A Summary of ‘The Impersonal Strategy’ by Dr Katerina Koutsantoni. Post by Khadija Azfar Group B

The topic of the new few Blog Posts is “Who Speaks for Women?” The posts you will see are written by my wonderful students and relate to this topic in a general way, or to a specific academic essay that they have located on this topic.  Other students will then read the essay and the blog and then share their comments here.

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The essay to which Khadija  refers can be found here:

http://www.academia.edu/628628/The_Impersonal_Strategy_Re-visiting_Virginia_Woolfs_Position_in_The_Common_Reader_Essays

“In her article entitled ‘The Impersonal Strategy’, Dr Katerina Koutsantoni explains how in Virginia Woolf’s modern forms of writing she maintains a level of impersonality in her work. She states that Woolf tries to keep a distance from her writing; not writing as a woman but simply writing as an androgynous voice of sensibility that her readers (which would mainly consist of men) could relate to. Koutsantoni goes on to claim that Woolf used impersonality as a ‘philosophy of anonymity’ which she used in her writing in order to not only voice the female self without being discriminated against, but also to shift attention from gender to a neutral common reader. In her article, Koutsantoni explains that impersonality implies that the text is unbiased and objective – however this may not necessarily be the case. Woolf’s essay may have some unconscious bias in it as she is a women fighting for the feminist movement.

Koutsantoni goes on to illustrate how Woolf’s modern form of writing is ‘intersubjective’. In both ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and in ‘The Common Reader’ Woolf writes the essays almost like a conversation between the writer and reader. Although she is expressing her views and opinions, she is also taking into account the subjective views of her readers.

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However, critic Elaine Showalter claimed that by hiding behind an androgynous veil, Woolf was not creating her own literary identity. Furthermore, Woolf faced disapproval for not responding to criticism with anger, but instead trying to stay calm and distant and answer in a civilised way. Adrienne Rich claims that by staying impersonal, Virginia Woolf’s argument comes across as being ‘devoid of passion, to lack conviction, and to demonstrate only a ‘dogged tentativeness’.’ In other words that her argument is inferior because she refuses to lose control and argue with passion and emotion rather than with intellect.

Judith Kegan Gardiner however claims that Woolf is correct in her proposed androgyny because to write as a woman would mean opening herself up to the prejudices and stereotypes that were used against women writers at the time. In this sense, impersonality is greatly advantageous to Woolf because it allows her to be judged fairly in a predominantly male society where women writers were often ridiculed and frowned upon.”

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lilly on October 12, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Koutsantoni’s article addresses one of the most debated and I think one of the most interesting questions in the field of literary theory, namely the role and responsibility of the female author as political agent. According to Koutsantoni, Virginia Woolf believed in the dialogic relationship between the equally important subjectivities of the author and the reader and the substituting of the authorial and distinctly female ‘I’ for the collective and sexless ‘we’. Koutsantoni argues that Woolf’s textual impersonality, far from the self-effacement of her feminist voice, is evidence of a feminism that ‘defined female subjectivity as the self in society’.

    The criticism of Woolf’s literary androgyny by Adrienne Rich and Elaine Showalter, however, is evidence of a very specific belief by modern feminists in the politicisation of femaleness. Both Rich and Showalter argue that Woolf’s androgyny is evidence of her (unfeminist) refusal to ‘confront her femaleness’, tacitly proposing that it is the female and feminist ‘I’ which is the correct political tool against patriarchical discourse.

    If we believe that feminism as a political movement is seeking to abolish the oppression of socially imposed gender constructions upon both women and men, it seems a difficult task to accommodate the politicised and self-consciously female ‘I’ which is distinctly other from the androgynous and intersubjective ‘we’. I believe that this is still a very important and highly contemporary discussion worth having.

    Reply

    • Koutsantoni’s essay titled, ‘The impersonal strategy’ refers to the literary technique in which Virginia Woolf applied to her writing as a means of literary experimentation. Koutsantoni acknowledges that Woolf spent a considerable amount of her career perfecting this technique which featured predominantly in various piece of writing. Through her experimentation however, Woolf’s neutral approach to her writing sparked a great deal of controversy. The question is why? Literature on the whole is generally considered to be a powerful tool which thrusts ideologies upon its readers however, in her essay, Koutsantoni explores the idea of literature becoming misinterpreted which not only leads to frustration, but places the writer in the centre of political dispute. She explores this notion by referring to critic Adrienne Rich who claimed that Woolf’s writing lacked emotion. According to Koutsantoni, ‘Rich mistakenly interprets Woolf’s silence as passivity’ like several other critics who feel that Woolf’s writing lacks passion which as a result fails to unearth the truth regarding female oppression. However, this makes us as readers question whether it is fair to blame Woolf for “sitting on the fence” in a sense. Should her writing be solely responsible for representing the female gender?

      Reply

  2. Writing without gender as Woolfe is wont to do is, on the surface, very appropriate for the ideals of feminism as it shows quality in the writing without subjecting it to prejudices of gender. As one of the prime feminist ideals is equality, it would seem this is the perfect way of promoting this.

    On a personal level I would have to agree with Rich however. I believe that since men continue to write in a decidedly male manner, the only way women can achieve equality in their writing is to write as a female – since men seem unwilling to write without gender, if women continue then it seems as though the women are making an extra effort to be taken seriously with their writing, which doesn’t give us true equality.

    Reply

    • But what does it mean to “write as a female” or to “write as a male?” That is the question….

      Reply

    • But why does Woolf have to ‘write as a female’? Surely that would cap her creative flow and put a limit on her own style of writing. Her gender-less way of writing may distance herself from the desired female way of writing, but it also illustrates that women were capable of writing without gender being an influence – something that men couldn’t seem to do.

      Also, why is it that because men write in a decidedly male manner that women should follow suit and write in a female manner? For me, there are two problems with this. Firstly, why should the way all women write be dictated by men and their work? This almost goes against what the female movement wanted – to gain equality in literature. You shouldn’t have to emulate the opposite sex to gain equality. My second issue is the fact that if all women wrote ‘like a female’, then they would all more or less sound the same, there wouldn’t be any variation. Wasn’t the modernist movement about moving away from the typical literary norms that so many male writers had set in place?

      I understand that it seems like Woolf is almost conforming to the way that men wrote by making her writing gender-less, but Woolf is one of the most successful female writers of the modernist movement. She may not have wrote ‘like a female’ but she clearly did something right.

      Reply

    • But why does Woolf have to ‘write as a female’? Surely that would cap her creative flow and put a limit on her own style of writing. Her gender-less way of writing may distance herself from the desired female way of writing, but it also illustrates that women were capable of writing without gender being an influence – something that men couldn’t seem to do.

      Also, why is it that because men write in a decidedly male manner that women should follow suit and write in a female manner? For me, there are two problems with this. Firstly, why should the way all women write be dictated by men and their work? This almost goes against what the female movement wanted – to gain equality in literature. You shouldn’t have to emulate the opposite sex to gain equality. My second issue is the fact that if all women wrote ‘like a female’, then they would all more or less sound the same, there wouldn’t be any variation. Wasn’t the modernist movement about moving away from the typical literary norms that so many male writers had set in place?

      I understand that it seems like Woolf is almost conforming to the way that men wrote by making her writing gender-less, but Woolf is one of the most successful female writers of the modernist movement. She may not have wrote ‘like a female’ but she clearly did something right.

      Reply

  3. On a personal level I feel I have to agree with Rich with regards to writing in a gender-less manner.

    Whilst Woolfe and other female writers attempt to write androgenously so they are taken seriously as writers, male authors do not make the same allowances and write as men.

    Whilst writing androgenously is a valiant attempt to reach equality in literature, unless both genders subscribe to it the playing field will still be unequal.

    In addition to this, it is our life experiences that influence and empower our writing, and if we remove that in an attempt to be taken seriously, it is possible that our writing will lose effectiveness, (just as Rich states about Woolfe’s writing lacking passion.)

    In my opinion true equality lies in embracing our femininity in our writing, although there are valid arguments presented by both sides and it is an interesting big topic to debate.

    Reply

  4. I really liked the conclusion where it stated “to write as a woman would mean opening herself up to the prejudices and stereotypes that were used against women”, it is true in a sense because although her work is to be judged fairly, traditional norms and values within society supercede fairness and equality within female fiction.

    Reply

  5. On reflection of the essay I understand why Woolf decided to write ‘androgynously.’ She wished to erase gender boundaries and wanted equality for all female writers in literature. By writing in such a way it allowed her work to be recognised and eliminated her from facing such prejudices that female writers often faced. Her writing was part of a movement that was trying to challenge authority and by saying her work is androgynous it takes away from what Woolf was trying to achieve. Woolf believed that gender did not matter, it was irrelevant whether the writer was male or female. Instead she felt the context and inspiration behind the work was the most important. She did not want all females to feel as though they were constrained on what they could write but wanted them to push the boundaries that were created by a male-dominated society.

    However, although I understand that women often were forced to write about certain topics in order to even be acknowledged for their writing. I still find it difficult to understand what the difference is between ‘writing as a woman’ or ‘writing as a man.’ I feel Woolf’s writing was a reflection of her creativity and her desire for literature to move forward rather then her trying to ‘write like a man’ in order to be accepted (whatever writing like a man even entails.)

    Reply

  6. Posted by Jo on October 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    In a patriarchal society, where language and culture define the sense of being a woman, how can writing be deemed anything other than male? In order to write, women use the tools supplied by this patriarchal society, but as Alice Jardine notes, if ‘logocentric logic is coded as “male”, the “other” logics of spacing, ambiguity, figuration, and indirection are often coded as “female”’. Perhaps what is more important, rather than deciding which parts of a text are written in a male or a female way, is to ensure that we read the text in its entirety? Derrida suggests that we read a text as it is written, rather than simply attempt to intuit what might have been meant, thus acknowledging ‘signifying force in the gaps, margins, figures, echoes, digressions, discontinuities, contradictions, and ambiguities of a text.’ In this way we attempt to render meaning from both the words and the blanks and spaces.

    In this case is analysing how we read the text more important than analysing how we write one? How is a woman’s experience of reading different from a man’s experience of reading? Is it possible for a woman to read a text in its entirety? Although a female reader uses her experience to read the text, as Jonathan Cullen notes, reading is a learned activity and ‘as a learned interpretive strategy in our society, is inevitably sex-coded and gender-inflected?’ Showalter notes that ‘women are expected to identify with a masculine experience and perspective, which is presented as the human one’. Is there a danger that when a woman reads a text she is unable to see the text in its entirety, unable to see the female elements of that text because she has learned to read the language and not the spaces?

    Reply

  7. Posted by Katerina on November 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    I just wanted to say how delighted I was to find this blog and to see such an interesting debate emerging from my article.
    My sincere thanks to Khadija Azfar for instigating this.

    Reply

  8. I think by arguing that Woolf’s work is devoid of personality or the anger it needed to be political, somewhat, ignores Woolf’s personal philosophy on writing. Would the ‘I’ not then become a ‘we’, a pawn? The ‘we’ being the sex in which is biological. By removing this, I think Woolf aims were to reject the limitations of her sex and to transcend both the sexes for her own philosophies. I think Woolf should be applauded on her ability to do so. According to the essay, James Raymond argued: ‘the absence of the first person suggests not an absent author, but an author of formidable presence’. I strongly agree with Raymond in this case. Koutsantoni highlights that women, particularly the critics who argue this, are sometimes the enemy of their own efforts. It is an interesting debate. – Dale

    Reply

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