What is (old about) 21st Century Studies?

By Mary Mullen

The 2009 meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association opened with an enthusiastic greeting: “Welcome Victorian scholars!”  The audience laughed – they were scholars of the Victorian period, Victorian studies scholars, or Victorianists but certainly not “Victorian” scholars.  Long after Foucault’s “We ‘Other Victorians’” exposed the pleasure people get from opposing a Victorian repressive regime by speaking sex, Victorianists continue to celebrate their supposed difference and distance from the Victorian period they study.  But as Foucault reveals, their oppositional stance masks the way we reproduce ‘Victorian’ forms of power through the discursive structures we inhabit and the questions we ask (“why are we repressed?” instead of “why do we say, with so much passion and so much resentment against our most recent past, against our present, and against ourselves, that we are repressed?”).  Desiring distance from the past, we end up reproducing it in the present.

21st century studies is slightly different, scholars are both 21st-century scholars and scholars of the 21st century, and yet, it also assumes distance from the past.  The proliferation of “new” objects of study and methodologies (new media, new materialism . . .); ruptures and end points that require us to study what comes “after” (9/11, theory, postmodernism . . .); and new terms (post-racial, post-human, post-feminist . . .) mark such distance from the past.  Statements of change are so prevalent that they have become banal.  For this reason, Mark Hansen begins “Living (with) Technical Time” by noting the unoriginality of his opening, “Let me begin by stating a seemingly banal proposition: time has changed in the wake of the computational revolution.”  It as is if Hansen imagines his readers exclaiming, “Of course time has changed – there was a computational revolution!”

Which leads me to the question, what is old about 21st century studies?  Or, more narrowly, what can Victorian studies contribute to 21st century studies?  This question is a personal one for me, for although I study the literature, history, and politics of the Victorian period, I work at the Center for 21st Century Studies.  I accepted a position here in part because I’m convinced that Victorian Studies has much to contribute to 21st century studies.  Victorians thought carefully about many ‘21st-century’ issues such as urbanization, labor, global capitalism, the university, migration, even technology and nonhuman agency.  Although many Victorian theories do not translate to our contemporary moment – every time I read the end of Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism, I cringe – they help put pressure on our contemporary sense of accomplishment, progress, and enlightenment.  So much of what we celebrate as new is actually very, very old.  So much of what we think we have relegated to a distant past is actually quite present.[1]

Let me give an example: the way we think about crisis.  At first glance, the prevalence and proliferation of crisis seems to be unique to the 21st century.  21st-century scholars (to say nothing of scholars of the twenty-first century) cannot escape crisis: financial crisis, environmental crisis, the crisis in the humanities, the crisis of the public university, the list goes on and on.  Some people claim that the 21st century is an age of perpetual crisis.  Part of this might be the medium – as Wendy Chun argues, “New media is a crisis machine” – but it is also very much the message.[2]   It is hardly surprising that there are entire forums dedicated to studying crisis in the 21st century and that Lauren Berlant suggests our 21st century experience of present time is one of “crisis lived within ordinariness.”

Victorians also thought in terms of crisis.  They used it to frame the newness and novelty of their contemporary moment, to conceptualize the recurrent contradictions of capitalism, and to come to grips with the increasing historical consciousness of their age.  In the nineteenth century, as is the case today, crisis was both an explanatory tool and a way of framing choices.  Identifying crises more often than not contained an impulse to define the present in the name of a future (or more precisely the future), and almost always implied an underlying understanding of history.  As Reinhart Kosselleck and Michaela Richter suggest, in 18th and 19th century Europe, “’Crisis’ becomes a structural signature of modernity” – a way “to capture a new era that may have various temporal beginnings and whose unknown future seems to give free scope to all sorts of wishes and anxieties, fears and hope.”[3]  It’s worth remembering that Marx, one of the first people to think of crises as a recurrent and inevitable part of a capitalist economy, was a 19th-century thinker.

I’m not going to discuss Marx, here, because his thought (and its legacy) remains visible in 21st century studies.  Instead, I’m going to turn to Thomas Carlyle – a thinker whose writing travels less easily, sometimes for obvious reasons, but who nonetheless helps us understand 21stcentury crisis.  He was incredibly influential – as George Eliot wrote, “there is hardly an active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings.”  But now he seems dated – we distance ourselves from both the form and content of his thought.   Carlyle’s celebration of ‘great men’ and ‘Captains of Industry’ seem out of place in a century that tends to favor networks, assemblages, and nonhuman agency.  He’s seen as reactionary contradictory, politically uncouth (and often is/was!).

The man himself, Thomas Carlyle

Yet, Carlyle can contribute to 21st-century thought by putting pressure on the way we conceptualize crisis.  Specifically, he points towards the way that crisis emphasizes singularity in ways that try to ‘fix’ the future, thereby obscuring “deeper tendencies” that reveal transhistorical connections.  In “Signs of the Times” he notes the way that fast-paced changes –specifically increased rights for Noncomformists and Catholics – create the feeling of crisis:

All men are aware that the present is a crisis of this sort; and why it has become so. The repeal of the Test Acts, and then of the Catholic disabilities, has struck many of their admirers with an indescribable astonishment. Those things seemed fixed and immovable; deep as the foundations of the world; and lo, in a moment they have vanished, and their place knows them no more!

Lost in the uncertainties of an unmoored present, people try to fix (both repair and render immovable) the future through prophecy, according to Carlyle.  But Carlyle is skeptical of the utilitarian and millenarian prophets of the day.  For him, the present is important not because of its singularities – its specific ruptures from the past that require action in the name of a future – but rather because it is present.  He insists, “We too admit that the present is an important time; as all present time necessarily is.”  In other words, the present is important not because of its specific events – the repeal of the Test Acts and Catholic Disabilities – but because of what it shares with other historical moments: its presentness.

Carlyle concludes the essay by offering his own diagnosis of the “Mechanical Age” and his suggested treatment – more dynamism, increased spiritualism, more inward reflection.  His solutions show how crises proliferate – he criticizes the crisis mongering only to offer his own way out of the crisis – and yet, in the process, he reveals how the anxieties of the contemporary emerge less from specific contemporary events than the feeling of being present – detached from a knowable past, seeking to fix the future.  In pushing against novelty and towards a sense of shared experience, Carlyle activates possibilities and potentialities from the past that might otherwise seem obsolete, dated, or backward.  He insists that beneath the ruptures, there are continuities.  Beneath the feeling of crisis, old forms, feelings, and stances continue to have power and purchase.

I turn to Carlyle’s thinking on crisis not to flatten out history and make it all the same, but rather to show how our emphasis on futurity often obscures the multiple, varied, and diverse connections to the past.  Inhabiting the present – as people with distinct personal histories, identities, and attachments (Victorianists, 21st –century scholars among them) – means inhabiting an important time as much because of the pasts that remain present as because of the breaks and ruptures that leave us feeling unmoored.  If it is difficult to escape the desire for prophecy, it’s at least worth remembering that our prophecy can be multi-directional – inspired by a capacious sense of present time and presentness.  21st century studies is old precisely because it desires to be new.  The challenge is to be new in ways that open up the present rather than closing it down in the name of the future or to solidify our distance from the past.


[1] This is perhaps one reason, among many, why Wendy Chun’s recent talk at C21’s Nonhuman Turn Conference took up Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.  This book may be old and heavily critiqued, and yet it continues to shape the way we think, argue, and imagine communities.

[2] Wendy Chun, “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis, or Soveriegnty and Networks”, Theory, Culture & Society 28.6, 96.

[3] Reinhart Koselleck and Michaela Richter,“Crisis” Journal of the History of Ideas 67.2 (April 2006), 372.

[Mary Mullen is the Deputy Director at the Center for 21st Century Studies.  She researches anachronisms – both historical mistakes and uncanny irruptions of the untimely  – in 19th-century English and Irish novels.]

2 thoughts on “What is (old about) 21st Century Studies?

  1. Carlyle’s advice is pertinent for our age in its insistence on individual responsibility, rather than leaving it all to the “clattering of ballet-boxes” and the mechanisms of governance to sort out. That’s surely one thing lacking in the 21st century. If only Carlyle had stayed the Carlyle of “Signs of the Times”, maybe we’d still be reading him!

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