Review: Gothic Matters

In a departure from the usual convention of reviewing academic monographs, this week editor Jon Greenaway has reviewed a special issue of the journal Text Matters on the Gothic. Like us, Text Matters is an open access journal and the whole issue can be read here

Text Matters: A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture – Gothic Matters, Volume 6, Issue 1 (Nov 2016) ed. Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet

Increasingly there has been a clear historical trend in Gothic studies moving away from earlier scholarship which sought to emphasise the non-material aspects of the form. The “quest for the numinous” written about by thinkers such as Devendra P. Varma was criticised for its lack of historicity and subsequent reductionism. In the light of the growth of historicism in Gothic studies (ongoing for at least the last thirty years) there has been a move away from the ephemeral, abstract and intangible towards the material and the corporeal (see Aldana Reyes 2014, 2016 and Mulvey Roberts 2015 for excellent modern examples of this kind of scholarship). It is firmly in this tradition that the new edition of Text Matters, expertly edited by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, belongs. This collection, with the sly punning title of Gothic Matters (both insisting that yes, the Gothic does matter and at the same moment devoting itself to a discussion of Gothic matters) ties its essays to historicism without eliding the fact that the materiality of the Gothic is inextricably bound up in ‘the larger tectonic shifts in epistemology and moral judgment.’ (p. 7) As it has developed, the Gothic has consistently sought to investigate ‘alternative epistemologies’ (p. 8) whilst at the same time, never consistently or inevitably functioning in a subversive way. With a broadly chronological order, the collection manages to hold this tension whilst at the same time showing the changes in theme that preoccupied Gothic writers at differing historical moments.

Beginning in the early 1800s, the first essays identify the presence of revolutionary violence as key to the Gothic of the day. Kristen Lacefield’s excellent essay on Frankenstein the Guillotine, and Modern Ontological Anxiety begins with an exploration of the rhetorical significance of the guillotine to the Romantic Period in relation to the work of Giovanni Aldini, cousin to the more familiar Henry Galvini. Aldini, known for his sensationalised public experiments on the dead, preferred guillotined bodies as the process both fascinated the public and served as a ‘mechanized switch-point from animation to lifelessness.’ (p. 37) As a result of this historical context, Lacefield sees the novel as evincing ‘the very anxieties and tensions symbolized by the guillotine.’ (p. 37) After an exploration of the ‘theoretical slices’ throughout the novel, Lacefield draws out the implications of this background of political violence – both from revolutionary France and, thanks to the connection with Matthew Lewis, the colonial context of the West Indian slave revolts. Lacefield’s careful and considered analysis throws up some provocative and suggestive readings of the novel.

In a collection of this quality there are many other highlights, not all of which can be mentioned here. Karen E. Macfarlane’s essay on the imperial Gothic and the classificatory ambitions of the Victorian era shows just how eloquently the Gothic exploits the tensions between the subject and the Other that exists beyond taxonomic categories. John Armstrong’s essay on the pastoral dead in Contemporary American Fiction moves through a variety of writers including Alice Walker, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Each of these writers deploy the dead or the figure of the corpse as ‘Gothic entities that force the reader to confront America’s darkest social and historical matters.’ (p. 127) Marie Liénard-Yeterian’s essay follows on from Armstrong’s with in-depth analysis of McCarthy’s The Road, examining how it turns to the Gothic in order to confront the contemporary political moment.  Agata Łuksza’s essay on Supernatural focuses on its meta-fictional and generic playfulness as well as the shows interrogation of masculinity – all of which places it firmly within a Gothic aesthetic tradition.

The final piece, Barry Murnane’s essay on the BBC series, In the Flesh, deals with an increasingly prevalent Gothic anxiety — economic neoliberalism and the expanding invasive power of large corporations.  Drawing heavily on Linnie Blake’s work on the neoliberal Gothic, the relevance of the Gothic as a form is found in its preoccupation ‘with matters of direct political economic relevance to contemporary audiences.’ (p. 228) For Murnane the contemporary Gothic is marked by a kind of migration away from its ‘familiar generic and symbolic modes of representation.’ (p. 228) In a world increasingly dominated by uncanny biotechnologies, the ghostly forces of globalised capitalism, In the Flesh showcases not only the connections between neoliberal reality and the Gothic, but also the need for the Gothic to seek out new representational territory. Gothic writing, fascinated as it has been with the impact of narcotics, opium, laudanum and the experiments of doctors lends itself well to the realities of new age of pharmo-capitalist living. His reading of the BBC series highlights the Gothic underpinnings of Big Pharma, desperately keeping an increasingly economically precarious population under medical control. Pharmacology functions ‘as a key part of the architecture of neoliberalism,’ (p. 229) effectively “othering” the suffers of partially deceased syndrome (or PDS) condemning them to be no longer human, but at the same moment no longer the monstrous other. Deeply engaged with the context of global capital, new pharmacological advancement and the more specific site of British conservative austerity politics, the show forces us to confront the Gothic horror of our present political reality, functioning as ‘a diagnostic rather than a therapeutic form of activity.’ (p. 240)

Ranging across much of Gothic history and many of the sites of global gothic texts, the collection is remarkably coherent, urgent and timely. Showcasing a diverse and impressive collection of scholars, who each, in their own way, prove without doubt that the Gothic does and still, matters. In a world of increasing political, economic and environmental instability, this record of the Gothic’s responses to historical moments is extremely valuable. It seems that even now, in this contemporary moment, the Gothic still matters in surprising and revealing ways.

Review by Jon Greenaway

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