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In recent years, critical theory has been somewhat marginalized in the field of modernist studies, which has been “made new” by recent engagements with the archive and a reconstructed historical materialism. In his study, Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life, Derek Ryan provides a model whereby the new modernist studies may give rise to a “new modernist theory,” as we might call it. Woolf herself lays the foundation for this theorizing, Ryan claims, offering “conceptualisations of the material world where the immanent and intimate entanglements of human and non-human agencies are brought to the fore” (4). Reading not only Woolf through theory but theory “in and through Woolf,” Ryan blends the material with the theoretical, giving us Woolf as a theorist of materiality. In her skepticism of “the philosophical, ethical, and political pitfalls of individualism, binary oppositions, and transcendence,” Ryan shows that Woolf in many ways anticipates the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, and Karen Barad, and even, in some cases, surpasses them (4). The question of objects and materiality in Woolf’s work is one that has received much attention from scholars, yet Ryan’s study points to new ways of considering these issues, and will certainly inspire further research in its wake.
Ryan offers a series of nuanced, sensitive readings (attentive even down to the level of punctuation) of materialities and animalities in Woolf’s writing. The first chapter takes up the twin motifs of granite and rainbow, famously correlated to truth and fiction in biography in Woolf’s 1927 essay on that subject. Combing through Woolf’s oeuvre for references to these two substances, Ryan provides a wonderful account of Woolf’s transpositions of them, making granite illusory and the rainbow concrete. Granite and rainbow, as he shows, uncouple and recouple throughout Woolf’s writing, “expos[ing] the limits of binary, and totalising, models of language and thought that are often upheld by symbolic understandings” (31). Moving from their role in biography to the memorializing function of granite, Ryan shows how Woolf “subtly twists the conventional symbolic associations of granite monuments erected in the name of patriarchy, war, and empire” (33), specifically through a reading of the obelisks in The Voyage Out and Night and Day, and then by zooming in on the granite of Cornwall as recalled in “A Sketch of the Past” and Woolf’s letters. Turning to the scientific research of our own day, Ryan points out that geologists and physicists are themselves convinced of a certain “solid intangibility” of the rainbow and the mysterious and ephemeral origins of concrete. Meanwhile, an investigation of granite and rainbow in art and mythology, particularly with regard to those works of art and mythological stories of which Woolf was aware, turns up a similarly rich transposing of their otherwise evident qualities.
The next two chapters take up Woolf’s treatment of sexual difference and creativity. Beginning with a consideration of the paradox of androgyny in A Room of One’s Own, Ryan aims to move beyond the concerns with language and subjectivity, which have predominated in the field of feminist criticism. Ryan takes up Braidotti’s conception of the “nomadic subject” to argue, via To the Lighthouse, that Woolf is more interested in the “multiplicity inherent in the androgynous subject” and less in the philosophically limited oppositions of sexual difference. Ryan turns [End Page 859] to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature” to theorize Woolf’s attitude to sexual difference and introduces the concepts which will be so key to the remaining readings in his study: deterritorialization and the becoming-woman of writing, which, Ryan notes, bears an affinity with Woolf’s subversive concept of androgyny in their shared rejection of patriarchy and phallogocentrism. Drawing on these concepts, Ryan coins the neologism “tri-s,” pronounced tries, which he defines as a reading strategy emerging from Woolf’s refusal to allow figures of twos and threes to contain the energy they generate...