Jean-Thomas Tremblay: Indeterminacy and the Work of Critics
This response stems from two key points in the exciting special issue of boundary2 online on V21. I don’t mean to suggest that each of the collected essays makes these points; many authors debate their peers’ claims. Still, a few trends extend across a significant number of essays and here supply fuel for a brief reflection.
- Indeterminacy is valorized in the V21 arena.
Untimeliness, which functions as a prestige concept of sorts in and beyond a series of engagements with Nietzsche’s “On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life,” constitutes one version of indeterminacy. Untimeliness designates a refusal to treat the past or the present as self-identical. In “Unhistorical Reading and Mutual Playing,” an exercise in untimeliness, Daniel Wright commits to “the messy incoherence and the ineffable singularity of love” as a counterpart to “the knowledge that promises ordered lines and networks.” Elsewhere, in “Untimely Historicism,” Devin Griffiths likens Nietzsche’s “oppositional reading of the past” to his own critical project: a comparative historicism born of a tension between economic history, natural history, and historical fiction. As Wright and Griffiths show and S. Pearl Brilmyer highlights in “Impassioned Objectivity: Nietzsche, Hardy, and the Science of Fiction,” the desire to make a, well, timely intervention might motivate untimely undertakings. Specifically, Brilmyer writes that untimeliness interrupts “the dominant epistemological paradigm of a time.”
Kink appears, especially in the portion of the special issue dedicated to “The Way We Write Now,” as another practice of indeterminacy—an erotic analog of untimeliness, if you will. Aligned with Wright’s love-driven epistemology, kink serves to speculate affinities between past and present. Caroline Levine writes in “Historicism: From the Break to the Loop” that “kinky historicism brings with it not only strange tempos but also strange materialisms.” Ellis Hanson, for his part, proposes in “Kink and Time” that kink is queerer than queer itself. Kink, he says, might inaugurate a formalism that travels promiscuously across sites and archives, beyond the sexual subcultures linked to queer studies.
These are ambitious promises—which isn’t to say that they are implausible. Granted, I’m intrigued as to what one might ultimately gain from taxonomical contests. What is concretely the purchase of trading kink for queer? How does one determine that kink is indeed less tied to sexual subcultures than queer is? This being said, my sense is that the aim of the V21 conference and special issue is more to brainstorm research agendas than to spell out detailed research protocols. And what these agendas champion is, among other things, indeterminacy. It isn’t sufficient, for the V21 project, to acknowledge that critics and their objects of study occupy multiple temporalities at once and are shaped by diverse histories. These multiple temporalities and diverse histories, I gather, should be cultivated. They should clash. Scholarship should then feed on the indeterminacy or messiness of temporal and historical short-circuits.
- Scholars are meant to carry out the project of V21.
The subject, as we might call it, of the V21 project shifts across the ten theses of the “Manifesto of the V21 Collective.” The first and second theses accuse Victorian Studies and Victorianists of positivist historicism and hermeticism. By the third thesis, as the manifesto transitions from diagnosis to prescription, a more general we crops up. Anna Kornbluh and Benjamin Morgan return to this we in “Introduction: Presentism, Form, and the Future of History,” where they articulate the questions at the heart of the special issue of boundary2 online. They wonder “how we can return major 19th-century theorists including Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud to the center of Victorian Studies.” They chart “debates about how we read now.” And they ask what would happen “if we were to understand ‘presentism’ not as an error, but as a robust interpretive mode.”
Because this radically inclusive manifesto encourages work that is “compelling to scholars who do not care about Victorians as Victorians,” it’s realistic to imagine that the we posited by V21 encompasses scholars who are not, at least not exclusively, Victorianists. Elaine Hadley condemns in her “Closing Remarks” an “occasional need [at the V21 conference] to draw a line between us and them, between good criticism and bad, or literary works of complexity and something else, and in particular between some kind of pedantic historicist labor and, well, fun.” I agree. However, I also deem important to recognize a line that V21 doesn’t draw: one between Victorianists and scholars who focus on other sites and periods.
This point, however ostensibly self-evident, is worth making: it’s scholars—not just Victorianists, but certainly scholars—who are expected to develop untimely or kinky epistemologies, or, per the manifesto, to perform presentist readings explicitly motivated by 21st-century concerns. Yet, aesthetic works that become available once we consider an archive that transcends the Victorian era seem to perform the very historical clash—untimeliness and kink included—with which V21 tasks criticism. Consider, for instance, Shelley Jackson’s hypertext fiction piece, Patchwork Girl, and Dodie Bellamy’s epistolary novel, The Letters of Mina Harker.
Patchwork Girl resuscitates the monster’s female companion that, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein sets out to create, but destroys prior to completion. Patchwork Girl is, from one angle, the ultimate 1990s text. The piece illustrates in textbook fashion the theory en vogue at the time, from Donna Haraway’s cyborg feminism (149) to Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive theory of writing and meaning (7, 53). But Patchwork Girl also fosters intimacies between women, real and fictional, who belong to different eras. The recurrent motif of the quilt, which both symbolizes the labor of healing a body deemed disposable and reflects the hypertext form, pays homage to a long history of feminist craft. What’s more, by way of L. Frank Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz, Jackson reaches out to Shelley. Jackson embodies both Shelley herself (she even appropriates her name) and the female monster in an effort to let these two figures develop an erotic relation with one another.
In The Letters of Mina Harker, too, a minor female character from a 19th-century gothic novel—in this case, Mina Harker, Van Helsing’s secretarial assistant in Bram Stoker’s Dracula—takes center stage. In her Letters, Mina possesses Bellamy’s body and lives in the San Francisco of the 1980s and 1990s, at the height of an AIDS crisis allegorized by vampiric motifs. Mina returns via Bellamy to set the record straight: as Van Helsing’s undervalued “adjunct,” she “gathered the notes, the journal entries, letters, ship logs, newsclippings, invoices, memoranda, asylum reports, telegrams” (9). By expressing herself in the 1980s and 1990s, Mina forces readers to reencounter her as an individual of their time: a sexual agent with contemporary fantasies.
Juxtaposed with Jackson and Bellamy’s experimental works, the special issue on V21 leaves me with this question: If the project of V21 invites an expansive aesthetic archive, and if some works within this archive already foster the kind of historical and erotic indeterminacies that V21 attributes to the critic, what, then, becomes the role of this critic?
University of Chicago
Bellamy, Dodie. The Letters of Mina Harker. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
Brilmyer, S. Pearl. “Impassioned Objectivity: Nietzsche, Hardy, and the Science of Fiction.” boundary2 online, 2016, http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/s-pearl-brilmyer-impassioned-objectivity-nietzsche-hardy-and-the-science-of-fiction/.
Derrida, Jacques. Limited, Inc. Translated by Samuel Weber. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.
Griffiths, Devin. “Untimely Historicism.” boundary2 online, 2016, http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/devin-griffiths-untimely-historicism/.
Hadley, Elaine. “Closing Remarks.” boundary2 online, 2016, http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/elaine-hadley-closing-remarks/.
Hanson, Ellis. “Kink in Time.” boundary2 online, 2016, http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/ellis-hanson-kink-in-time/.
Haraway, Donna. Simians: Cyborgs, Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. Eastgate Systems, 1995.
Kornbluh, Anna, and Benjamin Morgan. “Introduction: Presentism, Form, and the Future of History.” b2o: an online journal, 2016, http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/anna-kornbluh-and-benjamin-morgan-introduction-presentism-form-and-the-future-of-history/.
Levine, Caroline. “Historicism: From the Break to the Loop.” boundary2 online, 2016, http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/caroline-levine-historicism/.
“Manifesto of the V21 Collective.” V21: Victorian Studies for the 21st Century, 2015, http://v21collective.org/manifesto-of-the-v21-collective-ten-theses/.
Wright, Daniel. “Unhistorical Reading and Mutual Playing.” boundary2 online, 2016, http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/daniel-wright-unhistorical-reading-and-mutual-playing/.