- Present Tense Futures of the Past
Look at a map of greater London, on which the town proper shows as a dark, irregularly rounded patch against the whiteness of suburban districts. . . . The streets have a smell of newness, of dampness; the bricks retain their complexion, the stucco has not rotted more than one expects in a year or two; poverty tries to hide itself with venetian blinds, until the time when an advanced guard of houses shall justify the existence of the slum.George Gissing, The Nether World (364)
George Gissing’s gritty masterpiece of poverty realism The Nether World (1889) continually interrupts its past tense narration to shift into present tense, and almost every such scene is a description of spaces—urban spaces, architectural spaces, residential and commercial spaces: the Clerkenwell slum in which his characters are entombed, the Crystal Palace whose imperial amusements taunt and enchant “the slaves of industrialism” (104), Hanover Street “where squalor is kept at arm’s length” (65). This striking trope of presenting space in present tense underscores the profound interface between spatiality and presentism: thought out of time is thought in space; to think the structures of space is to think presently. While Gissing’s characters have discrete stories in the past, the netherworld spaces remain present, aligning the social structuration of the novel with social structuration outside the novel: the environs and extent of modern capitalism abide in space. Through this trope, present tense emerges as the tense in which it is possible to think the general, as the mood in which it is possible to transcend the detail/the fact/the particular, as the grammar of grasping what continues, the syntax of [End Page 98] structural analysis and critical abstraction. Indeed, it is into abstract thinking that we can resolve not only the presentist operation in Gissing, but also the presentism of George Eliot’s signature interjections of humanist commentary; of Charles Dickens’s eerie immanence of aristocratic eminence in both Bleak House (1852–53) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–65); of Anthony Trollope’s echoing, incriminating The Way We Live Now (1875). All these strategic deployments of the present tense mobilize the present as the very linguistic infrastructure of critique: making an abstract claim about the logics and structures that concretely organize the conditions of social life, constructing the conditions of possibility for changes in social life.
Critique of present conditions was a project Victorian novelists shared with Victorian historians like Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and William Morris, all of whose particular historiographies actuated the past for critical appraisal of the present. This is to say that the kind of historicity proper to the Victorians was often itself presentist. Strategic presentism, which V21 speculates might proffer an alternative to positivist historicism and might invigorate our scholarship with consequence, might therefore first of all be understood as a historically specific commitment, an intimacy with the nineteenth century. Victorian presentism refracted as strategic presentism in Victorian studies pressingly opposes significant academic trends in our own present—trendy demands that literary scholars ought to renounce the very project of critical intervention, resign the very enterprise of critically engaging with formations of the political, and aim instead for scientific accuracy, stockpiled information, big data, MRIs, facts.1 Strategic presentism opposes these tendencies in favor of dynamizing in the past that which is decidedly urgent today: Gissing’s presentism of space, spatial thinking, thinking of adjacency and extent, thinking of generality, systematicity, and abstraction. Such thinking must be governed by two simultaneous principles: illuminating Victorian structures that overdetermine contemporary experience—financial capitalism, virulent patriarchy, violent racism, rapacious imperialism—and projectively mapping other structures, other spaces.
Franco Moretti has recently, with trademark provocation, declared, “In the 20th century the natural sciences have produced some amazingly stunning and beautiful theories. . . . The humanities have produced nothing of this sort,” and argues that “to make the humanities relevant you need something much bigger than the digital humanities. What the humanities need are large theories and bold concepts” (n.p.). The biggest ideas in the humanities, to my mind, travel along these vectors of critically thinking space and critically projecting new formations. That other Victorian...