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  • We Have Always Been Presentist
  • Emily Steinlight (bio)

“We too admit that the present is an important time; as all present time necessarily is.”

Thomas Carlyle, Signs of the Times (232)

We have always been presentist. That’s my basic claim. By “presentist,” I mean shaped and motivated by the conditions of the present, whether or not we acknowledge it. By “we,” I mean not just Victorianists but also, for example, historical novelists like Walter Scott and George Eliot; or Karl Marx, for whom the history of all societies was the history of class struggle, leading up to a nineteenth-century moment when that struggle could be realized; or John Ruskin, who turned to a medieval past to refract social and aesthetic problems of the present. The Victorians were obsessed with historicity because they were obsessed with contemporaneity: they founded journals with titles like the Nineteenth Century, and wrote The Victorian Age of English Literature before that age was over. We share their historicism without their presentism, though we need the latter as much as the former. Could we allow that there are good and bad presentisms, just as there are good and bad historicisms, and that the two aren’t opposed? If we find models in the work of political formalists like Caroline Levine and Alex Woloch, so too might we find them in critics we call historicist: Fredric Jameson, whose reading of Marx’s Capital (1867) culminates in the question of the future, or Franco Moretti, whose study of the bourgeois not only tracks how a new ruling class achieved hegemony through a disappearing act but also finds Victorian culture’s closest analogue in the contemporary United States. Taking a cue from such projects, I see it as a goal to become better presentists: to mark what’s present in that past, why we’re looking at it in the first place, and from where. For today, I’ll focus [End Page 105] on just one conceptual object—namely, consciousness—that might lend itself to a strategic presentism, and I’ll ask what it means to historicize the mind and theorize its representations now.

Analyzing consciousness has long been vital to critique. It’s a method shared by two critics I never thought of together until Anna Kornbluh and Benjamin Morgan proposed the pairing for today’s discussion: Ruskin and Jameson. Both show how cultural forms, whether architectural or narrative, express the psychic processes as well as the social relations that produced them. “On the Nature of Gothic Architecture” (1854) finds signs of both etched into material remnants of history, such that every formal imperfection in Gothic cathedrals affirms past artisans’ “freedom of thought” (9). To be sure, Ruskin is a bad historian. But however wishful his medievalism, his real object is a critique of the present. Artifacts of a past mode of production allow him to read, in presentist terms, the elusive object of consciousness, which industrial production is not just devaluing but eroding. Victorian industry, he suggests, produces commodities that erase all traces of their makers’ thought and labor. It separates manual from intellectual work and fractures personality as well as society.

This move to find consciousness and its social framework perceptibly inscribed in form is likewise crucial to Jameson, who adopts a Freudian model to assess the politicity of narrative. (This now gets called suspicious or paranoid reading: a mischaracterization, I think.) But he recognizes, in so doing, that not just psychoanalysis but also the psyche itself has a history. The historical conditions that forge and alter psychic processes bear directly on the problem The Political Unconscious (1981) lays out: “The conditions of possibility of psychoanalysis become visible,” he says, only when we attend to the “psychic fragmentation since the beginnings of capitalism, with its systematic quantification and rationalization of experience, its instrumental reorganization of the subject as much as of the outside world” (62). To analyze the narratological modes by which politics expresses itself, Jameson locates such a fragmented consciousness in every text.

Turning to scientific accounts of mind, we find that pre-Freudian psychology frames mental processes in terms that register both the instrumentalism Jameson speaks of and the internal division he diagnoses...


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pp. 105-108
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