Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Language

December 23, 2010

Judith Allen's little book - only 117 pages of text - has a wide reach. It documents the corruption of political discourse in Virginia Woolf's time and ours, reflects on "the essayistic" as an instrument of critical thinking, and argues for the relevance of Woolf's essays now.

It is a passionate, political and provocative study, and at its core is concern with "our increasingly complex problems regarding the reception of language". Woolf is relevant to these because, thinking against the current, she models resistance. Allen places her in the company of Montaigne, creator of the essai, and of such new "resident 'outsiders'" as Harper's Magazine, The New York Review of Books and even the mordantly satirical television programme The Colbert Report, where, as I write, we are invited to "feel the news" with "America's ballsiest pundit", Stephen Colbert. It is an arresting conjunction, Woolf and Colbert, and Allen makes it credible and urgent as she asks: "How can democracy function?"

She reads Woolf's essays in the context of the propaganda effort begun in the First World War. "The Northcliffe papers do all they can to insist upon the indispensability and delight of war", Woolf wrote in her diary in 1918, and in Three Guineas (1938) she asked, "Is it not possible that if we knew the truth about war, the glory of war would be scotched and crushed where it lies curled up in the rotten cabbage leaves of our prostituted fact-purveyors...?"

Propaganda and the "damned newspapers" ignited continuing concern. Woolf's library included Walter Lippman's 1922 work Public Opinion, which coined the phrase "the manufacturing of consent", and Arthur Ponsonby's Falsehood in Wartime: Propaganda Lies of the First World War (1928), which warns that "we have now to look forward to a new and far more efficient instrument of propaganda - the Government control of broadcasting".

In our time, Allen writes, "some of our best newspapers and other media outlets have become 'our prostituted fact-purveyors,' and our governments have become propaganda machines".

Newspapers are embedded in the corporations that own them. When The New York Times writes not of "torture" but of "enhanced interrogation techniques", or is willing to "withhold significant news stories at the request of the Bush Administration", we have "the failure of that crucial tool of democracy, an independent press". Montaigne's probing, sceptical motto applies: Que sais-je? What do I know?

With the mainstream media thus enfeebled, the resident outsiders, including the bloggers and tweeters, have become "the watchdogs of democracy, the voices of the voiceless".

Allen finds Woolf's relevance now in the anti-genre she found in Montaigne and made her own. The "essayistic" is "already 'other', hybrid, provisional and resistant to definition", and it expresses and enacts the connection between its aesthetics and politics and invites the active participation of readers. This book's richly informed analyses of the narrative and rhetorical strategies of Woolf's essays - including especially "Montaigne", "Craftsmanship", "Thoughts on peace in an air raid", and A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas - are themselves essayistic ventures, pressing urgently "the need for critical thinking".

Here, Allen makes the case for Woolf's relevance, and, not at all incidentally, speaks forcefully to the necessity of the humanities.

Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Language

By Judith Allen. Edinburgh University Press. 144pp, £60.00 ISBN 9780748636754 Published 5 July 2010

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