Zach Fruit: The Collective Problem of History


In the weeks immediately following the election, a lot of us were expressing grief and disbelief together. Fearful coping mechanisms varied. I signed a lot of petitions. In English departments, graduate students, faculty, and undergraduates found themselves stuck with the challenge of defending their intellectual commitment to literature in a world in which racism and misogyny had been explicitly endorsed. There was a desperate atmosphere as we all tried to gather evidence to prove that our fields mattered in the current moment. Many of us settled for the unsatisfactory cliché that “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” It can be easy to think that accruing facts and organizing them and putting them into context challenges structures of exploitation in the present. I often manipulate my personal interests and career aspirations so that they seem like political praxis. That, for me, is the danger of a certain kind of historicism; it facilitates this disingenuous delusion.

I read the boundary 2 online V21 special issue on “Presentism, Form, and the Future of History” in the context of the post-election crisis. In the introduction to the issue, Anna Kornbluh and Benjamin Morgan ask “why read canonical novels today?” Specifically, why read Bleak House today? Is there any use, really, in our urge to congregate around such texts? I couldn’t help but magnify these already “unapologetically large” questions. Why teach literature? What can we make these literary things do when they continue to fail to address the structures of dominance that we hope they will eventually confront?

In her closing remarks, Elaine Hadley notes that there is a “generational” collective spirit of optimism and joy and pleasure among the mostly junior scholars represented in the issue. She worries that this optimism and joy and pleasure can be all too easily “packaged” within a rubric of neoliberalism. Marxism, feminist theory, and class, she writes, seem to have been sacrificed in this younger generation’s devotion to the power of “positive psychology.” While I think Hadley is correct in her diagnosis of optimism, I don’t think the work in this issue represents an anti-Marxist, anti-Foucauldian, or even anti-historicist movement. Rather, the collection emphasizes the inexhaustibility of our chosen literary objects, and stages a delighted collaborative effort to collate new ways of reading them while reflecting on the affordances of the ways we have read in the past.

Jesse Rosenthal’s contribution, Maintenance Work: On Tradition and Development, is a good example of the questions about the canon that are active throughout most of the issue. He reframes presentism as an active process of designating the relatability of the past. “A sense of familiarity is not something that we happen to encounter in the works we study,” he writes, “but rather the means by which we choose which works to study in the first place.” While there is nothing inherently timeless or classic about a given work of literature, if there are more elements in that work that have been persistent enough to exist in the present, then the writing is likely to feel more relevant and thus, more timeless. The “traditionary practice” of literary criticism, then, “finds more truth about the present in the past” and produces “a past that tells us the same story.” This is why that cliché about learning from history is so unsatisfactory—it imagines a world in which we are presented with a narrow range of problems, and a similarly narrow range of solutions.

In Untimely Dickens, Emily Steinlight shows that formalist analysis can pose new problems outside of this double bind. She argues that Bleak House lends itself to anachronism, even though it seems to be “so consummately of its time.” The split narration, Esther’s personal and biographical and past-tense chapters, and the semi-omniscient impersonal narrator’s “polyphonic mix of styles and tempos” with a panoramic eye and spastic sense of scale, has a political logic. Against Jameson’s description of realism as a form which gives massive weight to the present in order to suggest the difficulty of social change, Steinlight contends that the formal excess of Bleak House laminates overwhelming presents with multiple pasts: geological time onto planetary time onto the domestic time of a grandfather clock. If realism describes a present that is always on the verge of change, realist representational strategies might represent more than the persistence of the bourgeois social order.

Steinlight’s reading of Bleak House is exciting to me because it steps away from historicism without neglecting the way that theories of history can be politically leveraged. But there are still subjects that the Victorian realist novel just doesn’t seem to adequately address—like racism. Carolyn Betensky focuses on this omission and others in her Notes on Presentism and the Cultural Logic of Dissociation. “We are incredibly good at not knowing what we know, and so were the Victorians,” she writes. Her goal is to “understand the ways Victorian culture created pathways of non-cognition that enabled them, and us, NOT to have to bring contradictory feelings into conversation with one another.” This takes the cliché about being doomed to repeat history and frames it in active terms. Not seeing evidence of systemic racism, for example, is not a state of innocence but rather an active unknowing that can only be repaired through ever-more-active engagement with historical analysis. Importantly, Betensky emphasizes social modes of unknowing—and the collective activities that might repair those aporias.

My approach in this response may have oversimplified the stakes of this issue. I don’t think many academics are truly committed to the idea that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. But I found it useful to keep this cliché in mind as a shorthand for teleological theories of history as I read these essays about Nietzsche’s cows and the corporate university, Anthropocene contemporaneity and kinky time, impassioned objectivity and a cultivated love of unhistory. Essays that resist and reimagine teleological time as a reference point for other conceptualizations of history. Bruce Robbins concludes his keynote On the Non-Representation of Atrocity with a reflection on Stuart Hall’s defense of the “old-fashioned” idea of theoretical gains. Robbins suggests that Hall could roughly calculate progress because he “thought of himself first and foremost not as a writer and a scholar but as a member of a movement.” If you are a member of a movement, argues Robbins, “progress is no longer unthinkable or embarrassing.” As citizens, unfortunately, this sort of collectivity is “not something we tend to experience on a regular basis or indeed to seek out.” Elaine Hadley worries that “Politics with a big P” is flattened by the “joy, pleasure, and optimism” of the critical movement represented by this special issue. But the type of collectivity congregating here, oriented unembarrassedly around progress, is political in the way that it imagines a present-tense academic community as something more than a supplement to citizenship.


University of Pennsylvania

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