Monday, September 19, 2011

Gilbert and Gubar and Agency, oh my

Well, I think Gilbert and Gubar tell us that the Author can have his (or in this case her) voice muffled or taken away. Also, I think that it goes to prove Campell's point about rhetoric being confined within external (social, cultural etc) institutions. This applies to the things about female poets from the past that we already know. We know they were mistreated as people and that patriarchal literature structure in a way stifled the voice of these female agents. The fact that this conversation is still a debatable, shows how deeply the roots of "authority" in our literal context run into the culture.

It also shows us that Agency is on a certain level a power struggle. Everyone who thinks they have something important to say wants to get it out there, and for awhile I think we thought there had to be clear winners and clear losers. I believe this because we tried to stifle those we didn't perceive as powerful, while celebrating anything written be someone we thought was great. Just look at Charles Dickens, his work at times is impossible to read (in my opinion) because it is so dull and meticulous. History tells us he made it that way to keep his novels running in magazines longer to make more money. This almost seems like shady business, but we still celebrate him for some reason while the Bronte sisters and I think even Jane Austen take a back seat to Dickens in many people's minds. I think the angst that Gilbert and Gubar describe is the manifestation of women writers desiring to be on a level playing field and having their voice heard (a reasonable request right?)

I imagine that the first female poet wanted to write something great, validating her existence as a poet, proving that women could do it as craftily as a man. I think that besides the dis-ease felt by women poets deciding whether or not to write, there is a dis-ease over "what if I fail" to write something of worth. Which is of course decided by men. (who may not understand where this women is coming from)

Gilbert and Gubar show us that Agency is more complex than just the ability to speak or write persuasively. It is governed by the external as well as what abilities the writer might have. I would contend that it is also governed by the reader/audience. I don't think that anyone hears or is moved by a text the same way because of different experiences, attitudes, cultures, beliefs etc. With each article this concept keeps getting more and more complex to show us how widely an idea can be interpreted.


  1. Jeremy, I can't speak to the comment about Dickens (without seeing the source of it or knowing who wrote it and whether it was meant to be a critique of Victorian literature or of something else) but you are helping me to see a connection between Campbell's first proposition--that "agency is communal, social, cooperative, and participatory" (3)--and Gilbert and Gubar's critique of the patriarchal "anxiety of influence" (451).

    In a way, Campbell's essay gives us the mechanism for calling G and G's theorizing agential. Gilbert and Gubar may not use the word "agency" in their critique, but they demonstrate several reasons why the fact that women writers never "fit in" to Bloom's literary history is actually a kind of critical agency. One reason seems to be that women writers are denied the same kind of "anxiety of influence," since they cannot be seen or see themselves as precursors in the same long tradition of fears as the male poet (451). This is a kind of critical agency because it raises consciousness of the ways that some categories are insufficient.

    Another reason is almost a counterpoint to the first: even though Bloom's "anxiety of influence" doesn't adequately describe women's experiences, it does reveal how their struggles are necessarily different (452). So, this is a kind of critical agency because it enables readers like us to reflect back on nineteenth-century portrayals of women and see the gaps in our own theorizing, or our own ways of remembering (especially if they are colored by Bloom's lens).

    Here is the passage that speaks to me the most:

    "Her battle, however, is not against her (male) precursor's reading of the world but against his reading of her. In order to define herself as an author, she must redefine the terms of her socialization. Her revisionary struggle, therefore, often becomes a struggle for what Adrienne Rich has called 'Re-vision--the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction ... an act of survival'" (452).

    What strikes me in this passage is not the necessity of women writers being more adequately represented, but rather the necessity of feminist critics to look back on nineteenth-century portrayals from "a new critical direction." That places a lot of demand on the critic (on us) and on the historical reader (that would be us, too).

    If this is "agency," it's certainly not agency only because it acts on something or has power over something, but rather because it involves the kind of reflection that requires us to imagine as well as to remember, or perhaps to imagine instead of remembering.

    This gives me a deeper appreciation for how agency is often located not just in the writer and not just in the text, but in the theoretical space between the critic and the writer and the text. Thanks for pointing me to that.

    -Prof. Graban

  2. Jeremy, I think your reference to Dickens in this type of context is very interesting. When reading Gilbert and Gubar’s argument, I also thought of writing of a similar standing: the novel Maria by Mary Wollstonecraft. In the piece, Wollstonecraft tackles the many pressing issues of femininity at the time and how it is not a natural characteristic, but rather constructed through the education and legislature of the culture. Throughout the novel, the main character struggles with identity and eventually concludes that gender discrimination and stereotyping will be a never-ending cycle as long as proper literature and instruction are not made available to women.

    In Gilbert and Gubar’s essay, it is stated that, “For if contemporary women do now attempt the pen with energy and authority, they are able to do so only because their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century foremothers struggled in isolation that felt like illness” (Gilbert and Gubar 453). Because of this, it seems the two are arguing that because writers such as Wollstonecraft created works during a period of even greater adversity, women have been given an opportunity and a sense of authority in writing that does not fall under the realm of “anxiety of influence” because the reader now has the ability to remember the challenges of an earlier time (450).

    As it is mentioned in Campbell’s essay, “agency is constrained by externals, by the community that confers identities related to gender…and by doing so determines not only what is considered to be “true,” but also who can speak and with what force” (Campbell 3). This question of agency can be applied to the excerpt from Gilbert and Gubar’s essay as well as Wollstonecraft’s novel in the sense that a society or community has the power, or agency, to interpret any information or opinion through a cultural lens that may hinder the understanding of the audience but has the ability to be appreciated in a later time.

    The statement by Campbell on page three is further complicated when he notes the concept of truth. In Maria, the main character comes to the realization that her is reality is defined by current lifestyle and the seemingly static characteristics of the era in which she is living; yet, as Gilbert and Gubar imply, because of her discussion of her reality, people, women specifically, now have the ability to interpret the accounts of the story in various ways and form multiple perceptions of the truth based on their own respective interpretations.

    However, after reading Bakhtin’s theory in “Discourse in the Novel,” the idea of “double-voiced discourse” appears to be more applicable (Bakhtin 324). In the essay, he provides a definition of the term stating: “It serves two speakers at the same time and expresses simultaneously two different expressions: the direct intention of the character who is speaking, and the refracted intention of the author” (324). Under this claim, Wollstonecraft’s novel can be read as her developing agency as an author, and writing a piece that presents her individual opinions of the role of women in society through the voice and story of her main character. By doing this, she allowing the reader to reference his or her own experiences and interpret the story with respect to both her intent and the reader’s developed interpretation through the narrative of the character.


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