Today’s Eighteenth Century

Tita Chico continues the discussion:

In the 2008 edition of Profession, William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin, scholars whose work is grounded in the field of eighteenth-century British literary studies, advise literary critics to stop doing cultural studies altogether. Their primary complaint is that the term “culture” connotes two ideas that emerged concurrently in the late eighteenth century, both the notion that every society has a culture and the understanding that culture more narrowly means high culture, not just any art form. For them, this “historic doubling” (Warner and Siskin, “Stopping,” 102) produces an incoherence that negatively implicates cultural studies, forcing practitioners both to dispense with disciplinary logic to accommodate the broad meaning of culture and also, contradictorily, to revert back to the disciplines in their most traditional forms to analyze great art. Given the double-bind they imagine, the only solution, in their view, is to stop the practice altogether. Long before the emergence of cultural studies, however, the field of eighteenth-century British literary studies in particular had been shaped by what might be called “culture,” “historicism,” or even “background.” The historicizing tendency is evident, for instance, in footnotes to Gulliver’s Travels that narrow the satire to a specific political allegory (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 22 n. 1; 36, n.1) as well as in the work of critics such as F. R. Leavis and Cleanth Brooks, who would not ordinarily be associated with contextualizing (Norris, “Pope among the Formalists,” 141). Given the field’s persistent, if uneasy, relation to these references, Warner and Siskin’s complaint posits an opposition that, in effect, undermines the important ways cultural studies over the past twenty years has opened up topics, texts, and methodologies for consideration – and a flexibility and capaciousness – that have, in turn, strengthened the field. Their message also obscures the genealogy of today’s eighteenth century, an archive and an epistemology that have been made available because of the questions and concerns that cultural studies raise.

When cultural studies began to emerge in the academy during the late 1980s and 1990s, eighteenth-century literary studies was buffeted by the recovery of forgotten texts and by explicitly theoretical work that called “attention to the resistance to contemporary theory that has largely characterized the study of eighteenth-century English literature” (Nussbaum and Brown, 1). The conceptual reframing of “early modern” that often accompanied the moniker of “cultural studies” at this time likewise offered a loose boundary to think beyond the confines of the traditional eighteenth century. Cultural studies scholarship opened up the canon, extended the boundaries, re-conceived historical difference, and produced political criticism.  In its most hopeful manifestation, cultural studies asked literary scholars to look at different things–to take the literary critical eye to examine the formal features of materials that were beyond the normative bounds of the literary and, in so doing, to look at them differently. If the field of eighteenth-century literary studies has long engaged with “culture,” then cultural studies has given many scholars concerned with eighteenth-century literature an opportunity to reflect upon these texts’ relation to history and other contemporary artifacts per se, and to grapple with and deepen the various intellectual and political legacies of the theory wars.

Even as cultural studies began to make these kinds of inroads into how eighteenth-century literature was studied and taught, there were various forms of resistance to its practice and findings. One year (2004), the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ Cultural Studies Caucus featured a panel of scholars voicing their fatigue with political criticism and hoping that scholarship might just focus on art again. The next year (2005) showcased critics who firmly advocated for political criticism, a conversation that led, in part, to a special issue of Philological Quarterly edited by Rajani Sudan, entitled “Rethinking New Formalism.” While the arguments back and forth can be productive, the significant difference today is that these debates now take place within a much more fraught and tenuous economic environment for higher education in which almost every unit on campus is under budgetary – and, at times, political – siege. As it turned out, the year that Warner and Siskin published their cease-and-desist message happened to be the same year that the worst economic crisis in the US since the 1930s began. Why does the concurrence of the call to stop cultural studies and the economic contractions convulsing through institutions of higher education matter? If this recession “threatens to be not so much a period of retrenchment followed by recovery as an opening onto a thoroughgoing transformation of the postsecondary system” (Porter), then it is even more incumbent to articulate and to advocate for the field’s pedagogical and scholarly work, and that economic entrenchment not be allowed to be repackaged as an intellectual principle.

Implicitly underwriting Warner and Siskin’s work, as well as that of others, may be a concern for preservation, perhaps in response to material and political conditions that threaten obsolescence (Warner and Siskin, “Stopping,” 105; Siskin and Warner, Enlightenment, 1-12; Rosenthal; Latour, 232). At this time, there is much work to be done to demarcate and identify the intellectual work that literary scholars do, though arguably the trope of the humanities in crisis has circulated for more than a century. When a friendly and curious colleague from the sciences asks why graduate students are reading Robinson Crusoe, “a book they all should have read years ago,” the question incorrectly presumes that the reading of literary critics is just like all other reading and that the meaning of a literary text is easily decipherable and ultimately transhistorical. The answer to such a question must convey the knowledge production of literary studies writ large as well as the specificity of today’s eighteenth century. Reading as literary critics means re-reading with ever greater insight and nuance, developing and refining the skills of close reading and attending to much more than the adventure story that the scientist remembers having read as a child. Reading also means doing so in concert with related texts, no matter how that relation might be defined, through the lens of today’s eighteenth century. Together, these models of reading allow for an illumination of how, for example, the afterlife of Robinson Crusoe as a recurring myth of Western individualism and colonialism in fact overshadows the uneasy and uneven global order through which Robinson navigates.

Setting aside their provocation, Warner and Siskin make a helpful point that the “culture” of “cultural studies” is an under-theorized term that, in practice, stands as “the Teflon category. We fret over it—everyone complaining at one time or another that it doesn’t quite do the job—but the complaints don’t stick because it’s so easy to use. We simply don’t know what we would do without it” (Warner and Siskin, 104). Extending their logic, “culture” in “cultural studies” can be a catch-all term that almost mystically has the evidentiary status of a truth claim, though the specificity of that status may not be fully articulated; as a result, it is important to reconsider how the term “culture” functions in eighteenth-century literary studies. How, for example, does the word “culture” suggest, but perhaps not fully explore, particular domains of knowledge and experience? How are these related to – or in tension with – literary practices?  What happens, moreover, when agents and actors are imagined in specific relation to claims about culture? The point of these questions is not to dispense with cultural studies per se, in large part because of the radical work that it has provided, pedagogically, intellectually, and institutionally.  The literary criticism characterized here has brought with it innovations in how we study literature and who matters enough to have a voice, whether this is in the eighteenth-century archive or on the faculty and in the student body of the modern university. Cultural studies has the potential to open up institutions to forms of difference that can deepen our thought and practices. Literary criticism that perceives and articulates these forms of difference can show more nuanced relationships and yield ever more powerful and pertinent analyses.

To stop cultural studies, then, is to yield to obsolescence, an idea that, of course, took root in the eighteenth century along with its twin, novelty. Both of these likewise opened a Pandora’s box of criticism qua criticism that arguably has produced this putative impasse in the first place (Latour, 232). So while it may be novel to argue for obsolescence from within the field at the same moment that higher education and intellectual work are being challenged from without, the more productive route is to consider the eighteenth century as an archive that promises a way forward. This is an understanding of the Enlightenment as a theoretical-historical concept that simultaneously calls for radical change as well as harbors appeals to the ideals of humanism. Today’s eighteenth-century archive is, as Derrida acknowledges, “at once institutive and conservative,” it catalogues anew and it preserves (Derrida, 9). Today’s eighteenth century builds upon and extends the cultural studies model with its multiplicity of voices, texts, and concerns, known through and by the material conditions of their production and interpretation. Today’s eighteenth century also encourages scholars to see beyond the traditional markers of the field, whether those divisions are defined chronologically or regionally. These efforts –whether regarding, say, sensory perception, poetry, or politics– draw from the expansiveness of earlier iterations of cultural studies and share, at the core, a commitment to mimesis, the object of literary interpretation. Thus the knowledge making of literary critics is not exclusively about the discovery of new texts and new things, or merely re-enacting an epistemology that vacillates between novelty and obsolescence. The work of literary critics is more accurately, if difficultly, concerned with unraveling these histories of representation, pushing ourselves to think hard about what is represented when, how, and by whom — arguably, the central tenets of a cultural studies approach–even when the answers to and satisfaction with those questions change over time.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print. 

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 225-48. Print.

Norris, Christopher. “Pope among the Formalists: Textual Politics and ‘The Rape of the Lock.’” Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry. Ed. Richard Machin and Christopher Norris. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1987. 134-61. Print.

Nussbaum, Felicity and Laura Brown, eds. The New 18th Century: Theory, Politics, Literature. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987. Print.

Porter, Catherine. From the President, “(Re)Defining Productivity,” Reprinted from the Winter 2009 MLA Newsletter. Weblog entry. Accessed 24 April 2011.


Rosenthal, Laura J. “The Perils and Pleasures of Legitimacy.”  Paper presented at the Modern Language Association Annual Conference, January 8, 2011. Revised and expanded as “Pirate Studies and the End of the Humanities.” Weblog entry. The Long 18th. January 27, 2011. April 1, 2011. (URL: ). A fuller version is forthcoming in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation.

Siskin, Clifford and William B. Warner, eds. This Is Enlightenment. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010. Print.

Sudan, Rajan, ed. “Rethinking New Formalism,” special issue of Philological Quarterly 86:3 (Summer 2007). Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. Second edition. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1961. Print.

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.


10 responses to “Today’s Eighteenth Century

  1. An excellent and beautiful essay, although I wonder if it is too good for what I understand this website should be: extemporaneous “blogging.” But that’s not important. I think Tita’s essay, not a blog of course, is terrific, and I plan to read it again more carefully. Historians, as she notes are tone deaf and unable to see the cultural-historical-textual nuances in Robinson Crusoe. I admire historians, but they are not cultural or literary historians.

  2. Thank you, John!

    That question of seeing and valuing nuance, I think, is crucial. It’s an obvious point, of course, but we see meaning and significance where other disciplines and fields do not.

  3. I’m not persuaded by the notion that literary studies owns the concept of nuance, or even textual nuance, which other fields are too flatfooted to understand. I suspect that philosophers might strongly protest this (hopelessly unnuanced) generalization, as would historians. What is the basis for judgment here? What kinds of textual evidence are we invoking? I certainly wouldn’t characterize Anthony Grafton, John Pocock, Keith Thomas, or Edward Thompson in this manner. We may or may not want to read their work, or use their work, but I don’t think we can gainsay the accomplishment.

    I also suspect that literary criticism itself is not uniform in its practices: we read critics like R.S. Crane or for that matter Raymond Williams for interpretations that help to organize our understanding of multiple works, not their explorations of single works. Literary history, too, is a field in which nuance and innovation can be discovered, but these often exist at the level of selection, organization, and discussion of its materials.

    Finally, I think that literary criticism benefits by having such an eclectic variety of perspectives available when discussing individual and grouped work: literary history, practical literary criticism, and now a history of critical theory that includes cultural studies. Why should we surrender any of these options for use in the future?

  4. Dave,
    I think that there’s a great need to articulate that literary criticism is about–to use a blunt formulation — critical reading, reading that attends to the terms of its own assumptions. The short-hand example I cited above was a comment from a friend from the other side of campus, i.e., from the sciences, a reader, of course, but who imagines that reading a novel is a one-time affair. From this perspective, the sign of expertise, then, is to read even more of them. While that constitutes part of what I do and teach, the other part is explicitly methodological — reading *better*, as it were, as much as what that might be changes. What I am aware of, increasingly, is that the very core of our practices of reading and interpretation — in the variety that you evoke — are ever-more important.

  5. Tita,

    I completely agree that literary studies demands some notion of “critical reading,” which in my view also entails expectations of both reflection and re-reading: literature, or literary value, is defined as that which is capable of being repeatedly reread over time by readers (cf. Calinescu, Rereading); literary readers are then defined as those who benefit by reading, reflecting upon, and responding to one another.

    I also believe that we should not slight the collective discussion, or the research- and writing-processes, that our scholarship also requires for professional academic criticism. If historians fetishize the “archive,” then literary scholars often fetishize “the reading.” This amounts to mystifying the role of the scholar as she selects the material, shapes her arguments, and produces a scholarly text for others to read. All this is to say that reflective practice would suggest that we not reduce literary criticism to a single kind of activity, however important.

  6. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the follow-up comments. I’m not interested in an interpretive world that falls into lock step — not in the least — but the short-hand example in my piece, which seems to have caught attention, is not about humanists and their differences. Experiences on campus-wide selection committees (13 this past year; that’s another conversation!) have been highly instructive. As we debate about what we do, want to do, or ought to do, our colleagues in other fields — colleagues also invested, in varying degrees, to the principles of a university — do not see meaning and significance in the ways that literary critics do, even if there is not consensus about our own practices. In those instances, I saw that the idea of ‘close reading,’ as fraught as it is, doesn’t resonate as deeply as one might want. Moreover, since everyone can ‘read,’ there’s a possibility for that reading to *seem* transparent, when, of course, it isn’t, nor am I wanting to encourage it to be. To my mind, what I talk about in my piece — that is, the vacillation between a rhetoric of obsolescence and and that of novelty, and their relation to the eighteenth century more specifically — can be helpful here to reframe things. For me, the eighteenth century is a great place to work through the questions and implications of cultural studies, as I work with increasing awareness of the larger intellectual community of the ‘university.’


  7. Hi Tita,

    I do think that literary scholars need to be able to explain to outside disciplines and the public that we practice a kind of “productive rereading” that is very different from the classicist or novelty/obsolescence models you mention. Unfortunately, this mode does not fall within the two dominant modes of legitimation available to disciplines today, either humanist or scientific. These modes of legitimation become all the more crucial as knowledge becomes ever-more commodified and subject to an analysis of immediate utility or profit, as you describe. However, I do not think other disciplines are in any rush to legitimize our efforts, and we may have to accept that we are in Tim Burke’s world of rival disciplines competing for the same disciplinary turf. But I would rather distinguish myself with an account of the professional work we produce than the earlier work of others we process.

    To return to Warner/Siskin for a moment, what I find strangest in their program is their insistence on using the language of obsolescence to describe work that others are happily pursuing, even as they accuse cultural studies of a similar dismissal of earlier work. To me, there is nothing easier than this kind of self-legitimating assertion (and this is something that they share with Nussbaum and Brown’s New 18th Century). Nonetheless, to announce this is to misunderstand the collective nature of the production of both scholarship and culture. What helped create this more social and collective view of scholarly authorship were of course the insights produced by feminist, working-class, and post-colonial critics after the 1960s and 70s. Would interests in genres like diaries, political pamphlets or slave narratives have arisen outside of the context of cultural studies and the scholarly movements that helped to shape it? Would we be reading Equiano or Mary Collier apart from the pressures exerted by this kind of scholarship?

    • Good questions, Dave. I don’t have a specific answer, but am always in awe of finding these writers and materials discussed in, say, early 20th-century scholarship — I’m thinking, for instance, of the critical biographies published by Columbia PhDs (many of whom were women).

      • In my version of “Austen and predecessors,” a grad course in the 18c novel, I always have students compare J.M.W. Tompkins with feminist-era scholars on the same writers. Tompkins is a terrific scholar, but there’s a lot of ambivalence in her treatment of the female writers, who are generally treated as “minor writers,” figures who are necessary for scholarly understanding but sometimes tedious or hyper-conventional. Pre-WWII literary scholarship, with its emphasis on biography, brought a lot of invaluable information into circulation, but it also tended to use categories like the “minor writer” in ways that discouraged scholars from seeing them as potentially interesting in their own right.

  8. Laura Rosenthal

    In this context, Michele Lamont’s *How Professors Think* (I know I’ve blogged about this book before) is really interesting because it is a systematic study of, in part, how scholars in various fields are able to evaluate excellence in other disciplines by the standards of excellence that those fields appear to set up for themselves. Lamont only looks at humanities and social science disciplines, but finds some wide differences even within this pool. She concludes that certain disciplines communicate their standards better than others. Historians, for example, win a disproportionate percentage of awards in interdisciplinary competitions, and she thinks this is because they communicate their disciplinary standards in their proposals. Literature turns out to be one of the disciplines perceived by those in other disciplines as not having clear and/or stable standards; proposals are thus less likely to be funded in interdisicplinary competitions. I’m not sure what the solution is here, but her research suggests that the problem anyway is systematic rather than idiosyncratic. It also point to one place where I think W+S are on the mark, even if I don’t agree with their solution: the parameters of our discipline tend to be either implicit rather than explicit, or more porous, or maybe both. I wouldn’t solve this by stopping and it’s not entirely clear that it is something that can or should be solved. But I do find this to be a resonant observation.