The Orders of Gothic: Foucault, Lacan, and the Subject of Gothic Writing, 1764-1820

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The Orders of Gothic: Foucault, Lacan, and the Subject of Gothic Writing, 1764-1820, by Dale Townshend (New York: AMS Press, 2007), ISBN-13: 978-0-404- 64854-1, 365pp. + x., £74.50hb.

We are now in a period where many literary scholars are avoiding, as if it were a Gothic monster, the once-common use of French post-structuralist theory for the analysis of texts. Nevertheless, this book unabashedly shows how a theoretical approach of just this kind, provided it is combined with many close readings of Gothic passages and strong moments of 'new historicist' contextualizing (as it certainly is here), can still add some distinctive and valuable understandings to our grasp of the most 'classic English Gothics' from Horace Walpole's The Castle of Ortranto to C.R. Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer. To be sure, this book's overarching premise may seem too entirely focused on theory for some. Townshend's 'thesis' at the outset claims that the classic Gothic is most revealingly read through lenses that combine Michel Foucault's works ranging from The Order of Things (1966) through Discipline and Punish (1973) to The History of Sexuality volumes (1978-84) with Jacques Lacan's distinctive take on Freudian psychoanalysis as it is extended by his later Seminars of the 1970s and the variations offered by Julia Kristeva, Mladen Dolar, Joan Copjec, and especially Slavoj Zizek. Consequently, some will note that more senior scholars of Gothic have already employed these ways of reading it, particularly Robert Miles, Jose Monleon, and Edward Jacobs in Foucauldian analyses and several Freudian- Lacanian-Kristevan critics from David Punter, Anne Williams, and the later Miles to Judith Halberstam and beyond. Even so, Townshend here rises to the challenge posed by Copjec's Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists (1994) by proving that Foucauldian and Lacanian schemes work particularly well together - as they rarely have before - to explain the way desiring subjects are constituted by, even as they strive to constitute themselves within, foundational Gothic texts. Indeed, by keeping its analyses focused on the unformed Gothic 'self' subjected to the power-plays of competing discourses at very specific times (a la Foucault) as well as to the arenas of interpersonal contention where internalized Father-figures work to prevent the subject's full exfoliation of its impulses in public language (as in Lacan viewed through a Kristevan lense), The Orders of Gothic offers some arresting and oft en new readings of Walpole, Clara Reeve, William Beckford, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew G. Lewis, Charlotte Dacre, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Maturin, and some of their imitators that have simply not been articulated this sharply nor this completely before. There are, in other words, revelations about Gothic classics in this book that others may have approached but have never carried through nor interconnected so well. These are all articulated with considerable, and very apt, quoted evidence from the primary texts and placed in the context of many non-fictional discourses of those times, from the philosophical and the religious to the educational and political (including quite sexist and racist examples), that have been missed as much by most Foucauldian new historicists as by many post-Freudian analysts.

It is more than his focus on the emergent Gothic subject, though, that allows Townshend to baste together potentially incompatible fabrics of theory in the deft way he does here. He knows his Foucault, Lacan, Kristeva, Zizek, and others so thoroughly that he can highlight clusters of concepts from each at just those points where they seem to call for a quite different, though adjacent, interweaving of conceptual registers (again like a monstrous double) in order to be more fully worked out themselves. The 'orders' of Gothic in this study, then, are only initially Foucault's discourses of classical 'representation,' late-Enlightenment 'historicity' (which views the self as a layered depth composed over time), and nineteenth century 'discipline' (the external now internalized), all of which the Gothic is shown to combine and transition across, extending what Miles saw in his Gothic Writing, 1750-1820. …