Lara Kriegel, On Disciplinarity and Dual Nationality
When I fly into London’s Heathrow airport, I approach UK border patrol with a combination of trepidation and anticipation. I steel myself for the officiousness of the border agent, while I look forward to the world that opens after my passport is stamped. I approach this discussion in a similar fashion. Trained as a historian, my application for entry runs the risk of being deferred, if not turned away. I hope, though, that my status as a dual citizen will allow me entry. I have spent almost five years now working jointly in an English Department and a History Department, my appointment a 50-50 split between the two. During this time, I’ve endeavored to become fluent in the language of English, to train my ear to the questions of literary critics, and to hone my understandings of the ways you read now. I’ve taught in English classrooms at all levels and I’ve listened to my colleagues in hours of graduate exams. I sit on fourteen exam or dissertation committees in an English Department – in two instances, in a capacity as chair or co-chair. Like the newly naturalized citizen who has worked hard to pass her citizenship test, I approach this second home of mine with the pride, assuming, at times, the role of the staunch defender of its traditions and standards. I do so far more zealously, on occasion, than its native sons and daughters.
As a dual national, I would like to think that there is a place for history in literary studies of the nineteenth century after historicism. I have not, though, come here to defend the importance of my native discipline. Nor do I write in the service of scholarship that advertises itself as interdisciplinary. At this moment of heightened disciplinary pressures, I believe that interdisciplinarity may be a privilege particularly for the tenured, or at least for the employed.
I would like, instead, to urge the importance of a dialogue across disciplines, one that is cognizant of the state of the nineteenth century in both English and History (not to mention, in Art History) and one that strives to keep disciplinarity in play. The happy marriage forged by the coincident emergence of the new historicism and the new cultural history some decades ago is no longer. Even so, scholars of Victorian literature and Victorian history find themselves at similar junctures at the current moment. In the discipline of history, nineteenth-century Britain could long boast to be a standard bearer when it came to innovations in the methods of social history and cultural history. Historians of class conflict, gender formation, sexuality studies, urban life, and, eventually, imperial culture who worked across chronologies and geographies took their leads and their inspiration from scholarly work on the Victorian era. No longer, however, is the Victorian age the leading generator of new paradigms for the discipline. Nor is it the center of discourse in British history. For a while, it was the eighteenth century, fresh and fashionable, that could claim that role. Now, though, the seventeenth and twentieth centuries enjoy that energy, or so my work as the program chair for the North American Conference on British Studies (2009-2011) suggested. We thus look for new frameworks, topics, and approaches that will breathe new life into the nineteenth century. Will James Vernon’s arguments about anomie and modernity steer the course? Will a reassessment of institutions like the military provide the path? Or, might a return to study such well-known figures as Josephine Butler move us forward?
For historians, the questions and the solutions may be different from those asked and sought by literary critics. It is noteworthy, though, that we face similar problems, obstacles, and challenges. Even as we work within our disciplines, we would do well to be aware of this shared situation.
I am grateful to the V21 Manifesto for allowing me to see these parallels and to ask these questions. I appreciate, too, the importance of disciplinary assessment at the current moment. I even understand the reticence of literary critics of the Victorian age to engage with the period’s historians. Historians have not always acquitted themselves well in our conversations, interdisciplinary or not. My countrymen and women have, all too eagerly, played the roles of disciplinarians, dismissing literary scholarship when it does not announce itself as recognizably historicist and brushing it off when it eschews linear narrative, imposing upon it our own predilections for facticity and looking to it with our particular understanding of originality. We have, all too readily, relished the roles of exacting fact checker and living Wikipedia entry in our conversations. This is, perhaps, a holdover of the era of the new historicism, when many literary critics were eager to be subjected to history. Whatever the case, we have not, as a nation, always come to literary studies with the curiosity and open-mindedness that would serve a dialogue across the disciplines well.
Perhaps the current moment provides an opportunity not just for interdisciplinary work on the Victorian period, but instead for cross-disciplinary discussion of the age. We might, for instance, take the opportunity to consider whether the period that we work on possesses particular allure and offers particular challenges, regardless of discipline. Are there shared reasons why historians and literary critics – and our art historical brethren, too – are drawn to the Victorians? I do not think that the answer lies with Victorianism for its own sake. Nobody who did important work was drawn to the age for the age in and of itself. It was the social questions posed by the age and the political potentials for assessing them, as it has been the aesthetic qualities of its texts with the ethical directions in analyzing them, that compelled, and continues to occupy, our attentions. Does the age, with the richness of its archives and the density of its texts, pose shared challenges across disciplines? Is there something about the Victorians and their productions that seems, at this moment, to lead all too often to solipsism or antiquarianism? I’d like to see us ask these questions separately and together. Our two nations need not merge; they might, however, meet. Perhaps there might then be renewed sympathy between them.