Natalie Prizel, Disability Theory, Queer Time, and “We Other Victorians”
Bodies would seem to be the most temporally bounded of objects. They have a clear beginning and end, moved on by a relentless teleological thrust that, at the end, cycles back on itself: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The movement of one’s body must be, we think, “inescapably narrative,” using Eve Sedgwick’s terms. Though we might think of our bodies in terms of ancestral or reproductive time, our experience with them, however, is a spatial one: we lie next to each other, we bump up against each other, we float apart and back together. These moments are anti-teleological; following Sedgwick, we might think of such moments in terms of “beside” as a relational preposition: “beside…seems to offer some useful resistance to the ease with which beneath and beyond turn from spatial descriptors into implicit narratives of, respectively, origin and telos.” Moments of encounter, when we run up against each other, beside one another, and are frozen, create an atemporal site from which ethical relations emerge.
Beside is an essential preposition, not only for queer studies but also for the study of disability. Beside allows one to think about disability as relational rather than categorical. What would it mean, then, to use the overlapping vocabularies of disability theory and queer theory—and particularly the word “disabled”—not to refer to a historical, legal, or medical marker, but rather as an ethically inflected way bodies relate to one another? This ethical orientation is, particularly in the middle part of the nineteenth century, inextricably bound to the aesthetic. Ruskin is the most significant figure in investing moral judgment into the aesthetic realm. He writes, “There is no moral vice, no moral virtue, which has not its precise prototype in the art of painting.” Following the late Victorians and moderns, who understood Ruskin “to be representative of the sins of Victorian critics, known for…their promiscuous combinations of aesthetics and politics”, our postmodern moment is suspicious of aesthetics as a clandestine purveyor of pernicious ideologies. As much as the V21 manifesto critiques our excessive attachment to the “stuff” of the Victorian archive, we simultaneously engage in an endless process of disidentification and disavowal.
It is, however, in the juxtaposition of Victorian aesthetic theory and contemporary disability theory that we might seriously consider the categories of the aesthetic and the disabled as significant locations for ethical enquiry, particularly in reference to Sedgwick’s axiom “People are different from each other.” I am most interested in the moment of convergence—a site in which Victorian thinking and contemporary thinking about bodies (objects as well as persons) preempt, echo, and mutually confirm each other. This convergence occurs out of and across time.
To be sure, there is a history of disability to be traced in the nineteenth-century, and literary critics, theorists, and historians have attempted to map the emergence of disability as an operative category. In 1835, Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet articulates the idea of l’homme moyen—the average man—from whose body all others must necessarily diverge. The Poor Law Amendments in 1834 made explicit the moral and economic constitution of able-bodiedness. And of course, Henry Mayhew makes much of those who can and cannot work. Thus, half way through the century, physical aberrance has emerged as a category of aesthetic-medical classification as well as a means of assessing one’s place in a nascent industrial economy. Later in the century, one sees the emergence of eugenics, as well as William Morris’s utopian idealization of healthy minds in healthy bodies in News from Nowhere (1891). It has been argued, that the category of “disabled” emerges only after the Boer War and WWI. Of course, if you go back to J.S. Mill, you can see the word deployed in reference to women; Mill advocates, “a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on one side, nor disability on the other.”  Using a similar definition of disability to Mill’s, parliament passed the Jewish Disabilities Bill in 1858.
Disability takes a particular Victorian form with the rise of political economy based on morally inflected ideas of efficiency. The categories of “deserving” and “undeserving” as they relate to disabled persons, for example, become increasingly constraining in an era in which moral pieties and economic policies become further intertwined. Instead of arguing over the historical dating and meaning of the term “disability” over time and tracing its development, however, one can look at these examples and see that, despite historical shifts, all these definitions are relational.
The fundamental precept of disability as site of relational ethics is the acknowledgement of the essential separateness of the object from one’s perception of it. George Eliot understands this separation as the essence of form. She writes, “Form, as an element of human experience, must begin with the perception of separateness, derived principally from touch of which the other sense are modifications.” Ruskin similarly turns to the object as a singularity outside of the self. “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in the world is to see something,” he tells us in praise of the turn to the world outside oneself. For Ruskin, this is an aesthetic principle that undergirds a larger ethical orientation. He writes in Modern Painters III:
‘Blue’ does not mean the sensation caused by a gentian on the human eye; but it means the power of producing that sensation; and this power is always there, in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not, and would remain there though there were not left a man on the face of the earth. Precisely in the same way gunpowder has a power of exploding.
Ruskin understands the power of the object, or color, exists outside of the temporal thrust of one’s life. That is to say, blue is not bounded by the time/space of the encounter, but it is always there. Ruskin here is speaking aesthetically and suggesting that aesthetic elements exist before, after, around, and in the absence of a response. He out-theorizes disability theory, particularly in the convergence of aesthetics and ethics in regards to form. The late Tobin Siebers, author of foundational texts such as Disability Theory and Disability Aesthetics describes aesthetics as a relational feeling: “Aesthetics track the emotions that some bodies feel in the presence of other bodies.” For Ruskin, the potential of encounter rather than the encounter itself is enough to evoke a kind of aesthetic awe.
The Mill on the Floss, and particularly Eliot’s rendering of the disabled artist, Philip Wakem, includes not only examples of Ruskinian aesthetic-ethical principles, but moreover demonstrates the strange temporal inflections that characterize disabled life as an instantiation of queer time. As a disabled artist, Philip, exemplifies Ruskinian principles, and moreover, he is able to do so by harnessing and evading conventional temporal narrative expectations. Philip’s work as an artist—work that is essential in his self-making—consists of his engaging in moments of temporal arrest. Philip knows that others understand him as having a queer relationship to time: Tom Tulliver thinks of his schoolmate as “very old looking” while Maggie compares him to “wry-necked lambs” for which she feels tender and which, as “things out o’ nature” will “niver thrive.” But instead of behaving a manner that might reflect a feel of belatedness, a need to carpe diem, Philip slows time further by disappearing into visual art, what Gotthold Lessing calls the appropriate realm of “Objects or parts of objects which exist in space…called bodies.” And rendering bodies is precisely what Philip does: when Tom is astounded by the efficacy of Philip’s realism, Philip tells him to “look well at things and draw them over and over again” knowing that “What you do wrong once, you can alter the next time.” Philip is committed to a process to rendering that is relentlessly committed to the object as such and only as such, speaking to Tom as Ruskin speaks to his students, telling them:
we have to show the individual character and liberty of the separate leaves, clouds, or rocks. And herein the great masters separate themselves finally from inferior ones; for if the men of inferior genius ever express law at all, it is by the sacrifice of individuality.
Artistic success requires an endlessly recursive process, a looping work of eye and hand that embodies the ethics of attentiveness to the external object that Ruskin espouses. It requires the dismissal of narrative constraints in favor of visual devotion.
Most of all, Philip’s presence makes apparent the queer time of the novel. Queer time has been defined in multiple ways: by Lee Edelman and Judith (Jack) Halberstam as a resistance of reproductive and normative futurity,  by Eve Sedgwick in terms of the “deroutinz[ation]” of time wrought by AIDS, and by Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon as an alternative to teleological historicism. We could think of Philip is some of those terms—the figure with the foreshortened life span, the figure who is repeatedly expressed to be unfit for marriage in a novel with all sorts of Darwinian undercurrents. One could claim that Philip operates in something like “crip” time, as Robert McRuer defines “crip” as at odds with “compulsory able-bodiedness” just as Adrienne Rich’s lesbianism exists outside the realm of compulsory heterosexuality and its attendant life-cycle demands. All of these would be useful definitions of queer time, but according to these definitions, Philip is only queer if he dies young or fails to marry. If we were to read The Mill on the Floss as the bildungsroman or marriage plot that it fails to be, then, yes, Philip would exist in queer time. Rather, I think, The Mill on the Floss is written entirely in queer time, and Philip just most explicitly embodies it. The novel begins with a retrospective narrator who never comes again; to my students she promises to be Maggie till the very last page of the novel. Maggie’s two potential loves, Philip and Stephen, prove to be distractions on her way to her final end, as F. Scott Fitzgerald would have it, “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” clutching her brother. To the extent that Philip tries to insert himself into Tom’s and Maggie’s failed bildung, he fails, and retreats from the novel into that queer space known as the Continent. As the novel continues, Philip functions in a manner similar to the color blue, following Ruskin: he is always there; he exists outside of Maggie and Tom and St. Oggs, and while they do not perceive him, his relation to them is powerful.
In his final letter to Maggie, Philip perfectly defines what disability as a relation does: it allows one the “gift of transferred life.” While that transfer occurs in space it also exists in time and is part of that which, Philip tells us, “reconciles me to life.” Disability, as I have come to understand it, marks precisely an interpersonal transfer that allows one to thrive and connect across space and time. And as such, it endures as Philip does, telling Maggie: “it was part of the faith I had vowed to you, to wait and endure.” And endure he does.
Disability is in and of itself out of time. It is a shared telos: many disability scholars use the term “TAB”—temporarily able-bodied—to indicate the universal march to disability that comes with aging. Rehabilitation supposedly has the opposite effect, not only pausing temporal decay but also turning back the clock. Disability as an affective relation, however, defies discernible teleology: Disability reneges on its own temporal promises in favor of relational ones, and then somehow does it again: it renders Jenny Wren the parent of her father who still buries him; Mrs. Clenham rises out of her wheeled chair to her final fall; and Lucilla Finch, from Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch, goes from blindness to sight and back again to be with the man she loves.
When I argue that Victorian aesthetic theory and disability converge it is not to say that we have always been disabled. It is to say, following José Esteban Muñoz’s assertion that “queerness is not here yet” that neither is disability as an imagined relation. Muñoz writes, “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” In the much-maligned relentless faith of the Victorians in the ability to improve, there is something radical. After all, Muñoz sounds a lot like Tennyson: “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world” and “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (57, 70) When someone throws aspersions at “we other Victorians,” we might pause and think for a moment on a kind of ethical aspirational spirit that we would be remiss to lose. We are not yet disabled. But we might be.
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 138, 8.
 For the definition of the comparative encounter in which sensory experience of another leads to high-stakes mutual evaluations of work, see Janice Carlisle, Common Scents: Comparative Encounters in High-Victorian Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 10-11.
 Martha Stoddart Holmes writes, “many texts also posit an emotional exchange system in which currents of feeling, stimulated by the presence of a corporeally ‘different’ body, connect people who are not disabled and people who are; disability is thus as relational a category as emotion itself.” See Martha Stoddart Holmes, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2004), 29.
 John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing in The Complete Works of John Ruskin, eds. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1907), vol. 15, 118.
 Rachel Teukolsky, The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 5.
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 22.
 Nadja Durbach, Spectacle of Deformity: Freakshows and Modern British Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 16.
 John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women in On Liberty and the Subjection of Women, ed. Alan Ryan (New York: Penguin, 2006), 133.
 George Eliot, “Notes on Form in Art” in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia University Press), 432.
This sense of the object as something distinctly outside the self is a uniquely mid-Victorian one, but also one that disability studies asks us to emulate. Later writers embrace a sort of subjectivism that threatens to subsume other into self. For example, Walter Pater writes “‘To see the object as in itself it really is,’ has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever, and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly.” See Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, ed. Matthew Beaumont (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 3.
 John Ruskin, Modern Painters III in The Complete Works of John Ruskin, eds. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen 1904), vol. 5, 333.
 John Ruskin, Modern Painters III, vol. 5, 202.
 Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 1.
 George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 141, 252, 82.
 Gotthold Lessing, Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. Edward McCormick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 78.
 Eliot, Mill, 142.
 Ruskin, Elements, vol. 15, 116.
 See Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004) and Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, (New York: New York University Press, 2005).
 Sedgwick, Touching, 148.
 Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon, “Queering History,” PMLA 120.5 (2005): 1608-1617.
 Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 1-32, and Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. Henry Abelove, et. al. (New York: Routledge, 1993), 227-254.
 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 189.
 Eliot, Mill, 442-443.
 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia; The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.
 Lord Alfred Tennyson, “Ulysses” in Tennyson’s Poetry, ed. Robert W. Hill, Jr. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1999), 82-84. Line numbers cited in text.
 The phrase is borrowed from Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume One, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 1-13.