Ryan Napier: Besides Chuckling

The “amused chuckle”—this is the “affective mode” that the V21 manifesto pits itself against. But what produces this amused chuckle from those of us who study literature? What are we chuckling at?

It is, in my experience, a passage like this one from Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister, in which the Duke of Omnium, Trollope’s surrogate, delivers his political creed: “You are a Liberal,” he says, “because you know that it is not all as it ought to be, and because you would still march on to some nearer approach to equality; though the thing itself is so great, so glorious, so godlike,—nay, so absolutely divine,—that you have been disgusted by the very promise of it, because its perfection is unattainable” (516). Read that to a twenty-first century graduate seminar, and wait for the chuckles and smirks. They will come: we have been well trained to recognize the usual hypocrisies and exclusions of liberalism. As we should: those hypocrisies and exclusions were—and are—real.

Still, that chuckle has always troubled me: it seems to exempt us from those hypocrisies. Because most of us are, at bottom, liberals. How could we not be, in a professional academy, in a world where liberalism is like air, invisible and everywhere? We may spend our academic lives decrying liberalism, but in most of the ways that matter, we are indistinguishable from other professionals. So our chuckle is amused, but also uneasy. As Paul de Man points out in “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” laughter is an attempt to deny a part of ourselves: a man trips, falls, and then laughs at himself in order to establish that there is something else in him, superior to his fallible body (214). Likewise, we chuckle at The Prime Minister to distance ourselves from an attitude we understand all too well. Like Trollope’s duke, we too dream of equality from within the safety guaranteed by empire and property.

What I admire, then, in “Presentism, Form, and the Future of History” are the various ways that the authors try to avoid the false, comfortable distance of the amused chuckle and thus to take seriously the idea that we are Victorian. Jesse Rosenthal’s “Maintenance Work: On Tradition and Development” does this most explicitly, arguing for the relationship between literary studies and tradition. “Tradition” is never a very comfortable word in English departments; it conjures Arnold and Eliot, and with them, plenty of chuckles. But, as Rosenthal insists, it nonetheless remains a part of our discipline: literary studies are “an institutional practice that puts us in a prized place to understand the possibilities and limitations of tradition.” With Rosenthal in mind, then, we cannot so easily dismiss a figure such as Arnold; our work is not separable from a kind of conservatism.

Likewise, Ellis Hanson’s “Kink in Time” forces us to think of ourselves in continuity with the past. Hanson’s idea of the kink, as Caroline Levine points out in her introduction to the panel, “calls into question the politics of resistance, which typically relies on the chronology of the break rather than the loop.” The amused chuckle also relies on the idea of the break: the thing that I chuckle at is not me. But to refuse such a break also means refusing to extricate ourselves so easily from the hypocrisies of Victorianism.

Both of these refusals are, I think, essential to V21’s project. The V21 manifesto asks us to recognize that we are Victorians. This means, as the manifesto says, that we face many of the challenges that the Victorians faced: inequality, empire, environmental destruction. But this must also mean acknowledging that the “we” in “we are Victorians” includes academics, that Victorianism conditions even the ways in which we try to think ourselves out of Victorianism.

This is, as Rosenthal says, “not an entirely happy thought.” But that unhappy thought at least allows for the rest of us to pick up where Rosenthal’s essay ends: to figure out what to do with it, besides chuckling.

Tufts University

Works Cited

de Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd edition. U of Minnesota P, 1983, 187–228.

Hanson, Ellis. “Kink in Time.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016, http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/ellis-hanson-kink-in-time/. Accessed 10 January 2017.

Levine, Caroline. “Historicism: From the Break to the Loop.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016, http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/caroline-levine-historicism/. Accessed 10 January 2017.

Rosenthal, Jesse. “Maintenance Work: On Tradition and Development.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016. http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/jesse-rosenthal-maintenance-work-on-tradition-and-development/#_ftnref1. Accessed 10 January 2017.

Trollope, Anthony. The Prime Minister. Oxford UP, 2011.

V21 Collective. “Manifesto of the V21 Collective.” V21: Victorian Studies for the Twenty-First Century, http://v21collective.org/manifesto-of-the-v21-collective-ten-theses/. Accessed 10 January 2017.

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