V21 @ INCS2015: The Chicago School of Victorian Studies

Chicago ca 1838 (Francis Castelnau, credit Wikimedia)

Sometimes it’s great to be last to a party. I just heard about the V21 Collective at INCS 2015 (my thanks and congrats to Narin Hassan + organizers for a huge success in Atlanta). I’ve had my head down trying to meet a big deadline and I’ve been almost completely absent from Facebook and Twitter. I’m less a Luddite than someone trying to actively manage a long addiction to technology. So I was surprised to learn about a debate, organized around a central manifesto, that placed some of my favorite scholars and good friends on both sides of a line in the sand.

The virtue and vice of manifestos is that they draw these lines. They’re inhospitable to the qualifications, allowances, readings, and citations that would fill out a more careful conversation and blunt the cutting edge. This allows them to be both gleeful and urgent, playful and purposeful. It’s fun to write that a spectre is haunting Victorian Studies. And we do feel haunted even if we have trouble seeing its shape. This is a great chance to engage that problem.

Chicago continues to hum along as an intellectual engine in part because it has been so savvy at leveraging the particular strengths of its faculties and its institutional resources, especially the U Chicago Press. And this is a smart opportunity to drum up some interest and help draw Victorian Studies into a warmer conversation that can excite energy, interest, and (most important to those of us pre-tenure) publications. Ben Morgan continues to help us think around the corner in advocating for venues that draw younger Victorian scholars into conversation at formative stages in their work. And while I haven’t met Anna Kornbluh yet I’m excited to talk about her book when we do. I met most of the folks now in V21 for the first time when we joined for the informal workshop that Ben organized at NAVSA here in Los Angeles. It was thrilling, electric. And the upcoming V21 symposium in Chicago is an auspicious way to collect some of this energy and give new charge to the discipline we work in. One can almost feel through the rails the vibrations of a coming special issue of Critical Inquiry. Maybe I fantasize.

I have to say, I struggle to draw lines myself, so it’s been hugely interesting to read the manifesto and some of the circulating criticism and responses. My immediate and lasting reaction is excitement. Finally (I still feel) there’s an active debate that has people widely engaged and talking but doesn’t feature the “crisis in the humanities” or the terrors of the anthropocene (I’m not a hater, btw; I talk about both issues regularly).

But in talking about the debate with folks at INCS I gathered that few of us are really sure where this new line is, even if we share a general sense that we know what kind of scholarship is being targeted. One way to put it, in accord with Kathy Psomiades, is that we generally agree on the difference between a good and bad conference paper, but it’s easier to diagnose these in terms of the characteristic failures of a specific talk than the characteristics of bad papers generally. To paraphrase Anna Karenina, I think good papers share a basic felicity, but bad papers are bad in their own special ways.

So in the spirit of collective inquiry, I’d like to pitch in and help identify what makes good work compelling. Manifestos, above all, are a call to roll up our shirtsleeves. I’m sure we can all think about theses we’d like to see.* 10 is an arbitrary but shapely number. But I think, in the spirit of the manifesto’s format, it’s more appropriate to engage theses individually rather than in the negative or en masse. So I want to take up the first thesis, because I think it demonstrates both the strength and basic challenge of the boundary that is drawn:

1. Victorian Studies has fallen prey to positivist historicism: a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past. Among its symptoms are a fetishization of the archival; an aspiration to definitively map the DNA of the period; an attempt to reconstruct the past wie es eigentlich gewesen; an endless accumulation of mere information. At its worst, positivist historicism devolves into show-and-tell epistemologies and bland antiquarianism. Its primary affective mode is the amused chuckle. Its primary institutional mode is the instrumentalist evisceration of humanistic ways of knowing.

In sharpening the distinction between good & bad Victorian Studies, the V21 authors have settled on the entrenched opposition between a sophisticated engagement with contemporary critical theory and what I think is more clearly a soft new historicism. This has really gotten under people’s skin. I think what we need instead is a discrimination between good and bad historicisms, and I want to explain why. For one, I’m guessing that “new historicism” doesn’t appear in the manifesto (instead of “positivist historicism”) because, even if most of the “bland antiquarianism” they identify operates under that paradigm’s blunter edge, the authors recognize that new historicism, at its cutting edge, was driven by deep and substantive theoretical reflection. It’s been almost twelve years (!) since Andrew Miller observed that “Victorian literature seems, on the evidence of [that] year’s publications, to remain confidently immured within an orthodox, loosely new-historical set of historiographical assumptions, devoted to understanding and judging individual texts by appeal to historical contexts sometimes richly-but often poorly-conceived” (SEL Autumn, 2003). Clearly the V21 authors don’t think that much has changed. I generally agree, but I think Miller gives a more precise definition of the problem. In making that point he also had the benefit of a review format, with the institutional capital and professional status to show us precise examples of what he meant. So perhaps we want a “newer historicism”?

Moreover, I think “positivist historicism” is an unfortunate substitute for new historicism, because in the service of a strong generalization, it reinscribes an even looser set of assumptions about what terms like “positivist” and “historicism” mean, when we Victorianists, of all literary scholars, need more precision. We can’t rely on Walter Benjamin’s Theses on History when characterizing two of the dominant historical paradigms of the nineteenth-century. First, “historicism.” If Benjamin carefully studied Leopold von Ranke’s Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker, I’ll eat my hat.** Ranke’s point in describing a history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” was that writing history was both a science and an art; historians should bring imaginative intuition in contact with strict critical attention, and set aside facile moralization or “lessons” (see Frederick Beiser’s discussion in The German Historicist Tradition (2011)). Who doesn’t agree with that? And if I do have to eat my hat, I’m still not sure why we should turn to Ranke or Benjamin (versus, say, Walter Scott) to characterize historicism for Victorian scholars or the Victorian period.

Similarly, Comtean positivism, for all of its late zaniness, was also a profound, and profoundly influential attempt to think beyond history as a “mere accumulation of facts”; to elucidate the general patterns of history and think about their theoretical as well as historical implications for present society.*** As Auguste Comte noted in Martineau’s translation of his Positive Philosophy (1853) positivism itself was just one of many systems that addressed “the necessity of observing facts in order to form a theory, and having a theory in order to observe facts.” Comte’s writings were among many adaptations of Claude Henri de Saint-Simon’s own scientific historicism, which supercharged a whole range of thinking about the texture of historical difference, formal transformation, and the political implications of intellectual labor for the present. You don’t get to Karl Marx without Saint-Simon. And isn’t there a connection between Comte’s critique of the “theological stage” and Marx’s “spectre”?

In an even longer view, that strain of positivism was important to Émile Durkheim and the Annales school of French historicism, with the strong focus on time series data and the cross-comparison of periods, and this in turn helped shape Michel Foucault’s thinking (as Thomas Flynn argued in his Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, 2005). Foucault, a positive historicist? Sure, among other things.

In a long enough view, of course, everything is connected to everything. For any set of ideas there are a host of mitochondrial Eves; that’s the poverty of intellectual history. But these exercises are intriguing because they help us to think about how we might return to movements like positivism or the nineteenth-century historicist turn in search of fresh ways to think about our present concerns. This is what is fun about manifestos; they give us something concrete to think with, push against, push off of.

So instead I imagine a Thesis 1 that calls for dynamic historicisms, instead of a static historicism that explains text in terms of context; reflexive historicisms, rather than a reflective historicism that doesn’t see how the objects of study change their times; and most of all, historicisms that recognized the heterogeneity of historical understanding within the nineteenth century. Bah, an outmoded call for “reflexivity”? Why not? Reading Theses 1 this way, imaging my thinking as part of the qualifications that a manifesto does not permit, I understand V21 as a call to interrogate the historical procedures of the nineteenth century, in their connection with what we do today. To ask, in effect, who is the Victorian Foucault?

For what it’s worth, I think we do need, as Elaine Freedgood insists, to keep reading the basic theoretical texts that provide renewing precision and opportunity in thinking about our objects of study. That collection of touchstones continues to expand, particularly when we think critically and inventively about works in the nineteenth century. Surely, for instance, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species belongs in those ranks. Yet it’s my intuition (and here I agree with Ryan Fong) that renewed engagement happens in close contact with our teaching and as part of our effort to communicate our research and our ways of thinking to a larger audience. When I can catch someone’s interest over a dinner table, or I see a flash of recognition in the classroom, I know my formulation of a difficult perspective works.

At one of the INCS plenary sessions, on, appropriately, “Victorian Futures,” Dino Francis Felluga and Jay Clayton made the basic if sometimes uncomfortable point that our scholarship operates in a larger community of interests and yet (at least from my perspective) there are few institutional incentives to get our work out there, intervening in larger conversations. Under the conference theme of “mobility” Felluga and Clayton urged us to mobilize our work, to get it and its hefty insights out to more audiences. Some of the many approaches they analyzed look more promising than others. As a student of the digital humanities, I think (with Lauren Goodlad) it will play an important part. Maybe the V21 conversation as an opportunity to get us moving and get our work into the larger world beyond the paywall.

The more general point is that, in place of/alongside the renewed the “Presentism” proposed in V21’s Thesis 8 we (by which I mean we humanists generally) need a renewed evangelism. For some reason I feel like this is my most controversial suggestion. The fight for critical heft and innovation, in my view, is part of a larger fight for interest from graduating grade school seniors, the fight for relevance in the minds of parents and the larger community that encourage our students to choose specific paths, the fight for enrolment numbers. Students = jobs = better placement. Sure, we help our students see the light, but first we need them in our classrooms. Classes are our opportunity and we’re losing them. This isn’t particular to Victorian studies, but perhaps we can work on putting Victorian literature at the leading edge. This is a good start.

Finally, I hope this discussion proves a series of constructive lines in shifting sands; that we can work to reframe and develop the future of Victorian Studies without dividing it into camps. Aren’t we all historicists (of one stripe or another)? Who doesn’t know the year of Victoria’s accession? The first reform bill passed? That The Prelude & In Memoriam appeared? If we understand V21 as calling for renewed historicisms, as well as renewed formalisms, renewed digital humanities, renewed materialisms (the list goes on), it’s a really, really big tent. What can I say; I’m a social person. I’ll be excited to see everyone this summer, share a beer and plot our possible futures.




* As a side note, I can also imagine a thesis that addresses the problem of the “Victorian” as a period. I almost never self-identify this way unless I’m in some specific professional environment. Outside of those contexts, saying I’m a “Victorianist” provides a kind of characterization and a set of questions I’m not generally ready to tackle. Can we agree that among the major periodizations in English literature it’s the most challenging to justify? The period is explicitly defined in relation to a monarch rather than a set of ideas, historical movement, or dates. Sure, centennials and historical movements are arbitrary. As Martin Hewitt notes in his “10 Alternative Theses”, “all periods are contingent,” and I think this is their strength, if they are grasped and interrogated as such. But can you imagine someone in early modern studies saying, I’m a Jacobean? Victorian is on weakest footing as a periodizing term; as Priya Joshi has observed with respect to 20th-century India, it may be more intriguing to think about the work of the term and its literature outside of the normative bounds of period or geography (Yearbook of English Studies 2011). Irene Tucker, for instance, has given a persuasive account of how the period helps to designate a real transformation in historical sensibility, so that “by the time of [her] death, Victoria’s place has come to seem only the smallest part of what – and where – Victorianism is” (Victorian Studies Summer, 2003).


** I’m not ready/willing to dive into the Benjamin bibliography.


*** Of course, I realize that in using the term “positivist,” the authors mean rather what John Guillory has termed the “spontaneous philosophy of the critics” after Althusser (Critical Inquiry Winter 2002). But, as Guillory notes, positivism in this sense is more accurately the spontaneous philosophy of scientists; as an ethic of the transcendent value of the nude fact, it’s less meaningful (I hope) for Victorian Studies.

Surfing the Permanent Revolution: Digital Humanism at NAVSA 2013

This week I’m back from NAVSA. Well — not really back; it was just up the road in Pasadena. But I expect to spend some time nursing this (intellectual) hangover and thinking of the talks that I saw and the questions that were raised there.

Most immediately, it’s clear that digital work has hit the pavement in 19th century studies. Natalie Houston gave a fantastic talk about her “Visual Page” project, which uses Google’s tesseract OCR reader to analyze formal elements in a print corpus of Victorian poetry. It was stunning how much a computer can learn about a poetry collection just from the blank spaces on the page. Maeve Adams gave an intriguing paper that read across key terms in Victorian periodicals as “epistemic communities” and used this to ground a far-reaching argument about formalism in the 19th-century. And Rachel Buurma expanded on her work on Charles Reade and his archives — an eccentric even among archive rats. As she put it, his wildly profuse collections of documents, indexes, and indexes on indexes, add up to archives “on the way to becoming novels.” I’m almost convinced to read more Reade. It doesn’t sound like he would have appreciated YAHOO (I read the marginalia as: “In other words know the contents before you know anything about this”):

On Saturday I participated in a digital roundtable that Anne Helmreich of the Ghetty Foundation organized to field questions about research and pedagogy from conference attendees. The Prezi from my own talk, about some of the tools I’m using in class, (using Facebook as a social CMS and Google Drive for workshops) is posted here. My main point was that English seminars have always been “flipped”: focused on in-class workshopping and intellectual tinkering. Which makes it easy to fold in digital tools. (I take my inspiration here from Jentery Sayers and his Maker Lab.) But I was more interested in hearing what the other panelists and the attendees had to stay about the state of the digital union with C19 studies.

Most questions raised by the participants were about the ins and outs of digital scholarship: how to recruit technical collaborators (find research questions they’re interested in); how to find time and money for the work (no good answer there); how to use statistics (to be avoided while best standards are worked out); how to use undergraduate research more effectively (give them work that is tied to your own research + break projects into discrete chunks). This last point was made by Dermot Ryan, current Undergraduate Research Director at Loyola Marymount. I suspect the dismal statistics for undergraduate research conducted in the humanities at LMU would be matched at USC. It’s a thorny problem. I’ve been thinking about ways to pull undergrads in to my next digital research project. But as I focus on finishing my analogue book, there’s not much I can think of sending undergraduates out for, besides checking references. Clearly this is a problem with hermetic patterns of research. In order to frame more collaborative projects we have to hash research questions into practices that depend less on our own idiosyncratic habits of mind and the idiolects of convenience. We (or at least, I) need to be better at looping others in.

It was also a huge pleasure to meet Petra Dierkes-Thrun and learn more about the “Wilde Decadents” class she’s running at Stanford and its blog. The class generated tremendous interest; the work the students produced was read by visitors from across the globe. I’m frankly envious. She was particularly savvy promoting the course and its Twitter account through academic networks and listserves like the Victoria List.

But perhaps the most intriguing contribution to the roundtable, to my mind, was Andrew Stauffer’s diagnosis of the NINES project. NINES is currently working to redefine itself to better serve the current wave of digital scholarship. As Andrew described it, NINES was originally envisioned as a coordinator and peer-review network for online collections produced by academics — sites like the Rossetti Archive, the Woman Writer’s Project, and Darwin Online. They envisioned an academic internet populated by public research archives. Instead the major commercial publishers and Google have digitized masses of texts and placed them behind paywalls. Gale’s NCCO database is a case in point. A corollary challenge is that NINES’ COLLEX originally provided a solution to the basic problem of finding a CMS to furnish different kinds of academic content. But the widespread adoption of other open source CMSs like OMEKA diminishes the case for further investment in COLLEX. The folks at NINES are now trying to figure out how else they might support digital research — for instance, producing new tools for digital analysis along the lines of DocuScope. I’m looking forward to their public launch of Juxta, which produces a visual codex for textual variants. There’s an undergraduate who’s been asking for a good tool to start DH work with and this looks friendly enough to be promising. Andrew also suggested NINES might start convening seminars which bring humanists and engineers together to test new research avenues. It would be exciting to have an interdisciplinary research seminar that was formatively tied to a technical team rather than an academic department — tied to makers as well as thinkers.

At its heart, NINES is a classic disruption story. It announced a new chapter in 19th-c scholarship when it was launched in 2003 — the same year as NAVSA’s first conference. Both organizations are now at a crossroads (Dino Felluga handed his role as NAVSA’s head and to Marlene Tromp on Saturday). Given the rapid change of our technical tools, no organization or project that locates itself in the digital sphere will we able to avoid a regular reinvention. I spent a considerable amount of time getting the Monk project software up and running for an early experiment with my Darwin analysis. I invested even more time figuring out the Meandre suite, including a trip up to the UVic digital workshop, with hours both in person and via email, drawing on the expertise of Loretta Auvil and Boris Capitanu. That culminated in a single talk at the Seattle MLA on the global network imagined by Oliphant’s novels. The return on investment for this work has been relatively small. And now both Meandre and Monk have exhausted their funding and have begun to recede into history. I’ve just now noticed that “monk-project” is embedded in the permalink for this post — legacy of an early vision for this site.

Like any story, it has been a combination of design and contingency. I’ve been focused on cementing a traditional research profile, using the digital work to keep my hand in, waiting to mount my extended DH project when the book’s off. Each effort has given impulse to that trajectory. It’s still exciting to imagine the tools and methodologies that the next two and ten years will bring. And yet, as I listened to conference attendees ask what it would take to get trained in digital work, how to figure out the appropriate criteria for significance, how to adapt to new technologies — essentially, how to surf a continual revolution — it hit me what DH work signs you up for. A lifetime of fresh tarball installations, cribbed command prompts, endless help pages for new object libraries and bewildering new GUIs. As the tools change we reboot and relearn. We need to be honest about this. Off the top of my head, my current experiments with Python follow upon, in reverse order, exploring Ruby, Java, JavaScript, JQuery and MySQL, XSLT, CSS, VisualBasic, HTML, and TCL (!). This sets aside humdrum life as a sysadmin for OSX, Linux, AmazonAMI, WinXP, MsDos and Unix machines — not to mention WordPress itself. The most rigorous Ph. D. programs require two to three languages, not four or five.

If it sounds like I’m grousing, maybe I am. We need to emphasize the long dead ends as well as the triumphs of DH scholarship when we talk to curious peers. But the big “but” is that, as academics in the humanities, we’re tinkerers by trade — whether on our computers, in the classroom, or at the archive. For my part, I’d be exploring some version of these technologies in any likely case. It’s just so much time wasted stringing zeroes and ones unless I invest this labor in my research. Besides, I want to show my daughter what hacking looks like.