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  • Postmodern Woolf
  • Rebecca Stephens
Caughie, Pamela L. Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism: Literature in Quest and Question of Itself. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.

Pamela L. Caughie’s Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism: Literature in Quest and Question of Itself is a sustained and perhaps ruthless attack on dualism in Woolf scholarship. As an answer to Toril Moi’s call in Sexual/Textual Politics for a text-based, anti-humanist approach to Woolf’s writings, the book explores new alternatives in an area of scholarship not known for keeping pace with postmodern critical theory and practice. Nearly any effort in this direction is welcome. Yet, as its and title suggests and its oppositional stance confirms, this study embraces—and ultimately fails to overcome—a dualism of its own, thus raising questions about its value and success as a postmodern intervention.

For Caughie the insistence upon choosing between dualisms—fact/fiction, surface/depth, form/content, art/politics, for example—has brought Woolf scholarship to a critical impasse. She proposes the alternative of a postmodern approach, one which displaces these oppositions into new contexts, and which acknowledges a change in “aesthetic motivation” (xiii). Unlike the aesthetic motivation within modernism, which “placed itself at the vanguard of culture,” the postmodern version “explores the relations between literary practices and social practices” (xiii). Caughie does not claim to classify Woolf in one tradition or another; rather, she seeks to read Woolf’s writings in the light of postmodernism, that is, with new perspectives available in the wake of recent artistic and critical innovations.

When she works within this broadly conceived plan, Caughie offers thoughtful and original readings of specific works. The readings of Woolf’s critical writings in Chapter 6, for example, succeed in moving beyond dualism to the new kinds of relationships which characterize postmodern reading and writing strategies. Woolf’s focus upon the process of reading, as exemplified in “Phases of Fiction,” “Granite and Rainbow,” and the two Common Reader collections, demonstrates for Caughie the interaction of text, world and reader. Rather than propose a new canon or tradition, an oppositional tactic, Woolf explores in these writings the relations which arise when a writer and reader enter, by mutual consent, a certain “reality.” Woolf’s critical practice thus considers “what we are consenting to and how our consent is achieved” (176). This practice in effect narrates Woolf’s admittedly impressionistic and wildly contradictory reading process. Its logic lies in its narrative experimentation, not in conclusions drawn or traditions outlined. In fact, Woolf’s story of reading undermines any thought of historical progression or development of fiction, confirming the situational relations between writer and reader at any given time. And the “common reader,” often thought of as Woolf’s response to the Oxbridge tradition from which she was excluded, becomes for Caughie not a less trained reader, but a kind of reading relation. Common for her suggests the communal.

Flush, both the novel and the dog, enact Caughie’s postmodern conception of value formation. The novel is not only an example of artistic waste or playful excess, it must also be reckoned with as a marketable commodity. Caughie cites Woolf’s diary in support of the latter “function” of the text: “to stem the ruin we shall suffer from the failure of The Waves” (qtd. in Caughie 149). Drawing support from the dog’s variable and context-dependent views of its own value, Caughie calls the novel an “allegory of canon formation and canonical value” (146). Woolf’s shifting responses to the work, from playfulness to irony to detachment and scorn, together with a similar spectrum of public and critical reaction over the years, lead Caughie to question the economy of value and canon formation which informs our readings of Flush and other literary works.

A collection of readings like these could work through the critical impasse that Caughie cites and open a number of new possibilities for reading Woolf. Yet Caughie subverts her own efforts by setting them in opposition to existing scholarship. This practice creates a dualism between traditional and postmodern approaches to Woolf, reproducing precisely the binary, oppositional logic her postmodernist readings are supposed to displace.

Caughie’s dualism parallels a distinction...

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