on literary periodization

The graduate seminar I’m leading, Periodization, is currently finishing up Ted Underwood’s book Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, 2013). The book argues that periodization (splitting history up into periods like ‘medieval,’ ‘Romantic,’ ‘Victorian,’ ‘antebellum American’) has dominated literary-historical research almost since the hiring of the first English professor, in 1828. Underwood sees periodization as fulfilling a social function, namely cultivating readers through an experience of historical discontinuity. In the 1990s, that social function was called into question, yet periodization survived institutionally, in hiring, in the curriculum, and in graduate training.

In the last chapter, Underwood considers more recent arguments about periodization (p. 161):

I think contemporary discussions of periodization usually go astray by conflating the intellectual and social dimensions of the problem–as if the disciplinary authority of historical contrast rested on the mathematical convenience of period boundaries. Against the drawing of temporal boundaries no one can raise serious objections. It is arbitrary but very useful to divide the day into twenty-four hours. Anthologies need to begin and end somewhere. We might occasionally need to be warned about reifying such boundaries, but if they were really arbitrary conveniences rather than social institutions, this would be roughly as dangerous as reifying “July.”

But the authority of periodization does not rest on the convenience of boundaries. It springs from a commitment to discontinuity that has long defined the cultural purpose of literary studies, and that contemporary scholars still feel as part of their disciplinary identity. This commitment to discontinuity goes far beyond the dates of anthologies and survey courses; it shapes critical discourse from top to bottom.

The preceding chapters of Why Literary Periods Mattered earn the big claim about discontinuity in the second paragraph here. This passage understands something about literary periodization that nearly all of periodization’s defenders, and many of its critics, leave out. Defenses of periodization either exaggerate moments of rapid cultural change at the beginning and end of a period, reifying the category, or else (and this is becoming the standard move, I think) they dismiss periodization as a “mathematical convenience,” inevitable and not worth squabbling over. Much criticism of periodization mirrors these two moves, either exaggerating continuity across period boundaries or proposing arbitrarily defined new periods. What either reaction fails to do is to face up to periods as “social institutions”–and, I’d add, institutions that are not thought to possess equal social value.

Underwood recommends quantitative methods as a counterbalance to periodization’s single-minded focus on discontinuity, a project he now pursues in Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (Chicago, 2019). The last chapter of Why Literary Periods Mattered appears in our syllabus in a unit on Language / method, featuring examples of work that moves beyond traditional periodization. Other scholars in Language / method are David Blackbourn, Seeta Chaganti, Joan DeJean, Barbara Fuchs, Reinhart Koselleck, and Kevin Ohi. Language / method fits into our Institutions movement. In the next movement of the course, Politics, we’ll address what periods-as-social-institutions have come to mean, politically.

further reading

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Graff, Gerald. “How Periods Erase History.” In On Periodization: Selected Essays from the English Institute, ed. Virginia Jackson (2010), paras. 97-123.

Ohi, Kevin. Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmission. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Simpson, James. “Diachronic History and the Shortcomings of Medieval Studies.” In Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England, ed. Gordon McMullan and David Matthews (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 17-30.

formalism is historicism

I thought I’d write a bit about these two terms, since they come up often in the classroom and have become foundational to my research.

Formalism and historicism are labels for methodologies in literary studies. The labels, and the methods of reading they are supposed to indicate, have histories. Those histories, in some sense, add up to the history of the field itself. Formalism and historicism are usually thought of as mutually exclusive modes locked in a long-term inverse relation: an “Old” Historicism reigned in the late nineteenth century, followed by the valorization of the literary text as a self-contained object in the “New” Criticism of the early/mid twentieth century, followed by the revaluation of historical context in the “New” Historicism and various strands of cultural studies since the 1960s and 1970s. Lately, predictably, there is a “New” Formalism afoot.

I understand what the terms formalism and historicism are trying to mean on the level of shorthand, gestalt. Formalism refers to a critical method that seeks to understand literature as such. Historicism refers to a critical method that works toward the literary from other dimensions of human experience.

vase face

Yet upon reflection, these procedures are the same procedure, akin to shading in a figure vs. shading in all the space around it. For “historicism,” how can one work toward some object/category, the literary, without some prior understanding of its nature (even including the claim that it has no special nature)? And for “formalism,” in what terms can one understand literature apart from the terms given to human experience, which is historical experience? So formalism and historicism may arguably be describing opposite starting points for the act of literary interpretation, but they are not describing opposite end points. Excellent scholarship that takes up the mantle of formalism looks a lot like excellent scholarship that takes up the mantle of historicism. I’m not the first one to notice this (see Further reading).

My research on English poetry looks at the history of literary form, a topic that makes no sense at all within the formalism/historicism dichotomy strictly considered.

If I might be permitted a speculative conclusion: What really seems to be at stake in the two terms is a symbolic political struggle. It’s a struggle between those who feel literary studies devotes too much energy to the category that organizes it, the literary, and those who feel literary studies devotes too much energy elsewhere, to the worlds of social power, politics, and identity. The struggle is political because these are urgent matters, which go directly to the value and ethics of humanistic study. That’s why versions of “historicism” and “formalism” keep see-sawing in disciplinary history, each a reaction to a perceived flaw in the last manifestation of the other. But the struggle is symbolic because in practice–the practice of scholarship, as I read it–form and history can only be defined in terms of one another.

further reading

Liu, Alan. “The Power of Formalism: The New Historicism.” ELH 56 (1989): 721-71.

Mann, Jill. “The Inescapability of Form.” In Readings in Medieval Textuality: Essays in Honour of A. C. Spearing, ed. Cristina Maria Cervone and D. Vance Smith (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2016), pp. 119-34.

Strier, Richard. “Afterword: How Formalism Became a Dirty Word, and Why We Can’t Do without It.” In Renaissance Literature and its Formal Engagements, ed. Mark David Rasmussen (New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 207-15.

banned books and medieval lit

I have a new essay on David Perry’s blog, How Did We Get into This Mess?, called “What Is Education For? – To Kill a Mockingbird and Medieval Literature.” It’s about Biloxi School District’s decision last month to ban (then partially unban) To Kill a Mockingbird.