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    Review of:
    John Kucich and Dianne F. Sadoff, eds., Victorian Afterlife: Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000.

  1. Consider the following "true" story as an exemplum for approaching the idea of the Victorian postmodern: in the mid-1990s, artist and critic Todd Alden asked 400 art collectors to deliver to him canned samples of their feces for an art show. The idea for the show, as explained in the letter he sent to the collectors, was to represent "a historical rethinking of the Italian artist Piero Manzoni's epoch-making work, Merda d'artista," in which Manzoni "produced, conserved, and tinned ninety cans of his own feces, which he sold by the ounce, based on that day's price of gold" (Alden 23). Alden noted that cans of Manzoni's shit, which found few buyers back in 1961 when the work was first "made," were "now being sold for as much as $75,000"; he proposed to make some of the cans he collected available for sale, and, further, "as a courtesy, each collector/producer [would] be offered the option to retain one of his/her 'own' cans at an amount that is one half of the initial offering price" (24). In May 1996, Alden's display featuring eighty-one such cans was scheduled to open in Manhattan, but the New York Observer revealed Alden's claim to be a hoax since only one collector had actually contributed as instructed. Now, the briefest consideration of Victorian art critic John Ruskin's notion that "consumption absolute is the end, crown, and perfection of production" (217) in relation to Todd Alden's proposal for Collector's Shit will reveal how distant a postmodern notion of critique is from that of the nineteenth-century critic of culture and especially from the life-centered conceptions of culture and value promoted by the likes of Ruskin and William Morris.

  2. Ruskin continues, in the passage cited above, to say that "wise consumption is a far more difficult art than wise production" (217), and the Ruskinian question that arises in relation to Alden's art proposal is how does one best consume it (in Ruskin's sense, meaning use it, employ it, live with it--promote life with it)? The initial answer is that the act of purchasing it is the sole means of consumption available in this particular transaction. Subsequently one can only own it, have it, but not live with it in any other way. Admittedly such passive ownership does represent a means of action, for the "collectors" (with their single bargain-tins) and especially the artist/owner himself, in owning the tins, are actually "sitting on them" as investments that they hope will rise in monetary value over a period of time. Value here depends almost exclusively upon the second of the two conditions that John Stuart Mill deemed necessary for a thing to have any value in exchange, that is, the "difficulty in its attainment" (544), and it is upon this principle that the limited edition, the autographed novel, or the signed can of feces will bring its monetary return, or so the collector hopes. I say that the cans' value depends upon this condition almost exclusively because, although the first of Mill's two conditions for a thing to have value in exchange ("it must be of some use") may seem glaringly absent from such an object, the counterargument may be made that the tins (hoax or not) are responsible for a valuable chain of critical thoughts about art, value, utility, culture, and history. The apparent uselessness of the tins of feces is arguably useful in that it leads one to consider the relationship between use value and exchange value, and in doing so it brings us to one of the key conundrums arising in an attempt to theorize the relationship between a Victorian past and a postmodern present. That is, it is often the distinction between an artifact's inherent value (of which shit, no matter whose it is, has little to none now, although it was worth something in the time of Henry Mayhew's "pure"-finders and mudlarks [142; 155]) and its marginal or institutional value (of which canned shit can have enormous value) that we are grappling with when we try to understand how the Victorian period (which is already a vexed formulation) continues to live in the present.

  3. An exploration of how we live with culture now as compared to how Victorians lived with culture in the nineteenth century, and how we can best pursue "a historical rethinking" of the Victorians in our present cultural endeavors, is the primary focus of the articles collected under the title Victorian Afterlife. John Kucich and Dianne F. Sadoff state in their editors' introduction that the contributors of the fifteen essays in this collection "construct a history of the present by writing about rewritings of the Victorian past" (xiv), but this collection does not really construct a history of now so much as provide a diverse sampling of some kinds of historical knowledge that are deemed possible or warranted in contemporary cultural studies. I am not suggesting by this distinction that the latter project is less valuable than the former. It is perhaps more valuable and certainly is more tenable. Besides, by the end of this introductory essay, Kucich and Sadoff relinquish the idea that their volume constructs a history of the present and say that they "hope to provide instead multiple ways to measure the ideological motives and effects of a postmodern history that inevitably 'forgets' the past, or remembers it by trying to imagine it as present, or fashions its past by retelling the history of its present" (xxviii). They see the debate that structures their anthology "as an opening for the profoundly important analysis of the conditions of postmodern historicity and of postmodernism itself as a reflection on historical knowledge" (xxviii). I think this is a fair assessment of many of the essays in the collection, although some of them focus on how postmodern culture rewrites or has rewritten the nineteenth century without really theorizing the ideas of historicism or periodization that inform their methods of reading. Nor does a strong sense of the meaning of the term "postmodern" emerge from this collection, in which we find nothing like the barrage of attempts to develop a working framework for this concept that we experienced in the mid-1980s. The subtitle of the collection is "Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century," and probably it should come as no surprise that "culture" is a more comfortably handled term than "postmodernism" in this collection, since about two-thirds of the book is authored by scholars who specialize in the nineteenth century.

  4. Again, as the subtitle of the book suggests, many of the essays in the collection consider rewritings either of key Victorian texts or figures by contemporary authors, artists, and filmmakers, such as, for example, the cinematic afterlife of Dracula; contemporary representations of Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll's Alice; and A.S. Byatt's "ghostwriting" of the Victorian realist novel. Tracing specific intertexts across a century, these essays at their best suggest hypotheses about the significance of how Victorian texts have been rewritten (Hilary Schor's essay on A.S. Byatt is a case in point). At their weakest, they fall into the genre of the catalogue, listing the various instances of rewriting without truly developing a thesis about the implications of the various contemporary manifestations of Victorian figures they have compiled.

  5. Jonathan Culler has remarked that "intertextuality is the general discursive space that makes a text intelligible," which ultimately "leads the critic who wishes to work with it to concentrate on cases that put in question the general theory" one brings to the table in the act of interpretation (106-7). Hilary M. Schor's essay, "Sorting, Morphing, and Mourning: A.S. Byatt Ghostwrites Victorian Fiction," is one of the stronger instances of the more specifically analogical essays in Victorian Afterlife because she approaches the idea of intertextuality as something that provides a frame of meaning requiring analysis and not as a predetermined assumption. She poses from the outset a large and valuable question about the status of realism in contemporary fiction and then explains that Byatt is less a "postmodernist" than a "post-realist," in that she "invents a contemporary version of realism that can reanimate the complicated literary genres of the past" by approaching the novel as "a 'literary' device for giving forms form" (237). The specific strategies that Schor finds in Byatt--those of "sorting, morphing, and mourning"--are strategies borrowed both from the Victorians and from contemporary technologies, from Victorian science fiction and sociology, "to our computer-generated fascination with morphing and transformation, to cinematic and other technological ways of drawing attention to form itself" (239). In identifying this diverse range of strategies used by Byatt to generate her own version of realist narrative, Schor establishes a truly useful means of considering how a Victorian mode of inquiry (Darwin's naturalism, in this case) can find a strange sort of afterlife via the nature shows on television (to which Byatt attributes the genesis of her novella Morpho Eugenia) and in contemporary fiction.

  6. Again from Culler, we get a sense of what is most important in approaching a work as a rewriting of a previous one, the main problem of interpreting a text according to such a framework becoming "that of deciding what attitude the [text] takes to the prior discourse which it designates as presupposed" (114). Schor's essay does a good job of showing how Byatt grapples with the implications of Victorian realism as a seemingly transparent mode of organizing experience--by her use of the "sorting" mechanisms of other nineteenth-century genres and of twentieth-century media--and thus spells out the Victorian novel that Byatt presupposes in composing her own novella. Some of the essays in this collection do not spend as much time on this question of the attitude of a contemporary text toward its Victorian analog and subsequently fall into cataloguing shared themes, figures, and forms without developing enough of an argument about the significance of the similarities and coincidences that are being traced. So, while Shelton Waldrep's "The Uses and Misuses of Oscar Wilde" and Kali Israel's "Asking Alice: Victorian and Other Alices in Contemporary Culture" offer many, many examples of Wilde and Alice reincarnated on the contemporary screen, stage, and page, we end up with something more like a pile of specifically described instances than an attempt to analyze the combined meaning of these instances. And when we do get such attempts, for example, when Waldrep concludes that "Wilde's current popularity has much to do with his proto-postmodernism," or that "our nostalgia is for him, but our representations of him betray our own anxieties about our origins and structures for knowing ourselves" (62), they are not very satisfying.

  7. Other essays tracing specific intertexts offer more in the way of theses about why we in the 1990s seemed so fascinated by the cultural artifacts of the 1890s and earlier. Mary A. Favret's "Being True to Jane Austen" shifts effectively between a close textual analysis of Austen's novels Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility and film versions of these novels by Roger Michell and Ang Lee, respectively, which Favret says "are uncannily attentive to the sorts of fidelity currently demanded of Austen's faithful" (64). Favret's reading sketches out the connection between an ethos of sexual fidelity in Austen's novels an the fidelity of the film to its source text and argues that "at the heart of these films is the question, made redundant by the plot of each novel, of whether or not being true is an animating or mortifying process" (64). Favret concludes that the intimation of death characteristic of the film versions of these novels represents a sense of the ultimate inaccessibility of the past and of "our own postmodern inability to conceive in any substantial way of immortality--even for Jane Austen" (80). Ronald R. Thomas develops an interesting thesis about the "irrepressible haunting of contemporary visual culture by the specters of nineteenth-century novel culture," arguing that the nostalgia and anxiety informing films based on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula come from the sense that we have "lost a nineteenth-century conception" of autonomous "character" and "the modern belief that the forces of the past drain the life from the present even as they sustain it" (289). This last part of Thomas's thesis is enlarged into a truly interesting reading of Dracula as cipher for the nexus of new media and subjectivity. Thomas's reading of Dracula could be seen to interestingly augment that of Friedrich Kittler (see, for example, Kittler's "Dracula's Legacy") but there is no reference to Kittler in Thomas's essay.

  8. Not surprisingly, many of the essays in this collection focus on the theme of technology. Jennifer Green-Lewis's "At Home in the Nineteenth Century: Photography, Nostalgia, and the Will to Authenticity" considers Victorian photography in order to explain the particular kind of nostalgia that we have for the period. She argues that "the Victorians are visually real to us because they have a documentary assertiveness unavailable to persons living before the age of the camera" (31). Green-Lewis goes on to assess the kind of Victorian things we give visibility to and want to see, noting the popularity of pastoral over urban photographs, and pictures of Victorians "pretending to be something other than themselves" (39), dressed in costumes of an earlier era, and thus replicating our present desire to find ourselves in these figures of the past. Both Judith Roof's "Display Cases" and Jay Clayton's "Hacking the Nineteenth Century" draw connections between computers and Victorian systems of knowledge, although the trajectories of their arguments move in opposite directions. Roof compares present-day computer graphics and layout to the typological tactics of Victorian print culture and the organizing techniques of Victorian museums, arguing (more by analogy than from a historically grounded genealogy) that "Victoriana links new technology to an older tradition, making it seem safe and familiar" to us (101). She smartly suggests that the Victorian exhibit and the modern computer are both representative of "the development of a technology of display designed to attract visitors to a vision of mastery and national wealth" (104). Again, despite her reading of the Macintosh "trash can" as a metaphor that transforms "metonymic computer logic into [a] trite, vaguely humorous, familiar" metaphor (113), Roof does not engage Kittler's work on how the material particularities of "sound and image, voice and text" inherent in specific Victorian technologies "are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface" (Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter 1). Clayton examines William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's historical sci-fi novel The Difference Engine, its interest in how Victorian technologies (such as Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine) troubled the human/machine binary way back in the 1830s, and the possible disjunctions between technological advance and ethical advance. He argues that "to hack the nineteenth century in a literary work means altering the temporal order of events, deliberately creating anachronisms in a representational world" (195) and then shows us, through an interesting reading of The Difference Engine with respect to Benjamin Disraeli's Conservative condition-of-England novel Sybil, that the climax of Gibson and Sterling's novel is an anachronistic "throwback to the days when English engineering and empire reigned supreme, when few challenged the marriage of technology and the police, and when masculine power and the erotics of vulnerable femininity were widely approved norms" (198). His general argument suggests that the two main ideological assertions of postmodern fiction's fascination with Victorian technology are "escapism" and the articulation of "a politics of the future" that challenges the present with the past.

  9. Other essays engaging explicitly with Victorian politics and their afterlife are Ian Baucom's "Found Drowned: The Irish Atlantic," which considers how Paul Muldoon's poetry invokes traumatic Victorian events (like the Irish famine) to rethink present-day Irish political identity, and Simon Gikandi's "The Embarrassment of Victorianism: Colonial Subjects and the Lure of Englishness," which begins by wondering how native anti-colonialists could promote dominant colonialist values, and then demonstrates that the seeds of colonial liberation existed in the most traditional of Victorian moral codes. Together, Laurie Langbauer's essay "Queen Victoria and Me," which draws parallels between the political scripts of female power performed by Queen Victoria and the public roles that contemporary feminist academics must assume, and Susan Lurie's reading of Jane Campion's rewriting of Henry James's desexualized Victorian heroines, in terms of the relative political worth of the unconventional Victorian sexualities revived by postmodernism, represent an interesting meditation upon feminism's Victorian origins.

  10. Finally, the two essays in the collection that most explicitly engage in thinking about what the "Victorian Postmodern" means as a critical concept are John McGowan's "Modernity and Culture, the Victorians and Cultural Studies" and Nancy Armstrong's "Postscript: Contemporary Culturalism: How Victorian Is It?" These two essays frame the book as a whole; McGowan's text opens the discussion and Armstrong's closes it, and together they may represent the most valuable line of thinking that the book has to offer. When, in 1985, Jean-François Lyotard curated an "art and technology extravaganza" at the Georges Pompidou Center in an attempt to chart "the new order of our postmodern condition"--this from a flyer distributed at the exhibit--Lyotard had the visitors work their way through a labyrinth of electronic gadgetry, "old" art juxtaposed with "new" art juxtaposed with "non" art, all the while donning headphones and listening to "great" modernist writers reading from their works (Rajchman 111). Lyotard's exhibit, titled "Les Immatiriaux," forwarded the curatorial argument that the very idea of postmodernism has emerged from and continues to play itself out according to the soundtrack of modernism. McGowan and Armstrong's essays articulate the general insistence of Victorian Afterlife upon a version of the present that thinks its way out of that early and powerful version of the postmodern. McGowan does this by acknowledging that the concepts of periodization, Zeitgeist (the idea that ages have spirits or conditions), and our proclivity to situate ourselves and to characterize eras are inherited from "a group of German-influenced English writers who were the first literary (or artistic) intellectuals cum social critics," people like Mill, Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, Harriet Martineau and William Morris (3). His essay first connects the idea of "Zeitgeist" to concepts of "the modern" and "culture," then sketches out how all of our categories of political orientation are derived from these three terms, and finally tries to "speculate on what the critical enterprise would look like if we somehow managed to dispense with the 'modern' and 'culture' as signposts" (4). As it turns out, the critical enterprise under this dispensation looks a lot like a Nietzschean will to consider "what elements of the past can mean in relation to our purposes in the present" (24). McGowan articulates the results of such a conditional line of thinking: "Instead of viewing things that appear as indices of who they (the Victorians) were and/or who we (postmoderns?) are . . . we would see in stories of the past images of being in the world that tell us there are multiple ways to be human and that we are engaged in the project of living out some of those ways" (24).

  11. Similarly, Nancy Armstrong argues that the critical work of Victorian Afterlife renders "obsolete the whole question of whether postmodernism represents a break from modernism or just another version of it" (313), and suggests instead that "postmodernism is a consequence and acknowledgment of the Victorian redefinition of the nation" (312) and of the nineteenth-century sense of acculturation as a praxis of decorum. The main connection she draws between then and now has to do with the status of the idea of "the real" or of authenticity as a defining aspect of identity. She says, "postmodernism asks, what if the most oft-repeated and banal aspects of our culture . . . are the only basis for our selves" and "just another cultural formation that we happen to consider most primary and real?" (319). In asking this question in relation to a notion of Victorian culture that was already aware of this, Armstrong suggests that, "in this respect, postmodernism is perhaps more Victorian than even the Victorians were," and its focus on the details informing genres of action represents "an extension of the Austen principle that decorum--which for the novelist was the accumulation of rather small but absolutely appropriate details--is what we really are" (319).

  12. So the afterlife of the Victorians exists, according to the postscript of this collection, in the realist's attention to minute details that ultimately provide a script for behavior and an actual sense of being. Armstrong's account of the Victorian qualities inherent in our postmodern present seems to take Carlyle's key sign of the time--the assumption of his age "that to the inward world (if there be any) our only conceivable road is through the outward" (70)--and presents it, not as the symptom of the "mechanical" malady, but as the status quo of our postmodern condition. Going back to the nineteenth century, Armstrong remarks, "commodity culture created a world in which virtually anything spontaneous and natural about . . . life could be bought up and resold in a predictable commercial package that would in turn elicit only canned responses" (315). The Victorian sense of "the real" that emerged from this commodity culture has now moved so far in the direction of a commercially packaged and canned experience, Armstrong says, "that how people are represented may well be who they are" (323). Viable cultural criticism, then, must approach the canned world as the real one "if the material conditions in which people live and die are going to improve" (323). This idea is not so distant from Carlyle's definition of cultural criticism back in 1829 as that which critiques "our own unwise mode of viewing Nature" (83). "Because our [Victorian] forebears were so successful in establishing their picture of the world as the world itself," Armstrong tells us, "cultural theory is not just a legacy they bequeathed to us, but one of the most effective means of intervening in the reproduction of that picture" (323-24). This confidence in the transforming potential of cultural theory is probably the most Victorian thing about this collection of essays as a whole, and it is an intimation worthy of a long and healthy afterlife.

    English Department
    Concordia University

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    Works Cited

    Alden, Todd. Letter. "Rear-Action Avant-Garde." Harper's Magazine 286 (May 1993): 23-4.

    Carlyle, Thomas. Selected Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 1980.

    Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981.

    Kittler, Friedrich A. "Dracula's Legacy." Trans. William Stephen Davis. Stanford Humanities Review 1.1 (1989): 143-73.

    ---. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.

    Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Vol. 2. New York: Dover, 1968.

    Mill, John Stuart. Principles of Political Economy. Ed. W. J. Ashley. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1909.

    Rajchman, John. "The Postmodern Museum." Art in America 73 (Oct. 1985): 110-17.

    Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 1985.

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