Temporality


I first started thinking about this post after Wednesday’s Victorian Seminar with Catherine Robson on “one-hit-wonder” W. E. Henley’s one hit, “Invictus,” comparing its reception as a recitation poem within America to Rudyard Kipling’s “If–” and its imbrication within the English educational system. These two poems are, of course, ridiculously popular, part of which can be explained, as CR pointed out, because of the shiftiness of the “I” of “Invictus,” the “you” of “If–.”

One of the things that came up during the presentation and Q & A was the huge fissure between how we as literary critics typically think of these poems–as exemplars of Victorian imperialist manliness, liberal individualism, the stiff upper lip–and how those of the general public feel about them. Here I won’t go into the many nuanced insights that CR gave concerning the critical, institutional, national, and popular reception of these poems.What I was struck by and will fixate upon is just one particular “meaning”–their use as “inspiration.”

As I’ve mentioned before, a side effect of my dissertating has been a nasty running habit, something which caused me to spend three perfectly good hours yesterday out in the rain plodding through a long run. Among runners, and not just the plebeian masses, but up to the highest level of the so-called elites (and including my would-be sub-sub-elite self), the need for inspiration is taken seriously, whether in the form of Youtube videos, mantras, visual cues, or mock motivational posters. I’m sure that there are many runners who recite “Invictus” and/or “If” over and over again mentally (or not!) as they run.

I’m not one of those runners, nor do I wish to be–the literary critic in me forbids it. But it made me wonder just why inspiration as a feeling, or as a genre, or as a genre of feeling is so debased among us as academics. Partly it’s a brow thing–we are who we are because we eschew low-brow motivational posters and middle-brow poetry. Partly it’s because the most valued affects in the training of a literary critic are suspicion of the hermeneutical sort and disenchantment of pretty much any kind. There has of course been some pushback against the latter, but “inspiration” seems to fall outside the purview of reparative reading à la Sedgwick or critical attention to readerly attachments à la Felski.

But what if we think about readerly (or reciterly) affect in terms of genre? What genre criticism gives us is a reason why to talk about underexamined social and historical formations. Genres, especially popular ones, like sensation novels, romances, and Marvel comic books are all particularly worthy of attention from a cultural studies/genre theory point of view. We’ve grown used to thinking about and valuing popular culture–but what about popular feelings?

I’d offer “inspiration” as one such popular feeling–perhaps there are others you can think of (hint, hint, please comment, I get lonely…). Maybe there’s a whole literature on “inspiration” out there, but I have the feeling that there isn’t. Here’s one way to think about inspiration in a non-undertheorized way: I’ve been reading Lauren Berlant‘s Cruel Optimism lately, and she talks about the day-to-day crises of post-Fordian precarious life, and how what sustains us through the impasse (and/or leads to slow death) is being in the vicinity of a fantasy of a good life. Normative aspirations and aspirations to normativity. Maybe one day I’ll be somebody who could’ve been a contender. (Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t make much sense, but I thought it sounded clever.) Maybe what makes “inspiration” so powerful is its ability to hook into these fantasies: expressions not of neoliberal picked-up-by-one’s-own-bootstraps ideology but of sustaining fantasies of the future that allow us to function in the present as if we’ve got our shit together.

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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.

[You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to be able to write that title. I fear this post, though, won’t be as fun as I had hoped. Feel free to skip to Anne’s posts; she’s returned in style!]

(more…)

Braddon started writing Aurora Floyd (serialized 1862-63) in the period between the failure of Robin Goodfellow, which had been serializing Lady Audley’s Secret, and the time when she was forced to finish Audley due to popular demand. All signs point to a formulaic hack job–and, honestly, this is what made me put it on the list, and I thought there’d be some interesting bad writing going on.
But no! I’m finding AF disappointingly good. I’m about a third through it, and it doesn’t really feel like a sensation novel at all–it’s almost as if Braddon listened to complaints about sensation novels and wanted to write proper realist fiction. And i think she succeeds. Here’s one set piece narratorial self-indulgence that sounds like it could have been written by George Eliot:

I might fill chapters with the foolish sufferings of this young man; but I fear he must have become very wearisome to my afflicted readers; to those, at least, who have never suffered from this fever. The sharper the disease, the shorter its continuance; so Talbot will be better by-and-by, and will look back at his old self, and laugh at his old agonies. Surely this inconstancy of ours is the worst of all–this fickleness, by reason of which we cast off our former selves with no more compunction than we feel in flinging away a worn-out garment. Our poor threadbare selves, the shadows of what we were! With what sublime, patronizing pity, with what scornful compassion, we look back upon the helpless dead and gone creatures, and wonder that anything so foolish could have been allowed to cumber the earth! Shall I feel the same contempt ten years hence for myself as I am to-day, as I feel to-day for myself as I was ten years ago? Will the loves and aspirations, the beliefs and desires of to-day, appear as pitiful then as the dead loves and dreams of the bygone decade? Shall I look back in pitying wonder, and think what a fool that young man was, although there was something candid and innocent in his very stupidity, after all? Who can wonder that the last visit to Paris killed Voltaire? Fancy the octogenarian looking round the national theatre, and seeing himself through an endless vista of dim years, a young man again, paying his court to a “goat-faced cardinal,” and being beaten by De Rohan’s lackeys in broad daylight.
Have you ever visited some still country town after a lapse of years, and wondered, O fast-living reader! to find the people you knew in your last visit still alive and thriving, with hair unbleached as yet, although you have lived and suffered whole centuries since then? Surely Providence gives us this sublimely egotistical sense of Time as a set-off against the brevity of our lives! I might make this book a companion in bulk to the Catalogue of the British Museum, if I were to tell all that Talbot Bulstrode felt and suffered in the month of January, 1858,–if I were to anatomize the doubts and confusions and self-contradictions, the mental resolutions made one moment to be broken the next. I refrain, therefore, and will set down nothing but the fact, that on a certain Sunday midway in the month, the captain, sitting in the family pew at Bulstrode church, directly facing the monument of Admiral Hartley Bulstrode, who fought and died in the days of Queen Elizabeth, registered a silent oath that, as he was a gentleman and a Christian, he would henceforth abstain from holding any voluntary communication with Aurora Floyd. But for this vow he must have broken down, and yielded to his yearning fear and love, and gone to Feldon Woods to throw himself, blind and unquestioning, at the feet of the sick woman.

Okay, it’s a bit over the top, but what do you expect from Victorian prose? What I particularly like is that idea of separate selves from different time periods that Andrew Miller talks about in Burdens of Perfection (he puts it much more eloquently than that, but I don’t have time to make things pretty). And the idea of a “sublimely egotistical sense of Time” leads to all sorts of directions you wouldn’t associate with a sensation novel.
Where AF does feel like a variation of the LAS formula, though, is the whole idea of some chick having a secret. Really, it could have been called Aurora Floyd’s Secret. And it’s thinking about these secrets that I got my Clever Idea about the genre of sensation fiction. The Basic Story about it is that it’s like Gothic romance, but instead of taking place in suspect Papist places on the Continent, it happens within the domestic sphere, and that’s what’s so spooky about it. So here’s my Gothic/Sensation grand narrative. In “The Eye of Power,” an interview translated in Power/Knowledge (1980), Foucault explains the Panopticon in relation to the Gothic:

A fear haunted the latter half of the eighteenth century: the fear of darkened spaces, of the pall of gloom which prevents the full visibility of things, men and truths. It sought to break up the patches of darkness that blocked the light, eliminate the shadowy areas of society, demolish the unlit chambers where arbiitrary political acts, monarchical caprice, religious superstitions, tyrannical and priestly plots, epidemics and the illusions of ignorance were fomented… During the Revolutionary period the Gothic novels develop a whole fantasy-world of stone walls, darkness, hideouts and dungeons which harbour, in significant complicity, brigands and aristocrats, monks and traitors. The landscapes of Ann Radcliffe’s novels are composed of mountains and forests, caves, ruined castles and terrifyingly dark and silent convents. Now these imaginary spaces are like the negative of the transparency and visibility which it is aimed to establish. (153-154)

If the Gothic novel (and the Panoptic gaze) centers on the issue of space, sensation fiction obsesses about time. Robert Audley (like Walter Hartright before him) carefully plots events in time, whittling away a mysterious three year period into, finally, two specific days. Everything is about the Andersonian “meanwhile,” and the precision with which it can be fixed. And how is AF’s secret framed? It seems to me that it’s not so much sensational that we don’t know what she did and want to find out–it’s the maddening sense that there’s this span of time with definite start and definite end (which again gets whittled down) about which we know nothing. Dark time instead of dark space.

I’ve hesitated to announce my plan to blog every day–it’s not a New Year’s resolution, but it is a January resolution. Here’s the deal: My orals will, insha’allah, take place during the second week of February, and I’ve left a lot of reading to the last “minute.” Meaning, I’m planning on working 10+ hour days, no days off, for the rest of January. This is going to involve plenty sleep deprivation after a winter break that was curtailed into two days, so I’m trying to record my thoughts before they get lost in the general burn out. I’m feeling really stupid about not even averaging 50 pages a day in the summer. Lurkers, if you’re out there and you’ve done your orals, can you offer me some consolation in saying that leaving way too much of your reading to the last month is standard practice?
So, my thoughts. My three lists–“The Victorian Novel and Temporal Depth,” “Postcolonial Theory, Globalization, and the Cultural Turn,” and “The Early Mid-Victorian Common Reader: The World, The Exhibition, and the Periodical Press, 1851-1851”–all can be tied to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. I think my favourite part of that book is the stuff on temporality, on how the rise of nationalism accompanied a shift from cosmological, eschatological time where everything works horizontally by Providence or typology, to Benjaminian “empty, homogenous time.” where things go vertically, and happen at the same time–“Meanwhile” is the key word. Anderson illustrates the imagining of these imagined communities with the example of the newspaper. I really saw this today while I was rolling through Volume V (Oct 1850-Apr 1851) of Eliza Cook’s Journal on microfilm. The articles make constant reference to or speculation about Englishness (sometimes independently of other peoples, sometimes in comparison to other European nations, but only infrequently in comparison to non-Western peoples). For example, the first article of 1851, “Prosperity!” notes the material prosperity of the nation, but then asks why England emphasizes material prosperity over moral and intellectual prosperity, and in fact, doesn’t do even do a good job with material prosperity given the living conditions of the working classes. What’s interesting about this, though, is that it’s not really events taking part in different locations, as in Anderson, but more abstract concepts. No doubt a large part of this is due to the Newspaper Stamp Duty I talked about yesterday. If you wanted to reach a large audience, i.e. sell for cheap, you could either take out news items, or risk getting arrested (check out Henry Hetherington‘s career as a printer). I’d say it’s more the imagining itself (every Sunday!), the sense of a shared reading experience, that creates national (and class) identity, than the way the media now reifies events as having national significance.
I’m reskimming Lady Audley’s Secret (and will start Aurora Floyd, since M. E. Braddon started writing it before she was finishied with LAS!), and I’m noticing that so much of sensation fiction is establishing that two simultaneous events were actually simultaneous, while traveling the country on trains scheduled according to “empty, homogeneous time.” Okay, that’s it. And so to bed.

I’ve just finished “reading” Richard Altick’s 1957 The English Common Reader, and I must say it’s held up very well. There’s just a frightening amount of research and scholarship in the thing, and it’s all put together very readably. It’s particularly interesting to read in the Age of Twitter given that the periodical press was, after all, a form of new media–or more precisely, a new platform for social networks. The biggest eye-opener for me, the thing I’m most embarrassed not to have realized before, is just how important price was to readership. Yes, I knew that not few could afford to buy the three-deckers so a lot of people read novels serialized and/or at circulating libraries, but it really does make a difference to put a quantitative price to things. One of the biggest political struggles of the nineteenth century was the War of the Unstamped, a fight to remove duties placed on periodicals carrying news items. Because of this duty, daily newspapers like the Times, at five pence, were too pricy for the working classes and the lower bourgeoisie. (Of course, they could always go to coffeehouses or club together, as Altick notes–hence periodical culture as a form of social network.) On the other hand, on Sundays, the only day when you would really have time to read if you were working class, you could choose from a huge range of penny weeklies exempt from the stamp duty (and the penny dreadfuls), including the respectable Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal and the Penny Magazine to the more questionable London Journal. (Also, obviously there were exceptions, but from what I gather, “journals” tended to be weekly publications, magazines monthlies.) Monthly publications like Blackwood’s, at a few shillings, were also out of reach, until the advent of “shilling monthlies” like Thackeray’s Cornhill. Quarterly reviews were highbrow. The Edinburgh was 6 shillings, 72 times as expensive as a penny weekly. What we get here is an interesting constellation of social class and temporal experience. Adjuncts and other instructors know what it’s like to live from paycheck to paycheck–and the extreme consequences a missed payment can cause, which CUNY does as a yearly ritual–the kind of world where one’s wages (as for domestic servants) were received quarterly seems quite different.
The “Why Teach Lit” panel at MLA got me thinking about close reading and distant reading, slow reading and fast reading. The stratification of publication frequencies suggests another dimension. If you’re reading something, do you read it at your own pace? is it an experience repeated once a week, once a month, over a quarter, once a year (Xmas annuals were big sellers)? Or, multiple times a day, in a perpetual cycle of blog to blog, to Twitter, to online newspaper?

So, my dreams of endless MLA postmorteming have to be put on hold: January’s shaping up to be an insanely busy month, as panic before orals– for which I have yet to set a date but I must soon soon soon–sets in.
This morning, I finished reading Dinah Maria Mulock Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman, and since I read the whole thing off Lorraine, I didn’t take any notes. (Lorraine’s an Eee PC which if you configure to rotate the PDF image and switch to full screen, makes a darn good ebook reader. I suppose I could take notes [that’s what the keyboard’s for!] but most of my notes in paper books are just underlines and circles anyway. I digress. I love my computer.)
Here, we have our answer to the question that’s no doubt keeping every Victorianist up at night: what could be gayer than Charlotte Yonge? Yes, my friends, Craik manages to outgay our favourite Tractarian novelist. It’s first-person narrated by one Phineas Fletcher, who’s somewhere between gimpy and disabled. He’s more disabled when he’s in young, and that’s when he’s more in love with the eponymous hero, who arrives in the mean streets of Norton Bury as a–not a “beggar-boy,” for, good protobourgeois that he is, he would rather starve than accept any unearned cash payment. John’s the son of some “Guy Halifax, Gentleman,” whom Craik seems to have forgotten about by the novel’s end, and self-helps his way into gentlemanhood. Once he gets married about a third of the way through, Phineas gets demoted to “Uncle,” and the novel’s cringemaking goodygoodyness is redeemed only by the occasional glimpse of the gay.
But what a gay it is! Phineas fawns over John’s muscles, as he finds excuses to be lifted in his arms, and rescued. John, in return, gets to experience pedagogue crush as Phineas teaches him how to read. Phineas calls him “David”–although Jonathan never calls Phineas “Jonathan,” for some reason–and yes, dear reader, Phineas makes sure you remember that D + J’s love “surpassed the love of women.”
What’s weird about this book is that if in Victorian novels you usually turn from books by male authors with boring female characters to books by female authors with less boring female characters, I can’t think of a novel with more boring female characters than JHG. Perhaps something Kirk/Spock-y is going on? I.e. straight girl fantasizing about gay man as a way to access desire of male bodies?
But enough of the gay, it’s Time Time! Lots of time passes in the book–fifty years or so? We get to follow Phineas and John from the time they’re pubescent to, well, I won’t spoil things. Craik is very careful in saying what Major Historical Developments are contemporary with whatever’s happening at that moment: steam power (JH heroically puts people out of work); Napoleonic Wars; Catholic Emancipation; the Reform Bill. I’ve got to pack up and go, so I’ll just drop my sound bite: we get this pre mid-Victorian Bildung both in nation and individual.

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