restricted access To the Lighthouse and the Feminist Path to Postmodernity
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Notes and Fragments TO THE UGHTHOUSE AND THE FEMINIST PATH TO POSTMODERNITY by Bill Martin Postmodernity is in part the existence of an unprecedented space for feminism. Already in this formulation, however, we encounter two major terms that require explication. I will argue in this essay that Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse provides the basis for productively understanding postmodernism and feminism in relation to each other.1 The question of placing feminism temporally has of course been raised before; I will simply mention two occasions. In Sexual/Textual Politics, Toril Moi argues for a kind of natural affinity of feminism with literary modernism's implicit critique of notions of the unified self.2 Here the comparison of Woolf with Joyce is appropriate. Moi moves from this perceived affinity toward the notion of écriturefeminine. Practitioners of the latter have been much more interested in Joyce than Woolf. Joyce, especially in Finnegans Wake, thoroughly shatters the self, reaching the highest expression of modernism. Woolf does something different. In To tL· Lighthouse, she not only decenters the subject, she also reconstitutes the subject. If Woolf had only reinstated the subject, as a matter of simply returning to the previous paradigm, then obviously her writing would have to be considered anachronistic. Though the affinity posited by Moi is real and useful (if made problematic by what seem to be real affinities that also exist between modernism and misogyny ), the force of another affinity can also be felt: in her deconstruction /reconstitution, Woolf achieves a writing that is both postmodern and feminist. The both/and relation here is itself a cultural creation, 307 308PHrLOSOPHY and Literature however, which points to the elective affinity involved in joining a particular politics with a particular artistic practice. The question is whether a political argument that does not avoid questions of artistic integrity can be marshaled to the task of showing that the affinity of feminism and postmodernism is more viable in the contemporary context than the affinity posited by Moi.3 Elaine Showalter, in her formulation of "women's time," raises the possibility ofanother kind of temporalized feminism. In "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," Showalter pursues the idea that there might be a time and space which women occupy without their location being known or knowable to men, and perhaps without women fully knowing it themselves.4 In short, this "time" is conditional and predicated upon a possible future in which people will remember and be more fully aware of their spatial/temporal context. I would propose that this same conditional and uncertain sense of time applies to postmodernism. For the very terms "postmodernism" and "postmodernity" connote a transitional period in which it is not certain how elements which are for the time being in flux will ultimately setde down and congeal. The "aftereffect of the "post" in postmodernity will be truly understood only in the longer run, if even then. Showalter takes it that there is a sense in which "women's time," the "Age of Feminism," is occurring right now, but in a concealed way. Again, something like this may be said of postmodernism. In either case there is the sense of creating artifacts for a future which may or may not exist. There is also the sense of permanent postponement or deferral which is integral to the very notion of "possibility." Add to these references the by now familiar postmodern and feminist criticisms of grand narratives that crush difference, and I think we are in possession of a set of basic issues common to both feminism and postmodernism: the nature of the self and its possible recreation, the question of periodization and our "time," problems of difference and questions of doing something different (in the latter case feminism is much more explicit about doing something different that is also emancipatory , though some forms ofpostmodernism stress this as well). Given these common concerns I simply want to set the new affinity as follows: postmodernism is a social and cultural atmosphere in which feminism and other emancipatory trends might flourish. In this context, To tL· Lighthouse is a trailblazing feminist-postmodern artifact. The project here is not to generate or force a postmodern reading (any more...