Woolf and ‘Theory’

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One way of understanding French post-structuralism generally, and especially the institutionalisation of post-structuralism as ‘theory’, is to read a range of key thinkers through a certain valorization of modernism, particularly James Joyce, in terms of oedipal textuality. I will suggest an alternative line of theoretical engagement with literary modernism emergent in Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s quite different emphasis on Virginia Woolf in terms of anti-oedipal philosophy. The broad critical reflection on the West, on the limits of human reason and on the very figure of ‘man’ as well as an appeal to writing as a force that might disrupt bourgeois complacency are modernist motifs that have marked French thought from the existentialism of Sartre (who wrote extensively on Flaubert) to the contemporary philosopher Jacques Ranciere. A certain conception of writing in which language becomes distinct from communication, reference and meaning was crucial for many French philosophers. Michel Foucault argued that literary writing would allow language to break free from the normalizing figure of (communicating and reasoning) man. Jacques Lacan’s seminars on the ‘sinthome’ focused on Joyce’s capacity to detach linguistic signifiers from intentional reference and communication, with words and their torsions becoming radical manifestations of the unconscious. Jacques Derrida’s earliest work on the origin of the history of truth contrasted two conceptions of language: the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, in which all signs could ultimately be reduced or referred back to an originating and animating intent, and the writing of Joyce, in which the modernist book would include the multiple, distinct, untranslatable and proliferating words of history. Both twentieth-century projects – Husserl and Joyce – had a certain architectonic drive, but as Derrida’s career progressed he came to regard Joycean language as possessing a particularly literary power that would open up a justice or democracy of proliferating voices that could not be grounded in any authoritative subject. Julia Kristeva also relied heavily on Joyce – again contrasting poetic language with the phenomenology of Husserl – to theorize a mode of language that would not be thetic. Thetic language posits something that would be judged to be true or false, and for Husserl this theoretical capacity is the definitive mode of the speaking subject.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationVirginia Woolf in Context
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780511777103
ISBN (Print)9781107003613
StatePublished - Jan 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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