Friday, 2 May 2008

New Approaches to Morris

Things move fast in the world of academic nineteenth-century studies, and we can safely predict that two of the latest trends sweeping through the field will very soon find their detailed application to William Morris.

‘Thing theory’ may sound like an oxymoron (since the brute actuality of things is conventionally opposed to the highfalutin, wiredrawn speculations of theory), but is actually an important new trend that we are surely going to see much more of. It is succinctly defined in a complex, challenging essay entitled, precisely, ‘Thing Theory’, by Bill Brown in Critical Inquiry 28 (Autumn 2001), pp.1-16. Of its relevance to Morris and his work there can be no doubt, since it has been a truism of Morris studies since J.W. Mackail’s 1899 biography that (in Mackail’s own words) ‘with him the love of things had all the romance and passion that is generally associated with the love of persons only … He was interested in things much more than people’ (I, 225; II, 93). We thus eagerly await work - probably already in the pipeline - on Morris and the complex ‘thinginess’ of things.

The other new fashion in Victorian studies – and indeed, in literary and cultural criticism much more generally – is ‘food studies’. Anthropology has always been interested in comparative eating practices, but we are now witnessing a much more general ‘alimentary turn’ in cultural studies; and even philosophy, that most disembodied of all disciplines, is getting in on the act!

Of the relevance of food studies to Morris there can, as with thing theory, be no doubt at all. We might cite his own abundant gustatory appetites (which produced that portly figure in the first place), his interest in cooking, the famous post-SPAB dinners at Gattis or post-socialist lecture dinners at Kelmscott House, his stress in the political lectures on us being ‘good animals’ before we are anything else, his contributions to debates around vegetarianism in Commonweal, his own fascination with anthropology as evident in his Germanic romances, and the revealing attention to food and eating habits in News from Nowhere. After all, as every utopian writer since Thomas More (who banished butchers outside the city) has known, food preparation and eating habits are a crucial index to the quality of a civilisation. We already have books on Shakespeare and Food, Jane Austen and Food, etc. Is there enough material, one wonders, for an entire volume on William Morris and Food? Quite possibly: Morrisian gastroaesthetics is likely to prove an ample field.

So, thing theory and food studies … aspiring PhD students, dig here!

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