Reflection by Kate Thomas

There’s a stubborn problem when writing about materiality: no matter what new commitments we make to its thickness or its depths or its surfaces, stuff disintegrates all too easily under our critical touch.  From New Historicism, to Cultural Studies, to thing theory and vital materialism, we have been asserting that the literary and the literal are inseparable.  But how many times is the non-textual engaged only to be disposed with once we find those more comfortable patterns of signification?  We drop the piece of ivory, the teapot, the length of velvet once they have transported us to abstraction.  Why is it so hard to stay with their textures?  Their grain or sheen or timbre or heft?  Just as one half of a metaphor and the other are traversed by a “vehicle,” so do we engage materiality in the secret belief that it can carry us back in time and make us doubly epistemologically sovereign; more perfectly knowing about then (the object) and now (interpretation).  Abigail Joseph’s Exquisite Textiles warns us that if we imagine objects can be commandeered to make us the intimate of history we’d better be ready to be molested by that intimacy.  Joseph turns to an artisan of the archive – a textile conservationist – describing the fragility of fabric; sequins have “inherent vice,” glass beads have “disease.”  Wrinkles produced by repeated wear are “memory,” (244) dyes are “fugitive” (243).

This passage confirms Joseph’s central contention that queer identity and the material world are uniquely “intertwined” (227).  It’s also a crisp correction to any lingering notions that objects are inert receptacles of our interpretations, or that we present-day scholars are the only questing, mobile and interpretive force. When a body wears a garment, the textile expresses effects long afterwards; perspiration “may continue a hundred years later to oxidize metallic thread, to alter the molecular structure of a fabric” (244).  We can therefore never “recover” this object and its network of relations as, Matthew Arnold might say, “it really was.”  Joseph, aided by Eve Sedgwick’s axiom that “people are different from each other,” knows that objects are neither static nor singular – neither in their moment of origin nor in their journeys across time and distance – and that the sweat in a fold of fabric, or the tearstain on a letter will resist our most taxonomical urges.  Other urges, however, they can rush to meet . . .

Exquisite Materials runs its finger across the warp and the weft of texts and textiles, cherishing how congruities and contradictions are found in each other’s clasp.  In a particularly deft piece of cross-referential reading, Joseph quotes a letter from Oscar Wilde in which he says he is suffering “sordid anxieties” and loss of a life of “purple and gold.”  On the very same day, she shows, he writes to another correspondent about his delight in the presence of the same materials: “Paris is purple, and starred with gilt spangles” (227).  If we read only for shame and loss, we ourselves shamefully lose the textured interplay of Wilde’s “repertoire of ornate adjectives and objects” (227).  Joseph traces the expression in the metaphor’s reuse, the flow of ink on the page, and the gauge of the paper itself (Wilde wants De Profundis typed onto “good paper such as is used for plays”).  Joseph’s accomplishment is not just her description of the textures of the queer quotidian, but also her insight into what description itself can do, and her appreciation of the everyday and the ordinary.  In this, Exquisite Materials supports a turn that queer theory – along with disability studies – has recently made towards rehabilitating the categories of normalcy. [1]  Queer Victorian lives maintained, Joseph argues, more relation to the normal and the domestic, and dominant Victorian culture made more (desiring, admiring, emulating) room for “queerness and its material manifestations” (13) than scholars focused on metaphoric closets and machineries of oppression have previously allowed.  Joseph challenges us to more fully slough off imperatives to read queerness through social rupture but not adherence to fashion, or sexual codedness but not conformity, aesthetics but not textile.  Her method and her archive encourage scholars to sit with what is “mere,” or “trivial,” or worn and reworn.  It’s the material studies equivalent of discarding grand narratives.

[1] See Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson (eds.), “Queer Theory Without Anti-Normativity,” differences 26:1 (2015)  and Elizabeth Freeman, “Hopeless Cases: Queer Chronicities and Gertrude Stein’s ‘Melanctha,’Journal of Homosexuality 63:3 (2016), 329-348.

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