Daniel Pollack-Pelzner Responds to Thomas Albrecht

Tom Albrecht’s response to Jesse Rosenthal helps me to understand why I found Good Form so enlightening on the formal experience of Victorian fiction and our critical responses to it, yet so circumspect on the ethical import of that form. Could this partially be an effect of Rosenthal’s organizational focus on genre, which draws out the recurrent formal features of Victorian fiction while flattening the distinctive ethical insights that might emerge from any particular instance of the genre? If Pip and Miss Marjoribanks follow the same trajectory of realizing their individuality by locating it in an already determined social consensus, does it matter whether their individualities differ? Albrecht makes me think, too, about whether the project to justify the humanities (to administrators, to donors, to legislators, to prospective majors) on ethical grounds depends only on invoking the category of ethical experience or the process of ethical inquiry without specifying any particular ethical stance or outcome. If the study of literature engages our moral intuitionism, or makes us self-reflective about the roots of our intuition, is that enough to save us from the university scaffold? If, as Rosenthal suggests, our contemporary formal terms stem from Victorian moral categories, does our defense against STEM-centrism also derive from Victorian morality—say, from Matthew Arnold, in “Literature and Science” (1882), standing up for humans to study “humane letters” instead of more “useful” fields: “Letters will call out their being at more points, will make them live more”?

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