V-21 at INCS

There’s a real buzz surrounding the V21 Collective. I first heard of the movement, and its manifesto, in a bar in New York City, while I was attending the British Women Writers Conference last summer. I read the manifesto and wrote about some of the debate surrounding it here.

I must admit, while I was at INCS in Asheville last month, I got rather caught up in the buzz when I attended the V21 Collective’s Plenary: ‘Towards a Strategic Presentism: A V21 Collective Roundtable on the 21st Century Urgencies of 19th-Century Study’. The room was packed by the time I got there and there was a sense of excitement, encouraged by the quick succession of short contributions from the speakers – who were all confident, engaging and set forth their ideas boldly.

The session began by very briefly outlining the need for a ‘strategic presentism’ as a way of explaining the importance of the 19th-century (and of studying it) for the 21st century, in the face of the current academic climate. There was much talk of defending ourselves to ‘administrators’, and the current situation in Wisconsin was alluded to. But it also seemed to be something to aid the human condition: to enable people to see the roots of what we are dealing with in our Present – such as climate change, imperialism, economic inequality – and suggest ways of dealing with these problems, based on how nineteenth-century thinkers and artists tackled the issues in their infancy.

The first speaker was Tanya Agothocleous. With reference to Antoinette Burton, Agothocleous talked about the nineteenth-century periodical Anti=Caste, its utopianism, and the temporality of its utopianism. She linked this with Black Lives Matter, and suggested that both these movements rejected particular futures.

Many of the speakers dealt with time in their contributions – about the artificiality of labels of past, present, future. Ruskin and Bergson were enlisted for argument about the duration of the Present, or, put in another way, the persistence of the Past. There was a suggestion that thinking in a trans-temporal way requires a new language for describing how cultural objects make meaning.

It was pointed out that the present is not the opposite of the past, but that time is additive, that the past keeps adding to the present: it’s only in the present that the past becomes perceptible as such.

Which led to the suggestion that even historicism is present-oriented…

Though this was more obvious in the field of literary studies, where we have perhaps always been more honest about how our choice of canon reflects our current concerns or how we want to explain ourselves. In both literary studies and history though, in this way, the present produces – and reproduces – the past.

There were some good contributions that focused on how the Victorians were absolutely Presentist, and how this was theorised well by Ruskin, among others. Also a good point was made about Victorian writers’ strategic use of the present-tense to speak generally about an issue, especially to critique urban conditions.

Nathan K. Hensley talked directly to the ‘Strategic’ element of the title, warning against taking a strategy for a theory – a strategy is a temporary, situational tool for achieving some object. He also suggested that while V21 is good at the analysis of the present that makes up part of a strategy, it is as yet still working on the object. However, he was clear about what the strategy needed to work against – the anti-intellectual presentist and economic concerns of the Neoliberal administrators (who are apparently the Lockwoods to our Heathcliffs). Further reading was suggested, which I’ve not got around to yet, but hopefully will at some point: Lukács, Tactics & Ethics, and Althusser, Machiavelli and Us.

So that was the rountable, and I’ve been thinking about Strategic Presentism ever since. I’d been pleased that they mostly avoided the usual attack on historicism:

History dissolved into collection of curiosities+oddities; if historian stops at mere description, remains raconteur of anecdotes. Lukacs

I feel this is a bit of a disingenuous straw man. The historicists I know are largely motivated by present desires to explain social relations and consciousness among groups who still haven’t been explained by the canon or the grand narratives of Marx etc. So the unearthing of more detail in these cases is motivated by a strategic presentism.

I’m also concerned that approaches that focus on the canon and the persistence of the past might end up explaining the persistence of inequality rather than challenging it.

Finally, I have to say that presentism is already being used ‘strategically’, in a rather anti-intellectual way, by administrators, to get students through the door. For example, a number of history departments in the UK have added ‘heritage’ to their titles. Presumably it’s only a matter of time before we see an English and Period Drama department… I have mixed feelings about this – on the one hand, I’m not sure I should be in the business of being snobby about how people in general engage with history and English, especially if it keeps me in business. On the other hand, it surely is my business to encourage students to be reflective about their presentism; to get them to articulate how it might work, and how it might not – and maybe to encourage them to develop their own ‘strategic’ presentism…

But I’ll end with one of V21’s most important messages:

Thanks especially to Devin Griffiths for his tweets – they really helped flesh out my notes from when I couldn’t keep up!


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