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Deanna Kreisel on Ruskin's Dust

Deanna Kreisel (University of British Columbia) on

“Ruskin’s Dust: Sustainability, Organicism, Form”

Much of the content of contemporary sustainability discourse in the West can be traced back to the social reform movements of the Victorian period. As David M. Craig notes, for political economist and art critic John Ruskin, “the exercise of moral restraint as a consumer starts in a recognition of specific physical limits…. [T]his recognition of physical limits and a commitment to moral restraint are inextricably bound.” Patrick Brantlinger extends this line of thinking even further when he insists that for Ruskin, “the apparently private choices of individual consumers, gendered female, are matters of public, national urgency.” This paper will begin to sketch a history of the concept of sustainability in the nineteenth century by examining how Ruskin’s challenge to Victorian models of private domesticity also includes an alternative conceptualization of the relationship between interior and exterior, both bodily and architectural. In his 1858 lecture “The Work of Iron, In Nature, Art, and Policy,” for example, Ruskin delivers a polemical analysis of “raw materials” as an important part of a reconfigured relationship between natural and human activity—a relationship that is characterized by limits and bounded by quite literal frames and rigid structures for which iron becomes the emblem. This paper will trace this line of thinking throughout some of Ruskin’s voluminous body of work, and consider its roots in the Physiocrats’ model of self-contained economic organization and its future in theories of steady state zero growth economies.

Deanna Kreisel is Associate Professor of English at the University of British Columbia. Her book Economic Woman: Demand, Gender, and Narrative Closure in Eliot and Hardy was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2012. She also has published or has forthcoming articles on Victorian literature and culture in PMLA, Victorian Studies, Representations, ELH, Novel, Mosaic, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a new project on late-Victorian utopianism and the history of sustainability.