I have been thinking about what the term “Victorian” means and how our notion of our field differs from how scholars in other fields of English literature conceive of their area of specialization. I recently presented a paper at a Modernist Studies conference. My research is primarily Victorian-focused but the work I have been doing lately on the relationship between Victorian sound technology, disability and cultural ideologies of language has bled past the century-boundary into the modern period. Leaving aside the issue of the arbitrariness of periodization for the time being, (though it is certainly a discussion we can have in the comments), I wanted to post about an interesting distinction I noticed between Victorian Studies and Modernist Studies. My paper addressed how Alexander Graham Bell’s development of the telephone was informed by his attempts to teach deaf people to speak and then the paper moved into the twentieth century by describing how deaf people adapted the telephone for their own use. At some point in the question period, I mentioned that my area of specialization was Victorian literature, which had an interesting effect on the next question I received. The questioner asked me to speak to how Bell was “modern.” What I find fascinating is not only that very question of what it means to be “modern,” but also the way that the questioner prefaced it, by noting that it might not be a fair question since my area of specialization was Victorian literature.

I have no quibble with the question; in fact, it was a generous and enabling question. What I found so interesting about the question was the way that “modern” was used to describe not a time period, but something else, and the potential assumption that the something else would be more available to modernists. That is, I have been thinking a lot about the overlap between “modern,” “modernity” and “modernist studies” as a field. How much purchase does Modernist studies have on the notions of the modern and modernity? How does the field of Modernist Studies conceptualize the relationship between the modern and modernity differently than does Victorian Studies?

Secondly, at a Victorian Studies conference, I cannot imagine someone asking how Alexander Graham Bell was Victorian, and if this question were posed, I cannot imagine any answer other than the unintentionally glib point that he was born in 1847. My sense is that Victorianists use the term “Victorian” mainly to describe a temporal boundary rather than some kind of emergent paradigm shift. In fact, in many ways, I think we may actively resist the application of “Victorian” to general cultural qualities because so often the term has been mired in clichés about repressed sexuality and the orphans of urban slums. How do you use the term “Victorian”? Does your use of the term change depending on whether or not your audience is comprised of specialists in Victorian Studies?

3 thoughts on “What (and how) does “Victorian” mean?

  1. “Modern” is conceived differently in every academic discipline. Art historians have a different sense of “modern” than literary critics; same goes for sociologists and historians, etc.

    It seems to me that this kind of question is always going to appear in interdisciplinary conferences, precisely because neither “Victorian” nor “modern” actually conform strictly to historical periodization. Both are also moods or tones or zeitgeists of some kind, and as such they cross historical lines, even while they can be mapped roughly onto certain periods of time. They require interpretation, in short, and I wonder if sometimes academics like to know that there are certain facts that we can rely on without difficult interpretative thinking about periodization.

    I tend to think that these kinds of questions about periodization mask a deeper academic anxiety about territoriality. “This is my field — stay out” to put it somewhat childishly. Important ideas about technology and technological systems and their corresponding phenomenologies of subjectivity lose their brilliance and sophistication when reduced to limited questions about periodization.

  2. Daniel,
    Yes, you’re totally right, of course, that modern is almost one of those terms with so many meanings that we can only define it through context. That being said, at a Modernist Studies Conference, I wonder what version of “modern” scholars are operating with when they ask the kind of question I mentioned.

    I like your articulation of our terms as a marker of some kind of mood or zeitgeist but I wonder how transparent those terms are, especially in interdisciplinary contexts like Victorian Studies or Modernist Studies.

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