The canniness of the Gothic: genre as practice.
As early as 1991, an extract from Martin Amis' London Fields (1989) was anthologised in a specifically Gothic collection (1). While Amis is not generally received as a Gothic writer, his satire is vicious and his parodies grotesque; however, critical discussions of the Gothic have now extended to Waugh's A Handful of Dust (1934), (2) cyberpunk writer William Gibson, (3) Freud's case studies, (4) the Oprah Winfrey show, (5) the Vietnam war, (6) colonial tin structures, (7) and the language of theory itself. (8) A recent number of the Journal of Popular Culture included an article claiming that Martha Stewart, all-American doyenne of home entertaining and tasteful living, needs to be understood in terms of the Gothic. (9) Certainly, it is possible to argue that any or all of these are legitimately understood as Gothic texts, but taken together, they represent a radical expansion of the term and rely not on a commonsense categorisation of the texts, but on arguing that they contain Gothic elements that are unrecognised by the common reader. Using this strategy it is possible to 'discover' the Gothic in almost any text, and the area that Gothic studies concerns itself with becomes potentially enormous. My argument aligns itself with concerns that have been articulated recently about the methods and scope of Gothic criticism's project. (10) I am uneasy that a genre with roots in the popular and the recognisable is now thought to appear in forms utterly unrecognisable to the non-specialist.
It can suggest a lot of things when we call a text Gothic, but perhaps the first is that we have placed it in a category. Regardless of how we define it, and even if we choose not to tie the Gothic to anything so firm as a definition, the Gothic refers to a category of literature, or, in a wider sense, a category of cultural production which includes films, the visual arts, videogames, comic books, even music
and fashion. When we think of texts as belonging to a category, it enables us to think of them as having something to do with one another, as naturally belonging together. George Lakoff notes that we tend to organise categories into hierarchies so that some are superordinate, others subordinate, and they form a hierarchical chain. (11) This is significant for the way in which the study of the Gothic is organised. Subcategories of the Gothic are identified to pragmatically define areas of study, and to usefully suggest family resemblances between texts. What was once referred to as 'the' Gothic--the works of Walpole, Lewis, Radcliffe and so forth --has become just another subcategory, the 'original eighteenth century Gothic', which sits alongside others such as the 'Southern Gothic,' the 'female Gothic' and so forth. The peculiar side-effect of the creation of these subordinate categories is that the superordinate category that is simply 'Gothic' has been emptied of texts which are not usually further subcategorised, while retaining a kind of fuzzy integrity and meaning nevertheless. Through this empty category very different texts, which appeared in very different times and places, can be read as like especially by critics who emphasise the tropological constancy of Gothic texts, or those who favour a psychoanalytic approach.
Lakoff observes a further property of categorical thinking is that when we think of the complement of a category--that is, all the things that do not belong to a category--we have no clear mental image of what this might mean. If, for instance, we talk about a chair, we might mean a rocking chair or an armchair or a desk chair, a number of configurations are included in the category; but we have no real idea of what a 'not-chair' positively is. (12) This is the same difficulty we face when we study the Gothic; we simply have not been able to articulate what the Gothic is not. Because we cannot say with certainty that Martha Stewart is not Gothic, it is possible to argue that she is.
Compounding this problem, as Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik recently emphasised, the Gothic '... is both temporally and culturally inflected--what terrified the eighteenth-century reader will not frighten the twenty-first century cyberspace surfer'. (13) Indeed, the twenty-first century reader might be hard pressed to recognise the eighteenth-century Gothic at all. For instance, the gentle supernaturalism and legalistic fixations of Reeve's The Old English Baron (1778) probably are not what the common reader thinks of when he or she thinks of the Gothic these days. As Fred Botting suggests, the Gothic--and especially the contemporary Gothic has undergone a kind of transvaluation. (14)
If the Gothic is not what it used to be, then we need to acknowledge the mutability of the term. It is not adequate to simply return to the eighteenth-century texts as some kind of ur-Gothic blueprint. The Gothic is both dynamic and limited, in that it is different to what it once was, yet it is possible to trace its development through continuous, although sometimes quite radical, movements. While my use of the term 'Gothic' here includes the eighteenth century Gothic texts from which we take the term, I do not mean to privilege these texts in the wider field. Precise terms for the Gothic, and the particular emphases of the genre that accompany them, come and go.
One of the peculiar things about Gothic studies is that while it is a field defined by a genre, it seldom engages with genre theory. While there have been numerous theorisations of genre, (15) David Duff has noted that, until very recently, for 'modern literary theory, few concepts have proved more problematic and unstable than that of genre... If the death of the author has been a familiar refrain of modern literary theory, so too has the dissolution of genres'. (16) Perhaps this is so, yet if we look at twentieth-century manifestations of the Gothic, they do often seem more diffuse than the 'original' Gothics. If we are to usefully theorise a genre like the Gothic, we need an approach that can account for this diffuseness, the changeability of the Gothic's manifestations. Really, what do the works of Mrs Radcliffe, William Faulkner and Chuck Palahniuk have to do with one another?
Pierre Bourdieu relates an experiment that was performed in the course of researching Distinction (1984). Respondents commented on a series of photographs, and Bourdieu noted that their '... effort to recognise culminates in classification into a genre, or, which amounts to the same thing, in the attribution of a social use, the different genres being defined in terms of their use and their users.' (17) For common readers, the struggle for interpretation is also the struggle for classification; and this classification is related to use and users. (17) In other words, genre is related to practice.
Perhaps the Gothic is something which is done rather than something that simply is. It is worth noting Derrida's argument that a text can participate in a genre without simply belonging to it--although my view is that genre is much less legalistic than Derrida would have it. (18) My suggestion is that the Gothic is a cultural practice that is almost as institutionalised yet adaptable as activities such as 'playing a game of football' or 'going to church'. One of the useful differences between a notion of practice and that of category is that it is much more difficult to argue one practice into another than it is to manipulate categories. A game of football remains recognisable regardless of whether it is being played by a couple of kids on the street, by teams of professionals in a stadium, or is just being watched on a television; and nobody tries to suggest that a game of tennis is a game of football on the basis they are both game-like.
Bourdieu believes that practices
have as their principle not a set of conscious, constant rules, but practical schemes, opaque to their possessors, varying according to the logic of the situation... Thus, the procedures of practical logic are rarely entirely coherent and rarely entirely incoherent. (19)
The procedures of practical logic are what Bourdieu calls habitus. Habitus describes
systems of durable, transposable dispositions... principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be... adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. (20)
Bourdieu developed the notion of habitus to describe canniness, commonsense knowledge, the fuzzy logic of doing, the ideal yet pragmatic and adaptable way that people undertake practices. Habitus is 'an acquired system of generative schemes' that shapes us as it shapes our behaviours, yet does not function as an absolute structural constraint; it is 'a present past that tends to perpetuate itself into the future by reactivation in similarly structured practices'. (21) My suggestion is that some genres, and especially the Gothic, are perpetuated, operate and are understood through the practical logic of habitus.
'Gothic habitus' is a shared way of understanding and 'doing' things we describe as Gothic. This Gothic habitus is part of the 'ensemble of ... dispositions' that constitute a person's wider habitus, although in some people, it will be more fully developed than it is in others. (22) An analogy would be that most people have an approximate notion of what football looks like and how it works, but certain people--fans, players, coaches, promoters--are specialists, with extraordinarily developed senses of how football is and ought to be performed. As a habitus, the Gothic describes a way of writing, a way of reading, a way of thinking about stories, a way of imagining; and this description stretches to include our ability to make blackly humorous jokes, or to dress up grotesquely on Halloween. The Gothic is not as formal as a contract, is never as definite as a law or code or language, is not quite as informed, personal or ideal as an aesthetic. It is something between the ceremonial and the ludic, and ought to be understood, not as a set form, nor as a static accumulation of texts and tropes, but as a historicised practice which is durable yet transposable: a habitus that orchestrates the generation of various texts and variant readings over the course of time. This is not the same as intertextuality or historicisation. Of course, we will find moments where one text relates specifically to another text, or where it obviously engages in contemporary discourse. However, a notion of genre as habitus suggests that a text can relate to a way of doing and understanding textual things. The Gothic, so long associated with the uncanny, operates through a certain canniness. (23)
When we study a Gothic text, we ought to have an understanding of the way that the Gothic was authored and read, the way the Gothic was performed within that text's originary field. This is an inexact formulation. The fuzziness of habitus is suggestive of the elusiveness of the Gothic when we analyse it, the way that discussions about doubling, the uncanny, the spectral and Otherness say something about the Gothic but never wholly capture it. The Gothic, a discrete practice, is ultimately irreducible. In this understanding, the Gothic is something that is real, at least in a cultural sense, and simply cannot be constructed through argument. While the Gothic is transposable, it maintains a correctness that excludes instances like Martha Stewart and tin sheds. Indeed, explaining how a text--particularly a contemporary text--is Gothic is much like trying to explain the punchline of a joke--certainly, it can be done, but the joke loses something in the explanation. If we do not understand that someone is joking, we do not really experience the joke; if we did not pick that a text was Gothic, it might be that, for us, it is not. This seemingly instinctual--although actually learned--classification does not rely on the textual knowledge that we might suppose. Readers need not have much knowledge of the Gothic canon as it is critically understood in order to appreciate the latest vampire romance they are consuming. However, there is every reason to think that they recognise the sort of thing they are reading.
Austen's Henry Tilney read Udolpho (1794) in two days with his hair standing on end; this seems an unlikely experience to associate with reading Mrs Radcliffe nowadays. (24) If we wish to reconstruct a contemporaneous reading of a text, we ought to attempt to understand our own Gothic habitus and how it influences our reading, while at the same time attempting to assemble a sense of the Gothic as it was performed within that text's originary field. Yet texts, through the attribution and reattribution of value, continue to shape the field, although they may shape the field differently at different times. As Ken Gelder observes, '[t]o read [Dracula] is to consume the object itself, Dracula, and, at the same time, to produce new knowledges, interpretations, different Draculas'. (25) If the Gothic is a popular practice, then this continual reproduction and revaluation is a traceable, historicized process we can see occurring around most texts within the field, especially canonical texts.
Dracula (1897) is an interesting case. Gelder notes the critical consensus that the destruction of the vampire Lucy is a revolting act, which leads us to think of the Crew of Light as villainous and misogynistic. (26) Similarly, Anne Williams' reading of Lucy's dispatch fails to engage with any notion that Lucy has become a qualitatively different order of being, a vampire; she is read as a woman, only human, brutalised by men. (27) For Williams, the Count himself is almost a 'Mother Goddess' figure--and thus, in terms of her argument, heroic. (28) These are valid re-readings, but happen to coincide with the rising popularity of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles (1976-2003)--which are notable for placing the vampire in the role of protagonist rather than monster, turning it from an agent of the devil into a Byronic hero. Rice's vampires are more recognisably human and heroic than Stoker's Count. Gothic criticism of historical texts sometimes runs the risk of failing to unpick itself from its own contemporary Gothic habitus, from the Gothic as it appears now. This is not to suggest that an 'authentic' reading of a text is more valid than a reading based in current Gothic habitus--only that it is important to distinguish between the two.
The act of publication creates an artefact which takes a position in the 'Gothic field', the space in which the Gothic 'game' is played out. Bourdieu suggests the phrase '"a feel for the game" ... gives a fairly accurate idea of the almost miraculous encounter between the habitus and a field'. (29) Over time, the position of a text may shift, erode, expand its influence or be forgotten. Texts relate not just to other texts, but to other positions in the field. Habitus allows us to see not just the likeness, the way in which texts are Gothic, but also the individuality of a text's position, to see attributes that are easy to see as like as different. A historicised understanding of the Gothic field allows us to rediscover the newness that was once attached to certain texts. While Hammer films and The Exorcist (1973) coexisted and both claim a Gothic status, the Friedkin film must have seemed really new to audiences whose idea of horror tended to involve Christopher Lee in a cape. Regan's exorcism was shocking not just because of her abjection as a monstrous yet vulnerable moppet, but because the story represented another turn of the screw, so to speak.
There are a variety of interesting consequences if we formulate the Gothic as habitus. The Gothic text is a source of the Gothic insofar as it is part of the process of performing the Gothic, and because it is a concrete means by which the past of the Gothic, as a practice, remains present and perpetuates itself into the future. Text represents an 'event' in Gothic practice, a lived experience as much as an opportunity to reflectively interpret; it is a device which is used to enact the Gothic, a kind of fetish to which values are attributed.
The reader, having identified the text as one which participates in the Gothic, reads with a set of vague expectations, looking forward to the Gothic's familiar pleasures, while simultaneously hoping to be delighted by the novelty, the distinguishing features of the particular text. The way in which expectations are met or disturbed mediates, in a very practical way, the reading experience. When a reader natively understands a text, he or she immediately grasps the implied play of assumption, anticipation, and emphasis that moves throughout it, identifying the new while accepting the conventional. Some things will strike readers as strange and unique, while others will elude their notice. Gothic habitus allows readers to negotiate the implicit emphases that contribute to the text's creation of meaning, lets us understand and interpret it despite the weirdness of Gothic conventions. Marina Warner observes that '[n]obody, except perhaps a child... finds it strange ... that lost loved ones should return with arms stiffly held by their sides and wrapped head to foot in the shroud in which they were buried'. (30) To draw strong meanings from the conventional appearance of a ghost in a critical reading of a ghost story might miss the point that a ghost often appears in a certain way because that is the way that ghosts conventionally 'are'. Bourdieu argues
[O]ne only has to suspend the commitment to the game that is implied in the feel for the game in order to reduce the world, and the actions performed in it, to absurdity, and to bring up questions about the meaning of the world and existence which people never ask when they are caught up in the game--the questions of an aesthete trapped in the instant, or an idle spectator. (31)
To develop authentic readings, we need to strike a balance between our critical 'play' with the text, and the limits of legibility suggested by the habitus that was at work in the field in which the text emerged and was received. Genre texts rely on their audience's ability to recognise the difference of their particular take on generic conventions.
An instance of this failure to connect scholarly investigation with popular reading practice--similar to Warner's observation of the unstrangeness of ghosts--might be the kind of critical attention the figure of the vampire occasionally attracts. It is all very well to suggest various psychoanalytic constructs in relation to biting and sucking, the penetrative properties of fangs and the orifice-like nature of the mouth, but, for most readers the phlebotomic habits of vampires are a given; mouths are a fact of the face, and fangs save the undead from having to use a straw. (32) As much as the trope has been fetishised, there is also something unremarkable about bloodsucking. Even if we accept that vampires are important because of the method by which they feed, that hardly distinguishes what is significant about an individual vampire in a specific text. Far more interesting is the play of likeness and difference between these separate figures.
Another point suggested by viewing the genre as habitus relates to the difference between the Gothic and what we think of as 'literature', or, indeed, any other sanctioned, 'high' cultural form. The critics who championed the Gothic in the seventies and early eighties were placed in a position where, to validate their enquiry, they had to argue for the Gothic's worth and interest as literature--together with that notion's often highbrow connotations--even though the Gothic gives us texts that are frequently tasteless, populist, and even downright trashy. Although Gothic criticism has acknowledged the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow texts, I wonder whether, as Lawrence W. Levine has suggested, notions of 'popular' or 'lowbrow' culture sometimes cannot wholly treat the way in which some fields--in this case the Gothic--are organised. (33) A peculiar corollary of describing the Gothic as a discrete practice is that we no longer have to argue for its literary Worth--or worth as whatever class of text it appears in. Simply put, 'literature' is a slightly different game to the Gothic, and offers a different experience. The Gothic text is not necessarily literature, but that is not always a value judgement. A text might be valued as 'literary', and it might be valued as 'Gothic', and that a text should be valued as one certainly does not preclude it being valued as the other, but these assessments are not the same thing. The obvious demonstration here is that Bookers and Pulitzers are awarded to one kind of book; Stoker awards are given out to another. We expect something different from a Gothic experience than we do from a literary experience. Nevertheless, in many cases, Gothic practice will converge with literary practice--as in The Turn of the Screw (1898) or Beloved (1987); although on other occasions it will have very little to do with what we understand as literature--as in, say, the semi-pornographic vampire romances of Christine Feehan. In cases where a text is involved in multiple genres we need to orchestrate and ordinate our readings to produce a balanced understanding of its involvement in those disparate practices.
The individual reader may find more value and pleasure in a text's Gothicness than its literariness. In terms of the original Gothic, this is suggested by a reader like Austen's Catherine Morland. Today, we call these readers fans, and they happily devour and endorse both literary and subliterary texts so long as they provide a satisfyingly Gothic experience. How are we to understand texts that appeal through the experience they offer as much as through the interpretive opportunity they provide? If Gothic texts are a part of Gothic practice, then our understanding ought to do more than merely interpret Gothic texts, and should address the Gothic experience itself. This approach to Gothic experience might suggest Sontag's famous declaration: 'In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art', together with all its unresolved difficulty and provocation. (34) The pleasures on offer in the Gothic text differ from the pleasures of literature, and are not to the taste of some readers; although how we are to usefully articulate these differences remains critically troubling.
I should note that the idea that popular genres constitute a kind of habitus is not one Bourdieu himself emphasised. For him, reading a text was an act of decoding, and only the culturally competent reader would be able to extract meanings that went beyond the sensible properties of a work. (35) Bourdieu's approach to genre seems to have relied, at least in part, on a lingual metaphor of genre as a kind of generative grammar or langue, and the manifestation of that genre within a text as a kind of parole, requiring deciphering. (36) Elsewhere, Bourdieu refers specifically to literary genre as an 'instituted means of expression', which in dialectic with individual 'expressive dispositions' demonstrates the 'real logic of action', or habitus. (37) Thus, Bourdieu does not seem to have regarded genre in itself as habitus.
Another proviso is that while my argument does suggest that authorial intent is important in determining whether a text is Gothic, I am not claiming that this intention is the defining feature by which we recognise the Gothic within a text. Nor is it my aim to argue for a relocation of interpretive act from text to audience; but to suggest that one of the most important contexts in which we should read the Gothic text is in relation to the historicised notion--contested and incomplete as it will be--of the Gothic within its time.
If the Gothic is a part of our habitus, then it is a discrete and recognisable cultural phenomenon, which we can observe because it is a real thing, rather than a theoretical construct. The limit of the Gothic becomes the ability of its audience to recognise a particular text as Gothic. With this recognition, we see the Gothic--and perhaps a handful of other major genres also--as endlessly iterated yet perpetually transforming, as popular epistemologies, as imaginative social practices grounded in the canniness of habitus.
Timothy G. Jones Victoria University of Wellington
(1) Patrick McGrath and Bradford Morrow, (eds), The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction (London: Picador, 1993).
(2) Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 96-101.
(3) David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 119-20.
(4) Anne Williams, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 239-48.
(5) Mark Edmundson, Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism and the Culture of the Gothic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 57, 73.
(6) Jeanette Idiart and Jennifer Schulz, 'American Gothic Landscapes: The New World to Vietnam', in Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography, Glennis Byron and David Punter, (eds), (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 127-39.
(7) Ian Lochhead, 'Corrugated Iron Gothic', in Gothic NZ: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture, Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn, and Mary Paul (eds), (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2006), pp. 80-9.
(8) Edmundson, Nightmare on Main Street, p. 40; David Punter, 'Introduction: Of Apparitions', in Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography, Glennis Byron and David Punter (eds), (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 1-8, at p. 1.
(9) Emily Jane Cohen, 'Kitschen Witches: Martha Stewart: Gothic Housewife, Corporate CEO', The Journal of Popular Culture 38/4 (2005), 650-77.
(10) Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall, 'Gothic Criticism', in A Companion to the Gothic, David Punter, (ed.), (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 209-28; Lauren Fitzgerald, 'Female Gothic and the Institutionalization of Gothic Studies', Gothic Studies 6/1 (2004), 8-18; Alexandra Warwick, 'Feeling Gothicky?' Gothic Studies 9/1 (2007) 5-15.
(11) George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 31-8.
(12) Ibid., p. 52.
(13) Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, p. 2.
(14) Fred Botting, 'Preface: The Gothic', in The Gothic, Fred Botting, (ed.) (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001), pp. 1-6 at p.3.
(15) Good recent introductions to the field include David Duff, (ed.), Modern Genre Theory (Harlow: Longman, 2000) and John Frow, Genre (Oxon: Routledge, 2006).
(16) David Duff, 'Introduction', in Modern Genre Theory, David Duff (ed.) (Harlow: Longman, 2000), pp. 1-24 at p. 1.
(17) Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 42.
(18) Jacques Derrida, 'The Law of Genre', trans. Avital Ronell, Critical Inquiry 7/1 (1980), 55-81, at p. 59.
(19) Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 12.
(20) Ibid., p. 53.
(21) Ibid., pp. 54-5.
(22) Pierre Bourdieu and Lo'ic J.D. Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 13.
(23) Another kind of connection between canniness and the Gothic is explored in Anna Jackson, 'Uncanny Hauntings, Canny Children', in The Gothic in Children's Literature: Haunting the Borders, Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis, (eds), (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 157-76.
(24) Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 102-3.
(25) Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire, (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 65.
(26) Ibid., pp. 76-7.
(27) Williams, Art of Darkness, pp. 124-7.
(28) Ibid., p. 134.
(29) Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, p. 66.
(30) Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 12-13.
(31) Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, pp. 66-7.
(32) For instance, see Christopher Craft, '"Kiss Me with Those Red Lips": Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Representations, 8 (1984), 107-133, at p. 109; or Candace R. Benefiel, 'Blood Relations: The Gothic Perversion of the Nuclear Family in Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire', The Journal of Popular Culture, 38/2 (2004), 261-273, at p. 268. A slightly less credulous engagement with this kind of thing can be found in Gelder, Reading the Vampire, pp. 67, 75.
(33) Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 30-1, p. 36.
(34) Susan Sontag, 'Against Interpretation', in A Susan Sontag Reader (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1982), pp. 95-104 at p. 104.
(35) Bourdieu, Distinction, pp. 2-3.
(36) Pierre Bourdieu, 'Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception', in The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Randal Johnson, (ed.), (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 215-37, at pp. 215, 225, 227.
(37) Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, p. 57.
Address for Correspondence
Timothy G. Jones, SEFTMS, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140, New Zealand. E-mail: email@example.com
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|Date:||May 1, 2009|
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