We’ve been talking recently about the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada’s 2013 conference in Vancouver a few weeks back, so I thought I would add a few of my own thoughts. The conference was a truly fantastic and welcoming weekend of Victorian studies on the topic of Victorian humanity and its others. I learned a lot, and had a great time connecting with some good friends and colleagues.
From a personal perspective, though, one paper in particular really made me think about what it is that we do in Victorian studies, and why our field has embraced wholeheartedly a cultural and print studies turn in literary criticism. At the risk of sounding kind of self-promotional, that paper was by my wife, Allison Fieldberg, who read some new work on silence and the ethics of the novel genre in the Brontes. Strangely, despite the fact that we’re both Victorianists and spend probably far too much of our time together talking about Victorian literature and literary and cultural criticism, we don’t often get a chance to share our ideas with each other, especially as they appear in our formal writing.
Allison’s paper essentially developed a wholesale challenge to the cultural studies turn in literary criticism of the Victorian period. Taking up Anne Bronte’s critique of silence in the domestic sphere in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as her core example, Allison argued essentially for a return to taking seriously, without post-structural suspicion of grand claims and essentializing, the big ideas that the major novels in the Victorian canon develop. Allison and I have both been working with Victorian theories of melancholia and the return to melancholic discourse in current cultural criticism and theory, so I was quite excited to hear the ways in which Allison developed her ideas through the framework of the melancholia of cultural studies. Indeed, it seems to me that our current fascination with cultural studies, print culture, and Victorian ephemera has produced a kind of melancholia in the work that we do. Allison’s paper got me thinking, is it possible that there’s an epidemic of melancholic thinking in current Victorian studies?
Now, let me clarify a little bit by saying that my own work deals almost exclusively with archival materials, journalism, and popular fiction, so I don’t have to worry in my own current research projects about saying something big about the major novels in the Victorian tradition. I’m quite proud of this aspect of my work because I like digging through the archives for fascinating research materials. However, I do teach the major texts on a regular basis, and I always find it strange that conferences in Victorian studies rarely provide the opportunity to discuss what we know about the major players in our field. Instead, we get excited about uncovering the little details of Victorian culture. Part of this is academic survival, considering that it’s increasingly more and more difficult to say something new about a major work, and journals and publishers are less and less interested in publishing another scholarly study of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. However, another part of this transformation in literary studies, I suspect, is the melancholia of archival research. Thanks to Google books, archive.org, and countless other massive databases for the digitization of Victorian print, we now have near instantaneous access to a wealth of exciting and provocative materials. This is not at all something I regret, so please don’t assume that I am developing an argument premised on nostalgia or a longing for what once was. Rather, it seems to me that a certain melancholia, or loss of an object of desire, is a necessary bi-product of these new and exciting times wandering through the digital archives.
One of the misconceptions of melancholia is that it is merely akin to an excessive mourning for a lost loved one or object of desire. This is the popular reading of the Freudian theory of melancholy. Yet, we too often forget that melancholy, according to the Victorians, is also symptomatic of a paradoxical richness of mental life, a preference for one’s own loss over the social requirements of participating without complaint in the social order. I see a similar richness of academic mental life in current Victorian scholarly interests in print and visual culture. That said, I also wonder at times if we are not really being honest with ourselves in our choices not to apply the richness of our current archival methodologies to the major texts. Surely, there must be a way to keep the intellectual vibrancy of our current work and still appease our melancholic doubts by rediscovering our lost objects of desire. Essentially, I’m wondering if there’s a way to work through our melancholia.
The only solution, as far as I can see, is to at least embrace the potential for an impossible solution to our collective melancholia. So, here’s what I would propose if I was the arbiter of knowledge in literary criticism today: why don’t we reset the clock for academic criticism and agree that as of 13 May, 2013 there is no longer a rich history of scholarship about Victorian literature and culture, that we will not cite any secondary criticism from earlier than, say, the beginning of the year 2013, even though we will stay maintain a keen interest in critical, theoretical, and methodological developments of the last decade or so. Gone are the major players in our field who have said all that there is to be said about Arnold, the Brontes, the Brownings, Dickens, Eliot, Tennyson, and the other major players. Imagine the rush and intensity of academic scholarship as we would all finally get a chance to apply our new methodologies and critical perspectives to the fiction, poetry, and drama that we all fell in love with when we decided to become Victorianists. No longer would we be fettered by worry that we may or may not be saying something new about a text like In Memoriam or even something as familiar (and perhaps memorized) as “My Last Duchess.”
What I’m proposing is a complete fantasy, so please don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a case for a return to the canon, or a more conservative approach to literary criticism. In fact, I’m trying to make an argument that reinvigorates the progressive thinkers amongst us. I embrace disability studies, critical media studies, cultural studies, visual culture, animal studies, and digital humanities, but I want to see these fascinating fields work their way out of melancholia and at least make a major step toward embracing the initial objects of our desire, the major works that brought us into this field in the first place. If we leave current critical dialogue of the major texts to our classrooms, or the occasional keynote address by a senior scholar, we run the risk of being too happy in our own intellectual misery. There’s something pathological about spending too much time in the archives, and increasingly in these “knowledge mobilization” days, we are not doing ourselves any favors by developing our critical methodologies through reference to ephemeral materials that most of us have not read and are of interest only to a small collective of scholars.
I’ll end here because I have to get back to reading James Wright’s The Stutterer’s Friend (1843), which I have downloaded as a .pdf through archive.org. It’s a major text in Victorian culture that I insist we all read…