Are we imprisoned by periodization?

Recent moves in History and Literary Studies are raising the issue of periodization once again. Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (2014) shares at least one important intent with the more recently issued Manifesto of the V21 group in Victorian Studies: a call to ‘transtemporal’ scholarship which cuts across conventional periodization.  Periods of 10, 25, even 50 years (into which we can presumably place the 60+ year span of the Victorian) are presented as the sites of squabbles over detail, lacking in perspective or analytic power.

Periodization has of course been a long-established target, Victorian periodization especially so. From across its constituent disciplines, even scholars who have invested in the field have questioned its identity.  One of the readiest criticisms, invoked indeed by Guldi and Armitage, is that periods are ‘arbitrary’, usually with the implication that this is inherently so, although it is never made clear what makes the ‘period’ as a phenomenon especially resistant to being moulded to our understandings of the historical record. Otherwise, much of the critical commentary has tended to align with the two concerns, the synchronic and the diachronic, identified by Fredric Jameson in his The Political Unconscious (1981). The synchronic points to the fact that periodization ‘tends in spite of itself to give the impression of a facile totalization, a seamless web of phenomena each of which, in its own way, “expresses” some unified inner truth – a world view or period style or a set of structural categories which marks the whole length and breadth of the “period” in question’ (27). The diachronic addresses the tendency of periods to be presented in linear sequence and so to construct master narratives to create ‘a vast interpretative allegory in which a sequence of historical events or texts and artifacts is rewritten in terms of some deeper, underlying, and more fundamental … master narrative’ (28).

It is noticeable, though, that recent considerations of periodization have enforced a further anxiety: an anxiety of containment, a sort of chronological claustrophobia, in which the period is a dangerously disciplinary construct which incarcerates scholarship and obstructs understanding. By far the boldest and most influential recent statement of this approach is Rita Felski’s widely noticed 2011 essay ‘Context Stinks!’. It’s hard not to be swept along by this brilliant, trenchant and impassioned warning against an over-contextualisation which ‘wreaks violence on the literary object’. And there is indeed much to be said for the rejection of ‘context’ as a dominant approach to literary and cultural history (though my rationale would be quite different to hers). Felski, though, wants to base her rejection of context in large part on a repudiation of periods, which, while deploying both of Jameson’s versions,  attacks in particular what she describes as the ‘context as container’ approach. Periods and periodizing categories are presented as sequences of sealed strongrooms, which leave texts ‘trapped in the conditions that preside over the moment of [their] birth’ (576), ‘lock[ed] up in a temporal container’ (580). Objects are ‘stamped’ to their period, subject to a ‘synchronic historicism’ in which phenomena are related only to phenomena in the same slice of time (578). This chimera of incarceration reflects an increasingly common denigratory lexicon in which periodization is always pre-emptive, and movement across boundaries never simply a matter of motion and relocation but always disruptive if not destructive; period characteristics are fixed or frozen, boundaries are not crossed, they must be ‘burst’.

The problem is that this ‘History-as-boxes’ construct just doesn’t bear scrutiny. It is little more than the scholarship of the phantasmagoria, a flickering and lurid projection of half-truths and exaggerations, light designed not for illumination but alienation. Tellingly, critiques of periodization of this sort rarely engage directly with the actual deployment of periodizing schemas and their effects, contenting themselves instead with the citation of other polemical dismissals. Borrowing the cheap and cheerful methodology of Mandler and Cohen’s recent critique of The History Manifesto, a quick look at the volumes reviewed by Victorian Studies for its 50th volume in 2006/7 would seem to give the lie to suggestions of incarceration. Even taking the generous and flexible terminal dates for the Victorian period of 1830-40 and 1900-1914, of the 137 titles reviewed 49 or 36% addressed a topic bounded within this period, 23% adopted the terminal dates or the broad label ‘Victorian’, and another 11% ‘the nineteenth century’. Yet even allowing for the inevitable period bias of the selection, nearly 30% either transgressed these boundaries (18%) or ranged across a broader timeframe in which the Victorian was embedded (11%). And this is to categorize the volumes by their primary rather than exclusive focus. Even a cursory investigation indicates that many of studies range much more broadly, drawing in material from before the Victorians and tracing influences into the twentieth century.

Perhaps the period prison is particularly an organizational rather than conceptual effect, and a function of the projection of tendencies in literary studies onto broader questions of historiography. Perhaps it is, as Felski notes, that ‘In English departments, especially, identification with period remains the defining marker of professional expertise, announced in the books that are footnoted, the conferences attended, the courses taught, the jobs advertised’. Yet how pervasive and controlling are these effects?  Scholars are not forced to choose either period or thematic interests. Editors of chronologically defined journals do not patrol the borders of their periods to repel incursions from beyond their territory, or act as gaolers keeping the inmates from escaping. How many scholars have actually been refused access to conference, journal or even post, because their work refused to conform to a specific periodizing schema?

Periods are not bars: they are frames. And, as Jameson readily conceded, we need them. They are essential heuristic and hermeneutic devices, providing perspective, panorama, depth and definition. If the conventional ones don’t fit the subjects we wish to portray, there is no constraint against resizing or reshaping, zooming in or panning out. If anything, we should probably spend more time addressing the utility of the period boundaries that we deploy. Our most productive approach is not to dismiss the Victorian or any other period tout court, but rather to test the bounds of its effectiveness, to keep asking at the very least the question ‘in what ways does the (Victorian) period make sense?’.


Rita Felski, ‘Context Stinks!’, New Literary History, 42 (2011): 573–591.

Fredric Jameson, The Political UnconsciousNarrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981).

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