 7). Indeed, throughout the text Woolf relies on the facts of biography, using phrases such as "biography provides us," "biography informs us," and "the evidence of biography" so often that the genre itself becomes imbued with the authority Woolf herself avoids (33, 95). Biography is the mediator that translates the personal into fact and the singular into the universal, allowing Woolf to transform the personal testimony of subjects of biography into evidence for an argument about a collective, capturing the anger-inducing injustice women experience.
Contrary to Woolf's treatment of women's experiences, which are transformed into a collection of facts, her descriptions of men's anger do the opposite, revealing that what appears to be motivated by reason and logic is often caused by petty emotions and personal fear, the type of emotion Elizabeth Spelman calls a "dumb event." Interestingly, the word "anger" appears in Three Guineas only in Woolf's discussion of men, and the word "emotion" is concentrated in the part of the third chapter that focuses on men's "infantile fixation." (3) Woolf applies a psychologist's description of men's "infantile fixations"--which "betray their presence, below the level of conscious thought, by the strength of the emotions to which they give rise"--to several "cases" of men's "strong feeling" or "strong emotion" getting in the way of them allowing women to enter the professions or receive education (150). Woolf mimics the tone of the detached scientist in her examination of the source of "our fear and your [men's] anger" and turns once again to biography, but does not in this case transform the personal experiences of its subjects into facts, insisting instead on a psychoanalytic approach, which reduces seeming facts to emotions and their causes. In Woolf's analysis of Mr. Barrett, the Rev. Patrick Bronte, and Mr. Jex-Blake, she explains that the anger of their prohibitions on their daughters' behavior is not rational or justified, as they believe it is, but has its source in "a very strong emotion and an emotion which also seems to have its origin in the levels below conscious thought," which is jealousy and the related fear that their daughters will no longer be dependent on them (156). Woolf goes on to explain that in the case of Sophia Jex-Blake and her father, he "had recourse to one of the commonest of all evasions; the argument which is not an argument but an appeal to the emotions" (158). In this case, it is men's emotions, not women's, which are an enemy to reason and justice, and are a cause of the distortion of facts. Woolf reverses conventional understandings of the gendered nature of anger, where men's anger is characterized as factual and justified and women's is irrational and personal, evidence of an "axe to grind." Indeed, Woolf subjects men's personal emotions to the same level of scrutiny women's usually receive, inverting the situation Spelman describes, in which dominant groups associate themselves with reason and their subordinates with emotion. This reversal does not demonstrate that Woolf believed that women should fear or hide the personal, but that anger and impassioned argument are not more valid for having come from a personal place. Woolf suggests that the personal, at least for men, implies the translation of narrow and distorting emotional instincts into truths to support the oppression of women; while for women, the personal or autobiographical is fact and must be treated as such rather than as a repressed, and therefore irrational emotion. Implicit in Woolf's methodology in Three Guineas, then, is a critique of emotional immediacy, and, as we shall see, a defense of emotional detachment.
Attributed Anger and Collective Indifference
Contemporary feminist theorists, such as Sara Ahmed, acknowledge anger's indispensability to feminist political struggles, but problematize the idea that its naturalness and personal source validate it. Indeed, Ahmed's work continues the feminist project of reclaiming negative affects, while refusing the teleology of a feminist politics in which the ultimate result of anger is happiness. In The Promise of Happiness, Ahmed explains how feminist scholarship and activism has historically "expose[d] the unhappy effects of happiness, teaching us how happiness is used to reinscribe social norms as social goods" (2). Ahmed refers here to the work of feminists like Jane Marcus and Adrienne Rich who, as we have seen, encouraged women to recognize and express their anger in the belief that its causes--the reinscription of oppressive conditions, such as patriarchal marriage and gender norms, as the apotheosis of happiness--could be eradicated, resulting in a situation where, "they [the next generation of feminists] will write injoy and freedom" (Marcus 154). In contrast, Ahmed follows black feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde in emphasizing how some women have never had access to the fantasy of happiness feminism wants to discredit and recognizes that both the past and future projects of feminism involve "refusing to follow other people's goods, or by refusing to make others happy" (60). Woolf makes a similar argument about the future of feminism in Three Guineas in a section of the text that proposes inventing a new ceremony to celebrate the "freedom" Woolf's correspondent assumes women enjoy:
What more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word 'feminist' is the word indicated. That word, according to the dictionary, means 'one who champions the rights of women.' Since the only right, the right to earn a living, has been won, the word no longer has a meaning. (120-21)
Woolf ironically suggests the obsolescence of feminism, now that its purported goal been achieved and women are "free," which not only allows her to reiterate the necessity of feminism to the projects of fighting patriarchy and fascism, but also to emphasize the continuity of the feminist project over generations, as Ahmed does much later. Woolf goes on to clarify by explaining that what "those queer dead women in their poke bonnets and shawls" were working towards in the nineteenth century is "the very same cause for which we are working now" (121). Woolf suggests that negative feelings are essential to the feminist project, but that they are also the source of feminists' vilification as "those queer dead women in their poke bonnets and shawls," because their enduring refusal to let go of unhappiness and anger is viewed as pathological. This describes the condition of Ahmed's "feminist killjoy," who also repeatedly "spoils" the happiness of others and is therefore "attributed as the origin of bad feeling" (65). Ahmed's description of the feminist killjoy and the source of her anger is useful for conceptualizing alternatives to the personal anger that supports a teleological narrative of feminism. Ahmed explains the process through which reasonable anger becomes personal anger: "Reasonable thoughtful arguments are dismissed as anger (which of course empties anger of its own reason), which makes you angry, such that your response becomes read as the confirmation of evidence that you are not only angry but also unreasonable!" (68). In this scenario, reasonable anger, derived from a "judgment that something is wrong," is read as "unattributed anger" that comes from a personal place (68). Ahmed's differentiation between reasonable and unattributed anger, which follows Spelman's differentiation between understanding emotions as judgments and "dumb events," reveals how the prioritization of the personal source of anger can erase the reasoning behind it and make it susceptible to attack. Additionally, separating anger from the personal voids the requirement that it eventually be replaced by "joy and freedom." If the feminist killjoy is not an angry person but a person who is angry about injustice, she is better able to address those injustices beyond the scope of personal injury and through a project that does not end when she is "free" from anger but continues on as an essential aspect of a feminist genealogy.
Indeed, Woolf's use of the personal and the biographical as fact, and her use of evidence to demonstrate the facts behind women's anger (as opposed to men's emotionally-motivated arguments) in Three Guineas demonstrate her support for a version of feminist politics supported by the attributed, reasonable anger Ahmed describes. Woolf's characterization of men's anger as rooted in "infantile fixations," which are "strong emotions" hidden "below the level of conscious thought," is thus a personal form of anger that cannot be attributed to a rational source. Women's anger, however, is revealed to be rational when they are not subject to the process Ahmed describes, where reasonable anger about injustice is transformed by those it threatens (men) into unattributed anger, creating the figures of the feminist killjoy and the "queer dead women in their poke bonnets and shawls." Woolf's argument for impersonal feminist anger, however, exceeds her formal interest in establishing the factual source of women's anger through the facts of biography and a scientific analysis of men's feelings. Woolf's suspicion of the evidentiary value of personal anger extends to her understanding of the collective political potential of the personal. Indeed, in "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: The Collective Sublime," Marcus maintains that the "elimination of the ego" was an essential aspect of Woolf's oeuvre, part of her participation in "a democratic feminist 'collective sublime'" that included past, present, and future women writers (84, 82). Although Marcus's claims might conflict with her idea that Woolf's personal anger, and therefore her identity, permeated her work, it is useful for understanding the Society of Outsiders, which embraces the value of impersonal and dispassionate argument and reflects a concern with collective justice in its rejection of identity and ego. Woolf's Society makes use of "weaker," negative feelings that are closer to affect in their association with detachment and turning away.
Woolf's description of the Society of Outsiders, which does not emerge until her final chapter, follows her earlier characterization of women throughout the text as not only separate from the concerns and interests of men and patriarchal society but as interested in eschewing the personal in favor of the collective. This occurs through Woolf's transformation of personal biographical material into collective facts and her contention that the women she writes about constitute their own class as the "daughters of educated men." As Christine Froula argues, Woolf "pragmatically" limits her analysis to one class of women, declining to speak for working class women, even as "Three Guineas envisions all women as an emerging economically independent collective that might conceivably exert diffuse social power against barbarism, tyranny, and war" (275). Woolf's language in her response to her correspondent highlights the differences in power and identity between "your [his] class" and the collective perspective ("our class") from which Woolf writes. For Woolf, "we" means "a whole made up of body, brain and spirit, influenced by memory and tradition," demonstrating her conceptualization of the collective of women as one being (TG 22). Similarly, the Society of Outsiders emphasizes the daughters of educated men's impersonal attitude toward the concerns of her correspondent and the society he represents. The Society abides by the notion that "it seems both wrong for us rationally and impossible for us emotionally to fill up your form and join your society," illustrating their refusal to be emotionally or personally manipulated into supporting a cause that does not align with the pursuit of "liberty, equality, and peace" (125, 126). The Society maintains a rational indifference to the types of emotionally motivated arguments made by men who suffer from the "infantile fixation" described earlier. The place of women, Woolf argues, is "not to incite their brothers to fight, or to dissuade them, but to maintain an attitude of complete indifference," a quality that she maintains must be "given a firm footing upon fact": "As it is a fact that she cannot understand what instinct compels him, what glory, what interest, what manly satisfaction fighting provides for him...as fighting thus is a sex characteristic which she cannot share" (127).
The Society's refusal to understand and share in the personal and emotional motivations for the political causes of others that do not align with one's values resonates with Ahmed's notion of the "affect alien." Ahmed describes the sense of alienation that arises when we do not, for example, "experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good," creating a gap that can lead to anger (41-42). A feminist perspective, then, can lead to alienation from happiness. Woolf's Society of Outsiders is alienated from the dominant affects of British patriarchal society because war and nationalism do not make them feel happy or sympathetic; however, rather than fill this gap with anger, they respond with indifference. Indeed, when they do support a cause, they do so not out of sympathy, but out of the carefully formulated conclusion that their behavior is just and indifferent to personal influences, which is guaranteed by their vows of "poverty, chastity, derision, and freedom from unreal loyalties" (97). The last of these vows--which requires ridding oneself of "national, religious, collegiate, sex and familial pride"--is essential to Woolf's vision of an ideal form of politics as one that abandons personal identity, which leaves one susceptible to irrational, emotional appeal, in favor of an indifferent collective (97). Woolf demonstrates how women are already, by default of their sex, collectively excluded from these attachments, as they "have no country," "want no country," and therefore have the ability to oppose war, as a group, through their indifference (129). As Marcus argues in "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers," Woolf imagines a collective that exceeds the bounds of time and space, and even includes common readers in a "collective audience" that strips them of individual identity (82).
Emotional Immediacy, Unsympathetic Response, and "those dead bodies and ruined houses"
As we have seen, Woolf establishes her stance on the relationship between emotion and feminist politics through her transformation of women's lived experiences into collective facts and her description of the Society of Outsiders' attributed anger and indifferent form of critique. Both of these strategies challenge the idea that Woolf privileged her own anger or believed that women's emotional responses to injustice are the key to their freedom. Woolf's understanding of the role of affect in politics also allows her to conceptualize a future for feminist politics that can embrace negative feelings without disappointment in the failings of a narrative that was supposed to end in joy and happiness. A third fundamental aspect of Woolf's suspicion of the power of personal emotions to formulate a rational response to injustice is evident in her inclusion and exclusion of particular photographs in the text. Woolf's narrator references absent photographs of "dead bodies and ruined houses," which are images from the Spanish Civil War, sent by the Spanish government "with patient pertinacity about twice a week" to alert British supporters to the violence of the fascists (14). Marcus's notes reveal that while Woolf was writing Three Guineas, socialist and communist newspapers and pamphlets arrived at the Woolf household on a regular basis (TG 228). However, it is the contrast between these photographs of "dead bodies and ruined houses," mentioned seven times in the text, and the photographs of a General, Heralds, a University Procession, a Judge, and an Archbishop that suggests Woolf's critique of sympathy as an impetus for action.
The photographs of patriarchal figures that Woolf originally included in the text were absent for decades before they were restored to the text with Michele Barrett's 1993 Penguin edition and Jane Marcus's 2006 Harcourt edition. Marcus notes that it is "not known how the photographs were dropped from the English and American editions for so many decades, or why," but emphasizes that reading them with the text brings out, as Woolf intended "the connection between them" (TG 229). While the majority of this criticism has focused on the included photographs, some critics have addressed the absent images and their affective role in particular. In her introduction to the 2006 edition, Marcus argues that although the images are absent, they are nevertheless "visually very present to us as we read" as Woolf "never lets us forget that they are the occasion of her outburst" (lxiv). Indeed, Woolf provides a detailed description of the photographs she chooses not to include: "They are not pleasant photographs to look upon. There are photographs of dead bodies for the most part. This morning's collection contains the photograph of what might be a man's body, or a woman's; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be a body of a pig" (14). Furthermore, Marcus suggests that Woolf's exclusion of the violent photographs is part of her pacifism, as "[a]trocity photographs would incite us to fight and she refuses to show them" (lxiii). Maggie Humm also attends to their implicit presence by reading the play between the visible and absent photographs as evidence of the juxtaposition between a masculine narrative of public events with the "feminine 'affect' of the narrator's visual memories" (646). Humm's analysis echoes earlier psychoanalytic readings of Woolf's personal relationship to the text when she argues that the absent photographs feature "the narrator's memory and her bodily responses to the photographs," which allows them to "produce sexual difference and represent the ideological effects of sexual difference" (647-48). Finally, one of the most widely read analyses of the absent photographs appears at the beginning of Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, where she close-reads Woolf's first invocation of the absent Spanish photographs, in which she tells her correspondent that "we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses" as a way of revealing their shared opposition to war (14). Sontag argues that Woolf "professes to believe that the shock of such pictures cannot fail to unite people of good will," accuses her of "allow[ing] her interlocutor to take a 'we' for granted," and claims that "into this 'we,' after the pages devoted to the feminist point, she [Woolf] then subsides" (6). While Humm argues that the Spanish photographs operate as the text's feminine unconscious, Sontag takes umbrage with the implication that images of war affect people emotionally in the same way, an argument supported by her later critique of the idea that the sympathy evoked by images has the power to prevent war. Although Sontag herself argues that" [a] narrative seems likely to be more effective than an image" in its ability to force people to pay attention for a prolonged period of time, she does not acknowledge that Woolf does not in fact make visible the violent photographs Sontag accuses her of using cheaply, and indeed only references them throughout the narrative of the text, as Marcus points out (Sontag 110).
Sontag is correct in claiming that Woolf assumes the universality of her response to the absent images, but Woolf's description of it reveals her skepticism of a politics forged from emotional response. Woolf transitions to the photographs, which are "pictures of actual facts," by comparing them with "pictures of other people's lives," or history and biography (13). However, she also writes that they "are not arguments addressed to the reason; they are simply statements of fact addressed to the eye" (14). These statements seem to conflict as Woolf suggests that the photographs are factual and realistic, as opposed to the more interpretive genres of history and biography, but they are also addressed to the eye, rather "than arguments addressed to reason." Woolf creates a nuanced opposition between fact and argument and between eye and reason in a place where one would perhaps expect an opposition between emotion or body and reason. While the use of the word "eye" implies a direct bodily interpretation, Woolf goes on to clarify that "the eye is connected with the brain; the brain with the nervous system," which in turn creates "sensations" of "horror and disgust" (14). Although the photographs enter the eye as facts, they become sensations, and finally emotions as they move through the body, which leads to a dead end. Woolf seems to say that although "we" are affected by the photographs in the same way, "we" (Woolf and her correspondent) do not share the same politics, so let us move on from looking at these images, which she goes on to describe in rather straightforward language, to the facts of women's experience, which will do a better job of convincing you why war should be prevented. Indeed, at the end of this section, Woolf abruptly moves on to her own argument, which relies not on the sensational and emotional immediacy of "statements of fact addressed to the eye," but "arguments addressed to the reason."
Before examining the photographs that Woolf includes in Three Guineas, it is necessary to understand how she might have tried to explore alternatives to the sympathetic use of war images, as they rely, like personal anger, on emotional immediacy. Judith Butler argues that affect, and sympathy in particular, can create a "differential distribution of grievability across populations," which points to the necessity of attending to the way that affective response is not always organic but is conditioned by political forces (24). Indeed, she argues that affective responses are regulated and censored by regimes of power, in efforts to prevent war or to support war by preventing people from reacting with the "horror and disgust" that could incite both pacifist and nationalist sentiments. While also attending to the political nature of affective response, Ahmed reveals the exclusionary nature of sympathy and its limitations as a source of action. In challenging the "routinisation of sympathy as a mode of responding to loss," Ahmed argues that it is not just a feeling of extension, but also one of restriction: "You might be sympathetic to the extent that you can be in accordance with others. Maybe you are more kind to those you feel are more of your kind" ("Becoming Unsympathetic"). Like Butler, Ahmed points to the political implications of deeming a particular group of people unsympathetic, but she also attends to the way that sympathy excludes those who do not share in dominant positive feelings, like happiness. Ahmed returns to the concept of the "affect alien" to describe the way that "[w]hen others expect sympathy from you, they might also be expecting your feeling to be in accordance with theirs," which means that the feminist killjoy is "unsympathetic" in the sense that she does not sympathize with the happiness of others when that happiness is derived from damaging social norms ("Becoming Unsympathetic").
Butler's and Ahmed's work on sympathy can help us understand Woolf's invocation of the "dead bodies and ruined houses" and her inclusion of the photographs of the patriarchal figures. As Butler points out, photographs of war elicit powerful affective responses, but they do not always produce consensus. Woolf might have been aware of the fact that although "we" (Woolf and her interlocutor) have the same emotional response, she can neither guarantee that other viewers and readers will respond the same way, nor that their emotions will be transformed into political action. Woolf recognized the danger of groups experiencing a collective emotional response to the images because she understood that sympathy, as a "fact" that is transformed into a "sensation," can prevent thinking, or rational response. Indeed, Jessica Berman argues that Woolf intentionally avoids including the Spanish photographs because she is aware of their "inevitable mobilization within an immoderate, emotional, and in many ways, unethical propaganda argument," ultimately suggesting that Three Guineas allows Woolf to explore the limits of ethical connection (68). Woolf works according to what Berman refers to as a "narrative politics of hiatus, involution, and substitution"; thus, she not only avoids including the Spanish photographs, but, in a move that might seem characteristic of the feminist killjoy in its indifference to being viewed as unsympathetic, also subjects photographs of patriarchal figures to her own and the reader's gaze (63).
The five photographs in Three Guineas--of a General, Heralds, a University Procession, a Judge, and an Archbishop--were excised from the text from the mid-1960s to the 1990s in the British and American editions (Wisor 1). Since then, critics have examined the cultural and historical meaning of the photographs, with Alice Staveley first describing, in 1998, the meaning that they would have had for contemporary viewers. Staveley's archival research confirmed that contemporary readers "would probably have identified all of the famous men, as much by their faces as by their raiments," meaning that "far from comprising a series of faded and anonymous snapshots of late great men--a misperception enhanced by the distance of time or place...these men were not only very much alive in June 1938, they were also the reigning 'chiefs' of the patriarchal enterprise" (4-5). Staveley goes on to provide the names and titles of the men, which include Lord Baden-Powell ("A General"), Stanley Baldwin ("A University Procession"), Lord Hewart ("A Judge"), and William Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury ("An Archbishop") (4). Unlike Humm, who contends that in contrast to the "absent photographs, whose contingent, affective scenes electrify Woolf's bodily synapses, the public photographs lack affect," contemporary readers might have been shocked by Woolf's inclusion of photographs of such eminent men (657). Woolf knew that replacing the expected anti-war photographs of the "dead bodies and ruined houses" with representatives of British patriarchal power was a highly political decision, one that would incite a different kind of emotional response.
The inclusion of the photographs of these pillars of British civilization, situated in the context of the absence of photographs of foreign victims of war, amplifies Woolf's argument that the source of fascism and tyranny is the nation and the home. Woolf's decision to include these particular photographs challenges the reader to subject them to a higher level of scrutiny than usual. The photographs themselves are close shots of some of the most important British men alive, which depict them decked out in the clothing that symbolizes their power and in official processions that are reminiscent of fascist imagery. Only in the photograph of a General is the subject smiling and facing the camera in a pose that would usually elicit identification, and perhaps sympathy, from a viewer. Woolf, however, sarcastically emphasizes these official displays' inability to evoke her emotions and distract her from her focus on women's education:
Here, too, we marvel at the brilliance of your clothes; here, too, we watch maces erect themselves and processions form, and not with eyes too dazzled to record the differences, let alone explain them...we must cease to hang over old bridges humming songs; we must attempt to deal with the question of education, however imperfectly. (30-31)
Once again showing her skepticism of "facts addressed to the eye," Woolf makes it clear that she and her Society of Outsiders are not "too dazzled" by the spectacle of these processions of men to think reasonably about what they represent. Woolf does not merely dismiss these men's official regalia and titles as superfluous and outdated, but also reveals that these images are insidious in their ability to conceal, through the emotional response they coerce, the injustices they support. While these photographs might traditionally elicit affective responses that include feelings of patriotism, nationalism, safety, and faith in venerable institutions spanning Empire, Government, Justice, and Religion, their seemingly haphazard pairing with Woolf's text highlights their contrast and encourages the reader to take an unsympathetic view of them--to refuse to be dazzled. Just as Woolf subjects the emotional "infantile fixations" of Mr. Barrett, the Rev. Patrick Bronte, and Mr. Jex-Blake to the level of scrutiny women's usually receive, the objectifying gaze is reversed in the photographs from depicting the victims of war to the perpetrators of the sentiments that lead to it.
If readers follow the example of Woolf's own rational textual analysis, the Society of Outsiders, and the feminist killjoy, they can refuse to feel with or sympathize with, the dominant positive affects these photographs usually produce by remaining unsympathetic and indifferent to them. Woolf does not include the absent Spanish photographs, which might have provoked an unthinking sympathetic response, but replaces them with the photographs of the patriarchal figures because her readers are able to resist their emotional call, as they have been indoctrinated in the impersonal affective strategies of the Society of Outsiders. One way to resist tyranny, Woolf suggests, is to become unsympathetic to it by understanding that it exploits emotional immediacy to transform, as Ahmed contends, "social norms into social goods." Woolf thus demonstrates the danger of a feminist politics that uncritically exploits the personal and the emotional as a source of truth and makes them the first step of a political project that will end in its own obsolescence.
Instead, Woolf maintains that feminists would be better served by both transforming personal emotions into collective negative feelings, as shown in her use of impersonal anger as a feminist methodology, and harnessing this attributed anger and unhappiness to launch a collective critique, via unsympathetic and indifferent response, of the emotionally exploitative rhetoric and imagery of the fascist and patriarchal state. A project grounded in negative, but impersonal, affect does not conceptualize anger as a personally exhausting emotion to overcome, but as a critical methodology that supports a more sustainable feminist politics. That is to say, writing "in joy and freedom" need not remain a future that is only possible after feminism becomes obsolete; Woolf implies that the project will never be complete because there is no "after" to anger.
Ahmed, Sara. "Becoming Unsympathetic." Feminist Killjoys, 16 April 2015, https://feministkilljoys.com/2015/04/16/becoming-unsympathetic. Accessed 22 November 2016.
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(1) See Rochelle Rives' Modernist Impersonalities: Affect, Authority, and the Subject, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, and Christina Walter's Optical Impersonality: Science, Images, and Literary Modernism, Johns Hopkins UP, 2014, for alternative accounts of modernist impersonality.
(2) Ahmed cites Audre Lorde's and bell hooks's accounts of exclusion from white feminist spaces based on their alienation from ostensibly collective emotional experiences, as explored in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007, and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Cambridge: South End Press, 1984.
(3) Vara S. Neverow notes that the Freudian term "infantile fixation" was not used by his English translators at the time and that Woolf might have acquired it from Professor Grensted, one of the narrator's sources in Three Guineas (61, 68).
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|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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