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  • Introduction:A Map the Size of the Empire
  • Zachary Samalin (bio)

The wager of this special issue is that the critical study of the nineteenth century offers an important vantage point from which to gauge the state of contemporary theory. It proposes that questions concerning the enduring relevance of theory and critique can be illuminated in new ways by attending to our dominant theoretical paradigms as artifacts of a nineteenth-century past that has in many ways only quite recently begun to conclude. As wagers go, one might be excused for thinking this was a safe bet. It is uncontroversial to identify Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralist linguistics, and genealogical historicism as the tectonic plates whose movement over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century gave rise to the specific discursive formations, habits of mind, and assumptions about how best to analyze the social world that have come to be designated as "theory" in literary and cultural studies. The intellectual, political, and social upheavals of the nineteenth century represent the historical moment when key concepts and interpretive protocols—ideology critique, the dynamic unconscious—took on the particular stamp that they continue to bear today. Contemporary theorizing still draws its force from the potent ideas that crystallized in the wake of the European revolutions of 1848 and in the halls of the Salpêtrière hospital. By the same token, many of these critical ideas and operations remain freighted with the nineteenth-century Euro-American ideology of civilizational progress and the race thinking and prejudice that legitimized and amplified its claims to modernity. Seen from this relatively straightforward angle, one might say, theory belongs to the nineteenth century.

However, the inner workings of this relationship between present and past and its significance for critical thought remain for the most part unexamined. At the most general level, we do not yet have a robust account of the precise sense in which a theory (let alone theory writ large) can be said to belong to or derive from a particular historical moment, process, or scene, or of the difficulties such relations of attachment [End Page 423] entail.1 Nor is there a consensus view about how one might measure the pace, relative to other forms of historical change, at which a theoretical concept loses its explanatory power; so far, arguments that theory and critique have "run out of steam" have been polemical, but not precise or historically persuasive. Thinking about the straightforward manner in which theory remains connected at its roots to the nineteenth century can therefore point us towards a more wide-ranging set of questions, which the essays collected in this issue take up. These questions revolve around the problem of describing the persistence and erosion of epistemological frameworks and interpretive practices over the long term, as well as the task of identifying the specific nineteenth-century baggage that has been carried forward (deliberately or unwittingly) and kept alive in the present by ongoing attachment to the period and its methods of organizing knowledge. As Hayden White once put it, "Marx, Freud and Durkheim now appear as much to be parts of the problems we have inherited from the nineteenth century as contributors to the solution thereof."2

The contributors to this special issue were asked to approach the notion of a "theory of the nineteenth century" from two complementary perspectives. Not only do our theoretical paradigms represent a nineteenth-century "inheritance," as White suggests, but theoretical endeavors throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries have also tended to return to the terrain of nineteenth-century culture in order to stake new claims. The period has continually seemed to a diverse body of theorists and critics to hold out a promise of sharpening their theoretical tools and thereby transforming their views of the present. It is worth pausing to consider just how many different strains of contemporary theory and how many critical concepts have been produced through confrontation with and re-description of the nineteenth century. A provisional list might begin with works by those theorists for whom the long nineteenth century was the recent past, such as C. L. R. James's radical retelling of the Haitian...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 423-442
Launched on MUSE
2020-05-05
Open Access
No
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