Elspeth Green responds to David Coombs

David Coombs’s reflection elegantly offers its own “counterfactual” in its consideration of the “pre-disciplinary” period of Tondre’s study. Coombs invites us to consider how Tondre’s portrait of an “open and networked” Victorian intellectual culture might help us “imagine our own disciplinary future otherwise.” Coombs identifies this culture as the kind of “collective protagonist” described in Catherine Gallagher’s Telling it Like it Wasn’t, analogous to fictional, counter-historical “nations” that spark the desire for change within their readers. Rather than seek to repair disciplinary disjunctions, we might imagine an academic world wherein those disjunctions never occurred, or occurred with less rancor.

However, just as Gallagher notes that her thought experiments may end with the “expiration of the given national identity,” I struggled to imagine the academic discipline of literary studies at all in a world where the Cavendish Laboratory did not, as Coombs puts it, “give rise to a more specialized approach to knowledge.” I.A. Richards worked, quite self-consciously, in the shadow of the Cavendish, and his struggles to justify literature as a systematic discipline worthy of an academic place alongside the sciences had a constitutive influence on the trajectory of 20th-century English. By imagining our future in a “pre-disciplinary” mode, we may not simply restore the “equitable relations between Victorian literature and science”; part and parcel, we may also find that academic English ceases to exist as a unique and self-sustaining discipline.

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