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Sharon Aronofsky Weltman. Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theater, Science, and Education. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2007. ISBN: 978-0814210550. Price: US$36.95

  • Judith Stoddart

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  • Judith Stoddart
    Michigan State University

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Despite John Ruskin’s sustained involvement in women’s education, claiming him as a champion for feminist studies has never been easy. Kate Millett’s classic condemnation of his sexual politics nearly forty years ago set the terms of a debate that has moved only gradually beyond a contention about where he drew the boundaries of his separate spheres. Sharon Aronofsky Weltman’s first book, Ruskin’s Mythic Queen, intervened elegantly in that conversation by proposing that we use Ruskin’s work not to draw lines between spheres but to reexamine the gender categories that subtend them. In Performing the Victorian Aronofsky Weltman continues this line of argument, looking more closely at how Ruskin’s interest in performance informed his views about the mutability of gender. At the same time she examines the recurring use of Ruskin as a stock figure for our own constructions of Victorian sexualities. Her title gestures toward the interesting self-reflexiveness of her project: hinting at the similarities between recent stage portrayals of Ruskin and contemporary literary criticism, she acknowledges that all reconstructions are an exercise in performing the Victorian, one that often tells us more about our contemporary attitudes than about those of the nineteenth century.

Although Aronofsky Weltman’s argument is familiar from her previous work, what is new is the way she uses Ruskin’s preoccupation with popular theater to probe his evolving understanding of identity as iterative. Through incisive readings of Ruskin’s discussions throughout his work of actual theatrical performances, she demonstrates Ruskin’s persistent “fascination with all processes of performance and change” (2). Often anxious in the face of gender- and even species-bending stage portrayals, Ruskin nevertheless was drawn to writing about what she characterizes as “disturbing theater” (32), where categorical boundaries were blurred. Analyzing Ruskin’s fleeting moments of theatrical critique, Aronofsky Weltman shows how he enacts the kind of transient, performed identity he found so appealing on the stage. Ruskin was not only always keenly aware that he was writing to an audience; he wanted his readers to be aware of the part they played in his textual performances. Acting as an audience, Aronofsky Weltman contends, becomes for Ruskin a mode of potential social action: performing the role of spectator in an enchanted space—theatrical or textual—rehumanizes those who have become impervious to the evils of a capitalist, industrialized world. He rejects mimetic or didactic theater in favor of a “stage existence” that is “purely ideal,” “even more real than the street” (29). Aronofsky Weltman carefully parses the complexity of Ruskin’s position here, and the result is a nuanced argument about theater as a mode of social discourse both in the nineteenth century, and, by the end of her book, in our own time.

The book traces Ruskin’s emphasis on performed identity through his scientific and pedagogical writings. Less invested in narratives of origins and development than in myths of metamorphosis, Ruskin created a “performative science” (53) in which observer and observed are constantly in motion. In some cases Ruskin takes this literally, forming girls into ever-changing crystalline patterns; in others, such as in his mythical and Shakespearean nomenclature for flowers, he figuratively remaps familiar terrain to emphasize the behaviors, rather than the characteristics of objects, as well as of the scientists who study them. Aronofsky Weltman expands on her earlier work on Ruskin’s mythic queens by showing the theatrical roots of Ruskin’s revision of nature. Similarly, her chapter on Ruskin’s pedagogical schemes for girls moves from her reading of “Of Queens’ Gardens” in her previous book to consider how Ruskin’s insistence on movement acts out a dismantling of rigid gender categories. The final chapter turns the lens on our own performances of Ruskin (and also, by comparison of Oscar Wilde), as a way of explaining why the Ruskin she reveals throughout the book might not appeal to a contemporary audience. Rejecting Ruskin’s malleable self for a more scripted performance, recent stagings of Ruskin’s ideas and experience have offered up a caricature of a “sexually repressed and patriarchal madman” (88). Aronofsky Weltman contends that performing the Victorian in this way serves primarily to uphold our sense of superiority over the rigidity of our predecessors. It also, ironically, reenacts the categorical boundaries that Ruskin and Wilde, through their emphasis on theatricality, tried to disrupt; they become the ossified other against which we can “reinforce current identity categories as natural and fixed” (108).

In keeping with her interest in Ruskin’s ideas of change and mutability, Aronofsky Weltman focuses not on sustained readings of any one text, but on exemplary textual performances, brief interludes that help to illuminate in new ways Ruskin’s often dogmatic positions. What is revealed is not a new Ruskin so much as an intriguing look at some of Ruskin’s habits of mind. The book is at its best when it traces the often competing positions those habits produced. Aronofksy Weltman does not excuse or explain away Ruskin’s contradictions; rather, she shows them to be the logical product of his preoccupation with identity as a social performance. So, for example, she argues that Ruskin advocated educating girls not according to gender-based expectations, but according to their individual potential and talents; only through constant opportunities to exercise and perform their abilities would they have an “identity” in the sense that Ruskin understood that term. But in defending the primacy of performance, Ruskin could get trapped in a radically different language of self, one used by those who argued against the kind of broad educational project he so passionately believed in. For “once one has established a self through performance,” it “requires continual performative upkeep to preserve,” an upkeep that maintains the very notion of an essential identity that Ruskin sought to displace (79).

At times, though, the book engages in the kind of static performance of other Victorians that it seems to want to disrupt in the case of Ruskin. In order to make the case for Ruskin’s performative identity, Aronofsky Weltman suggests that “he resists the Victorian notion of an innate or core identity, seeing instead a self developed through various kinds of performance and play in the educational process” (64). The notion of core identity is neither particularly Victorian (it both precedes the period and continues in various forms today) nor necessarily dominant in the period; one need only look to nineteenth-century poetry, as Ruskin often did, or to Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, for ideas about identity that were anything but essentialist. This might seem a quibble, but it does highlight a tendency in the book to make Ruskin’s positions both somewhat exceptional in the period and recognizably contemporary. When examining Ruskin’s comment in a letter about the relationship between national scenery, race, and education, Aronofsky Weltman suggests that he implies that “race is manipulable and dynamic” (83); given “the prevailing Victorian understanding of race as hereditary” (82) she is surprised by Ruskin’s more contemporary understanding. A more contextualized reading of his comment within a range of nineteenth-century theories about links between land, nationality and race might have led to a more complex accounting of his comments. Or again, when she compares what she calls Ruskin’s feminized science with Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock’s feminist science (48), she flattens out some significant differences in order, one suspects, to make his science seem less quirky, more appropriately contemporary. And yet it is the very quirkiness that she explores in her study of his “mythic alternative to evolution” (50)—an alternative that she draws in part by homogenizing the oddness of much of Darwin’s theory into a merely “masculine paradigm of one-way linear movement of species” (51)—that makes Ruskin continually interesting. This is, after all, the overarching critical point Aronofsky Weltman wants to make with her book. In her concluding chapter, she takes on the elephant in the room in a book on Ruskin and gender—Ruskin’s own sexuality—in order to argue that “his usefulness today stems in part from his rupturing our neatly bipolar sexual paradigms” (115). When Ruskin “queers our expectations” (7) by proving resistant to current theory, she proposes, he is most valuable to our current critical enterprise; when she contends that his ideas about identity are “as permeable, fluid and performed as any current gender theorist’s” (118), the surprising turns in Ruskin’s thought seem to be lost to an attempt to claim him as satisfyingly post-Victorian, the very attitude toward the past she takes to task in her look at current playwrights and theater audiences. In one of the best lines of the book, Aronofsky Weltman proposes that “the function of Ruskin in literary criticism at the present time could be to create a current of fresh ideas about sexual identity, to irrigate—if not inseminate—through what one is tempted to call non-performance theory” (7). In her textual analyses of Ruskin’s contradictory moments, she hints at how such a theory might proceed. While she never articulates what that alternative current might be, Aronofsky Weltman does remind us that Ruskin’s ability to frustrate our own critical desires and anxieties makes reading him more, not less, valuable to current theoretical habits of mind.

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