Underwood 2013

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Underwood, Ted. Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.
"Different theoretical schools have defined the purpose of literary study in fundamentally different ways. But this is just what seems remarkable: the persistence of an organizing grid that is able to survive repeated, sweeping transformation of its content. Since professors have apparently felt free to change everything about their courses except the periodizing title, one begins to suspect that the value of literary study, in the eyes of students and of society at large, has been durably bound up with its ability to define cultural moments and contrast them against each other." (2)
"I will argue that an organizing principle of historical contrast has been central to the prestige of Anglo-American literary culture since the early nineteenth century, although its authority isnow in decline." (2-3)
"But periodization did not acquire institutional power in literary studies for reasons of mathematical convenience. What matters more than boundary-drawing is the broader premise that literature's power to cultivate readers depends on vividly particularizing and differentiating vanished eras, contrasting them implicitly against the present as well as against each other. It's a premise bound up with broader assumptions about literature's power to mediate historical change and transmute it into community -- or in other words, with a model of literary culture. This book investigates the emergence of that model, and then asks what might replace it if (as I would argue) the authority of historical contrast has in recent decades been declining." (3)

landed property embodied collective continuity; "if different periods have incommensurable assumptions that made sense only for a given time, then the concept of continuity would be a mirage, and no title or moss-grown manor could claim to embody the collective past. In this sense, the periodized, contrastive model of history that emerged toward the end of the 18th century can be understood as a tacit attack on the logic of aristocratic distinction." (7)

middle class could distant itself from collective past; recognizing discontinuity

"In short, the authority of historical discontinuity has not declined notably inside literature departments. It remains important not only in the institutional form of periodization, but in the negative form of an assumption that theories premised on continuous change are somehow tame, conservative, or recuperative. Where the discipline of literary studies itself is concerned, this assumption neatly reverses the actual social logic of historicism. The prestige of the discipline has long depended on the ruptures that separate periods and movements; literary critics' collective habit of takling about 'rupture' and 'fragmentation' as if they still posed a thrilling challenge to literary culture is at this point (collectively) disingenuous. This failure of self-understanding has been particularly visible in critical conversation about postmodern historicity. When critics suggest that psotmodernism is reducing history to 'heaps of fragments,' they rarely seem very genuinely troubled by the possibility." (14)
"For literary scholars, the value of historical contrast is still a fundamental intellectual premise, as well as a primary mode of disciplinary organizatino. But outside the academy, it is no longer clear that students need to be taught to recognize periods or differentiate artistic movements from each other." (14-15)
"If cultural history itself now seems to be losing value, it may be because the present crisis involves not merely a transformation of media, but a change in the structure of historical cultivation." (15)
"The final chapter of this volume argues that literary studies' long reliance on a rhetoric of contrast has in fact left the discipline with blind spots that scholars are now free to address." (15)

Historical Consciousness in the Novel, 1790-1819

"To put this more pointedly: early 19th century novelists didn't have to invent a historicist aesthetic, they just had to show that it could serve as a foundation for middle-class cultural distinction." (18-19)
"the central effect of this change, I will argue, was to shift the authority of the collective past away from landed property and toward personal cultivation. In this way, the national tale and historical novel participate in a larger romantic-era argument that systematically redefined a whole range of virtues (independence, for instance) so that they could be possessed not just by landowners but by urban professionals and entrepreneurs." (21)

history important in romantic novel "because it allows characters to internalize the authority of the past -- previously embedded in institutions and property -- as a portable attribute of character" (22)

The Invention of Historical Perspective

Priestley, visual aid for studying history; popularized idea of "an immediate impression of the shape of history as a whole"; "The incompleteness of a brief summary was no longer necessarily a makeshift; it could be understood as a deliberate strategy for rendering significant patterns visible, and thereby producing the right sort of historical cultivation. In fact, the incompleteness of the historical record itself could be seen as a good thing, inasmuch as it reduced history to a manageable size." (62)

The Invention of the Period Survey Course

"Our narratives about literary studies emphasize critical theory, since at first glance that appears to be where the drama and conflict of the profession are located. But backing up to take the long view of institutional history, one could argue that the drama and conflict have been operating, all the while, in the service of a periodizing imperative that has remained unchallenged since its emergence in the nineteenth century because it is perceived as indispensable to the discipline's cultural mission." (113)

The Disciplinary Rationale for Periodization

"The periodized curriculum has been curiously stable, not because no one thought to challenge it -- but because institutional challenges have never displaced periodization in a significant, enduring way." (115)
"Alternative curricular plans have frequently been proposed. But somehow, the alternatives never take root in a way that makes them seem educationally indispensable. And somehow it always does remain indispensable to offer courses on 'romaticism' or 'modernism.' The opacity of this phenomenon suggests that it rests on a social foundation not fully articulated as conscious belief." (115)

literary historians took up Foucault because he was saying what the discipline already did -- "Foucauldian 'genealogy' may have been controversial in history departments, but in literary study it offered an eloquent, philosophical rationale for an approach to history that was already dominant." (134)

blind spot in the discipline -- "widespread amnesia about the whole history of the discipline before New Criticism" (134)

"Until Gerald Graff wrote Professing Literature, many late-20th-century histories of literary study were actually histories 'of literary criticism,' constructing an imaginary genealogy of the discipline that ran from Matthew Arnold thorugh the likes of T. S. Eliot, and largely ignoring the institutional history of the university curriculum. It's especially worth addressing this oversight now, because there are growing signs that literary study may be about to rehearse early-20th-century debates bout the threat of 'scientism' and 'factualism' in our discipline." (135)

Stories of Parallel Lives

last 40 years haven't abandoned a sense of historical continuity "but have been characterized on the contrary by a growing confidence in continuity. Cultural intellectuals have rightly perceived this as a crisis, however, because the prestige of historical cultivation has long hinged -- as parallel-lives stories remind us -- on the premise of discontinuity. If history is radically discontinuous then intellectuals can argue that present-day social standards have to be qualified by historicist culture, which serves as a placeholder for an infinite variety of possible alternate perspectives." If, on the other hand, we have reached a point where the present is finally right to imagine that it holds a privileged perspective, then the supplement of historical cultivation (of 'culture' as we have known it for the last two centuries) is no longer particularly urgent." (156)

Digital Humanities and the Future of Literary History

"the topic of gradual change is a place where there is a specific, interlocking affinity between the new capacities of digital analysis and the existing blind spots of literary scholarship." (159)

despite rhetoric of fragmentation and rupture as radical, "literary study has consistently located cultural prestige in moments of rupture rather than gradual and continuous change" (163)

quantification in humanities seen as a form of scientism; "but I would argue that many complaints about scientism boil down in practice to a suspicion that quantification will dissolve the kinds of discontinuity that serve as containers for the cultural value of history" (164)

"'distant reading' does also have the potential to trouble literary historicism more profoundly, because quantification can make it possible to describe change without articulating it as a series of discrete phases at all" (166)
"Instead of ascribing a causal role to literary movements like 'romanticism' or genres like 'the realist novel,' it might be better to say that those genres and movements were themselves participating in broader discursive trends. Trends of this kind play out on a scale that literary scholars aren't accustomed to describing, and it may take decades for us to figure out how to describe them." (169)
"I think this is one of the most significant pitfalls contronting digital scholarship in our discipline: the assumption that quantitative methods need to prove their value by answering the kinds of questions a more traditional interpretive agenda would have posed." (170)
"Recent moves toward 'distant' or 'quantitative' reading can provide a healthy methodological diversification for literary studies -- a counterweight to our long-established preference for case studies and contrast. But in order for that diversification to work, we need to let quantitative methods do what they do best: map broad patterns and trace gradients of change. That is harder than it sounds, because literary scholars are not trained to appreciate gradients. Results of that kind can look like a scientistic intrusion into our discipline: it's easy to feel that the results would be better and more humanistic if only they were less abstract, less impersonal, less continuous." (170)

makes more sense to apply quantitative methods to large-scale analysis, of the kinds humans can't do ; need to "overcome skepticism not just about quantitative evidence, but about historical continuity as such" (171)

"Many disciplines are interested in social behavior, or processes of change, or ways of discerning patterns in large collections of data. It has already become difficult to separate literary scholarship from linguistics, history, and sociology. It now appears that the discipline could overlap in places ith computer science. In other words, the consequence of reframing literary historicism more broadly might not be that 'periods' disappear, but that literary history becomes ever more permeable to other disciplines." (171)