This past summer, I travelled to the annual Space Between conference, Intersections of Resistance in the Space Between, 1914-1945 at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado. I talked “bad” reading practices, ethics, and grammars of resistance in Virginia Woolf’s 1941 novel, Between the Acts. You can find the full abstract below.
“Bad” Reading and the Grammar of Resistance in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts
Between the Acts is a novel full of “bad” readers. Bart Oliver too easily finds his place in the violent patriarchal ideologies of the daily newspaper. Isa loses herself in a fantastic narrative. Miss La Trobe rewrites British history and her audience responds with confusion. But instead of taking its bad readers to task, Between the Acts reframes “bad” reading as a resource for ethical response and political resistance. Woolf’s “new plot” locates questions of ethical responsibility and political possibility in the creation and consumption of art. As readers, we, too, find ourselves caught up in the plots of the novel’s narrative modes: the play at the heart of the novel, but also histories of England, books, letters, and newspapers. Woolf’s exploration of multiple narrative modes reveals the ways that different forms enable different styles of attention and distraction, delimiting our capacity to respond ethically to the violence they convey. Between the Acts’ novel form suggests that resistance might require a willingness to be open to the ways that reading might unsettle conventional ways of seeing, hearing, and writing, a willingness to read otherwise. While we are reminded by the portentous formation of planes buzzing overhead that the novel’s title refers to acts of war, we are also located “between the acts” of violence and political response. The involuted structure and layered forms of the novel suggest Woolf’s anxiety about both art’s dependence on audience collaboration and an uneasiness about the capacity of art’s response to violence. Through its ominous refrains of violence, Between the Acts cultivates new ways of reading and an alternate grammar of resistance.