Okay, so hopefully these trends haven’t become totally passé in the time that it’s taken me to finish the last instalment of my navsa post-mortem. Tanya Agathocleous moderated the panel and made the interesting observation that not too long ago, it was possible to describe one’s approach along the lines of one or more “-ism”s: Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, New Historicism, etc. However, nowadays, defining oneself as an -ist of whatever sort, if possible at all, is more likely to provoke a debate on just what that -ism means now, rather fighting a good old-fashioned battle of opposing -isms.

Here’s each of the panelists on the roundtable on “New Directions in Victorian Studies” along with a brief summary of their comments.

Caroline Levine: CL appeared to undermine Tanya’s introduction by calling herself a New Formalist, but quickly noted that there are at least three identifiable kinds of New Formalists (and naturally, she says she takes the best of all three). First, there are those, represented by Monique Morgan, who identify themselves as politically oriented without an ortho-Foucauldian bent, saying, no, Victorians weren’t unwitting ideological dupes, but experimented with different kinds of form in order to counter hegemonic stuff. Second, there are those like Garrett Stewart and Franco Moretti, who pay close attention to form but emphasize how they reflect ideological configurations rather than the conscious attention of writers. Third, there are those like Nicholas Dames and Yopie Prins who look at form from a new angle, examining temporal aspects like suspense (hello, Anne) instead of spatial ideals like the “well-wrought urn.” What was really interesting was when she asked some really smart questions about just what form is and how we use it and how we can think about it. Is gender a form? What is historical, by necessity, about form? What is ahistorical, equally by necessity, perhaps, about form?

Amanda Claybaugh: AC declared herself a transatlanticist, but gave a provocative meditation on why that particular -ism hasn’t really crystallized, despite growing numbers of job descriptions in search of double-duty Victorianists, and a generally favorable disposition by Victorianists to expanding our borders. She claimed that transatlanticism hasn’t changed Victorian studies the way it should because we lack a minimal consensus on what American literature means to Victorian literature. For Americanists, everybody can begin with the assumption that the British tradition represents something that American writers revered but sought to define themselves again, but there’s no cocktail-napkin characterization of American lit for us Anglicists. She also noted that Americanists don’t like it when people evangelize transatlanticism. For them, it sounds old-fashioned, and they like to call it the “White Atlantic” (referring to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic).

Elaine Freedgood: Elaine prefaced her five minutes with a warning that her two new directions would involve hideous neologisms that should never leave the confines of the Linly-Chittenden lecture hall, nor that anybody would want to. Well, I’m doing it now. The first is “de-demonization.” Instead of assuming that Victorians were evil bastards and interpreting texts to show just how evil they were, we’re more likely now to suspend our judgment before, say, re-demonizing them (which, naturally, we should do at some point. The second, even worse neologism is “de-derisionalization.” Closely related to de-demonization, de-derisionalization questions our feeling of feeling of superiority towards Victorians, not on moral grounds, but just on plain sensible grounds. EF pointed out that nobody laughs at our field of study as much as we do–“Can you imagine a modernist laughing at Virginia Woolf during a modernist get-together? She’d probably do something”–but that we’re more inclined to take a careful look at what we consider silly, to ask why we think it’s silly, and and think about why Victorians didn’t or actually did think it was silly.

John Plotz: In my notes, I’ve got this list of five alliterative terms about what’s definitive about Victorian studies these days, which I think JP said he gave as a list at some other event which I didn’t write down. The list goes: Facticity (including material culture), Foucault (I don’t see this–anyone care to clarify?), Form (nod to CL), Theatre (which didn’t get discussed that much–does anyone know of some cool work on Victorian theatre?), and Theorizing (in particular, how the Victorians theorized). The rest of my notes are an indecipherable mess.

Andrew Stauffer rounded off the panel with a discussion of digital research. We’re heading into a new phase, which I think is right, of thinking about digital scholarship. The first phase was the golly-gee-whillikers moment–I can get how many articles about premature burial from the nineteenth century? Now we’re starting to ask questions about who has access to those articles on premature burial (i.e. not CUNY!), and how people, be they commercial providers like Gale or ProQuest, libraries like UVa, or independent folks, are filtering that archive, both in terms of the “back end” of OCR and mark-up and the “front end” of search and browsing interfaces. (I might be messing up terminology here.) How can we fight to get as high quality archival material out there accessible to scholars of all stripes? One figure that I took away from the talk was that the OCR on these databases is pretty “dirty”–it has about a 10% error rate. So this means that, you may think you’re searching a whole decade of _Household Words_, say, but you’re likely missing 10% of the words–and it might be very hard to actually see what 10% that is.