Manifesto of the V21 Collective

Ten Theses

1. Victorian Studies has fallen prey to positivist historicism: a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past. Among its symptoms are a fetishization of the archival; an aspiration to definitively map the DNA of the period; an attempt to reconstruct the past wie es eigentlich gewesen; an endless accumulation of mere information. At its worst, positivist historicism devolves into show-and-tell epistemologies and bland antiquarianism. Its primary affective mode is the amused chuckle. Its primary institutional mode is the instrumentalist evisceration of humanistic ways of knowing.

2. Positivist historicism is enabled by and sustains a situation in which Victorianists are our own and only interlocutors. It fails to imagine paths of argument compelling to scholars who do not care about Victorians as Victorians.

3. History has often found its academic antithesis in theory, and just as often in form. Yet to counter positivist historicism is not a question of contraverting history, but of interrogating these habitual oppositions. We must rigorously articulate what it is we are doing when we work within particular historical frames. We must break accepted frames, and perhaps break historicism itself. We must embrace new reflection and abstraction; we must seek new justifications for our work.

4. A historically pervasive resistance to “theory” in Victorian Studies has largely prevented us from mobilizing our historical acumen in the service of abstract and conceptual modes of thought. Framing “theory” as a monolithic other is intellectually lazy and allows positivist historicism to become ever-more habitual and unreflective. We need new speculative and synthetic methods – originating in our period, demanded by our literature, or even radically alien, practiced by philosophers, scientists, and other fields of literary study – that might equip us to speak and to know outside the verificationist Victorian frame.

5. The shape of these alternative avenues of inquiry remains undetermined and contested. If many of us share a dissatisfaction with the state of the field, we also internally disagree about how it might otherwise be shaped. A primary aim of our future endeavors is to render these disagreements the stuff of collective deliberation.

6. Our field is not without its innovative enterprises. Both surface reading and distant reading have emerged from our ranks. Yet these renovations of literary study tout court have too often been mobilized in support of instrumental reason, and have too rarely revolutionized the perception of our Victorian objects. How can we mobilize digital tools in the service of abstraction rather than concretion? How can we practice and theorize reading methods hospitable to surprise?

7. One avenue emerging for post-historicist reading is a critical rethinking of form and formalism.  Taking energy from Foucault and Rancière, from postcolonialism and feminism, new formalisms and new ways of working with form explicitly pursue the politics of form, challenging us to reconsider how forms persist across artificially designated historical periods, while recentering formal analysis as the province of literary critical knowing.  How can we further develop formalist interpretations that are politically astute and intellectually supple?

8. One outcome of post-historicist interpretation may be a new openness to presentism: an awareness that our interest in the period is motivated by certain features of our own moment. In finance, resource mining, globalization, imperialism, liberalism, and many other vectors, we are Victorian, inhabiting, advancing, and resisting the world they made. The aesthetic forms the Victorians pioneered and perfected continue to dominate popular and avant-garde cultural production. The conceptual problems, political quandaries, and theoretical issues they broached remain pressing and contentious. A survey of the Victorian period is a survey of empire, war, and ecological destruction. Insofar as the world we inhabit bears the traces of the nineteenth century, these traces are to be found not only in serial multiplot narrative, but in income inequality, global warming, and neoliberalism. Presentism is not a sin, but nor are all forms of presentism equally valuable. The variations of and alternatives to presentism as such have not yet been adequately described or theorized.

9. The field can move from the rear of new literary scholarship — where it simply applies to its own objects innovations produced in other fields — if and only if it sheds its infatuation with the accumulation of information. The best work will trade such riskless factism for bold arguments and synthetic thinking, arguments that engage with and challenge multi-field and multi-disciplinary conversations. This is already happening; it must happen more. Such projects will be open to formalisms that are not primarily beholden to historical frames. They will use evidence reflexively. They will theorize.

10. In order to truly animate and sustain this conversation, we will need to adopt multiple modalities of scholarship and collectivity: both the slow and careful inquiry that takes place in monographs and articles, but also the fast, dynamic, and dialogic forms of online publishing, co-authorship, and conference panel streams. To that end we are launching V21, an open platform whose primary aim — by contrast with existing digital platforms in the field — is to advance theses, to risk hypotheses, to catalyze debates. V21 is not an end in itself but a means for sustaining a collective of Victorianists who aspire toward a more argumentative, porous, and ambitious field.


We welcome discussion of the Manifesto in the comments below, or encourage responders to start dedicated discussion threads in the Ongoing Manifesto Debates forum.

5 Comments So Far

  1. I admire the stance here and think it refreshing. A caution: the turn to abstraction and speculation is of course not without its traps. WJT Mitchell reminds us that the concrete is simultaneously the most abstract concept we have: one can track this fascination in eighteenth-century debates about what a substance is. Literary criticism will gain strength when it stops turning to and away from approaches and begins to think more ecologically and in terms of relationally, in much the same way that Susan Oyama argues that biology needs a developmental systems theory. Despite the recognition among biologists that nature/nurture is a false debate, she shows how the concepts in biology nonetheless perpetuate such artificial distinctions. Or, to put it in Latour’s terms, we have never been and will never be Victorian.

  2. This is a stimulating opening to a debate. At the risk of being very traditional, I would really appreciate some sort of mini-literature review that gives examples of what is being criticised and what is being commended.

  3. Theses for a Philosophy of Victorian Studies or Proverbs from Snig’s End

    1) The archive should not be fetishized, but the paradox whereby the recovery
    of the ‘old’ generates the possibility of the ‘new’ must not be forgotten.

    2) On the, increasingly sterile, opposition of ‘Theory’ to ‘Fact’ I. It is a
    mistake to assume that ‘Theory’ is endlessly and inevitably ‘progressive’ –
    even the most critical thought is capable of initiating and persisting in
    error. Equally, even the stubbornest and barest of ‘Facts’ attests to its own
    insufficiency. For Victorianists, the name of this lesson is Gradgrind.

    3) Those who are conscious of their own ‘presentism’ and who flatter
    themselves that they are thereby immune to the narcissism of the unconscious
    presentist, nonetheless remain prey to the illusion that they alone are
    without illusion.

    4) It is necessary to distinguish between a healthy presentism which desires
    to harness the energies of the past in order to transform the present into a
    future worthy of human beings, and an unhealthy presentism which simply
    affirms the logic of ‘homogeneous empty time.’

    5) On the, increasingly sterile, opposition of ‘Theory’ to ‘Fact’ II. If
    there is a certain type of ‘Historian’ who insists that only that which can be
    counted, counts; they find their mirror image in the ‘Theorist’ who rejects
    the very idea of fixity. The first wishes to abolish ideas, the second to
    banish number.

    6) It is necessary to develop a method in which ideas both count and can be
    counted. For the empiricist, the idea is the opposable thumb which transforms
    the hammer of fact into the chisel of analysis. For the idealist, the matter
    of fact (or fact of matter) is the steadying hand which guides the chisel.

    7) Interdisciplinarity, like enlightenment, is an aspiration rather than an
    achieved state. The difficulties which attend its attainment do not absolve
    us from the responsibility of trying.

    8) Victorian Studies is a form of necromancy; it involves listening
    attentively to the voices of the dead. This process requires patience,
    humility, and imagination.

  4. As a master’s student in Victorian literature, I’d like to offer the perspective of a sympathetic outsider who is invested in Victorian studies but also at a remove from it.

    First, the collective’s tentative call for “a new openness to presentism” chimes with how most students and nonprofessional readers actually approach the art, literature, and history of the nineteenth century. The conviction that important similarities exist between the 21st-century U.S. and nineteenth-century Britain—including economic inequality, technological upheavals, imperialist policies, and ecological degradation—led me to pursue a master’s in Victorian literature. These are among the human problems that Victorian studies might help us better understand. As scholars, our duties extend not just to one another but also to the people and institutions outside our field. We must not be insular.

    We are right to be wary of presentism when presentism leads to anachronism or faulty readings of history. But as we consider the purpose of the work we do, presentism has a claim on our attention. We do live in the present, after all.

    Second, I don’t know whether “theory” is the answer that will re-invigorate Victorian studies. As Elaine Freedgood points out in her response, we already have many theoretical approaches at our disposal, including Marxism, feminism, and queer theory. Returning to some of these concepts, rather than placing our hopes on a yet-to-be-created key to all mythologies, might be productive.

    But let’s suppose that we do need “new speculative and synthetic methods.” Any new set of methods should pay close attention to evidentiary protocols. One of my concerns about English literature as a discipline is the presence of what I see as weak evidentiary protocols, especially when compared to disciplines such as history or law. The collective’s indictment of “factism” and “positivist historicism” risks overcorrection: we need facts, and we need those facts harnessed in service of illuminating arguments. Elaine Auyoung’s invitation for us to turn to recent psychological research on reading, perception, and emotion is particularly welcome. We can’t make solid arguments if we’re working from premises that may be false.

    Third, I believe that writing for the public, not just for other scholars in our subfield, will become increasingly crucial for the health of humanities disciplines. Addressing a wider audience through newspapers, magazines, websites, and other media is one way of actively affirming our relevance and importance to the culture, rather than throwing up our hands in the face of funding cuts. In addition, as newspapers and magazines have fought to develop new economic models, many publications have slimmed or eliminated staff dedicated to covering books, art, and ideas. This is a major void in our public culture, and a void that we as Victorianists, with our specialized training, can help fill—as both a public service and a testament to the enduring importance of the work we do.

  5. Yes, drab and disappointing that so much written in Victorian Studies that is merely entrepreneurial and descriptive, finding some quirky cul-de-sac and simply describing it, then gaining recognition from a club of like-minded practitioners, — and generating more words, more research ‘output’ for REF and promotions panels, than more considered, conceptually rigorous, scholarship would for the same sorts of investments of time. It is a sort of efficiency model, a bland instrumentalism. And this in response to a period of astonishing conceptual audacity, ranging from Whewell, Carlyle and Clerk Maxwell to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Egerton — and one that early on, from Hegel to British Idealism to Wilde provided dialectical models that refused simple binary oppositions. The historicity of forms and intellectual imagination, of art forms as the most curious and subtle philosophical discursive strategies — these are interesting, fruitfully complicating, inquiries that might strive to do justice to then and now.

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