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Dale Townshend, The Orders of Gothic: Foucault, Lacan, and the Subject of Gothic Writing 1764-1820

Friday, April 23, 2010 - 09:15
Dale Townshend, The Orders of Gothic: Foucault, Lacan, and the Subject of Gothic Writing 1764-1820. New York: AMS Press, 2007. ix+365pp. $87.50. (Hdbk; ISBN-10: 0404648541; ISBN-13: 978-0404648541).

Reviewed by
David Sigler
University of Idaho

Some ten years ago, Diane Long Hoeveler suggested in Gothic Feminism that a wave of Foucauldian studies, attuned to the broad discursive and institutional transformations underway at the end of the eighteenth century, might be poised to supplement a tradition of psychoanalytic studies of the Gothic (53). Dale Townshend’s monograph, The Orders of Gothic, courageously takes up this challenge, and, like Hoeveler’s study, it refuses to discard psychoanalytic insights just because Foucauldian ones prove illuminating. The Orders of Gothic offers a compelling combination of Lacanian and Foucauldian approaches, while grappling with an enormous range of Gothic writing to deliver fascinating reinterpretations of signal texts. The study is clearly written and accessible—even, I suspect, for readers mildly allergic to the specialized vocabularies of Lacan and Foucault—and for the most part it maintains the integrity of its diverse theoretical investments. It marks a significant and welcome contribution to the current critical conversation on the Gothic.

The chapters are organized around topics such as incest, vision, torture, and paternity; each considers several Gothic texts under a thematic cover, a strategy enabling Townshend to return to texts discussed in previous chapters armed with insights gained along the way. Still, it is within the earlier chapters that The Orders of Gothic makes its most significant contributions to the field. Over the first three chapters Townshend ushers carefully historicized close readings into a genuinely fresh theoretical paradigm, building the argument adroitly. Admirably, the analysis stems from close and extended engagement with specific texts: I was surprised to find that the close readings, embedding these texts in contested cultural, economic and intellectual contexts, are as much examples of new historicist scholarship as of Lacanian or Foucauldian. Townshend proves to be a responsible and convincing historicist, and, except in an analysis of Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, which is psychoanalytic from the start, the Lacanian apparatus is basically superadded. But the addition is compelling and necessary, as the historicized readings illustrate how the Gothic produced the individuated subject of psychoanalysis in a peculiarly Lacanian way. To this, Townshend always appends a Foucauldian layer of meta-explanation, as for him the subjects of psychoanalysis and the Gothic are aligned in a way that Foucault can help us understand: building on the foundation laid by the last chapter of Foucault’s The Order of Things, here the literary emergence of a subject of the unconscious demarcates the very transition between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus Townshend ultimately reads the Gothic as a symptom of the bourgeois form of liberal modernity emerging at the end of the British eighteenth century. As Townshend is well aware, this is an argument already familiar to readers of Emma Clery, Robert Miles, Jerrold Hogle, and indeed Hoeveler. But Townshend takes a significant next step in claiming that Gothic literary conventions, generating nostalgia for a fading aristocracy within a decidedly modern rubric of disciplinary and supervisory power, were uniquely poised to confer legitimacy, continuity, and lineage on this nascent liberal modernity. The Gothic, in Townshend’s view, did not make readers choose between old discourses (like alliance, bloody punishment, and darkness) and new ones (like sexuality, bloodless discipline, and visibility). Instead, it reaffirmed the continuing presence of these old systems even as it was describing and stabilizing a new discursive regime (88). This argument thus recalls Foucault’s commentary on panopticism, modernity, and Radcliffe in “The Eye of Power,” which Townshend discusses here very productively at several stages of the argument.

Townshend’s main theoretical achievement—a considerable one—is the nesting of Lacanian psychoanalysis into Foucauldian historicism. Lacan and Foucault have been treated as incommensurate in Lacanian books like Joan Copjec’s Read My Desire or James Penny’s The World of Perversion. David Halperin, coming at this issue from the Foucauldian side in Saint Foucault, describes Foucault as the only genuine alternative to psychoanalysis (121). Sharply breaking with these assumptions, The Orders of Gothic reminds us that the psychoanalytic version of subjectivity is the product of the very shift that Foucault narrates, and that psychoanalytic reading is necessary to the extent that it can account for the traumatic remainder of enjoyment that necessarily attends such broad cultural shifts. For Townshend, the relation between Lacan and Foucault cuts both ways: Lacan is a necessary supplement to Foucault because “Historicity thus inscribes in man the trace of the Other to which he finds it difficult, if not impossible, to be reconciled,” even while “Foucault’s genealogy of vision shows Lacan’s gaze of the Other to be, at once, both highly historical and deeply enmeshed in the disciplinary power structures of modernity” (39, 304). The Gothic is a privileged site of this collision, since for Townshend it “deals in the remainder” (14). This assumption proves convincing over the course of the study, even if it tends to give Foucault the upper hand over the Gothic and Lacan: in most cases, the latter two terms are shown to be compatible with Foucault’s genealogies and archaeologies of power and knowledge.

Still, it is not sufficiently clear why the Gothic, “perhaps more than any other late-eighteenth century cultural phenomenon” in Townshend’s account, particularly embodies the tensions and “unthought” compromises of modernity (22, 32). Why would this modern Lacanian subject not be produced throughout Romanticism, throughout modernity? Why must we locate this remainder within literary history particularly, or in literature from Britain and Ireland? Instead of addressing such questions in the Introduction, Townshend builds his theoretical matrix upon suspiciously chiasmic metaphors and analogies, such as the claim that “Foucault, Lacan and the Gothic are knotted together throughout . . . even as they are unraveled and pulled apart” (7). The governing metaphor of the study, that of a “Borromean knot” uniting Lacan, Foucault, and the Gothic, curiously does not refer to any convergence of the imaginary, symbolic, and real, signifying instead merely discursive overlap or convergence.

The book more than makes up for these conceptual shortcomings, however, with the strength and originality of its literary analyses. The first chapter, considering dreams in The Romance of the Forest and The Old English Baron, shows the emergence of the Lacanian subject, construed via a repository of signifiers arriving from elsewhere, in the early Gothic tradition. The readings of Radcliffe and Reeve are fresh and persuasive. But as with the Introduction and its Borromean knot, and here perhaps I am quibbling, the argument proceeds only by analogy: the unconscious is like a censored chapter, which functions like a Gothic secret.

The second chapter focuses on the symbolic circulation of paternal guilt in The Castle of Otranto and other Walpole texts, and how such circulation lays the conditions for the symbolic order. Townshend makes a sophisticated return to a privileged figure of Lacanian analysis—the sadistic dead father of Freud’s totem myth—to suggest how Otranto contains traces of a cultural transition from biological fathers to symbolic names-of-the-father. Translated into Foucauldian terms, this shift demarcates the traditional kinship system of “ancient alliance” from the modern bourgeois concept of “sexuality." For Townshend, the Catholic settings of the Gothic serve the interests of a modern scientia sexualis, especially via their treatment of confession and blood (77). Fascinatingly, bloodless biopower in (for instance) Otranto arrives with the image of the huge sword, which might have seemed the very image of alliance and discipline. The readings are precise and rigorously historicized: it’s really an outstanding work of new historicism that just happens to locate itself at a privileged Foucauldian moment.

Despite Foucault and Lacan’s shared antipathy toward psychobiography (“it is out of the question to analyse dead authors,” suggests Lacan in Seminar II [152]), Townshend valuably draws attention to Walpole’s own identification with Hamlet, as here the path from alliance to sexuality passes through Lacan’s paternal metaphor. In moments such as this, Lacan and Foucault prove remarkably compatible and mutually illuminating for the Gothic. Townshend’s Foucault does not dismiss psychoanalysis as a mere symptom of modern power, but rather situates Freud and Lacan as elements of a larger discursive transformation in which the subject of the unconscious is indispensible to any history of modern power. Better yet, Townshend shows the two theoretical systems commingling in the Gothic. Gothic writing is, for Townshend, the residue of a cultural transition from one discourse system to another, and he teaches us that reading the Gothic in Lacanian terms can recoup these lost elements of Foucault’s analysis.

In Chapter III we find the sadistic, enjoying father of Walpole giving way to a tamer “good father” reconstituted in the field of the daughter’s fantasy in works by Radcliffe and Mary Shelley. The “good father” engenders sexuality in its modern sense: as the truth of subjectivity, a secret to be discovered. Nicely building on the previous analysis of Walpole, Townshend aligns sexuality, paternity, economy, and the finances of modern sexuality. He considers Locke’s influence on Wollstonecraft and Radcliffe, especially by way of a private, domestic vision of paternity. In ways reminiscent of Paul de Man’s The Rhetoric of Romanticism, Townshend also hears echoes of Rousseau filling Romantic discourse and determining its course. Here, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gets the last word in the broad cultural debate: read alongside Filmer, Locke, and Rousseau, Shelley’s first novel reveals a trenchant gender critique that amounts to a final verdict on her own father’s theory of fatherhood. Situating Frankenstein within contemporary political discourses, Townshend remains alive to its threat and challenge. Townshend suggests the centrality of the Gothic genre to Shelley’s critique of paternity, showing how Shelley develops the weak-but-restored father trope inherited from Radcliffe, until Frankenstein reveals its multilayered and truly radical interrogation of dominant cultural expectations. Even as Townshend backs away from Lacan and Foucault here—he provides just a nominal and unconvincing imaginary/symbolic/real matrix for his analysis of Frankenstein—he produces a tour de force reading of one of Romanticism’s most canonical texts. This is, in my view, the major accomplishment of the book.

Townshend then shifts from the philosophical to the literary discourses of paternity—from Frankenstein to Matilda, from Walpole’s fixation with Hamlet to Shelley’s with Lear—ever remaining rooted in the Gothic literary tradition. Most compellingly, he encourages us to read Shelley’s Matilda as a record of magical, fantasmatic thought rather than paternal desire. Aligning the novella with the controversies and reversals of Freud’s seduction theory, Matilda here becomes grandmother to Dora, unknowingly narrating the intersection of fantasy and abuse. At the Foucauldian level, the undecidable fact or fantasy of incest becomes the pivot from alliance to sexuality, even while it remains, in Lacanian terms, the condition of speech and the ultimate extimate object of subjectivity. Incest is situated for Townshend both inside and outside of the family: its very extimacy is, following a logic similar to that recently theorized by David Wills in and as Dorsality, the production of the sexual itself. Shelley, Freud, Lacan, and Žižek here unfurl within a line of psychoanalytic thought extending from Locke and Rousseau through the twentieth century, a procession now encased in a Foucauldian metaframe that can situate this conversation historically. As promised, this strategy amounts to the historicization of psychoanalysis within Gothic fiction.

The final three chapters are somewhat less compelling. Sometimes the disappointment is the result of terminological slippage. Chapter V, for instance, uses Lacan’s concept of the Other as if it were the otherness described by Edward Said in Orientalism; Chapter VI invokes the central Lacanian concept of “traversing the fantasy” without considering that term’s clinical import; Chapter VII unhelpfully conflates Lacan’s objet petit a with the “double” featured at the end of The Order of Things. Slavoj Žižek and Jacques-Alain Miller speak more and more for Lacan, and in the final chapter Townshend too uncritically relies upon Dolar and Copjec to assure readers that the objet petit a is a fully historicized category. In these, unlike in the more audacious earlier chapters, little fusion of Foucault and Lacan is attempted. At times the two theoretical approaches refuse to coalesce: the visual field in Zofloya, for instance, is shown to be Lacanian rather than Foucauldian (307). This sort of argument undermines the central contribution of the study, which remains its canny ability to nest the Lacanian comfortably within the Foucauldian. The final chapter, focusing on Zofloya and Percy Shelley’s Zastrozzi, basically restates current critical consensus (i.e. Dacre revises Lewis and Radcliffe; Victoria represents an instance of gender subversion; Zofloya is a site of unbridled taboo enjoyments; there is a gap between Radcliffe and Lewis that amounts to the difference between terror and horror Gothic) in Lacanian terms, making us doubt whether Lacan is really necessary for these insights. That said, Townshend valuably identifies a kernel of enjoyment undoing the didactic endings of The Monk and Vathek and continues to situate the Gothic on the fault line between sovereign and disciplinary power, such that it is shown to retain into modernity the jouissance of spectacular punishments.

In the capaciousness of its theoretical scope, The Orders of Gothic represents a significant achievement. But the smaller, more local analyses are the real occasion for excitement here: tour de force readings of The Castle of Otranto, The Romance of the Forest, Frankenstein, and Matilda situate their discoveries within intellectual and literary history as well as within the broad cultural transformations that Foucault is famous for theorizing. The Orders of Gothic deserves to influence the way we read, teach, and write about these novels and the Gothic more broadly; it marks an important contribution to ongoing theoretical debates within Romantic studies and beyond. Not least, it invites its readers to re-conceptualize the modernity of Gothic writing and to read Foucault and Lacan as associates.