Robert Ryan, V21 and the Production of Form

There is something of a productive paradox in the name “V21.” It draws together two non-sequential time periods—one bounded, anchored in nation and the reign of a Queen, the other open and transnational—in order to query their possible connection. The collective’s subtitle, of course, clarifies things considerably: Victorian studies for the 21st century. The question, then, is this: what can the Victorian era tell us about our present (increasingly dire) socio-political milieu? The categories involved here—like the questions V21 sought to pose at its inaugural symposium—are, in the words of Anna Kornbluh and Benjamin Morgan, “unapologetically large.” The largeness of V21’s questions is evident in the proceedings of the symposium gathered at boundary2 online, by dint of the sheer breadth of scholarship on display: Nietzschean investigations of method, questions of empire and unfielding, psychologies of reading, and a great deal more. Here, though, in allegiance with V21’s aspiration to large questions, I would like to extract what seem to be the symposium’s two central categories: form and history.

The choice of these categories should come as no great shock. Indeed, what V21 does best is invite scholars to think form in its relation to history, history in its relation form. This requires not simply an adequate historicist methodology or partisan formalism, but rather, as their collectively-authored manifesto has it, an active and sustained commitment to the practice and theorization of “reading methods hospitable to surprise.” Remaining hospitable to surprise, the authors tell us, involves the rejection of “positivist historicism,” a rejection that is soon formalized as a form of “post-historicism.” These terms all serve to map the contemporary literary field and do so with remarkable clarity. They also begin to articulate a theory of literary historicism in stark and bold language.

Where the Manifesto is declarative and uncompromising, though, the symposium is fluid, demonstrating the sort of the gymnastic thinking made possible by the ten theses. Indeed, what the symposium so keenly takes up are the disparities and congruencies between “post-historicism” and “formalism”—between the many ways we formulate and think about the past, present, and future. We might then say that the virtuosity of thinking on display throughout the symposium suggests not a rejection of historicism, but rather a multiplication of historicisms. This involves a polytemporal historical perspective: the future of history, the history of the present, the many (dis)locations of the present in the past; and all these questions find expression and development, contradiction and affirmation, across the pages collected at boundary2 online.

This polytemporal heterogeneity of thought, I suggest, is what accounts for the commitment to largeness, as well as the commitment to form. Form is what makes intelligible and coherent otherwise proliferating, errant movements of thought. Form is what allows the stuff of the past to become a history in the first place (be it Nietzschean, Foucauldian, Marxian, or otherwise). What seems most useful in thinking about the Manifesto and symposium together is that this thought makes legible the way V21 thinks about how we pass (or hesitate) between theory and text, the abstract and the concrete. In this sense, V21 does not just advocate for form, they produce it as well. V21 houses new, experimental approaches to the work of the nineteenth century, in dialogic relation to the field’s past achievements and missteps, and it provides an intellectual space where this kind of thinking can emerge.

Take, for instance, Ellis Hanson’s contribution, which invites us to think about kink and the erotics of art. His intervention includes both a critique of the Manifesto and a striking advancement of its claims. Criticizing the “dismissive words” that comprise the Manifesto’s claim of a “fetishization of the archival,” Hanson writes: “One might ask…if there is an economy without fetishism, or even an erotics without fetishism, since by any definition the fetish sounds like a mere tautology for desire” and goes on to wonder whether “[we could] theorize a less phobic erotics of the archival[.]” The answer, for Hanson, is a turn to queer temporality and a reconsideration of the fetish beyond its Marxian and Freudian commonplace. I single out Hanson as an example not to level decision on his argument (which is, like so many of the other contributions, rich, compelling, and generative) so much as to briefly demonstrate what I mean by the aspiration to largeness on the one hand and the commitment to form on the other. Hanson allows us to glimpse what V21-as-form makes possible: centuries of time, competing paradigms of thought and methods of inquiry, all invited to co-mingle, intersect, and elaborate one another.

Put more directly, what I have selected as a theme—the aspiration to largeness—helps position V21 as a critical intervention committed to critical intervention. Far from tautology, this signals an insistent process—not undialectical—of elaboration and critique. This is why form and history are so important to V21, and why V21 is so important to emerging scholars (especially those of us still feeling our way through the long, often confounding process to degree). V21 both thinks and enacts form and formalization; it emerges from history and in history (of the field, of literature, of the humanities) to take seriously intellectual community and rigorous critique.

We might close by thinking of these commitments in terms of what Hannah Arendt once named the place proper to thought: “[an] interval in time which is altogether determined by things that are no longer and by things that are not yet” (13). Formalizing this interval, I suggest, is the ongoing task of V21. This requires privileging form as such, as a transhistorical (“portable,” in affiliate Caroline Levine’s language) commitment to shaping, building, and drawing together heterogeneous thought—a commitment to thinking rigorously those things that are no longer and those things that are not yet. In our present political reality—where the election of Donald Trump has struck a blow to human rights and the humanities both (to say nothing of decency, whatever that may now mean)—it seems more important than ever to preserve this interval by asking unapologetically large questions and giving form to spaces where we might debate their difficult, always provisional answers.

University of Illinois, Chicago

Works Cited


Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. Penguin, 1961.

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