Lauren Goodlad on the futures of V21
Lauren Goodlad‘s meditation on digital possibilities at V21 and elsewhere inaugurates a series of longer pieces that we will publish in coming weeks.
Some readers of this response may recall a 2013 special issue of Victorian Studies, titled The Ends of History. Toward the end of the introduction, Andrew Sartori and I wrote that, looking back at Eve Sedgwick’s essay on “paranoid” reading, we were struck by her call for “a fresh, deroutinized sense of accountability to the real” pursued through “diverse” paths of inquiry.” “Now as then,” we added, scholars “need a committed resistance to routinization, not a new set of routines.” Nineteenth-century studies, we wrote, “brims with non-routinized critical enterprises: inside and outside newer fields such as book history, and inside and outside those longue durée approaches” that “should augur continued exchange between historians and literary critics.” Victorian studies, we concluded “has not run out of steam and is not likely to.”
I still believe those words with all my heart. And yet I’m not entirely surprised by the “Manifesto of the V21 Collective,” or unsympathetic to its broader aims. That said, I think it worth saying from the start that while the claim that “Victorian studies has fallen prey to positivist historicism” is debatable, there’s no debate whatsoever that the humanities have fallen prey to the relentless defunding and privatization of higher ed and the de-legitimation of any knowledge-seeking that does not meet perceived “workforce needs” (to quote the governor of Wisconsin). These neoliberal trends have gutted a job market for tenure-stream faculty which was already meager in the 1990s. The result is that some of the smartest and most intellectually exciting people I know are graduate students or recent PhDs in British literature; yet, the supply of these talented young colleagues outstrips the number of departments able to hire them into tenure-stream positions.
Now, I would love to believe that a more concerted Victorianist research agenda would solve this problem. But I see little prospect that it will. Thus, while scholars like us do indeed need to make strong cases for literature, the humanities, and the study of nineteenth-century histories and cultures, I think we also need to recognize what we’re up against.
One of the things that I love about Victorian studies is the plurality and scope of what its practitioners take for their objects of knowledge. Most Victorianists know a great deal about nineteenth-century literature and history: but, depending on their interests, they may also know a lot about law, ethics, aesthetics, politics, philosophy, psychology, or thermodynamics; about ekphrasis, sprung rhythm, metonymy, narratology, sensation fiction, seriality, or the leading article; about the diverse material cultures of the nineteenth century and the technologies involved in producing, marketing, disseminating, and discussing them; about race, empire, the globalization of capital, and the disciplinarization of the human sciences; about Victorian-era evolutionary theory, botany, anthropology, cartography, germ theory, or organized charity; about Sappho, Dante, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Huysmans, or Tagore; about the birth of the clinic, the séance, the verse novel, the steamship, or the homosexual; about the slave trade, the Risorgimento, the digs at Nineveh, the cotton famine, Fenianism, the Delhi Durbars; the Suez Canal, or the search for the Nile; about jouissance, performativity, governmentality, homoeroticism, temporality, askesis, ableism, biopolitics, ecocriticism, big data, critical race theory, or the event. If this sounds a lot like the stream of consciousness it is, the fact remains that while no single Victorianist works on every one of these topics, most of us in the field know something about all of them. The reason why, I think, is that our field is intellectually promiscuous, interdisciplinary, eclectic, and porous. To my mind, at least, this is truer today than it was in the 1990s, when I was writing my dissertation and first book.
Perhaps what V21 is pointing to is not so much the intellectual condition of our field, as the need for our institutions and collaborative practices to make the most of the digital age. That is the least we can do as we negotiate the very real threat of our diminution—perhaps even extinction—in a climate of anti-intellectualism and budgetary emergencies that work, at best, by empowering administrators and boards of trustees and, at worst, by enlisting profiteers and political cronies to take over campuses ostensibly devoted to higher learning and the public good.
I do not have any magic pill, of course, but I hope that we can continue the conversation V21 has started. Below I offer a few thoughts of my own which the Manifesto inspired.
- Could V21 provide a digital portal to our vibrant field? Much as the Victoria listserv, the Victorian Web, NINES, and BRANCH provided electronic resources that spoke to their conditions of emergence, so V21 could provide a space for publicizing conferences, disseminating calls for papers, exchanging ideas, staging debates, proposing special topics, and planning events—perhaps even sharing rides and hotel rooms. Such a space could be fully international. (Why not know as much about what nineteenth-century scholars are doing in South Africa, Belgium, Korea, and New Zealand as about our peers in the US, Canada, and UK?)
- The success of NAVSA (alongside its UK partner BAVS) has done a very great service to our field but, in doing so, it has arguably produced an unintended centripetalism. Strangely, it was only because of the conversation around V21 that I learned about the Dickens Project’s “Long, Wide Nineteenth-Century” conference. Much though I love NAVSA, in recent years I have gotten a lot from attending ACLA (which invites scholars to share papers in days-long seminars devoted to common research topics), the North American Conference on British Studies (which tends to attract more historians than literary critics), and the Narrative conference (which devotes at least one panel to nineteenth-century topics during every time slot). I would also enjoy keeping up with NVSA and INCS—each of which has its own special vibe. As a portal, V21 could keep us abreast of these goings on without boring our grandmothers as we do on Facebook. How cool to spend one’s spare moments seeing who’s speaking at VISAWUS or the annual CUNY conference; what reviews have come out in the latest e-issues of Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, RaVoN, or Review 19; the articles in Literature Compass, 19, or the Victorian Review; or a cfp from our Americanist colleagues in C19. What I am envisioning would function from the grassroots up; to achieve that V21, would need to be structurally inclusive and democratic: encouraging comments and perhaps incorporating a message board. To be sure, such an agenda might be more ecumenical than the collective’s originators had in mind.
- At the same time, as the central organization of our field in the US and Canada, NAVSA itself might try inviting more participation from its members. In past years the rejection rate for NAVSA proposals has sometimes been worryingly high. While that might not be preventable, could the organization change to become more flexible and inclusive? For example, could NAVSA invite members at large to propose annual themes, topics for roundtable discussions and workshops, or nominations for plenaries and keynotes? It makes sense, of course, that decision-making power rests in the hands of hard-working organizers; but they need not make their decisions in isolation. A regular process of soliciting suggestions about new formats, themes, topics, and speakers might make the task of organizers easier and more rewarding while making the organization more democratic.
- “Presentism is not a sin, but nor are all forms of presentism equally valuable.” Indeed. What the Manifesto is seeking here, I think, is relevance: the desire not only to be in the conversation but to spark conversation; to play a role in building the future. Naturally, theorization and the understanding of literary forms and genres help us to make our criticisms more vivid, our histories more compelling, and our analyses more relevant to worlds outside Victorian studies. Let us by all means continue producing histories of the present. But let us also remember that what we need is resistance to routinization—not a new set of routines.