- Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture
In his highly original and somewhat unconventional new book, Jay Clayton calls for a cultural studies that foregrounds historical inquiry. In his valuable first chapter, Clayton does the hard conceptual work that will be indispensable to critics currently working in the field sometimes called "the post-Victorian": critics, that is, who write about Victorian culture's afterlives in the postmodern moment. Rejecting the neoconservative and liberal attitudes toward the past that dominate the current vogue for nineteenth-century culture, and qualifying identitarian and postmodern views, Clayton proposes that critics mine what he calls a "disjunct archive" so as to trace long historical relationships that attend to "both the anomalous and the analogous" (36); create conjunctions between flexibly and self-reflexively defined historical periods; and deploy alternative modes of writing, including performative, experimental, and narrative kinds of composition, that attend to the historically "'odd,' 'uncanny,' 'anachronistic,' and 'untimely'" (39). In celebrating the historical oddity, Clayton necessarily critiques postmodern theory as tending to lose sight of "the heterogeneous past" in an urge to substitute for that diversity "a new monolithic image" (35). Tracing lost moments in historical and cultural genealogies, then, Clayton argues for the value of recovering the anachronistic as a form of knowledge, reclaiming the historical oddity of untimely thinkers and their work, and recuperating the figures of what he calls an undisciplined (a predisciplinary) culture.
In the pieces that follow this rigorously argued theoretical chapter, Clayton constellates literary, scientific, and cultural-studies texts around a series of polemics. In "The Voice in the Machine," for example, he argues against the "dominant role of optics" now current in cultural-studies accounts of the construction of modernity, the society of the spectacle (79), and for the centrality of "historical conjuncture," the emergence of a kind of accidental event that unexpectedly produces a cultural crisis and so enables, for example, the "congruence between the birth of the telegraph and the coming of the information age" (55). In "Hacking the Nineteenth Century" and "Is Pip Postmodern?" [End Page 505] he praises the nonlinearity, self-reflexivity, and cultural dissonance accomplished by historical anachronism. In "Concealed Circuits," he argues that concepts of periodization produce and serve the generally inflexible goals of disciplinary knowledge. In "Undisciplined Cultures" and "Genome Time," he persuades us that literary modes of critical thinking can ameliorate a postmodern culture that seems uncannily to repeat, with a difference, early nineteenth-century culture; that literature and the arts, science, and the applied sciences have been unnecessarily separated by the now-dominant professional specialization that fashions them into disparate, incommensurable cultures. In "Convergence of the Two Cultures"—literary and scientific—he glorifies the "ethical hacking," "interdisciplinary collaboration," and technocultural creativity of the contemporary moment's post-Victorian yet novel "undisciplined culture" (195, 194, 200).
Just as Clayton begins to romanticize the hackers, geeks, military inventors, and internet entrepreneurs that constitute his privileged postmodern interdisciplinarians, however, he pulls back to caution about the dangers of "unthinking optimism" (209). Indeed, Clayton argues against the utopian notion that our early twenty-first century historical-cultural moment will witness "a grand synthesis of all human understanding," against the dystopian idea that science has achieved a "virtual hegemony over all other forms of discourse," and in favor of "forging alliances among disciplines," in which individuals and groups draw on "diverse and shifting pools of expertise," as a "desirable structure" for the convergence of literary and scientific cultures that he sees emerging in the current historical moment (211-13). Ultimately, he cautions, humanists must practice a "critical engagement with technology" rather than withdraw from its cultures and problematics. Indeed, negotiating the "advantages" and "pitfalls" of an "undisciplined culture" will necessarily demand the skills of critical and historical thinking. "And for that," he concludes, "what better guide than literature?" (213).
Clayton's odd, uncanny project looks little like a conventional book of literary criticism. It reminds me of N. Katherine Hayles...