Modernity in England: Marginality and the Transgression of Boundaries from a Gender Studies Perspective

The project aims at analysing the changes in gender conceptions and gender hierarchies in Britain during the period of transition and upheaval ca. 1910-1940 termed (aesthetic) modernism or (historical) modernity. The central thesis is that the most decisive impulses for change in the cultural field came from the margins of society, i.e. from the non-authoritative positions of outsiders, eccentrics, and, above all, women artists and writers. Conventional moral and spatial boundaries were transgressed, dominant conceptions of society were put into question and modified. The main objects of analysis are narrative texts, whose specific literary qualities seem to be particularly suitable for negotiating the progressive potential of marginality and of transgression. Additional focus will be on travelogues and poetry. The manifold correlations between literary and non-literary discourses will be traced and considered in their cultural context. The project focuses on three related areas: (1) the contemporary debate on norms and values, viewed against the background of degenerationist thinking, (2) the representation of these norms and values through semantically charged conceptions of space, (3) the media for the publication of such subversive texts.

1. Discussion of Values: Degeneration, Regeneration, Moral and Gender (Andrea Gutenberg)

The notion of degeneration as it came up in the second half of the 19th century works on the basis of an assumed teleology of order and chaos, function and malfunction, the normal and the pathological. It is therefore closely connected to the ethical realm of norms and values which, in the period under consideration, continued to be discussed largely through the lens of the degeneration debate. However, research has so far almost exclusively concentrated on degenerative phenomena of the fin de siècle.

One of the basic premises of this part of the study is that the influence of the degeneration paradigm, together with its positive 'twin', the notion of regeneration, can be considered as both analogous and supplementary to the pervasive notion of sex in 19th-century thought. Contemporary generalisations about sex difference and degeneration share a reliance on biologistic and essentialist arguments and thereby manage to affirm and reinforce one another. A further reason why degeneration and morality appear to be closely connected is the compatibility of the (pseudo)scientific, secular idea of degeneration with the Christian notion of the Fall. Semiotically, the notion of degeneration, which combines bio-medical premises and cultural criticism, works as a generative metaphor that responds strategically to feelings of social and religious crisis. Its impact on literary texts will be studied through typically degenerative concepts and markers such as parasitism, infectiousness, infertility and impotence. The relationship between biological and medical models on the one hand and cultural models on the other will be of particular interest in this respect as it raises questions of authority and legitimation through specialist evidence. Thus references to medical experts and scenarios of diagnosis and therapy will receive special attention in the analysis of narrative texts. The methodological approach chosen is that of Foucauldian discourse analysis with a strong emphasis on rhetorics and imagery.

As it sets up a mirroring link between an imaginary inside and a visible outside, the degeneration paradigm and its relationship to norms and values can most aptly be approached via the body and body images. Three main areas of analysis will be followed through: (a) the stylisation and normalisation of bodies, (b) transgressions of body boundaries and (c) bodies in motion.

(a) Phenomena of stylisation would include the use of masks, make-up, clothes and hair style, which were foregrounded by Aestheticist artists and writers in the late 19th century and, it will be argued, received a political twist in the first half of the 20th century. The natural as opposed to the artificial is a specifically controversial because gender-related and morally charged issue in this context. Certain body styles can be regarded as attempts to escape the rigid classifications of the 'degenerate' or deviant body often characterised by sexual and moral perversion or failure. Personal hygiene as a means of achieving discipline in body and mind and the portrayal of deviant sexualities as well as the explanatory models provided will constitute another focus of analysis.

(b) The basic historical assumption underlying reflections on the play with body boundaries is that these were turning increasingly unstable from the late 19th century onward and tended to relate to other networks, thereby opening up venues for parasitism and infection. The female body was seen to be especially endangered by processes of colonisation or hybridisation since it was traditionally associated with diffusion and excess and thought to be in need of strict reglementation and discipline. Narrative texts of the period indeed seem to confirm this stereotype in that bodily metamorphoses and analogies between the human and the animal body (as indicators of degeneration) are mainly ascribed to femininity.

(c) Bodily movement through space is a potentially moral issue wherever there are gender-specific spheres of life or at least genderised possibilities for action. The areas of dance, hunt and travel, which presuppose specific, potentially erotic configurations and usually include some encounter with a 'primitive' or animal-like other, have been singled out as particularly relevant. All three motifs will be considered in connection to questions of norms and 'symptoms' of degeneration.

2. Gender-related Representations, Conceptions and Functions of Space (Natascha Würzbach)

Space will be regarded as a textual phenomenon highly charged with social, cultural, psychological and genderised meaning and therefore as closely related to the issue of norms and values. Conceptions of space in the literal as well as in a cognitive sense will be analysed in fictional and nonfictional texts with special focus on novels, travelogues, war literature and urban literature. In the modernist novel space is dealt with more extensively than in the 19th century and is used to negotiate social values as well as subjective experiences, which prove highly genderised. At the same time the concrete, spatial transgression of boundaries (between the house, the garden, the street, the country and the city, as well as between inner and outer space) in the course of a narrative is often closely related to a symbolic transgression of conventional gender norms. This applies not only to the novel but also, especially in the case of women, to travel literature, as well as to war literature dealing with a particular kind of space (trench, battle field, home front) and offering both shocking experiences and a temporary area of professional activity and personal independence for women. Space in literature combines the linguistic evocation of concrete sensual experience with associations of additional meaning and is therefore particularly suited both for illustrating obvious gender-related problems and for conveying subversive ideas.

The investigation will be guided by a twofold approach: The texts can be read on a social, psychological, historical and geographical level. Such a reading, which can be regarded as the common reader's way of reception, is able to account for the texts' mimetic dimension and their reference to - albeit constructed - contemporary views of the world. The textual subject, i.e. a character, a travel narrator, the writer of an autobiography, is considered as a fictionalised human being. On another level the texts can be regarded as symbolic representations of contemporary ideas and their characters can be viewed as discourse units. Such a cultural semiotic approach yields a more general view of the cultural implications of texts and their subtextual connotations. These approaches are to be complemented by a consideration of stylistic and structural devices as mediators of textual meaning.

A well-balanced investigation of gender problems represented in concepts of space is only possible on the basis of sufficient text material by both male and female authors. The selection of texts aims at a revision of the canon. Apart from a reading of classical texts special attention will be paid to less established and unduly forgotten texts. A great number of novels by female authors which were popular in their time have recently been rediscovered and offer highly relevant material. The period of modernism is allegedly rich in travel literature but very little attention has been paid to travelogues by women. The range of texts is meant to provide a multiperspectival view on gender problems and their dynamics in modernism mediated through various concepts and representations of space. The text analysis envisioned may be able to illustrate the extent to which gender stereotypes become destabilised in modernism.

3. Conditions of Publication: Little Magazines as a Platform for Avant-garde and Subversive Literature (Sabine Buchholz)

The consolidation of new norms and values can only be ensured through a process of institutionalisation. One vital question that arises in the contemporary discussion of values is what possibilities of distribution and publication were available for experimental and subversive texts. The answer that most critics give is that the relatively new medium of the 'little magazines' played a central role in the dissemination of these texts. Without this extremely tolerant medium, the argument goes, avant-garde authors would have had only very limited means of attracting an audience. Little magazines gave unknown and experimental authors a chance for publication while commercial publishing houses and magazines shirked the financial risk.

Unfortunately, studies of little magazines usually remain on a biographical and positivistic level, listing authors and editors, dates, places, tables of contents, etc. In order to assess the little magazines' literary-sociological function it is necessary, however, to situate them within a broader theoretical framework. The crucial question is, how was it possible that such an avowedly marginal medium like the little magazines succeeded in contributing to the 'legitimisation', and, eventually, to the canonisation of avant-garde texts? As the phrasing of the question suggests, one possible explanation is provided by Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture, and especially his theory of the literary field. According to Bourdieu, the literary field consists of different, partly antagonistic, prises de position which fight for dominance, especially for the right to legitimise a text as 'literature' or a writer as 'literary author'. New groups in the literary field change the balance of power and the existing 'system of valorisation' by propagating new definitions of literature and literary values; thus, each new text becomes a contribution to the general fight for dominance. Avant-garde literature, in Bourdieu's view, serves a special function in the literary field: not only does it follow different principles of legitimisation than other kinds of literature, avant-garde groups also have a pronounced interest in an autonomous status within the literary field, aiming for independence from the established groups and their norms and values, including, in particular, financial independence. It is this typical feature of the avant-garde that explains the little magazines' professed anti-commercial attitude.

This part of the project will use the Bourdieusian theoretical framework to analyse the impact of some of the most prominent contemporary British little magazines. (For comparison, some American and exile American little magazines will also be considered.) Of particular interest is the role of the editors of such magazines. The assumption is that their conception of literature determined the choice of authors and thus produced an institutionally determined preselection of the texts. There are grounds for supposing that such a conception of literature is to some extent determined by the editor's gender. Due to the great number of male editors among the British little magazines and due to the fact that openly misogynist literary movements (such as Futurism or Wyndham Lewis's Vorticism) made frequent and extensive use of little magazines, women generally had smaller chances of publication. As a consequence, this also impeded their chances in the area of book publication, disadvantaging them in the fight for dominance in the literary field and therefore also in the process of valorisation, institutionalisation and canonisation. The fact that there are relatively few contributions by women in some of the best-known little magazines becomes even more noticeable when one considers the case of Time and Tide, a magazine edited by a group of female editors. Significantly, this magazine published far more women authors than any magazine edited by a male editor.

In order to assess the role of gender in modernist little magazines one must certainly begin by collecting empirical data such as the editors' gender, the place and the frequency of publications by male and female authors as well as their interconnections with other little magazines, small presses and commercial publishers. What is even more important, however, is an analysis of the norms, values and the literary-aesthetic criteria of these magazines as presented, for example, in editorials, essays, etc. This includes questions like What position did literary texts have alongside other texts? Did the editors show specific gender-related genre preferences in their choice of literary contributions? And, finally, What literary-aesthetic and social norms and values were transported through the literary contributions themselves?


See also our survey article (in German):

Sabine Buchholz, Andrea Gutenberg & Natascha Würzbach.
"DFG-Projekt 'Marginalität und Grenzüberschreitung in der englischen Moderne (ca. 1914-1939) aus der Sicht der Geschlechterforschung'." Anglistik 13.2 (2002), 73-87.


16 October 2002

(c) Project Group "Modernity in England" at