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  • Prospects for the Present
  • Jeffrey Insko (bio)
Archives of American Time: Literature and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Lloyd Pratt. U of Pennsylvania P, 2010.
Cruel Optimism. Lauren Berlant. Duke UP, 2011.
Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Peter Coviello. NYU P, 2013.

More than a decade into the twenty-first century, the temporal turn in American studies—which finds scholars across period specialties and critical perspectives exploring various social, historical, corporeal, mechanical, and phenomenological “time binds,” to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Freeman’s indispensable contribution—is by now flourishing in such fertile soil that it has developed a number of distinct, if intertwined, branches: queer studies, body/affect, print and material culture, aesthetics, transnationalism. Indeed, this turn has produced some of the most compelling Americanist scholarship of the twenty-first century, much of it emanating from queer studies.1 The works reviewed here indicate the emergence of yet another offshoot. Each of these works addresses the formations, reformations, and promises of the present, the now and the not yet—not just in the simple or superficial sense of the moment in history we currently inhabit, but the ideation and theorizing of the present and its relations to what did not, has not, might not, or has yet to come to be. By beginning to take now seriously, these scholars herald a long overdue arrival of the present as a locus of theoretical inquiry and critical practice. Yet they also remain respectful of and attuned to history and historicity, which is one reason for examining this strain in three otherwise distinct works: together, they point beyond historicist paradigms that many Americanists find severely limited in helping to contend with the rich literary–cultural past and our precarious present.2

Two related historicist assumptions have foreclosed the present as an object of interest in its own right. First is historicism’s un-reflexive understanding of a temporal chronology allowing for both periodization and contextualization. The second assumption follows from the first: once one walls off the then of texts’ production from the now of their study, maintaining the distance between them becomes a methodological injunction. Indeed, it seems axiomatic [End Page 836] that present-mindedness is a- or unhistorical. Yet such a rigid distinction is all but impossible to maintain in practice, which is why charges of creeping presentism have long perturbed literary historicism. As Valerie Rohy puts it, historicism “interpellates everyone as a guilty subject of temporal self-governance and measures all against a standard none can meet” (129). One might describe the presentism of historicism as a tacit, even supercilious, present-knowingness in relation to the past. What Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus call “symptomatic reading” (21) is predicated on this kind of knowingness: viewing (past) texts from a safe historical distance, the “self-satisfied” (703) present-critic, to borrow Jennifer Fleissner’s term, understands them better than their contemporaneous readers and producers ever could themselves.

Seeking alternatives to historicist methods, some recent critics have begun to develop presentist reading practices that revel in the play of anachronism, trace historical “feedback loops” (Dimock 898), cultivate a self-consciously “critical” (Barrish 19) or “perverse” (Halberstam 41) or “rigorous” (Dawes 360) presentism.3 Such practices coincide and sometimes overlap with the temporal turn insofar as they take seriously various nonlinear, nonsequential temporalities. Unlike the new temporal studies, however, these approaches do not set out to frustrate normative assumptions about time, history, and the relations between the past and the present; they simply find responsible, cautious, productive tactics to transgress those norms.

In what follows, I situate three recent books at the intersection between these two veins of twenty-first-century scholarship—the temporal turn and the development of deliberately antihistoricist reading practices—the junction where a critical practice recognizing an overdetermined separation between then and now meets a body of scholarship demonstrating how nonlinear temporalities are the stuff of which both ordinary experience and history are made. Despite vast differences in subject and method—a study of literary genre in the antebellum US, a study of sexuality in nineteenth-century American literature, and a study of affective responses to the failed promises of the...


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