When we accuse someone of presentism, we typically mean that they’ve naively or, worse, complacently overlooked the alterity of the past.1 But what if, by insisting on the recognition of the past’s difference from the present, we’ve made it more difficult to conceptualize why studying the past matters for the present? In our current moment, major cuts to the humanities have sparked an administrative infatuation with concentrating resources by clustering new hires around a topic or problem, and this practice promises to remake English departments along very different lines from those of traditional periodizations.
Now, more than ever, we need to be able to explain the importance of the nineteenth century for the twenty-first. The V21 Collective was born out of the sense that presentism might be a means for achieving strategic ends. These ends might simultaneously include, among others, the reassessing of our existing literary historical periodizations and the contesting of the fiscal austerity that threatens the survival of Victorian studies as a discipline.
Strategic presentism requires that we think of the past as something other than an object of knowledge that is sealed off, separated from the present by the onrush of sequential time. In the papers that follow, the V21 affiliates experiment with time in ways that build on other critical models of nonlinear temporality: Michel Serres’s crumpled handkerchief, Walter Benjamin’s chips [End Page 87] of messianic time, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s fusion of horizons. The short pieces here imagine time as looped, layered, and spooled, or shift attention from diachronic time to the simultaneity of space. These experimental models of time each open up different possible strategies of presentism.
In contrast to the naive and complacent varieties, strategic presentism pushes us to develop a clearer sense of our critical ends. To make presentism a strategy means asking how presentism might help us better understand and address the ways the past is at work in the exigencies of the present, from the recursive afterlives of British imperialism in our own era of war to the long arc of ongoing processes of dispossession under capitalism; from the economies of consciousness as a so-called global workspace to the anthropocene as an epoch whose hallmark, paradoxically, is the radical compression of the longue durée of geological change. While the strategies for deploying presentism in each of these projects will differ, what they share is the effort to reimagine presentism as a mode of posthistoricist critique. V21’s call for strategic presentism, then, asks us to think critically about the past in the present in order to change the present. Far from fostering complacency, presentism might offer us new ways to engage in the urgent task of asking how the Victorian era might help us imagine alternative futures to the various mass extinctions that loom just over the horizon of the present.
The essays that follow were presented as part of a V21 roundtable on strategic presentism at the 2016 Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies conference in Asheville, North Carolina. Each participant in the roundtable was asked to reflect on how we might move beyond the derogatory sense of presentism as a critical error. The panelists collectively decided to read John Ruskin’s “The Nature of Gothic,” which deploys a presentist interpretation of medieval architecture in order to critique nineteenth-century labor conditions, and used it to pose the following questions: What strategies of reading and strategies of argument are necessary for a critical presentism? What might presentism strategically accomplish for the humanities? What might it strategically accomplish for Victorian studies? The brief interventions that resulted from their collective reading resonate with one another but share no single vision, method, or approach. The format of the brief intervention, itself an exercise in compression, allows us to fold together an array of strategies of presentism that take up, variously, canon formation, consciousness, radical activism, the production of space, skin, and transtemporal forms of critique. Rather than arrive at a consensus, these essays are meant to stimulate discussion, sponsor [End Page 88] new collaborations, and uncover the affinities and values that we tacitly share but often...