Adapted from Marshall Brown, "Literature in Time," MLQ 65.1 (2004): 1-5.
Our new cover and revised layout, making its debut with issue 65.1 in March 2004, presents an occasion for some renewed reflections on the mission of the journal and on the study of literary history. Since 1993, when the previous design was launched with an issue entitled "The State of Literary History" (later revised and reissued as The Uses of Literary History), MLQ has carried the subtitle "A Journal of Literary History." The first seven volumes contained a mission statement at the front; later it was posted on the website that Lisa Simon designed while she was associate editor. Part of that statement remains on the MLQ Submissions page. But it was at best a first stab at defining the scope of the journal. I am constantly asked ever since, by contributors, friends, and (I imagine, secretly) skeptics, what is literary history? what does it mean? what is it for? what does it exclude? I have said that timeless reflections are out, as are close readings not embedded in a historical argument along with readings so embedded that they subordinate literature to its contexts. I seek chronological arguments that give us, or give back to us, the agency and the power of written expression. Somehow, though, those characterizations have never been enough, not for me and surely not for anyone else. So I have decided to try again. If it seems a Sisyphean goal, at least no one can be too worn out by a ball rolled uphill only once a decade.
Fredric Jameson—the apostle of "Always historicize!"—has recently announced the end of temporality. That throws down a heavy gauntlet at the feet of a journal identified with literary history. Men, he says, used to live in a world defined by time—by emergence in organic societies, by production in industrial capitalism, and by uneven development with the advent (in some places and in different degrees) of modernity. But in the postmodern world a geographical nexus of city and suburb has replaced a temporal axis of city and village, commercial and communicational webs connect men and now women too with their peers around the world, and time has ground to a halt. Or so it appears. Actually, though, Jameson argues, the end of temporality is merely "a historical tendency" (717), a fantasy that masks countless forms of continued subjugation and that is allegorized by the repetitious violence of action films, where blind speed creates the illusion of stasis and development and otherness can only arbitrarily be cut off. The end of temporality as Jameson sees it is, in truth, a telos asymptotically approached but never realized, since its actualization would be tantamount to the death of humanity. The asymptotic movement, with its urgencies and its resistances, is what in fact defines the postmodern situation.
The end of temporality—taking end in the directional sense that sneaks into Jameson's essay—is that it is always pressing us with its othered situations, no matter how settled we regard our situatedness to be. I take that to be the message, as well, of Terence Hawkes's wonderful defense of any "true historian's" greatest bugaboo, presentism, in his jazzily performative book Shakespeare in the Present. (One chapter, indeed, takes its title, "Hank Cinq," from a Shakespeare suite by Duke Ellington.) Presentism's converse, restoration—or, to call it by its true name, antiquarianism— is Hawkes's bugaboo, and he shows con anima how in a living theater silent performativity haunts any purportedly genuine revival. Repetition falls prey to the "'playing' dimension," authenticity to authentication. Hence Hawkes turns against immersion in the past using the same terminology Jameson applies to indulgence in the present. "None of us can step beyond time....As a result, the critic's 'situatedness' does not—cannot—contaminate the past. In effect, it constitutes the only means by which it's possible to see the past and perhaps comprehend it" (3).
David Simpson, a loyal board member since the inception of Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History, thinks that situatedness is old hat. After his book on the topic, one might think no such pronouncements as Jameson's and Hawkes's ought henceforth to appear. As Simpson says: "Our problem is not so much one of deciding between absolute agency (I make my world, create my situation) and complete passivity (I am forced to be what I am), although some might still put it this way; it is more a matter of figuring out how to respond to the acceptance that we are always in both positions at once. That we are...ineluctably in a muddle" (35). But of course, in an important sense, that is what Jameson and Hawkes are saying too. Global and local fantasies to the contrary notwithstanding, situatedness as we experience it is not spatial but temporal and not fixed but relational. The muddle is the maelstrom we find or imagine ourselves in the middle of. And—such is the wager of Modern Language Quarterly—literary history names the muddle. And literary criticism diagnoses it.
Last spring PMLA published a fine collection of essays under the rubric "Imagining History." From the coordinators, Tilottama Rajan and Linda Woodbridge, we learn anew that history, being change, is difference. Similarities (this is Hawkes's message too, drawn from Kierkegaard) fall out of identity in the very act of enunciation. And from Christopher Lane we learn that context does not make history, nor does the smooth causation always implicit in the drive toward context. Pace Hayden White, mere chronological sequence yields only chronicle, not history. For history is not a mode of being but, as all these critics have seen, a mode of experiencing being, not a situation but a situatedness understood as a dialectical response to one's situation. The historicity of a person, an object, an idea, a text lies not in the thing itself, but in how we perceive it. History is the mode of perception or understanding through which persons, objects, ideas, and texts live. A text lives by acting. And the acting is always a disturbance. It muddles even when it repeats, as (on Hawkes's account) the new Globe Theatre muddles the old one, or World War II muddles World War I, which up until then was World War pure and simple, the last war, the end of temporality. An event is a novelty, a surprise, even a thunderbolt; hence Hans Kellner (still in the same PMLA issue, which is notable for its consensus) allies it with the sublime. Whenever we see things in their difference from what is around them and thrusting toward something beyond them, we see them historically. The notion of thrust, to be sure, departs from Kellner's idea of irrecuperability and edges toward Hawkes's version of presentism. Yet the present toward which an event points is itself a moving target; hence Kellner is conceptually right after all to highlight uncertainties, just as Hawkes is stylistically right to delight in time's erratic jokes. Without movement, there is only dreary correspondence.
Novelty, surprise, delight, and—above all—movement: these are aesthetic categories. Literature is the writing that refuses to conform. And literary history is the understanding that regards literature's refusal as a temporal gesture, in relationship to a past or in passage toward a future, or, ideally, both at once. I have written more than once elsewhere about scale in literary history, arguing that literature is history in the small. So it is, in the sense that it lodges in small things, no thicker than a sheet of paper. But the history that bursts out from literature exists on many scales, all of which are welcome in MLQ. It can be a small and measurable movement away from a defined context, pointing an arrow. It can be an energy of form (as in music) or a destabilizing current; that is what we call the inward temporality of a piece of writing. It can be as simple as a trend, though a trend that is a foregone conclusion, without drift, is the most impoverished kind of history. Or it can be as complicated as a battle scene, as not infrequently feminist and queer historical psychomachias are. Its future can be immediate, but it can scale all the way from the distant past until now, as when we single out an element whose meaning has only recently unfolded, for us, now. Sublime or subtle, immanent or boldly impending, emergence or emergency, reabsorbed into a flow or standing firmly opposed, writing must live. The writing that lives, in any or all of these ways, is what I call literature. And the aim of MLQ, as I conceive it, is to register, to the always limited extent possible, the muddled and muddling, vibrant and vivid life of texts.
Brown, Marshall. "Contemplating the Theory of Literary History." PMLA 107 (1992): 13-23.
---. "Rethinking the Scale of Literary History." Rethinking Literary History. Ed. Mario Valdés and Linda Hutcheon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 116-54.
---, ed. The Uses of Literary History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare in the Present. London: Routledge, 2002.
Jameson, Fredric. "The End of Temporality." Critical Inquiry 29 (2003): 695-718.
Kellner, Hans. "However Imperceptibly: From the Historical to the Sublime." Rajan and Woodbridge 591-96.
Lane, Christopher. "The Poverty of Context: Historicism and Nonmimetic Fiction." Rajan and Woodbridge 450-69.
Rajan, Tilottama. "Introduction." Rajan and Woodbridge 427-35.
Rajan, Tilottama, and Linda Woodbridge, eds. "Imagining History." PMLA 118 (2003): 427-603.
Simpson, David. Situatedness: or, Why We Keep Saying Where We're Coming From. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
White, Hayden. "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality." Critical Inquiry 7 (1980): 5.27.
Woodbridge, Linda. "Afterword: Speaking with the Dead." Rajan and Woodbridge 597-603.