Sebastian Lecourt, Victorian Studies and the Transnational Present
Like others in the V21 Collective, I was drawn to the group by a sense that Victorian studies could use a boost of conceptual energy at the moment. Yet I hesitate to claim that our problem is an over-reliance upon historicism. Instead, I tend to agree with David Kurnick (in his response to the manifesto) that our historicism may not be formalist enough – that is, lacking a certain will to abstraction and comparison. One obstacle, perhaps, lies in the term Victorian, which unlike Romanticism or Modernism seems less a historiographical concept than an arbitrary political and geographical marker, “anachronistically wedded,” as Amanda Anderson puts it, “to the person of the queen.” Yet the alternative would appear to be a kind of atomized specificity that wields even less suggestive power: nineteenth-century literatures of the British Isles? Anglophone writing of the British Empire?
This problem was on my mind in 2015 when I sat down to write an overview of transnational approaches to Victorian studies for the online journal, Literature Compass. Might reconceptualizing Victorian studies as a transnational field, I wondered, give us a more conceptually potent sense of what holds our period together as an object of study? For in fact the current transnational turn within literary studies has been marked by a high degree of theoretical self-consciousness, one borne out of the clash between old-school comparative literature and postcolonial theory. Classical comp lit as it took shape in Goethe sought to achieve a cosmopolitan viewpoint through the combined power of political and literary forms: different nations, the claim went, had distinctive voices that could be compared by reading their literary productions, while genres such as lyric or epic were universal and therefore offered specific points of comparison between these national literatures. Dissatisfaction with this rubric, as David Duff notes, has a long and distinguished history, but it attained a special force in the work of first-generation postcolonial critics, who called attention to the ways in which Western comparativism had rendered the world intelligible by projecting its homegrown categories onto it. The new transnationalism, as I read it, represents a series of attempts to meet the challenge of reading literature globally while at the same time cultivating healthy skepticism toward the very terms and concepts that allow us to do so.
Some critics have engaged this task via a rigorous particularism that discards the frames of nation or genre and instead follows the stories of specific texts as they circulate globally. Perhaps the best-known example is Isabel Hofmeyr’s The Portable Bunyan (2004), which traces The Pilgrim’s Progress’s complex life within British Dissent, African Christianity, and the English literary canon. (John Picker calls this approach New Receptionism insofar as its gambit is to extend the geographical and political scope of traditional reception studies.) Other critics have confronted explicitly the ideological baggage that European literary forms carry from one cultural context into another. Here one could mention the excellent work done by scholars of Modernism such as Jed Esty and Joseph Slaughter, who have reconstructed how the political ramifications of the Bildungsroman form – individualism, nationalism – were reshaped in colonial contexts during the twentieth century. Aspects of both approaches converge in the recent work of Franco Moretti, which endeavors to map out literary world systems by examining the interactions between narrative forms developed in “core” nations and the local materials they encounter on the global periphery.
What struck me as I drafted my Literature Compass piece was just how many Victorianists over the past decade have opted for versions of the first strategy and traced how the major texts of our period circulated within global economic and media networks. For example, a number of scholars have situated Dickens, Eliot, and other canonical writers within the transatlantic networks produced by the slave trade and its critics. Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose (2007) and Julia Sun-Joo Lee’s The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel (2010) both illuminate the give-and-take between nineteenth-century Anglo-American fiction and abolitionist writing; Tim Watson’s Caribbean Culture and British Fiction in the Atlantic World, 1780-1870 (2008) argues that the Caribbean figured prominently in the Victorian novel and moreover supplied the materials and capital necessary for the novel’s success as a genre. Along similar lines, several recent studies have reconstructed how the expansion of imperial media not only opened up new literary publics – see Priya Joshi’s In Another Country (2002), or the essays collected in Meredith McGill’s, The Traffic in Poems (2008) – but also offered writers alternative narrative or spatial imaginaries. In the wake of Richard Menke’s Telegraphic Realism (2008), Katie-Louise Thomas’s Postal Pleasures (2012) has located the novel within the promiscuous forms of global sociality enabled by the Victorian mail service, while Jonathan Grossman’s Charles Dickens’s Networks (2012) considers how Dickens’s fiction reflected upon the new kinds of personal mobility enabled by the revolution in public transportation.
Yet perhaps the range and quality of this work is not so surprising after all, since in many ways it simply extends the kind of thinking that Victorian studies has become so good at: offering thoughtful readings of major literary works within different historical contexts. By contrast, relatively few Victorianists have taken the more formalist direction modeled by Esty or Slaughter and considered how the philosophical implications of Victorian literary forms were challenged by the altered political landscapes of Australia or Ceylon. If Esty finds that the classical Bildungsroman’s equation of individual development with nation-formation becomes vexed in colonial South Africa, what problems might be suggested by Victoria Cross’s Anna Lombard (1901), a sensation novel written in an India where the ideology of domestic privacy could not be assumed? Notable examples of such work include Simon Dentith’s Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2006), which contends that Victorian writers used the form of the long poem, famously associated by Bakhtin with premodern political regimes, to think out the relationships between empire and colony. More recently, Lauren Goodlad’s The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic (2015) has described realism as a set of forms through which the Victorians processed the “transnational structures and experiences” of imperialism. Where studies of global Modernism sometimes scapegoat realism as the quintessential literary optic of bourgeois nationalism, Goodlad demonstrates how versions of realism ranging from Anthony Trollope’s travel writing to latter-day serials such as Mad Men offer a “flexible aesthetic response to an ongoing project of capitalist globalization.”
Such studies offer useful examples of how Victorianists might sharpen their formalist chops while also extending their work’s geographical purview. At the same time, I suspect that there remains untapped potential within Hofmeyr’s more media-focused optic to give the label “Victorian” a conceptual resonance beyond that of national literary history. In a pair of recent position pieces, Caroline Levine and Priya Joshi have suggested that one way to take Victorian studies past its focus on nineteenth-century Britain would be to conceptualize our object of study as a worldwide media system, “the cultural traffic spawned around the globe by Victorian ideology and policies,” that remains foundational for a surprising amount of international culture. Such a methodology, they venture, might help us appreciate not just how Victorian texts belonged to the world but also how elements of global culture can be thought of as Victorian. Victorian literature, as they frame it, includes the archives of the Connemara Public Library as well as those much older works that were remediated for Western modernity by Victorian scholarship: the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Bhagavad Gita.
This approach, of course, risks becoming a form of conceptual colonization in its own right. But it might also open up a new critical self-consciousness by forcing us to examine our own interest in the Victorians as a relevant case. Why does the term “Victorian,” despite its well-publicized limitations, continue to command a certain loyalty among scholars in the United States and the Commonwealth nations? In what ways does our fascination with the period participate in recognizably Victorian practices of nostalgia, aesthetic consumption, or indeed (as Benjamin Noys suggested last week) historicism? Perhaps the most obvious examples of such work are Neo-Victorian studies such as the essays gathered in John Kucich’s and Dianne Sadoff’s Victorian Afterlife (2000), all of which discuss the vitality of Victorian aesthetic forms within contemporary popular culture. But we might also include any scholarship that treats Victorianism as an object constituted by present practices as much as by past legacies. We could, for instance, look to Ian Baucom’s Out of Place (1999) and John Plotz’s Portable Property (2008), which explore how the Victorian habit of investing national identity in fetishized objects and spaces – the cricket field, gothic architecture, the country house – unsettled this identity as such things were exported to the colonial and postcolonial peripheries. Or we might turn to a recent string of essays on Oscar Wilde’s 1883 American lecture tour that treat aestheticism as a practice whose wider resonances come into view both through transnational encounters. Daniel Novak, for instance, argues that critics and historians have become so fascinated by Wilde’s tour because it illuminates the significant role that aesthetic performance, including queer performances, played in shaping American settler culture; along similar lines, Benjamin Morgan suggests that the hefty literature on Wilde’s visit highlights the submerged affinities between aestheticism and Mormonism as transnational communities shaped by alternative sexual practices.
What seems to me most promising about this sort of presentism is that, by asking us to thematize our own interest in the Victorians, it suggests an alternative posture toward our object of study – one ultimately more conducive to conceptually driven thinking. One of the things I enjoy most about being a Victorianist is the genuine sense of affection that my colleagues feel for their materials. The fact that most Victorian literature conferences seem to feature a magic lantern show or some other period performance bespeaks a scholarly climate in which we understand and affirm each other’s strange curiosities. Sometimes, however, this sense of affection can translate into a defensive posture that is reflexively uncomfortable with large generalizations about the period. Since the emergence of the field in the 1950s, Victorianists have been struggling to free the Victorians from the various narratives that Lytton Strachey and others have foisted upon them. As against the old saw that the Victorians were sexually repressed, or in thrall to aesthetic clutter, Victorian studies persistently asks: “but how did they see it?” Reframing Victorianism as a set of practices and affects in which we still participate, by contrast, might encourage us to channel our affections toward expansive rather than defensive ends. Instead of insisting on the Victorians’ difference and exceptionality, we might begin to embrace their contiguity with our own moment, and instead of exempting the Victorians from our grand narratives and cultural expectations, we might reflect upon how they helped construct them.
 See http://v21collective.org/responses-to-the-v21-manifesto-2/.
 Amanda Anderson, “Victorian Studies and the Two Modernities,” Victorian Studies 47.2 (2005), 195. See also Priya Joshi, “Globalizing Victorian Studies,” Yearbook of English Studies 41.2 (2011), 20; Kate Flint, “Why ‘Victorian’?: Response,” Victorian Studies 47.2 (2005), 230.
 “That Untravell’d World: The Difficulties of Thinking Globally in Victorian Studies.” Literature Compass 13.2 (2016): 108-17.
 For overviews of this terrain, see David Duff, Modern Genre Theory (London: Longman, 2000), 3-6; Sharon Marcus, “Same Difference? Transnationalism, Comparative Literature, and Victorian Studies,” Victorian Studies 45 (2003): 678-86; Micol Seigel, “Beyond Compare: Comparative Method after the Transnational Turn,” Radical History Review 91 (2005): 62–90.
 See Duff, 5-6.
 See John Picker, “Current Thinking: On Transatlantic Victorianism,” Victorian Literature and Culture 39 (2011): 595-603.
 Jed Esty, Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development (New York: Oxford UP, 2012); Joseph Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (New York: Fordham UP, 2007).
 See Moretti’s “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1 (2000): 54–68.
 For a consideration of transatlanticism’s history within Victorian studies, see Amanda Claybaugh, “Toward a New Transatlanticism: Dickens in the United States,” Victorian Studies 48.3 (2006): 439-460.
 Lauren Goodlad, The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic (New York: Oxford UP, 2015), 2, 4.
 Joshi, 20; Caroline Levine, “From Nation to Network,” Victorian Studies 55.4 (2013): 647-66.
 Levine, 664.
 For the relationship between Neo-Victorian studies and transnationalism, see Antonija Primorac and Monika Pietrzak-Franger, “Introduction: What is Global Neo-Victorianism?”, Neo-Victorian Studies 8.1 (2015): 1-16.
 Daniel Novak, “Performing the ‘Wilde West’: Victorian Afterlives, Sexual Performance, and the American West,” Victorian Studies 54.3 (Spring 2012): 451-63; Benjamin Morgan, “Oscar Wilde’s Un-American Tour: Aestheticism, Mormonism, and Transnational Resonance,” American Literary History 26.4 (Winter 2014): 664-92. See also Jesse Matz, “Wilde Americana,” in Christine L. Krueger, Functions of Victorian Culture at the Present Time (Columbus: Ohio UP, 2002), 65-79.