New Issue, Representations 143

NOW AVAILABLE

Number 143, Summer 2018

JULIE STONE PETERS
Staging the Last Judgment in the Trial of Charles I

BETTINA VARWIG
Heartfelt Musicking: The Physiology of a Bach Cantata

TRISHA URMI BANERJEE
Austen Equilibrium

ANDREW M. SHANKEN
Unit: A Semantic and Architectural History

NOURI GANA
Afteraffect: Arabic Literature and Affective Politics

Upcoming in Representations 144: Whitney Davis on Franz Boas’s theory of “the beholder’s share,” Roger Grant on the musical origins of affect theory, Ewan Jones on Swinburne and the poetics of waste, Kate Brackney on “Planet Auschwitz,” Julián Heffernan on ancestrality and extinction in Daniel Deronda, and a Field Note from Robert Sharf on the famous cats of physics and Buddhism. (Coming in November.)

Hidden in plain sight:

–This slightly mysterious mention of us in Mathias Énard’s novel Compass, winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and published in English last year: 

Énard’s character Franz is here referring here to a fictional Representations article, written by another character, Sarah, entitled “The Wine of the Dead Sarawak,” which Énard himself says was inspired by Peter Metcalf’s classic essay “Wine of the Corpse, Endocannibalism and the Great Feast of the Dead in Borneo,” published in Representations 17, Winter 1987.

The Los Angeles Review of Books called Compass a “brilliant, elusive, outré love letter to Middle Eastern art and culture.” We’re reading it now to confirm.

 

 

 

 

Maybe it’s the weather

Wildfires to the north of us here in Berkeley, extreme heat just beyond our fog belt, and drought in parts of the globe usually saturated this time of year prompted us to look through our archive for essays that deal in one way or another with views of nature. Among the many relevant pieces, our search revealed a pair of fine-grained essays on the 18th-century naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon:

Noah Heringman’s Deep Time at the Dawn of the Anthropocene argues that the concept of deep time is essential to the intellectual history of the Anthropocene—the name widely (though not yet formally) used for our current geological epoch. Buffon’s Epochs of Nature, one of the earliest secular models of geological time in Enlightenment natural history, uses inscription as a metaphor to mark the advent of biological species, including humans, in the course of earth history. The Anthropocene extends this project of writing ourselves into the rock record. Buffon makes a productive interlocutor for the Anthropocene because he is one of the first to examine climate change and related constraints on human agency in the context of deep time. Heringman examines Buffon’s natural history and associated Enlightenment discourses of primitive art and culture to gain a purchase on the challenges of scale posed by the Anthropocene.

Joanna Stalnaker’s Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature also looks at Buffon, but her focus is in counterpoint to Heringman’s. In her essay, Buffon is discussed in tandem with the poet Jacques Delille, Buffon’s near contemporary, whose innovative practices of description call into question our modern opposition between literature and science, raising the issue of how literature might be transformed through attention to nonhuman views of nature.

Read them together–in the shade if you can find it.

Fact Meets Fiction in Selma

Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films

by Jeffrey Knapp

The essay begins:

“This isn’t right.” Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. “I accept this honor,” he’d been saying, “for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.” What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed . “Corrie”—it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him—“this ain’t right.” “What’s that?” she asks, entering from another room. “This necktie. It’s not right.” “It’s not a necktie,” she corrects him, “it’s an ascot.” “Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.”

This opening to Selma announces the complexity not only of the movie itself but also of the genre to which it belongs—the historical film. First, there is the tonal instability of the scene, which swerves from the tragedy of “our lost ones” to the comedy of the ascot. Then there is the rhetorical switch from King’s earnest and formal speech to the colloquialism of his “ain’t” and the domestic ease of his “Corrie.” As the film reviewer Michael Sragow comments, these transformations seem intended “to signal to audiences that we’re in for an intimate, maybe irreverent look” at King; in general, A. O. Scott argues, Selma is dedicated to “restoring” King’s “human dimensions.” But the start of Selma also briefly confuses us about the meaning of a word that one might have assumed was the last one the movie would want us to feel confused about: “right,” as in “the right to vote,” “the right to assemble, and demonstrate,” “equal rights,” “civil rights.” “I don’t like how this looks,” King says of his ascot: what’s troubling him seems to be an aesthetic, not a moral offense. Another change in emphasis apparently neutralizes that distinction. When Coretta replies that the ascot “looks distinguished and debonair to me,” King clarifies that his objection has all along had a moral dimension to it. “You know what I mean,” he says to his wife: the ascot makes it seem “like we’re living high on the hog dressed like this, while folks back home are . . .  It’s not right.” Just as King wants the language of his speech to match the weightiness of its subject, so he’s concerned that his clothes reflect his social commitments; in aesthetics as in ethics, he believes, “the same principles should apply.” Yet the disorienting shifts of focus in this first scene nevertheless emphasize the potential for principles to become misaligned. Something else “isn’t right” at the start of Selma: the man who speaks these words, the British actor David Oyelowo, is after all merely pretending to be Martin Luther King Jr., and for a moment we might think that he’s expressing nothing more than his dissatisfaction with his performance. The opening to Selma seems, in other words, to anticipate two sorts of skeptical responses to the film: first, that Selma falls short as a historical recreation, and second, that it does so because of its trivializing overinvestment in such merely aesthetic questions as how the recreation “looks.”

These are indeed the very charges that have been leveled against the film, although they have centered less on the portrayal of King than on the representation of another historical figure in the movie, Lyndon Johnson. In an editorial for the Washington Post, the former Johnson aide Joseph Califano Jr. argued that

the makers of the new movie Selma apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.

In Selma, Califano charged, aesthetics “trumped” ethics: the producers, screenwriter, and director felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story.” Even reviewers more sympathetic to the film have agreed with Califano about its misrepresentation of LBJ. Though praising Selma as “the best depiction of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s,” Albert R. Hunt nevertheless added that “it needlessly, and erroneously, casts Johnson as a reluctant supporter of the Voting Rights Act”; so, too, Ari Berman characterized the film’s account of Johnson as “unnecessarily one-sided.” What troubled all three critics was how “needlessly,” in their view, the makers of Selma had set their aesthetic desire for dramatic “embellishment” against a moral “obligation” to “the facts.”

Proponents of Selma have by and large declined to defend the historical accuracy of Johnson’s portrayal in the film, instead choosing to criticize the very demand for accuracy as hopelessly naive. “Did ‘Selma’ cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story?” David Carr asked. “Why yes—just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made.” Differentiating Selma from “a documentary or even a dramatized history,” Jamelle Bouie defined it as “a film based on historical accounts, and like all films of its genre, it has a loose relationship to actual history.” Consequently, Bouie added, “it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts” in Selma not as defects but rather “as creative choices—license in pursuit of art.” “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian,” Selma’s director Ava DuVernay similarly maintained in a televised interview with Gwen Ifill: “This is art. This is a movie. This is a film.” According to the reviewer Bilge Ebiri, the only relevant terms for judging the rightness of historical films are aesthetic ones: “These movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. . . . They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves.”

“Every year,” the film scholar Jeanine Basinger wearily complained when asked to comment on Selma, “I know someone is going to call me about distortion of history when we hit the Oscars.” But there’s a reason that the objection keeps recurring. If it’s a mistake to look for accuracy in historical films, then why do historical films bother with accuracy at all? Although DuVernay rejected the label of documentarian in her interview with Ifill, that is exactly how she began her directorial career, with the hip-hop documentary This Is the Life (2008)—and her next project after Selma was a documentary on the US criminal justice system, 13th. What’s more, historical verisimilitude mattered enough to DuVernay in making Selma that she meticulously reproduced the look and feel of the sixties in her film, chose actors who bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the figures they played, and even spliced actual documentary footage of the final march to Montgomery into Selma’s recreation of it. In the same interview where she claimed that she was no more of a historian than a documentarian, DuVernay expressed her dismay at the “jaw-dropping” ignorance of moviegoers regarding the events her film “chronicled,” and she hoped that her movie would help Selma “resonate with people in the way that it should as being just such a cornerstone of democracy.” Prominent participants in the march have indeed championed the film as historiography. “Everything” except the film’s “depiction of the interaction between King and Johnson,” Andrew Young has said, “they got 100 percent right.” But then how could historical accuracy not be an issue for a film that ends with King’s proclaiming, “His truth is marching on”? The tensions between fact and fiction in Selma are anything but incidental to the movie: they instead reflect the irreducibly hybrid nature of the historical film.

Is it possible to argue that a mix of fact and fiction is necessary to Selma and to historical films generally? Continue reading …

Every historical film must contend with the possibility that its viewers will be scandalized by its mixture of fact and fiction, but no recent historical film has faced such pressure to justify its hybrid nature as Selma has, in large part because no recent film has taken on so momentous and controversial a historical subject: the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The renewed urgency of the issues Selma dramatizes, along with the film’s own commitment to the “moral certainty” of the civil rights movement, helps explain why Selma wavers in a self-defense that links the fictionality of its historical reenactments to the purposely theatrical element of the marches themselves. But politics are not the only problem for fiction in Selma, and to show why, this essay compares Selma to an earlier historical film, The Westerner (1940), that openly flaunts the commercial nature of its fictionality.

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Faculty Affiliate of Berkeley’s Film and Media Department.  He is most recently the author of Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published in 2017 by Oxford University Press.

The Formalist in Nature

Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature

by Aglaya Glebova

The essay begins:

“This is where we should go on vacation—in winter. What snow, light, mountains!” These lines were written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, from the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was then being constructed by prisoners at an eponymous forced labor camp, one of the Soviet Union’s first, where more than twenty-five thousand—and possibly as many as fifty thousand—inmates lost their lives from 1931 to 1933. Had the photographer not yet seen the atrocities of the camp? Was he highlighting holiday pleasures in case his letter was read by someone other than its intended recipient? Rodchenko’s pronouncement is so utterly damning in its willful ignorance of the human toll of the construction of the canal as to render any possible justifications moot. This description of a gulag—bracketed, to top it off, with declarations that the sun and the air are “wonderful”—effectively bars any interpretive engagement. One’s only recourse, it seems, is to denounce Rodchenko’s deliberate blindness to the grim efficiencies of the state machine.

Yet I open with this letter not to offer additional evidence against the artist. Rather, while keeping the letter’s dismaying omissions firmly in mind, I want to move past the screen that its glibness presents and focus on what it reveals about Rodchenko’s time at the canal: there he experienced a landscape, a place. Descriptions of nature—uncharacteristically for Rodchenko, since he was hardly enamored with the romantic notions of an earlier century—fill his brief letters home, and landscape appears, far more forcefully than ever before, in his photographs from the canal. These images of nature are remarkable in the context of the ideological climate from which they emerged. As the first Five-Year Plan (fulfilled in four years, 1928–32) unfolded, the Soviet state looked for ways to rationalize both the breakneck industrialization and mass repressions—developments joined at the hip, for the latter powered the former—that it undertook. The philosophy that underwrote both was the call for the complete transformation of the existing “old” world into a “new” socialist universe. The ideology crystallized and reached its apex in the rhetoric surrounding the White Sea-Baltic Canal project and its policy of “reforging” (perekovka), the term coined at the time to denote the discourse of molding both criminals and landscapes resistant to Soviet rule into productive, socialist beings through labor. The environment became, in essence, the most obdurate class enemy of the socialist state, whose intent was to transform the landscape’s sublimity and unpredictability into a pliant, rational, and productive entity. If, as the by-now canonical way of thinking in art history has it, landscape helps naturalize ideology, what happens when a state declares that nature must be radically, even totally, refigured? And how, then, might we begin to explain the aesthetic of Rodchenko’s canal landscapes, their quasi-romantic qualities above all? Continue reading … 

In this essay art historian Aglaya Glebova  traces the evolution of landscape imagery in Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographic oeuvre, focusing especially on images produced during his journalistic trip to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps. Through close reading of photographs, she argues that Rodchenko’s abandonment of avant-garde aesthetics, in particular the emphasis on photography’s transformative powers and its medium-specificity, in these images did not represent a shift toward socialist realism but, rather, held critical potential in the face of contemporaneous official censure of formalism and “contemplation” in both science and art.

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

Catherine Gallagher Wins Barzun Prize

The American Philosophical Society has announced that Professor Catherine Gallagher has been selected as the 2018 recipient of the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History for her book, Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction.

 

Inventing counterfactual histories is a common pastime of modern day historians, both amateur and professional. We speculate about an America ruled by Jefferson Davis, a Europe that never threw off Hitler, or a second term for JFK. These narratives are often written off as politically inspired fantasy or as pop culture fodder, but in Telling It Like It Wasn’t, Catherine Gallagher takes the history of counterfactual history seriously, pinning it down as an object of dispassionate study. She doesn’t take a moral or normative stand on the practice, but focuses her attention on how it works and to what ends—a quest that takes readers on a fascinating tour of literary and historical criticism.

The topic of counterfactual histories has long engaged Catherine Gallagher. In addition to the essays in this new book, her “When Did the Confederate States of America Free the Slaves?” was published in the special forum Counterfactual Realities in Representations 98, and “The Formalism of Military History” appeared in our 25th anniversary special issue On Form.

Catherine Gallagher is professor emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founding member of the Representations editorial board. She is the author of many books, including The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel.

Jesus, Secular and Otherwise

Prophets Genuine and Spurious:

The Victorian Jesus Novel and the Ends of Comparison

by Sebastian LeCourt

The essay begins:

One curious feature of nineteenth-century British and American novels about Jesus is the fact that their central figure often remains largely offstage. In Harriet Martineau’s Traditions of Palestine (1830), William Ware’s Julian; or, Scenes in Judea (1841), Edwin A. Abbott’s Philochristus: Memoirs of a Disciple of the Lord (1878), Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), James Freeman Clarke’s The Legend of Thomas Didymus: The Jewish Skeptic (1881), Marie Corelli’s Barabbas (1893), and Florence Morse Kingsley’s Titus, a Comrade of the Cross (1894), Jesus is pushed into the background while the narrative follows the life of a minor historical figure or the cultural milieu of first-century Palestine. Ware builds an elaborate character system out of various bit players from the canonical Gospels, turning Barabbas, the robber who is pardoned unwittingly in Jesus’s place, into Mary Magdalene’s ne’er-do-well brother and a proxy for her own narrative arc. Kingsley, beating Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) to the punch, forges a comic subplot out of the story of a cripple whom Jesus robs of employment: “Ha, fellow! thou didst heal me, three years ago, of the palsy, which had withered my limbs; and in so doing took away my living, for my begging no longer brought me money.” And behind all of this are elaborate historical backdrops drawn from both secular historiography and Holy Land tourist guidebooks.

In many ways, of course, this pattern is exactly the one we might expect, since it exemplifies the core move of the classical historical novel described a century ago by Georg Lukács. According to Lukács, Walter Scott and his many imitators sought to shift readers’ attentions away from the lives of great heroes and toward the grassroots historical forces that helped produce them in the first place. As a result, those forgotten individuals who would have represented mere scenery to traditional historiography became protagonists themselves and the new privileged lens for understanding historical change. Although quite traditional within novel studies, this narrative has seen its currency revived lately by Alex Woloch’s The One vs. the Many (2003) as well as more recent essays by Julian Murphet, Emily Steinlight, Jesse Rosenthal, and others. One reason for its endurance is the fact that it forms part of a familiar account of secularization as the transfer of cultural privilege from the singular to the multiple and the special to the ordinary. What links secularization, democratization, and individualism, according to this narrative, is a desire to seek out meaning among undistinguished individuals and everyday life instead of established gods and kings.

Yet the reality is that many Victorian Jesus novels were authored not by writers of a secularist bent but rather by more orthodox figures. Even though they consigned Jesus to the margins of a realistic historical landscape, their avowed goal was nevertheless to affirm his status as an unparalleled personality in cosmic history. In this essay I argue that understanding why they did so offers us a chance to complicate our traditional association of historical realism with secularization and thereby illuminate a wider set of possibilities. Specifically, I want to replace the contrast between singularity and multiplicity with a less stable triangle of terms: the particularity of the random individual, the genericness of the recurring historical type, and the specialness of the Carlylean hero or prophet. These three ways of focalizing character—particularity, typicality, and specialness—blend into and oppose one another in ways that our binary modernization stories often fail to capture. Abstract typicality and novelistic particularity can both be used to argue against heroic specialness by portraying a figure like Jesus as an unremarkable iteration of a recurring type. But they can also be profoundly at odds with each other, a fact that allows novelistic realism to become the ally of theology.

In order to trace these dynamics in action, I situate the Victorian Jesus novel alongside the broader nineteenth-century enterprise called comparative religion. One central postulate of this emerging field was that religious founders such as Jesus and the Buddha were simultaneously historical and typical. Not only did they have idiosyncratic origin stories that could be documented in great detail, but they also represented instances of a type that recurred from age to age and culture to culture. Both assertions were designed to counter the notion of Christian exceptionality and to value a wider range of cultural materials under the label of religion. At the same time, comparative religion’s invocation of recurring types was profoundly at odds with its commitment to validating the particular and the various. For, in fact, Victorian scholars often found postbiblical religious founders such as Mohammed difficult to imagine as legitimate instances of the type precisely because there was such an abundance of information about them. They were hard pressed to square this new generic abstraction, “religion,” with the lives of actual historical figures, warts and all. George Eliot explores this tension in her two long fictions about early-modern prophets, Romola (1863) and The Spanish Gypsy (1867), both of which turn the misfit between individual characters and the types to which they aspire into a driving energy of narrative. Conversely, the Victorian Jesus novel reveals how the tropes of historical realism could be deployed to affirm a religious founder’s singular theological status, as novelists like Wallace used realistic description to set certain moments of spiritual encounter apart from the recurring patterns of religious history.

By exploring these shifting alignments of specialness, typicality, and particularity, we can ultimately gain a broader perspective on the vexed place of comparativism within secularist thinking. Comparative scholarship is often portrayed as the scholarly wing of aggressive Western universalism; critics such as Tomoko Masuzawa have leveled at comparative religion the same charge that is often directed toward comparative literature—that it reduces a world of complex differences to a set of knowable homologies and types available to the secular metropolitan intellectual. But the tensions found in and around the Victorian Jesus novel suggest how comparativism, secular realism, and the religious imagination have several possible relationships. Indeed, Western secularism itself turns out to be torn between its desire to celebrate the mundane minutiae of history and its impulse to assign them equivalent or comparative dignity. If a certain strain of Anglo-American secularism seeks to affirm the everyday or the “typical,” then typicality itself can mean a number of different things, from the idiosyncratic to the generic and replaceable. Tracing these competing projects within nineteenth-century religious studies, I argue, allows us to imagine how there might be different uses for comparative types, secular and otherwise. Continue reading …

In this essay Sebastian Lecourt uses the overlapping cases of Victorian comparative religion and the Victorian Jesus novel to explore the vexed function of comparative types in nineteenth-century writing. Where Victorian comparative religion, with its concept of the generic founder type, had a surprisingly hard time validating the lives of particular individuals, evangelical Jesus novels were able to make use of historical realism in a way that standard portraits of the novel as a secularizing genre seldom anticipate.

SEBASTIAN LECOURT is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston. He is the author of Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, and the Secular Imagination (Oxford, 2018) as well as essays in PMLAVictorian Studiesb2o, Literature Compass, and Victorian Literature and Culture.

Kent Puckett Wins Perkins Prize

Congratulations to Kent Puckett

–whose book  Narrative Theory: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge UP, 2016) has won the 2018 Perkins Prize from the International Society for the Study of Narrative. The Barbara Perkins and George Perkins Prize is presented annually the society to the book that makes the most significant contribution to the study of narrative in the preceding year.

Narrative Theory: A Critical Introduction provides an account of a methodology increasingly central to literary studies, film studies, history, psychology, and beyond. In addition to introducing readers to some of the field’s major figures and their ideas, Puckett situates critical and philosophical approaches toward narrative within a longer intellectual history. The book reveals one of narrative theory’s founding claims – that narratives need to be understood in terms of a formal relation between story and discourse, between what they narrate and how they narrate it – both as a necessary methodological distinction and as a problem characteristic of modern thought. Puckett thus shows that narrative theory is not only a powerful descriptive system but also a complex and sometimes ironic form of critique.

KENT PUCKETT is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author, in addition to Narrative Theory, of War Pictures: Cinema, Violence, and Style in Britain, 1939-1945 (Fordham, 2017)  and Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel (Oxford, 2008). He serves on the editorial board of Representations, for which he  edited the special forum Search (127) and coedited, with C. D. Blanton and Colleen Lye, the special issue Financialization and the Culture Industry (126).

Tears in Paradise

Tears in Paradise: The Revolution of Tender Conscience

by Esther Yu

The essay begins:

Early modern readers familiar with the Genesis account would have been surprised to find in the pristine, unfallen world of Paradise Lost something no literary antecedent had ever envisioned there before: guilty tears. They are Eve’s, and they follow a dream Satan insinuates by night before she has ever sinned. Eve’s tears suggest her possession of what the seventeenth century would have recognized as a tender conscience—a hasty sensitivity to wrongdoing that stirs even in the absence of any sinful activity. It was no untroubled act of piety for John Milton, in 1667, to ensconce in the very heart of Paradise this exquisite sensitivity. The tender conscience had grown in the 1640s into a shared political principle that provided the moral grounds for political resistance. This conscience, whose force crucially derived from its claims to weakness rather than strength, soon gained a reputation as the affective regime underwriting regicide. Critics in the wake of Charles I’s death in 1649 denounced the violent proclivities of the discourse of “tenderness”; the credibility of conscientious discourse was thereby called into question. By the Restoration, neither the persistence nor the divine provenance of the tender conscience could be safely assumed. The hasty sensitivity of the tender conscience at the close of the English Revolution seemed in need of an origin story, one that would secure its future.

The conscience that remade Britain’s political landscape did so by binding a complex set of experiences and assumptions—not least of all, the responsibility of ethical feeling—into a single, shared identity. The resulting discourse effectively lowered the threshold of ethical sensitivity even as it prescribed a restrained response to expressions of vulnerability. English writers in the early decades of the seventeenth century had set out to cultivate an ideal of spiritual sensitivity; the emotional norms they created carved the channels through which the more familiar political history flows. The successful challenge to episcopacy and the leadership of Archbishop Laud in the 1640s turned on the newfound authority of an affective discourse that motivated collective action across what seemed an ever-expanding range of cultural fields. With the finely attuned interdependence it posited and the comprehensive, systemic form it increasingly assumed across multiple domains of social life, the tender conscience enlarged into something like an affective ecology. Within its supple moral order, citizens gained political voices by becoming tender; a constitutional crisis ensued. In liberalism’s formative age, the fragility of the tender conscience was both a regulative public ideal and the very condition of political voice.

Through the discourse of the tender conscience, the early modern public becomes familiar with a body given over not to sensuous appetites but to sensitive perception. The century that sees both the Puritan struggle of flesh with spirit and the empiricist reliance on the senses becomes more comprehensible in light of a shared enthusiasm for morally valuable sensitivity. Much remains to be said about the Enlightenment’s subsequent adoption of sensitivity as an epistemological premise, but such work awaits an account of the tender conscience as a moving political force. Laudian episcopacy would succumb to the pressure of dissent; soon after, however, the united front of tender consciences fell apart. Sectarian groups began to vie with each other for the position of privileged delicacy, characterizing opposition from other parties as cruel violations. Thus seemingly liable to the claims of any and all parties, the conscience became the target of increasing suspicion. With the execution of Charles I, the tender conscience reached its high-water mark. Its credibility plummeted thereafter. After the Restoration, the survival of the tender conscience—both as a privileged affective disposition and the spirit of the “Good Old Cause”—was very far from certain.

Milton, as this essay’s final section argues, fully perceives the magnitude of this crisis, and undertakes in his poetry an audacious interpretation and defense of the tender conscience. The project of repairing its credibility grows ever larger for Milton until, in Paradise Lost, he reverse-engineers the whole universe to show the tender conscience woven into every part of the created fabric. Milton’s epic mounts an unlikely defense of the tender conscience by suffusing it into the slightest bits of poetic matter, dispersing it altogether until readers participate in its restoration as a fundamental assumption that invites neither notice nor comment. This essay discovers in Milton’s images a forceful affirmation of the tender conscience’s participation in history. The most monumental of English poems engages in the supremely delicate task of restoring to a nation its vision of a fragile, fading conscience. It is the tenderness of surpassing strength that characterizes both the celestial might and conscientious resilience that Milton, in defiance of Restoration sentiment, upholds for its capacity to reform entire worlds. (Continue reading … )

In this essay Esther Yu shows how the “tender conscience” of seventeenth-century British discourse redirected the course of political history and the history of the emotions. In the 1640s, the unimpeachable repute of the tender conscience as a spiritual identity provided lay citizens with the authority needed to voice political dissent. The growing antiprelatical movement found in the tender conscience a ready-made resistance theory. For John Milton, the work of defining this conscience is so closely tied to arguments for the legitimacy of revolutionary action that his oeuvre can be read as a protracted struggle to establish its boundaries.

ESTHER YU is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is completing a dissertation entitled Experiencing the Novel: The Tender Conscience in Early Modern England.

The Literary Contemporary

Contemporary, Inc.

by Theodore Martin

The essay begins:

It is, in one way at least, a good time to be contemporary. In the past ten or so years, the study of contemporary literature and culture has amassed an impressive sum of institutional currency, paid in the usual forms of new professional organizations, journals, conferences, book series, and—such as they are—job searches. So too has the philosophical idea of the contemporary only recently “begun to emerge into the critical daylight,” as the philosopher Peter Osborne points out, bringing with it a “recent rush of writing trying to make some minimal theoretical sense of the concept.” Yet perhaps the most unmistakable sign of the contemporary’s ascendance as a scholarly category is that it has now become a subject for the contemporary novel.

This is not so surprising. Indeed, one of the first things to notice about the range of Anglo-American writers who, through channels of legitimation ranging from classroom syllabi to academic journals to crossover magazines, have become exemplars of the quality that English professors vaguely but confidently call “contemporary”—writers like Teju Cole, Maggie Nelson, Ben Lerner, and Tom McCarthy—is that they are all intensely aware of literature’s intimate relationship to academic work. McCarthy, one of the most frequently taught and talked about English-language writers of the twenty-first century, offers an especially illuminating case study in the current entwining of contemporary literature and contemporary criticism. As both a Man Booker Prize-nominated novelist (for 2010’s C. and 2015’s Satin Island) and a published literary theorist (2006’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature), McCarthy is not only a ubiquitous topic of conversations at literature conferences; he has also become, in recent years, a speaker at those same conferences, giving keynote addresses at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture in 2012 and at the Society for Novel Studies in 2016. If McCarthy’s public career reveals the increasingly permeable boundary between writers and critics in the contemporary moment, his novels narrate the consequences of this new professional permeability. In McCarthy’s hands, the contemporary novel has become an opportunity to reflect on the academic category of the contemporary itself. Halfway through McCarthy’s most recent novel, Satin Island, the narrator, a former academic turned “corporate anthropologist” named U., travels to Frankfurt for a conference. “The theme of the conference,” we are told, “was—for once!—not The Future. It was The Contemporary.” For U., this trending topic is

even worse. It was, of course, a topic to which I’d been giving much thought: radiant now-ness, Present-Tense AnthropologyTM and so forth. But I wasn’t ready to give all that stuff, all those half-formed notions, an outing. Besides which, I’d started to harbour doubts about their viability. These doubts themselves, I told myself in the days before the conference, were what I’d air. To air the doubt about a concept before airing the concept itself was, I thought, quite intellectually adventurous; it might go down well.

To think about the contemporary, McCarthy suggests, is to think mainly in “half-formed notions.” That is because, as U. realizes, the contemporary is an essentially empty category: its uncertainty precedes its content. Imprecise and unformed, the contemporary brooks no positive definition; it can be expressed only in terms of one’s “doubts” about its “viability” or existence.

U.’s conference presentation is, to that end, all doubt and little notion. “The Contemporary,” U. tells his audience, is “a suspect term.” It is not a stable historical period so much as “a constantly mutating space,” less a fixed moment than “a moving ratio of modernity.” The constant movement and mutation of the contemporary means that it is “misguided” to make “periodic claims” about it, since such periodizing claims “can’t be empirically justified” (100). The absence of any empirical or historical grounds for talking about the contemporary means that the term is, at best, only a placeholder for future inquiry. As U. puts it in the last lines of his talk, “What we require is not contemporary anthropology but an anthropology of The Contemporary.” If U. is not entirely sure what he means by this (“Ba-boom: that was my ‘out,’” he admits cynically), neither is his audience; his talk is, we are told, “met with silence” (101).

Yet that silence may have a familiar ring to it. While U.’s lecture may fail to engage its intended fictional audience, it should still capture the attention of many members of its nonfictional audience, for whom it will evoke, with impressive precision, the recognizable language and familiarly awkward experience of the academic conference. In short, these pages of Satin Island are as much a staging of literary criticism as they are literature. As such, they are our first hint of a novel—and, as I’ll argue over the course of this essay, of a moment in the history of the novel—that strives to be not only a novel but also a commentary on the disciplinary frameworks that, in the Anglo-American academy, determine how something becomes a “contemporary” novel in the first place.

Why does Satin Island consider the contemporary such a suspect term? Continue reading … 

In this essay Martin traces the century-long history of contemporary literature as a field of study in English departments. Showing how prior debates about the scholarly status of contemporary literature coincided with both changing disciplinary methodologies and the changing political landscape of the university, he argues that prevailing anxieties about the study of the contemporary today are central to explaining the emergence of a new kind of contemporary novel.

THEODORE MARTIN is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (Columbia UP, 2017).