Some Call It Fiction: On the Politics of Domesticity
Armstrong, N. (2004). Some Call It Fiction: On the Politics of Domesticity. In J. Rivkin, & M. Ryan (Eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (2nd ed., pp. 567-583). Malden, Ma: Blackwell Publishing.
I regard fiction, in other words, both as a document and as an agency of cultural history. I believe it helped to formulate the ordered space we now recognize as the household, that it made that space totally functional and used it as the context for representing normal behavior.
—Nancy Armstrong, p. 580
Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as…recreation.
—Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë (1837)
Nancy Armstrong, the Gilbert, Louis, and Edward Lehrman Professor of English at Duke, has research interests in the novel, eighteenth and nineteenth-century literatures and cultures, and critical theory. Her first book, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel argued that domestic fiction written by, for, or about women first imagined the forms of the household that serve as the conceptual units of the modern liberal state. Much of Armstrong’s work is situated in investigating the relationship of the reader to the text, the impact of literature in culture, and how literature evidences the politics that surround gender and desire.
With work that sits at the intersection of history, literature, and feminist studies, Nancy Armstrong’s essay “Some Call It Fiction: On the Politics of Domesticity” seeks to problematize traditional understandings of history by interrogating how such frameworks are built from models that exclude or ignore the potential influence of women in literature. Drawing upon work by Michel Foucault, Armstrong seeks to explore how power was constituted in Victorian England and structured around concepts of the political and the personal.
Armstrong begins her argument by examining the way in which, in the writing of history, culture and politics have been categorized as distinctly separate spheres, with culture being made subordinate to politics. Using the work of Antonio Gramsci and Karl Marx, Armstrong argues that this distinction is ultimately unproductive in the context of social relations as political revolutions are accompanied by a corresponding cultural revolution. Put another way, part of the way in which a ruling class maintains its power is through the way in which hegemony creates and sustains a cultural logic of self-legitimization.
Having argued that history has traditionally been limited in scope to the (male) recounting of activities involving the State, Armstrong then advocates for the inclusion of “minority” viewpoints in the reexamination of history (i.e., those that are considered to belong to cultural, the personal, the domestic, and women). In some ways this tact seems to represent an outgrowth of radical feminism’s mantra that “the personal is political” as Armstrong asks readers to consider influences on history that have traditionally been overlooked or discounted. For example, in a discussion of alternate power structures that challenged dominant perspectives, Armstrong writes, “By equating good reading with what was good for women readers, a new standard for reading laid down the semantic ground for common sense and established the narrative conventions structuring public opinion” (573).
Connecting her various ideas, Armstrong then illustrates the key contribution of writing to a cultural revolution that occurred in Victorian England on page 570:
[Foucault’s] Discipline and Punish mounts a detailed historical argument to show that the truth of the modern individual existed first as writing, before she or he was transformed successfully into speech, thought, and unconscious desire. Thus Foucault enables us to see the European Enlightenment as a revolution in words, which gave writing a new and awesome power over the world of objects as it shaped the individuals who established a relationship with that world through reading.
Armstrong’s essay, however, is not just about the role of women in literary culture but also how feminine identity intersected with and manifested disciplinary practices. Armstrong refers again to Gramsci as she explores how power was structured through the segmentation of society into gendered categories. Here Armstrong introduces discussion of mass educational systems in order to begin examining the linkages between literature, gender, and the socialization of individuals to support regulation/order. In the context of a culture that was shifting power away from the monarchy and relocating it in the province of the home/family, Armstrong notes that women became associated with the domain of the domestic/personal (as opposed to men’s association with the public/outside). Concurrent with this shift, Armstrong argues, was a rise in self-regulation and a self-identity that was increasing dependent on gender.
Through her examination of how this change was wrought by developments in education Armstrong importantly identifies a moment when the history of politics became divorced from the history of sexuality. As a product of educational policy, the movement of women toward the domestic was seen as an apolitical move, or, as Armstrong writes, “It no longer constituted a form of resistance but enclosed a specialized domain of culture apart from political relations where apolitical truths could be told” (577).
Armstrong ends her essay with an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and, in so doing, illustrates the way in which women regulated and directed “correct” modes of reading. Articulated as a different kind of power, Armstrong writes that “This power—the power of representation over the thing represented—wrested authority from the old aristocracy on the grounds that a government was morally obliged to rehabilitate deviant individuals rather than subdue them by force” (579).
 The original version was published in Juliet Flower MacCannell’s The Other Perspectives in Gender and Culture (1990) but I was unable to track down a copy so I am using the version located in Literary Theory.
 Armstrong gives a brief section on the influence of Maria Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1801) in bringing about this gender schism.
The concept of the archive runs through this week’s readings in various permutations: as a place, a space, a metaphor, but, above all, as a construct. Conceptualizing the archive as an imagined way of ordering information causes us to question the legitimization that the term implies–this is not to suggest, of course, that the archive is false or that its contents are fabrications but rather an askance that we consider how the construction of the archive plays with notions of history and memory. Furthermore, this intersectionality gains additional weight with the realization that not only is the “archive” a construction but that it, by its very nature, also serves to (re)invent its contents; put another way, the archive’s artifacts are the invented products of the intersection of history, identity, and critical theory. As Joan Scott argues in “The Evidence of Experience”: “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward.” We must not only question the story being told by the contents of the archive but also how such a story figures in a larger narrative about history as a subject.
Dominick LaCapra comments in History and Criticism:
“The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the “reality” of the past which is “always already” lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the repository of traces [and, according to Derrida, representations in an archive are always a trace] of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction. It is a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself–an experience that is always open to question when one deals with writing or other inscriptions.”
In various ways, this notion of the archive forces us to examine our practices of sight and seeing (metaphorically at least, if not physically) and how these stances overlap with the known and the knowable. For me, one of the most valuable ideas of Akira Lippit’s book was the differentiation of two types of invisibility: things that are obscured contrasted with things that are outside the realm of sight. The archive, I think, is often associated with the former category (i.e., its contents are items that are rediscovered, reintroduced, or rescued from history) but I wonder if we should challenge the archive to assume the philosophy of the latter; I think that we must actively engage in a process whereby we question what sorts of items are not included in an archive and why this may be so. What things did we see (and thus include in the archive) and what might we have missed? Although the archive undoubtedly houses pieces that belong to history and allows us to reflect on our past, I also think that it possess the potential to spur forward-thinking as we participate in a process that endeavors to uncover new ways of seeing.
Similarly, Ann Cvetkovich speaks to Lippit’s definitions of invisibility through a discussion of trauma: according to Cvetkovich, trauma is not only bounded by the confines of domesticity but also occasionally “doesn’t appear sufficiently catastrophic because it doesn’t produce dead bodies or even, necessarily, damaged ones” (3). Through Cvetkovich’s mention of trauma we again witness the two-fold way in which something can be rendered invisible and a call for an expanded rendering of what is (or should) be seen and therefore known. I continue to think on the way in which individual/private trauma competes with collective/public trauma for a place in our memories and our archives–what is “worthy” of remembrance? What happens when our cultural/national identities are haunted by travesties that we do not have a direct relation to? Or do archives allow us to overcome this supposed gap and connect to a past that we have not experienced for ourselves? How do projects like that AIDS quilt that embody both an individual and collective identity, history, and trauma intersect with movements like PostSecret, StoryCorps, and One Hello World that represent collections of individual narratives? How is the current interest in archives situated in societies obsessed with innovation and marked by rapid cultural turnover?