I was honored and not a little awestruck to have been asked to provide, alongside the amazing Cornelia Pearsall, a wrapup to this year's Northeast Victorian Studies Association Conference on the topic "The Question of Victorian Literature." It was my first NVSA and I found it bracing and collegial in equal measure -- no mean feat. The papers were uniformly fascinating and the plenary format meant that everyone got to see everything and a genuine set of throughlines -- a collective conversation -- developed over the three days. The below is a transcript of my remarks to close things out, an attempt to give one reading of the shape of that collective discussion. I thank Patrick O'Malley for his virtuosic planning and organization of the conference, and Jason Rudy and Tanya Agathocleous for inviting me to respond to it.
If, as Lauren Goodlad provocatively suggested during the keynote panel, genres are like orgies, then I would say that with respect to the genre of the conference wrap up, I’m a wide-eyed virgin, perfectly innocent. I’m a NVSA virgin too -- but not anymore, perhaps, now that I'm at the end of my first one? Anyway I’ve gathered from some of the worried looks I’ve gotten over the course of these inspiring three days that a main aspect of the wrap up, as form, is a degree of difficulty thing, like high diving, and that it’s fun somehow, or pleasing, to watch someone at the edge of catastrophe. Well here I am. I am honored and very terrified.
What I’ll try to do here is to offer some sense of synthesis and to pull out what felt to me some dominant themes and questions that emerged over our collective conversation. But I’ll open a parenthesis to say that in the interest of moving through the ideas I don’t name every speaker we heard from, but I’ve been taking fanatical notes, and I want to avow publicly the generativity and fascination of all the papers I've seen, and that’s without any exception. I view us as an aggregated mass, then, and this ideation as kind of pulsing through our conference in a collective way. So I’ll mention some contributions, but I do not obey the logic of individuation that’s implicit in the practice of naming every paper.
Why, you are asking, is there Victorian coral on the screen right now? Well the conference began with a special collections exhibit organized by Ethan Henderson, called "The Materiality of Victorian Literature," and there several of us were introduced to just some of the physical forms into which knowledge might be organized and set into motion: there was serial Dickens and Volume Dickens, manuscript poetry and the published kind, pamphlets, solar maps, and gilt-edged Alice in Wonderlands once owned by Andrew Lang. There was a nineteenth century herbarium, full of plants, itself an anthology of botanical or biotic models, some still dropping seeds on the ground, for how matter might find form. So from that array of organizing logics I came into the very first panel, where Irena Yamboliev’s astonishing paper on Swinburne suggested to me among other things that one of the things we do when we ask the question of Victorian literature is to ask how knowledge-making projects take shape, and the materializing and shaping processes by which something like ideation or conceptuality becomes object.
Irena’s argument that nonverbal decorative structures and their adjectival logics become syntactic pattern in prose reminded me of a stray comment by Jerome McGann that Swinburne’s poetry works like coral: it doesn’t develop a theme in a linear way, so much as it grows in mass, reduplicates, and makes more of itself. In The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842), Charles Darwin describes the “reef building polypifers” that comprise these structures: these are without center, really, and without telos, and as Darwin notes with a kind of insane glee, they are alive. Imogen Forbes-Macphail just showed us math formulas and linear equations, but it’s this rhizomatic structure that I want to try to borrow, here, as I sketch a fuzzy set with three semi-centers, and some floating spores at the very end.
Polyp 1, Temporality.
When Jessie Reeder remind us that 2002 was fifteen years ago we all laughed, and the way that mathematical or calendric time misfits productively with other forms of time generated one important thread in our discussion. Anna Henchman’s presentation this morning marked this explicitly as a problem of scale in and of literary objects, describing how different regimes of temporality, railway time and geological time, for example, might “overlap and contradict one another” even in one object or mind. Jesse Hoffman’s invocation of the temporality of elegy gave us two logics of marking mourning-time, the poem and the photograph, but added very wittily, I think, a third, which was the time of the archive. That repository for potential discovery (or the discovery that something had already been discovered), the archive I mean, is what Gauri Viswanathan called secularism’s proxy for belief, since for it to work as an archive you have to believe in its stability and coherence. This matter of belief or trust is what’s at stake, perhaps, in the attempts to delimit an archive of authorized art objects that animated QD Leavis and Henry James; but I’ll come back to value in a moment. The oceanic or bobbing temporal recursivities that become visible when homogenous empty time gets weird were what Lucy Sheehan and Carolyn Betensky introduced us to, I think, when they suggested that nonstandard times – presentisms, longues durees, and dilated contemporaries-- emerge most forcefully or hauntingly when we think about violence. Does slavery, and the racism it enciphers, prove somehow generative of these nonstandard times? And if so, then the relation of all this to trauma and the narrative disorientations that induces makes one wonder whether what’s at the heart of the broken or ghostly or queered bildungsroman is some absented historical violence, a shadow to progress. I’ll talk about the time of genre in a second, but here I’ll say that one thing evident from our discussion is that our field has a temporality too, and this field-time was evident not least in the inspiring intelligence of so many senior scholars on display during the Q&A, which embodied this in a way I found incredible. Carolyn Williams’ illuminating disciplinary history disclosed a feminist genealogy of thought in Victorian studies; this reminded us among other things that we should all be reading Barbara Johnson. This excavation of past Victorian Literatures feels bracing and necessary to me, where the old becomes new again, and the not-really-past of our discipline in its specifically feminist and postcolonial guises is brought back and made again to live. I smiled when Sangeeta Ray mentioned that her brief from Tanya Agathocleous was to revive Culture and Imperialism. This recursivity or reanimating logic of care toward the history of our discipline is, of course, nonprogressive in its own right, since it refuses the past-abolishing logic of intellectual progress and embraces a sense that our own collective past lives in us still.
Polyp 2. Difference.
Part of what generated my many smiles during our plenary panel was how beautifully it embodied a commitment, on the part of the organizers but also the participants, to take domestic or metropolitan Victorianisms and minoritize them, make them strange by difference. This attention to the global nature of nineteenth century experience was a structuring logic, not simply a “theme” in this conference. The organizers are to be commended for this and I propose applause. I mention difference and not empire here to underscore the philosophical dilemma of identity and difference that even papers not overtly concerned with power or politics were nevertheless thinking through. Do we construe Amitav Ghosh’s work as a unity, or as internally variegated? When we read do we become one with the book or not; and just how far should we “place our trust in Silas Marner”? How many John Henry Newmans are inside John Henry Newman? Jessie Reeder challenged us to imagine the problem of difference across not only geographical but linguistic divides, and her own work is exemplary in modeling for us what a global work that is also translinguistic might look like. But I was taken with the fact that what we saw in Sarah Weaver’s captivating charts of the Latinate Tennyson – beautiful in their own right – was that any one language might actually, already, be two. In this sense a language might work more like a genre, in the sense that Lauren Goodlad explicated for us, where it’s really already made of other languages, and historical: thus any langue or system of significations is always adding other ones to it, and recombining them, growing like coral or any other additive structure. This point is about the internal variegation of language forms and the ways in which we might construe language itself – and perhaps literary language in particular-- as a site on which a kind of agon of identity and difference is always already unfolding. In this sense the standardization question touches up to the canon-making question: it's a matter of fixing processes into things that’s what Sarah Ross tipped us to, I think, in her fascinating question on Tess, where Tess’ conscription into standard English becomes the tragedy of reification told at the level of human experience.
But does Victorian literature “mean” things? Or does it do them, perform them, ask them, or stage them?
This insight about language’s nonidentity with itself could itself be expanded to suggest perhaps that no literary object is quite at one with itself either, and internal divisions and generative discrepancies within an textual object might resist the practices of reading that would bring them down to thesis statements or “meanings” in the form of concepts, in Adorno’s sense of concepts as reified and transportable intellectual units. Many of us showed quotes, and read them, and offered paraphrases of their meaning. But does Victorian literature “mean” things? Or does it do them, perform them, ask them, or stage them? It seems to me that a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins uses the diachronic or additive logic of language as a tool to generate the effects of internal self-division in the poetic object – where a word means both its modern meaning and three other old ones-- all this generating an effect that, for Roman Jakobson at least, who used him as his central example, defined the literary function as such. So if “literariness a thing,” which I think we said yes to, and I think Matthew Sussman just said yes to, but I feel might deserve further hearing, then one aspect of it might be its capacity to mobilize archaic or residualized forms, make them new again, in a way not unlike what Gauri Viswanathan did, when she took what had looked like the degraded or crackpot practices of spiritualism and found in them nascent conceptual systems, tools for thinking ideas not yet born. In Jim Buzard’s amazing metaphor, such a process might reverse, as method and reading practice, the homogenizing violence by which modernity squeegees out the bubbles from under the wallpaper of the world.
Are we willing to go so far in our critique of the logic of the bildungsroman... as to give up on the categories of action and will and even personhood that result from it?
Last Polyp. Judgment.
I’ll end quickly with something that is front and center in the conference theme and came up in several fascinating papers that engaged canon-formation, connoisseurship, and the determination of “lightness” – all procedures that seemed to make us uncomfortable somehow, or that seemed more safely critiqued than thought through fully, as logics or problems that remain our own. But Kyle Macaulay’s question helped spur Rosalind Parry and Margaret Deli to help us think about our own functions of syllabus-making --and our choices of which texts we judge worthy to read and discuss—and to imagine how all this replicates the canonizing and gatekeeping impulses of QD Leavis and even that magically annoying figure of Henry James. And this anxiety about value might be one reason James’ terrifying visage, which Juliette Atkinson showed us, hovered over all our discussions like an unexpunged ghost. This Bourdieusian problematic of judgment or discernment is hard to escape, then, and worth looking at head-on, maybe, now. Perhaps our discussion about what makes “lightness” in verse, from Lee Behlman’s opening paper, comes back at the end, I mean, to press us toward asking what values and principles motivate our own organizing logics and practices of thought. Do we believe in judgment? Or rather, can we admit that we do -- since our practices confirm that we act on that principle all the time? Carolyn Betensky’s paper seemed to expose a live wire or third rail for many of us, for me anyway, and she offered “antiracist pedagogy” as one value that might motivate the creation and stabilization of a course-archive. There are other justifications and I suggest we consider making them explicit, since doing so would construe teaching and method not as means-based projects but as ones undertaken toward an end. But what end? And if literarity is, as Carolyn Williams said, maybe most of all a function of how we read, then the question of whether we’re reading “bad” objects or “good” ones, in WJT Mitchell’s phrase, might not be something foisted on us but instead a choice we make. Then again maybe choice is the wrong word for a situation where will and agency are distributed or uncontained, whether it’s a scenario like the one Andrew Lynn described at the reading encounter, where you give yourself over and lose yourself, not in the Hallmark cliche way but in an actual, ontological sense. David Kurnick pushed us to wonder what we think about that moment of emptying out or kenosis: we could push that point to ask whether we willing to go so far in our critique of the logic of the bildungsroman, with its stable subjects and fixed identities, as to give up on the categories of action and will and even personhood that result from it? And whether we are ready to have the conversations about value and concern – about judgment-- by which such a question might be decided?
Two tiny spores, floating to the future.
1) Material conditions
We glimpsed obliquely in our discussions the issue of labor, and the material conditions under which our questions about the questions of Victorian literature now unfold. It came up in Emily Steinlight’s discussion of the administration at UPenn, in Matthew Sussman’s discussion of rhetoric as a discipline, and in Lauren’s question to Jessie, for example, which allowed us to wonder at the institutional conditions that might help shape an intellectual category like the transatlantic or the long nineteenth century, where administrators can now hire one person when they used to need two. We might consider yet more closely how our own methods and strategies for thinking both engage and derive from the material contexts that make them possible.
2) Diminishing Worlds
A final note to say that the coral formations that made Darwin almost erotically excited are bleached out and dead now, “terminally ill,” as scientists say of the Great Barrier Reef, because of massive alterations to earth’s water chemistry, where rising PH levels are kind of code or message, an environmental poetics by which (like all poesis) human will finds itself reconfigured into material form. To develop Anna Henchman’s comment, one question still on the table for us is how we can imagine not just the future but our Victorian past from this damaged present: what might we see if we were to look into the nineteenth century for the rhetorics, logics, and forms by which this future might be made thinkable, habitable? It will not be a progress narrative; but Victorians had other forms too, and here it might be an ad for next year’s conference to say that our work remains unfinished.
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.