Virginia Woolf calls every woman to join a society that is separate from the society in which men operate – the Outsiders’ Society. She says that we cannot operate within the society of men, because there is “something in the conglomeration of people into societies that releases what is most selfish and violent, least rational and humane in the individuals…” (124). The Outsiders’ Society, Woolf states, is “the kind of society which the daughters of educated men might found and join outside your society but in co-operation with its ends” (126). She indicates that there is power in being outside of the insiders’ society: “the power to change and the power to grow… can only be preserved by obscurity…” (135). Existing and working in this Outsiders’ Society will give women power by obscuring them and separating them from the “limelight which paralyzes the free action of the human faculties and inhibits the human power to change and create…” (135). Virginia Woolf believes that being outside of men’s society will “shroud” women “in darkness.”
Last semester I took a course entitled “Reading Popular Culture: Freaks” with Suzanne Schneider, in which we discussed at length what it means to me marginal and why people in the so-called “Outsiders’ Society” are put there in the first place. The idea of existing outside of society according to what we discussed in Freaks is very different from what Virginia Woolf seems to think about being an “outsider.”
We spoke at length about the concept of “the gaze,” which our class has touched upon briefly this semester. The idea that the people on the outside, women in particular, are subject to the “gaze” of the insider, was taken a step further by using Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon . The Panopticon is essentially a blueprint for a circular prison, in which all the prisoners are in cells around the outside and in the middle stands a guard tower that can see into every cell almost simultaneously. The guard tower is designed such that the prisoners cannot see into it, making it impossible for them to tell whether or not they are being watched - this could allow the guards to hardly be watching the prisoners at all, for the fear that someone might be watching would be strong enough to keep the prisoners from gaining power. This was used throughout the class to describe the way in which freaks or outsiders are constantly under surveillance, or subject to the gaze. In this way, Woolf’s “obscurity” isn’t possible if we exist outside of society, for outsiders are always under surveillance by the insiders. Instead of being “shrouded in darkness,” women would be under the very “limelight” that Woolf says is so stunting to growth.
However, we also discussed with Professor Schneider how there is a certain invisibility to being hyper-visible. To extend the Panopticon metaphor, if the guards in the tower were so certain of their prisoners’ fear of being watched that they no longer stood guard over them, and if the prisoners discover this possibility and power, then they would become invisible. The guards would assume the prisoners' security and no one would be watching the prisoners any longer. This is the only way in which Woolf’s ideal of “obscurity” would be possible – invisibility through hyper-visibility.
Another theme we discussed at length in Freaks class was the idea that insiders used freaks, or outsiders, to solidify their insider status.
“Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.” – Toni Morrison, “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” (52)
If one replaces the term “Africanism” and “American” with “outsideness” and “insider,” then this Toni Morrison quote we discussed in Freaks class can be used to describe further problems that Virginia Woolf’s Outsiders’ Society would face. We often discussed in class how “normal” people would make the freak look or seem more freakish in order to make themselves look more “normal” in comparison. This can apply to any marginalized group, including the women joining this Outsiders’ Society.
However, creating a society in which everyone is free of the constraints of the social constructs of the Insiders’ Society can potentially lessen the effects that the Insiders’ Society has on the marginalized group. As discussed in Freaks class, the Freak Show was a type of “queer space” that existed outside of the “normal” world, where all “abnormalities” were no longer labeled as such. It is just this “queer space” in which Woolf wants the daughters of educated men to exist – where they are free from men’s intellectual and societal influence, and where they can be equal without having to become men.
Virginia Woolf’s invitation into the Outsiders’ Society has it problems. However, I think that the Freaks class would encourage the educated men’s daughters to “claim” their freakishness or marginality, and use their hyper-visibility and outsider status to change the definition of outside and inside, and ultimately break down the boundaries and the need for labels. If Freaks class was the recipient of Woolf’s invitation, it would tell her “We’re already in the Outsiders’ Society!” and would neither try to fit in with the insiders nor marginalize itself as an outsider, but work to take down the barriers surrounding the guard tower of the Panopticon and ultimately destroy its power over the outsiders.