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  • What's Woolf Got to Do with It?Or, the Perils of Popularity1
  • Brenda R. Silver (bio)

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Figure 1.

Calvin and Hobbes

Copyright © 1990 Universal Press Syndicate

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

[End Page 20]

In the fall of 1990, the irrepressible Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) transformed himself into a public figure by holding a frame before his face. "Now that I'm on television," he tells Hobbes, "I'm different from everybody else! I'm famous! Important! Since everyone knows me, everything I do now is newsworthy. I'm a cultural icon." For Calvin, the implications of this status are clear: "Watch," he continues, "I'll use my prestige to endorse a product!" (figure 1). In this age of spectacle and commodification, to be a cultural icon is, we know, to sell, and in Calvin's case, as in that of "stars" such as Mary Lou Retton, what they sell is often less important in defining their status than the appearance [End Page 21] of the face or the name in support of it.2 Ironically, though, the very pervasiveness of the image can come to undercut its "meaning" and ultimately its "prestige"; signifier and signified cease to have any necessary connection, and the multiplication of the image becomes the subject of sarcasm and derision, not power.

What happens, then, when the icon is not Calvin or Mary Lou Retton but Virginia Woolf, whose prestige over the past twenty years has risen not only in the academic and intellectual worlds, the worlds, we could say, of high culture, but in the popular realm as well? In February 1991 the New York Times Magazine put her at the top of the list of "What's In" in the Modern Language Association (Matthews 57); at the same time, she has been used to market products ranging from throw pillows, to fashion clothing, to the city of New Orleans, to a glossy, coffee table collection of portraits from the National Portrait Gallery in London, to The New York Review of Books. Woolf, it is clear, sells, and not just to one audience. Even more striking is the breadth of her name and face recognition, suggested by her appearance as a cultural marker in texts as divergent as Los Angeles Times editorials, George Will columns, ACTUP anticensorship marches, Michael Innis mysteries, the hard rock group Virginia Wolf, Sesame Street, and Hanif Kureishi's 1987 film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. One aspect of my subtitle, then, "the perils of popularity," leads back to the question, implicit in the first part of the title, that motivates this essay: what representations of Woolf have emerged from the proliferation of her image and her name, and what do these representations tell us about the sites of cultural contestation in which they appear?

The other perils that concern me here have to do with the critic rather than the subject of criticism: the seductions and dangers confronting the critic who enters the world of popular culture and reputation studies and finds herself in the position that feminist critics, as Meaghan Morris pithily notes (14-15), seem inevitably to find themselves in: that of complaining yet again about the exclusion of women, gender, and/or feminism from the discourse. Yet the more I tracked the trajectory of Woolf's image, the more I tried to locate it within the debates about high and low culture, the more convinced I became that battles about "culture" and cultural authority are not only gender encoded, but reveal startlingly contradictory impulses. This was certainly true of the debates occurring in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, when Woolf, as Diana Trilling snidely remarked, presented a "special case." For one thing, she was clearly representative of "high art," but as a woman she was also subject [End Page 22] to the discourses that have consistently gendered mass culture as feminine. Again, she was clearly on the side of an "intellectual aristocracy" or "elite," with a distinctive set of tastes similar to those tastes that cultural critics such as Dwight MacDonald seemed to be advocating for the United States.3 But her...


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