Undisciplining Victorian Studies

Undisciplining Victorian Studies
[Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a longer piece written by the authors for a special issue of Victorian Studies, forthcoming in September. There it will serve as the introduction to a series of essays on critical race theory and Victorian studies, highlighting the work of scholars of color in Victorian Studies and adjacent fields.]


We must become undisciplined. The work we do requires new modes and methods of research and teaching; new ways of entering and leaving the archives of slavery, of undoing the “racial calculus and … political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago” and that live into the present.

— Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), with a quotation from Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts”


THIS ESSAY CHALLENGES the racism that undergirds Victorian Studies and maintains it, demographically, as an almost entirely white field. Victorian Studies (VS), which examines the literature and culture of Britain in the period roughly defined by Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901), a period concurrent with the heyday of the British Empire, stands in a special position: it is one of the most enduring bastions of the fantasy of an unmarked universality. By this we mean it is emblematic of a broader ideological effort to demarcate the “racial” from the “nonracial” (as if such a category could exist). Nineteenth-century novels by writers like Austen, Dickens, and Eliot, for instance, are regarded as universal “classics” — great literature that exists beyond the particularities of race.

The contemporary version of this demarcation plays out vis-à-vis the rapidly rising genre of the “anti-racist reading list,” which, while serving an important purpose, nurtures the impression that books and literature could be marked off as either “about race” or not. [1] This logic — a Victorianist one — might imply that after you have done the labor of reading, say, James Baldwin, you might then retreat into the safety and comfort of Eliot’s Middlemarch. Victorian literature, and the methods used to study it, seem to confirm these notions of “comfort” and “safety” (for whom exactly?), while also enshrining their status as elite literary classics that, in their scope and scale, represent a universal human experience. This essay seeks to dispel this longstanding fantasy, and to underline VS’s foundation in whiteness, universalism, and liberalism — all terms that have been usefully troubled and historicized in contemporary scholarship in critical race studies. We don’t have to turn away from the mainstays of Victorian literature to study empire and racialization, although it may be useful to set these works in new constellations.

While this essay and the special issue that it will introduce are the product of several years of collaboration, recent events and conversations spur us toward its earlier publication in a public-facing venue. We are mindful of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement’s repeated calls for the abolition of racist institutions, and its insistence on bringing this reckoning with racism and anti-Blackness “home” to our academic institutions and disciplinary fields. As three non-Black women of color trained in VS, our reckoning comes in the form of a call to “undiscipline” the field, and we want others to join us in this work. Following recent conversations about academic gatekeeping initiated by our colleagues in RaceB4Race (a coalition of scholars of color bringing attention to premodern critical race studies), we also felt that offering this essay in a non-paywalled form, outside the disciplinary institution of the academic journal, would enable us to build broader coalitions — especially with those who may not have access to such institutionalized spaces.

The driving force of our intervention is our recognition of our field’s marked resistance to centering racial logic. Against the fantasy of the “nonracial,” or whiteness wishfully coded as what Zadie Smith names “the neutral universal,” we want to illuminate how race and racial difference do in fact subtend our most cherished objects of study, our most familiar historical and theoretical frameworks, our most engrained scholarly protocols, and the very demographics of our field. Why does the study of the 19th century in Britain — a period and geographical center that consolidated a modern idea of race — lack, in its contemporary scholarship, a rigorous account of race and racialization? We need a more robust historical and theoretical account of our objects of study that will more properly attend to the whiteness (as white supremacy) that structures our field’s scholarly and social practices. [2] We thus seek to challenge the multiple rigidities, cultural and conceptual, that have kept VS isolated from other fields, and have kept that more rigorous thinking from shaping it in turn.


In Christina Sharpe’s call to “become undisciplined,” she registers how academic disciplinary norms continually disavow and distort knowledge — particularly “the kinds of knowledge [gained] from and of the everyday, from what Dionne Brand calls ‘sitting in the room with history.’” To “become undisciplined” is to reject this partitioning and co-opting of knowledge, and instead to invent “new modes” of research and teaching that offer a “method of encountering” what Sharpe evocatively names “a past that is not past” — that is to say, the climate of anti-Blackness that spreads beyond the wake of the slave ship and continues to structure our lives and symbolic economies today.

Sharpe’s arguments enact a suspension of method that informs the praxis of the Black radical tradition more broadly, and whose end is to make room for new epistemological models that unmake false universals and imagine new humanisms in their place. While Sharpe is not speaking directly to scholars of the 19th century, we argue that Victorianists nevertheless have much to learn from her call. Our gesture in extending Sharpe’s call is both material and metaphorical. First, to study the Victorian period is indeed to study an archive of Atlantic slavery — even if, to date, VS has largely taken up that study through evasion or non-recognition. And second, while holding the specificity of anti-Blackness very much before us, we want to suggest that Sharpe’s insights are necessary to the broader thinking of race and racialization we want to perform here.

We want to move away from the discipline that keeps VS isolated and insular and advocate instead for a fuller engagement with the ambitious and vital work being done by Black, Postcolonial, Indigenous, Asian American, Latinx, Decolonial, Feminist and Queer of Color, and Critical Ethnic Studies scholars. To be clear, we are not advocating for an accumulative project that would leave the boundaries of VS untouched and intact. In our thinking toward “becoming undisciplined,” our hopes turn to renovating the way we think of scholarly fields and of field-formation itself. And so, building on the work of scholars both “inside” and “outside” the field, we move to undiscipline — radically rethink and even unmake — VS itself.

And yet, we must be careful not to regard this un-disciplinarity through an emancipatory lens. Rather, as Sharpe argues, un-disciplinarity invokes a set of strategies for living, thinking, and being within a negative ontology: a “total climate” of anti-Blackness that has produced and continues to produce the conditions that sustain Western modernity. We should therefore be careful to avoid replicating the violence Sharpe names. We must resist assimilationist thinking and instead insist on the difference that structures each of our positions “in the wake.” In terms of our own intervention, we have to do more than lift a frame from critical race studies in an effort to “save” VS. Instead, we have to elucidate what VS has to offer other fields and a larger anti-racist project, and we have to directly confront those aspects of the field that cannot, in keeping with this project, be saved.

“Undisciplining” is not quick or easy, nor is it work that is necessarily ever completed. Ours is an ongoing, careful, and deliberate effort. We want to develop a truly relational thinking that does not stop at engaging scholarship across fields and disciplines for a richer cross-fertilization of ideas, but that might extend into coalition-based politics and activism and a refashioning of academic structures to better serve the purposes of equity and justice.

In building a vocabulary that can begin to redress the lack we see in VS, we follow Jamaican theorist Sylvia Wynter’s definition of racialization as the production, hierarchization, and regulation of human difference within a global history of domination, exploitation, and expropriation, and follow Ruth Wilson Gilmore in defining racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group differentiated vulnerabilities to pre-mature (social, civil and/or corporeal) death.” These definitions evoke more than the social construction of race. Instead, they remind us of the imbrication of race and state power, such that racial difference itself becomes an “effect of power.” Exploring race within a lexicon of power, disciplinarity, and political violence wrenches it away from the isolated workings of identity, and enables us to see racialization as an assemblage of forces (as Jasbir Puar and Alexander Weheliye suggest) or a set of affects that are at once personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal (as Amber Jamilla Musser, Anne Anlin Cheng, José Esteban Muñoz, and Sianne Ngai have explored). To think race, then, is to think power, violence, the flesh, and the human. And it is also to think resistance, relation, and the possibilities of freedom. Our hope, then, is that our questions are as much activist as they are scholarly, and that they have the power to exceed these pages.

Making and Unmaking Victorian Studies

The institutional history of VS as an academic field bears out an ongoing set of scholarly and material practices that contain and manage away valuable insights about race. We briefly revisit that history here, highlighting two rich scholarly interventions whose critical energies and more insurgent insights about race have been significantly downgraded in the current instantiation of the field: postcolonial and feminist theory. VS has used strategies of liberal management to invisibilize interventions that could have been central to the field. These are familiar strategies, operating in tandem with the broader logic of the contemporary university.

As Nelson Maldonado-Torres has argued, after the Civil Rights movement, the university system managed decades-long interventions by anticolonial, decolonial, feminist of color, and queer decolonial scholars into a politics of “re-presentation within the framework of area studies, not one of decolonization or epistemic justice.” That is, the

liberal university subsumed [new programs like Women’s and Ethnic Studies] into its logic, seeing them as not much more than containing measures to address social demands having to do with diversity, and then, after defining them in such limited way, faulted them for allegedly being too essentialistic and provincial.

Beginning in the 1970s, postcolonial theory and methodology worked to untangle critical and scholarly attachments to formal, aesthetic, and geographical closures. But what was originally a radical intervention has largely been sidelined in the present of VS, despite the fact that much of that discourse’s initial energies (in the work of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Gauri Viswanathan, for instance) drew from the 19th-century canon. Postcolonial approaches were managed by being shunted off historically as a 20th-century concern, or enclosed in specialized spaces — theory, empire studies, comparative literature — kept apart from the truly “Victorian” of the field.

As scholars building our careers in the last decade, we do not wish to overlook the vital and vibrant work that has come before us and that has made our own work possible. [3] Our point is that postcolonial scholarship on the Victorian era has not been accepted as central to the field, though the Victorian era has been central to postcolonial scholarship. Where VS did heed the insights of postcolonial studies, it largely did so in a sanitizing way, leaving its more insurgent, less “comfortable” insights, including those surrounding race and epistemic justice, behind. Through a similar logic, the mainstream of VS centralized “empire” as the container of the 19th century’s ideas of race and racialization, and in doing so, simplified radical critique and reduced it to a settled, and “already-over” matter.

While we have approached postcolonial studies’ interventions somewhat belatedly, we have acutely registered the troubling de facto social segregations that endure in the present: brown bodies ghettoized in “special interest” panels on postcolonial topics and spaces, while “general interest” panels focus on seemingly more neutral subjects such as form and reading — often code for a latent and unexamined whiteness.

As Spivak argued in her groundbreaking reading of Jane Eyre’s role in establishing white feminist individuality, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” (1985): “It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England's social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English.” While Spivak’s essay remains, in VS, a well-known riposte to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s second-wave feminist analysis of Victorian literature, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), our field has still largely missed two of its most critical points: that US-based academic feminism frequently elided women of color (and even found support for its particular model of individualism, fictional and scholarly, in their erasure), and that “an informed critique of imperialism” would have to “expand the frontiers of the politics of reading.”

The field’s neglect of black feminist thought’s most revolutionary contributions is a symptom of both of these misses. Scholars like Audre Lorde, Hortense Spillers, and Saidiya Hartman have repeatedly emphasized that we must think the structures of slavery, colonialism, racism, and humanization together. Moreover, VS’s rather narrow “politics of reading” has also had broader consequences: the field has notably failed to mainstream important transatlantic scholarship connecting VS to African American Studies, [4] to Black British studies, and to global slavery studies, [5] even as scholars like Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Vanessa Dickerson, and Caroline Bressey have generated work that directly speaks to VS’s popular canon.

To put it rather bluntly, VS is a field that has neither engaged nor cited the work of black women (nor, for that matter, feminists of color more broadly), regardless of whether their publications occurred “inside” or “outside” of the field — even though (or perhaps because?) their work changes the grounds of our study. [6] So, while the study of gender in the context of white women’s texts and lives has become canonical in VS, centering the multiple contributions of feminists of color — such as the intersectional theorizing of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the coalition building of the Combahee River Collective across Black Feminism and Feminisms of the Global South and of Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back, and other solidarity politics and theory — has been much more difficult.

VS is past due to join our colleagues in other periodized fields of British literature who have recently interrogated the bounds of their field’s scholarship, methods, and social containments (The Bigger 6 Collective, #BIPOC18, #ShakeRace, and #Raceb4Race). These attempts to think race (whether in postcolonial, anticolonial, or decolonial frames or through critical race and ethnic studies) necessarily imply an ambitious epistemic project: to shift the “geography of reason,” in Lewis Gordon’s phrase, away from an oft-invisible Eurocentricity and its attendant whiteness.

In the absence of such projects, VS replicates much of the colonialist narrowness of the “Victorian” and, as Cora Kaplan has argued, even gathers its identity from an Anglophilia, alternately disavowed or embraced in a love of Victoriana. Unmaking the nostalgia that often undergirds the field’s self-definition should begin by exploding its limited geographic imaginary, which continues to exhibit particular difficulties in dismantling a center/periphery model, despite the efforts of scholars like Robert Aguirre, Sukanya Banerjee, Joselyn Almeida-Beveridge, Melissa Free, Fariha Shaikh, and Tim Watson. In this regard, we wish to think beyond the monolith of “empire” and through to migration, diaspora, overlapping imperial oppressions, settler colonialism, and — to borrow Lisa Lowe’s vocabulary — other complicated “intimacies” (and intimate violences) of global exchange and racial capitalism. Other fields point to geographic circulations that VS has refused to see. [7] Expanding our “politics of reading” therefore pushes us to think with other orientations to land, place, and space that our field will sorely need if it is to survive into our 21st century.

To undiscipline VS, we must also explode the field’s limited temporal imaginaries (often signaled by the fetishizing of historical dates and period markers). A “past that is not past” encompasses an unprecedentedly violent and managerial century that consolidated both the institutional machinery and philosophical underpinnings of anti-Blackness and the intricate race-based hierarchies of the Human that persist into the present across the globe. We consequently need more agile methodologies that understand “the Victorian” outside of the bounded years of a queen’s reign. Victorianist scholars working under the purview of the V21 Collective have offered “strategic presentism” (borrowing Spivak’s “strategic essentialism”) as a method by which to critically engage the past and its literary artifacts in order to better theorize the present. Yet the exigencies of our particular moment put an enormous pressure on the term “presentism” to account for what can only be understood as a “past that is not past,” or an ongoing “coloniality of power.” Engaging histories of slavery and empire aren’t simply optional presentist critical moves, but rather required methods for understanding the endurance of conflict and strife precisely as real and ongoing violence. [8]

As Yogita Goyal pointedly observes, in order

to assess the world we live in — the place of the US as inheritor of previous European empires, the tangle of endless war, practices of indefinite detention, and the formalization of extralegal modes of dispossession — we will need to stage the question of the relation between aesthetic and political formations as a live concern.

Goyal connects the multiple forms of violence in our present (“endless war,” “infinite detention,” “dispossession”) not only to the world-making violences of the past, but also to aesthetic efforts to render that violence invisible, acceptable, or a necessary evil. And we see these aesthetic efforts not simply in our 19th-century objects of study, but in the ways we approach them now.

Aesthetics and Politics

The failure to attend to the mutual imbrication of politics and aesthetics that Goyal diagnoses seems especially to beleaguer VS — a field drawn, as we have argued, around formal closures and its difficulty acknowledging the existence of “aesthetic racism.” Elaine Freedgood has recently deployed this phrase to illustrate how the British 19th-century novel — itself only retrospectively imagined as “seamless” and “great” by 20th-century Anglo-American critics — has been imagined as the “masterful” measure against which non-Western novels are deemed incomplete, rudimentary, or wanting. “Our imagining of the novel,” she writes, “has been inflected and infected by a racism that is somehow invisible to most observers.”

We therefore need to render explicit the racism that subtends the history of aesthetics, canon formation, and curricular bias (all of which promote particular Western literary forms), and by doing so, make space to read, think, and write otherwise. Some very basic first steps might include recognizing characters in a Victorian novel not as race-less, but as white (as Melisa Klimaszewski has suggested), or calling racist slurs, images, and figures of speech that appear in these novels what they are: racist — and then theorizing them further. [9] These shouldn’t be daring moves. And yet, the whiteness in and of the field’s most treasured literary texts has such a long history of being read right through, or treated as “merely” figurative, that this kind of literal reading is indeed intellectually and politically necessary. [10]

We also need to recognize that “aesthetic racism” extends beyond and beneath printed scholarship and insinuates itself into many of the reflex assumptions and scholarly “standards” that shape how our field conducts and replicates itself: in everything from its policing of reading strategies and critical affects to its hiring rubrics to its forms of sociability. Our brown bodies, South Asian, East Asian, and Latina, have been policed from the moment we stepped foot into academia. In our description of this in what follows, we are not only talking about ourselves (and experiences among ourselves have hardly been homogeneous), but instead sketching some of the contours of the field’s white sociality and how it lands on the bodies and minds of racialized scholars.

First, why don’t you work on “your” literature? Then, why do you insist on doing identity politics? Or, you would be more hireable in a different field — in fact, in a different department. We’re never in the right category, never in the right place at the right time. Our critiques of the field prove our unfitness (not to mention our bitterness), our “extra-literary” agendas prove our un-literariness. Not only do we fail to move through academic structures properly, we don’t hold ourselves right once we arrive in any given academic space. We are always too “ethnic” or not “ethnic” enough, in our speech (accented? non-accented?) and our affect and our clothes. We’re not as confident and outspoken as our white male peers. Or, we’re too polished (“too poised,” as one of us was called after an academic job interview): it’s not what was expected from us, it doesn’t sit right. Our systemically inculcated self-doubt is exploited, or our confidence is mistaken for arrogance. We’re too loud or too quiet. We are, always, confused for one another. Our faces just aren’t that memorable, our names unpronounceable, so why cite us and risk embarrassment?

Don’t get us wrong: we’re not claiming unwavering expertise. We feel we’re late to the serious study of race and racial injustice, and we have much to learn from colleagues and peers who have been doing this work for decades. This essay stems from a reading group we formed three years ago, when we came together as early career scholars and as women of color in a primarily white field, to continue filling in together what we recognized to be major gaps in our learning and to sort out some of the more puzzling and difficult experiences we have had in VS. We also know we’ve sometimes turned this racism against ourselves and others, and are ashamed. It’s reflected in our very reasons for joining the field. In our formative undergraduate and graduate years, and for reasons both personal and generational, the three of us viewed VS, and British literature more broadly, as the site of literary seriousness, intellectual capital, and “proper” expertise. But our very embodiments foreclose our ability to fully claim seriousness, capital, expertise, authority. This essay marks our own ongoing challenges to undiscipline ourselves as well as the field. We want to push for change and create space for more challenging conversations.

Politics of Relation

Scholarship is always political. What if we were all to become more deliberate in the ways we politicize our scholarly labor? [11] At the 2019 MLA, we brought together scholars of color in VS and closely adjacent fields for a panel on critical race theory; that collaboration developed into our special issue of Victorian Studies[12] For the three of us, creating community between ourselves and a larger group of scholars of color has been vital. It has made our work sharper and more responsible, and it has sustained us emotionally and psychically (if not materially — job insecurity, underemployment and precarity, shortage of research funds, and lack of essential employment benefits like medical insurance are also daily lived stressors for some of us and our peers). As Manu Samriti Chander, one of the contributors to our special issue, has written elsewhere, in order to actively redress such inequities in the profession, easily the most important thing we can do is to “train, hire, [and] tenure” scholars of color, not just in markedly “ethnic” fields, but in fields like VS, which we fictively demarcate as nonracial.

To be clear, we are not saying that there is a necessary correlation between being a scholar of color and working on race, ethnicity, or coloniality as topics of interest. And yet, for us and for many of the writers we gathered in our panel and special issue, the specifics of our personal experience and of our interpellation by VS (we may be rendered interchangeable or invisible, made to feel like we don’t quite belong, that we can only belong as a useful “specimen” or an always incomplete assimilation to whiteness) do indeed draw us to investigate the dynamics of race and racialization with particular urgency. Diversifying our objects of study and our methods for approaching them is more than an intellectual exercise, [13] and making connections with scholars of color in VS and across fields and disciplines — with scholars in Black, Latinx and Latin American, Asian and Asian American, and Native American and Indigenous Studies, for example — is a form of solidarity politics that feels necessary. [14]

What we ultimately wish to fight for is the freedom of scholars of color to work on any object, topic, and methodology they choose. And the need for all scholars, and not just scholars of color, to integrate considerations of race and racial capitalism — the most urgent questions of our time — into their work. And to do so rigorously: after deep reading and learning and listening. These considerations are not ornaments or accessories. They should radically shape — that is to say, at its very roots — how we construct and conduct intellectual inquiry and imagine its stakes.

We propose that one way to begin this process is through writing and living by Sara Ahmed’s call to interrogate our own citational politics. Who are we citing? Which scholars and scholarship are we holding up as authoritative and important? And whose work is ignored, sidelined, or, frankly, stolen, its insights used or appropriated without being properly acknowledged? We worry about the ways that crucial ideas and paradigms developed by scholars of color only get taken seriously in VS when they are repeated or absorbed by white scholars. We have all witnessed — and for too long, silently — how the best thinking by Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous scholars does not become fully “legible” and transactable in mainstream scholarship until it gets attached to an easier-to-pronounce Anglo-American name or an easier-to-identify, less interchangeable, face and body.

Ahmed helps us to see citation for what it is: a “rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies.” As Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, and Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández have further elaborated, in making explicit the interdependence between the social and the intellectual, citation structures hold the potential to “make and re-make” our disciplines and fields themselves. Looking to counter the dynamics of field formation that make “some forms of knowledge peripheral” and repeatedly center “those who are more famous, even if their contributions appropriate subaltern ways of knowing,” Tuck, Wang, and Gaztambide-Fernández issued a “Citation Practices Challenge” in 2015 “to stop erasing Indigenous, Black, brown, trans*, disabled POC, QT*POC, feminist, activist, and disability/crip contributions from our intellectual genealogies,” and invited others to join them. Can scholars in VS take up this challenge as well?

The politics of relation we are advocating for here is not a utopian or even ameliorative construct. It is anchored by our understanding of the multiple forms of institutional precarity that curtail scholars, and especially queer, dis-abled, and racialized bodies, in the neoliberal academy and our collapsing present. It thus recognizes the deep inequalities that structure academic labor and that impede functional forms of solidarity across scholarly rank and institutional privilege, as well as disciplines and fields. Moreover, a true politics of relation is attuned to the disagreements, conflicts, and tensions that animate solidarity projects oriented around shared points of struggle. It is not “identity politics” in the derided (sometimes rightly, sometimes with the added animation of xenophobia) sense.

Cathy Cohen writes that “[w]e must […] start our political work from the recognition that multiple systems of oppression are in operation and that these systems use institutionalized categories and identities to regulate and socialize.” This claim reaches beyond the often simplified instrumentalization of intersectional thought in academic and non-academic rhetorics alike, which can sometimes turn into a feel-good but ultimately vapid politics. Instead, discomfort can and should accompany this work, which is intended not to affirm but to destabilize regulatory categories of identity and their concomitant perspectives on the world and the texts we study.

We are thus inspired by many of our fellow scholars and writers who confront the ambivalence and “ugly feelings” that can accompany doing this work. Because the complexities of racialization, particularly under the longue durée of capitalist modernity, can not only be seen, but more acutely felt (often in and through what poet and critic Cathy Park Hong has called “minor feelings”), exploring how critical thinking functions under such conditions requires a more expanded grasp of the affective landscape of race. The special issue we have edited is therefore an effort to construct a space for that thinking-and-feeling — however fleeting, or necessarily heuristic — that is located in a commons. But it is equally born out of a collective negotiation with the positionality of being not-in-common with the existing norms of thinking.

This not-in-common is in fact a different kind of being-with, as Muñoz argues. Affect, he writes, “is meant to address a sense of being-in-common as it is transmitted, across people, place, and spaces”: a being-with that can function, then, even across difference. This is the critical affective mode that Manu Samriti Chander and Joseph Pierce activate in the collaborative essay they wrote for our special issue on “brown cousins,” an alternative thinking of kinship, in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Jorge Isaacs’s María. In Chander and Pierce’s theorizing, “the brown kinship” they perceive “in these white texts cannot be analyzed, only reenacted” — in this case, by their own relational and affective link. Brown kinship is a being-with as well as a “being-against,” and these “are not,” their essay reminds us, “contradictory forms of being.” What would it mean to inhabit that friction in our work?

This may be the possibility for “study” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney explore in The Undercommons, a form of intellectual collectivity that is indebted to the conditions of black life but not restricted to them. We wonder ultimately if Victorian literature could become an archive for “study” in the way Moten has described intellectual life in the undercommons, one that stays with the difficulties and challenges of being interpellated subjects — faced with the mutuality of “being with” and “against” — rather than skirting them. [15]


In a post-pandemic landscape torched by unprecedented social, economic, and political upheaval, the arrival of a different university, as well as a different — or potentially extinct — VS, appears to be a foregone conclusion. Arundhati Roy has described the pandemic-stricken present as a “portal” that we can walk through “dragging the carcasses of our […] data banks and dead ideas” or leaving them behind. We do not want to lug into the landscape before us “dead ideas” about disciplinarity and division — between fields, between aesthetics and politics, between history and the present.

Our gestures in this essay are imperfect, and there is no way for any of us to stand entirely outside the pernicious ideologies that shape modernity, the modern university, and contemporary subjecthood. But we want to build communities and sites of study that can both comprehend the vast intricacies of racial inequality and see that another world is possible. The mass uprisings that define this moment have given us this hope. Wanting a different future does not imply a utopian closing of the eyes to the injuries of global racial capitalism. On the contrary, it demands seeing and feeling them more acutely than before. Or, to be more precise, it demands a more equitable distribution of that seeing and feeling. The present, perhaps, is always a portal, and there is no doing away with the drag of our past. And yet it does seem possible that confronting the precarity that characterizes our current moment — a confrontation built on decades of tireless effort on the part of civil rights, abolitionist, and BLM activists — could truly be a door to elsewhere.


Ronjaunee Chatterjee lives in Montreal and teaches feminist, queer, and critical race theory, as well as courses on the 19th century, at Concordia University. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksASAP JournalThe New InquiryFrench Studies,Victorian Literature and Culture, and other venues.

Alicia Mireles Christoff is associate professor of English at Amherst College. She is the author of Novel Relations: Victorian Fiction and British Psychoanalysis (Princeton University Press, 2019). Her essays have appeared in PMLANovelVictorian Literature and CulturePublic Books, and other venues, and her poems in The Yale Review and Peach Mag.

Amy R. Wong lives in Oakland and is assistant professor of English at Dominican University of California, where she teaches courses on literature, film, media theory, and critical race studies. Her essays and reviews have appeared in NarrativeLiterature CompassASAP JournalModern Philology, Studies in the NovelSEL: Studies in English Literature, Public Books, and Avidly.


[1] In her essay “It’s Not About Anything,” Kandice Chuh critiques the conventional move of asking what something is “about”: “It seems to me that the determination of what something (a novel, a field of study, a lecture) is ‘about’ often is conducted as a way of avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially racialized difference.” For Chuh, “aboutness functions as an assessment of relevance, and within the racialized economy of academic knowledge […] preserves the (racist) epistemologies of (neo)liberalism.”

[2] As Antoinette Burton points out, “[m]any undergraduate students” in the United States come to modern British history courses “in search of ‘islands of whiteness’ in what they often perceive of as a sea of ethnic and area studies” courses. She continues: “For them, even now, Britain represents whiteness in ways that the history of the U.S. perhaps cannot.”

[3] Important work dealing with the complexities of race and racialization in the context of Victorian Britain (including questions of Jewish, Irish, and “gypsy” otherness) includes texts by Aviva BriefelAntoinette BurtonBryan CheyetteAmy E. MartinDeborah Epstein NordAlisha Walters, and others.

[4] Vanessa Dickerson, Daniel Hack, Julia Sun-Joo Lee, and Tricia Lootens have addressed VS’ apparent difficulty in attending to the explicit historical and intertextual connections between African American and Victorian literature.

[5] Works by Hall, Draper, and their “Legacies of British Slave-ownership” project database are also significant here.

[6] VS remains behind the times in understanding the differential construction of femininity across race and space, despite efforts by scholars like Jennifer DeVere Brody, Anne McClintock, and Ann Laura Stoler to bridge these concerns for the study of the 19th century.

[7] The work of Indigenous scholars, activists, and writers has been vital to this unthinking of center and periphery (but remains un-engaged by VS); see, for instance, Jodi Byrd’s The Transit of Empire; Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus; Nick Estes’s podcast The Red Nation.

[8] Again, Wynter provides a helpful model for what we mean here: her work rigorously links “our present struggles with respect to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, struggles over the environment, global warming, severe climate change, the sharply unequal distribution of the earth’s resources” to “differing facets of the central ethnoclass Man vs. Human struggle” begun in the 15th and 16th centuries.

[9] Note Carolyn Betensky’s account of “casual racism” and how merely labeling such textual moments as “racist” can have a containing, reifying effect that forecloses analysis.

[10] This argument draws from Jane Hu’s essay in the special issue, as well as Anjuli Raza Kolb’s argument on the literalness of race at our initial MLA roundtable in 2019. Conversations with all of the contributors have informed this essay, and their work is cited more fully (along with fuller citation of existing Victorianist scholarship on race and empire) in the longer introduction forthcoming in Victorian Studies.

[11] And here we mean not only the ways we think and write, but also our social practices. As two of us wrote in an earlier essay for the V21 Collective’s series on pedagogy and strategic presentism (on the occasion of the 2016 US election), we must be careful not to divorce our intellectual production from our social practices nor pedagogical commitments.

[12] Our special issue features work by Zarena Aslami, Manu Samriti Chander, Ryan Fong, Jane Hu, Anjuli Raza Kolb, Olivia Loksing Moy, Nasser Mufti, and Joseph Pierce. Tricia Lootens also participated in our initial MLA panel.

[13] Moreover, the notion that the “intellectual” might be cordoned off as an asocial or apolitical space of production is a fantasy that generations of scholars on gender and race alike have dismantled.

[14] Our project resonates with the solidarity politics of the #Bigger6 movement:

Our call for Romantic collectivity is not a matter of diversification, of 'going global,' of adjusting the boundaries of Romanticism in the name of inclusiveness. Rather, it is a call to make our field in the image of those whose access to Romanticism has long been and continues to be actively restricted. Black Romanticisms, Feminist Romanticisms, Subaltern Romanticisms, Queer Romanticisms, Trans Romanticisms, Crip Romanticisms, Indigenous Romanticisms — these are not sub-fields or “special interests” within an unqualified Romanticism.

[15] Jack Halberstam glosses “study” in the Undercommons as “a mode of thinking with others separate from the thinking that the institution requires of you.”

LARB Contributors

Ronjaunee Chatterjee’s first book, Feminine Singularity: The Politics of Subjectivity in Nineteenth-Century Literature, is forthcoming in July 2022 with Stanford University Press. She is also the editor of the Norton Critical Middlemarch (expected 2023). Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, ASAP Journal, differences, and other venues. She lives in Montreal where she teaches courses in feminist, queer, and critical race theory, as well as courses in the 19th century, at Concordia University.
Alicia Mireles Christoff is associate professor of English at Amherst College. She is the author of Novel Relations: Victorian Fiction and British Psychoanalysis (Princeton University Press, 2019). Her essays have appeared in PMLANovelVictorian Literature & CulturePublic Books, and other venues, and her poems in The Yale Review and Peach Mag.
Amy R. Wong is assistant professor of English at Dominican University of California. Her research and teaching areas include Victorian literature, media theory, and critical race studies.


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