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In this introduction to Nineteenth-Century Literature in Transition: The 1890s, the editors, Dustin Friedman and Kristin Mahoney, situate the contents of the collection in relationship to the larger objectives of the Nineteenth-Century Literature in Transition series, which aims to move beyond existing preconceptions of individual decades within the nineteenth century by producing new characterizations enabled by recent critical methodologies. This volume highlights in particular the role that work attending to the transnational, ecocriticism, digital humanities, and new approaches to gender and sexuality might play in reshaping our understanding of a period often referred to as “the Naughty Nineties.” This work, the editors argue, enhances our understanding of the nineteenth century’s closing years in their full complexity, dynamism, and intellectual ferment and makes a case for the relevance of perspectives from the 1890s regarding issues that still preoccupy us today.
In Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Walter Pater asks if “modern art” can “represent men and women in these bewildering toils so as to give the spirit at least an equivalent for the sense of freedom?” I discuss how the notions of both subjective and aesthetic autonomy that Pater refers to here have gotten a bad rap for the past century or so for helping facilitate the liberal, capitalist, and imperialist projects of the nineteenth century. I then argue, however, that the version of autonomy described in the writings of Pater and other Victorian aesthetes and decadents is actually quite different from the bourgeois, Enlightenment notion of sovereign subjectivity that has been rightfully critiqued by postmodernists and poststructuralists. I end by suggesting that aestheticist and decadent versions of autonomy, which affirm humanity's capacity to unmake and remake ourselves and our society via the aesthetic, might serve as a resource for countering the racist Western myth Sylvia Wynter refers to as “biocentricity”: the notion that humankind,and thus the hierarchies that justify the uneven distributions of power, is wholly and intractably in thrall to natural laws beyond our control.
The 1890s were once seen as marginal within the larger field of Victorian studies, which tended to privilege the realist novel and the authors of the mid-century. In recent decades, the fin de siècle has come to be viewed as one of the most dynamic decades of the Victorian era. Viewed by writers and artists of the period as a moment of opportunity, transition, and urgency, the 1890s are pivotal for understanding the parameters of the field of Victorian studies itself. This volume makes a case for why the decade continues to be an area of perennial fascination, focusing on transnational connections, gender and sexuality, ecological concerns, technological innovations, and other current critical trends. This collection both calls attention to the diverse range of literature and art being produced during this period and foregrounds the relevance of the Victorian era's final years to issues and crises that face us today.
This essay argues that an antiracist, anticolonialist Victorian studies must remain open to universalizing claims of the kind found in early works of queer theory, particularly Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Although recent work in queer studies (as well as literary studies generally) finds inspiration in Sedgwick's late-career turn to the more modest notion of “reparative reading,” strong knowledge claims are necessary to disrupt the colonial matrix of power that systematically renders both racism and heteronormativity invisible. Rereading Epistemology in light of postcolonial theories of comparison, I argue that, although Sedgwick does not address how the late Victorian “crisis of homo/heterosexual definition” takes place within the overall colonial system of power, she nevertheless inhabits a critical position remarkably similar to what Walter Mignolo calls “the border epistemology” of “decolonial thinking.” This entails making universalizing claims that promote the emancipation of disenfranchised groups but also rejecting the imperialist fantasy of critical neutrality in favor of political commitment and historical self-awareness. I end by putting the Sedgwick of Epistemology in dialogue with critical race theorist Sylvia Wynter to suggest how scholars might integrate their respective critical approaches by analyzing the figure of “the human” in Victorian literature and culture.
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