Archive for the ‘Marx’ Category

Humans are odd beasts especially when confronted with acts of transgression.  When, for example, a rogue force unhinges the ideological glue that was so carefully applied to “fix” a specific social narrative.   Unpredictable. Unorthodox.  Dangerous.   Three words that share a commonality among Green Eggs and Ham , Mein Kampf, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover along with thousands of other books that earned the status of banned.

But what exactly does it mean when a book is banned?   The banning of books has a long reach in history including Thalia  by Arius in 250 AD and more recently Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto’s Fist Fight in Heaven.

The etymology of the word ban is from Old English bannan or “to summon, command, proclaim” or from the German bannen “banish, expel, curse” and originally from bha “to speak publicly.”  In the late 14th century, Old Norse banna was “to curse, prohibit … to speak or a threat.”  In Old French ban was “outlawry and banishment” and the Germanic root is “banish, bandit, and contraband.”  Implicit in the word’s language formation is the circulating power between, among, and within both the sovereign and the outlaw.

But how does it slip from the strategic minds of those who mark an object as outlawed or as banned that they are actually highlighting an already existing discourse and by branding it with the Scarlet Letter provokes instead, as if by magic, a desire for it?  Hawthorne’s book, by the way, was also banned.  An outlaw, of course, is a misnomer in that by marking something or someone as transgressor or “outside of” they remain always and more potently “inside” as a threat to the status quo.  The Panopticon it seems, in its social architecture, will imprison those who watch and those who are watched.  To ban is to recognize and to authorize an object’s power – it has the power to change to shift to effect to affect.  The book is an object, a container filled with ideas and actions that are already circulating and have been circulating in other networks: from kitchens, to alleys, to libraries, classrooms, pubs, bedrooms, fields, living rooms, emails, graffiti, canvasses, music, t-shirts or no shirts,  footwear, theft, charity, hacking, poisoning, hair styles, marginalia, picket lines, fires, buses, marches, leaving, bearing witness, to undocumented silences that say so much more than that which lies between any published covers.  Why then is “the book” so dangerous?  Perhaps because it forces individuals to slow down as explained in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:  “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly”(9).

The written word is proof. Permanent.  A testament. An entry point. Social evidence. Militaristic in its very technology.  A public declaration.  Gutenberg did not only unleash the medium of print production but also a material potential of mass distribution to an unknown public, as Wilkie Collins categorized the growing demographic when criticizing nineteenth century penny press readers, who could escape marshaled codes of conduct by transgressing, without surveillance, in their own imaginations and their own will to think about stuff.  Censorship is a state praxis of population control that enables fallacies such as unification, democracy, and security by delineating “the enemy” be it in a book, individual, group, or nation, but alternatively it also earmarks distinct and very real anxieties operating through and through social systems.

The recent banning of books in Arizona relating to Mexican-American history along with cutting Ethnic Studies by the Tucson Unified School District is an example of a very real social and political anxiety and fear that manifests in the 1,951 mile long barrier wall that travels across the U.S. Mexican border.  It remains unsurprising that the state of the wall is called Operation Gatekeeper and that Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is among the books on the state’s banned list.  Freire espouses a teaching philosophy that encourages students to think critically and for themselves by removing social hierarchies and educational barriers.

To ban anything or anyone by any measure makes socially explicit the relevancy and power of that which is cast out, while simultaneously revealing the fear and anxiety of those who dictate the order.  The book is an object filled with static visual codes that are animated in the act of reading and thinking:  a potentially dangerous action when individuals are left to their own devices to interpret words and meanings for themselves (The Reformation remains a significant example) or call into question state narratives held in place by a vast range of ideologies. Alas, what the history of book banning does make evident is that illicit books will be read and evaluated regardless perhaps to a greater degree than books that enter the status quo unchallenged.  Humans are odd beasts especially in their desire to know (and more dangerously) that which they are forbidden to know or to do which includes the reading of the banned and the outlawed because it lets loose, especially in the unwatched confines of the mind, our desires, transgressions, and fears.

[T]hough all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644)

Among the titles included in the recent Arizona school banning is Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  The figures of Prospero and Caliban have undoubtedly released yet another post colonial allegory in Mexican-American relations, as well as inject new meaning into Caliban singing:  “Ban, Ban, Ca-Caliban” (2.2.).

Other notable banned books include:

All Quiet on the Western Front (Enrich Maria Remarque, 1929)

Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)

Areopatitica (John Milton, 1644)

Black Beauty (Anna Sewell, 1877)

Candide (Voltaire, 1759)

Catch 22 (Joseph Heller, 1961)

The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939)

Big River, Big Sea – Untold Stories of 1949 (Lung Ying-tai, 2009)

The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century)

The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank, 1947)

A Feast for the Seaweeds (Haidar Haidar, 1983)

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1973)

Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss, 1960)

The Country Girls (Edna O’Brien, 1960)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence, 1928)

Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler, 1925)

July’s People (Nadine Gordimer, 1981)

The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka, 1915)

American Psycho (Bret Easton Eillis, 1991)

The Rights of Man (Thomas Paine, 1791)

Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller, 1934)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)

Operation Dark Heart (Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, 2010)

The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer, 1948)

Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs, 1959)

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644).

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“How does meaning get into the image?”  Roland Barthes‘ question remains an important one when considering the December 2011 FOX News images of riots that were reported to be taking place in Moscow and how the network was caught out by the public in their use of footage from riots occurring in Greece. The public’s critique of the news and its demand for  “authenticity” is, however, not new.  Nor is the displacement of particular landscapes for particular political purposes.  This is seen in nineteenth century Canadian landscapes, among other spaces, as being artistically represented as an English countryside. Here, Benjamin West’s 1770 painting, The Death of General Wolfe, comes to mind.  Wolfe did not die on the battlefield, nor was he surrounded by military personnel, nor was there a Native American kneeling at his feet (Wolfe, in fact, held an acute disdain for Aboriginal peoples).

The image was constructed to create a national fantasy of unification and to establish a collective mass memory around a military event.   The mechanical reproduction of an “image” at the point of its very operation, as Walter Benjamin argues, is no longer “real.” “Real” can never be reproduced and therefore declarations of its rendered authenticity are impossible. With this said, the suspension of belief in its many creative imaginings remains a compelling device and therefore a lucrative commodity and political strategy to instigate mass consent.  The nineteenth century, for instance, is seen as a social site where there was a massive increase in Western readership of the paper press.  Wilkie Collins called this elusive and temporal demographic  “The Unknown Public.” Wilkie’s foundational (yet problematic) essay was first published in Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words in 1858.  The great subtext of “The Unknown Public” is the political and capital desire and simultaneous fear of the power of individual subjects and their sovereign and unleashed opinions.  The public bodies, particularly during times of conflict, wanted to know and were discerning enough to also know the power of political rhetoric and the methods of propaganda.  One reason for the rise of the institutionalization of the library in the nineteenth century was to take the public out of the coffee houses where lively debates would take place over The Sunday Times and marginalized Penny Presses and move them into libraries where silence was demanded.

C. Wright Mills, in The Power Elite, (1956) asks a question that underpins Barthes’ rhetorical conundrum:  “but who is this public?”  Mills sees the nineteenth century not only as a transformative period in a social visual ontology (the Victorian demand “to see” and “to know”) but as a site where the public was discursively separated into the mass: a shift determined by the power elite.

Mills explains the shift:

Public:

– many people express opinions and receive them.

– small and unauthorized venues of communications.

– outlets for effective action.

– authoritative institutions do not penetrate.

Mass:

– fewer people express opinions and received them.

– venues for communications difficult for individuals to effect.

– opinions controlled by authorities.

– mass has no autonomy from authorities.

Management, control, and surveillance of the elusive and potentially transgressive “public” functioned through and through the nineteenth century industrialized media apparatus and its freshly awakened bedfellow:  illustration.  The co-opting of text and image was and is a shape-shifting technology that continues to morph in its digital manifestations on the internet to accrue the mass.  What remains significant to note is that both media,  illustration and the internet, originate in the military along with its ideologies.  Rather than disqualify a comparison of the technologies as disparate because of their analogue and digital mechanics both rely on their relative cybernetic realities to enable production and reception.  Donna Haraway explains, “Cyborgs are not reverent. … They are wary of holism, but needy for connection– they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. The trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism. … But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential” (“Manifesto” 151).

The critique of the FOX falsification of time and space reveals the power elites attempt to homogenize the public demonstrations as an amorphous “mass” that lacks singularity, identification, or agency; moreover, it is, in the case of FOX, the resistance from “the public” that reveals the heterogeneity of the ubiquitous power bases that remain vigilant, uncontrollable, and always demanding to see the ever elusive real.

There may be solemn duty; and if it come we must not shrink from it…I shall be prepared. I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing – Mina Harker, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“Diskursmaschinegewehr,” a word from Dracula’s Legacy (DraculasVermächtnis: Technische Schriften) by Friedrich Kittler, is Kittler’s 1993 wordplay to signal the late nineteenth-century social anxiety related to modernity, machines, and media – a triumvirate of consumption generated by the ink fabric carriage return of the typewriter or Kittler’s “discourseweaponmachine.”  Kittler’s critical appropriation is addressing Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel and Stoker’s object of choice, the typewriter, for his radical protagonist/stenographer, Mina Harker.  Embracing the vampiric technology and her role as the New Woman, Harker totally takes down (in not a few key strokes) not only the figure of Dracula but the epistolary framework of Stoker’s narrative.  Mina was, indeed, a post-Gutenberg proto-cyborg.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - featuring Mina Harker

Harker’s ontological hybridity of machine and organism is explained, in part, by Donna Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto“:

Cyborgs are  not reverent; they do not re-member the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection — they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party.  The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and partriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.  But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their father, after all, are inessential. (151)

The Remington typewriter (1873), developed by the company that manufactured guns for the Civil War, is, in its very infrastructure, a discursive weapon of war, and was utilized as a frontline industrialized device in the proliferation of military communications and its handmaiden:  nineteenth-century media.  In April 2011, Godrej and Boyce, the last typewriter factory in the world announced that it would be closing its doors but the “discourseweaponmachine” does not falter:  during the nineteenth-century another data communication system, the telegraph, ran parallel to the typewriter and established the foundational apparatus for the twentieth-century world:  the internet. The inter-networking systems expanded in the 1950s with cyber gateways and bridges leading to mainframes held in the United States Department of Defense and its “Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network.

I feel not unconnected to Mina Harker, as a fellow cyborg, as I enter data into the machine and wonder if the twenty-first century’s pop cult fanaticism for Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries et. al. is perhaps a continuum of the anxieties/fears/desires that were prevalent in the nineteenth-century: social, ecological, and economic cannibalism, the virtual fangs of Ebay consumerism, and the ever firing neo-engine discourse of the Military Industrial Complex?  As McLuhan explains in The Gutenberg Galaxy: “That every generation poised on the edge of massive change should later seem oblivious of the issues and the imminent event would seem to be natural enough.  But it is necessary to understand the power and thrust of technologies to isolate the sense and thus to hypnotize society (272).

If you’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, read it again.  If you have not:  Read it; the film versions unfortunately do not include Harker’s cyborg intervention and also exclude significant layers of cultural, social, and economic symbolism that remain ever-present in the contemporary discourseweaponmachine.  To follow:  Nosferatu (1922); Dracula with Bela Lugosi (1931).

Othello’s occupation will be gone; but he will remain Othello. The young airman up in the sky is driven not only by the voices of loudspeakers; he is driven by voices in himself—ancient instincts, instincts fostered and cherished by education and tradition. Is he to be blamed for those instincts? (Woolf, The Death of the Moth)

Othello, (1623 First Folio)

Traces of Othello emerge in Virginia Woolf’s first chapter of Orlando (1928) as an artistic and literary strategy to make present the influence of education, tradition, and ancient voices enacted in the violence against women and the eradication of their voices.  Woolf does not merely resurrect the ‘dead,’ early modern characters of Othello and Desdemona, with whom the living could experience a temporal connection; she disrupts early twentieth century cultural and national literary hegemony to effect historical and literary change. Woolf’s intertextual methodology is not containable; it is not static nor is it isolated in a desire for meaning.  For Woolf, her writing provides the agency through which to explore the variant social, political, and cultural ideas available for interpretation; Woolf does not give answers; she leaves a space for critical inquiry into the violence recorded through loudspeakers and literary canons.

I continue to return to Erica L. Johnson’s essay, “Giving up the Ghost: National and Literary Haunting in Orlando” and her reference to Derrida’s hauntology theory. Johnson suggests “for Woolf … to be haunted is to hear silence and to perceive that which is invisible” (110). Woolf’s intertextual use of Shakespeare brings forward the absent/presence of women, and one represented “silence” is particularly deafening:  Desdemona, the suffocated woman in her bed (Woolf 43).

But why Othello? In the first chapter of Orlando Woolf directs her reader to the act of decoding, a semiotic to-do list for “those who like symbols, and have a turn for the deciphering of them” (5). The deployment of an Othellian allusion is not simply Woolf’s literary cunning to cite another author in order to conjure meaning. Othello’s specter haunts Woolf’s text because of the ancient voices that reside within Woolf, and thereby, manifest as symbols to register the reader’s responsibility to decipher.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her essay, “Notes Toward a Tribute to Jacques Derrida,” addresses Derrida’s theory that “the public part of mourning is a not unimportant step in the releasing of the ghost, in us. We cannot know the gift, least of all a giftcoming from a named ghost. We know the gift, if there is any, as responsibility, accountability” (102).  Woolf’s gift is through her use of codes.  In her compilation of essays in The Death of the Moth, for instance, Woolf questions the voices over loudspeakers and those ancient instincts fostered and cherished by education and tradition that cornerstone the pedagogical building of patriarchal hierarchies and their associative violence specifically in literary, historical, and biographical texts (par. 7).   Woolf expects the reader “to know” Orlando’s Shakespearean associations which were garnered through traditional education.    Woolf’s own education, fostered by the bookshelves in her father’s library, brings forward her personal catalogue of voices that manifest in the figure of Orlando, in an attic haunted by his violent association, and in his patriarchal and colonial African past (Orlando 11).

Woolf’s biography of a woman writer traced through four centuries of English literary history is based on the life of Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.

The play Othello is a Shakespearean tragedy written in 1603 during the reign of King James.  Crossing a spectrum comprising racism, misogyny, betrayal and power the lead figure Othello is cast as “a Moor.”[1] His character’s lineage, in the play text, is not designated, and thereby, distinguishing Othello as “a Moor” could mean a Muslim, Arabic from sub-Saharan African descent.  Woolf’s reference to “a Moor” however is distinct and locates him in the violent history of Orlando’s colonizing forefathers in Africa (11). Benedict Anderson argues that in Woolf’s Orlando, in “the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has ‘a gender’ (Hovey 1).    The statement infers not only a merging of gender and nation but a construction that is tantamount in the first page of Woolf’s novel.  By intersecting nationality, gender and race, Woolf documents a retrospective subtext detailing the violence made present in Orlando’s attic, a slicing of a Moor’s head.  Woolf’s simultaneous posturing and declaration that Orlando is “HE – FOR THERE could be no doubt of his sex” (1), genders the colonizing brutality and signals the anxiety of identity while identifying how nations and identities are chronicled and, ironically, fall into the cultural violence of amnesia.  Why do the lips on the head, as it falls, reveal a smile? The violence against the figure of Othello is situated but not heard.  The history from the Moor’s voice is not recorded and a specific irony captured in the lips of the nameless history haunts Orlando’s attic.

Woolf’s narrative redistributes a textual and visual mourning, a memorial that lets go of literary ghosts and, through varying historical manifestations, are essentially “in us.”  The attic, therefore, is a metaphor, a space of unforgetting the violence of colonization not only of territory but also of individual bodies.

“It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a coconaut. (Woolf, Orlando 12)

Woolf’s metonymic link to sport in “football” and to “cocoanut” (sic) demonstrates the practice of exotification and signals a performance space where ancient voices manifest and inform the actions of Orlando:

Orlando’s father, and perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him. (1)

Here, the slain “Moor” is abject and Other and carries the codes of imperial violence.[2] Johnson in her essay suggests that because Woolf works out her “conflicted stance on national identity through haunting, cultural theories, and cultural applications of Marxist and psychoanalytic theory are of particular use.  For Woolf and these thinkers, to be haunted is to hear silence and to perceive that which is invisible” (1).  The encoding of “smiling lips on the head of the Moor” signifies the loss of agency to Orlando and presents a powerful irony because he will never know the history behind the smile of the Moor, and as postured, the figure of the Moor has the last laugh.   Simultaneously, the symbol establishes the unrecorded stories, a major theme in Woolf’s text.  In addition, Woolf also raises the figure of the Moor with intertextual associations in Ǽthelbert: A Tragedy in Five Acts (13). The play could reference the historical writing of Aethelbert, King of East Anglia, who, during his reign was a subject of plots that led to his beheading (DiBattista 257).  The allusion physically conflates imperial, territorial, linguistic histories in the slicing of the head, a specific violence found in Woolf’s text when she describes that the “soldiers planned the conquest of the Moor” (26).  Maria DiBattista, who wrote the Introduction and Annotations to the Harcourt edition of Orlando, further explains Woolf’s symbolism of “fields of asphodel” (11): “Orlando’s ‘fathers’ roamed, it seems, in actual fields of asphodel, a lilylike plant that the ancients believed to be the favorite food of the dead and so planted them near graves.  The irony is deployed in the realization that the Greek myth made no connection to virtue or evil in the symbol, yet early English poetry used the symbol to represent chivalry (257).  Woolf also draws upon the allusion of Robert Green’s characterization of Orlando Furoso, the figure DiBattista suggests Woolf’s character’s name is based on (256).  Consider the following passage from Green’s edition:

The savage Moors and Anthropophagi,
Whose lands I pass’d, might well have kept me back;

But so the fame of fair Angelica
Stamp’d in my thoughts the figure of her love,
As neither country, king, or seas, or cannibals,
Could by despairing keep Orlando back.
I list not boast in acts of chivalry (par. 6)

From the opening of Orlando, Woolf uses the past to spin multiple translations and interpretations.  But how does one detect the invisible and the silence when the text is not supplemented with annotations?  How does one identify the undetectable, the lost stories, the women cut down as they ran through the African fields, the words Desdemona said the moment before she was strangled?  How does one know for certain that even though the Moor is constructed as male, as Orlando is, that the gender may not represent a woman, a gender-switch made concrete in a seventeenth century Desdemona played by a young boy.  The haunting, then, becomes like the Spur on the narrative forest floor, intertextual and organic traces of voice or what Derrida calls, trace. For Woolf, she brings forward the trace of Othello.

Othello (adaptation by Frantic Assembly), 2008

Spivak, in her article, asks the question: What, then, is a trace?

It is or is not, or, more important, is in the possibility of always not being, the material suggestion that something else was there before, something other than it, of course. Unlike a sign, which carries a systemic assurance of meaning, a trace carries no guarantees. Animal spoor on the forest floor (in German, trace is Spur) may mean the animal was there, that it’s a decoy, that I am mistaken or hallucinating, and so on. When I am around, you know I had a mother, but that is all … I am my mother’s trace. The Father’s name is written within the patronymic sign system. (104)

Derrida’s allusion to father and mother is iterated in Woolf’s opening passage with Orlando’s inner call to go to the field of Africa:

He would steal away from his mother … and go to his attic room and there lunge and plunge and slice. (1)

The trace in this passage is Orlando’s mother as unwritten; in contrast, as Spivak denotes, Orlando’s patriarchal history is written within the patronymic sign system as ‘father’ (11).  Woolf’s system leads to the specter of military, authority, patriarchy and descends into envy, murder, and death. Woolf’s subtext of the violence against women is not an abstract quote inserted into a text but rather that it is the text.

Scene from Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet (adaptation of Othello)

Derrida’s hauntology mobilizes “the specter haunting Europe (the specter of revolution) from the first sentence of [Friedrich Engels’ and Karl] Marx’s The Communist Manifesto together with a famous literary specter, the ghost of old King Hamlet from the opening scene of Shakespeare’s play, to give figuration to the hauntings of history, the traces of the past that persist to question the present. The specter appears to summon the living to undertake a rethinking of the past; it calls, in Fredric Jameson’s words, ‘for a revision of the past, for the setting in place of a new narrative’” (Derrida 43). The new narrative is where Woolf opens her text, a narrative form that belies the patriarchal narrative strategies, by throwing the inkpot, as it were, at the textual system by instead encoding potential interpretations and defying meaning:  “Like the deconstructive stress on instability,” explains Derrida, “the specter represents an impossible incorporation: as a revenant (returning) the ghost has no beginning, only repetitions. Present and not present at once and at the same time, it seems to be in a process of ‘becoming-body’, but never quite achieves the materialization toward which it gestures” (Derrida 6). Colin Davis imparts that “Derrida’s specter is a deconstructive figure hovering between life and death, presence and absence, and making established certainties vacillate” (McClallum 11).  Woolf takes the established patriarchal certainties and vacillate them in order to disrupt the ancient voices that reside there.  Woolf’s ancient voices include the colonial powers staking global territory and expanding empires, as well as representatives from the male dominated canon whom Orlando, as both male and female, meets.

Kristeva and Intertextuality

“Or to offer her his hand for the dance, or catch the spotted handkerchief which she had let drop” (“Orlando” 19) is Woolf’s allusion to Desdemona’s handkerchief, a trope that led to her death on the bed, a symbol, that Woolf offers intertextually to the reader. Julia Kristeva coined the post structuralist theory of intertextuality in 1974; however, intertextuality (intertextualité) is often a misused term.  It is not one writer’s, in this case Shakespeare’s, influence of upon Woolf but how the variant elements of the textual systems infuse the work before, during, and after production (Kristeva 15). The “spotted handkerchief,” thereby, is not merely an inserted Shakespearean allusion but it is infused within Woolf’s inner and ancient voices, voices informed through a complex polyphonic system of semiotics, education, and tradition.  As part of a system, the handkerchief that Woolf adapts could have permeated while she was in her father’s library.  Intertextuality is defined in La Révolution du langage as “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another, accompanied by a new articulation of the enunciatively and denotative position.  Any signifying practice is a field (in the sense of space traversed by lines of force) in which various signifying systems undergo such a transposition” (Kristeva 15).  Kristeva’s use of gramme, or that which is written, is used to designate the basic, material element of writing – the marking, the trace (14).  The notion of space in which systems undergo transpositioning is apt in Woolf’s work; for example she takes the literary and cultural systems and makes them travel through time to demonstrate powerful association with gender and nation and the subsequent amnesias that are constructed.

"The Othello Project marks Walking Shadow Theatre's most daring and powerful project to date

The Othello Project, by Rod Carley (1995)

In the same way, Woolf is also interested in the historical marking related to the absence of women’s voices.  The cultural marking is represented comparatively in the form of the intertextuality practiced by Woolf in her work.  It is here where the trace of the violence against women is found, a transmission rather than an insertion of text.  “Violence is all” (21) is coined by Orlando’s narrator explaining the multidirectional influence of literature, nation, and gender:  “Thus, if Orlando followed the leading of the climate, of the poets, of the age itself, and plucked his flower in the window-seat even with the snow on the ground and the Queen vigilant in the corridor, we can scarcely bring ourselves to blame him” (21).  Woolf’s work, similar to Kristeva’s theory, is a diffusion of literary residue, a process of how language operates with previous usages, the dissonances, and the collisions among them, as well as the engagement with a broader field, extended from or inverted within a specific word or quotation.  Who then is to blame?  Woolf pursues the question by using the very “classic” texts written to identify the patriarchal influence not only in her work but also in its relationship to violence against women.  There are also instances, moreover, when the narrator silences or denies voice to female characters, such as Sasha being untranslatable (34); as well, Sasha’s real name is given by Orlando to a fox he owned as a child, an animal that his father kills (33). Sasha, “who might drop all the handkerchiefs in her wardrobe” (31) is also the figure whom Orlando wishes was Desdemona (43).

Othello, Globe Theatre, London UK, 2007 (I was there)

Erica L. Johnson explains that “one way of responding to the novel’s pronounced gaps in representation is to piece together what material markers there are [and] that it is prefaced by her [Woolf’s] attention to that which is not apparent through the text” (116). Here, Johnson brings forward of Derrida’s hauntology theory in association with Orlando. Woolf’s meta-literary devices in Orlando make the invisible and silent forms present; or “to be haunted is to hear silence and to perceive that which is invisible” (110). What exactly does this mean and how are the silences perceived in Orlando?   I returned to the passage in Woolf’s work that seems to haunt me:  Orlando’s (re)memory of Shakespeare’s Othello (5.2.102):

Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse

Of sun and moon, and that th’ affrighted globe

Should yawn. (Woolf 43)

This passage, that “rose in his [Orlando’s] memory?” (17) marks Derrida’s hauntology, as well as Kristeva’s intertextuality.  The scene presents Orlando seeing   Shakespeare as a ghost-like figure who haunts Orlando much like Hamlet’s ghost haunts his son.  Orlando rhetorically asks the specter, “Tell me … everything in the whole world” (17).  Woolf’s haunting, through the (re)memory of Shakespeare, brings forward, the presence of violence against women represented in the allusion to Desdemona, the suffocated woman in her bed, who is killed by Othello (an analysis of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, as well as Iago will be taken up in another entry). Present in its silence is Orlando’s amnesia or the bracketing off of the play’s next line by Emilia, “that I may speak with you” (5.2.106).  Woolf makes present the canonical history of Shakespeare and associates it with the violence in the silencing of Emilia’s voice.   As Johnson explains, “the dynamic of haunting not only enables those living in the present to become aware of histories that have been erased by the dominant historical narrative, but also potentially signifies the unrepresentational moment of trauma of an individual’s experience of terror or the collective trauma” (110).  In making Emilia’s “speaking” absent (“No, I will speak as liberal as the north”) (5.2.226) Woolf indeed makes it “present.”  Woolf brings forward the absent voices of women who were present yet undocumented, by keeping them undocumented.

The erasure of Emilia’s voice and her request “to speak” function on two levels:  Orlando, informed by his ancient voices, does not recall Emilia’s voice and therefore the silence in history signifies the “moment of trauma.” Woolf, however, shifts this articulation when Orlando is a woman and in that representation “she” remembers, through her ancient voices, Desdemona and Emilia’s trauma, especially when Orlando is asked to be married:  “was it impossible then to go for a walk without being half suffocated” (Woolf 94).  Orlando, in speaking that she is “half suffocated” shows a shift in the patriarchal patterning, the silence is remembered while Orlando, as a woman, and is present.

Woolf recognizes, not only the violence embedded in text and the absence of the woman’s voice to speak it, but the textual systems that perpetuate the violence of racism that Othello, as Other, is politically, socially and culturally subsumed by, a patriarchal and imperial structure that (re) constructs his representation.   The complexity of Woolf’s association, like Kristeva’s theoretical analysis, does not attempt to pin down “meaning” but rather to evoke additional associations and codes that nudge the reader to a certain amount of “accountability” in following the trace lines embedded through tradition, education, and text.   Spivak delineates the theory of trace:  “To follow this line would take us away from any recognizable task of feminisms in brief compass. As we have noticed, in the discourse on democracy, women are never forgotten, but invoked only as a trace of the many ‘outsides’ of democracy.” (106). Woolf does not attempt to contain the “outside-edness” of women’s space but alternatively reveals its very uncontain-edness, which in itself, as Derrida argues, is revolutionary.


[1] Maria DiBattista in her “Notes to Orlando: A Biography” the text indicates that Woolf’s use of the figure of the Moor is situated as a “North African Muslim of mixed Arab and Berber descent.” DiBattista also explains that the scene is the “first of the novel’s many historical and moral ironies” (256).

[2] Maria DiBattista notes that in the novel “Orlando’s ‘fathers’ are off subduing the Moors in the field of Africa or helping fight the war against France” (257).