2014-15 Rice Seminar

Exchanges and Temporalities in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Victorianism  

The application deadline for external participants has passed. 


Over the past few years, the debate within the humanities about the problematic but seemingly inevitable practice of periodization has changed noticeably in tone. The conversation has moved from a wholesale rejection of those grammatically, epistemologically, and geographically unparallel terms – Enlightenment, Romantic, Victorian – to a critical re-appropriation of these categories as complex, multi-faceted, and taxonomically supple. Recent scholarship on the literature and culture of the (long) eighteenth and the (long) nineteenth centuries has reflected and contributed to this trend, and thus presents a compelling site for the discussion of this emerging shift. (The multi-institutional and interdisciplinary Re:Enlightenment Project is an example of the kind of work we have in mind.) Such work, influenced by critical theory and historiography, attempts to leave behind the simplistic credo that the rubrics of Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Victorianism are fixed and stable, and returns to these terms as productive avenues in capturing the complexity of these “periods” and their legacy. The 2014-15 Rice Seminar will extend this critical impulse over a yearlong residential research seminar focused on the relation between Britain and the rest of the world. We propose to understand Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Victorianism as emphatically heterogeneous rubrics, or interlocked yet internally contradictory terms, with specific aesthetic, literary, historical, and geographic valences. The seminar offers a chance to re-examine the claim of these terms to conceptual and historical specificity and to explore their power and their limitations.
Some of the most eloquent internal and external critiques of our umbrella terms draw heavily on geography and chronology. Scholarship that emphasizes geographies has led to a constellation of concepts that range from nationalism, eurocentrism, and colonialism, to inter-imperialism and the global. Correspondingly, work on chronologies emphasizes ideas of continuity and change, problematizing concepts such as progress, teleology, relative time, and modernity. We have chosen two geographically and chronologically inflected terms – exchange and temporalities – as a way into, through, and perhaps out of the impasse that make “Enlightenment” “Romanticism” and “Victorian” so seductive but so incommensurate. Exchanges and temporalities offer two particularly useful ways to rethink the relations among the umbrella terms, as well as offering a whole set of separate, and disciplinary specific, ways of analyzing them.

Exchanges & Temporalities

The historically specific forms of exchange invented in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are decisive for the shape and transformation of these periods, and for our understanding of those periods today. For instance, technologies post 1700 began a process that put the sophistication, speed, and exchange of information squarely at the centre of social and political life. We will consider the most important of these many different forms, representations, and practices of exchange in thinking critically about the formation of the seminar’s three umbrella terms. The seminar will focus on the many different literary and aesthetic representations of exchange, as well as on the exchange of ideas, languages (translation), material goods (commerce), and people (transport, (im)migration). On a second order level, we will be looking at how exchange is a foundational principle of a variety of disciplines from economics and anthropology to sociology, medicine, and law. Exchange makes it possible to follow, and to critically describe, specific intellectual and historical geographies, concrete regimes of representation, real empires of thought, and aesthetic and political legacies, all of which retain much of their power today.

The idea of temporalities takes us back not only to periodization, but also to more general ideas about time and history. We are interested in the temporal as a cultural artifact and in cross-cultural ways of measuring, accounting for, expressing, and experiencing time. We hope that this seminar will help us to think through hegemonic temporalities (like those which allow Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to see itself as “modern” while designating other cultures as “backwards”), professional temporalities (those that involve the depiction of time in charts, timelines, and technologies), and social temporalities (how time is experienced differently according to class, genre, gender, and geography).

Thinking through these issues over a sustained period of time will allow us to show how literature, art, and culture in the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Victorianism apprehend exchange and temporality as concepts, systematic practices, and methods that complicate easy definitions of periods, movements, or epistemologies.

Institutional Context

A brief word about the institutional context of the Seminar: the Rice Seminars are the most prestigious seminar series sponsored by the School of Humanities and the Humanities Research Center. The current seminar grows out of an interdisciplinary project that focused on “Global Modernities” and was housed in the HRC for the past two years. The seminar responded to the tension, observed by faculty across the humanities, between increasing globalization and canonical historical rubrics, especially within what we ended up calling the Long European Century. Our choice of the rubrics of “exchange” and “temporality” are direct results of these discussions. The strength of faculty in eighteenth- and nineteenth- century studies across departments, theoretical positions, and geographic specializations, made “Global Modernities” a successful stepping-stone for the Rice Seminar we describe above. We have now reached a point where we can offer an institutional context for sustained conversation among scholars, and an opportunity for them to engage in collaborative work.