Virginia Woolf: Resisting the Sovereignty Trap

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper, not in proceeding


Looking principally at Michel Foucault’s ‘Governmentality’ (1978), my central claim is that it is possible to read in Virginia Woolf’s fiction the anticipation of a post-structuralist politics of difference which distances itself from outmoded political thinking. Woolf’s fiction runs counter to the dominant ‘grand-narrative’ of sovereignty which conceives of governance as a unified and centralised practise. In Woolf’s work we witness a rejection of this kind of ‘sovereignty discourse’ in favour of an alternative which is based on the premise that power is heterogeneous and multifaceted. In light of recent interest in governmentality (Peter Miller and Mitchell Dean) and its application in cultural studies, I am particularly concerned with how conceptions surrounding governmentality might open up the potential for effective resistance against the dominant patriarchal state. Incorporating ideas surrounding the impact of Foucault’s models of power on feminist theory (Lois McNay and Monique Deveaux), I argue that Woolf illuminates the possibility of resistance based not on a unified cause (such as that of suffrage), but rather through a plurality of resistances which arise as a necessary consequence of governmentality. For Woolf this notion is predominantly formulated in terms of the creation of an experimental intersubjective narrative form which is characterised by the dissolution of the sovereign-author figure and a rejection of conventional dualistic politics. Here Woolf offers an effective resistance to dominant patriarchal structures by countering governmentality according to its own terms. It is through this multifaceted resistance that an authentic democratic voice might be heard; a democratic tone that was to be a goal of much of modernism’s cinema. In line with the claim made by Michael Tratner (2000), that Between the Acts (1941) was written in part as a reaction to the film genre, I claim that the pivotal ‘mirror scene’ in this novel reflects a culmination of this democratic voice. Reading this scene according to the schema laid out by Foucault in his critique of ‘Las Meninas’ (1970), I suggest that any claim to an authentic politics of difference must be approached with caution, for the mass culture it reflects is constantly in danger of superimposing the image of the sovereign in a reinstatement of the kind of unified power it is designed to counter.


External organisations
  • External Organization - Unknown
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Languages and Literature
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2008
Publication categoryResearch
Externally publishedYes
EventModernism and Visual Cultures - Oxford University, United Kingdom
Duration: 2008 Nov 1 → …


ConferenceModernism and Visual Cultures
CountryUnited Kingdom
CityOxford University
Period2008/11/01 → …