I’ll be handing in my dissertation prospectus sometime early next week, so it’s time for me to finally get around to that “project” post that I’ve been promising Mia for the last two months.

My working title is “Left Hanging: Suspension and Epistemology in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry.” While the theoretical and conceptual framework comes out of my reading of Coleridge and Kant (and, to a lesser extent, Hegel), the main chapters will focus on a familiar cast of Victorian poetry characters–Tennyson, Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti. In fact, one of the ironies of the project as it stands right now, at least to anyone who knows me in real life, is that, for all of my celebration of the Long Nineteenth Century in all its glory, the central poems of my project were all published between 1855 and 1866. And while this isn’t something I set out to do with some great deliberation, it does make a certain kind of sense in terms of my topic and methodology. I’m less interested in tracing a historical development than a literary-critical one, and this may be my belatedly self-conscious attempt to stop the historicist clock and allow Victorian poetry (or at least these exemplary texts) to speak to a more theoretically-oriented project. But that’s a position that I assume will evolve over the next year or so.

Suspension emerged as the central term in my thinking near the end of my orals reading, though I’d already been thinking about it in terms of Coleridge for about a year. The idea first suggested itself to me as I tried to work out the connection between the “willing suspension of disbelief” and the sublime as “the suspension of our comparing powers”–both of these being Coleridge’s formulations. It’s probably easier (for me, at least), if I just quote from the prospectus itself to explain my definition of the concept:

Taking it as both a trope and a poetic technique, I examine suspension’s function as a constitutive absence, an action that is defined by the absence or withholding of action and that is capable of producing what it seems to interrupt. In its most basic meaning, suspension denotes a temporary pause, a hesitation, deferral or delay. However, as more than just a pause among other pauses, suspension consists not only in withholding but also in a deliberate giving-over, that surrenders to the unexpected. The “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment”—a phrase first used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in chapter 14 of the Biographia Literaria (1817)—captures this duality. Suspension both holds something back (here, the tendencies we might have to dismiss fantastic literature) and gives something over (in its affective willingness to accept what Coleridge calls “a human interest and semblance of truth”). As the Coleridgean formulation suggests, suspension holds in abeyance what seems to be natural or inevitable: the rush to judgment, the machinations of law, the teleological progression of plot, or the march of evolutionary progress. More than that, however, suspension modulates the experience of temporality in general, structuring our experience of the present through interrupting and interval—what manifests itself in poetry as meter and rhythm. In its temporal operations, suspension engenders sometimes unexpected relations of simultaneity among contradictory but compelling registers of meaning. In music, suspension refers to a chord prolonged into the next so as to produce dissonance. The dissonance of musical suspension or syncopation has a linguistic analogue in the suspension of reference among different orders of meaning that makes it impossible, in that moment, to determine an utterance as literal or figurative, constative or performative.

So that’s suspension in a nutshell. The epistemological questions that this raises for me have to do with what it means to “know” an absence or an intermittence and, relatedly, what kinds of knowledge claims can we make about a text (or an interiority) that is constitued through suspension and interruption. I’ve begun to work out some potential answers, at least where Tennyson is concerned, in my forthcoming Victorian Poetry article on Maud. (Not to be all self-promotional or anything….)  There, I propose that the most important question that the speaker asks is the rhetorical “Who knows if he be dead?” rather than the more widely-considered, “What is it, that has been done?”–and this, in turn, is my way of agreeing with Warwick Slinn (one of the heroes of my prospectus), who has for a number of years been arguing for a method of reading Victorian poems as performative texts with a focus on their “signifying practices.”

In a general sense (because there’s no reason why I particularly need to inflict all 5,000 words of my prospectus on you, gentle readers), this project began about six years ago when I decided to reinvent myself as a Victorianist for the purpose of grad school applications, yet wanted to retain the best parts of my undergraduate experience with theory, largely of the deconstructionist (as much as I hate the term) variety. Thinking these two things together hasn’t always been the easiest path for any number of reasons, but I do think there’s a real opportunity to do this work in the field of Victorian poetry. One of the recurring themes in VP scholarship of the last 15 or 20 years has been this perception that theoretical approaches to Victorian poetry end up having a certain “inevitability” to them, where prexisting models and methodologies are applied to something called “Victorian poetry” without really saying anything new. (See, for example, Gerhard Joseph’s 1995 Victorian Studies review essay, “Why Are They Saying Such Bad Things About Victorian Poetry?” and the two-issue “Whither Victorian Poetry?” series published in 2003-4 in Victorian Poetry.) So one of my underlying ambitions for this project in the long term is to offer one more attempt to try to create a truly innovative and influential theoretical reading of Victorian poetry, one that can complement the work that is already being done–I’m thinking here not only of Slinn but also of people like Caroline Levine and her work on strategic formalism.

Then again, I do also want to graduate someday (preferably some day in the spring of 2010), so we’ll see what happens along the way.