Guest Blog: The State of Victorian Studies

By Professor Regenia Gagnier, University of Exeter

Note: This paper was presented at the State of the Field Plenary panel that opened the joint AVSA/BAVS/NAVSA (Australasian Victorian Studies Association; British Association for Victorian Studies; North American Victorian Studies Association) international conference ‘The Global and the Local’ at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice and Venice International University June 3-6 2013. The reference to the special issue of Critical Quarterly edited and introduced by Gagnier is Gagnier, R., Ed. The State, or Statelessness, of Victorian Studies. Critical Quarterly, 55 (April 2013) ‘Introduction: Victorian studies, world literatures, and globalisation,’ pp. 1-8. Gagnier was President of BAVS 2009-2012.

In the special issue of Critical Quarterly on ‘The State, or Statelessness, of Victorian Studies’ that Dino Felluga (Chair of NAVSA) has circulated to the Professionalization Workshop, we included essays on Digital Humanities and Higher Education; Neo-Victorian literature, politics, and architecture; post-Darwinian biology and genomics; and two readings of the most widely circulated Victorian novelist, the kind of criticism that still sends us back to the period’s literature. The larger view and long durée that currently characterize some of the best in Victorian Studies are accompanied by a self-critique following on several decades of postcolonial, race, gender and sexuality studies. I wanted to situate this strikingly self-critical field within more recent discussions of World Literature, transculturation, and globalization studies, and I argued that the intercultural transvaluation of actants and ideas often associated with Victorian Britain will be central to the development of Victorian Studies in global contexts made possible by new media. The actants include geopolitical ideologies such as individualism, collectivism, nationalism, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism, and geopolitical commodities and technologies like cotton, tea, railways and sanitation systems. The first requires more comparative work in languages and in history; the second requires more interdisciplinary work, especially with the sciences and engineering.

Academics will have noticed the increasing demand over the last decade on the part of students, professional organisations, funders, HE administrators, and publishers for work that we might call global, or international. As academic presses struggle financially to publish scholarly monographs, they are now packaging ground-breaking collections as reference works for students or companions for the general public, and their markets are global. It seems as if the only unqualified benefit for many of us of neoliberal market regimes in higher education is that universities around the world are keen to support intercultural studies.

On Unesco’s Index Translationum – World Bibliography of Translation the first Victorian author to appear on the list of Unesco’s top 50 most translated authors is Arthur Conan Doyle at 14th and Charles Dickens at 25th, followed by Robert Louis Stevenson at 26th, Oscar Wilde at 28th, and Rudyard Kipling at 45th. Conan Doyle is the 6th most translated author in China, with Dickens at 9th, and Dickens is the 4th most translated author in Egypt. The world’s most popular literary genre is crime fiction, with sales in Latin America’s genero negro the highest in the world, and Conan Doyle inhabits the genre even when unacknowledged, as, often, does Dickens for his portrayals of criminal underworlds, both lumpen and today what we would call white-collar. According to Wikipedia’s List of Best-Selling Books, Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities has sold over 200 million copies and is therefore the ‘best-selling novel of all time.’

As a model for including extreme poverty, dialect, vernacular, and literature of the street, Dickens’s fiction was influential throughout the world. It was enlisted in the service of both migration and settlement (Australia and New Zealand), class warfare (Eastern Europe), revolution (China before 1949), critique of neo-colonial ISAs (emerging states in Africa), concern for orphans/children (Latin America), critique of capitalism (PRC), Socialism (Russia), gender and domestic relations (Japan), popular criminology (Japan and Latin America), and Christian solutions to social divisions and suffering (Spain). His particular technique of showing somatic tics expressive of extreme psychological conditions and unique identities was theorized and adapted by Galdos in Spain as the muletilla and Katherine Mansfield in New Zealand as ‘tagging.’

Dickens1The study of transcultural actants requires knowledge of the structure of the field of international cultural exchanges, including the political and economic constraints on the exchanges and the agents and processes of intermediation at any particular moment. In book trade history, bibliomigrancy was seen to make a major shift in the mid-twentieth century when the German Reclam Series of  old world classics was augmented by Heinemann’s New World Literature that brought African literatures to international audiences. At that time, authors who had been raised on missionary pamphlets produced richly intertextual literature. The Nigerian Amos Tutuola (1920-1997) was called a ‘successor to Dickens.’ The Ethiopian Berhane Mariam Sahle Sellassie (b. 1936) translated Dickens. The Ghanian Ayi Kwei Armah (b. 1939) acknowledged Dickens in his treatments of urban poor and the South African Es’kia Mphalele (1919-2008) acknowledged him in his theory of ‘Engagement.’ The Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiongo’s (b.1938) Grain of Wheat was often compared to Dickens in his representations of neo-colonial institutions of business, school, church, and law, and Ngugi productively but more negatively engaged with Dickens in resisting colonial pedagogies in Decolonizing the Mind. The Dickens Bicentenary last year recognized such bibliomigration. In September 2015 Ortwin de Graef at the Catholic University of Leuven will host  the Trollope Bicentennial Conference, where we shall trace Trollope’s circulation. Lydia Wevers will address Trollope in Australasia. If any of you are interested in presenting other areas of global Trollope, please let me know.

In the Introduction to Critical Quarterly I also discussed the circulation of cultural movements, primarily the Art for Art’s Sake Debates in the 1930s in colonial Annam (French Indochine; today Vietnam). Here the relevant empire through which the Victorian Oscar Wilde’s ideas were translated was not the British but the French and the relevant vehicle of the movement was the Communist International. Today I’d like to say a little about the circulation of liberalism in India. There has of course been valuable  work critical of John Stuart Mill’s own writings on India, as well as of the notorious arm-chair History of India of his father, one of the best examples in world history of the internal contradictions of the age of empiricism. But if we turn the lens from the Mills’ particular limitations in writing about the colonies and consider On Liberty itself as an actant within a global environment, we get new perspectives on the western classic. After the Napoleonic invasions, global liberals participated in transregional or global spheres of liberal discourse. From Rammohan Roy in the 1820s, Romesh Chunder Dutt in the 1870s, Dadabhai Naoroji in the 1880s, G. K. Gokhale in the 1900s, to B. R. Ambedkar from the 1920s, Indian literati sympathized with Chartists, Mazzini’s republican radicalism, American and Irish struggles against Britain, and others who had experienced domination and exploitation. Transnationally, this amounted to a small, emergent global elite of liberals reading, citing, and engaging with each other in the early days of nation-states. Even when they failed to elicit responses from their putative interlocutors in Europe, the Indian liberals took the occasion to employ their discourses for their own audiences at home. The difference between the European and Indian liberals was that liberalism in India developed under conditions of exploitation and humiliation, and that it evolved within their own traditions of Vedantic Hinduism, i.e. revelation stressing self-realisation, as a nation as well as individuals.

The Indian liberals deployed arguments from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Byron, Dickens, Comte, and Ruskin, and developed a sophisticated mathematical rhetoric of statistics to undermine the metrics of the Raj. Mill was much admired except for his views on race and deism and they used him against James Fitzjames Stephens’s colonial theory of  benign coercion. Mill’s liberalism, the historian Christopher Bayly contends, functioned for them more as a structure of feeling than a tight logical system, and Bayly demonstrates in Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (2012) that their philosophical eclecticism was not a theoretical weakness but an engagement with a totality of thought less rationalized than that of Europe. Theosophy was attractive to them as a social evolutionism. Theories of ‘amalgamation’ of Hindu and Muslim were compared to the dynamism of Anglo-Saxons. Darwinism was invoked in Hegelian fashion as Spirit’s evolution in history. Indigenous systems of thought in both Hindu and Muslim more worldly religions avoided the deep conflicts between science and religion that divided Europe.

Mill1Under the constraints of colonization and then under indigenous strands of communitarianism, Indian liberals developed practices and institutions to deal with religious, caste, and racial diversity undreamt of in Mill’s philosophy. Multicultural India revealed relations of individual rights to group beliefs that problematized liberalism to its core. Indigenous law courts, juries, legal systems, and a free press developed against both domination by the British and internal factions. The new economic thinking, especially on issues of state intervention in the economy, emerged in the context of famine and the ‘drain’ of wealth from India to Britain. All this contributed to the subtle writings on liberty of Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, and novelists like Mulk Raj Anand, whose most famous novel Untouchable was edited by Gandhi as part of India’s liberalization project. The moral of Untouchable is arguably that modern sanitation systems will go further than ethics or politics in breaking down caste, and liberalizing culture.

The issue of technology in the context of global literatures and inter-imperialities was the second main issue I raised in the Critical Quarterly Introduction. The full implications of studying Victorian Britain in a global context entail the study of cultures within specific niches of nature, culture, and technology. Here is where we might collaborate with the scientists and engineers.

Recent developments in molecular biology imply that classic distinctions between nature and nurture or biology and culture are not applicable to the human ecological niche. Research in epigenetics shows that the effects of culture on nature go all the way down to the gene and up to the stratosphere, and the effects of biology on culture are similarly inextricable. Living systems almost invariably involve the interaction of many kinds of organisms with a diversity of technologies. The anthropocene—the age of human cultures and technologies interacting with natural environments—changes rapidly, and to understand and manage its functioning requires perspectives from each domain, the biological or natural, the cultural, and the technological.

Studying Victorian literatures in the context of world literatures shows that particularly since the nineteenth century all modern literatures are the result of cultures in contact. Just as literatures may productively be seen as relational, so may all objects or products. As we turned our lens from Mill as an individual to On Liberty as an actant, we may turn our material culture studies from objects in isolation to objects in relational processes. The many studies of the circulation of commodities in Victorian literature and the social effects of commodity markets will in future be supplemented by more dialectical research that incorporates our knowledge of commodity circulation in Britain with the circulation of British commodities elsewhere. Studies of imaginative literatures about total environments may have a comparative focus on cities, entertainment industries, plantations, mines, or villages, or on the comparative impacts of technologies like the railroad, steamship, or pharmaceuticals. Victorian studies of geopolitical commodities and technologies around which lives and literatures are built will provide one of the key functions of interdisciplinary, multilingual humanities research. They will specify distinct niches of nature, culture, and technology as they change through time and also specify how these diverse niches appear and are transformed in literary and other forms of culture. We might ask, comparatively, what is the literature of the village in Bengal and in England, or the literature of the mines in Sichuan and in Wales, or the literature of the plantation in Haiti and the manor house in Yorkshire, or the New Woman in London and Shanghai.

Why, as Victorianists, should we ask such questions? What does it matter how Mill was used under the Meiji in Japan, or Darwin at the fall of the Qing in China, or the Irish Renaissance was used in Korea?  In our time of neoliberal globalization, only dialogic thinking will help us understand the full picture of interdependence.

Images: top: Charles Dickens in 1867; bottom: John Stuart Mill statue in Temple Gardens, London (copyright owned by Colin Smith).

Regenia Gagnier is Professor of English at the University of Exeter, and Editor in Chief of Literature Compass and The Global Circulation Project. She is also Senior Research Fellow of the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis). She is the author of numerous books on Victorian literature and culture, including Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Stanford, 1986) and Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: On the Relationship of Part to Whole, 1859-1920 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).


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