Caroline Levine’s NAVSA Plenary or What Can the Victorians Teach us?

by Tara MacDonald

NAVSA – the North American Victorian Studies Association – just held its annual conference in Phoenix, Arizona. This year’s theme was Social Victorians, a rich topic that lent itself to a wide variety of papers. When I decided that I would like to write a post for The Floating Academy on Caroline Levine’s thought-provoking plenary – which ended the conference – I had no idea that I would be writing after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, an event that has prompted an increase hate crimes and reactionary protests. It now seems that Levine’s calls to action for humanities scholars are more important than ever.

Levine’s talk, “Forms of Sociability: Novels, Numbers, and Other Collectives” began with the claim that we, as humanities scholars, typically do not deal with generalities but with singularities. Singularities are exceptions to the rule, oddities, moments or examples of strangeness. Why and how do we study singularities, she asked? Singularities are typically what humanities critics point out, through skills like close reading. Emphasizing singularities can help us to poke holes in broad arguments, to argue for nuance, and to say that things are not as they might obviously seem. But, being scholars of singularities might mean that we are on the defensive or that we don’t get to make large, important claims. Or perhaps it means – and this was one of Levine’s main claims – that we can point out social or political problems but not contribute to their solution.

How can we contribute to social or political solutions, then? Levine argued for the humanities as a “space for model-making”. She recently published Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy (Princeton, 2015) and she borrowed her definition of form from that book: form, she argues, is an “arrangement of elements – an ordering, patterning, or shaping” (3). Different forms enable or allow for certain possibilities – what she refers to as “affordances” – while they constrain others. I have not yet read her book, but her publisher’s blurb notes that “Levine argues that forms organize not only works of art but also political life” and her talk seemed to be an extension of this.

She went on to think practically about the affordances of specific Victorian literary forms. For instance, she claimed that the novel was bad at talking about labour – certainly a bold argument amongst this crowd! She talked about the absence of real discussions about labour in the Victorian novel, which seems largely true. I do wonder if we would find the same thing in novels from other European countries or North America? Or in English novels written for working class audiences? That said, her claim that the form of the poem is better at handling the monotony of work – her examples included Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Song of the Children” – was striking. She then gave the example of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” as a poem that dealt with the repetitive nature of work but also the possible diversity permitted within that repetitiveness. This poem seemed to offer an ideal, not utopian, version of work, one that we could even adopt in our own lives.

Her second claim about Victorian fictional forms was that the novel wasn’t great at narrating the collective. She cited Alex Woloch’s The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton, 2003) and claimed that there can only be one protagonist in the English novel. So what forms enable collectivity? She turned to Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in serial form in the 1840s. It is a text that includes the voices of many of London’s poor. Mayhew’s text features interviews with those living in poverty and what Levine found was that he borrowed the relatively new form of the dramatic monologue to effectively communicate these voices to his readers. She cited an excerpt in which a workingwoman was clearly responding to an interviewer whose questions were not recorded. Though she didn’t note this, this is of course a form later employed by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.

Finally, pushing her argument about poetry as allowing for collectivity, Levine invited us all to recite together lines from William Morris’s “Chants for Socialists” at the end of her talk, an experiment in sociability. I am certainly missing many details in my quick summary here and unfortunately we had to cut the question period short; I’m sure there would have been a fascinating discussion and debate. I enjoyed Levine’s willingness to ask such large questions – how can the humanities play a more significant role in the future of our societies? – and for her optimism in her implicit insistence that it can. I quickly thought of some travelling forms, such as the “talking circles” employed by Gloria Steinem, a form that she first encountered in India as a young woman. She discusses this in her recent memoir, My Life on the Road (Random House, 2015):

It was the first time I witnessed the ancient and modern magic of groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time. I had no idea that such talking circles had been a common form of governance for most of human history, from the Kwei and San in southern Africa, the ancestors of us all, to the First Nations on my own continent, where layers of such circles turned into the Iroquois Confederacy, the oldest continuous democracy in the world. Talking circles once existed in Europe, too, before floods, famines, and patriarchal rule replaced them with hierarchy, priests, and kings. I didn’t even know, as we sat in Ramnad, that a wave of talking circles and “testifying” was going on in black churches of my own country and igniting the civil rights movement. I certainly didn’t guess that, a decade later, I would see consciousness-raising groups, women’s talking circles, giving birth to the feminist movement.

This form has limits (people must be physically present and limited in number) but also affordances (various voices can be heard and it is theoretically without hierarchy). This isn’t a Victorian example but it got me thinking about what forms late-Victorian feminists used that we might want to revisit or employ today. It’s worth noting, too, that Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book famously ends with her feminist heroine becoming a public speaker, not a novelist. Levine joked at the beginning of her talk about the fact that some of Donald Trump’s supporters called for a repeal of the 19th Amendment (which gave women the right to vote in the U.S.), something she didn’t expect that we’d be talking about in 2016. The very fact that we have been suggests that we might do well to return to the Victorian period to explore what forms worked for suffragettes and other politically disenfranchised groups and employ them today. While I still have questions about how exactly we can make new models as humanities scholars, Levine’s talk was thought provoking and I hope we can continue to all talk about the ways in which we can use the past to understand and shape the future. She would then urge us, I think, to turn that talk into productive action.