Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

From Ancient to Victorian Cultural Studies: Assessing Foucault

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

From Ancient to Victorian Cultural Studies: Assessing Foucault

Article excerpt

In 1999 the journal Victorian Literature and Culture devoted a special issue to the subject of "Victorian Studies and Cultural Studies." What is notable about the essays included in this volume is the collective level of skepticism they express about the way cultural studies concepts and practices have recently been applied. (1) Isobel Armstrong, for example, faults "Foucaultian history" for its over-reliance upon limiting notions of "regulation and surveillance.... [so that] [e]very text becomes evidence of a form of regulation, demonstrating a panoptical motivation." Foucauldian readings, Armstrong claims, depend as a result on "a homogenized account of the nineteenth century and of Victorianism in particular." (2) Armstrong is concerned about the way tendentious concepts such as "disciplinary" power are assumed by Foucault's followers prior to any analysis, which crowds out the opportunity for a more open, less predetermined form of historical-critical practice.

Armstrong's claims may be said to be symptomatic, for we have reached a point in Victorian studies in which even critics otherwise friendly to cultural studies nevertheless tend to frame their approaches by describing how they differ from Foucauldian methods, not merely how they intersect with them. (3) Armstrong's critique, like those of other recent scholars, (4) announces a concern with the limitations and in particular the excesses of the discourse-based analyses of Victorian sexuality, derived primarily from the first volume of Foucault's The History of Sexuality (1978), that prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s.

I want to propose, though, that both the self-conscious applications of Foucault in Victorian studies since the late 1980s and the recent critiques of Foucault and Foucauldian methods from cultural-studies-friendly scholars have been limited by an over-reliance on a single text, that first volume of The History of Sexuality. My aim here is not to dismiss the valuable work on Victorian poetry derived from an engagement with volume one by such scholars as Richard Dellamora, Jeff Nunokawa, and Christopher Craft, nor do I dispute the obvious value of Foucault's liberating critique of the repression hypothesis of Victorian sexuality. (5) These scholars have located in Foucault a set of conceptual tools for addressing poetic language--specifically, language that produces, reflects, and debates gender and especially male sexual norms. Instead, for the remainder of this essay, I want to do a thought experiment, one which involves placing the still-potent debate about the legacy of Foucault for Victorian studies in general and Victorian poetry studies in particular in a different context, that of a separate field--classical cultural studies--and a separate set of texts, the second (1985) and third (1986) volumes of The History of Sexuality. (6)

I am suggesting that the classicists' responses to Foucault will enrich our own, Victorianist engagements with his legacy: they are instructive for their more energetic, bolder critiques of Foucauldian ideas, and as in the case of David Halperin, even stronger defenses of Foucault's usefulness for conceptualizing history. (7) In a closing section, I will discuss how volumes two and three of the History of Sexuality, and the classicists' recent engagements with it, provide a rich opportunity for reframing our understanding of male lyric subjectivities in Victorian poetry. What follows below, then, is not just a set of "suggestions for further reading" in a distant, exotic field but a survey of vivid debates that have implications for our own critical practice and have been a source of personal inspiration to me.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, the study of sex and gender began to emerge in classical studies after a long period of what has been described as self-imposed, "Victorian" repressive silence, the kind that Foucault seeks to refute in the first volume of The History of Sexuality. …

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