2014-15 | Exchanges and Temporalities in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Victorianism

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.

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

This 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.


Faculty Organizers:

Helena Michie, Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor in Humanities
Michie will study of the concept of simultaneity (or coevality) as it structures historical thought, with particular emphasis on nineteenth-century British attempts to integrate events happening at the same time in other places around the globe into their timelines, popular and professional histories and mental maps. This involves, of course, thinking about different kinds of temporalities including progressive time, belatedness, deep time, comparative time, etc.

Alexander Regier, associate professor of English, editor, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
How can the theory, history and practice of exchange – understood in its many different ways – help us facilitate and formulate a truly comparative study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, culture and art? Regier’s project aims to answer this question in a global way, but also pays particular attention to a set of neglected Anglo-German relations during the periods of the Enlightenment, Romanticism and early Victorianism.

Seminar Participants:

Sunil Agnani, associate professor of English, University of Illinois at Chicago
Agnani’s research project will trace a genealogy of colonial resentment, beginning with Diderot and running through to Nietzsche, paying particular attention to how conquest and colonialism are imbricated with a temporal disposition to the past, present and future.

Ian Balfour, professor of English, York University
Balfour will focus on the idea and actuality of the nation as it is conceived in Britain in the era of the French Revolution, when historical forces that could not quite have been predicted generated new sorts of narratives and figurations of the nation (and nations) only partly enabled by stories of progress in the 18th century. Attention to writing of the Romantic period early, middle and late (Volney, Coleridge, De Quincey) will highlight the national imaginary in its fraught re-fashioning under the pressure of the facts of the British empire as it is expounded and contested.

Lindsey Chappell, graduate student, department of English
Chappell’s project explores how nineteenth-century literature experiments with alternative temporal paradigms, such as fractals. It maintains that travel writing-in particular, narratives concerning the Mediterranean region-constructs multiplicitous, dynamic temporalities that try to resolve the paradox of past and present coexistence in places designated as "ancient."

Leo Costello, associate professor of art history, Rice University
Costello’s project is entitled “Pictures of Nothing: Romantic Figurations of the Void.” It is perhaps best characterized as a materialist history of "nothing." That is, while Hazlitt's phrase about Turner's work ("Pictures of nothing, and very like") is often cited, it is rarely analyzed with respect to the concrete conditions which produced it and in which it gained meaning. This study, therefore, will address Romantic depictions of nothingness, absence, void and immateriality within related theological, socio-political and aesthetic/literary discursive networks.

Jennifer Hargrave, graduate student, department of English
Hargrave’s project, “The Romantic Reinvention of Imperial China, 1759–1857,” establishes literature’s relevance to the development of Anglo-Sino relations during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In her research, she analyzes canonical and archival texts of both European and Chinese origin ranging from 1697, the year of Leibniz’s earliest commentary on China in Novissima Sinica, to 1857, the publication year of Thomas De Quincey’s essay China, that reveal Britain’s increasingly tenuous relationship with the Chinese.

Jen Hill, associate professor of English and Director of Gender, Race and Identity Program, University of Nevada, Reno
Hill’s project, “The Barometric Real,” looks at nineteenth-century data visualization and how it made visible new connections between local and global conditions, discrete experience and larger system. Hill is interested in formal and thematic traces of these relational patterns in cultural products of the Victorian period, including poetry, the realist novel, the sensation novel, opera and choral music.

Jessie Reeder, Ph.D. English, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“The Forms of Informal Empire” examines the new forms of unofficial financial imperialism that erupted when Latin America broke free from Spain in the early nineteenth century only to be re-subjugated to the power and influence of the British economy. Reeder reads canonical British authors alongside Latin American writers (in their native Spanish) in order to understand how 19th-century British-Latin American contact and the newly emergent practices of "informal empire" troubled preexisting master narratives of international and transatlantic contact. In particular, Reeder claims, Atlantic informal empire runs forcefully afoul of the notion of progress that scholars have thought to underpin so much Enlightenment and 19th-century thought.