Between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century, the number of skills that people claimed to be able to teach and learn dramatically increased, as a host of activities previously understood as either innate or spontaneous - stuttering, singing, masturbating, and recovering from alcoholism or other neurotic conditions - were increasingly brought under the remit of acquirable technique. That expansion, I argue, indicates the extraordinary success of realist aesthetics, whose core principle was that the modeling of social relations under the conditions of fiction would allow readers to develop more ethically and erotically satisfying lives. In particular, I argue that Eliot’s vigorous engagement with the theme of technique offers valuable insights for trans studies, and for trans people more broadly, whose techniques of living (and passing) in new sexual and gendered identities likewise probe the limits of what skills can be taught and learned under the broad remit of daily practice.
Grace Lavery is Associate Professor in the Department of English at UC Berkeley, and affiliated faculty in Gender and Women’s Studies, Critical Theory, and the Center for Japanese Studies. Her first book Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan was published by Princeton UP in 2019, and her essays have appeared or will appear in Critical Inquiry, Differences, ELH, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Modernism/Modernity, and elsewhere. She is currently working on three book projects: a study of George Eliot entitled Getting Better: Realism, Repetition, and the Rhetoric of Technique, a trans feminist narratological assessment of the sitcom entitled Closures: The Transsexual and the Sitcom, and a memoir entitled Please Miss.