Underwood, "Culture and Discontinuity (in the 1840s and in Foucault)"

Philosophy and Culture

"Culture and Discontinuity (in the 1840s and in Foucault)"

Ted Underwood, University of Illinois

  1. The premise of historical continuity plays a slightly awkward role in literary studies. Not that many scholars are now challenging the idea of continuity as directly as Michel Foucault challenged it in the 1970s. The majority of recent books on literary history seem to assume, in practice, that it is possible to trace one discourse or ideology as it gradually metamorphoses into another. But although we haven't transcended the premise of continuity as it once seemed we might, it remains a principle of good scholarly manners to write as though we had transcended it. Words that explicitly foreground assumptions about continuity—words like "tradition," "origin," and "development"—retain a distinctly ham-handed sound. As graduate students, we learn to master a set of euphemisms that allow us to make the same assumptions more discreetly: one talks about the "provenance" of an idea, for instance, rather than its "source," and about a "practice" rather than a "tradition."

  2. No apology is necessary, on the other hand, for structuring an argument around the juxtaposition of discontinuous historical moments. Well-known works like James Chandler's England in 1819 (1998) and Ian Baucom's Specters of the Atlantic (2005) have illuminated present-day concerns by connecting them directly to Romantic-era antecedents, while scrupulously resisting the temptation to connect a series of nineteenth- and twentieth-century dots that would link the two periods under discussion. Friedrich Kittler's Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1985) announced a similar project in its title, and the reader may have noticed that the title of the present article (to compare small things with great) leaps without explanation from unspecified contexts of the 1840s to Michel Foucault.

  3. Of course, all of these works also reason about influence and development. Continuity and discontinuity are both necessarily involved in any attempt to understand change; as Zeno's paradox demonstrates, one gets nowhere by treating them as absolutes. Moreover, as Chandler himself suggests, both concepts are relative to the scale of analysis: the same evidence that counts as continuous "explanation" in a year-by-year narrative might become discontinuous "information" in a more coarsely-grained study (51-74). But however complementary continuity and discontinuity may be in principle, literary historians do invoke one of these principles with more fanfare than the other, and although our preference has become especially marked in recent years, it is not an artifact of recent cultural theory. Source-study and influence-peddling were already disreputable at the beginning of the twentieth century; even a literary historian like Edwin Greenlaw, who defended the utility of source study in 1931, did so with a profusion of apologies (107-09). The surprising juxtaposition of remote eras, on the other hand, had already become standard procedure for cultural critics in the early nineteenth century (Carlyle, Pugin). This article will examine the academic study of English literature in the second quarter of the nineteenth century in order to suggest that literary scholars' preference for metaphors of discontinuity is rooted in long-standing educational practices that have given the concept of literary culture its institutional form. But since Michel Foucault did make an argument about history that is now widely understood as a rationale for our resistance to the vocabulary of continuity, it makes sense to begin by looking at his argument.

  4. The critique of continuity remained central to Foucault's definition of his own historical method whether he was calling that method "archaeology" or "genealogy." His strategy also remained fairly consistent: he attacked the premise of continuity by reading it as a symptom of historians' investment in the stability and permanence of subjectivity. In a 1968 article, "On the Archaeology of the Sciences," Foucault remarks,

    [I]f history could remain the chain of uninterrupted continuities . . . it would be a privileged shelter for consciousness: what it takes away from the latter by bringing to light material determinations, inert practices, unconscious processes . . . it would restore in the form of a spontaneous synthesis; or rather, it would allow it [consciousness] to pick up once again all the threads that had escaped it, to reanimate all those dead activities, and to become once again the sovereign subject in a new or restored light. Continuous history is the correlate of consciousness. (300-301)
    In "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" (1971), Foucault pushes this symptomatic reading a step further, arguing that continuous history attempts to establish not only the stability of "the sovereign subject" but "the immortality of the soul" (379). By contrast, Foucauldian genealogy is devoted to "the systematic dissociation of our identity." Foucault explicates this contrast in a passage studded with quotations from Nietzsche:
    For this rather weak identity, which we attempt to support and unify under a mask, is in itself only a parody: it is plural; countless souls dispute its possession; numerous systems intersect and dominate one another. The study of history makes one "happy, unlike the metaphysicians, to possess in oneself not an immortal soul but many mortal ones." And in each of these souls, history will discover not a forgotten identity, eager to be reborn, but a complex system of distinct and multiple elements, unable to be mastered by the powers of synthesis: "It is a sign of superior culture to maintain, in a fully conscious way, certain phases of its evolution which lesser men pass through without thought" (386, quoting Nietzsche 4.3 no. 17 and 4.2 "Vermischte Meinungen" no. 274).
    For Foucault, in short, the choice between different ways of writing history is a choice between different models of immortality. In place of the old model of a single immortal soul, he offers a loose compound of distinct historical elements, each of which is in one sense dated and in another sense timeless. He also quotes, with apparent approval, Nietzsche's view that this dissociation of identity is a paradoxical form of personal cultivation. By separating out the diverse cultures that compose the self one becomes a man of "superior culture."
  5. Throughout "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," Foucault's reliance on quotations from Nietzsche playfully dramatizes the dissociation of his own identity. The historical method he calls "genealogy" turns out to be built with materials borrowed from a nineteenth-century philosopher's critique of historians. So it would hardly have surprised Foucault that this essay's argument against metaphors of continuity has some connection to nineteenth-century ideas. But the connection may be stronger and broader than the essay recognizes, because the passages that Foucault borrows from Nietzsche are in fact quite typical of a certain late-nineteenth-century discourse about history. Nietzsche may criticize the aspirations of "scientific" historians, but he does so in large part by embracing another use of the past that already dominated histories of literature and art. The decentered immortality that Nietzsche attributes to the man of "superior culture"—who preserves in his own body fragments of a vanished past—closely resembles the immortality that Walter Pater, for instance, famously attributed to La Gioconda:

    She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. (Pater 129)
    The cultivation of the Paterian aesthete, like the experience contained in this mysterious visage, comes from unsystematic browsing rather than continuous narrative. La Gioconda has found herself immersed in widely-differing "modes of thought and life," and she is said to sum them all up in herself. But she "sums things up" more as a collector does than as dialectical reason does. By reducing incongruent mythologies to "the sound of lyres and flutes," she strips away the vectors of causality and change that would otherwise be implicit in Pater's catalogue, replacing them with the sort of non-linear synthesis embodied in weary and delicately-tinged eyelids.
  6. Pater was by no means the first writer to suggest that personal cultivation requires internalizing history's contradictions and fractures rather than its unity. As it became clear that even basic assumptions could change from one era to another, a certain number of eighteenth-century readers embraced contingency and mutability themselves as the best available symbols of collective permanence. The ghosts of James Macpherson's Ossian poems, for instance, embodied readers' aspirations to a kind of immortality produced not by fame, or the continuity of tradition, but by difference and datedness (Underwood 237-242). Culture (in the normative sense) comes to depend on the incommensurable multiplicity of cultures (in the descriptive sense). In these circumstances, the instability of national identity could become a cultural advantage. Ina Ferris has recently suggested that the protagonists of Lady Morgan's later national tales construct their identities through role-playing that dramatizes conflicting versions of Irish history and even conflicting models of time; personal Bildung depends on what Ferris calls "hyper-hybridity" rather than on the unity of national culture (81, 84). By the early nineteenth century, in short, cultivated readers began to feel that they possessed something that was timeless, not because it was unchanging, but because it transgressed the ordinary laws of temporal connection. Culture was a mode of historical déjà vu.

    Sometimes I feel I have known Shakespeare, wept with Tasso, and journeyed through heaven and hell with Dante. A name from ancient times awakens emotions in me that resemble memories, as certain perfumes from exotic plants recall the land that produced them. (Sand 71)
    In this description of a historically-refracted self (from George Sand's 1833 novel Lélia), the names of Shakespeare, Tasso, and Dante are admittedly connected by the tacit hypothesis that great authors from different nations and periods all feed into a single "European" culture. Lélia's mysterious "emotions . . . that resemble memories" are subjective correlates for the power of that cultural patrimony. The discontinuity dramatized by historical déjà vu thus often depends, in practice, on a suppressed premise of continuity. But some sort of continuity always has to be posited to make discontinuity rhetorically interesting. Foucault does the same thing: his epistemic shifts, however abrupt, take place against the implicit background of a European unity that makes it meaningful to contrast Bentham's Panopticon against, say, an execution in Paris in 1757. It is nevertheless fair to observe that the rhetorical emphasis falls, in Pater and Sand as in Foucault, on the differences and gaps that separate the radically disparate parts of this hypothetical unity.
  7. For Pater, then, the cultural purpose of history (at least the history of art and literature) was not to emphasize continuities, but to form a mind capable of embracing disparity and difference. "He will remember always that beauty exists in many forms. To him all periods, types, schools of taste, are in themselves equal" (xii). I have suggested that this strategy of mapping historical discontinuity onto cultivated "immortality" articulates a consensus that was dominant by the later nineteenth century—a consensus that Nietzsche and Foucault later reproduced, having mistaken it for a rebellion against nineteenth-century history. But George Sand and Walter Pater don't in themselves constitute a representative sample of nineteenth-century writers; how can we know whether their cultural investment in discontinuity was typical or idiosyncratic?

  8. Institutional history makes it easier to locate the moment when literary cultivation began to depend on the idea of discontinuity, because the number of educational institutions that taught vernacular literary history in the nineteenth century was much smaller than the number of authors who wrote about it. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, vernacular literature was still taught under the aegis of rhetoric at all levels of the educational system; texts were usually organized by genre or by audience rather than by period. This first began to change in the second quarter of the nineteenth century at the new London universities: the institutions we know today as King's College and University College, London hired professors of "English Language and Literature" rather than "Rhetoric and Belles Lettres," and encouraged them to combine the teaching of literature with the study of history (Court 87-88).

  9. But the nature of the connection between literature and history changed significantly and rapidly in the early stages of this project. Through the 1830s, syllabi and exams at both institutions emphasized connected and continuous development. The whole story of English literary history was invariably compressed into a single term. Courses were also structured to foreground the progressive development of both language and literature. Thomas Dale, for instance, taught literary history at both London institutions at different points in the 1830s. A summary of his literary history course has been preserved at the back of a catalog; subheadings like "Incipient English" and "Imperfect but Progressive English" speak eloquently about his emphasis on gradual progress (King's College Calendar 1835-36, 49-51). Dale's exams, preserved in the same catalog, similarly emphasize connection and development. Students are asked, for instance, to "give some account of the Mysteries, or Miracle-Plays; and show in what manner they operated to prepare the minds of the people for the Reformation" (King's College Calendar 1835-36, 182).

  10. That emphasis on connected progress began to change in the 1840s, when the study of literary history at King's College was reorganized around courses that spent a whole term surveying an isolated period. These were the first "period survey" courses offered in Britain, and, as far as I can tell, in any Anglophone context. (The teaching of English literature may have developed precociously in India and America in other respects, but it doesn't seem to have anticipated this development.) The change took place first at King's College, I believe, because Dale was replaced by someone who had already worked out a new theory about the role history should play in personal cultivation. Frederick Denison Maurice later became well known as a theologian and Christian-socialist educational reformer. Hired at King's College in 1840, he began by spending a term on the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In the following eight years he taught courses on, for instance, the Elizabethan period, Jacobean literature, and the reign of George III. This marked contraction of the syllabus was accompanied by a change in the historical content of courses, as revealed in Maurice's final exams. Teaching Jacobean literature in 1842 Maurice asks, "In what respect do the writings of Ben Jonson bear the impress of this period?" (Calendar 1842-43, item 6) Teaching the Tudors he asks, "Write an essay on the connection between the politics and the literature of Queen Elizabeth's reign" (Calendar 1848-49, 247). Maurice consistently asks students to grasp the social specificity of a period. Teaching Chaucer, for instance, he asks his class to explain the words "Knight," "Courtesie," and "Chevalrie" (Calendar 1840-41, item 7). The emphasis of that question doesn't fall on Chaucer's contribution to the development of English; instead, Maurice is using Chaucer's language to reveal differences that separate his social world from everyday life in the nineteenth century.

  11. This was a dramatic change not just from Dale's practice but from the practice of other professors at King's and University College in the 1830s. Moreover, Maurice didn't have additional staff until very late in the 1840s, when he did get to hire one assistant. For most of the decade it was still a one-man show, and (since he also had to teach composition) focusing on one period a semester compelled Maurice to abandon the goal of producing a connected narrative of literary history. He seems to have abandoned that goal rather blithely, since he made no effort to offer his period courses in anything like a chronological sequence. But how was it possible for Maurice to justify this departure from existing practice? What did he think he was accomplishing by focusing on literary periods in isolation?

  12. Fortunately for us, Maurice had already written extensively on education, and in particular on the importance of historical education. Has the Church, or the State, the Power to Educate the Nation? (1839) intervenes in a debate about state-supported education, and does so from a distinctly Anglican perspective. But it also contains a striking and precocious manifesto about the social function of English literary history. Maurice argues that the English middle classes need instruction in literature in order to counteract a modern tendency for middle-class interests to contract to the domain of immediate, personal, commercial gain. In this respect, Maurice prefigures an argument that would be made twenty years later and more famously by Matthew Arnold. But where Arnold is notoriously vague about the effects he expects literary culture to produce on the middle classes ("sweetness and light"), Maurice is extremely frank. The middle classes are hungry for a sort of distinction founded in collective permanence rather than private property. They need something equivalent to aristocratic pride in the antiquity of family. Lacking "ancient halls" and "venerable trees," they will need to find permanence in literature—and more specifically, in literary history (203). But the permanence they find there will paradoxically depend on the particularity of isolated moments. "The facts of a particular history are those which awaken the historical feeling, are those which make a boy feel that he is connected with acts and events which passed hundreds of years ago, thousands of miles away. The spirit of a particular poem, is that which awakens the poetical spirit in answer to it" (58).

  13. This is a different kind of relationship to history than Thomas Dale had envisioned. Dale thought literary history mattered mainly as a connected narrative of improvement, and he accordingly asked students to explain causal connections in that narrative. What aspects of medieval drama operated to prepare the minds of the people for the Reformation? Maurice's reasons for teaching literary history, by contrast, didn't necessarily require a student to grasp the whole story.

    [T]he moment you bring the townsman of one age to feel himself connected with the townsman of another . . . that moment this meanness and narrowness disappear. The busy member of the particular corporation . . . belongs to burghers of another day, his corporation takes its place in the history of corporations, and bears upon the life of the nation. (205)
    The goal was simply to "bring the townsman of one age to feel himself connected with the townsman of another," through a point-to-point connection that leapt over the intervening centuries. The intellectual effort required to bring this about is not the effort of comprehending a causal process. It's rather an exercise of historical imagination, analogous to the sort of exercise Walter Scott demanded of his readers. Students are asked to imagine how the ordinary social life of another era differed from their own, while remaining conscious that it was inhabited by flesh-and-blood creatures like themselves—and specifically like themselves as middle-class Englishmen.
  14. This model of historical experience—history as an imaginative connection with another age, founded on a simultaneous consciousness of difference and of similarity—had become widely diffused by the 1830s. As I have hinted, it closely resembles the way Scott described his own practice, and Maurice acknowledges Scott's example. He believes that his proposal improves on Scott by exploring the antiquity of a "commercial hall" and not just a "baronial castle" (203-204, 206), but this means only that Maurice had probably read Ivanhoe more recently than The Antiquary.The latter novel contains an important dream that brings the "townsman of one age" face-to-face with "the townsman of another" precisely as Maurice would desire (74-80). Many of Scott's other novels are designed to operate in an analogous fashion on their middle-class readers. There is an even closer precedent for Maurice's project in the 1828 historical lectures of François Guizot, which confer new dignity on the middle classes by sending a nineteenth-century bourgeois back to confront the armed camp that was a twelfth-century urban commune. In short, Maurice didn't invent the theory of cultivation by discontinuous historical imagination that he advanced in his 1839 lectures. But he did invent an institution that gave that theory an enduring social presence: the period survey course, which even today guarantees that cultural credentials are distributed only to students who have studied the distinctive character of isolated segments of time.

  15. This pedagogical experiment was not notably successful with its immediate classroom audience. Looking back as adults, Maurice's students invariably remembered his passion for literary history. But many of them also remembered profound confusion about the reason for that passion (Court 94, Brose 159). Maurice's period surveys nevertheless took root; the professors who followed him at King's College sustained the curricular structure he had created, and it was imitated by English professors at University College in the 1860s. Meanwhile a period-centered approach to the teaching of history itself had become established at University College in the 1840s, and was adopted at Oxford by 1872 (Murray 536). When Oxford and Cambridge established their own English schools toward the end of the century, they also created curricula that focused on the quiddity of individual periods rather than the cumulative logic of development—an approach to literary history that by century's end had come to seem self-evident. By that point, the same approach also held sway in the United States.

  16. Since late-nineteenth-century English departments were no longer limited to one or two instructors, they could pursue a period-centered approach without entirely sacrificing the idea of development. It was possible to require students to take period courses in a chronological sequence, for instance, or to devote the first term (or year) of instruction to a general survey that would then be followed by courses on individual periods. Both patterns were common at U.S. universities in the 1890s (Graff 101-02). But the compromise implied by this curricular structure was an unequal one. Where comprehensive survey courses were taught, they were always scheduled early in the major. In the 1890s, and for that matter where they still exist today, these courses are understood as an orientation that prepares students for the real work of literary study, not as a capstone or summation of the major. This positioning is not self-evidently necessary: it is possible to imagine a pedagogy that would begin with case studies and move toward broader conclusions. But the discipline of literary history has not (since the first half of the nineteenth century) felt that broad historical conclusions were really its raison d'être.

  17. Whatever prestige attached to continuous evolution in society at large, the competitive advantage of literary history has seemed to lie in emphasizing the radical differences between past and present. "Thoughts, fashions, ideals change," as one frequently-reprinted manual for early-twentieth-century British students put it; "the fashion of their utterance changes likewise; chasms yawn between us and bye-gone generations; and many a book which once held its readers spellbound seems a vapid and futile thing to us who belong to another age, and are touched by other modes of passion and other manners of speech." Only by acknowledging this chasm, and emphasizing the "relativity of literature" to its age, do we "gain a point of view from which every aspect of literary art becomes quickened for us into fresh significance." The dated book becomes a living thing again "as a record of what men once found potent to move, charm, console, inspire"—or in other words, as a symbol of the timeless life contained in cultural discontinuity (Hudson 54-55).

    * * *

  18. I don't want to understate Michael Foucault's importance, either as a historian or as a philosophical ironist. My own work has been substantially indebted to him. But I think Foucault's reflections on historical method itself are not the occasions for his most original contributions—certainly not, at any rate, to the discipline of literary history. One has to go back to the 1830s to find a moment when the model of continuity criticized by Foucault was actually central to the study of literature. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, literary history has tended to emphasize instead its special relationship to relativity and discontinuity. The concept of the literary "period" has provided a way to validate the contingency that historicism recognizes in all collective life, and even a way to find a kind of timelessness in that mutability. The institution of the period survey has ensured that this concept remains central to the distribution of cultural credentials, and literary cultivation has frequently been represented as Foucault represents genealogy: as a historical refraction of the self that locates a paradoxical sort of immortality in dispersion. In short, Foucault's "genealogical" method has never posed a fundamental challenge to our discipline's historical assumptions. On the contrary, it supports a prevailing disciplinary logic; it gives literary historians a new way to explain why they emphasize case studies and surprising contrasts—as we have, for about a century and a half, preferred to do.

  19. But enough criticism; what positive conclusions, if any, follow from my argument? Since this article itself trades on a few surprising juxtapositions, I am evidently not suggesting that literary historians ought to renounce the sinister pleasures of discontinuity, or the cultural profits they return. But I suppose I am hinting that it would do us little harm to relax our vigilance against the language of continuity. There are certainly ways of misusing that language. I think it's accurate to say that F. D. Maurice designed the first courses that focus on a single period of literary history. If I added that the period survey is thus "in origin" an Anglican idea, I would be sidling toward the sort of fallacy that assumes that the persistence of one thing also implies the persistence of anything associated with it. Where fallacies of this kind are at issue, we have good reason to be wary of words like "origin" and the continuities they posit. But the point of this wariness is to discern real continuity and real change, not to avert the idea of continuity itself. Our disciplinary rhetoric doesn't always facilitate that distinction. I at least have often found myself erasing "origin" or "tradition" and typing "provenance" or "practice" in contexts where it made no substantive difference, out of a hazy recollection that the concept of origin is supposed to be a shelter for the sovereign subject. In these situations I suspect I have neither avoided a fallacy, nor decentered subjectivity. I have merely affirmed my discipline's long-standing belief that questions about causation and gradual change are not as properly literary as questions about the unrepeatable singularity of each historical moment.

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