The Return of the Nineteenth Century? Zoom roundtable (4/26)

Digital roundtable feat. Anna Kornbluh, Zach Samalin, Benjamin Morgan, and Nasser Mufti.


From income inequality to mass incarceration, the return of mass popular serial narrative to the new respectability culture of the “Second Gilded Age,” it has become vogue in popular writing about the present to identify an affinity between the 19th century and the early 21st. Meanwhile, 21st-century literary studies has reacted against the entrenched historicism of a previous generation that often took for the granted the absolute difference of the various historical pasts: so witness V21’s “strategic presentism,” Goldberg and Menon’s “queering history,” or any number of longue duree projects that have lately returned to fashion. This roundtable discussion takes the popular, not-quite-academic idea of the “return of the 19th century” as a provocation for thinking about how we historicize in literary and cultural studies. In what ways have social trends, cultural forms, and political formations formerly imagined specific to the 19th century returned from the dead in the 21st? In what ways did they never leave? And what does it even mean to say that one period “resembles” another in the first place? We hope that a reevaluation of our account of the relations between past and present might also provide the occasion for reimagining the now-vexed role of critique in the humanities, whether that is critique in the present or the question of what constitutes a critique of the present.