V21 Manifesto: Ten Alternative Theses

The V21 collective (V21 for Victorian Studies in the 21st century) recently posted a ‘Manifesto‘, ten theses outlining their dissatisfaction with the current state of Victorian Studies, and programme for where it should go. They then ‘invited responses’ from scholars, some of which have already appeared on their site, http://v21collective.org/ and looked forward to the developing conversation.

What they didn’t make clear is that they have a particular sort of conversation in mind. When, prompted by their swingeing attack on historicism and other scholarly bogeymen, I offered an alternative set of ten theses by way of critique and commentary, I accepted that my reaction might be declined as too tame, too lame, or even too lengthy. But what I hadn’t considered was that it might be declined because it was by a historian.

In almost any context of scholarly debate this would be an indefensible exclusion. In respect of a debate about the future of an interdisciplinary field, in which the primary intervention was to challenge the place of historically-informed inquiry, it seems self-serving and self-destructive in equal measure. I hope that the collective may come to recognise their error of judgement. In the meantime, even though manifestos are perhaps best left to the young, I offer the following alternative theses.

  1. Victorian Studies has failed continually to establish itself as a genuinely interdisciplinary field. It continues either to mistake itself for a sub-field of literary studies (and/)or to resent the extent to which it isn’t.
  2. This disciplinary reductionism sustains a situation in which Victorian Studies scholars do not always even speak to other scholars who care about the Victorians as Victorians.
  3. Part of the weakness of the field has been its suspicion of cumulation. To elevate the breaking of frames into a sine qua non of scholarly practice is to mistake iconoclasm for interrogation. We need to continue to test. Where we aim to break our purpose should be explore the limits to which our understandings hold, not the means by which they can be obliterated.
  4. The discipline of History is not innocent in its own exclusion. At the same time, the pervasive resistance to theory is often rooted in the very approaches which begin by repudiating historicism; the laziest and most jejune of the otherings of theory is the evisceration of history into antiquarianism and of historical reconstruction into ‘an endless accumulation of mere information’.
  5. [9] The field can only renew its scholarly significance if it is prepared to grasp its extra-literaryness, to shed its infatuation with the accretion of readings, to realise that multi-disciplinary conversations are unlikely to be facilitated by premises which privilege one discipline and predicate the inadequacy of the protocols of others.
  6. [5] One of the constitutive forces of Victorian Studies has been the dissatisfaction with it, indeed the disavowals of it, as a scholarly identity. Efforts to render these anxieties explicit and to further their exploration are always welcome. The challenge is to constitute a discourse which helps to remedy embarrassment not merely to reposition it.
  7. Victorian Studies will always remain attenuated if it proceeds from the dismissal of historical periods as ‘artificially designated’. Of course we need to continue to investigate persistence as well as change over time. But in part we should do so precisely with the interrogation of periodisations in mind. All periods are contingent and always unsatisfactory, but the corollary is not that they are any the less amenable to delineation than other cultural-historical phenomena, nor that they have any greater power than other conceptual frames to impede rather than assist understandings.
  8. While we accept the presence of presentism in all efforts of comprehension and interpretation, and the powerful Victorian foundations of the contemporary world, we will do well to differentiate between perspective and purpose. As Simon Joyce has reminded us, we cannot understand the Victorians if we see them only through the rear view mirror.
  9. [6] A central challenge of digital scholarship is the extent to which it is expanding the availability of information exponentially, and calling into question our existing epistemologies. As well as new theories and concepts we need methods of synthesis and verification which address these transformations in the nature of our evidence and the means by which we are able to access it, and which create new standards of knowing.
  10. In order to truly animate and sustain the conversation of Victorian Studies our multiple modalities must be of pace, of place, of persons, but also of purposes and protocols. Argument, ambition and theoretical rigour are commendable; but without sufficient tolerance to create acceptance of a set of shared agendas, they will not sustain a broad Victorian collective.

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