by Elaine Hadley
This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.
I wanted to thank the organizers of V21 for asking me to comment and then to host the closing segment of the conference. In some ways, I am the worst possible choice to do so: I’m not a great processor of auditory information, and I have a terrible memory. Luckily, though, I filled a legal pad front and back with notes, and I am going to read them word by word to you, page by page, hoping you can find something to spur you on for one more hour of talk. Just kidding!
There were many wonderful papers over the past day, and a very smart disposition of panel topics, and every one of you should be congratulated for making the event substantive and engaging. But despite my threats, I will not be attempting a granular recapping of the panels and discussions. In the spirit of V21, I made my own version of this conference’s manifesto, on the fly, in fifteen minutes. Like the first one, it is a bit provocative and sometimes I say it with love, and sometimes not so much.
- Experimentation is good. But what is experimental? Is something experimental only in retrospect, as with Bleak House’s double narrative, or necessarily of the moment, achieved by declaration? Many of you did claim experimentation as an opening gambit. The prevalence of the word “experimental” in the conference implies by contrast something that is not experimental but conventional, or hide-bound. But, truly, as some have noted, both in the manifesto and in the conference, the referents for the conventional are floating signifiers. Experimental seems aligned with the provisional, responsive to a prompt not one’s own; it can turn to essayistic prose rather than argumentative expository prose, but not always, and it is somewhat averse to periodization, but only somewhat. There is also some commitment, though not uniform, to provisionality, to uncertainty. Some presenters downplay a connection between progress and progressive. But insofar as these approaches and aims might be a response to NAVSA (as implied in the manifesto) or to recent trends in the field overall that seem stale, and thus, by now, conventional or predictable, they to some extent remain, surprisingly, Victorianist in several recognizable ways. Which leads me to #2.
- Literary Objects are good. In the midst of some smart, and sometimes risky, experimentation there does seem something very conventional to this conference, and there are lots of ways that is ok but still let’s think a bit. To turn to Jesse Rosenthal’s piece on conservation, and put it to use in a different if related direction, it is striking how conservationist some features of the conference’s orientation have been. There is, as some have noted, a deep attachment to the novel genre and, perhaps, to some key canonical texts. As a scholar who has never been much interested in literary form, per se, nor in the history of the novel, I am surprised to see so little interest in textual objects that are not literary or in arguments that do not rely on a persistent focus on textual objects. Much of the desire to detect or declare “rules” for our project as critics, noticeable these past few days, has started there, as if many of you have decided that the most persuasive accounts of our value lie in either a narrow construction of literature or a literary formalist methodology. The one place, notably, where some other texts were apparent was in the Empire panel, also the place where visual images came most fully into the mix, and the very same place where we had a discussion about the relation between what is in a Victorian novel and what it does, and what is not in a Victorian novel and what it cannot do. I found it telling that Bruce Robbins’s desire to talk about the absence of atrocity in the literary record mostly elicited comments from the audience of instances in novels (and less often poems) where atrocity is present, as if we simply cannot accept that our big, baggy monsters do not include everything but the kitchen sink. I do wonder about these foci. As departments retrench, as young people, our students, turn to other media forms far more than textual sources, let alone novels or poems, and as it seems increasingly likely that we might all be teaching, if we continue to teach, in media studies departments or Humanities departments rather than literature departments, let alone in literature departments that have three or four Victorianists, I wonder if our focus on novels, in particular, is a bit myopic, or worse, a structural result of the ever-increasing retrenchments we see all around us—as if small as our audience may be, it is in fact the novels that still have readers. And this line of observation leads me to #3.
- After the word “curate,” “form” is fast becoming an irritation to me in my disciplinary conversations. I suspect that “curate,” used voiced in this conference and among my own students, references (no doubt among other things) the emergence of a form of aesthetics, some of it coming from Ranciére, some of it from object theory, perhaps also the digital humanities, and no doubt other sources as well. We need to think about the denotations and connotations of the word curate–its relation to taste, to exclusivity, to consumption: what sorts of claims are we making in our (re)turn to aesthetic judgment? Are our syllabi simply a kind of playlist? And then there is form. Years ago, during an earlier moment of commitment to self-definition in the field, some academics (most of you won’t remember this moment) turned to “imagination” to describe the Humanists’ domain. Needless to say, it didn’t really take. I am equally gloomy about the status of “form” in our efforts to declare what our central contributions are. It references a range of approaches and tools and visions we practice and, yes, enjoy, but it is also a constriction. At times it can exclude, as I think it has to some extent here, other ways into textual and media interpretation—say rhetorical interrogation–and other kinds of knowledge formation. At other times, it functions to occlude the complex problems of its own central assumptions. As it becomes its own project, as it differentiates itself from structuralism or historicism, it seems to me to lose analytical force, let alone function. I detected in the pre-circulated papers and in our discussions, many references to metaphor, to analogy, to analogues and, less referenced but apparent, to allegory. I’m not sure I myself want to spend the next several months clarifying the mechanisms and limitations of these terms, but they remain a problem in our formalist practice as they did with New Historicism. Relinquishing historicism does not solve that problem.
- Optimism and joy and pleasure are good. There is a palpable desire to read and write and convene, to have hope in a future where we might all continue to read and write and convene. For someone raised in a different era, one apparently much more explicitly competitive and individualist, and–so you keep saying–enamored of a hermeneutics of skepticism (guilty as charged), I am genuinely moved by the “collective” spirit, which seems truly genuine, communal and although clearly of a certain generational cohort, welcoming to us older folk. But I am perhaps a wee bit less moved by the occasional need to draw a line between us and them, between good criticism and bad, or literary work of complexity and something else, and in particular between some kind of pedantic historicist labor and, well, fun. As David Kurnick pointed out, sometimes writers aren’t fun to read, and sometimes our work isn’t joyous, and sometimes an intellectual’s labor is to detect and limn pessimism, and, alas, to generate it, too. And then, I cannot think the word “optimism” anymore without recurring to my colleague Lauren Berlant’s phrase “cruel optimism.” By all means let’s find and demonstrate joy and pleasure in our practices, but let’s be careful. The absence of feminist theory, of class, with only a momentary mention of Marx, of something I might call Politics with a big P only emerging momentarily, until Bruce Robbins’s talk, suggests that our joy, and pleasure and optimism need, in the spirit of Victorian self-reflexiveness, to be–if not leavened–at least in conversation with a keen attentiveness to the ways in which our neoliberal moment packages these affects. This is a critical moment, some might even say a survivalist moment; the power of positive psychology does not seem adequate to the times.
- So historicism is not so good. I was struck when reading the V21 manifesto of a certain conflation of two types of historicism. There is first a kind of empiricist, quasi-scientific historicism, often Whiggish and positivist and totalizing at its worst, and then there is the post-68 historicisms ushered into Victorian studies by way of Foucault. As time wears on, no doubt we can see the two approaches as in some sense of a piece– though Foucault did not see his work that way. In many important ways, however, they just aren’t the same, and I still think it important to capture that difference, to take the full force of the intervention of Foucauldian historicism, even if one doesn’t wish to emulate it. It also seems important to say to a fairly young group of splendid scholars that Victorian studies from its very inception has been a historicist-learning field for all sorts of material and structural reasons: the price of paper, the rise of literacy, and the widespread emergence of research libraries in the nineteenth century has left us with a lot of historical textual evidence. We seem to be ready for transhistorical and transpatial projects that no longer will care about these histories and thus will be able to dispense with that founding moment, to a certain degree. I am ready to read it, certainly. But I rather suspect the complexity of what might be called “the history question,” precisely what led me to this field during my graduate years, will hang around. There is vitality in that concept, even in the V21 group. And, to be fair, the conference far more than the manifesto has shown that all of you are still grappling nobly and mightily with that big H. Even if grumpily, even if it refuses you joy.
So, thank you for letting me do this, and thank you so much for letting me be a part of this stimulating event.
Elaine Hadley is Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885 (Stanford UP, 1995), and Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Victorian Britain (University of Chicago Press, 2010).