The Rambling is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay about recent developments in the study of Victorian literature. We have done so at the request of the author, a co-signatory of the V21 Manifesto whose likelihood of being on a panel session on Dickens and Form at the Marriott (Ohio B) would be jeopardized by a disclosure of authorship. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.
Victorian Studies is facing a test unlike any faced by the field to date, and that’s not just because people working in the industries we study—buggy-whip makers, organ grinders, seaside murderesses—have better hiring rates than we do.
It’s not just that we’re a joke according to new university policy that emphasizes readings of three pages or less or that our students think Trollope is a social-networking app for sex workers.
The dilemma is that we overestimated the collective hunger for wholesale field revision by listicle. The V21 Manifesto is now bigger than Jesus in the study of Victorian literature—I mean who wants to write on Victorian religion, anyway? Nevertheless, like Little Nell’s grandfather, we’ve gotten a bit out of control, and most of the Manifesto’s signatories are working to undermine it.
I would know. I am one of them.
To be clear, nobody wants to go back to studies of the nineteenth-century almond or to thinking about poor people. Plus, “Victorian literature specialist” was never exactly a high self-esteem field. Some of us didn’t get to go to the prom, you know, and so we felt really lucky when we got a personal invite to join the “Collective.” Also, we need the Manifesto to succeed because our second jobs aren’t going to network themselves.
But then some of us remembered our duty to actually read this thing and, hoo boy, the stuff you say when you’re hangry for professional advancement. What exactly is “positivist historicism,” and why are we so angry about it? “The instrumentalist evisceration of humanistic ways of knowing” still sounds metal AF, but we’re a smidge less certain now how that comes from too many papers about shawls in Little Dorritt.
That is why many of us have vowed to walk this thing back in our second books or at a conference in ten years when we declare that we never really believed in most of it. We’re also gearing up to say that parts of the Manifesto mean the opposite of what you took them to mean.
The root of the problem is that “form” doesn’t really mean anything—or means everything! Anyone who’s read the Manifesto can see that it’s not moored to any discernible first principles.
We know that although ostensibly about Victorian literature, the Manifesto shows little affinity for ideas long espoused by the field: theoretical texts longer than 130 pages, a historical base, work by literally anyone not working at an American R1 and in the last 5 years. At best, these perspectives were brought in when that guy from England complained or when stuff from the diss needed to go somewhere. At worst, we just ignored them because cross-promotion is super time-consuming. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!
Look: the Manifesto has let us mass-market the claim that we are an “open platform”—where nevertheless, we’ve only got space for friends and future hiring-committee members to appear. Let’s call it formalist openness! “Nor are all forms of presentism equally valuable,” remember.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been bright spots in this unceasing group promotion: we’re saving on airfare to some archive or something, and nobody needs to feign interest in the politics of Edwardian farming equipment. But maybe this would have happened despite—not because of—the Manifesto’s style, which now seems impetuous, adversarial, and petty. Hanger, huh? Like Rancière, we’re everywhere even though nobody can really say why. We’ve become our own careerist monsters! Someone should find a novel that speaks to that, ideally one by George Eliot.
Major George Eliot.
You’ll hear us privately admit our daily disbelief that anyone is taking this so seriously. Most of us are working to insulate ourselves from having to do this for the rest of our lives. It’s such a grind! Meetings always seem to be at private drinks receptions; we’re struggling with all this Hilton Riesling. Plus, this editor at Faber & Faber liked our pitch for a book about corsets and vibrators and obviously, we’re going to need our “wie es eigentlich gewesen” back for that. It sucks being our own interlocutors when someone we went to grad school with writes for The New Yorker.
“There is literally no content to what ‘form’ means from book to book,” the director of a well-funded humanities center was recently saying to me. They were exasperated that “form” seems to mean both an ahistoricist conception of the literary text and also its opposite. It may be cold comfort, but you should know: there are adults in the room. We assume you’ll be on future hiring committees. It’s not your historicist scholarship that’s the problem. We just invented historicist formalism—and you’re doing it, and you always have been! “We must embrace new reflection and abstraction; we must seek new justifications for our work.” Like a job together—on one of the coasts?
Our intended result is a two-track Victorian Studies. There’s our tenured track, and then there are other people (I assume), leaving comments on our website. We’ll get to edit those. Good luck on that track.
There are just so many books to read and honestly, it’s exhausting. We’d prefer a steady state: to promote and read our friends who have jobs while acting like embattled outsiders. We’re all about “a more argumentative, porous, and”—let’s not forget—“ambitious field.” Gonna put ambitious in italics, too.
Given the instability of what “multiple modalities of scholarship and collectivity” might actually mean, there were early whispers that we would settle on some ideology, eventually. “If many of us share a dissatisfaction with the state of the field, we also internally disagree about how it might otherwise be shaped.” But no one wanted to precipitate a crisis, and anyway it was Sunday night and there were papers to grade. So we will do what we can to steer this bandwagon in the right direction until—one way or another—the next one comes along and we’re all doing petrofiction or insects or whatever comes after Latour.
The bigger concern is not what the V21 Manifesto has done to Victorian Studies but rather what we as a field have allowed to happen to us. Apparently, the center of our discourse is now basically GOOP for people who think about Dickens.
Like, major Dickens.
We’re afraid that if this keeps up, next time we’re going to have to publish an Instagram story or a Soundcloud rap. A sixteen-year-old with face tattoos and a Xanax nickname might dominate Swinburne studies. The field needs its established experts, particularly now that we’re trying to get them to give us jobs.
Robert Browning put it best in “Karshish:” overthrow the “elders of [your] tribe,” but not like, all of them. Some of you we like. Everyone working in Victorian Studies should heed Browning’s words and break through the tribalism trap. Unless we actually have to do research into actual tribals in which case, fuck it here’s another paper on Bleak House. Ohmygod seriously there’s a job at Berkeley opening up? Sorry we have to go.