- The Novel as Event
The Novel as Event is both novel and evental, bold and often beautiful; it provides a new account of the world-making power of literary language, one intended to interrupt, reorient, and constitute anew the founding claims of so many Victorian studies. Those historicist claims, in Mario Ortiz Robles’s astute assessment, habitually privilege the cultural work of the novel—its conducting of the individual, its dissemination of power, its manufacturing of consent—but lack a persuasive or thoughtful explanation of how literary language wields such force. Ortiz Robles endeavors to shine his light into this blind spot by exploring how words do things. J. L. Austin long ago proffered the performative as this category of active, agential language: words the very enunciation of which constitutes a new state of affairs. Building on elaborations of the performative by Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and J. Hillis Miller, Ortiz Robles argues for the centrality of the performative to the novel, especially the Victorian novel.
This argument consequently offers a highly original substantification of one of the most abiding truisms about the Victorian novel: that its favorite topics are weddings and wills. Ortiz Robles indexes this preoccupation to a deeper occupation with performative language, with speech acts (of which “I do” and “I bequeath” are Austin’s archetypes) whose success (what Austin terms “felicity”) depends on a series of institutional and social contingencies (ix). With a fine eye for paradox, Ortiz Robles argues that plots that culminate in felicitous speech acts are “often assembled as a function of the infelicity of the acts” on which they focus (14). Infelicitous acts, “in their inactivity or quiescence” become “the engine of narrative development” (15), and “the infelicity of conventional speech acts is the condition of possibility of narrative” (206). As he puts it in one of the book’s many happy acts, “to paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy performatives are alike but an unhappy performative is unhappy after its own fashion” (15).
The varieties of infelicitous experience power the engine of The Novel as Event’s own narrative development. Without resting on familiar instances of weddings and wills, it briskly plots toward an evermore intricate and capacious anatomy of the performative. This is both its greatest accomplishment and its greatest challenge for the reader. In the beginning of the book, the speech acts that constitute new states of affairs invent the subject who speaks: in the process of saying “I do” the subject of a speech act not only weds, calling into being a new relationship, but she also becomes [End Page 176] herself at that juncture, calling into being the “I” who speaks. Because it is provisional, ephemeral, and situated, this self must be continually recalled to life and reiterated into existence. Performatives of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s formula “I am I” thus entail repetition with difference—acts whose very proliferation opens the possibility of change, mistake, or masquerade (The Science of Knowledge [J. B. Lippincott, 1808], 67). These possibilities are variously figured in the middle of the book as specific rhetorical devices such as “impersonation” (65), “vanity” (109), and “anacoluthon” (47). By the book’s end, the constitutive infelicity that is paradoxically generative of narrative inheres within the individual speech act itself, and “performative” has enlarged to include many modes of “interruption” (xv), indeterminacy, and “Figure” (205). Under Ortiz Robles’s probing gaze, the category of the performative finally signifies an agency and materiality of language in excess not only of reference (in Austin’s pioneering distinction) but in excess of itself as speech act: a conjuring poiesis whose powerful making might equally dematerialize what it promises to produce. As he puts it: “the performative, understood as a force inherent to all language use, resists referentiality absolutely, even to the extent of positing a materiality that has no matter” (181).
At times, Ortiz Robles’s analysis of the performative is so nuanced as to give even a theoretically adept reader a touch of vertigo. It is thus...