The Ends of History: Response from Justine Murison

Monday, February 20, 2012

Federal troops occupying line of breastworks on the north bank of the North Anna River in Virgina (1864)
[This post from Justine Murison (English) is the last in our series of comments from the closing roundtable at the Unit's February 10 Ends of History symposium.]

Written by Justine Murison (English)

The title of this conference offers the chance for linguistic play around the word "ends": is this the ending of history and/or historicism? Or are we discussing the aims of historicism? In other words, are we marking a periodization in which literary scholars "end" being "historicists"? Or are we declaring a proliferation of the methodological goals of historicist literary scholarship? As is often the case, all of the above, if not more. But let me consider this question more narrowly by qualifying what we mean by "historicism" since it seems to me that we are here, in part, to mourn the passing of the "New Historicism," a name given to the method somewhat haphazardly and that nobody seemed to like.

On the one hand, we live in the post-New Historicist era, in which the traditional methods of the New Historicism (that is, anecdote, juxtaposition, and a constrained synchronic archive) can no longer respond adequately to the weight of evidence produced by the proliferation and accessibility of digital archives. Nor have these critical maneuvers survived the other major shift, arguably born out of the historical turn and digitization, toward book history, print culture, and bibliography. The new capacities for searching and analyzing data provided by the work of digital humanities has put increased pressure on how we assemble an archive and what we do with it. On the other hand, the recent turn to such modes of analysis like Heather Love’s revival of description and observation, Best and Marcus’s invitation to "surface reading," or Rita Felski’s calls for new formalist strategies all seem to follow from the deconstructive logic of New Historicism, in which historicist research is inevitably incapable of a complete and totalizing summary of the text and thus the world. The "ends" of history seem therefore also to express the limitations of ideological critique and utopian aspirations in criticism. While the scale of the archive seems to stretch ever wider, the scale of the claims about that archive modestly shrinks.

We face a twinned question about the scale of evidence and the purpose of accruing that evidence, and I would submit then that our question is as much existential as it is methodological. What is the purpose of literary study itself at this moment in time, post-9/11 and Iraq, in an era of global warming skepticism and economic collapse? In other words, we are talking about a historical shift in the history of literary criticism. As Eve Sedgwick and Bruno Latour suggest in distinct but complementary ways, we came to the past decade armed with subtle critiques of the invisible machinations of power in liberalism only to be surprised by the very overt, visible, and spectacular methods of power in the War on Terror or, conversely, how the Arab Spring united traditional protest (that is, bodies on the line) with the networking capabilities of new technologies.

If what we are marking in this conference is the end of an era of literary method, I would like to briefly sketch the other "ends" that our renewed interests make visible and also possible, fully cognizant that in doing so I seek to proliferate historical narratives rather than to set them aside. Curiously, these lines of inquiry seem, at first blush, to be paradoxical. They are roughly in affect and phenomenology, on the one hand, and the vast scale of quantification, on the other hand. To be sure, what connects these methods is a renewed sense of what we mean by "materialism." The first method recognizes that our responses, reactions, emotions, and very bodies have a material life inextricable from the texts we assign and interpret, responses that may not be "deep" in the psychoanalytic sense but are nonetheless material and meaningful. In turn, new methods of quantification expressly respond to a scale of evidence that risks becoming so wide that it demands a seemingly opposite perspective: that is, counting, graphing, mapping, and other presentations of data advocated by Franco Moretti. We might thus consider these methods as reflecting (and, arguably, in contention with) not a smoothly functioning liberalism but its inversion in modern warfare in which the fragility of the body’s and brain’s surface and integrity have become as intensely scrutinized as the "distance" of drone attacks.

The question, then, might ultimately be ethical, as Stephen Best suggested in his talk this morning: how to maintain a sense of the urgencies, sensitivities, and, above all, limitations at both ends of these scales. This is the quandary expressed, for instance, in Herman Melville’s and Walt Whitman’s reactions to the Civil War. Rather than running from quantification and trying to embrace the "depth" of meaning of the dead, both instead try to account for the different scales of modern warfare through lyric, lists, and numbers. Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War marries the material bodies of soldiers and the physical destruction of the war to quantifications of both by annotating his poems with statistical and factual information. Shifting from lyrical to numerical, from poem to endnote, Melville attaches the two inextricably together but recognizes that they are not synonymous, just as Whitman would in enumerating the war dead through statistics that end with lyrical prose like "the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead— [. . .] ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)." Whitman certainly evokes the "melancholic subject" of history; Melville, however, does not. In his poem, "Shiloh," Melville instead finds a way to express within the poem itself the cumulative effect of moving from lyric to quantification, elsewhere separated in the book. He does so in his remarkable parenthetical aside that distinguishes the temporal break before and after battle: "(What like a bullet can undeceive!)" This line suggests not simply the loss of ideological innocence, or the unveiling of the materiality of that ideology. Instead, it evokes both simultaneously. In fact, it is both a shout and a secret: it appears in parentheses but ends with an exclamation point. It announces and hides, unveils and recovers.

A shout and a secret: in the materialisms we turn to now we contend with what seems overwhelmingly manifest and obvious in the weight of evidentiary expectations, but we are also grappling with the obscured ethical responsibility that evidence entails. This may well be the connecting thread in this reconsideration of history and method across the literary disciplines – that it is a response, ultimately, to the ethical constraints of our scholarly relation to the material world.


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Lauren G. said...

This is such a thoughtful response, Justine--and so comprehensive as well. Thanks for delivering it at the symposium and posting it here as well.

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