Figures for the artist in the writings of Henry James and Oscar Wilde
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 complicity of Arnold's formulations of 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.