Victorian Affects in the Age of V21

Melissa Valiska Gregory

In the last VLC provocation piece, Caroline Levine asks how Victorianists might want to “organize ourselves.” Levine is referring to content and chronology, but it’s equally worth asking how we might want to organize ourselves as people—as actual human beings working closely together within a subfield. (News flash: turns out we have feels.)

How Victorianists cluster ourselves around professional affinities that feel deeply personal has come up of late in relation to the anonymously authored parody, published in the Rambling, of the V21 manifesto. Reactions to the parody on social media have ranged from unadulterated delight to flat-out outrage, with at least one innocent Victorianist’s Facebook feed overwhelmed with enough commentary to throw Facebook algorithms into a tailspin. (If you wind up with advertisements for laudanum and boot blacking in your feed, you know who to blame.) Defenders of the piece praised its satirical eye while detractors accused it of ad hominem attacks. The debate continued behind the scenes, where impassioned direct messages proliferated with promises of future shakeups, complaints about tone policing, and furious charges of mansplaining. Pretty much everyone was doubling down, and more than one person clearly felt hurt, dismayed either by the essay itself or by subsequent attempts to manage each other’s reactions.

But whether or not the Rambling essay represents high quality satire or petty griping is, ultimately, perhaps beside the point. What’s clear is that given our personal investment in our scholarship, we need to be aware that feelings matter, and we need to think hard about what inclusivity means to our field and whether we’re serious about pursuing it as a goal. On Facebook, one defender of V21 poignantly observed that the organization is committed to progressive scholarship and outreach. Yet the Rambling’s anonymous author—who presumably does not represent a singular view—clearly views V21 as unwelcoming to anyone not already in the club. What is happening in the gap between the group’s internal goals and the public perception of it? And let’s not pretend V21 is the only group that has this problem. It may have been the one most recently satirized, but surely all of us could benefit from more self-reflection about how we—both as individuals and groups—may present to others in our field.

In other words, let’s take this fissure in our community as an opportunity to ask how we might more consciously embody qualities like fairness, generosity, and compassion in both our work and our professional interactions. What forms of professional networking might we develop? What genres might we employ? What rhetorical tactics might we wield? What professional strategies best support intellectual exchange that is rigorous as well as humane? Because as Humanities scholars, we owe each other our best selves.