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V21 Collective Manifesto in Ten Theses

1. Victorian Studies has fallen prey to positivist historicism: a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past. Among its symptoms are a fetishization of the archival; an aspiration to definitively map the DNA of the period; an attempt to reconstruct the past wie es eigentlich gewesen; an endless accumulation of mere information. At its worst, positivist historicism devolves into show-and-tell epistemologies and bland antiquarianism. Its primary affective mode is the amused chuckle. Its primary institutional mode is the instrumentalist evisceration of humanistic ways of knowing.

2. Positivist historicism is enabled by and sustains a situation in which Victorianists are our own and only interlocutors. It fails to imagine paths of argument compelling to scholars who do not care about Victorians as Victorians.

3. History has often found its academic antithesis in theory, and just as often in form. Yet to counter positivist historicism is not a question of contraverting history, but of interrogating these habitual oppositions. We must rigorously articulate what it is we think we are doing when we work within particular historical frames. We must break these frames, and perhaps break historicism itself. We must embrace new reflection and abstraction; we must seek new justifications for our work.

4. A historically pervasive resistance to “theory” in Victorian Studies has largely prevented us from mobilizing our historical acumen in the service of abstract and conceptual modes of thought. This framing of “theory” as a monolithic other is intellectually lazy and allows positivist historicism to become ever-more habitual and unreflective. We need new speculative and synthetic methods – originating in our period, demanded by our literature, or even radically alien, practiced by philosophers, scientists, and other fields of literary study – that might equip us to speak and to know outside the verificationist Victorian frame.

5. The shape of these alternative avenues of inquiry remains undetermined and contested. If many of us share a dissatisfaction with the state of the field, we also internally disagree about how it might otherwise be shaped. A primary aim of our future endeavors is to render these disagreements the stuff of collective deliberation.

6. Our field is not without its innovative enterprises. Both surface reading and big data have emerged from our ranks. Yet these renovations of literary study tout court have too often been mobilized in support of instrumental reason, and have too rarely revolutionized the perception of our Victorian objects. How can we mobilize digital tools in the service of abstraction rather than concretion? How can we practice and theorize reading methods hospitable to surprise?

7. One avenue emerging for post-historicist reading is a critical rethinking of form and formalism. Taking energy from Foucault and Rancière, from postcolonialism and feminism, new formalisms and new ways of working with form explicitly pursue the politics of form, challenging us to reconsider how forms persist across artificially designated historical periods, while recentering formal analysis as the province of literary critical knowing. How can we further develop formalist interpretations that are politically astute and intellectually supple?

8. One outcome of post-historicist interpretation may be a new openness to presentism: an awareness that our interest in the period is motivated by certain features of our own moment. In finance, resource mining, globalization, imperialism, liberalism, and many other vectors, we are Victorian, inhabiting, advancing, and resisting the world they made. The aesthetic forms the Victorians pioneered and perfected continue to dominate popular and avant-garde cultural production. The conceptual problems, political quandaries, and theoretical issues they broached remain pressing and contentious. A survey of the Victorian period is a survey of empire, war, and ecological destruction. Insofar as the world we inhabit bears the traces of the nineteenth century, these traces are to be found not only in serial multiplot narrative, but in income inequality, global warming, and neoliberalism. Presentism is not a sin, but nor are all forms of presentism equally valuable. The variations of and alternatives to presentism as such have not yet been adequately described or theorized.

9. The field can move from the rear of new literary scholarship — where it simply applies to its own objects innovations produced in other fields — if and only if it sheds its infatuation with the accumulation of information. The best work will trade such riskless factism for bold arguments and synthetic thinking, arguments that engage with and challenge multi-field and multi-disciplinary conversations. This is already happening; it must happen more. Such projects will be open to formalisms that are not primarily beholden to historical frames. They will use evidence reflexively. They will theorize.

10. In order to truly animate and sustain this conversation, we will need to adopt multiple modalities of scholarship and collectivity: both the slow and careful inquiry that takes place in monographs and articles, but also the fast, dynamic, and dialogic forms of online publishing, co-authorship, and conference panel streams. To that end we are launching V21, an open platform whose primary aim — by contrast with existing digital platforms in the field — is to advance theses, to risk hypotheses, to catalyze debates. V21 is not an end in itself but a means for sustaining a collective of Victorianists who aspire toward a more argumentative, porous, and ambitious field.