(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)




'Let us then keep the form unsigned':
Things and the Signature of the Feminine in Three


Frédéric REGARD (Université Jean Monnet, Saint-Etienne)



When Martin Heidegger asks himself: "What is a thing?"—"Was ist ein Ding?"—, his question concerns primarily the world of material objects, the objects that surround him, the things that make up his environment: a piece of wood, a knife, a ball, a spear, a wire, a railway-station, a fir-tree, a painting, or a sculpture (Heidegger 15-18). For the German philosopher, the question addressed to the thingÑ"die Frage nach dem Ding," as the original title phrases it—draws its importance and legitimation from the fact that what things are is usually taken for granted. Everybody thinks he or she knows what a thing is. According to Heidegger, it behoves the true philosopher to challenge such "knowledge": to let himself be disquieted by the question of the thingness of things is his most urgent duty; he owes his or her reader the truth about things. But, Heidegger is prompt to add, this may turn out to be a most unrewarding task, since the philosopher who addresses questions to things is bound to be the butt of any female servant's scathing irony. Philosophy, he remarks, is a mode of thinking at which female servants cannot help laughing (15). The underlying assumption here is that were the philosopher forced to work with his own hands to make a living, no doubt he would know what things are, and he would have no time for such foolish questions. Heidegger's reply to the maid's laughter is that the question addressed to the thing raises a fundamental issue, which is naturally beyond the scope of the maid's intellectual faculties: the metaphysical question addressed to the thing is first and foremost a question addressed to the origin of the enunciation; the term of address—the addressee—is in fact the addresser (36-37). He who asks the question of the thingness of things addresses his own situation as a thinking human being caught in the midst of things. He situates himself as the one who asks the questions that have as yet remained unasked. Particularly by stupid female servants. Faced with the world of things, the philosopher therefore positions himself as a subject confronting that which is not Him, that which is Other, in fact: both the mute thing and the laughing maid of all works.





My purpose in this paper is to argue that had Woolf read Die Frage nach dem Ding—this is science-fiction since an English translation did not appear before 1967, under the title What Is a Thing?, and the influence of Heidegger's first major publication (Sein und Zeit, 1927) on the English-speaking literary scene was next to nil—, she would almost certainly have sided with the laughing maids. Not because her political opinions would have persuaded her to join the party of the lower classes, nor because Woolf and her maids would have shared the same vision of things. And yet, we do feel as almost certain that on such an occasion Woolf and her maids would have laughed heartily at Heidegger's disquisitions. And I believe they would have joined their forces on the same ground, the ground of practical experience. I am not suggesting that Woolf's laughter would have been motivated by a physical experience of things, by an experience of their material resistance, of the sort she would have gathered through daily training in cooking, washing, scrubbing, sewing and darning. Her practical experience of things would have situated her on an altogether different level, but a level, I maintain, which is no less practical. In fact, she would have laughed at Heidegger's questions for she would have suspected something about things which could never have entered a German male philosopher's mind (of the twenties): my suggestion is that she would have argued that things are cultural productions. In other words, Woolf's experience of things would have been an experience of things as signs, signs not of a meta-physical dimension, but signs by which subjectivity is constructed: signs by which one places oneself, or is placed, in social reality: signs by which gender is fabricated. I propose to read the notoriously polemical Three Guineas as an anti-"feminist" text where the metaphysical question addressed to the thing is paradoxically exposed as such a gender-productive strategy. But I also intend to demonstrate that Woolf's polemic against the "feminists" of the thirties was a false position to which she had been forced by the essay's own discoveries concerning "representation." My contention will then be that Woolf's laughter is one that goes on and on, even after the maids have resumed their cooking and washing, and even after the "feminists" have gained recognition or satisfaction. In fact, neither Woolf, nor the maids, nor the "feminists" laugh on a common ground. And this is because, as I shall argue, Woolf's laughter simply does not have a ground for laughing. Or rather, she has a ground that does not allow her to stand, to have a site where to be stationary and maintain a fixed position. Hers is the ground of a dis-stance, a distance which, I hope to be able to demonstrate, is, if not the hallmark of "feminism," the signature of the feminine.





Three Guineas presents itself as a reply to an unanswered letter, a request for a guinea to help prevent war and protect culture and intellectual liberty. Here are the very first words of the essay:

Three years is a long time to leave a letter unanswered, and your letter has been lying without an answer even longer than that. I had hoped that it would answer itself, or that other people would answer it for me. But there it is with its questionÑHow in your opinion are we to prevent war? —still unanswered. (3)

What we are told here is that an important letter was addressed to the writing "I," but that this letter never really found its address, since the addressee neither acknowledged receipt of the letter nor sent the guinea in support of peace. To be sure, the letter was finally answered, since the writing "I" did write the essay we are given to read. It would seem, therefore, that the letter eventually reached its destination and that the term of the address was ultimately located. This, however, would be a wrong assumption, if only because both the initial letter and the reply are now addressed to a tertium aliquid, the reader, as an essay published in book-form. Thus, the reply that Three Guineas is supposed to constitute is not one that will help the addresser situate the addressee in an exchange of private letters. That is why the writing "I" of Three Guineas should not be confused with the private author. This "I" introduces herself as the term of an address, but the reader of this supposedly private response to a supposedly private request is made to understand that in the narrative of Three Guineas the moment of the address, i.e., the moment the letter finds its address and calls for a reply, is endlessly postponed.

This is further evidenced by the embedment within this first letter of reply of two other similar requests—for two other similar guineas—followed by two other similar replies (30, 59). Furthermore, although a modern scholar would know from the three notebooks Woolf kept in preparation for the essay—the Monk's House Papers at Sussex University—that such letters did exist (Laurence, V. Woolf and War 235), nothing in Three Guineas allows the reader to be sure that such requests were effectively addressed to the writing "I." For all we know, those letters exist only by virtue of being mentioned by the writing "I," so that the one letter whose existence is attested is the one that is extended to the length of an essay published in book-form explaining how three putative requests addressed to the addressee could never be answered. In other words, the one letter whose existence is attested is a letter that is not a letter, referring to letters whose existence and origin are dubious. Three Guineas writes itself from an address at which there is no first and no last, no origin and no end, no





true addresser and no true addressee, an address at which letters are not meant to reach their destination, and so to locate the term of address, to position her, to assign her to residence. I can think of no better disclaimer of Lacan's rash statement that "a letter always reaches its destination"—"une lettre arrive toujours à destination" (Lacan 53) —than this Woolfian fascinating postponement of reception: letters may not reach their destination; it sometimes happens, especially when the addressee is a woman, that the letter cannot be received.

It sometimes happens even that the addressee will not acknowledge receipt of the letter, and will choose rather to subtract herself from a postal economy whose Law seeks to subjugate her. In that case, the addressee operates on another ground, choosing to position herself on a scene that Derrida, in his own analysis of Poe's The Purloined Letter, aptly calls "l'autre scène de la restance," or the scene of an address poste restante (La Carte postale 511). The writing "I" of Three Guineas is not produced through her acceptance of the Law of the letter; it is rather produced through an open-ended play between presence and absence, and its meaning, like that of any written sign, is constructed through this endless process of an exchange between unassignable letters. If this "I" is on the side of feminine laughter, it is primarily because the feminine enunciator situates herself in this irreducible difference, the difference of a subject who will not have a Truth imposed on her, a subject who is neither here nor there, but who nevertheless signs her coming to presence by this difference, which should of course be spelt with an "e," but also with an "a," like Derrida's différance. The feminine subject who is writing "I" here is not to be found at the expected address: she is différante, a presence that is also an absence, the trace of a difference that is first and foremost a deferral, an endless dis-placement of the self (Marges de la philosophie 9).

We saw that Heidegger's "Frage nach dem Ding" identified him as a male thinker in presence of his Other. What, now, if the thinker raising the issue of the thingness of things dis-places herself? What if the writing "I" chooses to relinquish her universalizing position as a self to inscribe such a différance? Does it not imply much more than simply siding with giggling female servants? Does it not imply, to begin with, that the thing should be seen differently? Indeed, from the start of the essay, the writing "I" makes it quite clear that the displacement in the economy of which the feminine comes to inscribe itself demands that the subject's relation with things should be reconsidered. This is one of the central tenets of Three Guineas: the writing "I" cannot be addressed as expected because of a fundamental misunderstanding between men and women, who "though [they] look at the same things, . . . see them differently" (5). This is an astounding





statement. Are not the things that surround us in everyday life, things in their objective quality, the same to everyone, whether we be male or female perceivers? Woolf's answer is unambiguous: no, a man and a woman do not see the same things; they may look at the same things, but they do see them differently. What we are given to understand is that the difference of vision lies not in the thing in itself, in the thingness of the thing, but in the thing as it is perceived, i.e., in the thing as a cultural production. What is clearly foregrounded is not the ontological dimension of the thing, but the translation of this objective thing into a meaningful image. The thing itself is always already a signÑ"la chose même est un signe" (De la grammatologie 72)Ñ, and it is a sign that re-presents things as gender-determined images. This notion inevitably has far-reaching consequences on our definitions of sexual difference. It now appears that sexual difference is not only a matter of being produced by a given culture; it is also a matter of producing cultural signs that stand for things. What Woolf suspects is that men and women are image-producers; they image the world differently, read things differently. Anticipating some of the most recent theories of gender, Woolf therefore suggests that sexual difference is a matter of reading (Lauretis 46-48).

She illustrates this point through a number of very precise examples:

What is that congregation of buildings there. . .? To you it is your old school, Eton or Harrow; your old university, Oxford or Cambridge; the source of memories and of traditions innumerable. But to us, . . . it is a schoolroom table; an omnibus going to a class; a little woman with a red nose who is not well educated herself but has an invalid mother to support; an allowance of £50 a year with which to buy clothes, give presents and take journeys on coming to maturity. (5)

An architectural construction is not simply an accumulation of bricks and mortar. Nor can it serve as a site of revelation for a metaphysical truth, as Heidegger would have purported—art allows the Truth to spring forth, "die Kunst lösst die Wahrheit entspringen" (L'Origine de l'oeuvre d'art 88). For Woolf, a building remains meaningless as long as it has not been imaged. The imaging of Eton, Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, together with the memorable scenes that take place within their confines, is what confers meaning upon the world of things, what "magically changes the landscape" (5). It is what transforms the objective thing into a meaning-making pattern. What is striking in such examples is how things, when they are read by men, seem to be caught into an intricate web of coherent associations. The end of the quotation ("But to us. . .") tends to prove that the process of imaging started by the same buildings in a woman's





consciousness is characterized on the contrary by its heterogeneousness; the images do not connect, and the marked preference for indefinite articles, used for juxtaposing seemingly haphazard flashes of memory, is evidence of a certain discontinuity in the woman's imaginary. In a man's consciousness, the "congregation of buildings" gains its legibility from its capacity to fit into a network of shared, logically connected images. Each thing is implicated in a relation of image to image (Eton, therefore Harrow; Oxford, therefore Cambridge; this binary system of non-violent oppositions being subsumed by the logic relating public schools to Oxbridge). The rule behind such associations seems to be that of all metonymic chains (Jakobson 48-51): the image of the thing is inflected by a logic based on a relation of contiguity by which the thing is a sign functioning as a fragment of a whole—the building for the educational system, the educational system for the patriarchal order (old boys' "memories and traditions"). What is more, the movement from the part to the whole for which it stands engages the spectator in a scenario which positions him or her in a logic of narrativity where the subject also engenders him/herself (Lauretis 105-106): Eton functions as the promise of Oxford which in turn functions as the promise of a "clubbable" gentleman with old boys' stories—a narrative from which the woman is not ostensibly excluded but which confines her to a marginal, self-defeating role. What emerges from Woolf's example, therefore, is that this metonymic imaging of things forces the woman into a narrative movement in which she does not recognize herself. The metonymic imaging of things engenders the subject along the lines of a logic of desire which is fundamentally androcentric.

Confirmation of this may be found in Woolf's second example, the "sartorial customs" of men (19), of which photographs were presented in the original edition of Three Guineas. Clothes, she explains, always inscribe themselves within a system of references, which, again, produce difference. This is because a garment always "serves to advertize the social, professional, or intellectual standing of the wearer" (20). But, Woolf immediately adds, this way of seeing things, of attaching to things a larger dimension than that contained in the thing itself, is essentially a male prerogative (cf. Laurence, Peace, Politics and Education 135), from which women have always felt alienated: "the advertisement function. . . seems to us most singular" (20). It is for men that a thing is never a thing full stop; for men that a thing must be transformed into a pre-text; for them that the thing is always the starting point of a narrative of desire. There lies the cause of all wars: Woolf's contention, one that seems to predate theories of "mimetic desire" by decades (Girard 1961) but which in fact was congruent with the latest discoveries of Freudian psychoanalysis—let us





not forget that seminal texts on the question had already been translated: Totem and Taboo in 1918, The Future of an Illusion in 1928, Civilization and Its Discontents in 1930, and that in 1932 Freud had tried to bring an answer to Einstein's widely circulated interrogation, "Why War?" (Standard Edition, vol. XXII) —is that violence is not generated by conflicts of interests (territorial, religious, political, economic), but by a law of representation which inoculates men with a desire to resemble the other, a contagious folly from which no representative of the male sex seems to be immune:

We can say that for educated men to emphasize their superiority over other people, either in birth or intellect, by dressing differently, or by adding titles before, or letters after their names are acts that rouse competition and jealousy—emotions which, as we need scarcely draw upon biography to prove, nor ask psychology to show, have their share in encouraging a disposition towards war. (21)

Men, be they educated or not, image things in such a way that they become the prisoners of their own law of representation, a law of representation which positions them as heroes in narratives of mimetic desire, the hidden engine behind all conflicts.

How, then, can one prevent war? And how can women be instrumental in shifting men to another "disposition"? How can the writing "I" contradict this "fatal disposition towards war" and force men to take a different measure of things? Three Guineas adopts a strategy which first consists in suspending any kind of discourse: the writing "I" pretends to transform herself into a showing "I," and she presents each of her imaginary interlocutors with a series of photographs, which this time she is content to describe. Those are photographs of war, taken on the front during the Spanish civil war, "photographs of dead bodies" (10) for the most part. We now know that Woolf had been deeply affected by the death of her nephew Julian Bell, who had been working as an ambulance driver in Spain, but also by Louis Delaprée's descriptions of evacuations and massacres, and by the photographs published in the London Times (Laurence, V. Woolf and War 233-34). On a first level, Woolf's explicit, political purpose is to show the result of men's mimetic parades. In Freudian terms, it is to expose the death drive subtending the workings of civilization. The law of representation that "magically changes the landscape" is confronted with its own nightmarish dimension, Eros is brought face to face with its double, Thanatos. But the reader soon becomes aware of another intention, which is evidence not simply of a political or of a philosophical reaction to the horrors of war, but of a carefully planned strategy to short-circuit men's law





of metonymic associations and to provide an aesthetic solution to the question of war. Again, it is my fundamental assumption that Woolf's theoretical essays are always already aesthetic experiments of the utmost importance (see my "Clapham Junction 1910"), and that Three Guineas in particular does more than provide the thematic bridge to connect the "ruined houses and dead bodies" of war with the choices of "educated men": Woolf's revolutionary intuitions concerning the gender-determined reading of things also put forward the necessity of a change in the representational system which is already implemented by the essay itself.

This effective implementation of Woolf's aesthetic, or rather rhetorical policy is made manifest the moment she chooses to interrupt her own narrative with recurrent allusions to the (absent) photographs. By endlessly repeating the same thing, by ceaselessly returning to her description of the same matter-of-fact images of rotting corpses, by wrenching them from any logical, sequential movement, the absent photographs prevent any narrative from taking shape: they select and frame a thing—a dead body, ruined houses—, not in order to abstract it from reality but, on the contrary, to focus the onlooker's gaze, or imagination, on that particular thing. The thing now speaks in its own right: as Barthes puts it, the photograph tells the viewer that "the thing was there"—"la chose a été là" (120)—, that its image (even mental) emanates from a referent whose actuality cannot be doubted. Barthes goes on to explain that this insistence on the actuality of the thing inevitably implicates a suspension of sequential time (142). Woolf's strategy gets clearer: the photograph presents a thing which is no longer turned into a pre-text for narratives of desire. It is an image, a re-presentation of the thing itself, but one that does not force the thing to fit into a predetermined pattern of meaning. It wrenches the thing from old boys' stories, strips it of its metonymic associations, returns it to the undisguised materiality of history. What we have here is the naked truth of the thing, the thing before it has been dressed up, made up, adorned: the thing freed from "sartorial customs." We are now confronted with the thing before it has started to make sense, the dead body of the image, the thing before it has been caught up in the sign-system of patriarchy. In other words, those photographs of dead bodies incorporate the thing, they literalize its image, they grasp the thing before it is animated by men's tropical logic of desire.

However, that this series of photographs precludes any sequential narrative from taking place does not mean that the writing "I" interrupts her demonstration and forbears from commenting about them. Her own narrative includes, nay, even incorporates the presence of the thing in its nakedness, which explains why the discourse that follows the "showing"





seems to be at a loss to articulate itself. The photographs, it is then argued, are not "arguments addressed to the reason," but "crude statements of fact addressed to the eye" (10). What the naked thing triggers is not a logical reasoning; it is rather "a feeling," "an emotion," or "a violent sensation" (11), which takes us back to the long, complex history of aesthetics in its relation to "feeling" (see my "Penser, écrire, sentir"). It therefore appears that it is here, in this emotional—truly aesthetic (from the Greek aistheta, things perceptible by the senses)—reaction to the actuality of the thing, that the writing "I" acknowledges reception of a message. The "I" is now effectively addressed, "the fact" is finally "addressed to the eye," to an "I" who is all eyes. It is precisely when the "I" is all eyes for the naked thing that the writer comes to presence, presents herself, exposes herself. The photograph thus functions like a postcard which finally reaches its destination, finds its term of address. Yet, the "I" is not found at her address like a fugitive by the police, for this address cannot possibly be placed on a map nor listed in a directory: it cannot exist prior to being reached by the addressee herself. The addressee now finds her own address, which is an ethical address, in the sense that the addressee finds not a place of residence, but the ground, the site, the ethos of her engagement. And she does so not so much as a thinking subject, i.e., as a female intellectual "I" engaged in an indictment of patriarchy, as as a feeling subject, i.e., as an "I" that effaces herself before the "violent sensation" of being all eyes, as a feeling subject who allows the thing itself to step to the fore and not to recede into the realm of gendered associations.

But here, precisely, is the miracle awaiting those—including the readers of Three Guineas—whose "disposition" accommodates the naked thing: the feeling subject neither reads gender into the image nor genders him/herself through reading the image. The thing that comes to visibility by addressing the nervous system and not the intellect, the seeing "I" and not the thinking "I," is never a gendered sign, and Woolf is very careful to note that the photographed corpse that she is supposedly holding before our eyes "might be a man's body, or a woman's" (10). The immediacy with which the image is read (or imagined) precludes gender identification as much as it precludes any kind of gendered attitude, or "disposition," towards the thing. Now men and women no longer "see things differently." They thus find themselves on what might be called a transgendric—a genetically, or rather "gendrically"—modified ground of address:

Let us see then whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things. . . . When we look at those photographs some fusion takes place within us; however different the education, the traditions





behind us, our sensations are the same; and they are violent. . . . For now at last we are looking at the same picture; we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses. (10-11)

It is now possible to understand better the why of Woolf's curious reluctance to respond to the requests addressed to her. The reason why she has deferred her reply to the treasurer of the Cambridge college for women—the second request for a guinea (30-31)—is that she suspects colleges for women of conniving with the dominant laws of representation, or at least of facilitating women's adjustment to a man-made order of things and thus of perpetuating a general "disposition towards war" (Laurence, Women 132). Woolf's reluctance and subsequent proposal is thus entirely coherent with everything that has preceded: she suggests that women's education be reformed and that students be trained to see things differently. What is needed before she agrees to send the required guinea is not a simple architectural rearrangement; it is rather a new teaching, and even a new philosophy of life. Which does not mean that students should learn to read photographs of war, but that they should benefit from the discoveries made possible by the writing "I"'s meditation on such photographs.

Above all, they should be taught to read things independently of gender, a suggestion that may be read in filigree in Woolf's statement that "the aim of the new college. . . should be not to segregate and specialize. . ." (34). Students, she also writes, should be taught "the arts of human intercourse" (34), a recommendation undoubtedly inspired by G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica (Regard, "Clapham Junction 1910" 34). Woolf even contemplates the possibility of a common denominator to all compartments of academic knowledge by calling for the permanence of what we called her ethical stand: "the aim of the new college. . . should be not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to co-operate." The "arts of human intercourse," the ethical relationship to the other, should find its ground in a combination of theoretically incompatible fields of science, such as the mind and the body, the intellect and feelings, thoughts and sensations. We remember, indeed, that the writing "I" has already found herself at such an ethical address: the art of combinations has been the constant ethos of her engagement, and this formulation should be read as meaning both that the thing must be felt before it is imaged, and that it is only on such grounds that a transgendric relationship can be established. The new college is thus imagined as the place where a new erotic link should replace the dominant law of desire, and where human intercourse should no longer rest on traditional narratives of desire.





Art will therefore play a central role in this exploration of a gendrically-modified ethos. For this new form of knowledge remains to be imagined, a task which is deemed to be beyond the scope of traditional, compartmentalized university syllabuses. Let us not forget that this is the substance of Woolf's envoy: "the answer to your question must be that we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods" (143). We are here approaching Woolf's most fundamental aesthetic challenge. We are also beginning to understand why photography does not apparently give entire satisfaction to Woolf and why it is not paradoxically included in the new student's syllabus. It seems that photography is conceived solely as a means to reproduce the thing in its nakedness, as a sort of tabula rasa of reading. Woolf never analyses the photographs of war as works of art; what those photographs have enabled her to see, however, is the necessity of new combinations which do not as yet exist, the urgency of "other connections that lie far deeper than the facts on the surface" (143). The aim of the new college should be precisely to explore the possibility of such new combinations: "It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to co-operate; discover what new combinations make new wholes in human life" (34). In rhetorical terms, what is therefore needed is no longer the art of metonymic connections, but the art of metaphorical combinations, by which I mean this time not only the "commutations" of Jakobson (50), but also the "disparities" of the "New Criticism" (Shusterman 182-87).

For the metaphor, in the tensions and incongruities that characterize its ways of imaging, in its tense, active conjoining of "two thoughts of different things," as I.A. Richards, a close contemporary of Woolf, would have defined it (Richards 93), is invested with a cognitive, exploratory dimension that is obviously missing in men's narratives of desire. Arts should be given pre-eminence in the new college because it is through art alone that one may see things differently, or, as Woolf later comes to put it, that one may gain access to "the scattered beauty which needs only to be combined by artists in order to become visible to all" (114). The metaphorical process is not denounced as an estrangement from an original, ontological meaning; nor is it extolled as a necessary adornment of reality: the function of artistic constructions is "to overflow boundaries and make unity out of multiplicity" (143), it is to produce a ground where things are, in a sense, returned to a free life of their own, that is, a life not constricted within androcentric narratives of desire, but made up of "combinations" that produce "new wholes." Understanding Woolf's "arts of intercourse" to consist mainly in the metaphorical play of such unexpected





combinations, as opposed to the constraining logic of metonymic associations, may reveal itself to be a potentially very rich critical choice. For what is at stake in metaphors is nothing less than the inscription of otherness, an inscription which Woolf's conception of male-determined metonymic chains renders unthinkable. By precluding the recuperation of the other in a logic of forced identity, the art of "new combinations" is the key to feminine writing itself.

In her reply to the third letter, addressed to her by a society promoting the employment of professional women, Woolf notes that the only profession to have shown no disposition towards war has been literature (63). When she eventually goes back to the first letter—the one asking her to help prevent war—she makes a similar remark: in an environment of "prostituted culture," by which she means mainly the press (97-100), it is only "true literature," or "true art" that will prove capable of breaking the vicious circle of "intellectual harlotry" (99), by which she means the papers' connivance with a system of representation that keeps generating wars. The choice of terms as heavily connoted as "harlotry" and "prostitution" allows us to infer that "true art" is on the side of the feminine. It is not that "true literature" is the only profession for women which does not amount to harlotry; it is that "true literature" is fundamentally unwilling to accept the law of representation: "true literature" will not sell itself to the dominant narratives of desire, it will not even lend itself to the process of enmeshing things in alienating signifying chains. "True art" is feminine in the sense that it creates a common ground of understanding between human beings who are no longer hampered by habits of gendered propriation. It is at this precise juncture that Woolf's stand as a woman intellectual engaged in a battle against war and Woolf's practice as a creative artist are reconciled. "True art" is feminine insofar as it frees both the writing and the reading subject of the loyalties that condition life in patriarchy; it is therefore intrinsically against war and it inevitably has its share in encouraging a disposition towards peace.

This question of feminine loyalties brings up a clear reference to the Greek myth of Antigone, and to its literary evocation by Sophocles (81), whose dramatization of Oedipus' story—Antigone's father—is also summoned to appear, although more cryptically and not on the same pages (130). In fact, it seems Woolf secretly chooses to pit these two classical figures against each other, thus ironically reproducing Freud's gesture who sought some legitimation to his theories in literary and mythical texts. To Freud's "Oedipus complex" (130)—let us note however that Freud's name does not explicitly appear in Three Guineas, while the Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory (1905) which inaugurated his





turning to evidence from Sophocles' tragedy had been translated into English as early as 1910—, Woolf objects the ethical attitude of Antigone, who, she tells us, knew how to make the difference between "unreal" and "real loyalties," between the laws of the city and the law of love (81). The blatantly phallocentric bias of Freud's reading of the Oedipal drama is not itself challenged, since it serves Woolf's analysis of dominant narratives of the self (she is then mainly concerned with the "infantile fixations" revealed in "Victorian biography"). What is nevertheless foregrounded here is the sheer possibility of another emplotment of the self, the universal applicability of the "Oedipal" plot being thus seriously put in doubt. "True art" is the place where "real loyalties" inscribe themselves, it lends a voice to all the Antigones of humankind, i. e., to all those who are lucid enough to remain "uncontaminated" by mimetic desire, all those who choose to "have a mind of [their] own and a will of [their] own" (83). Feminine writing is the inscription of a difference which asserts itself as radically alien to the dominant "sex instinct" (107).

It is now possible to conclude this reading of Three Guineas by attempting to justify the title of my paper: "Let us then keep the form unsigned," which is of course a quotation from Woolf's text, and more precisely from Woolf's closing remarks. For although the requests seem to have found a response, they do not seem to have found their address. Even when the writing "I" eventually agrees to send a guinea, she insists that the guinea is "a free gift" (101), thus making it plain that her gesture should not be construed as an acceptance of the prevailing buy-and-sell economy, and that the origin of the gift does not engage herself in what I would like to call "a system of assignation." The sender of the guinea does not hold a share in a system of distribution; nor does she put herself forward as a name, a position, or a moral authority. No legal property should be transferred to her, nor should any acknowledgement of indebtedness be signed: the "free gift" leaves her unassignable. That is fundamentally why it remains a free gift, a gratuitous present, but also one emanating from a free agency, an agency who in the same gesture as she extends her hand, laughingly recedes into a distance, systematically (dys‑)positioning herself as an "outsider" (106), or as a member of a "Society" where membership is necessarily "anonymous and elastic" (106). The writing "I" makes itself present, it presents itself in the present of the free gift, but, again, this presence is a mode of inscription for her différance. This différance takes the form of an irreducible remainder, of a restance which stubbornly resists absorption into a greater unity. "Let us then keep the form unsigned": the form—a word which may be taken to mean both the political tract and the shaping of a literary achievement—





will not help locate, or position, the addressee of the letter. She will not expose herself publicly, she will not "pro-stitute" herself (from the Latin pro-statuere, to place in the open, to offer to the gaze). The writing "I" perceives that signing her name at the same time as sending the guinea would be not only a way of reappropriating the free gift, but above all of letting herself be reappropriated by a system that requires that women be possessed or exchanged among men (Lévi-Strauss 496), the giving away of one's name and signature being the surest testimony of this "prostitution." Her signature would therefore adulterate her present of the guinea: Woolf's name would automatically be used in the name of a cause, as a token of appropriation. Her signature would become common property, "la chose de tous," no longer the emanation of a free human being, but a sign and a value. And it is precisely this positioning of the woman and of the woman's name as a cultural object of exchange which logically excludes the possibility of women ever being producers of culture (Lauretis 20), producers of other ways of seeing things, engineers of gendrically modified things.

Here lies the key to Woolf's laughter. She is on the side of the giggling maids, but her practical knowledge of things pushes her laughter far beyond the limits of a momentary amusement. She knows that women should not content themselves with laughing at male philosophers of the thing and then simply attend to their domestic duties. For she understands that things are always read as cultural productions, and that women should rather busy themselves with transforming the very conditions of visibility of those selfsame things, which implies that women should refuse to co-operate with the dominant system of representation. The addressee of men's letters thus refuses to co-operate, or rather: she chooses to operate in the distance, which is not an absence, but a différance, an endless deferral of her own presence. It is not either that the feminine finds itself in a certain narcissistic aloofness: that the feminine operates in the distance means that it inscribes itself, but that it chooses to do so at a "dis-stance," a term I borrow from Derrida's commentary on Nietzsche's notion of Dis-tanz (Eperons 36) to make it mean this "dis-position" which forbids the writing "I" to accord with the essentializing fetishes contained in words like "femininity," or "feminism." Woolf's notorious anti-feminist stance in Three Guineas (101-102) finds here its most rigorous justification. She will not sign herself away to any society. But Woolf's operation in the distance might provide us with an apt definition of feminine inscription: a mode of production whose address is a poetic espacement.





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