- Some Thoughts on Time Travel
I approach this panel with a bit of trepidation—not because I don’t think that presentism is an important part of literary studies, but rather because I think that presentism is not something that really makes sense to argue for or against in the context of literary studies. This is because it is a discipline concerned with a dialectical relationship between the present and the past. When we discuss texts from the past, we almost always discuss them in terms of how we recognize ourselves. This is, in fact, part of the effort of many historicisms: to find temporally distinct genealogies of ostensibly natural social formations, and thus to show that they are historically contingent. But that idea of the “ostensibly natural,” the notion that we have to defamiliarize something, starts from the standpoint of the natural, or familiar. We look for the past that explains the present.
When it comes to literary studies, though, this active selection of a past is how we define our object of study. Certainly, literary criticism, as it is institutionally defined and implicitly understood, does not treat every literary object from the past equally. Some are treated as text; others are treated as context. This might not be the best way to achieve a full understanding of the past, but as I’ve said, it doesn’t seem to me that we are in the business of understanding the past. We choose the works we study based on present concerns, while doing so with the idea that these works are representative of the source of those concerns. The term for this is tradition—the term taken, for better or for worse, with a Gadamerian inflection: “Tradition is not simply a permanent precondition; rather we produce it ourselves inasmuch as we understand, participate in the evolution of tradition, and hence further determine it ourselves” (Gadamer 293).
This is not, let me stress, a discussion about what we should or should not do: it’s a discussion about what we do; what the implicit rules of a field [End Page 102] are; the methods we are trained in and the standards we are evaluated by. And one of the things that we do, for starters, is talk about a relatively small number of books, which are commonly held to be of some importance for our contemporary concerns. But what, actually, is the motivation for another return to Middlemarch (1872) or The Stones of Venice (1851–53)? Would it be airing too much dirty laundry if I suggested that it’s because our job is, in no small part, to come up with things to say about Middlemarch or The Stones of Venice? Maybe that seems obvious—it’s certainly obvious to graduate students, who cover such familiar ground in seminar papers and dissertation chapters. Academics with terminal degrees and full-time employment, though, usually reverse the direction: they start with a claim about cultural history, and then just happen to find supporting evidence in, of all places, George Eliot. The claim needn’t be historicist: narratological claims often just happen to be best exemplified in Emma (1815) or Great Expectations (1860–61). Clearly, I think there’s some bad faith here. There’s a gentle agreement not to say what it is that conventional literary criticism does: it gives old texts continued life by infusing them with present problematics. The key point here is that if literary criticism is a traditionary discipline, its purpose is not so much looking at the raw objects or data for empirical proof as it is looking at what has already been written and said.
Now, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are full of attempts to describe this odd temporal dynamic, particularly in a hermeneutic tradition from Wilhelm Dilthey to Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer to Paul Ricouer. A more familiar version, at least for those of us who study novels and stories of personal development, comes with the work of thinkers like Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, who try—Kant in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), Mill...