Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Doing Things with Poems: Performativity and Cultural Form

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Doing Things with Poems: Performativity and Cultural Form

Article excerpt

As one who works on women's poetry (in my case, Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon), my critical approach entails reflection on the period's constitution as a field of study. Hence a critical skepticism of the terms Romantic and Victorian. Whither Victorian poetry? Well, first, into the long nineteenth century. Second, out of the critical orphanage. While Romanticism has had a long-standing association with theoretical reflection, Victorian poetry has often appeared in search of a theory to call its own. Now that romanticists have dismissed deconstruction for a historicism which no longer looks new (while declining the invitation to help repair the idealist/materialist rift), perhaps we will see "Victorian" poetry emerge as a stage for critical innovation.

The construction of this stage is indebted to the theoretical heavyweights of the nineties, cultural studies and queer theory. In the space of fifteen years queer theorists brought feminism to her knees, rendered gender conceptually redundant, and produced one of the major paradigm shifts of the last part of the century. Given that queer theory found its footing in late nineteenth-century literary representation, it should come as no surprise to find its influence in so much innovative work on poetry in the field. (1) Crucially, queer theory taught us that attentiveness to the historically constructed nature of things is not enough, that there is a point at which our categories of thought produce what they claim to categorize. The dual allegiance to cultural constructivism and the cultural work of epistemology has perhaps allowed queer theory to come closest to mediating the idealist/materialist divide.

In its incessant quest for new disciplinary alliances, nineteenth-century studies has also become enamored with "material culture," plucked from the social sciences in a characteristically tentacular move. (2) Once translated into literary studies, its critical perspective becomes moored somewhere in phenomenology, under the assumed aegis of Merleau-Ponty and his popularizers, Martin Jay and Jonathan Crary. (3) The problem with material culture is that there was so very much of it about, and so an untheorized material culturalist can all too easily resemble the Victoriana train-spotters of old, scribbling away in their floral-patterned notebooks. However cultural phenomenology, with its notions of perceptualism and the everyday, turns out to share with queer theory a theoretical investment in performativity (albeit one not as stringently articulated as we might wish). Consequently, nineteenth-century scholarship has become increasingly focused on the performative function of both the commodity form and mass visuality, with a correspondent theoretical shift away from the textual model to one of the phenomenological and performative. (4)

I would like to see work on poetry move beyond the idealist/materialist impasse. While critical work in the nineties was dominated by historicism and the cultural turn, modes of reading which strive to overcome the idealist/materialist opposition appeared in a steady trickle. Isobel Armstrong's watershed study succeeded in placing this challenge high on the critical agenda. Her insistence on the "double poem"--a reading attentive to the way the poem performs both an expressive and an analytic operation simultaneously, always foregrounding its own particular investment in a mode of representation and the epistemological assumptions made therein--has shaped much critical work, particularly that on women poets. (5) Armstrong identified this critical mode as "new Hegelian" in its desire to engage with the text as a struggle (p. 15). We might now wish to complicate Armstrong's double poem by manipulating her imperative that the poem is both expressive and analytic into a claim that with regards to both culture and epistemology, the poem is not merely representative but constitutive.

So the double poem might be rethought as the performative poem, where poetry is understood as a cultural form which operates according to a theory of performativity. …

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