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11 Professing Disciplinarity Na ncy A r mstrong • Idon’t believe in interdisciplinarity. How can I? It makes no sense to profess interdisciplinarity in an age when everyone aspires to it. If formalism was the signature practice of literary criticism during the ’60s and ’70s, then interdisciplinarity holds the same position now. Whether we decide, under the rubric of “cultural studies,” to throw canonical literature in the same pot with mass culture or, in the name of “new historicism,” to show that a literary work shares some formal tic or theme with the economic, political, social, or cultural practices of its moment, it is the venture’s interdisciplinarity that authorizes us. The current rage for interdisciplinarity poses a problem for Victorian studies, which fostered interdisciplinary work well before it became fashionable in other literary fields. Such a distinguished legacy requires us to ask whether interdisciplinary work inVictorian studies has remained what it was—or has it absorbed the new cultural models and historical materials that have changed the methods and boundaries of the literary discipline itself? In either case, there is no reason for Victorianists to strive to cross disciplines, because the category of literature has expanded to include virtually anything that can be read as such.This raises a more pressing question: if disciplinarity comes down to a way of reading, then can we cross into another discipline and adopt its way of reading without forfeiting the advantages of our own? By professing disciplinarity, I do not suggest that we confine our scholarship to a specific body of primary material. I do contend that any scholar crossing from one body of material to another, if uncertain about his or her own disciplinary boundaries and practices, is doomed to meander arbitrarily from, say, a major novelist to the Crystal Palace exhibition, a women’s fashion magazine, and the medical procedures for curtailing the spread of venereal disease. I prefer instead the form of disciplinarity practiced by Michel Foucault. Foucault may be called the quintessential interdisciplinarian, but I consider his concept of“discourse”—which has never really been accepted by most North American historians and social scientists—one of the more enabling examples of literary scholarship. Foucault turns culture’s every aspect into language in order to identify the metaphoric repetitions and metonymic connections by which that language creates the very objects and causal sequences it claims to be about. This simple move inverts the empirical world and transforms the material of cultural history into the subject matter of literary analysis. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault identifies the formal strategies by which a constellation of material practices—writing chief among them—acquired internal coherence during theVictorian period.When Charlotte Brontë sends Ginevra Fanshawe in ghostly attire through Lucy Snowe’s bedroom or Charles Dickens has the predatory Magwitch dog Pip, these novelists are mobilizing victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 12 just a few of the literary techniques that in concert created the illusion of psychological depth in countless protagonists. When repeated across a wide spectrum of writing, scientific as well as literary, these techniques drove a wide range of sexual behaviours underground, where authors could rediscover them as the secret core of individuality itself and classify them as deviant.That so many intellectuals dealing with otherwise unrelated subject matter should independently turn to the same project indicated that something else besides pure truth was at stake. By translating sex into sexuality—submerged currents of desire beneath the surface of social identity and good manners—Victorian culture produced a new model of the human subject that served the interests of those who understood their job as perpetuating and improving whatever could be considered normal and British.Their raw material was an individual presumably haunted by primitive impulses that eluded supervision and might at any moment manifest themselves in behaviour inappropriate to race, class, or gender. As Foucault explains in Discipline and Punish, such an individual required supervision, not only by parents, but also by public surrogates. Hence the great Victorian institutions of the schoolroom, hospital, and reformatory, as well as a class of experts to manage them. Self-supervising individuals would not only know how to supervise others, but also...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 11-14
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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