Flavors of Historicism

It’s spring break, and I’m recently tenured, and this fine spring weather urges me to take my hobby horse out for a ride. Right now I’m reading Stephanie LeMenager’s Living Oil.: Petroleum Culture in the American Century It’s a brilliant study of energy politics and the genres of the petroleum regime. There are so many excellent things about it, and the way it talks about things as varied as car culture, the La Brea tar pits, and oil sand proselytism in Canada. She has a preternatural, I’m tempted to say, hydramatic ability to shift gears smoothly from deep time and tough energy meditations to incredibly focused and fine-grained readings of poetry and prose fiction. I love this book, and I can tell I’ll be thinking with it for a long, long time.

I came across a line toward the close that stopped me short and showed me something about the ongoing debates about historicism that have been circulating around the V21 Collective and its Manifesto:

Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the belief in the value of historicity expressed through style and characteristic forms, historicism is a word that gets flung, sometimes pejoratively, at architects, urban planners, and literary and cultural critics. [190]

My immediate reaction: this didn’t sound right. Surely the OED wouldn’t define historicism first and foremost in terms of value rather than fact; as an aesthetics rather than an episteme. This flies in the face of how I’ve always thought about nineteenth-century historicism, and suggests a conflation between, on the one hand, historicity and monumentalism, and on the other, a sort of naive reading of antiquarianism. But LeMenager, as elsewhere, is assiduously correct here. If you turn to the third edition of the OED, these are the entries:

1. S. T. Coleridge’s term for: empiricism. Obs. rare. [Cites first use in 1825]

2. Belief in the importance or value of historicity or of the past; spec. (in art and architecture) regard for or preoccupation with the styles or values of the past; a style or movement characterized by this. Frequently used pejoratively. [Cites uses in 1856, 58, and 70]

3. a. Any of various beliefs that social and cultural phenomena cannot be considered independently of their historical context; the practice of studying something with reference to its historical context. [Citations from 1895] b. b. The belief that historical processes are determined by natural laws rather than by human choice and agency, historical determinism; the practice of studying the social sciences from this viewpoint. [Citations from 1916, through Popper 1940, 1957, etc.]

Historicist nerd that I am, the primacy of definition 2 is, frankly, shocking to me. I wrote a book that, among other things, endorsed the argument that historicism derives from German historicism of the late 18th and 19th century, as the etymology for the OED entry itself notes (“partly after German Historismus (late 18th cent.; found in sense 2 and, especially, sense 3)”).

For me, this raises a crucial question, one I wish I’d asked in my book: is it the case that the term “historicism” was used for most of the nineteenth century, at least by figures other than Coleridge, in a way essentially divorced from its use by the German historicists? That’s what the entry suggests.

But if you dig into the examples given for definition two, the confusion becomes easier to understand. It turns out that the first nineteenth-century uses cited for “historicism” are references to a specific brand of Protestant historicism (not to be confused with apocalyptic & evangelical church historicism) that circulate respond to debates over the Oxford or High-Church movement, Puseyism, and Newman’s Tracts for the Times (If you search Google books for appearances of “historicism” before 1870, they are all to these debates). It’s worth asking whether it’s fair to characterize such historicism as simply a “Belief in the importance or value of historicity or of the past.” If you read Newman’s Apologia, it seems clear he believes that his investigation of the history of Christian liturgy and dogma is historicist in a broader and more critical sense, that is, an attempt to examine contemporary Anglican arguments as part of a longer genealogy of religious debate. But the larger point is that the 3rd edition of the OED accurately tracks a shift between 19th-century and 20th-century uses of “historicism,” at the expense (common to genealogies) of suggesting a kind of continuity between these uses. It’s pretty clear that when Popper critiques the poverty of historicism, he’s giving a reading of the legacy of German historicism — not Newman.

In a world in which the editors of the OED might care about some ranting English professor, it would be great if they would reorganize the 3rd edition entry so that uses 1 and 3 are primary, and 2 moved into a subcategory as “religious historicism” — though I’m guessing this might violate some house protocols.

Out of curiosity, I checked the second (1989) edition, and it gets the intellectual history right, at the expense of overlooking Anglican historicism:

1. The attempt, found esp. among German historians since about 1850, to view all social and cultural phenomena, all categories, truths, and values, as relative and historically determined, and in consequence to be understood only by examining their historical context, in complete detachment from present-day attitudes.

2. A tendency in philosophy to see historical development as the most fundamental aspect of human existence, and historical thinking as the most important type of thought, because of its interest in the concrete, unique, and individual.

3. The belief that historical change occurs in accordance with laws, so that the course of history may be predicted but cannot be altered by human will; the resulting attitude to the social sciences, of regarding them as concerned mainly with historical prediction.

4. Excessive regard for the institutions and values of the past; spec. in Architecture, the use of historical styles in design.

Hence hiˈstoricist, an adherent or proponent of historicism (in various senses); also, one who specializes in the historical branch of a subject; also attrib. or as adj. So historiˈcistic a.

I think this definition is more accurate, if less inclusive, because it accurately characterizes the relation between modern usages. Considered as a methodology, “historicism” marks a wide and varied set of practices that emerged especially in the nineteenth century and characterized a huge range of historical writing, aesthetic practices, and modes of understanding. The pejorative use of “historicism” — whether by Popper, or in writing about are and architecture, or in the V21 manifesto — is organized through a critique of one particular reading of German historicism, derived especially from critical accounts delivered by figures like Nietzsche and Benjamin. As I’ve separately argued, I think that this critique is generally misread. Certainly, when Nietzsche argues against the uncritical historicism of his peers in his Untimely Meditations, he does it from the vantage of a more critical historicism, an historicism that is “untimely — that is to say, acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come” (Nietzsche 1997: 60, emphasis added).

All of which is to say (and here I swing myself into the stirrups) I think ongoing critiques of historicism are already historicist; that is, they take up the critical charge of historicism and play it against a more static, conservative, and aestheticized account of the value of history. LeMenager asks “When narrating the ecologies of modernity, must we choose between contamination and historicism?” (190). This question only makes sense when “historicism” is read as a treasuring of the past that refuses to amend its outcomes, or even to acknowledge the violent, ongoing damage of its effluents. Conversely, any attempt to address these legacies — whether toxic waste, or Anthropogenic climate change, or the aftermath of imperial violence (whether hard or soft) — requires a extended, intelligent, and reparative historicism that seeks to understand how that past came to be in all of its complexity. Living Oil demonstrates this beautifully.

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.