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  • "I" on the Run:Crisis of Identity in Mrs. Dalloway1
  • Ban Wang (bio)

The issue of private consciousness has enjoyed considerable critical attention when critics discuss the representation of thought in Virginia Woolf's novels in terms of stream-of-consciousness narrative.2 Such attention apparently has no lack of justifications in Mrs. Dalloway. Each character in the novel is caught up in his or her own inner consciousness, has an idiosyncratic way of perceiving and of thinking, and tends to create the "room" of her own. The novel seems to be a depiction of various disparate, monadic consciousnesses, isolated from each other and impossible to be unified into a spiritual community.

The preoccupation with private consciousness nevertheless presupposes an outmoded notion of the subject that is believed to be autonomous, self-contained, and fully conscious of itself and which is assumed to be the source of meaning and thought, independent of social structure, discourse, and systems of signification—a notion of the subject which has been stripped of its validity by contemporary critical discourse. This idea of the subject, deeply mortgaged to Western philosophical tradition, underpins such related critical terms as character, personality, individuality, self, and identity. [End Page 177]

Private consciousness would not appear to be so private and intimate, however, as soon as one examines the ways in which consciousness, or various forms of subjectivity of characters in this novel are constructed in language, discourse, systems of signification, and, in short, the symbolic order. The symbolic order here is taken in the Lacanian sense. It consists of images, symbols, icons, representations, myths, and discourse that envelope the conscious as well as unconscious life of the individual, and on which the individual depends for the structuration of the psyche and constitution of her subjectivity (Lacan 65-68). They are also the means whereby she recognizes and establishes her social identity as a member of a social group. It is obvious that this concept of the symbolic in some ways overlaps the concept of ideology advanced by Louis Althusser. The major difference may be that Althusser's definition of ideology as "the representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (162) is posited in relation to a "real" that is different from the Lacanian real.3 It is theoretically necessary, it seems to me, to confront the two concepts with regard to the problem of the subject. Althusser's concept of the imaginary representation strongly implies a dimension of language and social structure, that is, the dimension of the symbolic, whereas Lacan's symbolic realm, in which the mature subject constitutes his subjectivity, cannot be viewed independently of the imaginary identification. Such a confrontation allows us to see the subject not as some entity foreclosed in the structure of language and constituted once and for all, but as a dynamic and unstable process involving both the imaginary and the symbolic, the unconscious and conscious, thus putting the subject "in process/on trial" (Kristeva, Revolution 22). Special attention will be paid in this essay to that part of the symbolic order that is closely related to the state. I will proceed on the assumption of a network of symbols and representations that functions to sustain the political powers that be, and to define the identity of individuals and produce them as subjects of the state. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz's formulation of what he calls the "symbolics of power" may help define this state-oriented symbolic network: [End Page 178]

At the political center of any complexly organized society . . . there is both a governing elite and a set of symbolic forms expressing the fact that it is in truth governing. No matter how democratically the members of the elite are chosen (usually not very) or how deeply divided among themselves they may be . . . they justify their existence and order their actions in terms of a collection of stories, ceremonies, insignia, formalities and appurtenances that they have either inherited, or in more revolutionary situations, invented. It is these—crowns and coronations, limousines and conferences—that mark the center as center and give what goes on there its aura of being not merely important but in...


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pp. 177-191
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