- Safeguarding the Past: “Presentist” Historicism
In recent years, we have seen a range of calls for the revitalization of literary and cultural studies through transformation of our theoretical and methodological paradigms. One of the most recent is the “V21 Manifesto” of 2015 assembled by a Victorianist collective of scholars who work primarily in British studies. This document argues that Victorian literary and cultural studies is mired in “positivist historicism” which is characterized by an “instrumentalist evisceration of humanistic ways of knowing.” As a corrective, the V21 collective argues for “presentism.” The collective defines presentism, on the one hand, as the use of contemporary theoretical methodologies to engage the Victorian past, but also as the recognition that “the world we inhabit bears the traces of the nineteenth century.” Through “presentism,” the collective thereby hopes to challenge the ways in which “Victorianists are our own and only interlocutors. . . . . [and fail] . . . to imagine paths of argument compelling to scholars who do not care about Victorians as Victorians.” Presentism—what was once seen by many scholars as a bug in historicism—now becomes, intriguingly, a feature.
As a nineteenth-century scholar who works primarily on US texts, I admire the forthrightness and polemical energy of this call for “presentism.” Indeed, that different forms of literary historicism offer the possibility to meditate on the present has been one of its most undertheorized and most enacted characteristics. In US literary studies, for example, Jennifer Fleissner has repeatedly asked us to take seriously the work of intellectual historian Dominick LaCapra and his notion of the necessary, complex, and also problematic transference that always occurs between past and present in the historian’s work. Fleissner has carefully demonstrated how presentism [End Page 301] drives often diametrically opposed versions of historicism and has argued for more self-reflexivity and theoretical rigor in the presentism of our historicisms (“Historicism Blues”; “Is Feminism a Historicism?”). In short, presentism has long been acknowledged by some scholars as central to historicist work of all stamps, but V21’s bracing call helps us return with renewed energy to the theoretical and methodological questions and problems presentism poses.
At the same time, as The Rambling’s knowing, even tragicomic commentary, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the V21 Manifesto,” suggests, the document is marked by its own present and registers what Bruce Robbins described at the height of the culture wars as a professional “jeremiad” (19–21). The Rambling reads the Manichean rhetoric of professional fallenness and worldliness (“instrumentalist evisceration of humanistic ways of knowing” [“Manifesto”]) as registering the jockeying that results from a brutal job market for nineteenth-century scholars and the declining status of professional expertise—specifically the declining value of our field of expertise—nineteenth-century print text literacies. The Rambling describes the difficult professional present to which it suggests the V21 manifesto responds in this way: “It’s not just that we . . . [Victorianists are] a joke according to new university policy that emphasizes readings of three pages or less or that our students think Trollope is a social-networking app for sex workers.”
My career has taken me from working-class and middle-class state universities across the Midwest, West, and South. Over the years, I have found it increasingly challenging to assign the long texts of the nineteenth century, which require immersive reading over extended periods of time. There are still students who are eager to read these texts and find their form and content revelatory; many, however, can’t make time in their financially precarious and busy lives or are bored by the extended framing and logics of nineteenth-century texts. Likewise, if the universities where I have worked are any gauge, administrators have oddly enough focused on the cost of books in the skyrocketing costs in higher education. Inadvertently or not, the message sent to students and faculty alike is that big, thick books (and reading) are somehow causing education to become unaffordable. Here, of course, I am engaged in my own...