What you are about to read is somewhat off topic for the Renaissance Mathematicus, but as I’ve said on a number of occasions I reserve the right to post here what I will, after all it’s my blog. I received an unsolicited email from Jacob Steere-Williams, who is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston asking me to post this on Whewell’s Ghost. As I only post Whewell’s Gazette there theses days, I didn’t think it was a very good idea but because I found Jacob’s post well worth reading I have decided to post it here. Although it doesn’t deal with the history of science, Renaissance or otherwise, it does deal with some general historiographical points that I consider important so I offer it to my readers to read, contemplate and digest. I’m sure Jacob would also be interested in any thoughts it provokes amongst those that read it.
I am a Professor of Modern British History (and the History of Medicine) at the College of Charleston, and have written a piece that responds to the recent article on Vox about a couple who live as if they were Victorians: http://www.vox.com/2015/9/9/9275611/victorian-era-life
I study history, namely the Victorian period in Britain that roughly spanned the lifetimes of the well-known and indefatigable writers Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde.
Like the flâneur, itself an idealized literary type from the nineteenth century, I perambulate the Victorian world, consuming its echoes through the traces of modernity. Fueled by my own curiosity of the period, I am consumed by the past. But unlike a bygone wandering traveler, as a professional historian I interrogate, criticize, and find meaning in the past. Both in the classroom and the archive I privilege the historian’s however fallible creed, to approximate the past “was eigentlich gewesen [ist],” as it essentially happened, the dictum of the Janus-like nineteenth century historian Leopold von Ranke.
It’s with a good bit of vexation, then, and no little amuse, that I recently read about privileged hipsters living the solipsist dream of a phantasmagorical Victorian world in the twenty-first century.
Don’t get me wrong. The winding of a mechanical clock and brushing of ones teeth with a boar bristle brush in the morning, and the heating of wax and plunging of a personally-monographed seal on a hand-written letter in the evening by the Edison bulb with a bit of sherry all sound lovely, albeit in a kind of super-ego stroking masturbatory way. Eschewing the technology of the present, however, for that of the Victorian past, is an odd perversion of the Thoreauvian luddite sentiment towards simplicity and nature. This is made all the more dogged when one “blossoms” into their “true self” through the ritualized play of what university-aged Brits today might call perpetually living in period specific “fancy dress.” The Victorians themselves of the 1880s would have rightly called this behavior Silver Fork Snobbery.
Yet, the political rationalist in me embraces the freedoms that have it made possible for a handful of twenty-first century Americans to choose to happily obtain that 14-inch waist through tightlacing a corset, all the while finding time to delight in a weekend stroll on the high-wheel tricycle.
Again, don’t get me wrong. We historians have long embraced material culture as an arbiter of the past. An antique kerosene space heater, a crinoline skirt, and even a bar of Castile soap are all indeed are primary source traces that help us to understand and interpret the past. Yet they don’t do so in and of themselves. We as human actors—either today or in the past, the difference being critical— provide and attach meaning to material objects, apart from their Kantian ding an sich (the thing in itself). Plucking nineteenth century objects from museums and dusty attics and revitalizing them to navigate the twenty-first century is a kind of Frankensteinian Promethan dream. Decontextualizing these objects from the time and place in which they were created doesn’t privilege the lived experience of the past, but rather is the akin to the scholarly sin of being ahistorical.
The irony of the twenty-first century posturing of Victoriana material culture would not have been lost on the nineteenth century critic Karl Marx, who as early as the 1860s fully articulated the concept of “commodity fetishism” to explain how objects gain culture power in the marketplace apart from their inherent labor value. In this way, subverting twenty-first century technology for its nineteenth century counterpart is a fuller expression of bourgeois capitalism. But what Marx would have found disdainfully surprising is the inversion of historical commodities being fetishized. It’s the professional historian in me that sees this behavior and what it undergirds as a dangerous foray into historical revisionism. At its core living the Victorian dream is a performative act that tells us more about twenty-first century tensions and fears than nineteenth.
Such idealization of the Victorian period represents a decontextualized distortion of the past. At a deeper cultural level, it signifies the staying power of what the philosopher Walter Benjamin identified as the shock of modernity. Yet the great irony of finding refuge in the Victorian era is that the Victorian themselves were disillusioned with the fast-paced technological and social changes of their time. There were moral panics surrounding the railroads, where riders were sickened with the medico-moral disease “railway spine,” which struck Dickens himself. The Victorian period saw for the first time in history the collapse of space and time. Sure, the age that domesticated nature via industrialization was at times bubbling with bravado over science and technology, yet Victorians were also frightened by what they had produced.
Aristocratic Victorians were fond of ‘retiring’ to their country estates to relieve the mounting fast-paced pressures of steam engines, timetables, and telegraphs (and, lest we forget, the urban poor). I suppose that twenty-first century hipsters are finding refuge in an idealized version of the past would strike those uber wealthy Victorians as perfectly normal. For the rest of us it’s perfectly odd. For professional historians, it’s down right dangerous.
In the world we live in today our interpretations of the past loom as large as ever. My own state, of South Carolina, for example, has been emblazoned of late because of the discord between an object of the past—the Confederate flag—and competing interpretations over its meaning. The past, it seems, is perpetually being made handmaiden to political perversions. The wearing of nineteenth century clothes and cooking with nineteenth century utensils is far from an innocuous appropriation of powerless objects from the past. There is a very real danger in a cherry-picked, tunnel-vision version of history, one that ignores power, inequality, racism, and privilege.
For a truly authentic Victorian experience, kids these days might be better off lounging around an opium den, or cordoned from society from the effects of hysteria. Ever try the gripping effects of typhoid fever or cholera—you can’t understand the Victorian world without them.
Assistant Professor, Department of History
College of Charleston