Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform

 

Massacre of the Conestogas. Illustrated with eight fine engravings. Lancaster: G. Hills, 1841. James Wimer. Digital image from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Digital Paxton is a digital collection, scholarly edition, and teaching platform devoted to Pennsylvania’s first major pamphlet war.  The “Paxton” in Digital Paxton refers to a little-known massacre in colonial Pennsylvania that unfolded in December 1763, when a mob of settlers from Paxtang Township murdered 20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians in Lancaster County.  A month later, hundreds of “Paxton Boys” marched toward Philadelphia to menace refugee Indians who sought the protection of the Pennsylvania government.  While Benjamin Franklin halted the march just outside of Philadelphia in Germantown, supporters of the Paxton Boys and their critics spent the next year battling in print.  The pamphlet war that followed in 1764 was not so different from the Twitter wars of today.  Pamphleteers waged battle using pseudonyms, slandering opponents as failed elites and racial traitors.  At stake was much more than the conduct of the Paxton men.  Pamphleteers staked claims about colonization, peace and war, race and ethnicity, masculinity and civility, and religious association in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania.

To support interdisciplinary study of this formative print debate, Digital Paxton makes freely available more than 2,500 pages of print-quality scans from eighteen different archives, research libraries, and cultural heritage institutions; contextualizes materials with twelve essays from leading historians and literary scholars; and scaffolds the collection with six lessons from secondary and post-secondary educators.

“Our Habitation Becomes a Paradise”: Dreaming about Health in the Anthropocene

Before the species-ending plague, the characters in Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826) dream of a world without disease.  Early in the first volume, Adrian—only son of England’s final reigning monarch—argues that, here at the end of the twenty-first century, “the choice is with us; let us will it, and our habitation becomes a paradise.  For the will of man is omnipotent, blunting the arrows of death, soothing the bed of disease and wiping away the tears of agony” (76) [1].  Others agree:  not only has smallpox been eradicated, but the narrator also records, many believe, that in the near future of their English republic, “the state of poverty was to be abolished” and all “disease was to be banished” (106) [2].

The final volume of Shelley’s novel proves these characters wrong, as death comes for all members of the human species save one.  Although the novel belabors the effects of the plague (when I taught the novel a few semesters ago, one of my students described it as a never-ending set of death scenes), the plague’s origin and means of transmission remain mysterious.  “It was called an epidemic,” Verney writes, “but the grand question was still unsettled of how this epidemic was generated and increased” (231).  An “invincible monster” (221), the plague appears alternately in the figure of a woman—“Queen of the world” (346)and as the word “plague” itself [3].  Verney contends that the plague is miasmatic rather than contagious, caught when one breathes air “empoisoned” (233) by rotting animal and vegetable matter in heat, rather than by physical contact with contagious bodies—infected breath or sweat, or even goods previously handled by a person with the plague.  Importantly, as a miasmatic disease, Verney argues that there is no need for England to establish quarantine, or to turn away the sick.  However, literary critics have been skeptical about Verney’s own explanations, not least because his admonitions to care for the sick are belied by his own racist acts of self-protection, as when, rushing back to his family in Windsor, he rejects the “convulsive clasp” of a “negro half clad, writhing under the agony of disease” (336).  It is from this encounter that Verney himself appears to catch the disease and then becomes immune to its power [4].

Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print

While my own recent publication, Reading Contagion (2018), postulates that The Last Man’s plague might appear so very inexplicable because it revives now obsolete beliefs about the hazards of reading—the various contagions eighteenth-century authors speculate might be spread by the form and contents of printed texts—I’m more interested here in the novel’s rebuke of fantasies about a world without disease.  In our own moment, this rebuke resonates.  Today, epidemiologists and public health experts warn about the potential for the vast expansion or virulent return of contagious diseases as one of the catastrophic results of anthropogenic climate change.  In a rapidly warming world, researchers caution that localized diseases such as Zika could spread much more widely if disease-carriers like mosquitos find newly warm habitats, or that older pathogens frozen in ice might be released as a result of continued drilling, mining, or melting of permafrost in formerly frozen regions like Siberia [5].  This contemporary concern prompts the question:  could Mary Shelley’s novel—which imagines the end of humanity one hundred years in our own future and depicts natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes, alongside an unstoppable plague—be an early warning about the Anthropocene? [6]

I think the answer is rather obviously yes, but indirectly and problematically so.  For Shelley’s novel, written in 1826, seems to have its own contemporaneous target, one that we can see in her pointed refusal of the idea that in the future “the state of poverty was to be abolished” and “disease was to be banished.”  In England during the 1820s, these are the dreams of a newly formed public health movement—led in part by Thomas Southwood Smith (1788–1861), physician at the London Fever Hospital, and the future ally of sanitation reformer Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890)—both of whom altered longstanding theories of disease.  In a series of articles published in the Westminster Review in 1825, Smith argued stridently that—save smallpox—all diseases are miasmatic, the product of climatic conditions in particular places.  For Smith, miasmatic (or what he terms “epidemic”) diseases “prevail most in certain countries, in certain districts, in certain towns, and in certain parts of the same town” [7].

“No. 7, PHEASANT COURT, GRAY’S INN LANE – Second-Floor, Front Room” (1850) by National Philanthropic Association (Depicting the Physical Conditions said to Generate Disease)

Smith contends that these locations are dispersed across the earth but share the same features:  spaces that “are the most low and damp, the worst built and the least sheltered” (144).  These locations are dirty, crowded, moist, and unventilated, and as Smith writes, “inhabited by persons who can least afford to pay” (144).  When heated, these spaces will putrefy, generating epidemic disease.  For Smith this is wholly distinct from contagion, which is a “specific animal poison” (134–35).  Contagion is a “palpable” (135) or “morbid matter” (140) secreted by the human body and spread solely by person-to-person contact; epidemic disease is caused by “a certain condition of the air” (135), when the air becomes “charged with noxious exhalations arising from the putrefaction of animal and vegetable matter” (142).  This “corrupted atmosphere” (151) is for Smith not itself contagious, but instead local and seasonal.

“Fumigating streets with tar in Exeter” (1849) by Thomas Shapter (Depicting an Attempt to Purge Miasmatic Air)

In these articles, Smith revises, by simplification, those complicated causal networks that had been inherent to theories of disease during the eighteenth century.  In that earlier period, British physicians postulated that some diseases begin when the air is polluted by the presence of rotting animal or vegetable matter (most likely to occur in hot, moist climates), while others (such as smallpox) originate instead as a specific contagion—infectious matter spread by direct contact with infected bodily fluids, breath, air, or even porous objects (termed “fomites”).  But even this distinction between types of diseases remained somewhat fuzzy, as physicians also argued that diseases can transform from miasma to contagion.  In the case of the plague, or certain kinds of fevers, physicians argued that even if the disease begins as miasma, it can transform:  when enough infected bodies breathe together, that diseased breath saturates and transforms the air, rendering it contagious and capable of spreading over vast distances [8].  Smith’s theories eradicate these complicated causal networks, which locate infectious agency in the interactions among humans and their surrounding worlds—interactions capable of transforming both a disease and its means of transmission.

Title Pages of Richard Mead’s “Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion” (1720) and William Cullen’s “Practice of Physic” (1777)

Smith’s writings for the Westminster Review, as well as his later Treatise on Fever (1830), were successful in shifting the beliefs of public health advocates, even if other medical professionals remained unconvinced.  Absolute distinctions between contagious and miasmatic diseases and sanitation as a wholesale cure for all diseases were taken up as doctrine by public health reformers, led by Chadwick [9].  As historians and literary scholars including Margaret Pelling, Christopher Hamlin, Mark Harrison, Pamela Gilbert, and Rajani Sudan have emphasized, this shift bolsters an already hardening ideology of native English superiority—of national health—that locates disease solely in improvable locations, usually urban or tropical ones [10].  As these scholars also note, public health’s winnowing of the causes of disease to the physical qualities of particular locations works to minimize concurrent or contributing social and economic factors.  Further, cures for diseases could be likewise simplified and rendered politically inoffensive.  Because if miasmatic diseases are caused by stagnant air and water, cures could be found in physical acts of cleansing or sanitation—by removing dirt, constructing proper drains to void stagnant water, establishing proper ventilation, or burning away the bad air.  The bodies of those persons infected could be similarly cured by being moved to fever hospitals, where they could be treated in pure air.

Dreaming of perfecting human health in Shelley’s moment, then, operates via a simplified causality that erases the agential power of mobile and contingent interactions among collective bodies, air, goods, etc.  And, so, one way to read The Last Man is as a critique of that kind of simplification, accomplished when Shelley raises a plague that will not be confined to miasma or cured by sanitation.  As such, Verney is proven wrong when he asserts that the plague is generated and spread not by bodies or objects, but only by location, which can be avoided:  “as for instance, a typhus fever has been brought by ships to one sea-port town; yet the very people who brought it there, were incapable of communicating it in a town more fortunately situated” (231).  And thus to get back to the question of the Anthropocene, Shelley’s novel can be read as critiquing exactly the kind of simplified causal thinking—which sees no agency in interaction itself—that is so debilitating when attempting to comprehend anthropogenic climate change today.  For to comprehend climate change we have to understand the importance of both interactions and secondary effects, which can themselves catalyze further catastrophes:  for example, that increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere prevent heat from escaping, and that warming causes greater ocean evaporation, and that evaporation causes even greater warming because that vapor absorbs heat and then stays in the atmosphere, and that ever-increasing warming then opens novel pathways for disease vectors, and so on.

“Modern Rome, Campo Vaccino” (1839) by J. M. W. Turner

But what makes The Last Man so very difficult is that, even as it critiques one kind of thinking, it also proffers its own simplification in place of Verney’s mistakes:  a plague that only infects humans.  I think this is crucial.  For what The Last Man can imagine is the particular human hubris of thinking that disease possesses one sole cause—location, which can be improved upon by human action:  “let us will it, and our habitation becomes a paradise.”  What the novel cannot imagine, though, is our own vast underestimation of our power to do harm to—indeed, to destroy—every element of the non-human world in our interactions with that world.  For, as the drastic destruction of insects in the rain forests of Central America or the potential extinction of clouds shows, “the choice is with us; let us will it, and our habitation becomes” . . . [11]

Notes

[1] Mary Shelley, The Last Man. Ed. Morton D. Paley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[2] During the second volume, Verney asserts, “the plague was not what is commonly called contagious, like the scarlet fever, or extinct small-pox” (231).

[3] The novel’s preoccupation with the word plague—in quotations or italicized, as when Verney reports “the man to whom I spoke, uttered the word ‘plague,’ and fell at my feet in convulsions; he also was infected” (400)—raises the possibility for many scholars that language or story is also responsible for plague’s transmission.

[4] After the dying man’s “breath, death-laden, entered my vitals” (337), Verney experiences fever followed after three days by a miraculous “restoration” (343), which, for Verney, “brought slow conviction that I had recovered from the plague” (343).  Verney’s achieved immunity to the disease suggests that, counter to his own arguments, the plague is contagious (like smallpox).  Given the novel’s own incoherence about disease, a wide body of productive literary scholarship has explored this question of whether the plague is miasmatic, contagious, or some combination of the two, and why those distinctions might matter.  For just some of this incisive work, see Anne Mellor, “Introduction,” The Last Man, edited by Hugh J. Luke, Jr. (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1993), vii-xxiv; Kari E. Lokke, “The Last Man,The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003), 116-134; Anne McWhir, “Mary Shelley’s Anti-Contagionism:  The Last Man as ‘Fatal Narrative,’” Mosaic:  A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35. 2 (June 2002):  23-38; Peter Melville, “The Problem of Immunity in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” SEL 47. 4 (Autumn 2007):  825-46; and Siobhan Carroll, “Mary Shelley’s Global Atmosphere,” European Romantic Review 25.1 (February 2014):  3-17.  Most recently, Melissa Bailes has rethought these questions by arguing that Shelley’s novel draws upon the work of George Cuvier to represent individual deaths as themselves apocalyptic (“The Psychologization of Catastrophe in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” ELH 82.2 [2015]:  671-699).

[5] See, for example, Greg Mercer, “The Link Between Zika and Climate Change” The Atlantic, February 24, 2016, as well as Boris A. Ravich and Mariana A. Podolnaya, “Thawing of Permafrost May Disturb Historic Cattle Burial Grounds in East Siberia.”  Global Health Action 4.1 (2011):  1-6.

[6] I am deeply grateful for Kent Linthicum for first suggesting that I think about this question, and for providing important insights from his own work about The Last Man’s many natural disasters.  For recent scholarship indicting the novel’s politics of sustainability, see Lauren Cameron, “Questioning Agency:  Dehumanizing Sustainability in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” in Romantic Sustainability:  Endurance and the Natural World, 1780-1830, edited by Ben Robertson (Lanham MD:  Lexington Books, 2016):  261-73.

[7] [Thomas Southwood Smith], “Contagion and Sanitary Laws.”  Westminster Review 3 (January-April 1825):  37-67, 144.

[8] Early eighteenth-century physician and contagion-expert Richard Mead argues that “when in an evil Disposition of This [corrupted air] they [infectious particles] meet with the subtle Parts, its Corruption has generated [people who are infected with disease], by uniting with them they become more active and powerful, and likewise more durable and lasting, so as to form an Infectious Matter capable of conveying the Mischief to a great Distance from the diseased Body, out of which it was produced” (A Short Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion, 6th edition [London:  Printed for Sam Buckley in Amen-Corner, and Ralph Smith at the Royal-Exchange, 1720], 12-13).  Later in the century prominent physician William Cullen writes of jail fevers:  “the effluvia constantly arising from the living human body, if long retained in the same place, without being diffused in the atmosphere, acquire a singular virulence; and, in that state, . . . become the cause of a fever which is highly contagious” (First Lines of the Practice of Physic [4th edition, Edinburgh:  Printed for C. Elliot, 1784], 1:81).

[9] As Margaret Pelling explains, while originally referring to quarantine measures (from the French cordon sanitaire), “sanitary” began to include “measures directed towards improvement in comfort and cleanliness” during the time of the first cholera epidemic (Cholera, Fever and English Medicine, 1825-1865 [Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1978], 30-31).  According to Pelling, the term “sanitary,” was first used by Charles McLean, in his arguments against quarantine in the Evils of Quarantine Laws (1824), a primary source for Smith’s articles.

[10] See Pelling, Cholera, Fever; Christopher Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick:  Britain, 1800-1854 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998); Mark Harrison, Climates and Constitutions:  Health, Race, Environment, and British Imperialism in India (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999) and Medicine in the Age of Commerce and Empire (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010); Pamela Gilbert, Cholera and the Nation:  Doctoring the Social Body in Victorian England (Albany:  State University of New York Press, 2008); and Rajani Sudan, The Alchemy of Empire:  Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2016).  More recently, in Difference and Disease:  Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2018), Suman Seth illuminates that it is roughly during this same period (the late eighteenth century) that medical writers themselves begin to distinguish absolutely diseases of temperate and tropical climates, what he terms a “race-medicine” that shares affinity with a “race-science” that is also arguing for absolute distinctions between an ever smaller number of races.

[11] See Damian Carrington, “Plummeting Insect Numbers Threaten the Collapse of Nature” The Guardian, February 10, 2019, and Natalie Wolchover, “A World Without Clouds” Quanta Magazine, February 25, 2019.

The New Volcanoes of Industry

Over the past forty years or so, climate researchers have written of the “human volcano” when discussing air pollution and carbon emissions.  As early as the 1970s, industrialized nations were spewing so much soot and ash into the atmosphere that the effects imitated a volcanic eruption.  In the early twenty-first century, this phenomenon has intensified with the global increase in coal burning resulting in stratospheric pollution previously only seen from volcanic activity.  Here’s the connection scientists are making:

When major volcanic eruptions occur—such as Tambora in 1815, or Krakatoa in 1883, or Mount St. Helens in 1980, or Mount Pinatubo in 1991—huge clouds of sulphur and volcanic ash enter the atmosphere and stratosphere, traveling around the globe and causing air quality issues, crop failures, and global temperature changes.  But the eruption ends, and, while volcanoes can cause severe environmental damage, the most common eruptions affect Earth’s ecosystems for only few years.  However, unlike an actual volcano, the so-called “human volcano” continues to increase steadily over time.  There is no end to the eruption—industrialized nations continue to erupt, slowly and without pause.  So, while a volcanic eruption is more catastrophic and destructive in the short term, the human volcano can be more long-lasting, producing what climate scientists call “global warming.”  Humans, in other words, have become a geophysical force of nature akin to volcanoes.

Rob Wood’s depiction of the Tambora eruption in 1815

Humans’ ability to modify Earth’s ecosystems in this manner is a hallmark of the Anthropocene.  Literally meaning “The Age of Humans,” the Anthropocene is the proposed name for our current geological epoch, beginning when human activities started to have a noticeable impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.  Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen popularized the term in 2000, writing that the Anthropocene refers to “the present, human-dominated, geologic epoch, supplementing the Holocene,” and his writing has spurred nearly two decades of debate among scientists and humanities scholars, with most scholarship centered on defining the characteristics of the Anthropocene and in establishing its dates [1].  Crutzen initially proposed that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, citing James Watt’s patent of the steam engine in 1784 as a possible marker, while other scientists have since argued for the “Orbis spike” of 1610 or the “bomb spike” of 1964.  The later date has recently emerged as the frontrunner for the dating of the Anthropocene [2].

Photograph of industrial pollution in the twenty-first century

However, the human-volcano effect directs our attention back to the eighteenth century as marking the emergence of the Anthropocene.  This human volcano, it turns out, is not unique to our contemporary moment:  the practice of comparing human activity to volcanoes is part of a literary tradition that began in Britain in the eighteenth century.  Poets, painters, and scientists were fascinated by volcanoes, due in large part to the dual developments of geology and industrialization, as well as the high number of major eruptions during this period, most notably Vesuvius in 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779, and 1794; Laki in 1783; and Tambora in 1815.  Eighteenth-century geologists argued that volcanoes played a vital role in the formation and evolution of Earth.  The violent eruptions of volcanoes and subsequent processes of erosion, decay, and rejuvenation not only imagined a geological time scale for the first time—that is, “deep time”—but also made volcanoes a major attraction for natural historians and tourists alike.  At the same time, a range of authors began using volcanic language and imagery in the earliest depictions of industrialization, which was quickly reshaping the landscape and geography of Britain.  This conflation of human and geological phenomena depicts humanity as a geological force in a new geological epoch.

One representative example of the many eighteenth-century poets that fused geological and industrial imagery is the relatively unknown priest and poet John Dalton, who marvels at England’s quickly-changing landscape in his 1755 Descriptive Poem, Addressed to Two Ladies, at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven.  In the eighteenth century, Whitehaven was a major coal-mining town in northwestern England, and industrial tourism was common at this time—people were obsessed with new industrial technology.  In his humorous poem, Dalton depicts the ladies’ tour as a kind of epic-to-the-Underworld narrative, drawing on classical mythology and tropes, but he also supplies real scientific and cultural knowledge about volcanoes and industrialization through a series of extensive footnotes, which were written by his friend, Dr. William Brownrigg.  In the poem’s opening stanza, Dalton describes Whitehaven’s coal mines as volcanoes:

Welcome to light, advent’rous pair!
Thrice welcome to the balmy air
From sulphurous damps in caverns deep,*
Where subterranean thunders sleep,
Or, wak’d, with dire Aetnaean sound
Bellow the trembling mountain round,
Till to the frighted realms of day
Thro’ flaming mouths they force their way;
From bursting streams, and burning rocks,**
From nature’s fierce intestine shocks;
From the dark mansions of despair,
Welcome once more to light and air! [3]

Several words and images here reference volcanic eruptions:  “sulphuruous damps,” “subterranean thunders,” “Aetnaean sound” (reference to Mount Etna), “trembling mountain,” “flaming mouths,” “burning rocks.”  The sights, sounds, smells, and effects of the coal mines parallel those of volcanoes.  The footnotes are also quite suggestive.  In the first footnote, the author writes of the “dreadful explosions” in the mines, which are “very destructive,” “bursting out of the pits with great impetuosity, like the fiery eruptions from burning mountains” (pp. 1–2).  He here refers to natural coal-seam fires, which can burn for thousands of years, but which can also be started by human causes, such as accidents and explosions in mines.  In the second footnote, he explains that these unintended fires “burn for ages” (p. 2)—an exaggeration, of course, but one that implicitly links the long, slow progress of a geological age with the experience—and projection—of humans’ imagined geologic imprint.

These volcanic similes and metaphors continue throughout the poem.  Dalton references the “perpetual fire” of industry (l. 44), as well as the “hissing,” “moaning,” and “roaring” of the “fire-engines” and other modern inventions, all of which produce substances akin to volcanic lava:

But who in order can relate
What terrors still your steps await?
How issuing from the sulphurous coal
Thick Acherontic rivers roll?* (ll. 87–90)

Dalton depicts water pumped from the mines as a kind of hellish water, or lava, akin to the fiery water of Acheron in Hades.  In a footnote, he explains the pumping process in more detail, offering a vision of anthropogenic lava:  “The water that flows from the coal is collected into one stream, which run towards the fire-engines.  This water is yellow and turbid, from a mixture of ocher, and so very corrosive, that it quickly consumes iron” (p. 8).

Newcomen steam pump by Louis Figuer, 1868

Dalton’s Descriptive Poem indicates the trajectory of scientific poetry throughout the eighteenth century.  The structure of the poem, which alternates between poetry and extensive scientific footnotes, not only anticipates the style made famous by Erasmus Darwin nearly four decades later but also points toward a confluence of scientific and literary writing on volcanoes and industry.  Poets and geologists alike wrote extensively of volcanoes and industrialization, often at the same time.  For example, the first English translation of Italian geologist Francesco Serao’s Natural History of Mount Vesuvius was extracted and written about extensively in a 1747 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine and in subsequent issues throughout the 1750s and 1760s.  Focused mainly on the 1737 eruption of Vesuvius, this text exemplifies the kinds of descriptions typical in volcano writings, with an emphasis on fire, heat, smoke, clouds, thunder, earthquakes, and a transformation of the surrounding landscape.  Significantly, he frequently compares volcanic activity to human effects:  he repeatedly refers to underground volcanic fires as “furnaces”; compares volcanic vapors to those in coal mines; and writes, “The Noise of our Vesuvian Thunder was momentaneous, like the Discharge of a Cannon fir’d at Sea” [4].

Scientist and explorer Sir William Hamilton also focuses on volcanic-industrial connections in his popular and widely-read Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other Volcanos (1773).  Like Serao’s text, Observations was extracted and reprinted frequently in literary magazines.  At one point, Hamilton compares the smoke and ash of Vesuvius to the fog of London:  “it was impossible to judge the situation of Vesuvius, on account of the smoak and ashes, which covered it entirely . . . the sun appearing as through a thick London fog” [5].  As we know now, London’s famous fog was mostly the result of suspended particulate matter:  soot, smoke, and dust caused from coal burning.  In 1825, Charles Lamb would call this “the ‘London particular,’ so manufactured by Thames, Coal Gas, Smoke, Steam, and Co” [6].  These kinds of scientific-industrial comparisons were widespread in scientific writings:  perhaps most famously, the geologist James Hutton presents Earth as a “machine” modeled on the steam engine in his Theory of Earth (1788).

Title page of Hamilton’s Observations

By the early nineteenth century, the volcanic-industrial tradition had become “common place” in British writing, as Lord Byron observes in Don Juan (1824) [7].  Scientists such as Humphry Davy, James Smithson, and Luke Howard began to argue explicitly that industrial emissions had atmospheric effects similar to those of volcanic eruptions.  In 1804 the editors of the Edinburgh Review expressed amazement that such a connection had “so long eluded observation” [8].  Howard, writing on London in 1812, referred to the chimneys of the city as a collective “volcano of a hundred thousand mouths” [9].  In 1820, the poet James Woodhouse wrote of the “new volcanoes” in Birmingham and Wolverhampton [10].  This literary trope of referring to the “new volcanoes” of industry continues throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In a 1902 issue of the Illustrated London News, the thousands of chimneys that reach into the sky above Britain’s capital are referred to as “London volcanoes,” and today, climate researchers continue to write of the “human volcano” [11].

Vesuvius Eruption in 1767, Plate 1, Observations

In the twenty-first century, humans have supplanted volcanoes as a major catalyst of climate change.  The last five years (2014–2018) were the hottest years on record globally, owing almost entirely to the human-volcano effect.  While this warming trend is recent, the connections among industrialization, volcanoes, and climate change are not.  These connections, which both signal and describe the Anthropocene, form a tradition in eighteenth-century British writing, pointing to 1750 as the dawn of the Anthropocene.

Notes

[1] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000), p. 17.

[2] For a concise yet comprehensive overview of these debates, see Jeffrey Davies, The Birth of the Anthropocene (Oakland:  University of California Press, 2016), esp. chapter two.  Also see Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature 519 (2015):  171–80.

[3] John Dalton, A Descriptive Poem, Addressed to Two Ladies, at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven (London, 1755), ll. 1–12.

[4] Francesco Serao, The Natural History of Mount Vesuvius (London, 1743), p. 64.

[5] Sir William Hamilton, Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other Volcanos (London, 1774), p. 31.

[6] J. C. Thompson, Bibliography of the Writings of Charles and Mary Lamb:  A Literary History (London: J.R. Tutin, 1908), p. 88.

[7] Lord Byron, Don Juan, 13.282.

[8] Quoted in G. M. Matthews, “A Volcano’s Voice in Shelley,” ELH 24, no. 3 (1957), p. 197.

[9] Luke Howard, The Climate of London (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 203.

[10] James Woodhouse, The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus, in The Life and Poetical Works of James Woodhouse, ed. R. R. Woodhouse (London, 1896), p. 25.

[11] Illustrated London News (15 March 1902), p. 17.

Jane Austen Summer Program 2019

Jane Austen Summer Program 2019

The award-winning Jane Austen Summer Program is excited to announce its 2019 symposium, “Pride and Prejudice and Its Afterlives!” The seventh annual event will take place this June 20-23 in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Participants will have the opportunity to hear expert speakers and participate in discussion groups each day, as well as join in a Regency-style ball, attend Austen-inspired theatricals, partake in an English tea, and visit special exhibits tailored to the conference. The discussions will consider Pride and Prejudice in its historical context as well as its afterlives in fiction, film, and digital media. The Jane Austen Summer Program is designed to appeal to established scholars, high school teachers, graduate students, undergraduate students, and Austen fans—anyone with a passion for all things Austen is welcome and encouraged to attend! For more program information, to see comments and photos from previous programs, or to register, please visit the program’s website https://janeaustensummer.org.

(Original post provided by Carlie Wetzel, Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student, Department of English and Comparative Literature, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Forster’s Synchronism and 18th-Century Studies

In the preface to The Rape of Clarissa, Terry Eagleton embraces, under the sign of Benjamin, a strategic presentism (though this is not his phrase) that understands the work of criticism to be a kind of textual recovery.  Literature long thought unreadable can, under the critic’s care, be revived for a new readership if we can only see how it speaks to the politics of the present moment.  This is what I take Eagleton to mean when, writing in 1982, he claims, “we may now once again be able to read Samuel Richardson.” [1]

Eagleton’s “we” who are newly able to read Richardson surely refers not to scholars of the eighteenth century—who had, of course, been reading Richardson all along—but to a more capacious, perhaps even a non-academic readership.  And “read” means something bigger, too.  Again, eighteenth-century scholars had been reading Clarissa, but not in a way that took its project seriously, not in a way that understood its urgency.  In bringing Clarissa back from the dead, Eagleton opposes his method to a conservative historicism:  “I entirely lack what would appear to be one of the chief credentials for discussing the eighteenth century,” he writes, “namely a nostalgic urge to return to it.” [2]

Eagleton can seem almost prophetic now:  he either divined correctly that the world was ready again for Clarissa or, along with Terry Castle and, not much later, Frances Ferguson (among others), he made it ready.  But I begin with him not because I see him as the first to release this salvo but because I want to suggest that there has long (perhaps always) been an eighteenth-century studies that has situated itself against a more conservative, historicist eighteenth-century studies.  This is perhaps why many of us were so thrilled to read the V21 Manifesto when it was published:  we greeted its writers less as provocateurs than as fellow-travelers.  I offer a capsule pre-history of strategic presentism not to suggest that it has run its course but to propose what I hope we might consider as a friendly competitor in the push against the kind of conservative nostalgia Eagleton names.  If, as the manifesto claims, “the variations of and alternatives to presentism as such have not yet been adequately described or theorized,” I hope to offer an early step toward that effort here.

Rather than (or perhaps alongside of) strategic presentism, I’ve been thinking lately about a model of synchronism (maybe even a naïve synchronism) that would allow for connections between moments of historical time without even the minimal historical apparatus that presentism requires.  In one of the early responses to the V21 Manifesto, David Kurnick urges us to revisit old formalisms before we craft new ones, and, in that spirit, I want to suggest that one valuable old formalist contribution to our present critical conversation is E. M. Forster’s curious synchronous thinking about the novel’s form. [3]  Here’s a brief passage from a part of Aspects of the Novel that no one really reads:

We are to envision the English novelists not as floating down that stream which bears all its sons away unless they are careful, but as seated together in a room, a circular room, a sort of British Museum reading-room—all writing their novels simultaneously. They do not, as they sit there, think, ‘I live under Queen Victoria, I under Anne, I carry on the tradition of Trollope, I am reacting against Aldous Huxley.’  [4]

Forster imagines the British Museum reading room as populated by the great authors of the English novel, paired at tables in a kind of formalist buddy system.  The pairings that Forster conjures with his thought experiment (Richardson and James, Dickens and Wells, Sterne and Woolf) may strike us as rather obvious, but the experiment itself is not.  Our understanding of novel theory has, perhaps since its inception, been inextricably linked to an historical account of the novel’s emergence and development, however contested the parameters and particulars of that history may be.  Consider the ubiquity of the pairing “the history and theory of the novel” in both our scholarship and teaching, or the subtitle of the most commonly assigned anthology in the subfield:  Michael McKeon’s The Theory of the Novel:  An Historical Approach.

While much new formalist work on novel theory has advocated either for new histories or for a strategic presentism that simply runs history in reverse, Forster offers a formalist literary history without the history.  Forster posits a view of the English novel as simultaneously generated—a flattening not of character but of time.  It subordinates temporality as such to the spatial, enabling, I think, what Anna Kornbluh has called, “enhanced attention to the worldmaking project of fictional space and to literary realism as the production of possible spaces rather than the document of existing places.” [5]  (Indeed, I suspect that Forster’s model might do this better than presentism).

In writing at a table alongside Forster, I’m not claiming to invent anything, but I do want to connect and elevate work as diverse as that of Susan Sontag (see “Notes on Camp”:  especially her use of lists that can commingle, for example, Walpole, Wilde, and “stag films seen without lust”), James Chandler, whose An Archeology of Sympathy pings from Frank Capra to Laurence Sterne to I. A. Richards, and Scott Black, whose writing on romance and anachronism takes up what he has called “a looser sense of history.”  The affordances of synchronism are, in brief:

1.)  it offers a less abashed formalism.

2.)  it opens up the potential for a kind of cross-period collaboration that is truly rare in our discipline.

3.)  it leverages so much of the work that we already do, in our classrooms especially, but also in the kind of irreverent, energetic (semi-)public writing that is flourishing at the moment, both in venues like The Hairpin (RIP), The Toast (RIP), and the LA Review of Books but also ABOPublic and The 18th-Century Common.  And this is perhaps especially true for our colleagues in the precariat, our graduate students and adjunct faculty, who are constantly being called to extend outside of narrow training, to bring their expertise to bear more broadly than ever.

In sum, I want to suggest that Forster’s synchronism offers a model for thinking about the novel without the silos of periodization, at a moment when we’ve largely embraced formalist methodology only up to the limits of established, field-based historical parameters.  It doesn’t encourage us to abandon the eighteenth century, but instead offers us an eighteenth century not just for the present, but for all time and all possible futures.

Notes

[1]  Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa:  Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson.  (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1982), xii.

[2]  Eagleton, xiii-ix.

[3]  http://v21collective.org/responses-to-the-v21-manifesto-2/#response2

[4]  E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927).  (New York:  Harvest Books, 1955), 9.

[5] Anna Kornbluh, “Present Tense Futures of the Past,” in “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism,” Victorian Studies 59.1 (Autumn, 2016):  98-101.

For the 2018 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference program, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski chaired a roundtable responding to the V21 Collective’s intervention in nineteenth-century studies and the possibilities it presented for reflecting on current problems and critical approaches in eighteenth-century studies.  Additional contributions to the roundtable can be found here.

Remembering the Unbearable Present: Colonial Biowarfare, Indigeneity, and the Challenge for Anthropocene Historiographies

“Anthropocene Word Cloud from Wikipedia.”  Notably, the words colonial, imperial, indigenous, violence, and their derivatives do not appear.

 

“It is hard for us to examine our connection with unbearable pasts with which we might reckon better, our implication in impossibly complex presents through which we might craft different modes of response, and our aspirations for different futures toward which we might shape different worlds-yet-to-come[.]” —Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times

Anthropocene:  A blanket term

Anglocene, Anthrobcene, Capitalocene, Cthulcene, Eurocene, Manthropocene, Misanthropocene, Neganthropocene, and Plantationocene:  this is the current slate of monikers for the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch with historical debates over its start-date as deeply entrenched as those over its name.  This ever-expanding catalogue of inspiring neologisms, however, suggests more than the schizoid nature of the Anthropocene and reveals more than simply an embryonic idea still in the process of being worked out, although its very existence is not unanimously acknowledged, as the surprise announcement of the Meghalayan Age by the International Union of Geological Sciences reveals [1].

The blur of proposed names for this new geological epoch is the symptom of a deeper unease that we have with the progenitur term “Anthropocene,” an unease that deepens with its disciplining, that is, in a Foucauldian vein, in the way this term is becoming sedimented and accepted as a disciplined body of knowledge [2].  Think, for instance, about the coalition of the Anthropocene Working Group, the task-force that determines the key parameters of this new epoch, a group that, as Oxford economist Kate Raworth shrewdly observes, is overwhelmingly made up of white, European men [3].  This raises the important question of who is the Anthropocene for?  Who speaks for it?  Who does it represent, and who does it erase?  The question we must ask is this:  In what ways is a certain structural violence, a colonial violence, smuggled in under the covers of this definition?

To think about this dark side of the Anthropocene requires attention to the erasure inherent in this definition of the anthropos (by its Greek roots, a white, universal, European subject).  Recent work by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, among others, helps to shed light on the ontopolitics of this new epoch, as they rightly identify colonial violence as an inherent factor within the process of humans becoming a dominant force on the earth.  Although Lewis and Maslin (2015) date this violence to the late fifteenth century in what they call the “New-Old World collision,” when Europeans arrived in the Americas, the long eighteenth century—the period that many consider to be the dawn of the Anthropocene, or at least the initialization of a new phase in its development [4]—continued to be a hotbed for settler violence twinned with destructive means of terraforming, particularly in North America.  In what follows, I offer one particular eighteenth-century event—the British military’s bio-weaponization of smallpox against North American Indigenous peoples—as a touchstone for thinking about this structural violence, an event that might also serve as a metaphor for some of the dangers we continue to face in our conceptualization of the Anthropocene today.  We can read this bio-weaponization forward into our own contemporary moment where the Anthropocene turns toward indigeneity as its model for resiliency while still problematically failing to account for the legacy and ongoing structural violence against Indigenous peoples.

Blanket Stories:  Seven Generations, Adawe, and Hearth (2013) by Marie Watt.

Eighteenth-Century Biowarfare

Letters and journals prove that high-ranking British military leaders during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) conspired to weaponize smallpox against North American Indigenous populations as a way of exterminating them and gaining access to their lands and resources [5].  In a letter (16 July 1763), just one of many that disclose this sentiment, British General Jeffery Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British Army in North America during the Seven Years’ War, writes to Colonel Henry Bouquet:

You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.  I should be very glad your scheme for hunting them down by dogs could take effect, but England is at too great a distance to think of that at present.  [6]

Blankets were to be infected with smallpox and given as gifts to Indigenous groups, since the use of dogs would prove impractical.  Moreover, the bioweaponized blankets were a far more insidious form of violence, and rise to match the colonial fears over the enmeshment of Indigenous bodies and the untamed landscape.  Clearly, Amherst’s desired “Total Extirpation of those Indian Nations,” [7] as he elsewhere writes, was intimately bound up with the project of controlling the land [8].  In fact, the colonial biopolitical association of the wild Indigenous body with the land is poignantly captured in an anxious comment by Bouquet in a letter to Amherst (29 June 1763):  “every Tree is become an Indian” [9].  The conflation of these bodies bears the scars of Lockean property theory, which conceptually underpinned colonial expansion and the violent treatment and dispossession of Indigenous peoples [10].

For Locke, the difference between merely living off the lands (hunting and fishing like animals do) and cultivating the lands in efforts of improvements is the difference in who has the right to claim ownership of that land.  In his Two Treatises on Government, especially The Second Treatise, Locke writes:  “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.  He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common” [11].  Put otherwise, it is labour in the service of improvement that grants the right to the earth [12].  From a Lockean perspective, then, unimproved or cultivated lands used by Indigenous peoples were still part of the common, a wasted or missed opportunity for development.  Indeed, the same language and colonial logic continues to be used, over two centuries later, in discussions about the Canadian tar sands.  As Rick George, former president and CEO of Suncor, the Alberta-based energy company writes, “The most appealing feature of the oil sands was the fact that they were there to be taken” [13].

Yet British efforts at terraforming were simultaneously and intentionally a project of Indigenous genocide, as Amherst’s letters betray.  Such an example dovetails with Lewis and Maslin’s “Orbis hypothesis,” their claim that “colonialism, global trade and coal brought about the Anthropocene” [14].  Indeed, their proposed date of 1610 for the onset of the Anthropocene, the Global Stratotype Section and Point [15] or specific date that marks a significant CO2/carbon decline (that they dub “The Orbis Spike”), is directly the result of drastic population decline due to war, enslavement and disease, with the Americas going from 54 million people in 1492 to only 6 million people by 1650 [16].  In short:  less people, less carbon.  Colonial violence thus registers itself in the carbon footprint of the Earth.  The British efforts to bioweaponize smallpox against the Indigenous peoples in the eighteenth century complement Lewis and Maslin’s theory and furnishes it with a specific event to greater texturize this Anthropocene historiography.

“Orbis Spike” in Lewis and Maslin (2015).

Bearing the unbearable past in our impossibly complex present

But what does this specific case study in eighteenth-century British bioweaponization mean for us in the Anthropocene today?  Anecdotally, it might remind us about the dangers that can lay await in the folds of a blanket or blanket term, a reminder to be weary of what is “gifted” by this ghostly anthropos, this new ungainly spectre haunting thought today [17].  The case study should also remind us of the biopolitics of controlling the Indigenous populations and their lands, and the violent means that these settler nations called Canada and the United States, or Turtle Island, have deployed since the eighteenth century.  But more importantly, as the Anthropocene increasingly dominates scholarly discourse, such that we might speak of the “Anthropocene turn” in academe, the case of the smallpox-infested blankets helps reframe discussions of the Anthropocene that otherwise continue overwhelmingly to exclude Indigenous groups and considerations of colonial violence.  We must consider more than the (white) anthropos and fossil fuels.  For as Zoe Todd insightfully suggests, the Anthropocene discourse is a variation of “white public space,” that is a space that is not only predominantly made up of the white heteropatriarchy but also a space wherein “Indigenous ideas and experiences are appropriated, or obscured, by non-Indigenous practitioners” [18].  The Anthropocene needs decolonizing and indigenizing, though this move is not without wrinkles.

The Bentwood Box (2009) by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston.

One of the best examples of this is the simultaneous turn that is occurring alongside the Anthropocene:  the “Indigenous Turn” in theory and politics, which on first glance appears inspired by governmental calls for reconciliation.  However, while the “Anthropocene Turn” and the “Indigenous Turn” would benefit from greater turning toward each other, we have reason to be wary of the ways that indigeneity is currently being looked to as a new promissory radical model for ontology, which can be understood as a form of neoliberal governmentality’s delusory strategy for survival and self-replication rather than profound change, such as the indigenization of its internal structure.  Indeed, as David Chandler and Julian Reid argue, the interest in new models of indigenous subjectivity is frequently marked by the rhetoric of resiliency.  While this may initially seem like a celebration of indigeneity, Chandler and Reid argue that the real attraction to indigenous resiliency is for the way it might help Western cultures cope with how to live within the eco-crises of the Anthropocene:  “While the modern subject is encouraged to ‘become indigenous,’ the attention to indigeneity . . . does not extend to the suffering and struggles of indigenous peoples who are held to have failed to become more-than-human exemplars of resilience” [19].  At the edge of extinction, Western culture hopes to learn how to survive.  The “radical promise” of indigeneity as a new model for being in the world, Chandler and Reid continue,

is that a different world already exists in potentia and that moderns can choose to make it by learning to world in the ways indigenous peoples already do . . .  Access to this alternate world is a question of ontology—of being differently—being in being rather than thinking, acting and world-making as if we were transcendent or possessive subjects.  [20]

Now, in the Anthropocene, we no longer have the security in thinking of nature as something “over there,” as an object capable of being fully understood, and the collapse of the nature/culture divide.  Now, the “indigenous are the anthropocene-alogists of nonmodern ontology:  they can teach us how to see the nonhuman differently” [21].  If Indigenous subjectivity is now a resource to be mined, what becomes visible in this extraction process is the difference between attending to indigeneity and the actual suffering of indigenous peoples.  We need to mind the gap between theory and practice.  In the turn to indigeneity as the way to navigate the Anthropocene, what dangers are unknowingly accepted as gifts?

Harper Eyes (2014) by Métis scholar and artist Warren Cariou. The eyes belong to Stephen Harper, former Prime Minister of Canada, who passed major reforms for the oil industry during his tenure and who also infamously said, at the 2009 G20 meeting, that “Canada has no history of colonialism.”

Like those infected blankets in Amherst’s letters, we would do well to remember to ask what violence gets insidiously smuggled in under the white covers of the Anthropocene, which one might be tempted to call (if yet another neologism were allowed) “The White MANthropocene,” for the way it extends the legacy of this problematic figure, including the tendency of this discourse parasitically to see indigeneity as its new resilient ontopolitical host.  Not unlike the eighteenth-century British view of North America as a waste to be mined, contemporary Western discourses including the Anthropocene commit an uncanny act of violence in the turn toward indigenous subjectivity as a new resource to be plundered.  The Western question it seems, now as then, remains one of manipulation and self-preservation:  How can we use indigenous subjects or knowledges to save ourselves, our ways of life, our institutions, and ultimately our world?  We need to recognize, as Alexis Shotwell suggests, the “complex entanglement of practices and habits of ignorance, repression, and active disavowal that constitute an active settler process of not telling, not seeing, and not understanding the truth of the matter” [22].  This is especially true as we wade through a new cold white discourse that still largely ignores a decolonized approach.

Retrieving and bearing the anthropogenic ugliness of our eighteenth-century history, those disastrous events, such as the smallpox conspiracy that I have here discussed, will be an important strategy in how we write the history of the Anthropocene, a historiography that although it already includes the eighteenth century and grants a significant place to Britain in this narrative is nevertheless marked by blindspots.  It is time to move past the now all too familiar citation of James Watt’s improved steam engine and the Industrial Revolution as the eighteenth century’s claim to the Anthropocene and consider the more furtive forms of anthropogenic violence from this period.  Simultaneously, it is also important to recognize the ways in which these forms of violence remain with us today.  To do this is to see colonialism, as Patrick Wolfe does, as “a structure rather than an event,” whereby colonial practices of the past grow to become the backbone of the present [23].  Indeed, the pressing task for the historiographies of the Anthropocene will be to consider the minor rather than molar, and increasingly to include in the stories that we tell about this epoch the shameful policies devised and violence committed in the projects and name of colonial terraforming.  By insisting on these historiographies that foreground the “complicated, often ugly, and humbling,” to borrow a phrase by Anna Tsing [24], we might stop perpetuating the structural violence that has defined the Anthropocene.

Notes

[1] The IUGS announced in July 2018 that we are not in the Anthropocene; we are living in a late phase of the Holocene period that they call the Meghalayan Age, which began 4,250 years ago.  It is defined by a catastrophic drought that destroyed ancient civilizations in Egypt, China, India, and the Middle East.  As Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis write:  “it seems like a small group of scientists [at the IUGS]—40 at most—have pulled off a strange coup to downplay humans’ impact on the environment.”  Maslin, Mark, and Simon Lewis.  “Anthropocene vs Meghalayan—Why Geologists are Fighting over whether Humans are a Force of Nature.”  The Conversation, 8 Aug. 2018.

[2] Working groups, conferences, academic journals, courses, and programs are all examples of this disciplining.

[3] Raworth, Kate.  “Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene?”  The Guardian.  20 October 2014.  Web.

[4] Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer initially proposed James Watt’s improved steam engine in 1784 and the Industrial Revolution as the starting point for the Anthropocene.  Similarly, others take 1800 as the starting date, such as Steffen et al. (2011) and Zalasiewicz et al. (2011).  Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill.  “The Anthropocene:  Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.  A 369 (2011):  842-867.  DOI:  10.1098/rsta.2010.0327.  Zalasiewicz, Jan, Mark Williams, Richard Fortey, Alan Smith, Tiffany L. Barry, Angela L. Coe, Paul R. Bown, Peter F. Rawson, Andrew Gale, Philip Gibbard, F. John Gregory, Mark W. Hounslow, Andrew C. Kerr, Paul Pearson, Robert Knox, John Powell, Colin Waters, John Marshall, Michael Oates, and Philip Stone.  “Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Lon.  A 369 (2011):  1036-1055.  DOI:  10.1098/rsta.2010.0315.

[5] Peter d’Errico’s archival research was key in finding proof of Britain’s smallpox plans and Amherst’s culpability.  For a detailed account of the pertinent letters, see d’Errico, Peter.  “Jeffery Amherst and Smallpox Blankets.”  Web.  2017.

[6] Amherst to Bouquet, 16 July 1763, BL Add MSS 21634, f.323.  See also The Journals of Jeffery Amherst, 1757-1763.  Ed. Robert J. Andrews.  Michigan State University Press, 2015.  Vol. 15.  322.

[7] Amherst to Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of the Northern Indian Department.  9 July 1763.  Amherst, Jeffrey.  The Journals of Jeffery Amherst, 1757-1763.  Ed. Robert J. Andrews.  Michigan State University Press, 2015.

[8] This tension over the land plays out in another register today. Amherst is a figure still embarrassingly celebrated by Parks Canada today.  The name of the Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst National Historic Site in Prince Edward Island was recently challenged by Mi’kmaq elders and the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I.  Yet despite these calls for the national historic site to have Amherst’s name removed, Parks Canada decided to leave it and simply add a Mi’kmaq name:  Skmaqn, which means “the waiting place.”  Ironically, we still wait for reclamation.

[9] Colonel Henry Bouquet to General Amherst, 29 June 1763.

[10] Nick Allred’s contribution to this collection also attends to Locke’s theory of property, but it does not address the key role of labour in Lockean property theory and its relation to colonial violence.  Katherine Binhammer’s contribution, drawing on Adam Smith rather than Locke, acknowledges the colonial violence that comes with the addiction to economic growth.

[11] Locke, John.  Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration.  Ed. Ian Shapiro.  Yale University Press, 2003.  §32; Two Treatises 113.

[12] Also in the Second Treatise, Locke grants that Indigenous hunters claim property over their goods, such as the deer they have killed (his example) because they have “bestowed [their] labour upon it” but does not extend to them a property claim of the land as, per his definition, no labour has been exerted (Second Treatise §30; Two Treatises 112).

[13] Helbig, Louis.  Beautiful Destruction.  Rocky Mountain Books, 2014, 57.

[14] Lewis, Simon, and Mark Maslin.  “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519 (12 March 2015), 177.

[15] GSSP is a Global Stratotype Section and Point, a specific date and primary marker (aka, “golden spike”) for any significant change in the Earth system.

[16] “The accompanying near-cessation of farming and reduction in fire use resulted in the regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland” (Lewis and Maslin [2015] 175).

[17] J. R. McNeill claims the Anthropocene is the “specter . . . haunting academia” (117).  Neill, J. R.  “Introductory Remarks:  The Anthropocene and the Eighteenth Century.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies 49.2 (2016): 117-128.

[18] Todd, Zoe.  “Indigenizing the Anthropocene” in Art in the Anthropocene:  Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies.  Ed. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin.  London:  Open Humanities Press, 2015, 243.

[19] Chandler, David and Julian Reid.  “‘Being in Being’:  Contesting the Ontopolitics of Indigeneity.”  The European Legacy 23.3 (2018):  254.  DOI:  10.1080/10848770.2017.1420284

[20] Chandler and Reid, “‘Being in Being,'” 257.

[21] Chandler and Reid, “‘Being in Being,'” 259.

[22] Shotwell, Alexis.  Against Purity:  Living in Ethically Compromised Times.  University of Minnesota Press, 2016, 38.

[23] Quoted in Shotwell, 36.

[24] Tsing, Anna.  The Mushroom at the End of the World:  On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.  Princeton University Press, 2015, 33.

“Strategic Presentism” and 18th-Century Studies

My deepest thanks to Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski for having me on this panel alongside this great lineup of people I admire.  It’s a pleasure to have Anna Kornbluh here to help us think through what V21 might have to offer us working in the eighteenth century.  A little about myself and my connection to V21:  I’m totally one of those scholars that pushes the “long” part of the “long 18th and 19th centuries,” but this in-betweenness has forced me to think a lot about my scholarly investments in working across these historical periods and how sometimes periodization limits the questions we can ask and the objects with which we might engage critically.  I connected with V21 through one of my dissertation committee members, Emily Steinlight, and I have since contributed to one of V21’s Collations, an online forum that brings together two to three scholars, often with very different intellectual interests and at entirely different stages of their careers, to read and respond to new scholarship in the field. [1]  V21’s openness to what its Manifesto calls “multiple modalities of scholarship and collectivity” has been extremely exciting to me as someone who has been working through what ways we might reach beyond the academic audiences of journals and monographs. [2]  Today, I want to reflect a bit on the limits and affordances of the V21 Collective’s concept of “strategic presentism.”

I can’t help but return to Lynn Hunt’s 2002 short essay, “Against Presentism,” written for the American Historical Association. [3]  For Hunt, presentism risks “putting historians out of business” by reducing history to a study of sameness based on the search for our individual or collective roots of identity.  Furthermore, she describes the worst presentism as a kind of “moral complacency and self-congratulation” perpetuated by scholars who try to claim the righteous high ground over the archaic, problematic past.  In Hunt’s view, presentism leads to a kind of selective history that sees what it wants to see because it wants to shore up “various kinds of identity politics” that might be better attended to by “sociology, political science, and ethnic studies.”  “We are all caught up in the ripples of time, and we have no idea of where they are headed,” Hunt concludes.

I find myself perplexed by this assessment.  I think the urgency to act and respond in our current turbulent political climate is born out of the fact that we as humanists do know where things are headed precisely because we work to understand how and why events in history have unfolded as they have.  What really is the problem with finding sameness in the past?  Why does continuity necessarily mean “temporal superiority,” as Hunt puts it?  In my understanding, opposing presentism doesn’t get politics out of history.  To quote Eric Rauchway,

Writing about the past as if it existed wholly on its own terms and did not lead to the present suggests that history is utterly useless today—a cozy pursuit that cannot disturb our assumptions about what is happening now.  It makes history marvelously conservative…  After all, all history gets written by someone, somewhen.  Our paths to the past start in the present.  A tiny sliver—and never a representative cross-section—of humanity has access to research libraries and proprietary databases, to publishers, to income and leisure time sufficient to pursue history as profession or avocation.  [4]

Pretending that historians are detached from present circumstance, for Rauchway at least, seems no more than pretense.  Now, I don’t know if I would go so far as to frame history as such a teleological enterprise that makes all lines converge on our present, but I do think there’s a disavowal of presentist commitments in the claim that we “study the 18th century for the 18th century’s sake and only on its terms.”  If we ask our undergraduates to answer the “stakes” question in their own thinking and writing, why are we not beholden to that same question?  I think students deserve an honest and nuanced answer to the question of why does this matter.  (It just is and because I said so don’t count).  Framing it in terms of the present that they know not only encourages students to discover unexpected investments in what they’re learning but also witnesses history as itself dynamic, living—perpetually rippling into our present and beyond, to repurpose Hunt’s image.

The first thesis of the “Manifesto of the V21 Collective” takes to task Victorian Studies for having “fallen prey to positivist historicism, a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past.”  While I’ve heard a number of colleagues over the past day or two insist on the value of this ever-thickening description of the past, I think what is strategic about “strategic presentism” is that it demands that we “think critically about the past in the present in order to change the present.” [5]  I emphasize “change” because not only are we fleshing out continuities but also learning to better conceptualize those continuities as the means by which we can begin to imagine different futures in a present that so often seems to be without a future (or at least a viable or sustainable one).  I am also particularly taken with Anna’s formulation of “active listening to the past.” [6]  In our eagerness to describe, to inhabit, to reproduce, to contextualize the voices of the past (even to the extent that we sometimes talk over them), what are we training ourselves to hear, to tune out, or even fail to hear all together?

We have always been presentist, Emily Steinlight frequently likes to remind me. [7]  No, not all presentisms are created equal, nor are all presentisms strategic.  But we are shaped and motivated by the conditions of the present, whether or not we acknowledge it.  The act of scholarship is shaped and motivated by the conditions of the present, whether or not we acknowledge it.  The institutions within which we work are shaped and motivated by the conditions of the present, whether or not we acknowledge it.

And I don’t think we should be ashamed of that.

Notes

[1]  My collations contribution was on the book forum for Benjamin Morgan’s The Outward Mind:  Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature.  The forum was composed of reflections by Elisha Cohn (Cornell), Kate Flint (University of Southern California), and myself.

[2]  See Thesis 10 of the Manifesto of the V21 Collective.

[3]  Lynn Hunt.  “Against Presentism.”  Perspectives on History.  May 1, 2002.

[4]  “Present Tense.”  The New Republic, 2007.

[5] David Sweeney Coombs and Danielle Coriale.  “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism:  Introduction.”  Victorian Studies 59.1 (2016):  88.

[6] “Present Tense Futures of the Past.”  “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism:  Introduction.”  Victorian Studies 59.1 (2016):  100.

[7] “We Have Always Been Presentist.”  “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism:  Introduction.”  Victorian Studies 59.1 (2016):  105.

For the 2018 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference program, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski chaired a roundtable responding to the V21 Collective’s intervention in nineteenth-century studies and the possibilities it presented for reflecting on current problems and critical approaches in eighteenth-century studies.  Additional contributions to the roundtable can be found here.

The “Ordinary Science” of Literary Studies

When V21 and the V21 manifesto first appeared a few years ago, I was very excited and something of a cheerleader from the sidelines of social media.  Who doesn’t like a group of younger scholars standing up and telling the older generation that it has gotten it all wrong?  And at the time and still to this day, I’m supportive of anyone in literary studies who is irritated by historicist orthodoxy—the orthodoxy of the baby boom generation that taught me, and against which scholars like my friend Sandra Macpherson and I have been grating for some time.  That and the interest in form and aesthetics, the demand for more conceptually grounded criticism, all seemed and still seem terrific.  So, go V21!  I said that then, and I’ll say that now.

For today’s roundtable, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski asked us to consider a question.  Does ASECS need its own version of V21?  Given what I just said, my answer may be a bit surprising.  It is no, or a qualified no, or a no, not really, or a no but also in one specific, lower case way yes.  The V21 manifesto advocated for a turn away from what it called “positivist historicism” toward theory (especially) and form (sort of, really more of a turn to that catch all chimera “new formalism”).  I have had a lot to say in print lately about the category of form, so I won’t belabor that just now, except to say that V21 in practice I think turned out to be less interested in form than it purported to be, or was unable or unwilling to distinguish form from politics and so from the history it ostensibly wanted to bracket.  (I believe Sandra Macpherson is going to have more to say about this.  I’m echoing some of her own ideas as well as some of what Anahid Nersessian and I had to say last year in our Critical Inquiry article “Form and Explanation” and in the subsequent exchanges that article produced).  So I won’t say much more about that now.  But I do want to note how the broad currents of this kind of talk and these kinds of debates, that is the broad currents of what the V21 manifesto was after—the limits of archivism and historicism, reconsiderations of form and formalism, possibilities for presentism—have run strong in eighteenth-century studies for some time.  In fact they have run parallel with, if not preceded, conversations our Victorianist colleagues have been having.  I argued in my SEL year’s work in review essay of 2010, for example, that “historicism had perhaps run its course” and that not only did it fail to provide a rationale for what we do but that that best work I had read seemed to be cutting against the historicist grain.  Just after that, ASECS had the first of several panels on form, another on close reading, and soon after that Sandra Macpherson’s notorious, “against history” panel, colloquially named by everyone there as simply “fuck history.”  This discussion continues apace, tracking and anticipating developments in the profession at large (lately over method—method being the great common discussion of our present moment, that is, how we read, why, following what disciplinary protocols or points of style, etc.).  So when I say “no,” I’m saying in part that I think we don’t need our own manifesto to keep the conversation alive.

As far as I’m concerned, moreover, a kind of anti-manifesto pluralism and respect for heterogeneity and the work of others better fits our straightened times.  Despite my opening gambit about youth movements, about impatience with orthodoxies, historicist or otherwise, all of which I believe entirely, I’ve never liked telling people to stop doing what they’re doing, or when anyone else does that either.  Every time I come to ASECS I’m just bowled over by the commitments our colleagues bring to whatever corner of the world commands their interest, whether that’s Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts” or the development of the conversation piece or the history of calico.

I’ve come to think that heterogeneity and pluralism within the field of literary studies is essential to a defense of the field of literary studies, considered as a discipline with its own way of accounting for the world, its own distinctive methods and points of style, its own way of telling truths about the parts of the world with which it is concerned.  I think if you peel back from the surface divisions that might be expressed in manifesto-language you find a bed of common method, common purpose, and common explanatory rigor variously expressed in diverse form.  I’ve come to call this the “ordinary science” of literary studies, and I think it ought to be defended, given especially the perilous state of the discipline, given that is the existential threat to the humanities, to literary studies, and to the study of older periods, the eighteenth century one among them.

In preparatory chat over email among the panelists and co-chairs, and in the chatter at the conference over just the past day and a half, I’ve been again excited by all the talk about presentism, perhaps the piece of the V21 program most currently in circulation, that is currently, this very second.  Again, I think there’s much to commend here, and I’ve found the high-caliber discussion of models of historical time and past-present relations done under the auspices of V21 quite thrilling.  The desire here seems palpable:  Who doesn’t want to find ways to address our deplorable political moment with resources from the materials we know well?  And, given the overall context of shrinking enrollments, shrinking resources, and the sense that our materials can be a hard sell, who doesn’t want to find a way to get students interested in older works by teaching them in such a way that makes them seem relevant or, well, relatable?  Having said that, I do want to sound a counter note to the desire for presentism, however, not in the name of antiquarianism or positivism, but merely to underscore the context of disciplinary expertise and common explanatory method that makes presentism curious.  The making of things relevant risks, as I think we sometimes see, a kind of default to intelligent banter about urgent contemporary issues, from climate change to #metoo to of course Trumpism.  None of us have any particular expertise in these issues.  Rather, we bring our expertise and our methods of explanation to political or ethical matters as they take shape in materials with which we are intimately familiar and about which we have something to say particular to our expertise and training.  This ought to put some interesting limits on the desire to make everything present, or on how we think about the quiddity of our objects of concern, located as they are in some discrete temporal corner of the universe.  At the very least, we ought to be cautious I think about the critique of periodization that comes along for the ride of presentism, strategic or otherwise.  For reasons that should be obvious to anyone paying attention to what’s happening in English departments across the academy, now is a bad time to be getting rid of periods.  It just leads to the question, who needs an eighteenth-centuryist anyway?

With these sorts of institutional matters in mind I want to close on an upbeat note, the part that is a qualified or lower case “yes” to Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski’s question.  What V21 as a loose network has excelled at it seems to me is providing platforms for intellectual exchange and scholarly community.  Their various seminars, online fora, meet ups, conferences, book symposia, and so on have been, so far as I can tell, a real boon for scholars of the period.  ASECS really should emulate that.  We need semi-formal occasions and platforms for discussion about the texts and topics that matter to us.  I think it would be terrific if our exchange with the V21 collective today led to some emulating on our part of their infrastructural prowess, modest but real achievements like summer reading groups or online colloquies about recent books in the field, get togethers outside of the annual organizational ones.  This would be a great thing indeed.

For the 2018 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference program, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski chaired a roundtable responding to the V21 Collective’s intervention in nineteenth-century studies and the possibilities it presented for reflecting on current problems and critical approaches in eighteenth-century studies.  Additional contributions to the roundtable can be found here.

“Dialectical Presentism”: Race, Empire, and Slavery in 18th-Century Studies

Like many of you, I’ve followed the V21 developments with much interest and excitement, if I’ve largely done so from the margins (this is the first time I’ve been a part of any formal discussion about V21).  There are so many things to commend and discuss about the manifesto and the published symposia, roundtable discussions, and essays that are out in the world now (particularly V21’s visions for institutional critique, which I hope we can talk more about in our discussion but which I’m actually not going to talk about now); what I do want to talk about is V21’s call for “strategic presentism” and how it relates to my vantage point in 18th-century studies.  The term itself, which of course recalls Gayatri Spivak’s “strategic essentialism,” is, as I understand it, an attempt to retrieve presentism from the charge of anachronistic projection (a reading of the present uncritically into the past and a collapsing of historical identity and difference) and to redeploy it as a way to signal how the past informs the present, is at work in the present, and how the present shapes itself according to this examined past.  While this sounds all well and good, I have to admit that, as I have been trying to follow the V21 collective’s adventures, I just keep getting stuck here at this concept (stuck as in stunned or perplexed).  Is this really a problem for 18th-century studies?  Do we need a strategic presentism to signal the urgency and relevancy of our field?

I think my stuckness has everything to do with where I am situated in the broader field—race, empire, and slavery studies.  I can’t really speak for the whole of 18th-century studies (although I’d like to have conversations about this whole today), but the field of slavery studies is shot through with strategic presentism.  I think this concept (and the need for it) was puzzling to me, because it’s something so obvious in slavery studies.  Race, empire, and slavery have a certain almost irrefutable significance in the present.  I mean, not only does it instantly signal a special kind of monstrousness if one doesn’t understand the present import of studying the history and representations of race, empire, and slavery, but also these things have such clear, obvious, well-articulated afterlives in the present that seem redundant to even mention (which I could mention, but the point is that I don’t have to).  And 18th-century scholars of slavery are really adept at making these strategically presentist moves in their research, teaching, discussions, works in progress, etc.  Just in the two race, empire, and slavery panels I went to yesterday, for instance, (one on Ramesh Mallipeddi’s Spectacular Suffering:  Witnessing Slavery in the 18th-century British Atlantic and one on “Life and Death in and across Race and Empire”) the following issues were raised:  how the form and logics of 18th-century abolition continues to affect our thinking today (the upshot:  we’re stuck in abolitionist paradigms, help … we need new paradigms!), the untapped potential for 18th-century philosophers of moral sentiment (Hume, Smith, etc.) as models for deploying sentiment as crisis management and for creating a vocabulary and paradigm to deal with what certain bad historical actors are doing to harm fellow humans (and how to stop them), the continuities of the relationship between 18th-century discourses of displacement (one example being restoration rewritings of The Aeneid) and the current Mediterranean migration crisis (Charlotte Sussman’s talk), and Swift’s Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels and drone warfare (Peter DeGabriele’s talk).  This morning’s roundtable on presentism (“Mind ‘Yore’ Business? Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Problem of Presentism”) offered up even more examples:  Al Coppola’s paper on the persistence of Newtonian enlightenment assumptions in the present, specifically how our blind faith in universal laws undergirds popular scientific studies like Geoffrey West’s Scale, and Grace Rexroth’s paper on 18th-century typography, neuroscience, and MRI memory studies.  And I could go on…

If anything, there’s too much presentism in race, empire, and slavery studies.  What we risk is not just misreading the texts of our past and what they can offer us in our present but a misapprehension of the present as well (more on this in a minute).  I don’t think the answer is a return to reductionist historicist paradigms (those that V21, I think, are usefully critiquing) but a dialectical presentism, a presentism that can hold the past and present at once, that can account for an interdependence of identity and difference, that can project a future out of this mess and tangle of conjunction and disjunction.  This need for but also demonstration of such a dialectical presentism came up for me in one of these aforementioned panels from yesterday when Suvir Kaul made a comment about how he thinks the Black Lives Matters Movement is influencing his teaching of the 18th-century.  The example he gave was of a student in one of his courses who was essentially waiting all semester to get to Equiano’s Narrative, only to express profound disappointment once there and declaring it accommodationist, not seeing it as a narrative of self-making as he was hoping she would.  Now, as we were discussing at the panel, to some degree the Narrative is accommodationist, but it’s also self-making and non-accommodationist, but we perhaps see only the former and have this kind of disillusioned feeling and reaction because we’re expecting Equiano to belong to a certain black community that exists today (our imagination of this kind of continuity of black collectivity is the thing Stephen Best critiques in his 2012 essay “On Failing to Make the Past Present,” which we also discussed).  Such a need for dialectical presentism also comes up in my own work, which is, among other things, about what the study of servitude and slavery (and its relationship) can tell us about the present, in particular what it can tell us about the history of race as a concept—that race is an ideological concept that we made and that we have representations of its making, which, of course, means that it can be unmade.  But in order for it (and racism) to be unraveled in the present, we have to recognize that it wasn’t always like this, that race was not a settled, congealed category in the worlds of (especially early) 18th-century texts.  Distance and difference are necessary in our present in order to understand the past, the present itself, and to work for a different kind of future.  So, presentism is a problem, and I think that, if we are to use it strategically, then it must be a dialectical one, so why not call it that?

One question that Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski asked in their call for this roundtable is whether or not the 18th century offers different approaches to the problems V21 so deftly lays out.  In some respects, I think that’s what I’m trying to get at.  Perhaps the 18th century is uniquely situated as a field to see the need for some form of dialectical presentism.  As I see it, our period is one of emergence, a period that showcases the simultaneous identity and difference of a host of now intelligible modern categories (and ones that are perhaps more settled in the 19th century), whether we’re talking about race, the novel, the author, the nation, the bourgeois subject, or sexuality, etc.  The 18th century is strategically positioned to show us how things are made (and how they can be unmade) if we can figure out how to let it, and I think its transitional character gives us a useful model for understanding the dialectical relationship between our present and our past as we try to work for new futures.

For the 2018 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference program, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski chaired a roundtable responding to the V21 Collective’s intervention in nineteenth-century studies and the possibilities it presented for reflecting on current problems and critical approaches in eighteenth-century studies.  Additional contributions to the roundtable can be found here.

ASECS and V21 Roundtable Organizers’ Response: Collective Ways Forward

When we put out the call for participants on this roundtable, we asked whether eighteenth-century studies needed its own V21 moment, but we must confess that in thinking about the relationship between the two communities, we found ourselves wondering, instead, whether V21 needs eighteenth-century studies.  Many eighteenth-centuryists—as Katarzyna Bartoszynska noted while attending the inaugural V21 Symposium—will have read many of the texts and theorists whose names circulate in Victorian Studies, but can the same be said of work in our field, for scholars outside of it?  Could the more idiosyncratic status of eighteenth-century literature within literary studies account for the fact that some of what V21 identifies as pressing problems for Victorianists do not similarly trouble scholarship in our field?  Presentism, for instance:  not only do we not shy away from presentism, we are in fact continuously called upon to articulate the bearing our texts, and our work, have on the present, if only to persuade students to read it.

For some time, many of us in eighteenth-century studies—as reflected in the institution of the “long eighteenth century”—have proceeded with an arguably irreverent approach to historical periodization, encroaching on both the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in order to posit wide-ranging (or what some anonymous reviewers have described as “recklessly broad”) theoretical arguments.  We routinely reach to material beyond the historical eighteenth century to think about what we nevertheless consider “eighteenth-century problems.”  This tendency was observable in the roundtable:  we were struck by how little mention there was of eighteenth-century texts.  Rather than rely primarily on eighteenth-century thinkers to frame their approach to the V21 manifesto, panelists turned, for instance, to E. M. Forster and Matthew Arnold (though, to be fair, Sandra Macpherson emphasized how much Arnold is relying on Burke).  On the one hand, this reaffirmed our sense that dix-huitiemistes are voracious readers who eagerly join in the kinds of “multi-field and multi-disciplinary conversations” that the V21 manifesto calls for.  As Stephanie Insley Hershinow points out, a kind of “naïve synchronism” has served many of us well, particularly in the classroom, and may be leveraged to foster not only good scholarship but also new forms of public writing; such an approach could elevate and “bring in” the kinds of nimble thinking the academic precariat is already being asked to do, but without institutional recognition.  But if we want Victorianists and other specialists outside our field to reciprocate with an occasional deep dive into our texts—the literature and philosophy of the eighteenth century, as well as scholarship on it—who would we point them to?

Secondly—and these responses may reveal to V21-ists how people outside the field see them!—we had not expected presentism to be such a central point in the conversation.  Indeed, of all the issues raised in the V21 manifesto, this seemed like the one least troubling to eighteenth-centuryists (though, with the contorted logic of the psyche, this may well be precisely why everyone was drawn to it).  Carrying the conversation forward, it seems clear to us that beyond the question of presentist methods (strategic or not), we must also continue to think about the critical reassessment of antiquarianism and uncritical historicism, both within the eighteenth century and in our studies of it; the fear of our work not being compelling to scholars outside the discipline; the call for more rigorous theorizing, and for not opposing history and theory); the rethinking of form and formalism, including what Jonathan Kramnick describes as “form detached from politics,” and its relationship to an understanding of literary form, in Sandra Macpherson’s words, as “politics by another means.”  While, as several panelists argued, eighteenth-century studies is already doing a lot of the things V21 calls for, and has done them well, we must commit not only to continuing in these paths but also to doing other and better work as well.  How might we more effectively converse across fields and disciplines?  How do we generate multiple modalities and new institutional frameworks?  And, crucially for many of us engaged in this conversation, what is the relationship between these approaches and the mandate to assess academia and its projects in light of both colonization and decolonization?

The wonderful responses of the panelists strongly suggest that eighteenth-century texts and scholars offer a rich resource for the robust theorization of presentism—a commitment to recognizing how the pressures of the present generate both the past and the future as epistemological objects—and an excellent model of synthetic thinking and dialogue between fields.  As Jonathan Kramnick points out, when it comes to present-day matters, none of us has any particular expertise.  Rather, “we bring our expertise and our methods of explanation to political or ethical matters as they take shape in materials with which we are intimately familiar and about which we have something to say particular to our expertise and training.”  Travis Chi Wing Lau urges us to consider how even historicist knowledges are presentist formations, since expertise is forged within the conditions of the present.  Rather than disavow the “present in the past,” he argues, we must attend to how we “listen” to the past from our own particular, present positions:  “what are we training ourselves to hear, to tune out, or even fail to hear all together?”  Laura E. Martin draws attention to the unique quality of the eighteenth-century materials on which our expertise is focused, namely, that we recognize them as works-in-progress, simultaneously different and similar to present phenomena, having not yet coalesced into their more familiar forms.  Where the V21 Manifesto asserts that “we are Victorian,” Laura E. Martin shows us that it is because of the ways in which we are not of the eighteenth century that the “transitional character [of C18 objects] gives us a useful model for understanding the dialectical relationship between our present and our past.”

Finally, as to the question of institutional frameworks and new modalities:  what are the best ways to produce future collaborations, not only across V21 and eighteenth-century studies, but broadly across various fields and emergent collectives?  Borders between eighteenth-century scholars, Romanticists, and Victorianists grow ever blurrier, and we are not the only V21 affiliates whose work fits in more with ASECS than NAVSA.  Is the time ripe for a friendly takeover, a broadening of the tent?  Are V21’s intellectual goals bigger than Victorianism—are they, in fact, a clarion call for literary studies as a whole?  Or do those of us working in the eighteenth century need, instead, to start our own collective, and encourage cross-overs?  Discussion in the panel’s Q&A suggested that such an organization would have as one of its objectives a commitment to antiracist and anticolonial work in our field, joining the work of groups such as Bigger6 in Romantic studies, ShakeRace in early modern studies, and the Medievalists of Color.  (Since the recent ASECS meeting, we have added the BIPOC18 collective to this list).  While V21 is clearly engaged in such work—as Anna Kornbluh pointed out, V21 is motivated by the postcolonial call to break down the national and historical frameworks through which literary studies have reproduced imperialism—this goal is not explicitly part of the manifesto.  Should it be?  Or, rather than perpetually revise our mission statements, should we focus on making collectives and building coalitions, respecting each organization’s way of approaching the big picture?

One thing that the V21 Collective has done beautifully is actively to integrate graduate student, non-tenure-track, and early career researchers in ways that allow them to feel (correctly!) that it is their platform as much as anyone else’s.  It has served as a model for other collectives in this regard.  We believe that, in our shared but inequitable present, providing a “home” for institutionally disenfranchised peers, and practicing non-hierarchical methods of interaction, is one of the primary reasons we need new platforms, genres, and scholar-activist communities in our fields right now.  Whether or not we organize a “V21 for the C18,” how might we best provide space for active collaboration across not only periods but also differentials of institutional power?  One thing we have observed as C18-based affiliates of V21 is that traditional periodizations are, in fact, not a separate issue from the question of how institutions organize power.  Building new coalitions in defiance of hierarchy necessitates transhistorical and cross-field thinking.  We certainly long for academic frameworks and infrastructures that would put us in touch not only with Victorianists, or Modernists, but also Early Modernists and Medievalists, of all ranks.  It seems vital that we routinely remind each other that one period’s “emergent objects” can be another’s foregone conclusion, and to take stock of the way our different knowledges appear from each others’ perspectives.  Let’s not lose sight of the fact that one of the reasons we, as eighteenth-centuryists, ended up in V21’s orbit is because its work is so exciting!  In a present that is so bleak in so many ways, we all need the gravitational pull of concerted collective effort to stay in motion.  We feel the possibilities of broader collaboration, and of circulating knowledges along new paths, as an influx of energy.  How might we reciprocate and carry this energy forward by making eighteenth-century studies a vitalizing resource beyond the period, the discipline, the academy?

For the 2018 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference program, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski chaired a roundtable responding to the V21 Collective’s intervention in nineteenth-century studies and the possibilities it presented for reflecting on current problems and critical approaches in eighteenth-century studies.  Additional contributions to the roundtable can be found here.