- New Chronologies
Like all brilliant interventions, The New Eighteenth Century not only gave form and direction to the incipient desires of many scholars, thereby legitimating hitherto marginalized work, but also asked the field to reexamine the assumptions that had guided its formation.1 Over half the introductory essay, "Revising Critical Practices," was devoted to this genealogical imperative, and its objective was to pave the way for doing things otherwise. By calling for explicit self-consciousness regarding methodology, Laura Brown and Felicity Nussbaum confirmed a sea change in eighteenth-century studies, and the early reviews immediately recognized the importance of the collection. Scholars of the eighteenth century may have found themselves indicted or energized or something in between, but I want to start this reflection by considering how the collection affected the adjoining field of Romantic studies.
I first came to The New Eighteenth Century five years after it was published. I was fortunate to be on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell University, where Laura Brown was offering a seminar on material that would eventually make its way into Ends of Empire.2 I had been trained as a theorist with a secondary area of qualification in Romanticism: my dissertation explored questions of alterity through rhetorical readings of De Quincey and of Kant's anthropological and political writings. As for most students of Romanticism in the 1980s, for me the question of theory was not a question at all. The work of Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man, Carol Jacobs, Mary Jacobus, Marjorie Levinson, Jerome McGann, and numerous others had permanently altered the way Romantic texts were read. The blend of deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism, and New Historicism in that list is deliberate, for despite loud differences between schools, my sense was that most if not all scholars in the field were conversant with this highly variegated critical landscape. That said, significant critical developments were only just beginning to coalesce: queer theory and other post-Foucauldian developments animated many of my immediate peers; post-colonial interventions were prompting significant reconsiderations of imperial history, governance, and attendant notions of identity. And despite the advent of New Historicism, rigorous engagement with material culture remained largely outside the precincts of Romantic studies.
I knew that my political interests in gender/sexuality studies, performance, racialization, and matters of empire and colonialism were shared by others, but I now see that my work was restrained, not by a lack of theoretical interest, but rather by chronological and geographical limits on the field. The archives necessary to understand questions of racialization, violence, and colonial and imperial fantasy, not to mention abiding questions of sexuality, extended beyond the purview of most Romanticists. My interests were genealogical, not simply historical: doing Romanticism otherwise meant moving back in time, and The New Eighteenth Century was my first, best guide. Monographs by the authors of the constituent essays now populate my bookshelves. And what remains from my first reading is not an injunction to do "theory" but an invitation to explore longer arcs of signification. That invitation thoroughly altered my understanding of everything I had learned about British literature from 1789 to 1830, and it put me in dialogue with a different scholarly community. [End Page 330]
All through this period the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) was my home conference and it remains a vital organization for my work. But by the late 1990s I started living a double life. Brown and Nussbaum's intervention had had a significant impact on the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS). A range of panels were devoted to theorizing material culture and exploring the historical formation of social relations through the analysis of cultural texts and performances. Certainly, these political and methodological concerns were also emergent in Romantic studies—indeed, I saw many fellow travelers now committed to both organizations. But it was clear to me that I had to be involved in both fields to do the work I wanted to do. In my eyes, the crucial issue came down to chronology. The genealogical imperative driving my work on governmentality and performance started with the analysis of discourses and...