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Bare Lives
Part 4 – Repossessions and re-affectations

Ourselves’, Bare Life and the Lifeworld: Exposure as Communion and Repossession in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts

« Ourselves », la vie nue et le monde de la vie : Dénudement et enrichissement dans Between the Acts, de Virginia Woolf
Xavier Le Brun


L’analyse de la notion de dénudement dans la pensée de Giorgio Agamben, et en particulier dans L’Ouvert : De l’homme et de l’animal, sert de point de départ à cet article qui, après avoir avancé qu’un dénudement « positif » tout autant qu’un dénudement « négatif » peuvent être identifiés chez Agamben, se tournera vers l’ultime roman de Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts, afin de suggérer que Woolf y associe le dénudement, non pas au dénuement, mais bien à une forme d’enrichissement. En effet, la fiction de Woolf, tout comme la philosophie d’Agamben, fait du dénudement un préalable à l’accès de l’homme à son humanité, et cette dernière ne s’acquiert ainsi qu’au prix d’un dévoilement ou d’un dépouillement. Cependant, il nous faut aussi reconnaître une profonde originalité dans le traitement woolfien du dénudement, en cela absolument irréductible à une pensée philosophique « extérieure » au travail de l’écrivaine. Car dans Between the Acts, le processus de dénudement met au jour une humanité collective, voire intersubjective, bien différente de celle que, dans L’Ouvert, Agamben évoque, en termes heideggériens, comme une expérience essentiellement personnelle. À cet égard, la réalité collective dont Woolf met en scène le dénudement est à rapprocher du travail d’un autre penseur, à savoir Husserl, dont le concept de « monde de la vie », si là encore il ne doit pas servir de clé interprétative rigide pour lire Woolf, peut néanmoins aider à mieux entrapercevoir la spécificité de sa pratique littéraire.

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1The concept of ‘bare life’, which occupies a central position in Giorgio Agamben’s philosophy, is likely to evoke images of exposure as well as acute dispossession. With the emergence of the modern State and the subsequent systematisation of biopolitics, Agamben argues, the biological life of citizens was taken as ‘the supreme political (or rather impolitical) task’ (Agamben 76). The State now dealt with citizens not as reasonable beings but as mere bodies, as bare lives. With this reorientation of politics towards ‘the assumption of the burden—and the ‘total management’—of biological life’ (Agamben 77), individuals were dispossessed of their political identity; in Agamben’s terms, they were, and still are, reduced to their ‘very animality’ (Agamben 77). The bare life that is the principal object of modern politics is thus the result of an ontological dispossession: it is man deprived of his own humanity and exposed as a mere body, man as an animal.

2The process of ‘stripping down’ of man’s humanity entailed by bare life is not the only form of exposure Agamben deals with, however, nor is exposure always construed by him as negative. Indeed, in The Open: Man and Animal, a study on what Agamben refers to as ‘anthropogenesis’ (Agamben 68), or man’s realisation of his own humanity, the Italian philosopher argues that the human subject needs to be exposed as such. In other words, there needs to be an acknowledgment that man’s animality is but an aspect of his whole being and that man can rise above his initial condition as only a body, blindly and unreflexively engaged in life. Thus, exposure is dual: as the outcome of biopolitics it reduces the subject to bare life; as the tool of anthropogenesis, it awakens him to existence, to Heideggerian being-in-the-world.

  • 1 Although Agamben’s theorisation of ‘the open’ is explicitly grounded in the philosophy of Heidegger (...)
  • 2 Agamben here suggests that man’s humanity rests on his being first an animal—an assumption which di (...)
  • 3 If we follow Agamben’s line of argument, man’s acknowledgment of his own humanity only entails an e (...)

3But let us enquire more thoroughly into what could be viewed as Agamben’s ‘positive’ exposure and establish how man’s humanity is made to reveal itself. Agamben, taking his cue from Heidegger, sees boredom as the ‘metaphysical operator’ (Agamben 68) that allows the subject to see into his own humanity.1 Through boredom, man breaks free from life as a set of unquestioned certitudes and a series of ever renewed involvements because, with boredom, comes pure irresolution, and thus pure possibility. Because there is nothing to do, because the world won’t be put to use and refuses to disclose any intrinsic meaning or to yield itself to an articulate plan, because of all that, man’s blind entanglement with his universe is broken: he is no longer absorbed into a purpose, he has acquired the reflexivity that animals lack. In Agamben’s words, ‘Dasein is simply an animal that has learned to become bored; it has awakened from its own captivation to its own captivation. This awakening of the living being to its own being-captivated, this anxious and resolute opening to a not-open, is the human’ (Agamben 70).2 But, we may be tempted to ask, in what respect is this ‘awakening’, this ‘opening to a not-open’ a form of exposure? What is the human subject exposed to as he leaves his animality behind and is ushered into an entirely new sphere of being? If we speak of exposure here (while Agamben only indirectly does3), it is precisely because the intimation of pure possibility, which is the cornerstone of anthropogenesis, only comes at the price of the absence of any actual possibility: in boredom, possibility is ‘both present and perfectly inaccessible at the same time’ (Agamben 66) —I could choose to do anything, but only because nothing definite presents itself to me. As a result, to become human is to be ‘abandoned in emptiness’ (Agamben 64), it is to be left vulnerable and exposed to a ‘not-open’, to a blank world devoid of innate meaning.

4It is our belief that Agamben’s ‘positive’ exposure—the laying bare of man’s humanity—can allow us to make sense of various fictional representations of exposure and, in particular, of the peculiar game of masking and unmasking at the heart of Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, posthumously published in 1941. The fairly long prologue we devoted to Agamben’s philosophy will thus serve to anchor our reflection on Between the Acts and the particular form of exposure undergone by some of its characters. Just as in The Open, exposure, in Woolf’s final work, is equated not with dispossession but with repossession: it aims at making individuals aware of their own humanity, and thus at reconnecting them with an essential part of their existence. The parallel between Agamben and Woolf is not without its own limits, however, as the vision of humanity found in Between the Acts is essentially communal: to be human is to be part of larger whole, of a community or a civilisation, not ‘simply’ to experience pure possibility in the solitude and isolation of one’s own mind. And as we intend to show, Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology and Woolf’s contemporary, may well be closer to the communal humanity found in Between the Acts than either Agamben or Heidegger.

5By suggesting that the characters in Woolf’s last novel are exposed to their shared humanity we are building on a set of firmly rooted critical assumptions about Between the Acts—namely that the novel portrays a community in the making and that this community-fashioning is intimately tied to the pageant at the heart of the novel. According to Joshua Esty, Between the Acts has to do with ‘the problem of rendering the community’s meaning to the community itself, of performing a scene of home anthropology’ (Esty 262). For Woolf, however, such a process is not tied to a monological vision of community, and the nationalistic consensus that could ensue is methodically debunked. David McWhirter is thus able to point to different visions and interpretations of society that are contrasted in Between the Acts (McWhirter 802–803), while Isabel Andrés employs the category of the ‘carnivalesque’ to analyse the novel. As for Michele Pridmore-Brown she observes that the process of intersubjective unification in the novel is mediated by forms of interpretative resistance to the content and the production of the pageant, so that ‘unity includes multiplicity, and […] implies a genuine wrestling with meaning and a critical, reflexive relation to practices of domination’ (Pridmore-Brown 418). As most critics recognise, and as the megaphone in the novel famously blares out, ‘unity’ thus comes at the price of ‘dispersity’ (Woolf 181), which is to say that ‘[c]ollectivity is asserted through everybody’s acknowledgment of their own separation and difference’ (Benziman 69). Consequently, ‘much of the ‘harmony’ of the novel lies in the collectivity of its disparate points of view’ (Balkin 449), and, as Katharine Swarbrick contends, wholeness in Between the Acts is irremediably conditioned to fragmentation.

  • 4 It seems that Woolf has never been studied through the lens of Agamben’s philosophy, although Woolf (...)

6Where our interpretation departs from previous analyses, however, is in its reliance on the thought of two philosophers rarely called upon in the context of Woolfian studies, Agamben and Husserl4. As we aim to demonstrate with the help of these authors, community formation in Between the Acts can primarily be conceived of as cultural anthropogenesis—as becoming human together, and through exposure.

7Although it would be hard to describe Between the Acts as having a ‘plot’ in the traditional sense of the term—‘Don’t bother about the plot: the plot’s nothing’, Isa considers during the course of the novel (Woolf 82)—it can be said to revolve around a country pageant, a play within the novel, performed on the terrace of Pointz Hall, the Olivers’ country-house, and whose different acts all depict various stages in the history of England, from the Elizabethan times to the late 1930s, when Between the Acts is set. The actors of the pageant are all untrained amateurs, local villagers shepherded by the authoritarian playwright and director Miss La Trobe. The lack of formal training among the actors is the pretext for a continuous play on suspension of disbelief and its undermining: because actors often forget their lines, because their words are blown away by the wind (Woolf 124–125), or simply because the audience recognises them as ‘Hilda, the carpenter’s daughter’ (Woolf 73), ‘Millie Loder (shop assistant at Messrs Hunt and Dicksons, drapery emporium)’ (Woolf 121), or ‘Mrs Otter, I think, from the End House; but she’s wonderfully made up’ (Woolf 113)—because of these and numerous other loopholes and flaws in the theatrical illusion, the fictional world of the play is never entirely accepted by the audience and disbelief is permanent. Even when spectators do not immediately recognise an actor as one of their relatives or acquaintances, the narrative voice is sure to provide his or her name and occupation, as when ‘Budge the publican’ appears onstage, ‘but so disguised that even cronies who drank with him nightly failed to recognize him’ (Woolf 144).

8By insisting on the discrepancy between the pageant and its reception, between the world of the play and the acting that fails to shape it out in an entirely convincing manner, Woolf suggests that, whether in fiction or in life, onstage or offstage, individuals are responsible for the world they contribute to construct—that stories or events do not simply unfold by themselves but are continually woven by all those who take part in them. This is made evident in the novel through the numerous parallels between acting and living, as when Mrs Swithin is said to look ‘like a tragic figure from another play’ (Woolf 193), or when, in the last scene, Giles and Isa are made to appear as two actors in the drama of everyday life (Woolf 197).

9But let us come back to exposure as such in Between the Acts. Because the identity of the actors transpires through the parts they play, their true selves are continuously exposed to the public gaze; instead of fictional characters, they are revealed to be real individuals. The stage itself only very distantly stands for the locations of the different acts, so much so that it contributes to disbelief instead of smoothing out its effects. As a result, the spectators of the pageant are faced with a form of cognitive dissonance: watching people they know perform onstage, they are asked to reconcile two conflicting identities in the same body. Early into the first act, for example, the actress playing Queen Elizabeth steps onstage:

10From behind the bushes issued Queen Elizabeth—Eliza Clark, licensed to sell tobacco. Could she be Mrs Clark of the village shop? She was splendidly made up […] She looked the age in person. And when she mounted the soap box in the centre, representing perhaps a rock in the ocean, her size made her appear gigantic. She could reach a flitch of bacon or haul a tub of oil with one sweep of her arm in the shop. For a moment she stood there, eminent, dominant, on the soap box with the blue and sailing clouds behind her. (Woolf 76)

11On the one hand, there is Eliza, on the other there is Queen Elizabeth; two distinct realities coincide in one person, and the proximity between them is highlighted by the onomastics—Eliza being, of course, a diminutive for Elizabeth. Consequently, the queen is never only the queen, and as she mounts the soap box that is also a rock in the middle of the ocean, the audience cannot help but see the lady who manipulates bacon and oil tubs in her shop. More precisely, they cannot help but see Eliza Clark being Queen Elizabeth, or Queen Elizabeth exposed as Eliza Clark, so that when the queen is described as ‘eminent’ and ‘dominant’ on her soap box, these qualities (that could be attributed both to a queen and to a strong and sturdy shopkeeper) are neither hers nor Eliza’s, they are attached to a hybrid being, to Eliza-as-Elizabeth.

12The case is all the more intriguing when there is but a very little distance between the actor and the character he or she plays, for instance when Albert, ‘the village idiot’, appears onstage, apparently impersonating no one but himself: ‘There was no need to dress him up. There he came, acting his part to perfection’ (Woolf 78). Simply being onstage thus has the effect of duplicating one’s personality, of creating a two-headed being who is always someone else than himself or herself. Thus, when the audience lay their eyes on Mabel Hopkins, whose part cannot be determined only from her costume and general appearance, their primary concern is to determine who else she is, whom she impersonates: ‘Eyes fed on her as fish rise to a crumb of bread on the water. Who was she? What did she represent? […] She carried a sceptre and a little round orb. England was she? Queen Anne was she?’ (Woolf 110). Mabel and her part coexist in one body, even if the nature of this part cannot be determined at first. The actors thus tend to ‘colonise’ the characters they play and who have no independent lives of their own.

13Sometimes, however, exposure works the other way round and the fictional characters seem to replace the actors—for instance when, at the end of the second act, the comedians bow and leave the stage while still being referred to by the narrative voice as the characters they played: ‘The scene ended. Reason descended from her plinth. Gathering her robes about her, serenely acknowledging the applause of the audience, she passed across the stage; while Lords and Ladies in stars and garters followed after; Sir Spaniel limping escorted Lady Harraden smirking; and Valentine and Flavinda arm in arm bowed and curtsied’ (Woolf 133). Sir Spaniel and Lady Harraden, Valentine and Flavinda, and even the allegory of Reason—they all seem to have left the world of the pageant to step into reality. However, this device still serves to expose the fictionality of the play: if these characters come to inhabit the real world instead of the Restauration comedy they seem to have emerged from, it is because there never was anything else than the real world in the first place, and Flavinda, Valentine and the others were always merely actors onstage.

14Interestingly enough, Woolf thus locates the division between comedian and character within the body of the actor, just as, in The Open, Agamben locates the division between man and animal, not along the lines that separate species, but within man himself. Man is an animal that becomes human, an original lifeform that combines both modes of being—while in Between the Acts the villagers performing on the Olivers’ terrace similarly accept to lend their bodies to a new entity, to a fictional being. The fault line that divides Eliza Clark and Queen Elizabeth, or Mabel Hopkins and the allegory of Reason, runs right through them: it is the distinction between fiction and reality, between acting and being. But, we may wonder, is there a recognition of man’s humanity here, just as there is in Agamben? Is acting a way to rise above bare life and an opening onto something else? Apparently, what Woolf does is to insist on how the bodily and social existence of individuals is exposed and shows through the parts they play as actors, so that what is made manifest is not exactly man’s humanity, but merely man’s physical presence. However, by exposing the actors under the characters, Woolf indirectly lays stress on man’s ability to play a role, to be someone else; she foregrounds the realm of pure possibility that art and imagination open up for him. Although the villagers onstage do not explicitly adopt a reflexive gaze on their own status as human beings, their adoption of new identities rests on the premise that the body does not represent the sum of one’s existence but only lends itself to another, more elaborate form of life. Moreover, exposure, in Woolf, is an integral part of a communal anthropogenesis, of a process of becoming human as a group. For it is only by being exposed in its turn that the audience of the pageant will be made to bond with the actors onstage and to understand its place as part of a human community.

  • 5 Christian Biet and Christophe Triau observe that Brecht’s non-Aristotelian drama favours effects of (...)

15Indeed, what the enigmatic Miss La Trobe is hoping to achieve in the last act of the pageant, entitled ‘Ourselves’, is to force the public into a recognition of its involvement in the theatrical performance, of its existence as a community united by cultural practices and meaning-making activities. The strategy she adopts consists in disturbing the passive reception of the play and making participants reflexively aware of their role. Whereas Agamben, following Heidegger, saw boredom as the gateway into ‘the open’—into pure possibility and the accompanying realisation of one’s own humanity—the path that Woolf’s fictional playwright favours for its audience is a slightly harsher one. Indeed, Miss La Trobe certainly does not intend to bore her public out of its docile acceptation of the play; rather, she relies on aggressive tactics so as to achieve a genuine ‘distancing effect’, not unlike that theorised by Bertolt Brecht5.

16Thus, when ‘Ourselves’ is supposed to begin, the stage is left empty. The aim is to unsettle the spectators, to make them feel self-conscious and, precisely, exposed: ‘All their nerves were on edge. They sat exposed […] They were suspended, without being, in limbo’ (Woolf 159, emphasis added). ‘Miss La Trobe stood there with her eyes on her script. “After Vic.” [the Victorian age, third act in the play] she had written, “try ten mins. of present time. Swallows, cows, etc.” She wanted to expose them, as it were, to douche them, with present-time reality’ (Woolf 161, emphasis added). With boredom, existence, in all its bareness, comes to the surface. Here Miss La Trobe also intends to make existence manifest, although this revelation is prompted by a more distressing form of indecision: existence, ‘present-time reality’ as Miss La Trobe refers to it on her script, is to be forced onto the audience. Just as boredom prevents one from being absorbed into everyday concerns, the discontinuity in the pageant, its opening onto the outside reality, fosters uncertainty among the audience as to the role they are to play. In both cases, the lack of any actual possibility, of anything to be absorbed into, is what allows possibility as such to be approached and potentially comprehended.

17The fostering of indecision, however, only corresponds to the first stage in La Trobe’s plan to estrange the public from the pageant, and the playwright then proceeds with a methodical unhinging of the state of mind of the audience. A dissonant tune is first played through a gramophone, as if to purposefully unnerve the crowd. Reactions among the audience are transcribed by the narrative voice in a form of collective discourse, a ‘fusion of anonymous voices’, as Galia Benziman puts it (Benziman 68): ‘What a cackle, in a cacophony! Nothing ended. So abrupt. And corrupt. Such an outrage; such an insult; And not plain. Very up to date, all the same. What is her game? To disrupt? Jog and trot? Jerk and smirk? Put the finger to the nose? Squint and pry? Peak and spy?’ (Woolf 164). The intention is indeed to disrupt, to defamiliarise. The common course of action, in which the process of living is left unquestioned, must be diverted, so that the reactions of the spectators can become the real subject of the pageant. Exposure is the answer, but no longer metaphorical exposure: literal exposure is what ‘Ourselves’ is really about. Indeed, the last act of the pageant sees the actors all coming up onstage carrying mirrors to reflect its own image to the crowd. The fourth wall is shattered, the audience is exposed, and this process is a painful one:

The hands of the clock had stopped at the present moment. It was now. Ourselves.
So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and now. All shifted, preened, minced; hands were raised, legs shifted. Even Bart, even Lucy, turned away. (Woolf 167)

18Exposure is felt as a form of aggression because it is left unexplained: there is no apparent reason for the strange display of mirrors onstage. Moreover, these mirrors only reflect isolated and moving fragments of the public, so that bodies are symbolically severed and the process of exposition takes a most displeasing turn: ‘Here a nose… There a skirt… Then trousers only… Now perhaps a face… Ourselves? But that’s cruel. To snap us as we are, before we’ve had time to assume… And only, too, in parts… That’s what so distorting and upsetting and utterly unfair’ (Woolf 165).

  • 6 ‘L’émancipation […] commence quand on remet en question l’opposition entre regarder et agir, quand (...)

19The play has reached its ultimate disruption; its audience is forced to acknowledge its own presence as the only relevant object of artistic representation. As before with the actors, physical exposure leads to ontological exposure. But bare existence is not the only thing that the audience is asked to acknowledge; they are meant to recognise themselves as a community, as part of a civilisation. At least, that’s the message blared out by the voice in the megaphone accompanying the show of mirrors onstage: ‘Look at ourselves, ladies and gentlemen! Then at the wall; and ask how’s this wall, the great wall, which we call, perhaps miscall, civilization, to be built by (here the mirrors flicked and flashed) orts, scraps and fragments like ourselves?’ (Woolf 169). Although the ultimate meaning of the pageant remains enigmatic for most among the audience even after its conclusion and its subsequent interpretation by the Rev. Streatfield, the voice in the megaphone indeed offers a form of motivation for the exposure inflicted on the spectators of ‘Ourselves’: their reflected image is meant to initiate a corresponding reflection in their minds, and they are to take stock of their role within the community they form with one another as well as with the actors. In other words, by becoming active participants in the play, spectators are made to understand that they are never only spectators, that society and civilisation, just like the pageant, are collective creations. Given the coercive nature of this revelation, La Trobe’s public could hardly be compared to Jacques Rancière’s ‘emancipated spectator’—a spectator who is not caught in an asymmetrical relation with a playwright or director, who is not made to be active, but whose seemingly passive gaze is instead recognised as a power in itself, as a form of engagement with the play that is always already active6. La Trobe exposes the audience instead of recognising its autonomy. Such exposure, however, is meant to have emancipatory effects.

20Indeed, as we suggested earlier, exposure—in Between the Acts as in Agamben—is not only synonymous with dispossession, it can also mean repossession. Although Miss La Trobe’s play is for the most part a failure—since its significance ultimately eludes most of those who attend the pageant—its purpose is indeed to reconnect the audience with an essential dimension of life, with a collective and cultural existence it generally tends to take for granted. In this respect, La Trobe’s endeavour is rewarded by at least one moment of perfect unity and transpersonal bonding within the spectators: ‘Compelled from the ends of the horizon; recalled from the edge of appalling crevasses; they crashed; solved; united. And some relaxed their fingers; and others uncrossed their legs’ (Woolf 170). Exposure, in Woolf’s last novel, is the dramatic technique through which the audience is allowed to seize back its essence as Heideggerian being-in-the-world, but also its communal identity, its shared reality. Humanity here is not solely the realm of pure possibility Agamben describes in The Open, it is a monument built in common, a wall such as the one the voice in the megaphone evokes. Woolf’s exposure is thus distinct from Agamben’s, as in Between the Acts the accent falls less on individual existence than on intersubjectivity. For this reason, it is worth turning to another philosopher, Edmund Husserl, so as to shed a different light on Woolf’s own idea of humanity and of how it comes to be exposed. Indeed, Husserl’s concept of the lifeworld, developed in the phenomenologist’s last work, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936), may well contribute to highlight the specificity of Woolf’s vision.

21Husserl’s project, in The Crisis of European Sciences, is to prove that the developments of science since the Renaissance deeply altered the way in which we conceive of our immediate world: positivism in science, he argues, has turned the world into a mathematical object (Husserl 23), alien to our own subjective experience of it. In other words, the world which since Galileo is commonly accepted and which admittedly is the only reality—that is, the world as represented by science—is an abstract model cut off from actual human perception. According to Husserl: ‘All the discoveries of the old as well as the new physics are discoveries in the formula-world which is coordinated, so to speak, with nature’ (Husserl 48). The world we do sense, the one which does enter into our experience, and which actually forms the background of that experience, Husserl calls the Lebenswelt, or the lifeworld, ‘i.e., the world of sense-experience constantly pregiven as taken for granted unquestioningly and all the life of thought which is nourished by it’ (Husserl 76). The problem, for Husserl, and the reason why sciences, according to him, were experiencing a crisis at the beginning of the 20th century, is that, although scientific truths are rooted in the physiologically and culturally shared foundation of the lifeworld, although the lifeworld is ‘the cognitive ground of all hitherto existing sciences’ (Husserl 76), these sciences do not in return recognise it as the soil from which they sprung. Sciences Husserl tells us, in many ways take part in the subjective reality of daily life: experiments are conducted by human beings writing down results on sheets of paper; conclusions and hypotheses are passed on to a scientific community made of very real persons (Husserl 121). The mathematical results thus obtained however, because they are concerned with a stable world of absolute objectivity, are oblivious of the lived context in which they were produced and continue to be shared. Science originates itself in the lifeworld but does not take it into account or even acknowledge it: its subjectivity is to be ‘overcome’ (Husserl 126). More than that: according to Husserl, scientific truths substitute themselves in our minds to the lived reality we experience so that the lifeworld, from the Renaissance onwards, is progressively obliterated by a set of abstract models which are ultimately foreign to our senses. A process the phenomenologist refers to as ‘the surreptitious substitution of the mathematically substructed world of idealities for the only real world, the one that is actually given through perception, that is ever experienced and experienceable—our everyday life-world.’ (Husserl 48–49).

22But how is this lifeworld—this subjective realm of the senses and of intuition—relevant to the reality Woolf describes in Between the Acts? In fact, the characters in the novel are constantly shown to be integrating objective or theorised accounts of reality into their own intuitive understanding of the world. In other words, they displace objective models to reinstate them within a lived reality. This is perfectly consistent with Husserl’s thought, since according to him, although the discourse of science does not take the lifeworld into account, the latter ultimately encompasses all scientific truths. Any mathematical result or physical theory must indeed be read about and conceived of within the pre-scientific lifeworld, as when Woolf’s Mrs Swithin is enthralled by her reading of H. G. Wells’ The Outline of History:

she had stretched for her favourite reading—an Outline of History—and had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.
It took her five seconds in actual time, in mind time ever so much longer, to separate Grace herself, with blue china on a tray, from the leather-covered grunting monster who was about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree in the green steaming undergrowth of the primeval forest. (Woolf 8)

23The (already) vulgarised account of prehistory Mrs Swithin reads about in her book is not transparently received by her as a set of factual truths, it is reinterpreted and made into a subjective representation of prehistory. This distortion—betrayed by repeated interpolations such as ‘she understood’ or ‘she supposed’—is evident in the series of adjectives applied to Mrs Swithin’s fantasised monster, and which start with ‘elephant-bodied’ only to culminate in the slightly ridiculous and anticlimactic ‘barking’. The historical account of dinosaurs is reshaped and transformed as an individual appropriates it. The subsequent confusion between Grace and a prehistoric beast further strengthens this sense of a subjective appropriation of ‘objective’ accounts of reality, and shows that Woolf undoubtedly sets her narrative on the terrain of the lifeworld. The collective bonding Miss La Trobe calls for in her pageant—and especially in its last act, ‘Ourselves’—is inscribed in just such a lifeworld: it is an intuitive and pre-rational sense of belonging to a whole. Humanity as a collective endeavour.

24But our point here is not merely that Woolf, in Between the Acts, is engaged in representing a cultural and communal humanity which bears a strong resemblance to Husserl’s lifeworld. Our point is that the wall of civilisation which we all contribute to erect—what, in the end, is simply termed ‘Ourselves’ in Woolf’s novel—has to be uncovered, or rather exposed, just as the lifeworld has to be exposed. Indeed, as we already mentioned, Husserl sees the scientific representation of the world as having progressively masked the original reality of the lifeworld; as a result, the lifeworld is now obscured by theories and models, it is dressed in a ‘garb of ideas’: ‘Mathematics and mathematical science, as a garb of ideas […] encompasses everything which, for scientists and the educated generally, represents the life-world, dresses it up as “objectively actual and true” nature’ (Husserl 51). Thus, Galileo ‘is at once a discovering and a concealing genius’ (Husserl 52) and the mathematisation of nature that started with him is defined by Husserl as ‘discovery-concealment’ (Husserl 53). At the same time as the method of modern science is born, the intuitive reality of the lifeworld is lost touch with. The answer to this concealment is the famous epochē, or ‘bracketing’ of objective science: ‘In short, we carry out an epochē in regard to all objective theoretical interests, all aims and activities belonging to us as objective scientists or even simply as [ordinary] people desirous of [this kind of] knowledge’ (Husserl 135). The epochē, because it makes manifest again pre-scientific life by putting out of play all objective and theoretical representations of the world, can be conceived of as a genuine instrument of exposure.

25Assuredly, no such phenomenological epochē is carried on in Between the Acts, strictly speaking. However, Miss La Trobe’s exposure of the audience through the display of mirrors onstage also aims at making manifest a whole aspect of existence that is often taken for granted or even ignored: the involvement of each individual in collective practices and their responsibility in making sense of the world through history and culture, through performance and interpretation. ‘Ourselves’ is meant to expose such an intersubjective lifeworld: its purpose is to allow for a communal anthropogenesis. Exposure thus allows for unity and communion; it allows, in fact, for repossession since, in Between the Acts as well as in Agamben or Husserl, it is the essential means through which humanity comes to define itself and regain its own identity.

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Agamben, Giorgio, The Open: Man and Animal (2002), trans. Kevin Attell, Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004.

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1 Although Agamben’s theorisation of ‘the open’ is explicitly grounded in the philosophy of Heidegger, it should be noted that their conclusions do not entirely overlap. As Leland de la Durantaye observes, ‘[f]or Heidegger, “the open” […] is the space revealed to us in the moment when the world we live in, which because of our many tasks and travails we tend to take no distance from (like animals with their stimuli), opens out onto something larger. This moment of distancing ourselves from our everyday concern with means and ends, with stimuli and response, is what gives us not just an environment, but a “world”’ (de la Durantaye 4). On the other hand, ‘[t]he openness that interests Agamben is […] a special sort of inactivity, which he uses another strange substantive to denote—the French term désoeuvrement (“inoperativity”; inoperosità)’ (de la Durantaye 6). ‘The openness in question is the open vocation of man, the freedom to refuse to accept the demands of a state which Agamben sees as ever seeking to identify, to isolate, and to control’ (de la Durantaye 8-9).

2 Agamben here suggests that man’s humanity rests on his being first an animal—an assumption which differs widely from Heidegger’s conception of a strict division between man and animal, as Tracy Colony carefully demonstrates.

3 If we follow Agamben’s line of argument, man’s acknowledgment of his own humanity only entails an exposure inasmuch as it parallels the animal’s own exposure to a world it does not look at for itself but only submits itself to according to its instinct: ‘In becoming bored, Dasein is delivered over (ausgeliefert) to something that refuses itself, exactly as the animal, in its captivation, is exposed (hinausgesetzt) in something unrevealed. In being left empty by profound boredom, something vibrates like an echo of that “essential disruption” that arises in the animal from its being exposed and taken in an “other” that is, however, never revealed to it as such’ (Agamben 65). This parallel between animal captivation and the experience of profound boredom, however, is shown by Tracy Colony to rest on a misreading of Heidegger’s argument (Colony 4–5).

4 It seems that Woolf has never been studied through the lens of Agamben’s philosophy, although Woolf’s fiction and Heidegger’s thought have sometimes been related, in particular in studies by Heidi Storl and A. O. Frank. As for Edmund Husserl, he is seldom mentioned in relation to Woolf—Merleau-Ponty’s own vision of phenomenology being often seen as more compatible with Woolfian concerns and textual practices (see for instance Laura Doyle, Louise Westling and Naomi Toth). In this respect, Ralph Strehle’s article about time in Woolf and Husserl stands out as a rare exception.

5 Christian Biet and Christophe Triau observe that Brecht’s non-Aristotelian drama favours effects of juxtaposition, interruption and discontinuity (Biet and Triau 254–255)—all these being also part of La Trobe’s attempt at disrupting the relation between the audience and the pageant. In both cases the aim is similar: to prevent the spectator from slavishly accepting what takes place onstage, and instead making him or her aware of his or her responsibility in shaping the collective reality. Rather than comparing La Trobe’s play to Brechtian drama, Kathleen Wall notes its recourse to parabasis, a strategy typical of Greek comedy which allows the whimsical playwright portrayed by Woolf to directly engage with the audience and reflect its own image back to it.

6 ‘L’émancipation […] commence quand on remet en question l’opposition entre regarder et agir, quand on comprend que les évidences qui structurent ainsi les rapports du dire, du voir et du faire appartiennent elles-mêmes à la structure de la domination et de la sujétion. Elle commence quand on comprend que regarder est aussi une action qui confirme ou transforme cette distribution des positions. Le spectateur aussi agit, comme l’élève ou le savant. Il observe, il sélectionne, il compare, il interprète. Il lie ce qu’il voit à bien d’autres choses qu’il a vues sur d’autres scènes, en d’autres sortes de lieux. Il compose son propre poème avec les éléments du poème en face de lui’ (Rancière 19).

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Xavier Le Brun, « Ourselves’, Bare Life and the Lifeworld: Exposure as Communion and Repossession in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Xavier Le Brun

A former student of the École normale supérieure de Lyon, Xavier Le Brun is currently working on a doctoral thesis (‘L’idée de monde de la vie et la représentation du réel dans la fiction tardive de Virginia Woolf’) under the supervision of Christine Reynier at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, where he also takes part in the research activities of EMMA (Études Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone). His research interests include the notion of mimesis in the modernist context, and particularly in Virginia Woolf’s work, as well as the interactions between literature and philosophy.

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