- Response: Responsibility to the Present
“What if, by insisting on the recognition of the past’s differences from the present, we’ve made it more difficult for ourselves to explain why studying the past matters for the present?” (Coombs and Coriale 87). But do we insist on the recognition of the past’s difference from the present? I don’t think so. Indeed, I’m more inclined to suspect (with Emily Steinlight and Jesse Rosenthal) that we continually identify or produce continuities between the past and present—that we are habitually, perhaps inevitably, presentist. If this is right, then our task would not be to forge continuities with the past (for we already do that) but, as several of the critics assembled here say, to more fully acknowledge and better conceptualize those continuities. And, in doing so, to become more, not less aware of differences from the past.
But it is not, in any case, opposition to difference but to indifference that most distinctly motivates these writers—our indifference to the present. They write out of a responsibility to the present—a time of “existential despair” (Agathocleous 90)—and are frustrated with the methods and theories available as they act on that responsibility. “The survival of Victorian studies as a discipline” is at stake and new methods are needed (Coombs and Coriale 87). So a difference is being marked, after all, not with distant Victorians but with closer Victorianists. What in present (or recent) modes of Victorian criticism is to be left behind? Experimenting with new ways of thinking, most of the writers don’t spell this out, but I would think that they are all eager not to refute but to turn from the recent debates concerning suspicious and reparative criticism, surface and deep and distant reading. (I’ll note, though, [End Page 122] that close reading does seem to be the dominant mode here of securing evidence.) More importantly, they leave behind the thinly contextualizing new historicism that characterized Victorian studies in the wake of the trenchant and still rewarding writing of Michel Foucault, Catherine Gallagher, D. A. Miller, and Nancy Armstrong.
Of course, one standing danger for anyone aiming to create the new lies in proudly reinventing the wheel—in ignoring or disparaging the achievements of and resources offered by the immediate past. (The Modernist treatment of the Victorians themselves taught us this. And taught us, too, that the danger is sometimes worth risking. Who would have wanted Virginia Woolf to write another Voyage Out rather than Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse . . .) These essays leap over the Victorianists of the past couple of decades to stand shoulder to shoulder with Fredric Jameson, the figure to whom in our moment of income inequality and long-delayed class anger they refer most often. And his welcome presence is a reminder that we have in fact inherited many richly developed vocabularies for speaking about “the transtemporal persistence of literary and cultural forms” (Morgan 110), even if those vocabularies are infrequently used. Some of these vocabularies are evident in the essays themselves— vocabularies developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer, Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser, and Jameson himself. And such vocabularies, too, were developed by the most powerful critics within Victorian studies, from Raymond Williams to, among others recently, Amanda Anderson. Much of the most incisive writing of Victorianists has been devoted to exactly this—to a dialectical understanding of the processes of change and continuity.1 That the understanding be loosely or strictly dialectical is crucial if the scholarship is not to become instrumental—if the past is not simply to be used for present needs. That would be an especially ironic fate for criticism opposed to administrative rationality and “instrumental thinking” (Hensley 114).
But if a commitment to the present—to critique of the present—is the leading concern of these essays, then some questions immediately arise. Why study the nineteenth century? And why Britain? Imagine an undergraduate devastated by the present injustices around her. Why should she study the Victorian period? Why, if she is American, should she not study America? Alternatively, why not major in political science or international relations, or cultural studies...