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?