Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life.
In recent years, modernist studies has privileged historicist approaches and sidelined the poststructuralist readings that reached their apogee in the '80s and early '90s. While acknowledging the limitations of deconstructive analyses and affirming the critical turn towards deep archival engagement, Derek Ryan revitalizes theoretical approaches to reading modernist literature in Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory. Specifically, Ryan considers Woolf's oeuvre in relationship to current critical debates that have advanced robust theories of materiality. As Ryan argues, Woolf's writings anticipate the "new materialisms" of contemporary theory, as they unfailingly foreground the multifaceted entanglements of "human and nonhuman, embodiment and environment, culture and nature, life and matter" (3). By examining Woolf's theorization of materiality and materialization of theory, Ryan argues, we might not only contribute to contemporary theoretical conversations, but also underscore the indebtedness of contemporary theory to modernist literature.
The interventions of Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory are threefold. First, Ryan shows how Woolf elaborates and extends theoretical concepts ranging from Karen Barad's "agential realism" to Rosi Braidotti's "nomadic subject" to Jane Bennett's "vital materialism." The common influence upon these theorists and the prevailing interpretative framework of Ryan's study is Deleuzian, however. As Ryan explores how Woolf anticipates Deleuzian ideas in imaginative writing, he further highlights how Woolf's writing was actually generative of concepts such as "becoming" and "haecceity," drawing attention to Deleuze's frequent citations of Woolf. Second, Ryan strives to discredit the perceived opposition between historical and theoretical literary readings. While certainly Ryan's analysis of Woolf's theory of materiality would seem complementary to historicist approaches, Ryan fails to deliver fully on this second promise, as historical contexts remain somewhat underdeveloped in this study. Put differently, Ryan much more successfully demonstrates Woolf's theorization of materiality than the materialization of Woolf's theory. Still, in foregrounding Woolf's engagement with the nonhuman world and eschewing the humancentered analyses more prominent in Woolf scholarship--the third major aim of the study--Ryan contributes rich and timely readings.
The first chapter of the book elegantly troubles the distinction between "the cultural" and "the material," articulating the foundational theoretical intervention that subsequent chapters will elaborate with greater complexity. The unencumbered approach to this chapter is particularly gratifying, and throws into greater relief Ryan's intimate familiarity with Woolf's work. Beginning with the 1927 essay, "The New Biography," in which "granite" and "rainbow" appear to stand for the constituent and somewhat irreconcilable elements of truth and fiction, Ryan proceeds to carry out a "creative cartography" of Woolf's disparate usages of these terms across the expanse of her writings. While critics have argued that Woolf ultimately dismantles the strict opposition between "truth" and "fiction" that "The New Biography" would appear to present, Ryan usefully highlights how Woolf more foundationally destabilizes the meanings of "granite" and "rainbow" themselves. If Woolf's conceptualization of biography ultimately disrupts the binary of "truth" and "fiction," this is because Woolf configures granite-like fact and hard granite itself as changeable, while she casts rainbow-like fictions and rainbows themselves as material phenomena. To invoke Ryan's memorable phrasing, when Woolf is digging granite, she is simultaneously chasing rainbows.
In the second and third chapters, Ryan turns to questions of sexual difference and desire. Chapter two considers Woolf's theory of androgyny in A Room of One's Own alongside Rosi Braidotti's nomadic model of sexual difference. Like Braidotti, Ryan argues, Woolf emphasizes the differences between women and the differences within women. Yet in Ryan's assessment, Woolf's imagining of the androgynous subject ultimately extends Braidotti's concept of the nomadic subject, as Woolf challenges the fundamental difference between women and men, which Braidotti conversely maintains. In making this argument, however, Ryan fails to observe that Braidotti's emphasis upon this "first level" of sexual difference is bound up with her attention to embodiment. Thus if Woolf's stretches Braidotti's thinking as Ryan describes, she might simultaneously be said to slacken her engagement with the materiality of the body. Without addressing this difficulty, Ryan proceeds to invoke Deleuze and Guattari's notion of "becoming minoritarian" to read To the Lighthouse as a contestation of molar identities. Here, Ryan argues that Woolf's representation of "tri-subjectivities" disputes the primacy of the Oedipal triangle to show the productive formation of characters in relationship to nonhuman entities and environments. While Woolf's affirmation of molecular existence over molar identity is convincingly argued, at times Ryan's textual readings strain to conflate Deleuzian tropes and Woolfian representations: to take one example, Ryan ascribes a rhizomatic meaning to the lawn shared by Lily Briscoe and Mr. Carmichael, ironically contradicting a rhizomatic reading practice through a somewhat flattening application of theory. The third chapter, by contrast, advances a much more nuanced reading of Orlando. Beyond destabilizing sexual identity, Ryan argues, Orlando presents a Braidottian model of desire as an embodied material reality. Further, the representation of sexual desire in Orlando exceeds human subjects and entangles the nonhuman world. Accordingly, Ryan attends to representations of nonhuman objects that mediate desire, such as the rings that Shelmerdine and Orlando exchange, as well as the molecular nature of historical events. Whereas other critics have argued that Woolf disputes sexology's reduction of lesbian desire to bodily hardwiring in Orlando, Ryan refreshingly highlights how Woolf configures sexuality as materially embodied and materiality as something more creative than constraining. In fact, what is "queer" about Orlando, in Ryan's analysis, is precisely the qualitative and generative multiplicity of human and nonhuman bodies.
The fourth and fifth chapters of the book push beyond the purview of human objects of analysis. The fourth chapter engages the question of the animal in Flush, but arguably, Ryan fails to consider the specificity of animal life both in itself and in Woolf's representation of it. Sidelining the critical debate over the potentials and pitfalls of anthropocentrism, Ryan argues that Woolf is centrally preoccupied with molecular entanglements across species' lines in Flush, not "Oedipal animals" in their "molar form." Yet Ryan's disputation of the statist or psychoanalytic human subject leaves little room for reflection on the ethical subject, whether human or non-human, and thus Ryan's brief meditation on the representation of animal suffering in Flush falls flat. Of course, this is not a necessary consequence of the contestation of "the human," as recent work in animal studies scholarship would attest. Interestingly, Ryan even acknowledges Donna Haraway's well-known indictment of Deleuze and Guattari's theory of becoming-animal for its indifference to actual animals. However, Ryan never provides a satisfying rebuttal to Haraway, oddly accusing Haraway of an ad hominem attack in advancing as much: "If Haraway is engaged in a mud dance with her dogs, the problem, perhaps, is that she is also throwing mud" (152). In treating the question of the animal, in particular, Ryan might have benefitted from less loyalty to the Deleuzian paradigm and deeper engagement with conversations in critical animal studies. In the fifth chapter, Ryan argues that The Waves advances something like Karen Barad's idea of "agential realism," which posits that agency belongs neither to subjects nor objects but rather emerges within natural-cultural intra-actions. Ryan further suggests that Woolf anticipates Jane Bennett's "vital materialism" in showing how even nonliving matter and inanimate objects are constitutive of Deleuzian haecceities: creative events formed of non-subjective affects. In elaborating the arguments of this chapter, Ryan situates Woolf's writings in relationship to twentieth century developments in quantum physics. Although in so doing he borrows heavily from existing Woolf scholarship on the topic, Ryan thereby more centrally engages the materialization of Woolf's theory here than anywhere else in the book. This chapter often fails to register the material heterogeneity that Ryan ostensibly espouses, however. Interestingly, Ryan actually raises this theoretical difficulty: how does one dismantle hierarchies of being while maintaining the heterogeneity of existence? This is an exceedingly rich question, and one that Ryan might have productively engaged in a more sustained and unsettled manner, both in relationship to animal life and in relationship to non-living matter, rather than confidently resolving by turning to Deleuzian ideas of univocity, with which he closes his discussion.
Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory demonstrates an impressive command of contemporary theories of materiality as well as an intimate knowledge of Woolf's novels and essays. At times, however, Ryan privileges the explication of the former over the exploration of the latter. Although Ryan claims to eschew an "application" of theory to Woolf, many of Ryan's literary readings give the impression of an overreliance on existing theoretical frameworks, which Woolf might complicate more than Ryan allows. Perhaps the specificity of Woolf's theorization of materiality might have been better illuminated by attending more concertedly to the material forms of language, or, put differently, to Woolf's stylization of theorization. One of the questions this book provocatively raises, but leaves unanswered, is how the theorization of materiality or the materialization of theory is indebted to modernism qua modernism. Still, Ryan's rapprochement between contemporary theory and modernist studies is a welcome interruption of critical trends that would dispense with theory altogether.
--Annie Dwyer, University of Washington
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
|Previous Article:||Mapping the Modern Mind: Virginia Woolf's Parodic Approach to the Art of Fiction.|
|Next Article:||Virginia Woolf's Late Cultural Criticism: The Genesis of The Years, Three Guineas and Between the Acts.|