Responses to the V21 Manifesto
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 posting more responses soon.
Kent Puckett | Talia Schaffer | Elaine Freedgood | Daniel Hack | Tyler Dean | Elaine Auyoung | Kathy Psomiades | Kyle McAuley | Jeanette Samyn
Kent Puckett, University of California, Berkeley
Manifestos tend to mark out or to assert a difference between past, present, and future. In addition to laying out their diagnoses, their proposals, and their demands, manifestos often inhabit the space of an apparently unambiguous now that can at once reveal a sense of the past and the potential for a future in ways that are sharper, more absolute, and more exacting than in other kinds of document. “A specter is haunting Europe.” “We intend to sing the love of danger.” “Existence is elsewhere.” As I read the V21 Manifesto, I was struck by a productive wavering between the temporally assertive nature of its genre and something more reserved, more self-conscious, and, I think, more Victorian about its claims. That is, where manifestos often want us to know that a truth told can make all the difference between what has been and what is to come, the V21 Manifesto instead conjures a wary ambivalence about any hard difference between past and present, an ambivalence that I take to be one of the great theoretical tendencies of the Victorian period. Thomas Carlyle’s time-annihilating hat; Robert Browning’s feeling for how the life of aesthetic particulars both marks and exceeds the character of any given story; the long and culturally determinate drift of geological or evolutionary time in Darwin and Lyell; George Eliot’s reflections on the degree to which any aspirational theory of history will always come practically to grief; Emily’s Brontë’s sense of a real and awful love as that which must supersede narrative time; and Thomas Hardy’s strange awareness that nature has a way of reducing human worries about past and present to the trivial vagaries of “dicing Time”: in these forms and others, Victorian thinking often undoes comforting distinctions between past and present and thus stands as an intensely critical and surprisingly portable way of thinking about our own efforts to manage or to memorialize the past as that which we remember in order only to forget. One can, in other words, hear something very Victorian in Walter Benjamin’s similar methodological claim that “Historical materialism must renounce the epic element in history. It blasts the epoch out of the reified ‘continuity of history.’ But it also explodes the homogeneity of the epoch, interspersing it with ruins—that is, with the present.” What Benjamin helps us to see is that, rather than casting about for theories to apply to the Victorian period, we should be mining the period for its own theories, for the strong and productively corrosive versions of historicism that allowed it to intuit and, more, to live the fact that all that is solid will indeed melt into air. All of this is to say that what I found most productive about the V21 Manifesto—that it asks us to refuse an antiquarian attitude towards the past, that it asks us to rethink the relation between history and theory, and that it asks us to treat the present as something that is variously implicated in the very stuff of the past and vice versa—are exactly those qualities that make it read, at least to me, like something other than a manifesto, something other than a call to draw a line between now and then. Put differently, although its untimeliness might make the document into something other than a manifesto, it is, all the same, a timely invitation to reflect on and to try to remain within the immanent, sometimes obscure, and quietly stubborn theoretical force of some versions of Victorian thinking.
Talia Schaffer, Queens College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York
I find myself writing about this manifesto from a somewhat rueful perspective. On the one hand, I seem like I should be v21’s number one fan: I work in a new theoretical field, disability studies, and I once gave a keynote address complaining about archival data-dumping taking the place of real argument. But I am also a proudly historicist critic, whose work for the past few decades has been driven by my own surprise at the alterity of Victorian objects. Perhaps that explains why this manifesto struck me with such dismay. As someone who would normally see herself as the natural ally of this movement, I find myself taken aback to find my own theoretical investments dismissed so harshly. The opening theses attack historicists as practitioners of “bland antiquarianism” surveying their fetishized objects with an “amused chuckle,” intent on “the evisceration of humanist ways of knowing” while being “intellectually lazy” and anti-theoretical. I could explain why I find these accusations unjustified, but given that I only have a paragraph, what I want to focus on is this question: what good does such an attack do? Isn’t this kind of language just antagonizing potential allies? Similarly, the v21 manifesto rather grudgingly acknowledges that “our field is not without its innovative enterprises,” though apparently they have “too rarely revolutionized” the field. The writers then brightly inform us that our current ecological, economic, imperial practices are Victorian, as if this is a brand new discovery. Why doesn’t this manifesto acknowledge that hundreds of superb critics have been developing dynamic, provocative, theoretically informed interventions predicated on contemporary needs in fields including digital humanities, postcolonialism, race and empire studies, gender and sexuality studies, thing theory, animal studies, disability studies, science studies (especially feminist science studies), economic criticism, formalism, surface/distant reading, and the ethical turn? Again, I have to ask: what good does a manifesto do when it ignores others’ work? I want to be clear that I’m not doubting the v21 authors’ excellent intentions. I’m sure that they envisioned a zingily bold, provocative shake–up to the field. But I fear that in the work of thrashing out what they wanted to say and negotiating amongst all the v21 members, the authors did not give enough attention to the bad effects of telling most of the people in our shared field that they are inadequate. This is ironic, since the manifesto is correct in many ways. Of course it would be great to have “new speculative and synthetic methods,” and of course there is a lot of bad historicism (as there is a lot of bad everything else), and of course we hope for “bold arguments.” Those points may seem banal, but they are true and arguably worth repeating, and I suspect that their obviousness derives from the fact that the framers of this manifesto had no space to work them out, because they spent four of their ten theses condemning historicism. So I will end by speaking directly to the writers of this manifesto. You have an online document and it can be changed. Please consider revising your manifesto to aim for a generous, inclusive, positive, forward-thinking document that fully acknowledges the best of what we do and builds on it towards a new future, that respects the good intentions of your fellow scholars, and that offers substantive critiques rather than flippant accusations. Please remember that the people you are condemning are your colleagues, friends, and students. Please design a manifesto that lets diverse scholars work together – whether we enjoy Victorian artifacts, texts, or information (or not!) – and works to undo, as far as possible, the divisive, polarizing effect of your current document. Because right now, this manifesto says that virtually everyone in the field (except the dozen or so signatories of the manifesto?) is doing a poor job in Victorian studies, and apart from the injustice of this blanket judgment, apart from the ethics of denigrating those from whom you have learned, apart from the inevitable effect that such harshness has on readers, I will say one more thing: this is no way to lead a movement.
Elaine Freedgood, New York University
The Antinomies of Victorian Studies
I dislike the amused chuckle myself, preferring laughter or sobs. I like a manifesto, even if I disagree with some of it, as I do here. I don’t think history, theory and form have to duel or dance or dichotomize. Many of the greatest critical works on nineteenth-century literature and culture–The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction, Culture and Imperialism, The Political Unconscious, The Black Atlantic—make no such choices. I don’t know if we are resistant to theory; rather I think there is a general arrogance about theory in what gets called the post-theory moment (I’m living elsewhere). What I see in so much work that I read and hear is a great deal of reliance on criticism in place of theory. It is as if many of us assume that we know theory (through osmosis?) and that we don’t need to read it in the first place, much less again and again. Work in Victorian Studies is getting very thin, fed by critical works that are themselves derivative of other critical works that have forgotten the most enlivening and illuminating critical concepts of Marxism, critical race theory, feminism, queer theory, postcolonial theory, psychoanalysis, and critiques of every mainstream concept in the nineteenth century—liberalism most prominently. We need to re-read everything that we think we have read, or that we think we know because we have heard it described by others. We don’t know Eve Sedgwick’s work because we have heard the word “homosocial,” we don’t know how communities get imagined without actually reading Benedict Anderson; we don’t really ever remember how the commodity fetish plays its tricks. So my plea is that we return to (old and new) theory so that we might write work that is vigorous. People in other fields will then be interested in our work, as people have been interested in great critical works of the nineteenth-century of the past. Many of those works have been historicist, and full of facts and archival detail. But they had something to say beyond describing a culture as if it arrived in the preterite and could not have been otherwise.
Daniel Hack, University of Michigan
V21 has the potential to invigorate Victorian studies—to make it more ambitious, simultaneously more self-reflective and more outward-looking, and more contentious in a good way. Some of the ways the manifesto describes the current state of the field ring true to me, and others less so; however, I’d like to focus this brief response on the manifesto’s vision of the future. I share the manifesto’s desire to reject the framing of “theory” as “a monolithic other”; that is why I am organizing two panels on “Theory and Victorian Studies” for MLA 2016. However, I fear that instead of interrogating oppositions as promised, the manifesto reinstates them—only now it’s historicism (with “positivist” coming to seem more an intensifier than a qualifier) that is theory’s abjected Other, rather than vice versa. I would advocate a more fluid or dialectical model of the relationship between “theory” and “historicism,” as indeed between abstraction and “concretion.” Such a relationship has long characterized much of the best and most enduring work in the field. (Is not Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism, the subject of a forum in the new issue of Victorian Studies, both historicist and theoretical?) Similarly, I am all in favor of attention to form and to the politics of form, but at its best such attention—including attention to the persistence of forms over time (as well as across space)—need not and should not be unhistorical or antihistoricist. As Adorno warns in Minima Moralia, we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But the great promise of V21, as I see it, is that it will push us to address just these kinds of issues and provide a forum in which to do so collectively.
Tyler Dean, Pasadena City College
My main reaction to the manifesto concerns point eight. My own work, chiefly on Victorian childhood, tends to view the Victorian era as an uncanny mirror of our current era: a shadow presentism. And while I have typically considered that mirroring to be a species of formalism, I am intrigued by this idea of a Victorian approach to its own echoes in the twenty-first century. Those long tendrils of similarity represent, more than an ability to draw parallels and divine origins, a chance to feel disconnected from our present; we can hone the ability to use Victorianism as refraction rather than reflection. Hopefully this will be one curative to the consumptive disease of historicism that can make use of our now voluminous catalog of detail, without directing it solely at our own obsessions.
Elaine Auyoung, University of Minnesota
For me, the manifesto presents an occasion to reflect on how literary scholars themselves have been disciplined to privilege certain methods and argumentative moves, to nurture particular intellectual assumptions and inclinations, and, consciously or unconsciously, to discount other kinds of questions and approaches. For instance, while we’re all familiar with major ideological claims about what Victorian novels do to their readers, we know much less about the mental acts that readers actually perform when they read. The phenomenology of literary experience remains mysterious to us for a number of disciplinary reasons. For one thing, as interested as we are in new ways of reading, what critics really mean by “reading” is a method of producing interpretive meaning, which involves processes that are quite distinct from the reading practices of our students or of subscribers to Household Words. Kate Flint notes, though, that while we have robust evidence for Victorian attitudes toward reading, cultural representations of readers, and the economics of the literary marketplace, we can never recover what exactly happened between Victorian readers and the texts they read “except by hypothesis.” How might we develop such hypotheses? If we resist the assumption that, unless proven otherwise, Victorian readers were different from us in every way, we have much to gain from the past three decades of psychological research on how readers comprehend texts. Ironically, this research in many ways returns to and extends Victorian accounts of reading and the embodied mind by George Henry Lewes, Herbert Spencer, and Alexander Bain. Given that we have relied on, say, Saussure’s ideas about language for almost a hundred years, how might more recent work on language, reading, perception, attention, memory and emotion open up new ways to understand literary and aesthetic experience?
Kathy A. Psomiades, Duke University
History, Thinking, and Being Wrong
To start, I think the more tedious historicism described in the manifesto seems to happen more at conferences than in print and it seems to be connected to the fact that Victorian conferences are organized around topics. But oh, how I wish we all thought more! What better provocation to thought, than a manifesto?
But my larger question, after reading the manifesto, is what it would mean to be a post-historicist Victorianist? That is: why do those of us who think in historical periods think in them? Why aren’t we all doing contemporary literature/culture and theory? Particularly when our institutions are pushing “innovation,” “problem-solving,” and their own ideas of “relevance”? When structurally we’re exhorted to be interdisciplinary and work over broader periods of time for reasons that may be intellectually justifiable, but are rather too conveniently tied into the university’s new austerity ethos? So that ultimately the total numbers of humanists and humanist disciplines can be reduced and the remainder allocated to a single humanities department? (I guess you could call this the historicism of the Munch scream, rather than the amused chuckle!) In other words, I have the usual reservations about the ways in which even a strategic presentism aligns a little too well with a certain kind of anti-historicism that has immediate fiscal implications and larger structural implications down the road. All the more reason for us to rethink what it means to work on the literature and culture of the past today.
Finally, there are so many ways to shut down or retreat from thought: you can retreat into historicism, but you can also retreat into formalism, and even into a certain kind of theoretical work. Thinking is hard. To think, to speculate, to conceptualize, to theorize is not just to risk being wrong, but to accept the certainty of being wrong. We need more willingness to be spectacularly, sublimely, and productively wrong in all our modes of inquiry. And I think we also need to be less willing to make others–people in the past, other critics–wrong so that we can be right: we need to think, rather, in terms of their productive wrongness enabling our own.
Kyle McAuley, Rutgers University
In the “Manifesto of the V21 Collective: Ten Theses,” the writers suggest that Victorian studies is addicted to historicism, and offer theory and form as methodological rehabs. Even if we “perhaps break historicism itself,” our renewed formal attention to nineteenth-century literature can allow us reclaim history as a resource, and reconfigure its familiar guises. My current project does this by claiming that the geographic imagination of nineteenth-century provincial novels is metabolized into the representational politics of late-century and early twentieth-century empire fiction. Viewing Walter Scott’s Waverley and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim as “border novels,” for example, connects Scott’s imperial surveillance of Scottish border spaces with Kipling’s distortion of the traditional bildungsroman under the pressure of transnational cultural and ethnic modes of belonging, creating a new generic formation that connects chronologically distant novels. In dialogue with each other, these novels begin to narrate a new literary historical story where the national-provincial novel becomes empire fiction (Scott) and the empire is opened out to the world (Kipling). So without quite breaking historicism—perhaps just by bending it—we can begin the work of reimagining the period we think we know by tracing the geoformal signatures of the British Empire’s expansion and contraction. This work emphasizes imperialism’s integral place at the heart of nineteenth-century studies—including in our incipient ecological, world literary, and Anthropocentric consciousnesses—and marshals new energies of resistance to empire by admitting and accounting for its pervasiveness in Victorian culture and Victorian studies. When we use a phrase like “Victorian era” or “long nineteenth century,” we not only name overlapping demarcations of historical time, we also implicitly extend the long shadow of the period’s hegemonic sovereignty and territorial expansionism over the historical record and over our literary-critical enterprise. Victorian studies does not always have to be empire studies, but Great Britain should always be recognized as an imperial power.
In this vein, the writers of the manifesto claim, “A survey of the Victorian period is a survey of empire, war, and ecological destruction.” I assent, but offer a complication with an anecdote. In December 2014, I organized an event titled “New Directions in Empire Studies” under the auspices of the Rutgers British Studies Center and as a part of the Rutgers English Nineteenth-Century Group’s annual State of the Field symposium, a series I helped inaugurate. After brilliant papers by Nathan K. Hensley, Seth Koven, and Tanya Agathocleous (two of whom are now V21 affiliates) a senior scholar asked me a question challenging the idea that an event on empire could have bearing on where nineteenth-century studies might be headed. The scholar’s exasperation and the subsequent discussion registered a frustration that the study of British imperialism might be peripheral to the study of British literature. New scholarship and the combined energies of groups like the V21 Collective should honestly assess our field’s blind spots and call for changes in direction. The sustained engagement with empire by many of the founding V21 affiliates suggests to me that a reconsideration of how to work on British imperialism is well underway. It is my hope that this group lends these efforts more visibility and more urgency.
Jeanette Samyn, Indiana University
I deeply admire the v21 collective’s advocacy of “new speculative and synthetic methods . . . that might equip us to speak and to know outside the verificationist Victorian frame.” Such methods would take the relationship between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries seriously, and this is crucial for any work with an expanded sense of present purpose or political, ecological, and intellectual urgency. I am not convinced, however, that this sense of a Victorian present is as foreign to historicist criticism as the Manifesto seems to suggest; and more generally, I worry about setting up a too-strict dichotomy between “positivist historicism” and something like “good” or urgent critique. Few scholars, I imagine, set out to do “little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past”; if scholars end up doing so, what might be their reasons?
We probably all have our pet peeves about the current state of the field, and our pet theories for the roots of its problems: politics, the vicissitudes and the precarity of much academic life, and a general sense of the humanities under siege are only some of the most obvious. But I do think that, to some, there is perceived safety in work that seems accountable, solid, concrete—and safety may be a very appealing thing for scholars without the privilege of, say, tenure or an elite degree. What does it mean to position oneself in the interest of the fluid and the abstract against this perceived safety? If we conceive of ourselves as scholars interested in work that does not feel safe, in other words, we must also question where we come from in doing so.