I’m in my third and last library of the day, having arrived at NYPL at 2:00, gone to Mina Rees at 5:00, and tothe Bobst basement from 8:00 to now–I’m starting this at 12:30, and I better be finishing this soon, given the above.
I wanted to write down some of my thoughts for what I think will be my opening statements. I told Talia that I wanted to say something about modernity, something about Ben Anderson, something about how that connected all three lists. She probably stifled a yawn. I reread “Can the Subaltern Speak” for the poco list, and based on GCS’s smackdown of Foucault & Deleuze, and mixed with some Arendt I’ve never read, I’m playing with this rhetorical trope, “the banality of theory.” Or–”Theory always repeats itself, first as audacity, then as banality.” So I plan to begin by rehearsing all the banalities of the modern condition, specifically the modernity post-1800, that we all know.
The modern condition was based on the idea of progress, social and individual, technological and economic. The nineteenth century was the era of secularization, of professionalization, of the silent bourgeois revolution. The Crystal Palace consecrated modernity, especially in its consecration of commerce and capitalism as war continued by other means. Communities were imagined. The novel created modern subjectivity, discipline, and imaginary solutions to real contradictions. The country moved to the city, as a result of expropriation and “primitive accumulation,” and the city nostalgically longed for the country. Victorians turned their eyes outward, seeing themselves at the apex of civilization, charged with leading the rest of the world into modernity.
How, then, can we de-banalize modernity? One starting point is an additional chapter added to the second edition of Imagined Communities. The construction of nationalism through the newspapers and novels is a modern thing, and a banality. I had originally planned by starting here, making slight elaborations. First, Bennie’s understanding of the periodical press, not surprisingly, doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the nineteenth-century periodical press. Daily newspapers were limited to a relatively small elite. Weekly newspapers and especially journals had a much, much, much wider circulation, and the debates in the public spheres took place in these periodicals which were general and miscellaneous and not requiring newspaper stamps instead of news-based, and requiring newspaper stamps. As for novels, he is onto something where he compares the development of novels providing biographical and psychological histories to the development of nationalist histories. If we consider the “Condition of England” novels as instantiating Victorian fiction, which I do, there’s more nationalism. For my poco list, I was thinking about how this nationalism relates to the colonialism/postcolonialism model, and how a world-systems/globalization model might be somewhat incommensurable with it.
This is all in the first chapter. In the appended chapter, he notes how he underread a quotation from Renan that goes something like all true French citizens must learn to forget the Albigensian Crusade and the massacre of the Huguenots. What’s curious is that true French citizens would know what Renan was talking about–so that this diagnosis of historical amnesia is in fact another construction, another imagination of a national history that’s really only possible with modernity. I like this. Historical things that are supposedly traumatic are really just banal. Condemning the “enslavement” of white kids during the Industrial Revolution, calling attention to supposedly ignored issues in need of reform constituted nationhood in its own way. We get something like this with Wide Sargasso Sea and with Clear Light of Day. Antoinette Cosway points to the forgotten Bertha Mason–but isn’t diagnosing this amnesia adding further justification of Jane Eyre as an eminently English text? Doesn’t the whole idea of post-coloniality work all to well in favour of nationalism within the neocolonialist Global North? Isn’t the reason why a novel of the Partition of South Asia, Clear Light of Day, made palatable to a Western audience because the imagined trauma of partition provides a convenient origin myth? As for the periodicals list, I’m not seeing much forgetting as remembering (the labour involved in making things was certainly not forgotten), but what I’m finding interesting is the number of times people refer to it from the perspective of the future. Even in its anticipation, it has been constituted as a world-historical event. And world-historical in this case means not just Really Important but capable of being projected into the future. One article, I remember which periodical it was from, said something like it was unfortunate that the Crystal Palace would have to be removed from Hyde Park, but in a way it was fitting to give it more the air of fixed, historically locatable event.
It’s with historicity and temporality that I’m finding out something new (to me) about modernity. Anne asked me a two weeks why I chose these four texts–Foucault’s Order of Things, Fabian’s Time and the Other, Schivelbusch’s Railway Journey, and Milo’s Trahir le Temps–as my “Temporality Theory” books. I said at the time that it was a pretty arbitrary decision, which it was, but weeks later, a better answer would start with the fact that these are all books that are particularly relevant to nineteenth-century temporality–to temporality, historically, and not ontologically understood. Rereading the “Life, Labour, Language” chapter of Foucault was loads of fun, and I was thinking why it was that Victorianists were all up in the discipline and the history of sexuality and power and knowledge, but not so much into these 3 Ls. The one thing about the Order of Things is the episteme. I guess most people give up after the first chapter. Today I found out that Catherine Gallagher does make use of this chapter–particularly its emphasis on capital L “Life.” My reading of Gallagher was pretty superficial, but I got the sense that Foucault’s historical nuance was missing. Daniel Milo has an amazing chapter on Foucault’s metaphors in D and P, (ritual, ceremony, rites, spectacle for punishment; machine, technology for discipline) and that his “anachronistic” use of metaphors is a way of introducing discontinuity into history, which is what history is all about–at least history within the modern era. So, Foucault’s use of “Life” too points at a discontinuity–at the ultimate failure of representation and taxonomization that ended the Classical Era. The intricate ballet of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, of gazes, light sources, visibilities, invisibilities, surfaces is no longer possible in the Modern Eras search for the dark, hidden depths of truth. (C. Herbert points out in Culture and Anomie, I think, that the whole privileging of depth as metaphor was a nineteenth-century innovation.) On the poco list, I’ve learned that lots of people talk about the moment in Capital when Marx tells the reader when it’s time to leave the noisy sphere of exchange and go to “the hidden abodes of production,” where capital is made. Foucault says Marx fits in the nineteenth century like a fish in water. Take the fish out, it drowns. This call for unearthing “the hidden abodes of production,” in fact, is not by any stretch of the imagination a Marxian innovation, as the practice of factory tourism and periodical articles on factory production and the Great Exhibition itself can attest. Okay, so time-in-C19-modernity involves the search for some fundamentally unrepresentable origin or force that is the condition of possibility for the historical.
Is this not just some Aristotelian return of efficient and final cause? Where it differs, on the one hand, is that in Aristotelian teleology origin and telos are representable, knowable. Not so in the nineteenth century, maybe. But there’s more. With Fabian, we’ve got another kind of discontinuity, another kind of contradiction going on. Fabian’s main idea is about the “denial of coevalness,” where with such practices as the ethnographic present, anthropologists place their subjects outside history, outside contemporaneity, when in the fact they must have been involved in intersubjective time at some time if they were participant observers. The nineteenth century, of course, is when ethnography started to take its modern discursive shape. But I think the contradiction of allochronicity could be applied on a more microcosmic scale–to issues of gender and class, for example. It would be really interesting to do a rhetorical analysis of the novels based on this–I’m thinking in particular of those chapters in David Copperfield which are written in the present tense, the marriage with Dora, for example.
I’m going to collapse Schivelbusch and Milo together because this is getting really long and it’s getting really late. I’ve talked about Milo on this blog at some point before. I’ll quote myself quoting Milo:
His argument is that the century was a relatively recent, and literally revolutionary invention, a tool created in the wake of the French Revolution. He summarizes his findings as follows:
-the century certainly exists within historical writing;
-it is of recent invention (c. 1560);
-its diffusion was more recent (Le Goff speaks of the 18th century, I will date its true launch in 1800);
-it acts as a form of classification;
-it is a form of periodization with two characteristic principals: it has a unity, and this unity is in opposition with the unities of the centuries which surround it;
-it is a very particular periodization, which rests on an arithmetic prinicipal, hence artificial, hence outside of reality: the division of history into centuries is an a priori periodization;
-nevertheless, it was an important conquest in chronology (Le Goff);
-but that it is now necessary to destroy it in order to advance knowledge of the true historical era (la véritable durée historique). (Milo 28)
The century may be an arbitrary unit, but it’s condition of possibility is modernity. And if it involves some flattening out to create a single context out of a time quite longer than most people live, that kind of corresponds with the “panoramic” mode of vision Schivelbusch says the railroad forces. Don’t look at the quickly moving, close whirr of stuff, look at the seemingly motionless distance.
Bottom line: the modern condition involves a historical temporality, but it’s a history that’s more complicated than the banalities of progress.
Okay. Time to go eat and go home.