Benjamin Noys, Fog, Mud, and Dust
Fog, Mud, and Dust
The V21 Manifesto, which characterizes the mode of Victorian studies as ‘positivist historicism’ (thesis 1), also suggests ‘we are Victorian’ (thesis 8). I want to add a speculative and polemical suggestion that ‘we are Victorian’ because this ‘positivist historicism’ is a signature sign of Victorian thought (a certain dominant form of Victorian thought, at least). ‘We have never been modern’, because we remain Victorian. We not only live in a world in some continuity with the Victorian world, with a series of shared problems, capitalism most evidently, but we think like Victorians.
A confession. I am not a Victorianist, although I do have a deep liking for Victorian literature. My distance, institutionally and professionally, however suggests to me that ‘positivist historicism’ is not solely a problem of Victorian studies, but rather is a wider mood or tone, a veritable Stimmung, of the contemporary humanities. The emphasis on density, materiality, the weight and heft of the past, the proliferation of objects, the thin or non-existent line between the animate and inanimate, are all signs, I suggest, of Victorian reading. Instead of a detachment from the Victorian that we must bridge, in fact, like Borges’s Tlön, the Victorian is overwriting our moment. This is Franco Moretti’s ‘fog’: the Victorian period is not the period of disenchantment, but rather a restoration of veils, disguises, sentimentality, which become embedded into our object-world.
The Victorian fog spreads. It penetrates the modernist moment. We have Woolf and the servants, Woolf and objects, and networks, Woolf as history, as the ‘texture’ of the past, to choose only one example. The Bloomsbury ‘break’, along with many others, is blurred and muddied. Continuity and gradualism, the great gods of (certain) Victorian historicisms, return to absorb any and all breaks, except the little ones, the ‘micro’, so beloved of an age disenchanted with revolutions, i.e. our age.
Moretti’s fog is also, of course, Dickens’s fog, and the mud through which the Megalosaurus might waddle up Holborn Hill. Edmund Burke’s ‘dense medium’ of human passions and concerns become disconcertingly materialized in fog and mud. Dickens parodies ‘Latourian litanies’ in advance:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
And dust. That uncanny ‘object’ of Our Mutual Friend, from which wealth can be made: ‘On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,—all manner of Dust.’
If we are still Victorian, then this suggests the critical path of actually returning to the Victorian to unlock our Victorianism. This is one way to view the project of Walter Benjamin, although through the vector of the ‘19th century’, with his focus on France and Germany. Benjamin reads the bourgeois interior of the 19th century as the site of a crime that can only be solved by the detective:
The bourgeois interior of the 1860s to the 1890s, with its gigantic sideboards distended with carvings, the sunless corners where palms stand, the balcony embattled behind its balustrade, and the long corridors with their singing gas flames, fittingly houses only the corpse.
The density of the bourgeois object-world, its faux-Orientalism, is all evidence of the crime. In the detective novel ‘the bourgeois pandemonium is exhibited’, the crime(s) that this density solicits are solved.
We return as detectives to the scene of the crime. Better, we should return as detectives to the crime. The crime is, however, now one embedded in our thinking, in our treatment of objects, in our desire for density. While the Victorian period traced that process of embedding, not only with celebration but also anxiety and fear, we have too often accepted the results. Our retromania was written in advance: a desire or nostalgia for an object-world in the making in our situation of an object-world in slow disintegration.
 This work was prompted by the kind suggestion of Anna Kornbluh. It owes much to my conversations with Fiona Price and Joe Kennedy, who are not responsible for my conclusions.
 Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature (London and New York: Verso, 2014), p.108.
 Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Project Gutenberg, 1997: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1023/1023-h/1023-h.htm
 Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, Project Gutenberg, 2006: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/883/883-h/883-h.htm
 Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: NLB, 1979), pp.48–49.