Not the Usual Suspects
This roundtable seeks to reconsider historicism and historicist praxis in the wake of Sharon Marcus’ and Stephen Best’s dismissive treatment of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” in their celebration of “surface reading.” Marcus’ and Best’s intention was to make a clean sweep of literary studies, clearing disciplinary space for a reinvigoration of form and formalism. Yet their indictment of historicist approaches has instead provoked wide-ranging scholarly conversations in which scholars have tried to reactivate the critical potential of historicism in newly redefined domains of literature and literary studies. What made this redefinition possible, however, was a set of historical, extra-literary trends that rendered the domains of literature and literary history more expansive and porous than ever before. Thus, in the wake of phenomena like globalization and digitized scholarship, which permit analysis of their objects at ever-increasing scale, historicists of every type have used this debate to enrich their methodologies and to highlight the rising demand that literary studies become responsive to a “world” viewed increasingly in mediatized rather than exclusively textual terms.
The effects of this mutual reconceptualization of historicism and literary studies are registered in a number of ways. Literary periodization is no longer regarded as a comprehensive, unilinear master-narrative, but as a set of clustered authors, genres, texts, and events that allow synchronic comparisons. Historicist literary scholarship engages openly with a variety of urgent critical presentisms (introducing, for example, perspectives of queers, people of color, or laboring people into its analyses), but without its usual anxieties about anachronism. Scholars embrace but also analyze the affective or reflexive relationships that they develop with the objects of their investigations. More broadly, historicist scholars may begin to question the longstanding yet under-examined distinction between text and context, in order to undo the simplistic narratives of causality that this distinction underwrites.
We invite very brief (5 min) presentations from a variety of perspectives that seek to challenge some of the rigidly dyadic oppositions in which historicist literary studies often finds itself deadlocked (e.g., history/theory; presentism/historicism; affect/knowledge; text/context, etc). Papers might consider such questions as: how do space and time figure in the historical or contemporary archive? Does the current focus on form contribute to the deracination of matter? How do recent theorizations of “temporality” affect our conceptualizations of “history” and “historicization”? How does the presumptive “whiteness” of historical scholarship affect its treatment of race in the past or present?