Monday, 04 December 2006

Longer Than I Don't Remember: Idiosyncratic Periodization for Fun and Profit (x-posted to the Valve) Regardless of period and specializaton, most literary scholars are familiar with the idea of the Long 18th century (a.k.a. the only reperiodization famous enough to have its very own blog). Encompassing all things from the Restoration of 1660 or Revolution of 1688 (depending) to the 1832 Reform Act, this 172 or 200-year-old “century” calls attention to the inanity of organizing academic disciplines around arbitrary chunks of history. I embrace such lengthenings because they allow us to define epochs by meaningful events instead of the meaningless march of time. That Pynchon fellow lately in the news captures this tensions in Mason & Dixon: “What Machine is it,” young Cherrycoke later bade himself goodnight, “that bears us along so relentlessly? We go rattling through another Day,—another Year,—as thro’ an empty Town without a Name, in the Midnight ... we have but Memories of some Pause at the Pleasure-Spas of our younger Day, the Maidens, the Cards, the Claret,—we seek to extend our stay, but now a silent Functionary in dark Livery indicates it is time to re-board the Coach, and resume the Journey. Long before the Destination, moreover, shall this Machine come abruptly to a Stop ... gather’d dense with Fear, shall we open the Door to confer with the Driver, to discover that there is no Driver, ... no Horses, ... only the Machine, fading as we stand, and a Prairie of desperate Immensity ....” (361) This time “Machine” traverses the “Prairie of desperate Immensity” indiscriminately, Pynchon argues—only human agents and actions can punctuate that vastness with meaning. Bookending periods between significant events introduces that causality into historical time. Thing is, with causality comes arguments about the provenance of certain causal agents, ideas and events. Should Romanticism be included in the long 18th? What about France? French Romanticism? In “Kant’s Strange Light: Romanticism, Periodicity, and the Catachresis of Genius,” Orrin N.C. Wang ably confronts one problem caused by combining calendric notions of periodicity and tropological accounts of intellectual history, but his account is limited by its specificity: “Romanticism is the figure of our investment in history, of history as cathexis” (20). Be it German, French, or English, all Wang’s Romanticisms describe a Continental situation of suspect applicability. Folding periods into tropes homogenizes intellectual history. Just because a particular strain of thought dominated a period doesn’t mean contemporaries outside that mold were necessarily apostatical. They may not have defined themselves against anything—but place them in a period bounded by its tropes and they’ll certainly appear to. Here as before, Wang’s astute claim is needlessly particular: “Enlightenment modernity is the historical period that in its complexity resists the uniformity, the very identity, of periodicity” (19). Every historical period resists the uniformity of periodicity. How else to account for the explosion of idiosyncratic periodization I’ve encountered this week? Scholar X’s “long (American) 19th century” terminates twenty-four years into Scholar Y’s “long first-half of the (American) 20th century from 1890-1945.” Both infringe upon Scholar Z.’s “long (American) 20th century.” Myself, I...

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