Monday, August 16, 2010

Reading Gesture Part II: To the Lighthouse and Discursive Planes

     My last post’s example of the gesture in Dickens’s Oliver Twist raises another question about gestic reading: what, beyond content, is the consistency of the gesture? What “form,” in other words, is read in a gestic reading? This is clearly the point at which Oliver’s hypnagogia falls short in pointing towards a truly gestic reading: Oliver’s dream world is, simply, a matter of the novel’s content, not its form. While finding instances of the gesture’s messianic world are illuminating, they do not lead, in actuality, towards a hermeneutic of the gesture. Instead, the gesture can be, I hope, found in the non-diegetic passages between discourse levels within the prose of certain authors.
     Take Virginia Woolf and a random passage from To the Lighthouse: “No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out – a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress – children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself” (62). And so on . . .
     Now, conventional wisdom holds that Woolf’s style falls under the category of "internal monologue." I will not contest this convention. Instead I want to point to, as best I can with the limited typographical techniques available on Blogger, the enmeshment of discourse planes that constitutes Woolf’s gesture. The first word, “No,” clearly indicates a thought Mrs. Ramsay has, an actuality Woolf makes painfully clear (“she thought”). However, this first word introduces a discourse plane, one upon which Mrs. Ramsay’s more-or-less conscious thoughts will unfold. At first glance it is this plane of discourse upon which the list of paper cutouts belongs, as if Mrs. Ramsay were thinking “refrigerator, mowing machine, etc.” Another initial reading could be that the list belongs to the discursive plane of the narrator (who is first inserted into the text with “she thought”), such that the list is an objective, external list of the paper cutouts. Yet the text’s dashes foreclose both readings. Instead, the discursive plane of the list belongs to something between an “objective” exteriority and a “subjective” interiority; that is, the list belongs to a plane between Mrs. Ramsay and the world around her.
     And things get even more complicated from here. The phrase following the second dash (“and children never forget”) seemingly belongs to the plane of Mrs. Ramsay’s more-or-less conscious monologue. Yet, the manner of this phrase – its detached “universalism,” its all children do X – shifts the discourse into another plane whose “genre” can be called “middle-class domestic wisdom.” The phrase itself could have easily been cut from a domestic manual’s pages, much as James’s cutouts were cut from a catalog. And the passage continues along upon this ambiguous plane until the series comma (“, and . . .”) – the genre register is, until that comma, clearer with its instructive “one” pronouns. Yet this plane could very easily be attributed to Mrs. Ramsay’s conscious thought – and now I want to have my cake and eat it too. For the discursive plane introduced with “children never forget” belongs to both Mrs. Ramsay and the genre of domestic manuals. Here we see something like an apparatic capturing emerging from the text: Mrs. Ramsay’s thought’s capture by the apparatus of the domestic manual. Yet the only way this capture becomes visible in the text is through the intersection of two discursive planes registered by marks read non-diegetically (those dashes and pronouns). And this is, I think, Woolf’s point entirely: that we can, through her style, see Mrs. Ramsay’s capture by the various Victorian, domesticating apparatuses prevalent at the fin de siècle. What Woolf’s style reveals to the reader gestically is not Mrs. Ramsay as captured, but the actual processes of Mrs. Ramsay’s capture – of Mrs. Ramsay’s capture as such. Such a gestic style is not limited to Woolf and other Modernists (especially both Joyce, who makes explicate use of genre play, and Faulkner), but writers as seemingly disparate as Samuel Richardson (Clarissa) and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow, Against the Day, and in particular, Inherent Vice).
     I must reiterate, the world of the apparatus and the world of messianic are, startlingly, closely related in that they occupy the “space” beside living beings. It is as if the messianic world and the bare life that apparatuses produce are two poles of the same “world,” a world a certain reading can bring into language.

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