Reflection by Dustin Friedman
Part of what makes Daniel Wright’s Bad Logic: Reasoning about Desire in the Victorian Novel so appealing is its defamiliarization of a concept so obvious as to seem nearly unremarkable: that when novelists sought to represent erotic desire in their works, their key struggle was figuring out how to put it into language. He turns to ordinary language philosophy to identify the various strategies they used to do so. While philosophers have made logical concepts such as contradiction, tautology, vagueness, and generality the subject of rational scrutiny in their search for mathematical precision within language, Wright argues that Victorian novelists deformed and manipulated these constructs to represent the fundamentally irrational vagaries of desire. This is what Wright refers to as the “bad logic” of the Victorian novel: not “bad” in the sense of being invalid, he emphasizes, but instead embodying “the badness […] of the bad penny—the counterfeit that somehow passes for the real thing. Or the badness of decay—the fruit going bad, its shape softening at the edges and becoming susceptible to impression and manipulation” (11). Victorian novelists recognized that our social being requires us, at times, to provide accounts of our desires to another or to render it a subject of ethical deliberation, despite its fundamental resistance to logical articulation.
Wright’s approach is methodologically daring in a way I find both innovative and liberating. He effectively sidesteps the two dominant theoretical paradigms that have been used to discuss Victorian sexuality: psychoanalysis and Foucauldian historicism. As someone who frequently teaches and writes about Victorian sexuality, I have found myself growing increasingly dissatisfied with interpretations of sexuality in literature as evidence of either the repression or the discipling of the subject. This stems not so much from any theoretical or methodological commitment (I fully admit the power and, often, the accuracy of symptomatic readings). Instead, it comes from my wish for an approach that can recognize what Wright describes as the novelist’s efforts to give desire “a form that […] respects its electric charge, its disorienting effects, and its throbbing pulse,” even while acknowledging that the attempt to do so often met with varying degrees of success and, at times, carried politically and ethically problematic implications (23). For me, Bad Logic takes its place alongside Sharon Marcus’s Between Women and Talia Schaffer’s Romances’s Rival as studies that take the Victorians at their word when it came to sexuality, and that offer methods adaptable to pedagogical situations that emphasize developing student skills in close reading.
Unlike Marcus and Schaffer, however, Wright has decided to bracket off most of the contextual considerations that have become de rigueur in studies of Victorian gender and sexuality (e.g. the separate spheres, the New Woman, the rise of scientific categorizations of sexual identity, et cetera). While history is certainly not absent from his study—he addresses the major figures in the history of philosophical logic, such as Mill, Boole, Venn, Russell, and Wittgenstein, throughout—context takes a back seat to astute, finely-grained analysis of moments where the language of desire buckles under the force of bad logic. I believe he does so for essentially polemical reasons, as an attempt to show how much we can understand about a text’s sexual ethics just by paying close attention to what it actually says.
My hope, however, is that Wright’s methods inspire broad reassessments of genre and formal histories both inside and outside the field. Might we, for example, be able to read the erotics of the late Victorian gothic as more than a displacement of fin de siècle sexual and colonial anxieties? What kinds of work, other than that of disciplining and domesticating the subject, does Pamela do within the history of the English novel’s shaping of sexual modernity? And, as Wright himself suggests in the coda, how might we rethink the literary history of queer sexuality not as part of the Foucauldian “reverse discourse,” where people with non-normative sexualities began advocating for themselves by embracing the same limiting identity categories that had oppressed them, but instead as an attempt to both articulate the complexities of queer desire while at the same time fulfilling the demands of liberal identity politics? While these issues lie beyond the scope of his argument, Bad Logic has inspired me to rethink the relations among literary history, formal technique, and the history of sexuality.