- Scale, Resonance, Presence
If we hear “presentism” as the opposite of “historicism,” we are likely to think of it as uncritical or naive. The historicism now dominant in literary studies, after all, is eminently knowing, having taken shape as a rejection of the New Critical proposition that literature conveyed a mythic truth higher than historical fact (poetry, in the oracular words of Cleanth Brooks, was “history without footnotes” ). Against the fetish of the literary, New Historicist protocols of reading embraced a “hermeneutical aggression” that read legible registrations of power in every historical document (Gallagher and Greenblatt 9); Fredric Jameson’s “always historicize!” (ix) was an injunction not to write more footnotes but to witness the history of capitalism in the surfaces of literary and aesthetic forms. But the origins of historicism in critique do not guarantee that historicism will always remain critical, or that critique itself will persist as the telos of interpretation—and the recent proliferation of metacritical reflection suggests that literary and cultural studies are on the verge of a new moment that wishes for the past to gain some critical purchase on the present, rather than the other way around. This would be one way to account for the success of Caroline Levine’s Forms (2015), which moves fluidly across Greek drama, the Victorian novel, The Wire, and many other times and forms as it drafts a formalist program whose unabashed aim is “radical social change” (18). It would also be a way to account for Rita Felski’s very different rejection of the historicist’s “incarcerat[ion]” of texts in historical contexts (157), which seeks to foster less aggressive hermeneutic practices.
Even as the urgency of thinking outside of our usual slices of literary-historical time is increasingly felt, presentism remains undertheorized. This might be because “presentism” names an unrecuperable distortion of the past [End Page 109] (so why bother theorizing it), but it might also be because we have an underdeveloped vocabulary for speaking about the transtemporal persistence of literary and cultural forms. On the speculation that the latter might be the case, I want to collect three terms—borrowed from sociology, acoustics, and aesthetics—that may be generative in relation to a presentist sensibility or method: scale, resonance, and presence. “Scale” involves recognizing that cultural objects make meaning within multiple scales of history at once, and that readers, in turn, make scales. This is to adapt for literary studies Bruno Latour’s critique of method in sociology: “The problem is that social scientists use scale as one of the many variables they need to set up before doing the study, whereas scale is what actors achieve by scaling, spacing, and contextualizing each other” (183–84). What new scales might we achieve, and what would our objects of study do within them? “Resonance,” in turn, involves attuning our critical sensibilities to what Hermann von Helmholtz described as “sympathetic resonance” or “sympathetic oscillation” (36), the communication of vibrations across a distance—from, for example, one violin string to another tuned at the same frequency.1 It is as they resonate with our present that past cultural formations or structures of feeling affect us without coming directly into contact. “Presence,” finally, involves recognizing the capacity of art and literature to induce experiences of immediacy, including a sense of being in touch with the temporally distant worlds of the past or future. A museum, for Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, is one among many cultural forms that enacts “presentification” by producing the illusion that we are able to “touch, hear, and smell the past” (121). To open oneself to the scale-shifting, resonant, present qualities of literary and aesthetic forms is to suspend one’s adherence to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s famous assertion that “historical truth is, as it were, rather like the clouds which take shape for the eye only at a distance” (58).
Humboldt’s name may remind us that we often think of the nineteenth century as the moment when post-Enlightenment historicism emerged in Germany through the writings of Leopold von Ranke, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach, and others. This intellectual history might make it seem unusual to propose that the...