Megan Ward Responds to Caroline Levine
In the middle of her review, Caroline Levine throws out a question, a variation on the old “if a tree falls in the woods” question, but one that feels newly important for scholars thinking about presentism: “If a Victorian writer threw light on a problem that troubles us today, and we are noticing it now for the first time, was it always present and alive, or did it need the historical present to bring it to life?” This question is charged with the so-called methodological fault of presentism, that it sloppily invokes concerns irrelevant to the Victorians because they feel pressing today. That is, if a problem needs “the historical present to bring it to life,” then it isn’t really a Victorian problem.
But what if that’s beside the point? What if we all agreed that our approaches to studying literature are never not presentist? Even historicist methods, concerns, and interests cannot help but be shaped by present technologies, institutions, and issues – even when we do not make those ends explicit (see, for instance, Ted Underwood on search technologies or Lisa Gitelman on JSTOR). The kind of presentism that Taylor offers – and for which Levine envisions an inspiring purpose – is obviously different from that sort of implicit presentism, but perhaps it is more a difference of scale than a difference of ideology. Historicizing cannot help but include the conditions surrounding the body and the mind doing the work in the present. Rather than separating presentism from historicism, perhaps we should acknowledge presentism as a shared condition, one that might drive historical literary study, but need not always be its destination.