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«MODERNISM’S GIFTS A Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Cornell University In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements ...»

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A Dissertation

Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School

of Cornell University

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of

Doctor of Philosophy


Rebecca Annabelle Colesworthy

August 2009

© 2009 Rebecca Annabelle Colesworthy


Rebecca Annabelle Colesworthy, Ph.D.

Cornell University 2009

This dissertation argues that the work of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys,

and Stevie Smith exemplifies the reappearance of “themes of the gift” hailed by anthropologist Marcel Mauss in his 1924 essay, The Gift. Their stylistically diverse treatments of themes such as hospitality, friendship, reciprocity, sympathy, sacrifice, and charity reflect on the contemporary fate of the ethics of generosity under the conditions of capitalism and invite us to reconsider what counts, or should count, as generous in the modern age. In so doing, their work manifests conceptual affinities with anthropological, psychoanalytic, and philosophical discourses on the gift, exchange, and subjective and symbolic “economies,” while also making distinctively literary and feminist contributions to this interdisciplinary corpus. I argue that by conjugating the challenges of formal innovation and social transformation, their novels make not only recuperative but also speculative gestures. On the one hand, they work to salvage those material and immaterial “gifts” that defy normative notions

of economic necessity, from the “favors” that Stein’s heroine grants her friends in Ida:

A Novel (1941) to the many “offerings” made in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), from the masochistic letters that circulate in Rhys’s After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930) to the human knack for suffering in Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper (1936). On the other hand, they codify the conditions and conventions propitious for gifts with the potential to disrupt the social and sexual status quo. Insofar as the new forms of engagement and community toward which they look are furthermore figured as critical responses to money, the predominant ground of exchange, their texts enable us to reevaluate the ethical and political stakes of modernism, as well as its notoriously troubled relationship to the market. Thus, I argue finally that the texts of Stein, Woolf, Rhys, and Smith, in revealing so many gifts to be universally constitutive of and yet unique to the subject, work to resolve a tension between a desire for social equality and a radical suspicion of


ideals of equivalence, while nevertheless conceding that the possibility of resolving this tension may be confined to the wo

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Rebecca Colesworthy earned her B.A. in English and Women’s Studies from Brown University in 2000 and received honors in English for her undergraduate thesis, “A Renaissance of the Reader: Addressing History in H.D.’s Post-war Prose.” After

graduating, she worked as a research assistant for three Brown faculty members:

Professor Carolyn Dean in History, Professor Mary Ann Doane in Modern Culture and Media, and Professor Elizabeth Weed at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women. She moved to Brooklyn, New York, in the fall of 2001 and shortly thereafter joined the staff of the National Council for Research on Women, a nonprofit network of feminist research, advocacy, and policy centers. In fall 2003, she entered the Ph.D. program in English at Cornell. A recipient of a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, she completed her M.A. in May 2006 and her Ph.D. in August 2009.

–  –  –

Writing acknowledgements for a dissertation largely on the topic of gifts is a daunting business. With full certainty that the debts I owe are bound to exceed the gratitude I manage to express here, I would like to begin by thanking the members of my committee – Natalie Melas, Molly Hite, Ellis Hanson, and especially Tracy McNulty and Doug Mao – for their thoughtful feedback, provocative questions, and discerning critiques, as well as their enthusiasm at those moments when my own was waning.

Next, I would like to give a huge thanks to those friends and fellow graduate students whose intellectual engagement and emotional support have been invaluable over the past few years, particularly Audrey Wasser, Rob Lehman, Aaron Hodges, Shanna Carlson, Maria Fernanda Negrete, Jonah Corne, and Charity Ketz. I would also like to thank the members of an Interdisciplinary Dissertation Writing Group for their feedback on chapters 1 and 5, as well as the Psychoanalysis Reading Group for helping me to work through a number of the ideas that make up the theoretical context for this project. For introducing me to nearly all of the primary texts considered in this study and many more of modernism’s gifts, I am immensely grateful to Tamar Katz and Robert Scholes, my undergraduate advisors. I also feel extremely fortunate to have received a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, which afforded me much-needed time for research and writing. Finally, I would like to thank a number of people who in some way or other fit under the heading of “family”: Vanessa Bohns, whose constancy has sustained me in innumerable ways; my aunt, Chris Simington, for being there when I could not; my father, David Prospect, for teaching me more about gifts than I suspect he realizes; my mother, Pamela Colesworthy, for her indefatigable support, encouragement, and understanding, and for always being, despite everything, Mom;

and finally Scott, for what can only be summed up as “everything” – thank you.

–  –  –

In his conclusion to The Gift, originally published as Essai sur le don in L’Anneé Sociologique in 1923-1924, Marcel Mauss hailed the auspicious reappearance of “themes of the gift” in contemporary European society (68). In so doing, he not only registered what he saw as a widespread return to a communal ethos at odds with the individualism typical of modern western culture and legal systems, but also presaged the centrality of concepts of the gift and exchange – not to mention the centrality of The Gift – to twentieth-century French thought. In the following study, I argue that the work of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and Stevie Smith exemplifies the “salutary revolution” to which Mauss paid witness (68), while also demonstrating the extension of its reach beyond the borders of both his home country and his home discipline of anthropology. Through readings of four of their novels, as well as a number of their essays and autobiographical writings, I argue that these authors’ stylistically diverse treatments of themes of the gift – including hospitality, friendship, reciprocity, sympathy, sacrifice, and charity – share conceptual affinities with the interdisciplinary corpus inspired, at least in part, by Mauss’s essay.

Modernism would hardly seem a fitting site to seek avatars of generosity, characterized as it has been by a determination to salvage the figure of the exceptional individual amid threatening social forces, a discomfort with the Victorian orthodoxy of self-sacrifice, and a profound suspicion of the possibility of helping without harming. Yet if the texts considered here largely reinforce these caricatural presuppositions, they also ask us to reconsider what we mean by generosity. Where Stein, Woolf, Rhys, and Smith invite us to use our imaginations – and where I in turn invite my reader to use his or hers – is with respect to the question of what counts, or should count, as generous under the conditions of modern capitalism. Indeed, the

–  –  –

heroine grants her friends in Ida: A Novel to the many “offerings” made in Mrs.

Dalloway, from the masochistic letters that circulate in Rhys’s After Leaving Mr Mackenzie to Pompey’s knack for suffering in Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper.

Whereas for Mauss the gift was a thing – an objective entity endowed with a spiritual power – the multifarious gifts considered here are by turns immaterial and material, personal and interpersonal, literal and metaphorical.

But while this study breaks with the letter of Mauss’s essay, it nevertheless preserves the spirit of The Gift in arguing that the texts of Stein, Woolf, Rhys, and Smith share an understanding of the subject as a being bound by systems of exchange that exceed commerce and for which the laws of political economy cannot account.

As the media of exchange within these systems, the gifts considered here can appear, from a capitalist standpoint, to be superfluous, insignificant, or irrational.1 And yet, in the context of these writers’ work, they are rendered fundamental to the life of the human as such. For although the myriad affects, abilities, gestures, and impulses that I have filed under the heading of “Modernism’s Gifts” defy normative notions of economic necessity, they prove to be central to the various “economies” that constitute the subject and in so doing play a prominent role in dictating his or her needs and desires.

Analysis of these gift economies, I argue, provides a critical framework for reassessing the ethical, social, and political stakes of modernism as well as its notoriously troubled relationship to the market. In recent years, the canonical treatment of modernism as an assemblage of movements and figures united in their Amid his effort to cull the definitive properties of gifts and giving from sociological studies in his introduction to The Question of the Gift, Mark Osteen “tentatively propose[s]…that the essence of the gift is superfluity itself” (27).

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critics especially have challenged the traditional view that modernism routinely favored production over consumption, autonomy over commitment, and art over commerce.3 “Modernism’s Gifts” furthers and complicates this line of criticism by arguing that the compensatory gestures made by Ida: A Novel (1941), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), and Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) – that is, their efforts to salvage the many gifts negated by capitalist ideology – are figured in part as critical responses to the privilege enjoyed by money as the universal equivalent par excellence in market society.

Money is an object of some ambivalence in the work of Stein, Woolf, Rhys, and Smith. As the dominant medium of exchange, it is indispensable and, for women in particular, can mean the difference between being reduced to an inferior object – indeed, the commodity par excellence – and gaining recognition as an equal subject.

Yet as a fetishized abstract ideal, money has the power to foster acquisitiveness, to neutralize differences, and to colonize the imagination absolutely – to replace all creative endeavors with chrematistic ones. Thus, attending to the disparate functions and figurations of money in the fiction and non-fiction of my focal authors allows for a finer understanding of the nature of the hostility and anxiety toward “the market” While the citation comes from Fredric Jameson, it is important to note that he has also been one of the critics to refute this characterization of modernism. In A Singular Modernity he argues that the definition of aesthetic autonomy in terms of art’s dissociation from non-art – “the sociological or the political,” “the morass of real life, of business and money, and bourgeois daily life” – does not descend from Kant’s critical philosophy, but instead marks the mystificatory success of “ideologists of the aesthetic” (176). The “ideology of modernism” codified by critics such as Clement Greenberg in the middle of the twentieth century, dictates aesthetic modernism’s radical opposition not to the market, but to “culture” – that is to say, mass culture. Because the realm of the aesthetic is also “cultural,” the split between art and non-art occurs as a differentiation within culture. For Jameson’s discussion of modernism’s hostility to the market, see Postmodernism 304-305.

See, for example, Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking and Shopping with Freud; John Xiros Cooper, Modernism and the Culture of Market Society; Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity; Tamar Katz, Impressionist Subjects; Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism;

Michael Tratner, Deficits and Desires; Jennifer Wicke, Advertising Fictions and “Mrs. Dalloway Goes to Market.”

–  –  –

the joys of commodity consumption and serious reflections on the importance of financial independence. What their work contests, I argue, is not exchange per se, but the predominant ground of exchange. In revealing commercial transactions to be but one manifestation of exchange, they oppose the popular treatment of money as if it were the only common ground, as if it were the only means of relation in the modern age. Hence, their critiques of the money economy do not translate into disengagement from public life, but are instead coextensive with creative efforts to reconceptualize the terms of our engagement, to reimagine how and why we relate to one another – to fantasize ways of making gifts, in all their irreducible diversity, our common currency.

The task of reimagining relation introduces various dilemmas, both at the level of narrative and at the level of narration. By exploring the ways in which my focal authors conjugate the challenges of social transformation and literary innovation, I argue that the gestures made by their novels are not only recuperative, but also speculative. They wishfully project into the future not so much because they are themselves gifts (although this is a claim that I will make with respect to Ida) as because they codify the conditions and conventions propitious for gifts with the potential to disrupt the social, as well as the sexual, status quo. If, as Woolf suggests in A Room of One’s Own, the proper circumstances must be in place in order for a gift to flourish, then the novels here inscribe the circumstances necessary to the cultivation, expression, and presentation of so many gifts. Troping on Mauss’s subtitle, we might say that the poetics and logic of each of the four novels on which I focus realizes the form and reason for new practices and styles of exchange.

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