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Romanticism & Contemporary Culture

Presentism and the Archives

Jon Klancher, Carnegie Mellon University

  1. In the fall of 1999 I assigned David Simpson's essay "Is Literary History the History of Everything?" to students in my seminar on Romantic and present-day versions of historicism at Carnegie Mellon University. I hoped they might be intrigued, as I was, by Simpson's unusually spacious sense that literary history has effectively become the "history of everything"—even at the considerable risk of being the history of "nothing"—and that in this openness to "everything" lies its great, though precarious and paradoxical claim. By being open to everything, literary history appears capable of resisting disciplinary closure of the kind we associate with the scientific, the social-scientific, and even the historiographic disciplines. Unlike its more disciplined historical counterpart, literary history also collects or absorbs information that may not really explain anything, and for which there may be only a potential use in some as yet unforeseen situation in time to come (thereby such data may appear "non-contingent" now). Collecting and preserving such information can mean not merely that literary history can entertain the possible or "what-if" histories that might have already happened (but didn't). It also means, by extension and far more consequentially, that literary history could conceivably write the history of the future by registering data that as yet have no definitive shape or sense: "just in case."
  2. Simpson is also generous to the long-maligned figure of the antiquarian, who furnishes an unexpected model for literary historians by offering a "disinterested" curiosity and a receptiveness that takes time to produce and to satisfy, and that (post)modernity has had very little time for—the economic downsizing of the humanities having inexorably produced the speed-up of its procedures of knowledge and transmission. Read alongside other recent rethinkings of historicist method such as James Chandler's England in 1819 and Paul Hamilton's Historicism, Simpson's essay could widen the discussion further (I imagined), partly by challenging younger cultural critics to reconsider their automatic assent to such articles of poststructuralist faith as Foucault's and Nietzsche's opposing of "critical history" to "antiquarianism," a position that has encouraged far more talk about archives than patient and knowledgeable familiarity with the detailed research methods and habits they demand.

  3. As it turned out, I was mistaken, and my students reacted instead—in retrospect I can very well see why—to the considerable aggression Simpson's essay also shows toward a "postmodern cultural studies," and to the essay's unfortunate way of conflating a frivolous and generally reactionary position (posthistoire) with a serious position—one which Simpson himself rather reductively describes as the "history of some uncontested hegemony (orientalism, sexism, homophobia, Eurocentrism, and so on) which it is the critic's task to expunge from the present by the fierce light of radical intelligence." Some of my students working outside Romantic studies, unaware of Simpson's own earlier theoretical and culture-historical scholarship, took this broadside argument to be yet another old-humanist attack on the young. It's not exactly that. Instead, I began to think, it's another sign of something that my own seminar was also, in a very different way, trying to address—a sign that the cultural studies "project" itself has stalled, and that what Foucault famously phrased as "the history of the present" has become well-nigh indistinguishable from the less self-conscious forms of "presentism" that one now sees widely noted and usually excoriated in print and on the Web. The current, increasing skepticism about cultural studies is no doubt related dialectically to its breathless propulsion only a few years back, when it was not only the newest-best thing in the humanities, but even the apparent solution to broad, deep contradictions of both intellectual and institutional kinds. In view of this, my own seminar was partly designed to confront the current problems of practicing cultural studies by locating the meaning and the necessity of the word and in the phrase "literary and cultural studies," an expression tellingly absent, it happens, from Simpson's own essay. And since my students were already predisposed to think cultural studies has little to learn from those still speaking receptively of "the literary," Simpson's rhetoric effectively drove the "cultural" and "literary" even further apart in ways these students were only too ready, for opposing reasons, to accept.

  4. Most definitions of "presentism" I know have associated it with a lack of regard for context, for the meanings or senses that a given practice or text had for its historical contemporaries as opposed to how it may now read to us. But to judge by what has been recently posted on the Web, voices in American classrooms, from textbook watchdog groups to history-department syllabi, are increasingly strident as they warn against committing the presentist sin:

    Presentism [argues the president of the Textbook League] is the practice of viewing the past, and judging the people of the past, in terms of today's standards and orthodoxies. Serious historians reject and denounce this practice. Political ideologues and schoolbook-writers use it regularly, to bamboozle and deceive their audiences. (Bennetta)

    Early in any semester [says the syllabus for a course in American history], student analyses of the past almost always commit the historical fallacy of "presentism"—judging the past by the standards and understanding of the present, and leaving matters at that. But you must try to overcome your impulse to presentism (which professional historians also feel). . . . (Chase)

    In his customary take-no-prisoners style, William J. Bennetta thinks it sufficient to write off presentists as deceivers or bamboozlers and let it go at that. But on the American history syllabus, Professor Chase seems a bit more uneasy about censoring presentism, especially given his or her sense that it's an "impulse" that wells up in the professional historian too. This curious note of sympathy with the more youthful presentists in his audience puts Chase in enough of a bind about the matter that he has to finish his paragraph with an emphatic final reason why you must overcome your impulse to presentism: "I can't give passing grades to presentists!" (Emphasis in original.) That does settle it. Yet the compulsion, confession and gradebook terrorizing may be some indication that the matter of presentism and professionalism is not be as cut, dried, or easily laid to rest as many in this discussion would like to think.

  5. In the recent history of literary study, "presentism" has been a more complex and moving target. The new literary historicisms emerging in the 1980s objected in one way or another to the effectively presentist disregard for historicity characteristic of a still high-riding literary theory, poststructuralist or deconstructive, a kind of textualist obliviousness to history carried over from structuralism and other formalisms. But the sort of presentism tackled by Simpson in "Is Literary History. . .?" has been of a different and more aggressive kind, mobilized precisely against the more self-consciously elegant varieties of historicism as a demand to answer the "pressures of the present" by way of a hybrid theoretical-historical discourse that often conceives its historical work as less an organized campaign than a guerilla raid. These opportune raids on history for information (and history as information) to support a discourse on the "politics of the present" often amount, however, more to a stripped-down or instrumentalist version of historicism, than to the sort of anti-historical stance or posthistoire Simpson here associates them with.

  6. Nonetheless, by lumping disparate tendencies together under the rubric of "presentism," Simpson's polemic can usefully encourage further thinking about why all too many cultural-studies appeals to history can feel so thin, underdeveloped, uncomplex. Is it because cultural studies has "no need of history" that its historical claims can frequently seem so attenuated or badly posed? Do most practitioners of cultural studies, as Simpson supposes, actually embrace postmodernism's "end-of-history" eschatology? It seems to me much more likely that it is because cultural-studies arguments almost always require a history that their makers can too often assume there always is a history, ready-made, to appeal to. Such appeals may very well become "reductive or parodic" when they ransack cultural history in the search of historical narratives that will supplement this or that argument about power. If undergraduates can be too willing to punch in demands to the search-engines of contemporary information flow as if they were warp-speed hotlines to historical knowledge, graduate students are not doing qualitatively more than this when they pick up the latest and most provocative social histories (I mean books written by the protocols of that professional discipline, like Linda Colley's authoritative Britons or similar works) and deploy them as substitutes for their own culture-historical inquiry—or, equally likely, for their own historicist reading that would answer to a disciplinary base in literary-and-cultural studies. This second-hand or transcribed social history isn't "parodic," just misconceived, and testimony (if any is needed) to the increasing inability to discern what our disciplinary base actually is in "literary-and-cultural studies," and why it matters that we cannot and should not be simply pale echoes of better-equipped social historians like Colley herself.

  7. In such cases, if I may put it this way, there is a will only to use history and not to hear it. What this instrumental historicism too often lacks, and the more fiction-conscious or hermeneutic kinds of historicism better display, is the moment of self-inspection, the skeptical or even self-critical feedback loop which may say in effect, "Here is the price of your historical 'knowledge,'" or even something like, "Here is what another world has to reveal about your own faltering attempts to construe this past." Whether in the late eighteenth century or the late twentieth, the best historicisms have been those that in one sense or another attempted to grasp this sense of fragility or provisionality of their own instruments, to hear a message from the past they didn't anticipate or wish to hear, and often to make that hearing a reflexive part of the critical knowledge they seek to forge.

  8. If Simpson is objecting to anything broad and substantial in cultural studies' uses of history, then, I think it must be this: not "presentism" as such—without which in some measure no historicism of any kind could sow doubts about received or unjustifiably authorized historical accounts—but rather 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. Putting it this way, it seems to me, might forestall invidious appeals to sheer archivalism, or to a relevance-averse kind of antiquarianism that, in my experience, very few students of considerable ambition and intelligent conviction will now be likely to take up.

  9. As for "antiquarianism" itself—a term that I would agree has to be revalued from Nietzsche's contempt—Simpson's defense of that posture doesn't register the mounting evidence that "disinterested" historical information was only sometimes the aim of antiquarian scholarship in the past, and perhaps more rarely than we used to think. As the recent work of Jon Mee, Katie Trumpener, and Marilyn Butler have been demonstrating in some depth, eighteenth-century British antiquarians like Joseph Ritson or Francis Douce amassed volumes of popular as well as obscure pieces of text, custom, numbers, and even stray facts in what proved to be a keenly "interested" project of criticizing the early-modern authority of precedent and theology. "In their reconstruction of indigenous cultural forms and institutions suppressed after the English conquest," writes Trumpener in the early pages of Bardic Nationalism, "the antiquaries demonstrated both the enormous cultural damage wrought by imperial occupation and the continuing strength of culture to oppose its homogenizing force" (14). Meanwhile, Trumpener's own work will serve as quite superb evidence of the historicist vitality that can animate the best work in recent cultural-and-literary studies.

  10. I want to conclude by posing a question to my fellow respondents in this forum as well. Despite disagreeing with his view of the matter, they, like Simpson, offer to treat "presentism" as a party to be joined or to be shunned. I think this offer should be declined (in either direction). First, because any genuine form of historicism is already presentist in its very challenge to an unentailed, objectivist historiography. Second, because any mode of presentism worth defending is already caught up in a potentially intricate, reflexive comparison of "then" and "now." Third, because today's public appetite for histories of all kinds—from the chain bookstores and the History Channel to academic conferences and journals—may well be unmatched in any previous time, except possibly for the extraordinary popular vogue of "universal history" in the 1760s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Yet today, unlike then, the plurality and marketability of such histories does not at all suggest a confidence in history as such, and by the older historical-materialist landmarks that continue to inform both the imagination of cultural studies and Simpson's own unease, it's debatable how much of this current history-shopping helps us achieve any greater or more authentic feeling for historical movement or prospect for historical agency. I suspect this lack is what he and my students feel in common, although Simpson's rhetoric in "Is Literary History the History of Everything?" sets them entirely at odds instead. Rejecting the choice offered by history or presentism might help us stop internalizing the bad legacies of the Culture Wars and get on with thinking through the complexities of producing "literary and cultural studies" as knowledge.

Works Cited

Bennetta, William J. "More Fake 'History' from Glencoe." The Textbook Letter January-February 1999. 9 June 2001.

Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.

Chase, William. "The Development of Modern America," Syllabus for History 2227. Western Maryland College. 10 June 2001.

Hamilton, Paul. Historicism. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Klancher, Jon. "1800/2000: Romantic and Postmodern Historicisms," Syllabus for English 76-834, Carnegie Mellon University, Fall 1999.

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

Trumpener, Katie. Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.

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Published @ RC

February 2002