The Future of the Eighteenth Century

The face of London is now indeed strangely altered. Since March, its residents (along with most of the rest of the world) have been confined to their homes as a little-understood and rapidly-transmitted virus has swept the world. London was one early epicenter for the pandemic, New York another. Madrid. Milan. Rio. The hardest hit country is now the United States; by the summer of 2020, over three million cases and nearly 125,000 deaths had been reported. We don’t need to be reminded of these facts. They blare from screens in our domestic spaces where most of us, those of us lucky enough not to be sick or dead or essential workers, have been cooped up for three months. We order delivery groceries and takeout, watch untold hours of streaming services, some of us caring for children small and large. The images of friends and colleagues speak to us from screens on Zoom. We’re isolated, and we’re “social distancing”—but let’s face it: having enough space to carry all of this out is a privilege denied to many. Our quarantine is the index of a novel sociability, the initiation of new and strange kinds of intimacy as we re-forge ourselves around a sudden extreme division between inside and outside, the household and the non-household. As we shrink in, we also reach out and continue to connect to the world outside, but that engagement has become mostly virtual. Worrying, hoping, laughing, crying, and just managing, doing the best we can with these strange and unforeseen circumstances—our sense of time bends and becomes oblique. The days of the week blur at the edges and become imprecise. Nothing happens. We look out the window and watch the seasons passing slow.

Until suddenly something happens. As I type these words in mid-June 2020, protests in the US over racial injustice and police brutality stretch into their third week. The issue reaches out from North America, with demonstrations over racism, police brutality, and the legacy of slavery sparked by the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd radiating from Minneapolis to London and Brussels, from the Caribbean to Sydney and Auckland. Something substantial is in the air. The world struggles with questions of race; hopefully, seriously this time, adjusting, with more seriousness in some places than others, to the invisible and likely sustained threat of viral infection and a diminished economic future. Time, which just weeks ago seemed to move very slowly or, even, to stand still, now seems to have resumed something of its urgent rapidity. And yet, it remains hard to think of next week, let alone next year. It’s as if we’ve lost the ability to imagine the future. In this light, it might seem a particularly silly time to be thinking about the future of the eighteenth century.

But here we are.

Because the future has become so difficult to imagine, we must imagine it. Though seemingly so far removed from the contexts of our current crisis, the legacy of the eighteenth century and its consequent bearing on that imagined future are more present than we might think. The opening words of this introduction are, as many will recognize, from an eighteenth-century novel, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which recounts in grim detail the effects of the 1665 Great Plague on the inhabitants of London. When its narrator, H.F., tells readers that the face of London was “now indeed strangely altered,” he refers to its buildings but also to the faces of its people. “Sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned,” so much so that “London might well be said to be all in tears.” Those words resonate today, and those tears range widely. While the historical referents of protests over institutionalized racism in the US often turn on the monuments and memorials of the nineteenth-century Civil War, in the UK one prominent image has been the removal of a statue of Edward Colston that stood in the center of Bristol until torn off its plinth and subjected to the very treatment inflicted on the black bodies from which he profited as it was rolled and unceremoniously dumped in Bristol Harbour. Prior to becoming MP for Bristol in 1710, Colston had made his fortune trading enslaved Africans as a member of the Royal African Company and, subsequently, as a private trader. But while the resonance of an eighteenth-century novel and the legacy of an eighteenth-century slave trader perhaps remind us of the continuing relevance of the eighteenth century, this hardly seems enough to consolidate the case for devoting the constrained resources of contemporary university budgets to finance its study through teaching and research.

My examples serve as a reminder, however, of two larger and longer episodes that center on the eighteenth century: the development of the novel as a form, and the legacy of the slave trade, through which over twelve million Africans who had been captured between the sixteenth and the nineteenth century were taken aboard ships for the new world, with nearly 1.5 million of them perishing in the Middle Passage. The curve of the novel and the trade in enslaved souls bends across the eighteenth century. In turn, these developments contribute to close-related legacies that also became more widespread and significant in the eighteenth century, including the growth of scientific rationalism and the challenging new thinking grouped under the rubric of “Enlightenment”; the proliferation of print at the centre of a culture of mass communication; the rise of new kinds of domesticity and the related emergence of a substantial and significant middle class; the projects of empire and colonization and the related mass movements of populations across the globe that accompany them; the increasingly global organization of capital, the emergence of industrial production, and related changes in climate that are now often referred to as the Anthropocene. On a slightly more abstract level, these developments combined to produce a regime of time predicated on new relationships between the fast and the slow, as what Adam Smith called “the hurry of life” in capitalist society engaged new understandings of slowness, especially in the lengthening timespans emerging from geology and natural history. If what we’re currently witnessing is the curbing of a regime of mobility and the reorganization of domestic space while grappling with the legacy of slavery and racism and the adjustment to a new sense of time, an obvious case could be made that the regime we now sense acutely—and that we might be watching come to an end—is an eighteenth-century regime. The eighteenth century, we might therefore argue, is more relevant than ever. Indeed, as Joseph Roach has repeatedly reminded us, the eighteenth century isn’t over yet.

Despite these resonances we must concede, however, that things look (and indeed are) very different than they were in January 2020 when many of us met face-to-face in Seattle to discuss the future of the eighteenth century. The essays collected here began as a panel on “Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Future of the Profession” at the annual Modern Language Association convention. That panel asked contributors to consider how eighteenth-century thinking about the future, about futurity, might help us to think about the future of eighteenth-century studies and how such thinking might inform the future study of literature or the humanities more broadly. Those questions have not disappeared. But suddenly (or, perhaps, slowly) our initial questions now bear new weight as they tilt to encompass a resonant series of related questions about the future of studying the legacies of the eighteenth century itself—the legacies of slavery and the meaning of freedom, colonization and decolonization, disease and health, the rise of sociability and the consolidation of “the civilizing process,” and the bearing of literature and history and art on these questions. These are still questions about futurity and still questions about the future of eighteenth-century studies, but with the insertion of a virus, sweeping protests over police brutality and racial justice, and a massive recession, they have certainly changed their inflection. What is the future of eighteenth-century studies now? Does the study of the eighteenth century have a future? Or are eighteenth-century studies doomed to a speedy obsolescence, a quiet disappearance, as universities change their priorities and redistribute their resources in light of pressing new demands for racial justice and the logistical and resource constraints brought on by a global pandemic?

The essays collected here suggest that of course there is a future for eighteenth-century studies, and these essays consider not only how that future should look but also who that future should serve. Inevitably, ongoing concerns about how robust that future will be in the face of a perceived crisis in the humanities shade these essays, but so do urgent local and global demands for racial justice and the redress of colonial legacies, climate change, and that little understood virus raging across the globe. In such insistent contexts, it might again seem indulgent or even quietist to think about the future of the eighteenth century.

And yet here we are.

The essays assembled here come from scholars teaching in Canada and the United States, from English and French departments (though predominantly English), at institutions ranging from community colleges to research universities public and private (though mostly public). Some of the essays are optimistic about the fate of eighteenth-century studies; others point to a field in crisis with a dire and dubious future. Some survey the state of the field as a way to take the temperature of its potential future (Wall, DeJean), while others offer pleas that often attain the urgency of a manifesto, hoping not to gauge the field but to shape and change it in the direction of different imagined futures (Zuroski, Deutsch, Mack). One essay shifts the emphasis from research and writing to teaching, noting that if eighteenth-century studies is to have a future in the global and multicultural university, it is going to have to justify its concerns to students with broad backgrounds and very different life and career goals, students whose personal and professional interests do not instinctively gravitate to an obsession with past centuries (Hammerschmidt). A final essay historicizes this very attempt to consider the novelty of eighteenth-century studies and the future of the field; when did we start thinking about eighteenth-century studies as a “field” anyhow, and what work does that metaphor do for us (Silver)?

If the essays here fall short of a consensus about the future of eighteenth-century studies, they do start a conversation about that future that coalesces around groupings of overlapping interest. Ruth Mack and Joan DeJean emphasize the importance of the Enlightenment; Cynthia Wall and Sean Silver invoke to different ends the metaphor of the network as a model of the field; Helen Deutsch, Sören Hammerschmidt and Eugenia Zuroski contend firmly for the decolonization of eighteenth-century studies; Ruth Mack, Sören Hammerschmidt, and Joan DeJean address the relative worth of teaching, service, and research. All of these essays ask about the relationship between the eighteenth century, the academy, and the world in which we live—and about the affordances and limitations of eighteenth-century literature itself to speak to those relationships. Although all of the essays refer broadly to eighteenth-century studies, my reference to “literature” here underscores that our conversation focuses predominantly but not exclusively on literary studies as we are all based in departments of literature. But we should recall that the eighteenth century is the period in which the very term literature shifted from referring to all manner of published writing to a more specialized term connoting a careful selection of the best and most important of those publications. And in all of the essays, literature flashes both in its capacious and its more constrained meanings.

One central question for any forum that attempts to imagine the future of a field is what is the measure of that field. Joan DeJean sees two competing forces shaping any future for the field of eighteenth-century studies: the demand that disciplines and fields generally be reimagined to reflect more global and diverse concerns and the decreasing enrollments in humanities disciplines generally. The job market, she suggests, is the crucible in which demands for smaller departments offering larger courses gets ground with fields seeking to become more global and inclusive. And the picture of the job market that emerges from this crucible for eighteenth-century specialists in French studies is not a pretty one. In this context, as Sören Hammerschmidt suggests, the place of eighteenth-century texts and topics in non-specialized community college courses that largely fill general education requirements offers the proverbial canary in the coal mine as to what the shape of eighteenth-century studies is soon likely to be at four-year colleges and universities. Cynthia Wall takes a different, more optimistic tack, one picked up at points also by Sean Silver. Wall uses as her measure of the field the survey of eighteenth-century research published annually in Studies in English Literature. Surveying these surveys draws Wall’s attention to the vitality of eighteenth-century studies, its ability to adapt and refine its methods and objects of study and especially its capacity to toggle between the formal and the theoretical, the political and the aesthetic, the global and the granular.

By all accounts we will need to draw on these vitalities as we attempt to rethink questions of who the field of eighteenth-century studies should serve. What, so many of the essays collected here ask, is the responsibility of eighteenth-century studies: to what pasts, to what constituencies, to what pressing calls for justice should we attend? This is obviously a central concern in Hammerschmidt’s view from community college teaching. For Eugenia Zuroski these questions begin with place, in the location of eighteenth-century studies and the literal land it occupies. What would happen, she asks as she writes from North America, “if I considered the colonization of this place as the premise of all the teaching and research I do here, not just the ‘context’ or ‘background,’ how does that shape my approach?” The result would be a rejection of familiar forms of authority, the reinvention of the field as a site of anticolonial refusal, and a recognition of just how long the eighteenth century has been for Indigenous and Black communities in the settler nation states established in that period. For these groups, the eighteenth century is, Zuroski firmly observes, “a century that refuses to stop.” Similar questions frame Ruth Mack’s return to the Enlightenment as a means of powerfully rejecting the distinctions we tend to draw between intellectual, craft labor and embodied, physical labor. The payoff for Mack is to facilitate discriminations between forms of “service” in order to ask more clearly which populations are served and by whom, with the further effect of allowing us to revalue forms of labor that combine research and service, that integrate research and advocacy, ethical and community work. Helen Deutsch’s essay also shares this commitment to decolonizing the eighteenth century. She points to debates over monuments of the past and suggests that in our current fix, where time is simultaneously accelerated and slowed, monuments work to freeze time. But Deutsch insists that we must keep moving forward, take down the monuments as it were, by delivering the example of bracing critical thought about literature, which, in its otherness, speaks to us from the past and makes demands on our present and future. These are all aspirant futures for eighteenth-century studies, and these essays point the way.

But amidst all of these attempts to reckon with how the field looks and whom it should serve, we should recall that our questions are not new—nor is our concern with novelty. The eighteenth century, as Sean Silver forcefully reminds us, has always been new, even when it lay in the future. Silver offers us an account of past attempts both to define and to project new futures for eighteenth-century studies, with particular focus on the metaphors of fields and networks used to grasp the shape and direction of its inquiries. For Silver these metaphors matter as they both limit and enable what and how we can think about eighteenth-century studies. He proposes that we take more control over these metaphors, that we think of eighteenth-century studies less as a field and more eclectically as a set of fibers (a fabric, perhaps) but more especially as a network of affiliations that enables a problem-driven approach, one that focuses less on firm temporal markers like John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) or The French Revolution and more on concepts like the discourse of rights or theories of imagination and cognition.

We can’t, of course, see the future of eighteenth-century studies with any clarity. But we can know that its future isn’t a given—that we’re going to need to make its future and make it collectively. Whether we see that as labor or as an opportunity, or as a daunting and perhaps impossible challenge, eighteenth-century studies isn’t going to have much of a future unless we make a compelling case for it. But even as many of us despair of being able to effect the changes we long to see—and in the face of a daily routine constrained by its adjustment to a viral threat—we should remember that the future of eighteenth-century studies is not as hopeless, or perhaps as irrelevant, as some may suggest. The image of Edward Colston’s likeness sinking headlong into Bristol Harbour provides a metaphor for the end of our field as well as an opportunity to imagine it anew; as Colston’s statue plunges into the water, it not only produces a sense of justice but also manifests a haunting, one that is unlikely to subside anytime soon. This conjoint sense of justice and haunting—of haunted justice, moreover—reminds us that what we do with the legacy of the eighteenth century is very much up to us. The eighteenth century is sunk. Long live the eighteenth century!

Jonathan Sachs is Professor of English at Concordia University, Montreal and the author most recently of The Poetics of Decline in British Romanticism (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is currently at work on a monograph, provisionally titled Slow Time, and a new one-volume edition of Byron’s Major Works for Oxford University Press (with Andrew Stauffer). Sachs has recently held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (2017-18) and the National Humanities Center (2014-15).

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