The Other Side of the Picture: The Politics of Affect in Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas1

By Hsieh, Lili | Journal of Narrative Theory, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Other Side of the Picture: The Politics of Affect in Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas1


Hsieh, Lili, Journal of Narrative Theory


For a long time, the politics of Virginia Woolf has been implicitly equated with the emotion of anger: the angrier Woolf appears, the more her writing is read as political. The difficulty of the Woolfian politics of affect arises as it is also Woolf herself who tries to theorize a feminist politics and aesthetics out of anger.2 To the extent that anger is raised and dropped in the course of Mary Beton/Mary Seton/Mary Carmichael's long musing in A Room of One's Own, Woolf 's own feminism and politics are often measured according to whether she is angry, or indeed if she writes with an "androgynous mind" free from anger. "'[A] room of one's own', like the arrière-boutique of Montaigne, seems the natural symbol of detachment and calm," a reviewer wrote favorably of A Room of One's Own in 1929.3 But anger or calmness of a writer or her style is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. On the same text, Jean Guiguet was struck by "the violence of her polemic," and John Lehmann, one of the "Brainies," concluded that Woolf "had never got over a feeling of resentment."4 Was Woolf angry? Was Woolf angry enough! More importantly, was Woolf fair with anger?-These are questions which are as essential as unsettled to Woolfian critics and feminists, such as Rebecca West, Adrienne Rich, and Kate Millet, the "mothers" through whom we come to think of feminism today.

In this paper, I read Three Guineas as a political treatise which not only offers a model for transnational feminism but also presents what Pierre Bourdieu calls a "social psychoanalysis" of the vicious circle of action-reaction, aggressivity and violence.5 If in "Why War?," Freud's vision for a anti-war project is overcast with pessimism and fatalism, Virginia Woolf delineates a new way to look at the picture of the world and wars in order to work against a "melancholy conclusion."6 In my reading of Three Guineas in the following, I propose that Woolf portrays a different picture of wars by pointing to the doubleness as well as dividedness of the world. Just as she imagines an androgynous subjectivity in A Room of One's Own, in Three Guineas Woolf offers to create a politics which, although condemned to the irreparable separateness between subjects, will manage to allow one to see beyond this finitude-from the other side of the picture-just as the letter will finally bring into conversation two very different subjects (male and female) on the same subject ("How are we to prevent war?"). Following Woolf 's ingenious politics of affect as a critique of the doubleness and dividedness of patriarchal society, I focus on Woolf 's repeated literary invocations of the "pictures of dead bodies and burned houses" and her insertion of five photographs-none of which contains scenes of wars or destructions-to show that Woolf 's politics of affect points to a radically new way of representation, a way for men and women alike to see the other side of the picture. By "the other side of the picture," I am alluding to Jacques Lacan's important seminar, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (L'envers de la psychanalyse; 1969-70). While investigating the implicit tendency to essentialize emotions in the leitmotif of "feminist anger and feminine melancholy" prevailing in the Woolfian criticism, I contend that Woolf's innovative use of photography, in which war scenes as well as women are absent, and her politics of affect, which centralizes on the seemingly idealist and transcendentalist emotion of indifference, can be read most constructively through Lacan's theory of four discourses which he proposes in the seminar, The Reverse Side of Psychoanalysis. With the aid of Lacanian terminology, I show that Woolf's depictions of patriarchy in Three Guineas should not be read as reductive; rather, by painstakingly demonstrating how education works marches hand in hand with patriarchy to wars, Woolf shows precisely what Lacan theorizes as the redoubling of the discourse of the master and its flip side, the discourse of university. …

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