Figures for the artist in the writings of Henry James and Oscar Wilde

Robertson, Stuart (2004) Figures for the artist in the writings of Henry James and Oscar Wilde. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This study is a cultural materialist analysis of the spectacular commodity economy of the
fin-de-siecle as mediated and represented in the iconography of the artist that Oscar Wilde
and Henry James employ. The figure of the artist within the dominant social organisation
of the fin-de-siecie is studied in relation to residual, dominant and emergent social
formations. Focussing on four distinct figures, I examine the ways in which the discursive
subject positions of the actress, the critic, the revolutionary and the child are oppositional
because they represent positions that frustrate and evade the forceful processes that seek
to incorporate individuals to the hegemony. This evasion is achieved because these
positions exploit ambiguities within the discursive formations. Each of these positions is
characterised by the same qualities of marginality, vulnerability and mutability, qualities
traditionally identified as weaknesses, which I identify here as paradoxical strengths.
The figure of the actress captures the force with which the processes of hegemony
reify women, but she also represents an alternative to those schemes of identity
formation. The vulnerability of the actress before the hegemonic discourses, a
vulnerability that the artist shares, is paradoxically the quality that offers the greatest
opportunity for constructing alternative positions. In a corruptly theatrical world the
actress's art allows her to confound the possessive male gaze, and to evade the roles
scripted for her by hegemony. The figure of the actress represents the first example of the
theatrically multiple subjectivity that James and Wilde identify and explore.
The critic is inextricably bound by systems of exchange and the logic of the
marketplace and this represents the vulnerability of the critic. This vulnerability though
depends upon the critic's intermediate position and this intermediate position is a site, I
argue, which James and Wilde exploit as they re-conceptualise the action of culture and
the work that art achieves. At the fin-de-siecle this work was recognised as necessary and
urgent by many intellectuals. The developing mass culture presented an emergent form
of social organisation, one that offered substantial opportunities for change. Cultural
critics sought to find ways to understand and influence these social forms. Both Henry
James and Oscar Wilde critique the dominant narratives of art and culture through their
readings and rewritings of Matthew Arnold's works. Their rewritings reveal the
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complicity of Arnold's formulationsf«¥:mhe hegemony at the same time as they identify
oppositional positions and strategies. These oppositional positions and strategies depend
upon redefining the existing relations of production and consumption that govern
aesthetic encounters. The work that art does becomes the transformation of the
individual's consciousness, a change from the fixed bourgeois self to a theatrically multiple subjectivity. The critic mimes this change in order to make the process available
to all.The revolutionary represents the vulnerability of the individual to political
discourses of reaction and revolution. This vulnerability is realised by James and Wilde
in their works through the figure of the scapegoat, an individual whose relation to the
group is explicitly dangerous and revelatory. I argue that James and Wilde both identify
a theatrically multiple subjectivity and I trace the genealogy of this subjectivity in
Hegelian thought. I illustrate how Henry James's investigation of city-spaces
demonstrates his understanding of the creation and regulation of subjects in modernity.
The figure of the child is a familiar role for the romantic artist but the romantic
child is also the latent being intently examined by late nineteenth century psychology,
ethnology, and physiology. I argue that the potential of the child, as its promise and its
threat, reveal the means through which subject positions are established, fixed and
regulated, and holds out the promise of evading those regulatory schemes. I read Oscar
Wilde's fairy-tales in the context of late nineteenth century folklore research, in particular
the writings of Andrew Lang, and I relate James's literary children in 'The Turn of the
Screw' and What Maisie Knew to his developing modernist literary form.
I conclude that a significant contribution of these writers to the establishment of a
distinctively Modernist literary practice was their detailed exploration and examination
of the relationship of the artist to the dominant and emergent social formations, and their
commitment to an active role for the artist in contesting the limits of modern subjectivity,
doing battle with the forces of capital.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities
Supervisor's Name: Supervisor, not known
Date of Award: 2004
Depositing User: Ms Dawn Pike
Unique ID: glathesis:2004-4945
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 11 Feb 2014 11:28
Last Modified: 11 Feb 2014 11:28

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