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.