Anna Kornbluh and Benjamin Morgan: Introduction: Presentism, Form, and the Future of History

Central Hall of the Natural History Museum in London, photographed by Minn Pongpaibul. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

by Anna Kornbluh and Benjamin Morgan

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

In the spring of 2015, the V21 Collective launched with a collectively authored manifesto, signed by twenty-two affiliates, which called for the field of Victorian Studies to intensify inquiries into method, aesthetic form, and the contemporary purchase of nineteenth-century thought. The manifesto garnered many responses within and beyond the field, responses that explored the validity of “presentism” as a scholarly ethos; ongoing renovations of formalism as interpretive method; and the continued predominance of historicism within literary and cultural studies of the British nineteenth century. These conversations became the basis for a community of V21 affiliates, which held its first meeting in Chicago in Fall 2015. Twenty-nine mostly early-career Victorianists spoke at the conference, which was anchored by four established scholars within the field: Isabel Hofmyer, Caroline Levine, Bruce Robbins, and Alex Woloch. The event, comprised of workshops, roundtables, and extended periods of open discussion, was attended by over 100 participants from around the country. This special issue represents the collaborative efforts of that community to move forward the conversations and questions catalyzed by V21’s initial intervention. We are honored to partner with boundary 2 Online to bring our experimental symposium format to their experimental publication platform.  The questions that came to organize the symposium and that organize this special issue are unapologetically large: Why read canonical novels today? What ongoing and unmet challenges to conventional disciplinary configurations and field methodologies are posed by the conceptual and political problem of the enormity and persistence of empire? What role can philosophies of history play in invigorating historiographic methodologies?  How can we return major 19th-century theorists including Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud to the center of Victorian Studies?  What are best practices of engaged, consequential, and political literary and cultural criticism today?  For each workshop, shared texts played a central role, foregrounding questions of canonicity, close reading, philosophical commentary, and imperial print culture; the event was thus structured around a project of collective reading that provided a starting point for hypotheses, interventions, and experimental thought. This issue presents in an online print format the spurs toward thought that ignited the symposium, with the hope of stimulating further debate and engagement.

The conference theme–“Presentism, Form, and the Future of History”–will call to mind some of the liveliest debates in literary studies today: debates about how we read now, about the resurgence of form and formalism, about claims for and against posthistorical and postcritical interpretation, about the viability of the literary-historical period in the context of queer time or deep time. If the stakes of these conversations subtend work in many fields in literary studies, they are especially acute for those whose academic work touches on the nineteenth century. This is a period that is distant enough that it takes some pedagogical work to help students imaginatively inhabit a world where you got your novels in bits and pieces over the course of a year, but close enough that these same students often find great readerly pleasure in minimally annotated Penguin editions. There is something uncanny in this simultaneous proximity and distance which extends to Victorian forms and institutions beyond the novel. To study the nineteenth century is to be struck almost daily by the sense that it never really went away: ours is also a gilded age of income inequality, of financial speculation, of de facto debtor’s prisons, of capitalist exploitation, of global inequity, of misplaced faith in evolutionary psychology, of widespread reliance on coal-based energy. It is strange but true that the best novel about the 2008 financial crisis was written by Anthony Trollope in 1875. And it is equally strange but true that some of the best contemporary writing on television is done by experts on nineteenth-century narrative. The acronym “V21” represents an aspiration to notice these resonances and theorize them more robustly. Victorian studies for the twenty first century, one imagines, would require close attention to the Victorian qualities of the twenty-first century.

But it is precisely because this is easier said than done, an easy gesture to make in the epilogue of a book or in the opening remarks for a symposium, that the V21 collective decided to make questions about historical consciousness and its unpredictable relationships with literary form central to our first meeting. To begin: what if were were to understand “presentism” not as an error, but as a robust interpretive mode? This is deeply counterintuitive: presentism usually designates a lack of historical consciousness, not a variety of it. Presentism commonly names the deformation of our objects of study in our own image, a failure to live up to the alien historical specificity of past documents and things and ideas. But addressing presentism as a strategy rather than as a mistake allows us to ask whether the reasonable distrust of underdeveloped historical awareness may lead us to retrench too readily in notions of historical difference. We might wonder, with Caroline Levine, whether even those critics most avowedly committed to historicism don’t in fact arrive at their objects of study out of an interest in how those objects, as she puts it, have “implications beyond [their] own time” (Levine 2015: xii). We might also wonder whether some kind of presentism isn’t what has made it possible for Bruce Robbins to bring literary criticism to bear acutely on the social and political matters that concern us most, whether these are cosmopolitanism in the age of globalization or upward mobility in an era when it has become increasingly scarce.

This was, in part, Foucault’s point when he said that Discipline and Punish aspired to give not a “history of the past” but a “history of the present,” a present then most prominently marked for Foucault by the prison riots of the early 1970s (Foucault 1995: 31). We know what that genealogical project looks like—but what does it mean to speak about “the future of history”? If this phrase might at first sound like nothing more than an unnecessarily convoluted way of saying “now,” it might also begin to remind us of the many theories and philosophies of the temporal strangeness of the contemporary: Benjamin’s angel of history; Jameson’s “always historicize”; Gadamer’s fusion of horizons; Nietzsche’s ruminating cows. Each of these tropes involves an awareness that what it is to think historically cannot be predetermined. V21 has occasionally been labeled “anti-historicist” or slotted into one side of a tired and tiresome history-versus-theory binary, but this strikes us as possible only if one forgets that pastness must always be theorized. What responsible historian or historicist has ever thought of history simply as “the things that happened”? “The future of history” is an invitation to think anew about how our scholarship might resituate and reinterpret the status of the historical. What if, for instance, with Antoinette Burton and Isabel Hofmeyr, one were to come at the history of empire from the seemingly oblique angle of the history of the book? One might arrive not only at a more historically accurate account of empire as a “slow burn” rather than a rise and fall; one might also encounter new models to think with: empire as assemblage; book not as an object but as a dispersed and dispersing event (Burton and Hofmeyr 2014: 23).

Within a certain idiom, one could rephrase Burton and Hofmeyr’s important point by saying that the British empire and the physical book share the “form” of an assemblage. The stakes of putting it this way would be to make both book and empire disciplinarily available to those whose arena of intellectual expertise is the analysis of form. One name for such people is literary scholars. If we are often seen as disciplinary vagrants with no real home—and even if we often welcome this characterization—it is worth asking who else could conceptualize the inner workings of character space and character systems with the nuance of someone like Alex Woloch: the fine modulations of attention demanded by overpopulated narratives; the structural and syntactical qualities of textual mediations of the real. The analysis of form, as it tarries with internal complexity and structure, can easily become a suspect practice when the term “formalism” is seen as just a shade of meaning away from aestheticism—forgetting the real rather than studying its mediation. But it is exactly for this reason that it is worth reclaiming the value of a way of knowing that has often been understood as the distinctive disciplinary marker of literary studies.

The first cluster of interventions presented here, under the rubric “Bleak House Today,” addresses the fundamental question of what Victorian literature has to offer the present. The roundtable considers how the novel’s formalizations of temporal dissonance, sound and sonance, virtuality, presence and contemporaneity immanently theorize the historicism-presentism continuum.  The second cluster, “Theorizing the Present,” turns to one of the nineteenth century’s most complex and intriguing treatments of historical consciousness, Nietzsche’s essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Across the six pieces published here, Nietzsche comes into view as a writer who both reveals dispositions toward the past to be attachments or passions and, simultaneously, stylistically evades containment within linear history. “The Way We Write Now” presents five short essays that were workshopped by attendees, which share an aspiration to find indirect, utopian, kinky, or recursive paths joining the Victorian and the contemporary. Such paths are found in explorations of the archive as fetish, of the immediacies and repetitions of literary tradition, and of the ecological persistence of the nineteenth century. “Empire and Unfielding” underscores the tension between conventional scholarly fields and the study of empire, staking out experimental field-syntheses and field-traversals through the nexus of book history, close reading, comparative literature, discourse analysis, political theory,  and speaking truth to imperial brutality.  Interventions in this cluster underscore the necessity for juxtaposing the canonical and the marginal, the historical and the literary, the past and the present. Returning to a more familiar academic genre with a keynote lecture, Bruce Robbins offers one model of the very consequentialism missing in the current vogue for factism.  “On the Non-representation of Atrocity” articulates enlarged time scales, comparative criticism, and the social impact of aesthetic representation with situated critique of violence and the ideologies that suborn it; for Robbins, studying representation in the past must conduce to fresh queries of how the present comparably distributes the avowable and the unsayable.  The end of the symposium pivots toward diverse future trajectories of reflection on presentism, form, and the future of history, illuminated by Elaine Hadley.  We hope that this special issue will itself serve as another exhortation to future engagement, as its own opening of speculative possibilities. V21, which welcomes new affiliates, currently facilitates a series of international reading groups, publication clusters, conference streams, syllabus sharing, and book roundtables, and is eager for new debates. We tweet @v21collective.


Levine, Caroline. 2015. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage.

Burton, Antoinette M., and Isabel Hofmeyr. 2014. “Introduction: The Spine of Empire? Books and the Making of an Imperial Commons.” In Ten Books That Shaped the British Empire: Creating an Imperial Commons, edited by Antoinette M. Burton and Isabel Hofmeyr, 1-28. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.



Benjamin Morgan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago.  His book The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

Anna Kornbluh is Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  She is the author of Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (Fordham UP, 2014) and is currently completing a manuscript The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space.