Scott’s Shadow

I had the opportunity to return to Ian Duncan’s Scott’s Shadow, and really appreciated its richness.  Super  helpful as it traces out the various contradictions and complexities of modernity and modernization in the Romantic period, focusing especially on Scotland and the Scottish Enlightenment.  Especially helpful is his definition of the new discursive category of the primitive:

“A quality or agency intrinsic to the operations of modernity, but troped as alien to it, moving outside the domestic ideological field of civil society” (104).

What this means, of course, is that the primitive does not simply suggest a previous historical era that has become past (and thus enabled the subsequent historical era) but rather that it is part of the present and helps to define the present, even as the present actively disavows it.  What results is not a unified, homogeneous nation, but rather:

“a global network of uneven, heterogeneous times and spaces, lashed together by commerce and military force, the dynamism of which is generated by the jagged economic and social differences of the local parts” (114).

An aesthetics of the primitive is not one of nostalgia for the past time, then, but an aesthetics of disorder, nonlinearity, and noncontemporaneity.  Disavowed but  not relegated to the past, the primitive enables encounters with modernity that unsettle the logic of linearity, progress, improvement.



In the nineteenth-century, culture was another word for discipline – – a way of reconciling individuals and the state.  David Lloyd and Paul Thomas make a compelling case for this understanding of culture, arguing, “culture occupies the space between the individual and the state, forming the citizen as ethical ‘best self’” (“Culture and Society or ‘Culture and the State?’”, 29).  Thus as English cultural production expanded and portable cultural forms traveled throughout the globe; England restricted what ‘counted’ as culture.  The wholeness and unity that was ostensibly the end of culture became more and more narrow, defined in both moral and historical terms (and, as James Buzard suggests, through anthropological processes that depended upon being able to function as a participant observer, which, in turn, depended upon being able to function as a cultural insider).  Victorian writers sought to differentiate between cultural consumers and cultural critics–those that encountered culture (as a noun: cultural objects, texts, places) and those that used culture (as a verb: they cultivated themselves, became better citizens of the state).

I am thinking about the role of culture in the Victorian period because I just finished re-reading John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography where he criticizes the “low tone” of English society even as (after a mental crisis) he begins “to find meaning in the things which I had read or heard about the importance of poetry and art as instruments of human culture” (118).  I’m interested especially in the role of the word “instruments” because my sense is that if culture was defined as autonomous–outside of social, material, and political conditions, and, in some cases, outside of history–its function is purely instrumental.  In other words, although culture (for Mill and Arnold and others) is associated with disinterest, its value is entirely dependent on interested use.  Wordsworth is the proper poet for Mill because he meshes with Mill’s unpoetical mind and helps him develop his character.  Byron, by contrast, only intensifies Mill’s despondency.  In this way, culture allows Mill to retain a belief in the universal, “the common feelings and common destiny of human beings” (121), in part by validating the individual utility of particular texts and acts of readings.

What does this mean for anachronism? That anachronism, as a form that necessarily implies relationships, can disrupt the process of character formation and development by fostering moral and historical relationships at odds with the state’s definition of the “ethical ‘best self.’”  Instead of cultivating what Mill calls an “identity of interest between the governing body and the community at large,” anachronism has the potential of creating dissensus (127).