Ian Newman, On Amused Chuckling
The first thesis of the V21 Collective’s manifesto identifies a positivist historicism in Victorian studies, pointing out that its “primary affective mode is the amused chuckle.” Whatever else we may think of the claim for a predominant historicism within nineteenth-century literary study, what interests me is the claim for a representative affect, that a scholarly method can have its own idiosyncratic emotional response. Though critical of this affective mode, the statement itself is amusing and invites a chuckle, introducing a circularity into the argument that may repay some attention.
The point is clear enough. There’s a kind of self-satisfied smugness to the Victorian historicist who identifies too readily with her or his object of study. All the critic needs to do is identify a new fact, a new historical phenomenon that has been underappreciated, and then read the literature of the period through this lens in order to illuminate this particular feature of the period. This Victorianist is a retailer in anecdote; a raconteur whose intellectual ambition is, for all the novelty of the particular factoid, merely to reflect back to other scholars an image of what they already recognize. Hence the chuckle. It is a chuckle produced by familiarity, familiarity to both the critics themselves and to their audience. It is recognition, not insight, that historicists are producing.
The notion that criticism possesses affective modes resonates with Rita Felski’s suggestion in her essay “Suspicious Minds” that we pay attention to literary criticism’s affective registers.  The manifesto is, in fact, an amusing intervention into recent debates about our critical methods. Rather than diagnosing a critical mode of “wariness, vigilance and distrust,” as Felski does, the predominant attitude identified here is one of complacent amusement; a comic inversion of Rita Felski’s “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The problem with the attitude Victorianists adopt towards texts, the V21 manifesto suggests, is not that they distrust them, but that they identify too strongly with them. Rather than a serious post-critical mode of analysis that assumes that our text withholds truth, the amused chuckle suggests that we have in fact become uncritically interpellated into our objects of study. We need less identification with our texts, not more.
I have an alternative suggestion, one in keeping with the manifesto’s playful phrasing, and inspired by Franco Moretti’s provocative claim “serious, is the bourgeoisie on its way to being the ruling class.” What if we were to distrust the serious as a mode of critical enquiry; to recognize that “taking something seriously” is itself an ideological position fraught with class and social anxiety, which fails to recognize the importance of the amusing to both the literature we study and our methods of analysis? What if we were to pay closer attention to the amused chuckle itself?
Here we might wish to recognize a distinction: the response the manifesto’s comic intervention invites is perhaps less an amused chuckle than a wry smile; the wry smile is the private, scholarly counterpart of the more publically performed amused chuckle. Chuckling may represent meager intellectual satisfaction but even at its most basic, it is generous and outward-facing, compared to the self-contained wry smile. The chuckle is a little too eager to please, perhaps, but it at least recognizes the importance of shared experience and community – as indeed the V21 Collective itself does in its public, outward-facing, online medium. Shed of its self-indulgence, there might be something admirable in the amused chuckle’s extroversion. It implies the desire to invite a wider, broader conversation.
Nor should we assume that the invitation to converse is itself frivolous. Etymologically the term “amusement” comes from the same root as “muse.” To amuse is to be inspired, to have one’s creativity stimulated, to make something new. Early senses of the verb include to muse intently; to gaze in astonishment; to dazzle; to engage, arrest or occupy the attention of, or to confound. Its earlier meanings were much closer to our word “amaze.”
Our sense of “chuckle,” too, is a more diluted version of an earlier term. Samuel Johnson defined the verb form of chuckle as “to laugh vehemently; to laugh convulsively,” a much more genuine, heartfelt mirth than our more stifled, closed-lipped sense of chuckle. One could, then, render an “amused chuckle” as “convulsive laughter occasioned by inspired astonishment.” I’m not sure this would be such a terrible response to academic scholarship, though this might be a little much to hope for.
I’m not such a linguistic pedant as to believe that we should only attend to obsolete meanings of words, and it’s clear the V21 manifesto’s use of the phrase “amused chuckle” is entirely consistent with its modern usage. But Raymond Williams (among others) has taught us that looking to etymology, understanding the history of our language, can help us understand more thoroughly where we have come from and how we might be positioned in the continuing evolution of language, and of the ideas to which language gives voice. The older meanings of “amused chuckle,” still lingering darkly, just out of sight in our modern usage, are related to the term manifesto itself. To make manifest is to reveal to the eye, to recognize, to make obvious. The fundamental premise of a manifesto is that it should make a break with the old and bring something new to light, and in doing so, hopefully it should to inspire, maybe even to dazzle, or amuse. The implication of the genre of the manifesto is that the old has been thoroughly digested, and is rendered obsolete or unnecessary. This is also the problem with positivist historicism; it identifies too closely with its object of study, it is too attached to the past and has thus rendered itself obsolete. But the only way in which we can express this obsolescence and articulate the new is in a language where old meanings continually tie us to the past. And what are we scholars of literature, if not students of language? What is needed then, as this circularity implies, is not a rejection of historicism in favor of new methods of the future, or indeed a rejection of new methods as we cling to history, but a recognition of the way history has shaped and continues to shape our future; and to bring the past and present and future together into a meaningful conversation.
What such a scholarship would look like is beyond the scope of these musings, and it is indeed the task for our ongoing scholarly conversations, enriched I hope by the V21 Collective. But I rather like the idea that our conversations can have a signature emotion. If our critical modes possess affective registers, might we not reverse the same logic and ask what affects we would want our critical methods to possess? (Just as a thought experiment, I mean, an amusing, playful exercise.) Might we then be able to develop critical methods that produce the affect we desire? What would that affect be? The amused chuckle’s outward-looking, intellectual generosity and spark of inspiration, might not be so bad after all. But no matter what the affective mode, I’d like to see a critical method that recognizes the importance of the playful. It could maybe even aspire to an admiring smile.
Rita Felski, “Suspicious Minds” Poetics Today 32:2 (Summer 2011), 216.
Felski adopts the phrase from Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970), 32.
Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois Between History and Literature (Verso, 2013), 74.