Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life

Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life

Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life

Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life


How does Virginia Woolf conceptualise the material world? In what ways has Woolf’s modernism affected understandings of materiality, and what new perspectives does she offer contemporary theoretical debates? Derek Ryan demonstrates how materiality is theorised in Woolf’s writings by focusing on the connections she makes between culture and nature, embodiment and environment, human and nonhuman, life and matter. Through close readings of texts including To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own, The Waves, Flush, and ‘Sketch of the Past’, he details the fresh insights Woolf provides into issues concerning the natural world, sexual difference, sexuality, animality, and life itself.

Ryan opens up Woolf studies to new theoretical paradigms by placing Woolf in dialogue with Gilles Deleuze – who cites her modernist aesthetics as exemplary of some of his most important philosophical concepts – as well as eminent contemporary theorists including Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, and Jane Bennett, all of whom have influenced the recent critical turn towards new materialisms. Locating theory within Woolf’s writing as well as locating Woolf within theory, Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life brings her modernism firmly into to the foreground of current debates in literary studies, feminist philosophy, queer theory, animal studies and posthumanities.


I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of
mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all
human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of
art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the
truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare,
there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the
words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. (MB 85)

When Virginia Woolf, in this famous passage from her unfinished and posthumously published memoir ‘Sketch of the Past’ (1976), outlines her ‘philosophy’ or ‘constant idea’, she presents us with a ‘conception’ of life that is embedded in materiality: a ‘pattern’, ‘hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life’ (MB 85). It is, as Mark Hussey has recently put it, a form of theorising that is ‘grounded’ and ‘embodied’, and other critics have placed emphasis on Woolf’s formulation of human communality through language and art: Lorraine Sim, for example, writes of ‘a connective principle’ in Woolf’s ‘pattern’ which is revealed through art and society; Emily Hinnov claims, more explicitly, that ‘Woolf views aesthetics as a vehicle for social action that might bring about humanistic unity […] coherence and interconnectivity, she speaks to the web-like linkage between all of humanity, accessible through our participation in art’; Bryony Randall suggests that ‘far from being a unified, self-sufficient, self-explanatory temporal unit’, Woolf’s ‘moment of being’ is an experience inextricably tied to reading and writing; and Jane Goldman, aligning this passage with a Habermasian ‘intersubjectivity’ and a Bakhtinian ‘social origin’ of language, argues that ‘Woolf positions herself as part of a community of subjects, accessible through language but with no transcendent position outside it; […] she understands language to be socially constructed and present only in its material utterances.’

Woolf’s focus here does indeed appear to be primarily on the question . . .

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