"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)


O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.


The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)




Review of "Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two"

by Perry Meisel

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two. By Angela Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. 238 pp.

The friendship of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf has always been a provocative subject for critical speculation, particularly because the two share so much as writers. They met in 1916 and, by 1917, had begun an intense relationship that lasted until Mansfield died from consumption in 1923 at the age of only thirty-four. These years witness not just the production of the majority of the short stories upon which Mansfield's reputation is based, but also the change in Woolf's technique that begins in her own short fiction and in Jacob's Room (1922), and that comes to fruition in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Mansfield's writing, said Woolf when Mansfield died, "'was . . . the only writing I have ever been jealous of'" (p. 5).
Although Angela Smith's new book, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two, does not press its case for influence – it must be dug out – it nonetheless provides adequate formulations to describe and account for how and why Mansfield and Woolf shared a personal intimacy and a common shop.1 Mansfield and Woolf "mirror each other constantly," says Smith (p. 1), and they do so because both are preoccupied, in life and letters alike, by what Smith calls, following the anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner, an acute sense of "liminality" (pp. 4, 10) – of borders and border states.2 While Mansfield's status as an outsider was the function of her colonial birth and upbringing in Wellington, New Zealand, Smith argues that, as women with a profession, both Mansfield and Woolf shared a preoccupation with being self-consciously on the edge. Nor did Woolf's privilege as Leslie Stephen's child matter much. Like the banker Harold Beauchamp, Stephen was a "roaring, brutal" father (p. 50) who made his daughter a colonial subject from within. Such commonality was exacerbated by the fact that both women were married to editors; Smith even shows how Leonard Woolf and John Middleton Murry carefully controlled their wives' posthumous reception. As Smith puts it, "the female writer could be rewritten by the male authority" (p. 52). They also shared what was perhaps the materially deepest "liminal" bond of all, that of being ill.
The principal focus of Smith's study, however, is not the biographies but the fiction of her critical protagonists. Yet here too Smith discovers the same preoccupation with liminality. Drawing on Julia Kristeva's notion of "the semiotic," the fluid, undifferentiated world of the mother-child relation before the onset of the Oedipus conflict and its inscription of the child into what, following Jacques Lacan, Kristeva calls the "symbolic" order, Smith shows how both Mansfield and Woolf not only experienced these two planes of life simultaneously but also juxtaposed their representation, with strategic intent, in their work. The result is nothing less than the invention of a new mode of writing and a new mode of reader response. Especially in the depiction of home life, it produces a feeling of defamiliarization, or of what Freud calls (in an essay written in 1919, at the height, coincidentally, of Woolf and Mansfield's friendship) "the uncanny" (p. 2).
Smith gives us a key to reading Mansfield's strategies by showing how her narratives are composed of modular units. Like the Woolfian narratives that Mansfield appears to have influenced more decisively than we hitherto have believed, Mansfield's stories have no privileged center of consciousness, whether that of character or of narrator. Indeed, they have no "consciousness" as such at all, since the focus is on personality's "unconscious" and, by definition, on its links to common structures, particularly ideological ones, that gird all the "selves" fashioned under given socioeconomic regimes. (Smith does not, however, point us to either Lacan or Louis Althusser for such clarification of her critical program.) Hence Mansfield can, as a writer, actually strive to "transform the symbolic order from the inside" (p. 92) by "destablilizing" (p. 151) the "script" (pp. 175, 180) of patriarchy that even female character is forced to read.
Smith's readings of Mansfield's "At the Bay" (1921) and "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" (1922) are her most vivid instances of such "feminist rewriting" (p. 120).3 If "Prelude" (1918) is, with its "empty house" (p. 106), "the model for To the Lighthouse" (p. 93), then "At the Bay," with its action limited to a "single day" (p. 151), is the model for Mrs. Dalloway. As in Mrs. Dalloway, "linguistic motifs link . . . characters" (p. 158), motifs whose frequent psychopolitical imagery, like the phallic monumentalism of London's imperial architecture or the blade of Peter Walsh's knife, show the extent to which language itself is, as Lacan suggests, the symbolic order. In "At the Bay," "constructions of human experience" are "subjected to scrutiny and revealed as inadequate" (p. 163). While the Burnell family's women and children enjoy the jouissance of fluid relation when husband and father Stanley is in town at business, his return, like Mr. Ramsay's bluff appearances in To the Lighthouse, spells the doom of such playful exchange by centering everything, including the interpretation of speech acts, according to the code of the father's needs and demands.
The "contradictory representations of the self" (p. 164) that such shifting domestic rhythms give rise to, especially among the female characters, is not only responsible for tensions in the world of the Burnell household; they are also the technical contrivance upon which the narrative seizes in order to "disrupt . . . the prescripted texts that the characters are trying to live out" (p. 165). In "The Daughters of the Late Colonel," the death of the imperial father allows the unmarried, middle-aged daughters to be "released from the patriarchal presence" (p. 217) as "one script becomes another" (p. 219). Because life is played out in representations, the fiction writer can intervene in its ordering premises at will by simply "destabilizing" the normative procedures of representation itself.
Smith's reading of Woolf offers little in the way of surprise, but the argument for influence is convincing. It does not impugn Woolf's own originality; rather, it shows how Mansfield helped Woolf to become herself. Unlike her rote feminist decoding of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighhouse, Smith's handling of Jacob's Room refreshes our appreciation of the novel by demonstrating its pivotal place in Woolf's development in a new way. What is new is the influence of Mansfield. Smith's account of the emergence of what she calls Woolf's "mobile method" (p. 140) in her transitional stories, particularly "A Mark on the Wall" (1917) and "Kew Gardens" (1919), prepares the ground. In Jacob's Room, "incongruous pictures jostle each other" (p. 194), notably the juxtaposition of Jacob's patriarchy and his consequent "security as a privileged reader" (p. 214), and the novel's "chorus of . . . women" (p. 120), who present alternative reading practices and whose representation is controlled by alternative tropologies. "The narrator plays with . . . archetypal roles," both "undermining" and sustaining them (p. 210).
Liminality is, however, a largely self-evident way to describe what Woolf and Mansfield share, and a rather commonsensical way of approaching their relation. Apart from demonstrating Mansfield's preponderant influence, Smith's study carries few discoveries. But adding to it, as Smith does, the presumable authority of Kristeva also makes her a bit wooden and uninspiring. It is one thing to borrow a useful distinction such as that between the semiotic and the symbolic in order to get things going. It is quite another to invoke Kristeva again and again. The cranky machinery of the Kristevan system confuses more than it clarifies. Even the distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic leads to an epistemological cul-de-sac that a critic with structural presuppositions like Smith, or, indeed, like Kristeva herself, should be suspicious of. It requires valorizing the notion of natural rhythms as opposed to social ones and linking the "rhythms of the female body with cyclic time" (p. 222). This is the unreflective side of French feminism and the point at which it cannot sustain the ironies that brought it into being. Kristeva's work is really a displacement of her literary anxieties; the opposition of the semiotic and the symbolic is really the opposition of Melanie Klein and Lacan in her critical unconscious. Above all, it valorizes the very anthropomorphism – the romantic practice of prosopopoeia – that Mansfield, Woolf, and late romantic modernism as a whole characteristically put into question.
Such a difficulty points to a larger problem. We have reached a moment of uncanniness in literary criticism as a whole today, when the interrogation of the hegemonic has, with some irony, itself become the rule. A Public of Two is both an investigation of such uncanniness in the work of Mansfield and Woolf, and an instance of it in its own critical practice. Smith can read well enough when she is free of the shadow of the theoretical authority. Why invoke it so stentorianly when when its tenets are now common knowledge?


1. There have been combined studies of Mansfield and Woolf, but none, Smith argues, presents the full picture to which hers aspires. See Ronald Hayman, Literature and Living: A Consideration of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf (London: Covent Garden, 1972); Nora Sellei, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Personal and Professional Bond (Frankfurt: Lang, 1996); and Patricia Moran, Word of Mouth: Body Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996).

2. Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978).

3. Both were included in The Garden Party (1922); Smith, however, does not date the stories despite the biographical demands of her argument.

Originally published in Modern Philology, Volume 100, Number 1, August 2002