On defining “Victorian”

Amanda Anderson (in Victorian Studies, 2005) argues for a richer conception of the relationship between politics and aesthetics. The normal narrative: mid-Victorian writers are beholden to Enlightenment forms of rationality and bourgeois subjectivity, which later Victorian writers (Baudelaire, Wilde, etc.) reject in the form of aesthetic modernity. She wants argue that the Enlightenment, associated with the earlier 19th-Century already had dialectic of internal critique at work: one that we might call sincerity vs. authenticity, or something Trilling-esque like that. She points to Daniel Deronda as exemplary (but that’s still a pretty late work, one should note). In general she cautions literary critics seeking to emulate Foucault’s own evolution from a thinker of systems to a thinker of individual ethos. Thinking from the point of view ethos must not re-write the systems of Enlightenment as homogenous and therefore easily defined and reject-able.

Let me clarify this somewhat complex point about ethos. On the one hand, I am arguing, a turn to ethos as individual enactment gets aligned with the trumping moves of aesthetic modernity. When so aligned, it remains too narrowly conceived and functions to set up Enlightenment modernity as a flimsy construct that is easily dismantled. But if used to draw out a fuller understanding of Enlightenment modernity’s self-conception, ethos can be productively used, precisely to d isable the oppo sition between political and aesthetic modernity.

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