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Monica Latham, Caroline Marie, Anne-Laure Rigeade, Recycling Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Art and Literature

Nicolas Pierre Boileau
Bibliographical reference

Monica Latham, Caroline Marie, Anne-Laure Rigeade, Recycling Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Art and Literature, London : Taylor and Francis, 2021, ISBN : 978-0367701147

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1The continuing relevance of Woolf’s work in the contemporary era and the many works that have persistently been influenced, if not inspired, by her work cannot but be a matter of great wonder. After the collection published by A-M. Smith-Di Biasio and C. Davison (Contemporary Woolf, 2014), the Société d’études Woolfiennes continues to support those that try to untangle the many ways in which Woolf resonates with writers, artists and readers, contemporary or past, learned or common, and invites critics and readers to constantly re-consider what they hold as truthful, substantial and permanent – this was the object of a Berkeley-France funded project held by Claire Davison and Elizabeth Abel in 2019 and 2021 on ‘resonance(s)’. It is within this context that three French scholars decided to rejuvenate the question of Woolf’s influence through a word that could not be more contemporary and up to date: “Recycling”. Following the successful conference held at the University of Lorraine in 2019, Monica Latham, Caroline Marie and Anne-Laure Rigeade have put together this fascinating collection of 12 essays, a foreword by Mark Hussey, a lyrical short story by Christine Froula and the transcription of ‘a conversation’ between feminist critic Susan Stanford Friedman and British artist Kabe Wilson. This collection pursues one of Monica Latham’s consistent interests in Woolf’s iconisation in popular culture, and particularly her becoming a character in fiction, the conclusions of which have recently been published: Woolf’s Afterlives (Routledge, 2022).

2The collection deserves our attention for bringing together works that deal with a range of topics that is mind-boggling, from hip-hop culture, tattoos and astrology, to high-brow theatre and artistic performance, but it is essential beyond this aspect. If the book certainly delineates a catchment area of Woolf’s work, it will be extremely valuable for those in need of an overview of the persistence of Woolf’s influence and how writers and artists, but also more ‘common’ readers, pay tribute to her texts, by reworking her work and influence into the contemporary world. What the collection does beyond this however is to offer an epistemological reflection that could pave the way for a new understanding of what we have come to unquestionably regard as intertextuality. Throughout the collection, and more particularly in the brief but intense summary given in the introduction, the question raised is epistemological: ‘Recycling’ is thought as a form of ‘adaptation’, writes Hussey; Latham, Rigeade and Marie prefer to lay the stress on the way this term invites a reconsideration of the way waste, poor quality and reuse can relate, evoking a practice that could evoke the artistic revaluation of ‘kitsch’. Elsewhere in the collection, Christine Reynier ties it back to the materiality of artistic productions during the Modernist era, evoking collage as a paradigmatic mode of creation, which transforms waste into a new product, insisting therefore on the process of transformation. The editors attribute the emergence of these questions, which had never been applied to the work of Woolf before, to the field of cultural studies, most probably via the new insights and developments of eco-feminism. Through this concept, they also find the structure of the collection by highlighting how saving is also altering, modifying, erasing, losing; how recycling suggests the necessity to remediate, to find ways of patching up things that are broken or that need fixing, etc. What Latham, Rigeade and Marie are seeking in the process is the foundation of a language that could accommodate, fix, entangle again the discourse on art and the discourse on literature. This is why they raise the questions of whether recycling could be a way of repurposing, i.e. an artistic practice in which a work is reused and mediated for other purposes. The three authors reflect upon the validity of recycling as a concept offering potential outcomes, in what is neither a prescriptive approach nor one that is lacking in conceptualization.

3The book therefore seeks to set up a framework through which critics may start thinking about the politics of influence and tribute without necessarily analyzing it as a form of intertextuality. Mark Hussey lays the ground for one of the tensions recycling suggests in Woolf’s case: on the one hand, the notion that Woolf is the author of a work whose variety continues to influence because she is a cultural presence likely to be invoked in the title of a play, such as Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which does not include any direct reference to her life or works; on the other hand, recycling suggests that there are dark, obscure passages of Woolf’s works that do not translate well into the contemporary world, in particular her stance regarding race, class, and her problematic relevance for intersectional critics. Hussey’s reading here is marked by the political urgency of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the USA, and the resonance of this political context with Kabe Wilson’s work that seeks to understand how he can both attach himself to and revere ‘the work of a racist white modernist’ (xiv). Recycling therefore is not sanitizing the past; it is confronting it to keep what’s relevant in it and refashion it for specific uses.

4The first section is the most conceptual, “Recycling and Composting Virginia Woolf”. In the first contribution, Reynier traces Woolf’s reflection about the commonality of goods, their use and reuse in art, through a lexical hesitation between ‘common ground’ and ‘common pool’. Reynier’s painstaking analysis unpicks the various connotations of each without seeking to abolish the tensions inherent in Woolf’s hesitation: how to appropriate without first positing ownership, and how to conceive of a common good without first establishing the existence of private one(s). Tension is a key word to work through Woolf’s texts. Reynier analyses how Woolf seeks to incorporate everyone’s voices and words, annihilating any prejudice regarding the value of some as opposed to the irrelevance of others; the process of altering previous texts is also a way of breaking free from the reverence of literary texts and allowing readers to look at them and use them as they choose. Literature becomes a common pool of ideas, voices, words, etc. This theoretical approach is furthered by Chaudhuri, who looks at compost as a gesture and a metaphor which may enable critics to revise their opinion about Woolf’s way of dealing with history, biography and facts. Thanks to this section, focused on Woolf as a recycler, the reader has a better view of why Woolf is the appropriate author to evaluate the relevance of recycling and literature and how to work out the seeming distance between materiality, waste and literature.

5This section continues with one of the central pieces of the book, first because of its length and because of the way it resonates with other pieces in the collection. In 2009, British multimedia artist Kabe Wilson took to recycling Woolf’s 1929 feminist classic, A Room of One’s Own. The artist cut the 37,971 words of Woolf’s text and re-arranged them to create a new story, now entitled Olivia N’Gowfri – Of One Woman or So, a novella about a young woman of mixed race studying at Cambridge 80 years after the publication of Woolf’s essay. It took six weeks for the artist to stick the words onto the piece of paper now appearing as a scroll that is exhibited in art rooms. This project was then turned into a performance for its first exhibition, as is explained in Valérie Favre’s contribution. Susan Stanford Friedman and Kabe Wilson exchange their views about his work, Woolf’s essay, what Wilson did and wanted to achieve and the contemporary artistic movements that his project stems from. It may not be innocent that Wilson’s text is now on a scroll because Friedman insists that recycling is either a reproduction or a transformation; but in any case, it remains enmeshed in the ‘old material’ which remains. This connection with the past – the connection being linked to repetition but also transformation – is central to her questions to Kabe Wilson. She therefore emphasizes the renewal of Woolf’s material, how these exact same words affect us in a different way, while keeping an air of the previous text – something which I translated also as exemplifying what has been shown by many as a tension between singular uses of language and the fact that all we have are the words of others, the words that others have spoken before us, the words that others arrange differently. Friedman pursues this view of recycling throughout her interview that touches upon hip-hop, visual arts, Woolf’s writing strategy and many more ideas: she refers to ‘Woolf’s uncanny ability to crystallize complex ideas and feelings into iconic phrases’ as a way of explaining why her work has been consistently recycled and reworked.

6Kabe Wilson’s responses are exciting and full of novel perspectives, partly because he only considered the scholarship on Woolf’s text after reading it, so that his own interpretation was a contemporary reader’s ethical stance on the text. Most of all, his view of Woolf’s text interrogates the dark continent of her past prejudices while paying tribute to her capacity for equivocation. This is how Wilson explains that Woolf was able to read the literary tradition from a very personal point of view, while offering the option of being treated in her turn as an item of the tradition that needs chucking and re-emerging, which is what Olivia does in Wilson’s text. Here, I can only say that both the format – the interview – and the quality of the dialogue between the two authors make for a very exciting piece. The interview is followed by Valérie Favre’s reading of Kabe Wilson’s work and Anne-Laure Rigeade’s analysis of Gérard Lebègue’s pictures, an artist and collector who created a series of sixteen photographs designed for the conference held on Woolf’s Recycling and which have been reproduced here. The two articles prolong the dialogue opening the section and correspond to what the section seeks to uncover, i.e. the processes of appropriation, exchange, reuse and cutting of various art forms and works in order to create new objects. Not only does Valérie Favre’s analysis restore the dialogue that we thought was finished with Kabe Wilson, and which continues here in the more traditional form of academic writing, but it ties in nicely with the questions raised by Lebègue around the tensions between ghostly presence and embodiment, ever so central to visual arts.

7The third section of the book is dedicated to the stage, with Elisa Bolchi’s contribution to the relation between dance and Woolf, which echoes the last contribution of the section, by Jean-Rémi Lapaire. While one works with professional dance shows, the other uses dance as a pedagogical strategy for acquiring language skills. If Bolchi thinks in terms of definition and categorisations, trying to highlight the process of Wayne McGregor’s appropriations of Woolf’s texts and their transmediation into body language, so to speak, Lapaire presents us with the results of research-action in ‘performative teaching and learning,’ in which the bodies of learners help them construct a ‘perception and recognition of reality’. Lastly, Pascale Sardin analyses the case-study of a play performed in Nice and combining Woolf and Duras, an association that is perhaps less consensual than other comparisons often made (Woolf and Mansfield, Woolf and Sarraute, etc.). She brings in the political dimension of feminism, while sticking to a more intertextual approach in which the Woolfian hypotext ‘launches’ it into ‘new circuits of meaning’. She particularly lays the stress on all the elements that are reused, not just from the two authors but also in popular culture, so that the works do not create cacophony but a ‘politicised space’ of community. Brook appropriates postmodern theatrical recycling, collage and bricolage to create a humorous and convivial performance.

8Finally, the last sections look at Woolf as a textual icon – analysing cultural re-appropriations of Woolf herself more than her work and how she is transformed into an object in other fictional works, or ‘biomemoirs’ to use Latham’s perspective. The three articles comprise reflections on To the Lighthouse as a haunting presence in contemporary productions, with a contribution by Latham on Katharine Smyth and one by Anne-Laure Rigeade on French appropriations of the traumatic past of Woolf’s novel and Bethany Layne on biofiction made about Woolf. The very last section sees Woolf in unheard-of contexts, with Caroline Marie’s illuminating work on Woolf as an inspiration for tattoo makers and what this popular movement of quoting literary figures in tattoos mean; Cristina Carluccio, on the other hand revisits the association of Woolf and astrology in the popular press.

9I hope to have shown that this book is an exciting, engaging collection of works that force us out of the comfort zone of intertextual practices by also creating new tones of criticism, as exemplified by Christine Froula’s contribution which needs reading as creative work, moving and personal, rather than a critic’s doing. All of the contributions, the details of which I could not delve in this review, are of high standard and resonate in many ways with Woolf’s existing scholarship.

10I will finish by evoking some of the questions I think this book leads to: if Kabe Wilson’s view of recycling is to be trusted, then recycling is a way of ‘correct[ing] the damage’. This is indeed what the environmental metaphor leads to but we may wonder what damage Woolf as done that needs her recycled. In other words, this runs the risk of claiming that contemporary readers and critics know better and intend to declare Woolf faulty, guilty of thinking differently, of failing to anticipate how we think today – positing that our way of thinking is more sophisticated. Although this is valid from the activist point of view, as critics, it is our duty to comprehend what our discourses hide or neglect or overlook too and the damage they do.

11This leads me to another question which I think isn’t raised clearly in this book – and of course a book cannot do it all – but which I would like to see addressed in the future: is recycling only a positive destiny for waste? My question is willingly provocative. What I mean by this is that what needs to be thought about as well is why we need to recycle, other than to satisfy our appetite for consumption? How does recycling address that appetite – call it desire, imperative, injunction, discourse – for consumption and reconfiguration of things past. What or who do we recycle for? Literature and Woolf continue to inspire many questions.

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References

Electronic reference

Nicolas Pierre Boileau, Monica Latham, Caroline Marie, Anne-Laure Rigeade, Recycling Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Art and LiteratureMiranda [Online], 26 | 2022, Online since 24 October 2022, connection on 02 February 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/50438; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.50438

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About the author

Nicolas Pierre Boileau

Maître de conférences en littérature britannique
Aix-Marseille Université
nicolas.boileau@univ-amu.fr

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CC-BY-NC-4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International - CC BY-NC 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

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