Martin Hewitt: 10 Alternative Theses
When we initially envisioned V21, our intent was to create a new space for discussion and to catalyze debates about the state of the field. And while Victorian studies is of course a multidisciplinary field, the scholars involved in developing V21 were exclusively trained or housed in English or literary studies. Our manifesto attempts to diagnose problems that we recognize as stemming from the predominance of a certain kind of historicism (we call it “positivist”) within literary studies and to speculate about alternatives. Although we recognize that the manifesto is a provocative and performative genre, our ultimate goal was not to sow divisiveness but to found a collective of scholars along the lines of some that have recently flourished in adjacent fields.
We recognize that the Manifesto’s intended audience of literary scholars remains implicit (in, for instance, references to various types of “reading”) rather than explicit. We also now recognize that addressing “Victorian studies” in Thesis #1 also encompassed disciplines beyond literary studies, disciplines whose methods we would not presume to adjudicate. We regret that this positions a multi-disciplinary field as the object of our critique, when our primary aim was to initiate a conversation about the interpretive methods we value as scholars of literature and literary history.
The disciplinary orientation of current V21 affiliates is also evident in our extension of invitations to respond to the manifesto, which were sent to a broad range of literary scholars, including in many periods and fields not our own, and especially including scholars we knew to have voiced deep objections to the manifesto on social media. We are thrilled with the critical, distancing, affirming, and creative energies that emerged from those invitations that were accepted; these responses have generously deepened, nuanced, taken issue with, and moved beyond the manifesto’s initial claims. Due to the nature of our concerns about literary-interpretive method – namely, that a default positivist historicism has curtailed other kinds of thinking – we did not extend invitations to historians in our first round. This is a decision that can rightfully be debated.
We are sorry that our handling of a recent submission to V21 by the historian Martin Hewitt may have subverted V21’s plan to be an open platform for discussion and debate. Upon receipt of his response, we communicated our intent to “queue your piece for consideration at a future moment when we might extend the conversation to historians.” Our intent was not to delimit in advance the voices that might respond to V21, but to focus initially on a debate among scholars of literature about their understanding of historicist interpretation and its alternatives. This communication was yesterday construed on social media as a “decline” to publish; the ensuing discussion has now raised productive questions about what it means to advocate for methodological reform in a field that has often understood itself as methodologically diverse because disciplinarily diverse. In the interest of making these proceedings transparent, we post here Martin Hewitt’s response. We hope that this might be a further occasion for productive conversation about disciplinarity and method in Victorian studies.
1. Victorian Studies has failed continually to establish itself as a genuinely interdisciplinary field. It continues either to mistake itself for a sub-field of literary studies (and/)or to resent the extent to which it isn’t.
2. This disciplinary reductionism sustains a situation in which Victorian Studies scholars do not always even speak to other scholars who care about the Victorians as Victorians.
3. Part of the weakness of the field has been its suspicion of cumulation. To elevate the breaking of frames into a sine qua non of scholarly practice is to mistake iconoclasm for interrogation. We need to continue to test. Where we aim to break our purpose should be explore the limits to which our understandings hold, not the means by which they can be obliterated.
4. The discipline of History is not innocent in its own exclusion. At the same time, the pervasive resistance to theory is often rooted in the very approaches which begin by repudiating historicism; the laziest and most jejune of the otherings of theory is the evisceration of history into antiquarianism and of historical reconstruction into ‘an endless accumulation of mere information’.
5.  The field can only renew its scholarly significance if it is prepared to grasp its extra-literaryness, to shed its infatuation with the accretion of readings, to realise that multi-disciplinary conversations are unlikely to be facilitated by premises which privilege one discipline and predicate the inadequacy of the protocols of others.
6.  One of the constitutive forces of Victorian Studies has been the dissatisfaction with it, indeed the disavowals of it, as a scholarly identity. Efforts to render these anxieties explicit and to further their exploration are always welcome. The challenge is to constitute a discourse which helps to remedy embarrassment not merely to reposition it.
7. Victorian Studies will always remain attenuated if it proceeds from the dismissal of historical periods as ‘artificially designated’. Of course we need to continue to investigate persistence as well as change over time. But in part we should do so precisely with the interrogation of periodisations in mind. All periods are contingent and always unsatisfactory, but the corollary is not that they are any the less amenable to delineation than other cultural-historical phenomena, nor that they have any greater power than other conceptual frames to impede rather than assist understandings.
8. While we accept the presence of presentism in all efforts of comprehension and interpretation, and the powerful Victorian foundations of the contemporary world, we will do well to differentiate between perspective and purpose. As Simon Joyce has reminded us, we cannot understand the Victorians if we see them only through the rear view mirror.
9.  A central challenge of digital scholarship is the extent to which it is expanding the availability of information exponentially, and calling into question our existing epistemologies. As well as new theories and concepts we need methods of synthesis and verification which address these transformations in the nature of our evidence and the means by which we are able to access it, and which create new standards of knowing.
10. In order to truly animate and sustain the conversation of Victorian Studies our multiple modalities must be of pace, of place, of persons, but also of purposes and protocols. Argument, ambition and openness are commendable; but without sufficient tolerance to create acceptance of a set of shared agendas, they will not sustain a broad Victorian collective.
Martin Hewitt, University of Huddersfield