Responses to the V21 Manifesto (2)
V21 invited brief responses to our recently launched collective and manifesto. We thank the scholars who have generously shared their thoughts, and we look forward to the continuing conversation. Stay tuned for the debut of content pieces in the coming weeks.
Rae Greiner, Indiana University
On first reading I was first struck less by the claims made than by the conjured persona figuring their antithesis: the owner of one too many Dickens-themed t-shirts, preparing for her students a Victorian meal; the self-contentedly bemused collector of mourning lockets made of human hair, dropping, Hercule Poirot-like, too many lumps of sugar into her tea. These are the scholars who, one imagines, “care about Victorians as Victorians,” which the V21 Manifesto—along with quite a few University presidents and administrators—prefers we no longer do. Certain of the changes in method and purpose recommended here under the general banner of “presentism” accord with those for which The Critics of the University (who are no longer us) have been agitating of late, calling not so much for “theory now!” as simply “now!” and demanding that we bring our antique scholarly apparatuses, technologies, PR efforts, habits of self-definition, and students’ learning outcomes up to date.
Many of us working in Higher Ed are being pushed from several directions at once toward greater “factism” and data- collection. My own institution recently outsourced, at great expense, the annual assessment of faculty productivity, as measured in part by whatever can be captured by Google Scholar citations metrics and online-only student evaluations—which, unsurprisingly, isn’t much. In part for this reason I am willing to forget V21’s depictions of a dusty historicism—really only a popular culture, as-played-by Dame Maggie Smith caricature anyway—so as to embrace certain other of its challenges, as in the invitation to avail our latest fetish, “digital tools,” in the service of deepening and expanding our ways of thinking or disrupting our taken-for-granteds rather than, as is sadly and too often the case, in moving us forward in name (the name “Apple”) only. Yes, then, to putting the digital to use “in the service of abstraction rather than concretion”; but yes too to any number of efforts at better articulating, abstractly and concretely, the value of our objects and objectives, without which the study—in any way—of things Victorian will surely dwindle along with the numbers of faculty hired to study them. A deep and continuing commitment to history, and to developing exciting theories of it, will be necessary, I think, to this theoretical as well as practical project. Many of the Victorianists I know have long shown themselves capable of managing both.
David Kurnick, Rutgers University
It seems I’m not the only one who’s not always sure what we talk about when we talk about historicism. I confess to having used the h-word as shorthand for certain stultifying habits of our profession (it’s not clear to me that these are peculiarly Victorianist habits). In my defense, I was provoked: once, after giving a talk, I was asked if history “mattered at all” to me—a question I took to be impugning both my political and scholarly seriousness. Once I got over my righteous anger, I realized that I thought I had been talking about history, or at least about temporality and domesticity and generic evolution and one or two other conceivably historical things. So my beef wasn’t with history (as I at first hastily concluded) but with its pious invocation, and with the idea that we’ve all agreed on what it is and how to talk about it. All of which makes me less surprised than I might be that today I often find myself waving the banner of the Past with some energy. I recently resorted to some embarrassingly crude mnemonics (the trenches vs. the bomb, the Red Baron vs. Schindler’s List) when it became clear that not everyone in an undergraduate lecture could readily differentiate the World Wars; such experiences make me reluctant to agree with the V21 manifesto that the biggest problem we face is a sclerotic historicism. In fact, my frustration with most current state-of-the-field discussion has to do with a disregard for history among professional literary critics—an inattention not to the Corn Laws or the Reform Acts but to the history of literary theory. Sweeping and usually dismissive accounts of what literary interpretation “has always done” are thick on the ground nowadays, and few of them chime with my sense of how historically, politically, and theoretically suggestive many of the founding documents of literary criticism remain, and many of the more recent ones too. (Whence my hesitation about the manifesto as a genre, which suggests that all the good stuff is yet to come: no doubt a lot of it is, but we have some pretty smart people behind us as well, and it’s probably worth cultivating some interest in that history—especially when nobody else seems eager to do so). I think I know what the V21 manifesto’s authors are upset about, and I think I agree with a lot of it. But I’d put the emphasis differently: what I lament isn’t an overweening historicism but an undernourished formalism. V21’s thesis #7 says so, too, but goes on to suggest that only “new” formalism can save us now. Why the qualification? Are we so certain that the old formalisms are exhausted, and that we know which formalisms are the old ones? (In the name of all that’s untimely, shouldn’t we postpone that certainty?) An account of how form functions seems to me the distinctive task of literary study, and I still think that any explanation of how literature works in and on the world needs to start there, or end up there. In some company this position makes me feel like a Young Turk, in others like a yowling dinosaur. I guess it’s like the man said (a while ago now): “a little formalism turns one away from History, but … a lot brings one back to it.” Maybe the best outcome of V21’s provocation will be to spark some more careful conversation about that contradiction.
Richard Menke, University of Georgia
Setting out from the claim that Victorian studies is haunted by a bland “positivist historicism,” the v21 manifesto urges the field to move beyond the “endless accumulation of mere information.” This is surely a worthy goal, especially when coupled to the provocations that follow: to theory, to strategic presentism, to arguments and modes of inquiry that will resonate beyond the field. Yet if these points seems unexceptionable, why the tone of urgency? If Victorianists want to believe that we are already doing many of these things, why has all of this needed to be said? And why do many responses to the diagnosis—well, my own response, at least—alternate between a confident disavowal (“I don’t do positivist historicism…”) and a worried backward glance over our work (“…do I?”)?
Briefly, I want to argue that the V21 manifesto expresses and responds to exactly what the name of the group lays out so economically: Victorian studies in the twenty-first century. For contemporary scholars, the status of the period from the mid-nineteenth-century to the early 1920s is structurally unique, triangulated by the nineteenth century’s surge of print and by the unambiguous entry of these printed works into the public domain. As a result, scholars of the period benefit from, or are afflicted by, the continuing digitization of the print record in a widely accessible form. Dumpster-diving into the world of nineteenth-century print and coming up with something to talk about no longer takes the resources, the scholarly zeal, or perhaps the adroitness that it once did. Emergent methodologies such as data mining and distant reading represent ethical and practical responses to big data in literary studies, but they might also betoken a certain panic at an archive that was always extremely large but now seems increasingly close. Along different lines, a critical turn to artifacts, objects, or things also resists their conversion into disembodied, weightless, proliferating “mere information.” But both information and its accumulation have their Victorian histories, parallel to histories of the commodity, the collection, the crowded drawing-room or overstuffed novel. Perhaps among the theories we need are theories of Victorian information (in its historical formation as well as its digital transformations and circulation), theories of the archive, even theories of scholarship itself in the age of an expanding but still uneven searchable archive. The “amused chuckle” we hear at the dismaying prospect of scholarship as lifeless data-dump may belong not to the modern-day positivist but to the Victorian parodist who so often sheds such sudden light on the dilemmas of the era. As Oscar Wilde warned the “Over-Educated,” “It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.”
Priti Joshi, University of Puget Sound
On reading the V21 manifesto, I had two reactions, both captured by “It’s a manifesto!” That exclamation mark signals two tones: delight because manifestoes are provocative, they draw a line in the sand, and I think provocation and rerouting a good, if discomfiting, thing. But it also conveys self-directed pique, something to the effect of: “For crying out loud, it’s just a manifesto!” Like many, I felt both invited and rebuffed by the document, recognizing my own approaches in some of its caustic characterizations. The second reaction, then, was to tell myself “Chill.” It is just a manifesto, its purpose to stir up debate – and I say this having nothing but a passing acquaintance with some of the framers – and foster change. There is much that is valuable in the Ten Theses – just as there is much posturing. Taking a step back to consider some of the forces that might prompt such a document at such a moment – a dreaded historicist move, I daresay – can help situate it.
To begin with the cliché: we are in the midst of a “Crisis in the Humanities.” This shorthand means different things to different people. My version: as scholars and educators, we function in the service sector of the economy. And those we purport to serve seem not to especially value or appreciate our services. I’ll start with the educator portion of our identities. Too many of us face classrooms filled with underprepared or uninterested students, students whose sullenness or hostility is often a mask for the inadequacy they feel in approaching the tasks we ask of them. Many of us slave to prepare a scintillating seminar, only to have it cancelled due to under-enrollment or teach it to a miniscule audience (“always wanted to do tutorials,” we say, feigning relief). Even more find themselves regularly consigned to teaching required or Gen Ed courses whose numbers climb steadily higher: 26, 48, 75, 150, 250. The experience of educating, much less nurturing critical thinking, becomes a numbing charade. Some escape into teaching only graduate students, but that simply delays the inevitable or passes the buck on to the graduate students. In the scholar portion of our identities, most of us are somewhat insulated from the worst of the derision directed at the humanities these days. The colleagues we serve with on committees, the provosts and administrators, are cordial and proper, but ultimately unsuccessful in concealing their doubts about what we do and why it “matters” or how they can explain it to donors or funding institutions or, worst, legislators. The cordiality, even flashes of sympathy, makes the cuts in lines and budgets a little easier, but only infinitesimally. That the humanities survive sometimes feels merely like a matter of inertia: turning around a ship as large as “American Higher Education” is simply too colossal a task. And that inability protects us – for the time being.
In such a climate, we have responded, in large measure, in one of two ways. Many colleagues – not just Victorianists but in other literary fields and the humanities more broadly – have responded by making spirited defenses of the value of literary studies (or the humanities). Quite often, these defenses have reinscribed the most traditional version of the humanities/literary studies/Victorian studies. (As our friends who study groups have taught us, notwithstanding the occasional Gandhi or Martin Luther King, a people besieged seldom produces the boldest or most innovative thinking). Others of us have responded to the crisis by turning for refuge to like-minded intellectual interlocutors, however narrowly or capaciously we define our area of interests (fin-de-siècle environmentalism, periodicals of the empire, transatlantic poetry, anthropology and literature, science writing, etc. etc.). The echo chamber this can create is, I suspect, what the framers of the manifesto are resisting in Thesis #2: the specter of Victorianists talking only to Victorianists. To say that in this respect scholars of the British nineteenth century are no different from our Early-Modern, Romanticist, Modernist, even comparativist colleagues is not to be defensive, but to suggest that the move is a common testudian one of retreat into a shell. Within that shell, however, it gets crowded.
None of this is to say that the bold thinking the framers call for is not urgent. It is only to suggest that the type of thinking they are critiquing – and which we each recognize even if we wish to exempt ourselves and our friends from it – is not occurring in a vacuum, but in a moment of severe resource retrenchment.
Ryan Fong, Kalamazoo College
One thing that has not yet been addressed in the responses to the V21 Manifesto is how it applies to our teaching in the field of Victorian literary studies. When thinking about the manifesto in this context, what strikes me is not how we stake out our positions between the assumedly-opposed poles of historicism and formalism, but rather how most of us bring these methods into a productive synthesis within the space of the classroom and the undergraduate classroom in particular. Certainly I am thinking here about how these courses represent many of our most concrete engagements with the “meta” conversations in our field about periodization and the scope of the “Victorian”—in the ways that creating a syllabus necessarily demands that we draw spatial, temporal, and aesthetic boundaries around a set of texts and then chart our trajectory across them. But I also think that we are doing this work in the aspects of our lectures and our classroom discussions that we find most rudimentary, if not mundane. While I have definitely laid out well-wrought readings of Victorian poems that would have done Cleanth Brooks proud and trotted out historical curiosities from nineteenth century material culture in ways that I am sure the manifesto writers would decry as vulgarly positivist, my usual approach tends to fall somewhere in between, as it does, I think, for the vast majority of us. Indeed, I have had several conversations with colleagues who work at many different kinds of institutions around the world about the multiple points of critical entry—both historical and formal—that we use to help our students understand the knotty particularities of Victorian texts and objects, often within the space of a single class period. Whether it is employing a passage of Ruskin to unpack a tricky moment of narration in Wuthering Heights or puzzling through a particularly dense paragraph of Middlemarch to situate Eliot’s philosophical and aesthetic commitments within their intellectual contexts, these are modes and moves that we routinely model for our undergraduates, that we regularly ask them to produce in their writing, and that we see as foundational to their growth as literary scholars. These are also the various modes and moves that produce, both in isolation and in combination, the moments of excitement and insight that I trust motivate our research and that represent some of our most significant contributions to college curricula, in an age where our “usefulness” is increasingly questioned. As such, we would be remiss to ignore the critical work we are already performing with our students and, indeed, the intellectual pleasures we experience in so doing as we continue to respond to the V21 Manifesto and its provocations.
Roger Whitson, Washington State University
The Deep Nineteenth Century
I wholeheartedly embrace the provocative tone of the V21 manifesto. It’s a breath of fresh air in a disciplinary structure that — too often — tells young scholars to qualify or to apologize instead of truly taking a risk. And the call for a broader and more relevant Victorian studies is a risk worth taking. At the MLA convention this year I asked for scholars to stop calling the nineteenth century “long,” which for me is symptomatic of an idealist periodizing structure in our field that’s almost entirely exhausted. Why not imagine, instead, the nineteenth century as “deep,” to borrow a metaphor from geologists James Hutton and Charles Lyell that is finding traction amongst media archaeologists like Siegfried Zielinski, Shannon Mattern, and Jussi Parikka? By imaging the nineteenth century not as a period, but as a series of material strata that emerge for us in different ways and circumstances than they did for the Victorians or the Moderns or Postmoderns, we could embrace the strangeness of the past so valued by historicists yet also recognize the presentism that animates the V21 collective. Further, these strata aren’t hermetically-sealed as historical periods tend to be. Strata are superimposed on top of each other, they leak and blend into one other. They reveal experiences of history and temporality that are non-human. My point isn’t that Victorian Studies should universally adopt this particular mode of structuring its discourse. Rather, that other fields are actively researching the nineteenth century in order to find new ways of understanding their own objects of knowledge. Victorian studies would be wise to reach out to these fields, rather than — like many in English studies — retreat into their archives, periods, and disciplinary structures. I’ve seen scholars who, wary of the the woeful job market, have taught graduate students to fit themselves into an increasingly small mold. This is exactly the wrong thing we should be doing right now. We need a broader field for our students. I may have a few grumbles with specific parts of the manifesto, but I’m heartened to see the V21 collective taking up that mantle and seeking new horizons for Victorian Studies.
Claire Jarvis, Stanford University
When the V21 Collective’s Manifesto came out, I posted about it on my Facebook wall, and the responses I got – from Victorianists, from Americanists, from people in neither field, made me think the Manifesto was a good thing, even if I had some worries about its initial formulation. In many ways, V21’s Manifesto looks to conferences like C19 and post45 to shake up a perceived insularity and stodginess in the ways of thinking available to the field. But, in so doing, V21 must learn from the good and bad how best to inaugurate productive intellectual discussions from the position of the bratty little sibling: how, for instance, can you both call out a field for its pieties and also appeal to that field for a membership? It’s a tricky balance, if the conversation that took over my Facebook page over the next forty-eight hours was any indication. In general, the two aspects that most unsettled my own interlocutors were the Manifesto’s antipathy to the archive and its tone. I’ll say a few words about the first and hopefully work my way around to the second.
When I posted the Manifesto, an Americanist I know and respect objected bitterly to the V21 Manifesto’s dig at historicism, saying that formalism had made her drop her English major as an undergraduate and had almost turned her off of reading literary texts entirely. I think this kind of response was more widespread than my own, which might have been a little more like a deep sigh of “Finally.” But as I thought about the Manifesto and Victorian Studies over the next day, I considered the antagonism being registered by historicists and historically-minded critics, and I thought a bit about why history, for many people, offers a ground upon which intellectual work must be based. I recalled a conversation with a grad school friend – a French historian – in which I had explained my dissertation chapter on Thomas Hardy, which was, it must be said, an interpretive chapter. “Why,” he asked, “would anyone read your interpretation over someone else’s?”
This perspective is, I think, the root source of my friend’s complaint about V21’s dig at history: if we get rid of the archive, the argument might go, interpretations like mine, interpretations that come from bodies and subjectivities like mine, will be ignored in favor of interpretations that come from the bodies and subjectivities that have traditionally had power. The fear of form, it seems to me, has a lot to do with who has been able to speak on behalf of form up until now. But, as my answer to my French history friend was six years ago: my reading has validity and force because it’s interesting, and because it explains something about the book that other readings do not. Such answers might feel impoverished in a university climate that seeks to tag skills sets to each and every intellectual investigation, but I think they are valuable in and of themselves. In fact, I think such answers are more powerful as justifications literary study than any set of skills-related answers could ever be.
In terms of the Manifesto’s tone, though, I feel myself to be on shakier ground. A Manifesto is meant to annoy or worry, to poke holes in the accepted wisdom. It’s a feature of the form. But, I also want to be sure that we argue in good faith. If some of us articulate a turn to form, this doesn’t mean, necessarily, that we are dismissing the historical as an intellectual frame. I don’t think you can, responsibly, jettison history and politics to talk about form. But by the same token, I don’t think you can’t hold tight to history and politics and ignore form. I am, also, suspicious of arguments that find the realm of the political to be the only secure foundation for scholarly work on literary topics. Why read a literary text at all if this is the case? Of course, there are plenty of ways to make texts sing by drawing them into conversation with the questions we face about sexuality, race, and political or social affiliations in our daily lives, but these ways aren’t the sole reason to keep literary study in the university. Generic and formal questions can have as much excitement, if they are presented on equal footing with the questions that may feel more palpable given the vicissitudes of modern life. There is, I must admit, a great pleasure in making a text do what you’d like. As Zadie Smith explains in her wonderful essay on Nabokov, “There is a joy in getting someone to hand us their butterfly so we can spend twenty pages making the case for its being our giraffe” (emphasis is Smith’s). But, this does require that we think ourselves a little bit more intelligent than the author we discuss – a little bit cannier, more aware, more perceptive. Cleverness can be a source of exciting, writerly pleasure for the critic, but there are times when reading “against the grain and across codes and discourses” (that’s Smith again) can lead one down a false path. I want to feel free to read things loosely, with some sheer skidding towards risk, but I don’t want to make the texts we do have into prescient, proto-modern, proto-me things. One of the best things my advisor ever did for me as a young graduate student was to circle a wayward “radical” in a description of a much-beloved character. “Why radical?” she asked. Why, indeed. The closeness or distance from our own perspective cannot be the arbiter of literary value–even if only for the self-protective reason that forty years from now, those perspectives are going to look as tired and bedraggled as Leavis’s do now (unless you’re like me, an unrepentant Leavisite).
There are bad by-products to an entrenchment in historicism’s centrality to scholarly inquiry. In my experience, historicist criticism of formal claims often does take the form of “needs more history.” But, like most of my colleagues, I also believe that intellectual intensity needn’t come at the expense of care: care often disappears as soon as the intensity takes the form of combativeness. If the main germ of a complaint about a piece of writing is “this isn’t what I do,” one must take a step back and re-read to see what the piece of writing does, how accurate it is to the texts it discusses and what it shows about them on its own terms. And the fact is that every method has its bad actors.
In these paragraphs, I have responded more to the way academic criticism in 2015 has its own pieties, and historicisms (of various kinds) can be used as tools to obscure or downplay those pieties (and sometimes to reinforce them negatively, as I was describing above). I am all for the modest argument, which implicitly puts me at odds with the manifesto model. I like history and I like archives, and some arguments do need history and archives to work. But I also think some arguments work well with only a novel or poem to back them up. I also believe that some texts do have a density and flexibility that means they are more interpretable than others, and that these are the texts that routinely yield the “pleasure” that I can’t help but locate as the reason – the only real reason – I do what I do. This does not map onto “the canon,” so I don’t want to be misunderstood. But I do believe that close attention to syntax, form, and discrete literary or linguistic detail is as valuable and as generative as any project founded in the evocation of historical resource.
It boils down to this: I like the books I teach. I have taught books or texts that I found interesting but didn’t much like, but I found that those didn’t teach as well as the books I was drawn to read and reread again and again. And it’s as a reader that I think I work best – lingering over the Christminster cakes and Sue Bridehead, “clipped and pruned” by the discipline of the teaching college, gleefully (?) running to the Martyr’s Cross on a trip to Oxford – not because of what it stood for in the world, but because of what it stood for in a story. I use an archive when I need to, but some of my arguments don’t need an archive. Sometimes all I need is a ratty old Penguin. Why, then, should it be assumed that I haven’t produced criticism?