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!

Tips for Tuesday – advice on publishing

These last couple of weeks I found great advice in a couple of blog posts.

Firstly, Charlotte Mathieson’s story of how she went about writing her book and getting published really spurred me on in my efforts to start writing my sample chapters again:

And then Pat Thomson linked to a couple of her blogs on how to put together a ‘publishing agenda’ and a publishing plan for journal articles. I’ve been in a planning mood lately, so this really helped move my plan from ‘publish some stuff from the PhD’ to something a little more detailed and strategic!

March’s favourite blogs

This month I came across Writing Lives for the first time. Many people may already have discovered this, but it’s a fantastic resource for anyone interested in life writing, or working class histories. The site includes blog posts that introduce the autobiographies held in the Burnett Archive of Working-class Autobiographies, held at Brunel University, and is being developed alongside the project to digitize these and other memoirs into an online archive of working-class writing.

The site is also interesting in terms of pedagogy. The blogs introducing the autobiographies are written by third-year undergraduates. Each autobiography is written about with regard to a number of specific themes – for example, ‘Home and Family’, ‘Life and Labour’, ‘War and Memory’, or ‘Education and Schooling’.

Writing lives

That there aren’t more readily-available (read non-manuscript) sources written by working-class individuals seems to be a perennial problem when writing history. I recently encountered this issue when trying to write about women and their subjective experience of education and religion in the nineteenth century. A couple of scholars, such as June Purvis in her A History of Women’s Education in England, and Meg Gomersall, in Working Class Girls in Nineteenth Century England: Life Work and Schooling, provided tantalizing glimpses of the working-class life writing they had accessed in order to write their histories, but as I wasn’t able to access these, I couldn’t ask any further questions of the material or draw any relevant conclusions for my project.

Jean Fernandez’s study, Victorian Servants: Class and the Politics of Literacy further problematized the form for me, pointing out that the autobiography could only be written after literacy had been achieved, and thus no longer authentically reflected the subjectivity of an illiterate working class life. In her particular example, Janet Bathgate, who wrote Aunt Janet’s Legacy to her Nieces: Recollections of Humble Life in Yarrow (1872 and 1894), Fernandez argues that Janet’s narrative became self-consciously about her acquisition of literacy, written in a form that mimicked middle-class autobiographies. However, I think we can fetishize authenticity, and also – in a rather patronising way – the idea of a particularly illiterate, working-class subjectivity. There can be a tendency to want to find the Otherness of an independent, inviolable working class and a corresponding dismissal of working-class subjects who cultivated ‘respectable’ or aspirant subjectivities as being victims of ’embourgeoisement’.

So for me, Writing Lives is a great resource and I’m already combing through to see how many of the women autobiographers wrote about their schooling, and if they linked it with religion. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to follow up by accessing these memoirs myself.


1st Conference of the season: INCS!

This weekend I’m away in Asheville, NC, for INCS, and really looking forward to a few days discussing the nineteenth century.

INCS is a little different from other conferences I’ve been to in terms of its format for sessions. Instead of reading my paper, I uploaded my 8-10 page document for my fellow panel members, and those thinking of attending my panel, to read in advance. Then, at my session on Sunday morning (I do hope some people show up…) I just present a 5-7 minute summary of the paper. This leaves a lot more time in the session for discussion which, if people really have read the papers, should be of a high quality. Or at least I guess that’s the plan. I wonder slightly whether this is a better format for smaller, more focused conferences, but I’ll be interested to see how it works here anyway. So far it feels like it’s been more preparation than I normally end up doing for a conference, but I’ve really enjoyed reading the papers in advance.

The theme this year is ‘natural and unnatural histories’. I’m presenting  on Sunday morning (Panel 10D Re-reading religion) as part of a panel exploring Victorian religious understandings of history; my paper focuses on how women missionaries could understand themselves as significant historical actors – more about this another time.

I’m also looking forward to facilitating a panel on Friday, discussing Victorians’ responses to Darwinism (Panel 3B After/Against Darwin). Should be really great.

I’ll try to live-tweet when I can – follow me on twitter if you don’t already – details on the right.


February’s favourite blog(s)

I had trouble choosing just one favourite blog this month, as there were some really excellent posts on a number of blogs that I regularly follow.

Firstly, Jem Bloomfield had some good posts on current issues in academia: an excellent response to the debate ‘University isn’t for Men’ (I’ll write more about this in my monthly roundup), and some interesting data about the representation of women as speakers at Christian conferences in recent years.

One of my favourite blogs for a while now has been The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates’ Researcher Blog, and this month it had a really great post by Clare Walker Gore (‘The Love that Dare not Speak its Name’) about the links between Victorian same-sex desire and disability in mid-Victorian novels, such as those by Dinah Mulock Craik. I enjoyed working on Craik’s shorter novels about governesses for my PhD thesis. I was especially struck by how many forms of love her writing explores – love between mothers/daughters, governesses/students, sisters/brothers… She even finds a way to reconcile women’s unrequited love with the religious culture of the time (it was frowned upon for women to experience desire except reciprocally). Clare’s blog post focuses on the intimacy between male characters in Craik’s John Halifax, and makes a link with the relationship in Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone between two disabled women (one of them wonderfully called ‘Limping Lucy’).

Another nineteenth-century blog that I’ve been enjoying is Mimi Matthews’s collection of posts about nineteenth-century fashion, marriage, and animals(!). This blog is a treasure trove of detailed information on nineteenth-century life. The 14 February post about Victorian Valentines was especially enjoyable.

But possibly my favourite reads this month were from William G. Pooley. Not one, but two fascinatingly thoughtful pieces about history, which really spoke to me. First came a piece drawing out how playing the lottery can perfectly express the wonder of how the momentous and dramatic can enter the lives of ordinary people – and can be found in our study of such ordinary people by historians. Then there were thoughts on the radicalism of understanding the traditions we live in – the legacies of Marx, Freud, Darwin, Einstein, Mandela.

When it came to Marx, I had to agree with his statement:

What the man asking if I was a ‘Marxist’ didn’t realize is that in a sense it is very hard not to be a Marxist in 2016.

Though I might agree for different reasons. These days, every time we discuss the UK Conservative government, my husband and I are struck by Marx’s perspicacity, in that our only explanation for many of their actions is: ‘the rich consolidate their power in the economic superstructure’ (we call this Marxist catechism. Try it – next time you’re asking how on earth they can abolish student maintenance grants/money from the disabled/tax credits for families…).

Of course his main point is nothing really to do with this, but is rather concerned with how there is a tendency to purify the past: reducing Freud to the Oedipus Complex; selectively reading Darwin, Huxley and Einstein to champion the ideal of the rational scientist and ignore the religious, spiritual, or occult elements of their thought; simplifying the complexity of Mandela and Pankhurst’s actions as unproblematic ‘heroism’. (I thought about this last night actually, while watching Ken Burns’s documentary about Theodore Roosevelt, in which historians endeavoured to go beyond the usual hagiography to speak about his imperialism and blood-lust ‘with dry eyes’.)

It isn’t normally considered a very radical thing to be called a ‘traditionalist’, but I suppose what I am saying is that it can in fact be quite radical indeed to think about the traditions we inhabit. In fact, that is the kind of radicalism that has long been the preserve of the folklorists, who seek to understand, rather than condemn the traditions we live within.

I don’t know that much about folklorists, but I’m certainly learning from this blog.

One thing I do know, is that I absolutely share this desire to understand the traditions we live within. This might in fact be at the heart of my project to explore the religious underpinnings of early feminism and how this has affected our thinking about, and as, women up to today.

So those were my favourite blogs of the month – what did I miss? What blogs did you find enjoyable/thought-provoking this month?