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Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, materialism, and degeneration at the fin de siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN:0-521-55259-1 (hardback). Price: £30.00 (US$49.95).Cannon Schmitt, Alien Nation: Nineteenth-century Gothic Fictions and English Nationality. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. ISBN: 3351-4 (hardback). Price: US$34.50.

  • Fred Botting

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  • Fred Botting
    Lancaster University

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Take: some texts, any texts, with a hint of darkness and gloom, with mouldering, dank buildings and ill-lit aspects, with some portentous mystery (preferably supernatural), with a glowering villain (possibly diabolical, certainly crazy) and a curious heroine (preferably virginal), with the faintest suspicion of ghostly machinations and sexual transgressions, with a glimpse of something unnatural and disturbing to induce the odd shudder and convulsive twinge. Or, take some texts in which strange forms, hybrid, anamorphotic creatures or exotic figures of regressive criminal intent, lurk in the shadows of virtuous worlds (preferably bourgeois) and threaten dangerous incursions from unknown or eastern empires. These, of course, are but the ingredients gathered at will from the literature of modernity. Having been gathered, glistering with arcane possibility, they form the basis of the black artistry performed by those cultural alchemists of Western academies. Here, with the simple utterance of the magic word, all texts are tainted and decomposed to the extent that, almost universally, lurking beneath is discovered a darkness of sexual intensity, gender disturbance, racial violence, a powerful and shapeless force of transvaluation that leaves no one and no thing safe from an awful dissolution of boundaries, meanings and identities. Such is the force loosed by terrorist critical writing and the incantation of the charm, 'Gothic'. Once uttered, texts assume the shifting, veiled and amorphous shape prescribed by this most mystical and elusive of signifiers: 'Gothic' creeps upon, and consumes, any text so that sexuality, otherness, power, bodies, genders, passions, aesthetics, history, culture and the unconscious are all well and truly gothicked.

At the end of a millenium, modernity, too, finds itself gothicised to a remarkable degree and at a remarkable rate. With the deft flick of a critical wrist, the thread of two centuries' humanist self-narration unravels in diverse entanglements to allow a long look at the monstrosity of the past and the new monstrous forms beckoning from a posthuman future. With a moebial twist, all that has gone evaporates and the solidity of illuminated modernity melts into a malodorous wind of impending terror and curious excitement. The current end of millenium and the two previous fins de siècle have, it seems, much in common. Contemporary commentators celebrate or decry the end of grand narratives, the sublime irruption of something unpresentable in modernity and the revolutionary shocks of technological advancement heralding an in- or post-human machine age. In a similarly sublime manner previous critics saw dark torrents of passion, sensation and desire unraveling the virtuous, rational and moral fabric of proper bourgeois familial and social bonds. These threats were given Gothic form, turned into mob-monsters, depraved villains, malevolent doubles, figures of an inhumanity tracing a pervasive in-humanity. Indeed, if there is any consistency to be identified within so shifting and hybrid a genre as the Gothic, it is the capacity to adapt formally and thematically to the specific and changing requirements of modern fantasy: providing objects of fear and anxiety, Gothic fiction gives shape and outlet to different instances of a generalised sense of anxiety; through narrative patterns of appropriation and expulsion, Gothic figures provide historically and culturally determined social fantasies of the other with some stability, thereby constituting as much as dissolving the boundaries of system and identity. The other (and the Other), of course, remains no more solid or stable than the self, but the phantasmatic identification of otherness, nevertheless, establishes a powerful sense of consistency. Hence the importance of repetition (and repetition-with-a-difference) in Gothic writing; hence, too, the ambivalence at the core of Gothic representations. And, moreover, it is at such obscure points of horror and desire, limit and transgression, violent constitution and dissolution, that criticism finds itself reflected and refracted: the screens that Gothic fiction holds up to familiarly different cultures conceal as much as they reveal, offering objects, others and identities that remain both recognisable and misrecognised.

Kelly Hurley's The Gothic Body and Cannon Schmitt's Alien Nation address the curiously familiar (mis)recognisability of Gothic fiction's form, function and figures in the nineteenth century. The latter, which, but for other associations, may well have been called 'Gothic Nation', examines the production of English national identity through a series of often contradictory oppositions articulated in texts that, in part at least, deploy variations on Gothic tropes. Hurley's account of the many Gothic fictions and stories written during a decadent fin de siècle, in contrast, has little interest in the production of any identity whatsoever and concentrates instead on the infectious disintegrations of human unity which portend all sorts of monstrous and posthuman becomings. In the impressive array of literary material gathered in support of the argument about the period's 'ruination of traditional constructs of human identity'(3), Hurley opens a rich and suggestive vein of Gothic horror, sinking her teeth into numerous examples of decomposing flesh, slimy bodies, anamorphotically bestial and sexually polymorphous creatures. The Gothic Body, displaying the ambivalence of its project in the title's conjunction of definite article and most indefinite of forms, begins with a spectacular instance of its topic: the torn, mutilated, smouldering remains of a body from a Gothic fiction signal the ultimate decomposition of the human subject in a striking reversal of the imaginary misrecognition of subjective unity in the reflected corporeal image. Neither subject nor object, the figure is that described by William Hope Hodgson in the late nineteenth century as 'abhuman'. In the twentieth century, Hurley is quick to note, the formless form without subjectivity or objectivity is akin to what Julia Kristeva calls 'abjection'. Another, related name, of course, linking the horror fiction of one century with the psychoanalytic theory of our own, is the (always capitalised) 'Thing'.

Around the shapeless, disgusting Thing of ultimate horror, an abhumanity so vile, formless and base that it escapes linguistic structure, The Gothic Body weaves its own critical tale from wonderful and strange stories of the nineteenth century: the fictions of Arthur Machen, Hope Hodgson, Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Richard Marsh, to name but a few, are appositely entwined with scientific discourses of the time to present a case for the prevalence of the abhuman and its priority over notions of humanity. Hurley describes 'a general anxiety about the nature of human identity permeating late-Victorian and Edwardian culture, an anxiety generated by scientific discourses, biological and sociomedical, which served to dismantle conventional notions of "the human" as radically as did the Gothic which arose in response to them'. There is more than a problematisation and reconfiguration of the human figure at work, Hurley goes on to argue: 'evolutionism, criminal anthropology, degeneration theory, sexology, pre-Freudian psychology - all articulated new models of the human as abhuman, as bodily ambiguated or otherwise discontinuous in identity'.(p. 5) The conjunction of Gothic representations and scientific discourses in the general promotion of so fullsome an 'abhuman identity' (to deploy the oxymoron of p. 30) is articulated at a point of trauma and exhilaration, the horrified recoil and unbearable jouissance Kristeva finds in abjection. For Hurley, a 'monstrous becoming' is announced: 'one may read its [the fin de siècle Gothic's] obsessive staging and restaging of the spectacle of abhumanness as a paralysis, a species of trauma, but one must also note the variety and sheer exuberance of the spectacle, as the human body collapses and is reshapen across an astonishing range of morphic possibilities: into slug-men, snake-women, ape-men, beast-people, octopus-seal-men, beetle-women, dog-men, fungus-people'.(p. 4) What may be so thrilling to readers raised on horror in a late twentieth century, however, may once have evoked a greater negative intensity. But with the abhuman generalised into a definitive, if formless, condition for those that once considered themselves 'human', a strange, and Gothic, truth is revealed: structures, like sex and identity, are arbitrary and provisional, the idea of full humanity no more than an illusion.(pp. 25-6)

Emphasising the exuberant pleasures of corporeal transformation and dissolution, the liberatory jouissance of monstrous becoming, Hurley uncovers ready parallels between the 1890s and the 1990s in which the abhuman miraculously turns into the 'posthuman': she notes that 'the end-of-century Gothic explored the parameters of abhuman, even 'posthuman', identities in terms surprisingly compatible with those of many theorists closer to our own fin de siècle than the last'.(p. 11) Gothic fiction and late nineteenth-century science make sense, it seems, in the mirror of twentieth-century theory: the body is 'gothic' in the same way that the abhuman corresponds to abjection. Notions of arbitrariness, unfixed identity, semantic plurality, differential play, symbolic disintegration, and desiring-becoming drawn from twentieth-century criticism not only establish the correspondence between the abhuman and abjection's exuberant possibilities, they allow for the final twist of a prospectively posthuman argument. From this position, Gothic comes with connotations of a strangely liberatory strategy, one that does not preserve any sense of self, meaning, morality or social order through horrified repulsion, violent disavowal or brutal expulsion but, on the contrary, viciously enjoys the perverse and playful plurality that comes with crossing and destabilising boundaries: 'in its obsession with abomination', Hurley writes, 'the Gothic may be said to manifest a certain gleefulness at the prospect of a world in which no fixity remains, only an endless seires of monstrous becomings'.(p. 28) The nineteenth-century Gothic appears in a postmodern guise. Already postmodern, already posthuman, it reflects an exact image of the late twentieth century: the 'gleefulness' with which Gothic celebrates unfixed identity and monstrous becomings, moreover, perfectly replicates the critical attitude, more an effect of retrospection and (mis)recognition than of rigorous reading.

The gleeful critical eye seen blindly staring back from the abhuman space of Gothic texts discloses the effects of an ambivalence that serves as the screen for readerly projections, identifications and fantasies. Indeed, the gleeful eye of critical (mis)recognition structures the entirety of The Gothic Body's argument as it focusses on an abject and abhuman figure which spreads virally across nineteenth-century texts to traverse the reading itself. Discussing Frank Aubrey's The Devil-Tree of El Dorado, Hurley insightfully notes the way that appetitive desire and repellant horror conjoin to evoke a 'hunger for disgust' that emanates from the absence of satisfying closure. But the resulting 'infection of abhumanness spreads steadily' to entwine everything in the slimy morass of inescapable abjection.(p. 51) That the critical position is caught up in an abjection of its own identifying is indicated in the all-encompassing use of the abjective 'Gothic', symptomatic of the extent of the viral infection of ab-and post-humanism throughout the book. Writing of T. H. Huxley's discussion of physical life, Hurley comments that 'the microscopic analysis of cell structure reveals what we may call the gothicity of matter'.(p. 33) Discussing evolutionary monstrosities, Hurley notes that 'in Gothic natural history, the anomalous is reframed as the normal'.(p. 61) In a similar vein, 'degeneration... is a "gothic" discourse' and 'the gothic quality' of Lombroso's 'atavistic body' is also noted.(65, 94) The spread of Gothic does not stop here: an account of 'uncanny female interiors' delivers 'gothic materiality' and the malodorous sliminess that 'characterizes her gothic inner body'.(p. 118, p. 124) This leads to 'the gothicity of the abhuman body', 'gothic female genitalia', and, to climax, 'the gothic penis'.(pp. 125-7) It is true that the Gothic genre is remarkable for its flexible and adaptive self-transformations and true, also, that the Thing of abjection, in Kristeva's account, confounds subject and object, sense and nonsense. Their conjunction, in The Gothic Body, amplifies the destabilising characteristics so that all meanings (along with human identities) slide into a gloriously slimy morass from which one is encouraged to imagine the emergence of something wonderfully posthuman.

The celebration of such a messy end to humanity, of course, constitutes the main point of The Gothic Body. And it may, perhaps, be an end that all the humans out there will live to enjoy alongside their gleeful posthuman counterparts. But the problem emerging from the reflective screen conjoining a decadent and a posthuman age can be seen in the way that abjection, abhumanness and the Gothic combine and spread in a particularly slimy generalisation. What makes the body 'gothic' or gives Gothic apparently exclusive rights over bodily representation, when religions, philosophies and poets have been castigating, or celebrating, the evils of fleshy matter for centuries? What enables the 1890s to have exclusive rights to glimpse the 'structurality - the arbitrary, provisional nature - of structure'(p. 26) when, for Michel Foucault and others, the monstrosities that emerged in eighteenth-century systems of classification and fiction also contended with structural arbitrariness? What allows abjection and abhumanness to turn so readily into an exuberant affirmation of posthuman and monstrous possibilities, especially when, Kristeva notes, the ab-ject is cast out, a 'radically excluded' object.(Powers of Horror, p. 2) While it does draw one 'toward the place where meaning collapses', an idea carried through in the gothic of The Gothic Body, abjection has disparate and ambivalent effects discounted by Hurley's argument. The abjection of that foul, taboo, uncanny part of the subject remains, for Kristeva, both a site of decomposition and a necessity for subjective existence: it engulfs, dissolves but also constitutes and founds identity as a matter of movement and process, a site of the most utter profanation and defilement, but also the locus of sacred, totemic values, a place of loss and negativity remaining integral to subjectivity.

Hurley's account of Kristeva and her reading of fin de siecle horror emphasises only the jouissance of new becomings, quick to discount the constitutive effects of ab-jection and expulsion. Noting the possibility that the Gothic may be a 'conserving genre' by which the abhuman affirms the 'fully human', Hurley declares the idea to be 'wilfully perverse'.(p. 25) The criticism is as curious as it is revealing, since, properly speaking, perversion ought to signify the abnormal pleasures and freakish entities evinced in the permutations of hybrids and sexualities of fin de siecle horror: the sight of such monstrosities ought to provide an image of the utmost dissolution and then, by stimulating the appropriate revulsion, cause a movement of rejection and transcendence, negating and conserving the awful threat to self and society by turning the horror into sublime terror. But, celebrating the affirmative potential of monstrosities rather than any act of exclusion (an act itself rendered as 'perverse'), Hurley's criticism performs a canny reversal to appropriate the position of rationality, morality and normalcy and thereby castigate any dissent as 'perverse', perfunctorily rejecting any reading of Gothic that would privilege the act of expulsion which violently abjects the abject back into its properly abject place and thereby reconstitutes a limited and phantasmatic sense of self and meaning. Horror, of course, reveals the boundaries establishing identity to be disturbingly porous. But the accusation of a wilful perversity of reading itself reaffirms, and revalues, those boundaries. The abnormal, the monstrous, the abhuman thus become the rule; strangely, the locus abjection or abhumanness is elevated into the place of fully human being in all but name, that is, so long as one translates the monstrous, exuberant, becoming-posthuman subject as the liberal individual freely seeking the affirmation of any identity s/he chooses, a fantasy of fullness and subjective possibility underlying the liberatory plurality of becoming.

It is at the point of 'wilfully perverse' reading that Hurley's equation between the 1890s and the 1990s begins to fall apart. The transvaluation of perversion to the extent that current valorisations of different sexual possibilities and identities are no longer deviant or abnormal but more like the rule of everyday western twentieth-century life (or at least, as Sylvere Lotringer argues, a dominant leisure activity and social preoccupation), is, it seems, mistakenly transplanted into the fin de siecle of a hundred years ago. Abjection, Kristeva notes, is related to perversion in the sense of both sustaining and deferring a prohibition or law, to mislead and corrupt in ways all-too common among politicians, experimenters, artists and businessmen. It retains a gesture of disavowal or foreclosure akin to that incredulity postmodernity is supposed to display in regard to metanarratives, while continuing to promote actions in accordance with individual wishes and desire alone. Such a position, Kristeva suggests, characterises all sorts of contemporary social postures so that abjection and perversion are evinced with greater frequency in an end of century in which the only superegoic imperative is that of consumeristic enjoyment and transgressive, liberated becoming and not paternal prohibition and restriction. To say the same about the horror fiction and culture of the previous fin de siecle is to flatten the distance between cultures, texts and readers so that all become absorbed in same postmodern morass of horror without even the illusory possibility of transcendence or grand narrative. Though, by the 1890s, the grand narrative of religion was under threat from scientific theory and, consequently, the spiritual bulwarks of humanity were challenged by a range of material advances and conditions, it seems a little wilful to assume that the predicament necessarily meant the complete collapse of human identity: narratives of the bourgeois subject, the family, the nation and empire often thrive on the possibility and imagination of utter, sublime disintegration as a prelude to a vigorous and violent reconstitution. Indeed, a different reading of Gothic fiction's role in disparate periods of modernity, could highlight an opposing case to argue that the point of collapsing identities and sense, in the manner of the sublime, provides the occasion for a thrilling recuperation and elevation of subjectivity at the expense of an intense expenditure of energy and expulsion of alterity.

Alien Nation, as if to contradict Hurley's argument concerning collapsing identities, painstakingly works through the complex entanglements of oppositions by means of which a national subject is established rather than dissolved in the plots of Gothic fiction. Instead of instituting a single opposition, like that of human versus abhuman, the argument proceeds on the basis of cultural and historically specific readings of particular configurations of sexual, class, religious and racial oppositions in texts that include Gothic devices. Apart from Dracula, 'canonical' Gothic texts are not discussed in great detail: it is the conjunction of genres, the significance of Gothic modes within realism, autobiography, criticism or sensation novels that provides the book's focus. A chapter on Wilkie Collins and Matthew Arnold, for example, explores generic boundaries, to demonstrate the importance of Gothic features in the dismantling and reconstruction of national boundaries. Gothic becomes, 'a tool with which to inscribe indelible Otherness'.(p. 109) As a locus of inscription rather than subversion, the importance of production is again underlined. The introduction maintains a critical distance in respect of accounts of Gothic fiction readily celebrating its subversive nature. Instead, Foucault's 'repressive hypothesis' is advanced in support of 'a consideration of how Gothics represent and enact productive (though not necessarily benign) workings of power'.(p. 10) In this light, Gothic fiction is not seen as some glib return of the repressed, but a genre implicated in productive relations of power to the extent that its structures, forms and devices give shape to both the national subject and foreign others through constructive techniques that, in an interplay of limit and transgression, make visible and palpable the imaginary boundaries of subjectivity and nationality. What emerges, in a reading of Ann Radcliffe's The Italian is a kind of paranoid subject constituted by the threat of otherness: the virtuous heroine, identified with English middle-class characteristics, emerges in relation to the Catholic foreigness of the novel's monk-villain. Femininity, according to Schmitt, is crucial in the development of national subjects: the threat to womanhood lies at the basis of cultural narratives of national identity since the female ideal is located at the apex of the identifications, desires and actions around which the notion of nation is formed. The threatened person of the Englishwoman thus stands for the nation itself so that 'the threat of invasion from without produces the Englishness within'.(p. 3) Paranoia, as in Burkean models of the sublime (themselves based on romantic and chivalric codes idealising a certain femininity), depends on a perceived or imagined threat in order to consolidate and legitimate the boundaries and exclusions defining self and nation.

There is a violence inherent in the national self-constitution that Schmitt describes. In a reading of Thomas de Quincey's autobiographical writings in which Gothic plots and structures are liberally borrowed, Schmitt identifies the construction of a threatened and victimised heroine as that of the autobiographer himself. From the Confessions' female figures, to the episode of the Malay, to de Quincey's writing on the Opium Wars, Gothic elements conspire with the shaping of nation in imperial terms. The colonial other, particularly in representations of the Indian 'Sepoy Mutiny', is seen to endanger, degrade and murder British individuals, directing their malicious intent, so the reports and cartoons emphasise, at the delicate bodies of English mothers and their children. Woman becomes a martyr to an imperial cause. Her sacrifice, moreover, is constructed, her reported or threatened violation the just cause for violent - and legitimate - retribution. The eastern other, constructed as a threat to bodily and national security, is given Gothic form and villainous aspect in the discourses of empire, made visible, apprehended, defined in order to justify an array of colonial practices: 'the construction of a victimized identity at the national level, that is, provided the most powerful nation in the world with a rational for aggression based, paradoxically, in a sense of itself as the beleaguered heroine of Gothic romance'.(p. 75) Figures of femininity thus remain central to nineteenth-century representations of nation, articulating home, family and country in relation to foreigness. In Dracula, questions of the eastern other are revised so that the figure of the mother comes to prominence in an Anglo-Irish context, manifesting fears of an alien reproduction close to home, fears of a native and nonanglicised Irish people repossessing their own motherland. Hence, a strangely maternal vampire emerges, feeding her young on a dangerous mixture of blood and milk.

The sophistication of the readings of English fiction offered in Alien Nation are perhaps best displayed in an intricate unravelling of Charlotte Bronte's Villette. Notable for its combination of Realist and Gothic genres, the novel adapts features of the latter in order to intertwine sexual and national elements so that 'a central heroine establishes her Englishness by confronting the perils of Continental persecution'.(p. 83) England and Continent, however, are not simply opposed: their relationship is negotiated by a 'third term' that allows for the production of a sanctioned space of passion, otherwise repressed in proper society. Colony, Schmitt argues, performs this ternary function, allowing a different path to be charted between England and Continental Europe, between models of femininity that allow only for the poles of dutiful drudge or voluptuous exotic, and also between Gothic and Realist modes of dealing with passion and imaginaton, a task for which neither are adequate on their own. What the notion of the third (un)binding term introduces is the psychoanalytic idea of the anchoring point so crucial to the function of imagi-nation. As a limit and excess to symbolic distinctions the third term operates in the manner of the Gothic 'Thing', a point where sense coalesces at the juncture of nonsense. In Villette, notes Schmitt, 'the process by which the validation of individual identity occurs involves the recognition that such distinctions are also illusory'.(p. 106) Nation and subject are indeed imaginary, but in a specific way, in a manner linking symbolic distinctions and imaginary identifications with that little bit of the Real called the Thing. It is the Thing, knotting together often contradictory elements, which establishes both the appearance of consistency and identity and an excess that forever escapes the grasp of symbols or reasons. In this way, as the book concludes with a Zizekian reading of nation, the uncanniness of its subject is established along an external boundary that is also internalised, an 'extimate' point articulating inside and out, home and foreigness. Hence, Schmitt concludes, Gothic can be seen as a 'dangerous tool for nation-making' in that it 'lays bare modernity's selective use of the past'.(p. 167) The ambivalence of the Thing, which Hurley turns into an uncomplicated occasion for monstrous becoming, is here resolutely double, refusing as much as encouraging the literary mechanisms by which pasts are narrated differently in presents.

If one were to question the case Schmitt advances, it would also hinge on the selectivity of the modernity addressed in Alien Nation: the terms employed in unravelling the webs of nation-making in nineteenth-century fiction, though read with incisive txtual specificity, are part of a longer, and perhaps more ambivalently integral, historical conjunction of Gothic forms and modernity. Questions of romance, of chivalry and femininity, of Gothic tribes, heritage and freedoms, are bound up in issues of nation, politics and enlightenment throughout the eighteenth century. Barely addressed in Alien Nation, the relation between a Gothic and native culture and the imposed traditions of neoclassicism informs debates about fiction and politics in a way that structures the nineteenth-century developments discussed by Schmitt. The ambivalent Thing, so central and mysterious in the Gothic romance, remains integral to the invented origins of enlightened modernity, a kind of stain that allows a purity and rationality to be imagined, a darkness that allows light to issue forth, an unpresentable kernel around which grand narratives can unfold. Maybe such a stain is what ultimately defines the human figure who emerges with modernity, the very Thing which makes the human, its stories, relations, nations and cultures, what it impossibly is. Which is not to say that the posthuman is not upon us (the abjected human remnants of a vanishing modernity), but that the occasion for posthumanity will come as an effect of a hyperrational or hyperliberal obliteration not of human or gothic bodies, but of that resistant, recalcitrant, pathological Thing so horrible, yet so necessary, to modernity, subjectivity and nation.