Charlie Tyson: Moral Caesuras

It would be pleasant, though (ultimately) ethically corrupting, to dwell always in possibility, finding fault with the present state of affairs, contemplating how matters might be improved, but never venturing forth to change anything. For any elaboration of ideals—whether in a constitution, a policy proposal, or a scholarly manifesto—comes with the risk that those ideals will not, or cannot, be realized. Identifying and describing appropriate principles and goals, as the V21 collective’s manifesto sought to do, is no small feat. Putting principles into practice is a still more delicate and error-prone task. In the case of a young and politely insurrectionary movement such as V21, skeptics might take an implementation failure as proof that the aims articulated in the manifesto were misguided from the start.

I am pleased and a bit relieved, then, to find that V21 has translated its manifesto into provocative scholarly work, work that is worthwhile on its own terms and which also demonstrates the manifesto’s fruitfulness. The papers collected in V21’s special issue of boundary2 online bode well for the community’s intellectual vitality. They also open up many paths for a response. I reluctantly bypass a number of metacritical issues, including questions of audience (how can we claim the attention of readers who are not professional Victorianists?) and style (might a turn to “essayistic prose,” at this deliberative stage, help?) (Hadley 2016). I focus instead on one theme that emerged in multiple symposium sessions: the problem of ethical blind spots, or, to use Zachary Samalin’s arresting term, “moral-aesthetic caesura[s]”—those belonging to the Victorians and to us (Samalin 2016).

Carolyn Betensky and Bruce Robbins share a concern with large-scale ethical failures—racism, contempt for the poor, humanitarian atrocities—that the Victorians acknowledged inconsistently or not at all. Betensky and Robbins urge us to consider instances where people look away, where they decline to acknowledge injustice or horror. But whereas the blind spots Betensky describes are partial and context-dependent, the moral caesura Robbins identifies is near-absolute and occurs, allegedly, across an entire population.

Betensky invites us to see the “self” as a collection of discontinuous, context-dependent “self-states” (Betensky 2016). We (the Victorians and us) notice things at some times but not others, depending on who we’re with and what we’re trying to achieve or avoid in a particular moment. Our behaviors and beliefs are discordant: we are skilled at “not knowing” things we know. “[D]issociation,” Betensky summarizes, “is in some sense a normal state of affairs.” This psychoanalytic account of the self as a compendium of jostling self-states has clear political implications. Sometimes the thing we fail to notice consistently is another person’s pain. Although such “pathways of non-cognition,” of not-knowing, are culturally sanctioned and have wide effects, they occur on the level of the individual, being grounded in our psychological makeup. Crucially, these patterns of disjointed thinking have left a textual record. “The same Dickens who wrote humanitarian epics wrote deeply racist essays,” Betensky notes. “The same narrator in Jane Eyre who famously makes common cause with slaves describes Bertha in stock racist terms.” The presence of incongruous perspectives in the textual record makes these ethical blind spots plain.

Robbins, in his keynote, focuses not on inconsistency but on absence, on “non-representation” (Robbins 2016). A certain kind of moral thinking, he holds, appears to be missing from the nineteenth-century novel. Could it be, he wonders, that the representation of atrocity in a self-accusatory sense—a representation that involves the thought that “we” collectively (our people, our civilization) have done something outrageously cruel to “others”— is absent from the corpus of Victorian fiction? For Betensky, the additive presence of disjointed sentiments or ideas in the textual record provokes a second glance. For Robbins, it is the apparent absence of the idea of “atrocity” from nineteenth-century literature’s paper trail that prompts inquiry. His thesis appears to demand some modification. Audience members at the symposium argued that there are, in fact, nineteenth-century literary works that exhibit the self-accusatory consciousness of political brutality that Robbins has in mind; so moral thinking of this kind might have been marginal in the period rather than wholly nonexistent. Yet his method of looking for moral-aesthetic lacunae remains potent, even if the absence he perceives is not absolute.

V21 contributors often, and with justification, accent continuities between our time and the Victorian period. The present moment, as Anna Kornbluh and Benjamin Morgan put it, is, like the Victorian period, a “gilded age” marked by income inequality, financial speculation, and reliance on coal-based energy (Kornbluh and Morgan 2016). Robbins reminds us that discontinuities, too, shed light on the present. But he sets a difficult path for future researchers to follow. How can we look for absences, for ideas that are missing from the nineteenth-century cultural corpus? Demonstrating an absence rather than a presence would seem to require an exhaustive search and, in studies of the history of moral thought, risks falling in train with a simple (or even Whiggish) tale of moral improvement over time. This epistemic quandary becomes more perplexing, more Meno-like, when we turn to our own era. Ethical progress comes in part from recognizing our present moral caesuras. But how can we detect these fissures, these acts of non-thinking? One way, many of us would agree, is rigorous attention to the past. As a number of contributors point out, the Victorian period can enable productive self-analysis because the nineteenth century is immediate enough to seem familiar yet sufficiently remote to seem alien and strange. Another strategy, hinted at by Robbins’s audience, comes from discerning which currently marginal ways of thinking we should take more seriously.

Sometimes a moral caesura is a missed opportunity to think more boldly. I remember racing home one March evening in Oxford, my shoes clacking on the flagstones. I had sprung free from a punishingly ponderous guest lecture on a piece of Dickens ephemera and was still blinking from the talk’s opacity. I opened my laptop and, in a move Dickens would have disapproved of, began searching for law school programs to which I might apply. I have long believed that an academic career was a legitimate way to work toward a better society. Yet in that moment I felt uncertain. Most of the scholarship I was encountering was either apolitical or predictably fatalistic, conforming to the assumption that the world as we know it could not be changed, just lamented. The ethos of V21, its daringness to keep the present world in mind, feeds my hope that academic work in the humanities can be a public-spirited mission.

Harvard University

Betensky, Carolyn. “Notes on Presentism and the Cultural Logic of Disassociation.” boundary2 online. 2016.

Hadley, Elaine. “Closing Remarks.” boundary2 online. 2016.

Kornbluh, Anna, and Benjamin Morgan. “Introduction: Presentism, Form, and the Future of History.” boundary2 online. 2016.

Robbins, Bruce. “On the Non-Representation of Atrocity.” boundary2 online. 2016.

Samalin, Zachary. “Genealogies of Self-Accusation.” boundary2 online. 2016.

V21 Collective. “Manifesto of the V21 Collective.”

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