Mandell, "Presentism vs. Archivalism in Research and the Classroom: Introduction"

Romanticism & Contemporary Culture

Presentism vs. Archivalism in Research and the Classroom: Introduction

Laura Mandell, Miami University of Ohio

  1. A discussion about presentism is appropriate for an issue of Praxis about the relation between Romantic-period writers and contemporary culture. Presentism can be defined as using present-day issues to understand history, and so literary historians who teach, think, and write referring to contemporary events are very much repeating the process—albeit in reverse—of recent novelists and film-makers who incorporate Romantic literature into their work.

  2. We reprint here from an issue of SubStance David Simpson's "Is Literary History the History of Everything?: The Case for Antiquarian History"1 as an example of an argument against presentism both in the classroom and in research. In the classroom, we are all presentists, as Simpson admits. Surely every Romanticist has mentioned at least one current event in relation to Romantic literature when teaching it, and certainly every research project, as Simpson again admits, has present motivations if not explicitly articulated connections with current events. But the worry about presentism that, in my view, we all share, voiced here especially well by David Simpson, is of rampant subjectivism. Here "subjectivism" isn't meant in its rigorous sense, "having to do with subjects," but in the common-sense, popular meaning, as in the phrase "purely subjective"—i.e., "purely personal." Projection of oneself onto the past is bad not just ideologically but emotionally as well, and I think many of us tacitly share the desire that the many students we deal with, just briefly (in terms of their lives), learn at the least from their encounter with past literatures that something truly other-than-oneself exists, and that information about this different person or scene is indeed worth discovering. If more students could discover that Wordsworth does not feel about things just the same way they do, nor just the opposite, they will have successfully learned techniques for truly encountering others beyond the mere denial and repudiation of difference through which they fictionalize friends, enemies, and lovers. Simpson states this view eloquently: "the university ought to provide," he says, echoing all our hopes, "the experience of challenge and difference" (7).

  3. But relative agreement ends, perhaps, once we finish discussing pedagogy and move on to research. Simpson's argument about the relation between presentism and research is complex because, as postmodernists, we have a very complicated relationship to the notion of objectivity. On the one hand, we see ourselves as inevitably personalizing history,2 while on the other, historians avoid anachronism in order to certify that they are understanding the past in its own terms.3 As Henry Abelove put it in an oral presentation, discussing the abuses of queer theory in eighteenth-century studies, "When I hear the term 'homophobia' [applied to eighteenth-century structures of feeling], all my critical tools dissolve." Of course: without the existence of "homosexuality" as such during the eighteenth century (Halperin 111), how can there be what we know as "homophobia"? Fears may be felt and articulated, but they won't be organized in the same ways as ours, and knowing the difference is crucial to understanding the past.

  4. The essays collected here, by Jerome McGann, Phillip Barrish, Gregory Tomso, and Jon Klancher—as well as a brief summary, included in this introduction, of Alan Liu's forthcoming book—have been gathered together as a response to Simpson's "Is Literary History the History of Everything?" for a particular reason. They respond to Simpson sympathetically in the sense that they are trying to eschew what Barrish calls "blithe" or "naive presentism"—simply applying "homophobia" to past articulations of fear. It is precisely this naive presentism that Simpson justly attacks as an uncritical use of the past in present political battles. But the articles and summary collected here also attempt to account theoretically for the lived experience of Romanticists, connecting that experience to their research and teaching in contrast to Simpson who seems partly to wish to negate that connection. They use "presentism" as a method.

  5. In "Reading Queerly," Tomso looks at contemporary homophobic rhetoric about AIDS in relation to very alien (to us) figurations of illness in 19th-century American novels: he doesn't simply find homophobia in those figurations, but rather attempts to determine how discourses on illness enter into a genealogy of homophobic rhetoric.

  6. In his article presenting the theoretical orientation of his forthcoming book, Phillip Barrish connects the presentist method to anachronistic stagings of Shakespeare, quoting Jonathan Miller's defense of such a practice: since "every dramatic work ‘must necessarily undergo change with the passage of time, . . . this change is best inflicted upon the work deliberately rather than, as it were, by default.'" Barrish connects Edith Wharton's "Autre Temps," an argument against sexism, to a reading of Hopwood v. Texas, the case that recently abolished affirmative action at the University of Texas. Again, he does not blithely or naively say that discrimination based on gender and marital status of the 19th century is just like racial discrimination at the end of the 20th. Instead of making this simple analogy, Barrish posits a catechretic relationship between the two discriminations and two historical periods, showing how each reveals what is difficult or impossible to say about the other.

  7. Klancher responds to Simpson's critique of cultural criticism as it appears in this essay, a critique articulated fully in The Academic Postmodern (1995). Just as students see only themselves or an enemy in historically-distant writings, cultural-studies critics, Simpson believes, put history into "parodic or reductive form," rendering it a mythic or Imaginary antagonist: "orientalism, sexism, homophobia, Eurocentrism, and so on" (6). Klancher argues against Simpson that the "second-hand or transcribed" history of literary and cultural critics "isn't parodic," as Simpson maintains; rather it is, Klancher says, "just misconceived": bad cultural criticism evinces "a will only to use history and not to hear it."

  8. A prime example of such "instrumental historicism," in Klancher's terms, are readings that rely on an important early essay by Alan Richardson. Sometimes critcs will use "colonization of the feminine" to read a passage written by a high Romantic poet in lieu of asking what's going on in that passage. In their view, Richardson's various readings have "proven" that high Romantic writers colonize the feminine, and so present-day critics use that "fact" as a key for reading rather than asking what's going on with the feminine imagery deployed in a specific passage written and published at specific times. Richardson himself never used his own concept in that way: each text he adduces as an example is shown to be colonizing; he doesn't find colonization once and then read every text as if we could presume its engagement in that project. We can't presume sexism; there might even be misogynist moments conjoined with feminism in high Romantic poetry, and, if so, we want to know what they are about. For Klancher, literary critics must be prepared "to hear a message from the past they didn't anticipate or wish to hear": one must resist, he says "a determination to keep history enlisted in one's own campaign as if it never could offer anything with which to instruct the campaign itself."

  9. If one can enlist the past in order to better understand the present, one can also enlist the present to understand the past. McGann's Ivanhoe Game, discussed in detail in his Radiant Textuality and in essays and examples available on line,4 makes use of the Internet (email) in order to fully educe the "transmissional possibilities" of a printed text, Ivanhoe. Radiant Textuality, excerpted in this issue of Praxis, theorizes how "deformative" reading made possible by debunking the canon and adopting deconstructive reading practices works in conjunction with digital media. We need to ask, McGann says in the Preface reproduced here, "[h]ow [computers] can be made to operate in a world that functions through . . . ambiguities and incommensurables" — how, that is, computer "tools [might] improve the ways we explore and explain aesthetic works . . . ." The essays included in this forthcoming book show that McGann sees hypertext as, to use Sherry Turkle's term, an "evocative object" (17), one that allows us to see what is otherwise invisible since they bring to light messages encoded in traditional media, no matter what their surface content. As McGann has said, what hypertexts make clear about any text — texts in codex form, for instance — is that they should "not [be] primarily understood as containers or even vehicles of meaning. Rather, they are sets of instantiated rules and algorithms for generating and controlling themselves and for constructing further transmissional possibilities."5

  10. As I show in greater detail elsewhere,6 Alan Liu's method for resisting the projective reduction of history in all its forms similarly involves bringing past and present into conversation with each other. In his forthcoming book, The Laws of Cool, part of which has been previously published,7 Liu examines how history is understood (and used) by present management theorists prominent in the business of knowledge work. Often the past becomes nothing more than "obsolete" in technological discourse.8 That history is for these business theorists either the same as the present or outmoded is especially visible in one of the examples Liu adduces in The Laws of Cool, a book by Alan Axelrod titled Elizabeth I CEO: "The indifference of (and ultimately to) history here," Liu says, ". . . is sublime."

  11. But Liu resists turning these business theorists, and our present, into a demonic Other. Instead, he demands that academics undertake a "serious engagement with the full intellectual force of business in its new persona as knowledge work" ("Knowledge Work" 118). In the first stage of a dialectical movement from present to past and past to present, Liu uses archaism to resist the reduction of the activity of business to mere profiteering, a Manichaean other to academic life: "the single most influential contemporary vision of the ‘one life' and imagination (as the Romantics called it)" is provided by "a management guru," Peter Senge ("Knowledge Work," 119). Then Liu deploys anachronism. Instead of treating the past as events, he treats it as technique: the French Revolution was, Liu says anachronistically, a "restructuring event." Information Society's narrative of History as obsolescence insists that there was no technology, or only a less adequate one, and now technological progress triumphs. Axelrod's fantasy about Elizabeth I, that she was just a good CEO, feeds into that narrative: history is either really the same as now or unimportant, lesser. But unlike Axelrod, Liu doesn't see the technology used by the French revolutionaries as the same as that used in corporate takeovers. Revisiting the past in order to compare past and present technologies, without seeing the past as lesser or the same, disrupts the narrative of technological progress. The trick lies in resisting the sheer archaism of seeing the past only for the sake of its impact on present technique ("Napoleon I, Global Competitor"). In his book, Liu asks, "what's the difference between past and present revolutions in management?" and "what is at stake in knowing that difference?" His book argues that knowing history can give present-day knowledge workers critical purchase on the pressures for conformity within global corporate culture.9

  12. The dialectic of anachronism and archaism visible as a deliberate methodology in Liu's work, I would suggest, necessarily appears in all historical work, most often unconsciously suffered rather than consciously deployed by the literary historian. The essays included in this section all try to make that dialectic conscious in various ways. All of them can help us think better about how to convince our contemporaries that the work of literary historians is vitally important to present-day life.

Works Cited

Abelove, Henry. Oral Presentation for the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Notre Dame University, 2 April 1998.

Christensen, Jerome. Romanticism at the End of History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.

Halperin, David. "How to Do the History of Male Homosexuality." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.1 (2000): 87-123.

LaCapra, Dominick. History and Memory After Auschwitz. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998.

Liu, Alan. "Knowledge in the Age of Knowledge Work." Profession 1999 113-24.

---. The Laws of Cool. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, forthcoming.

---. "The Tribe of Cool: Information, Culture and History." Webcast of Closing Keynote. ACH / ALLC 2001—New York University. 16 June 2001. 11 December 2001.

McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Richardson, Alan. "Romanticism and the Colonization of the Feminine." In Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988. 13-25.

Simpson, David. "Is Literary History the History of Everything?: The Case for Antiquarian History." SubStance 88 (1999): 5-16.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.


1 Originally printed in SubStance 88 (1999): 5-16. An online version is included with this Praxis volume.

2 See, for instance, LaCapra 180-210.

3 On "the anachronism test," see Christensen 207-8, n. 5.

4 For more information, see "Jerome McGann's Online Projects."

5 This sentence is quoted from an earlier version of that Preface.

6 See note 9.

7 See "Knowledge Work" and "The Tribe of Cool."

8 E-mail to NASSR-L. 9 January 1998.

9 This is the subject of a review essay of Liu's The Laws of Cool, titled "Taking History's Part: Objectivity and the Romantic Historian," currently in manuscript.