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Victorian Studies’ International Publics: The California Dickens and Global Circulation Projects

  • Regenia Gagnier

…plus d’informations

  • Regenia Gagnier
    University of Exeter

The ten-campus University of California serving 225,000 students is taking a 20% cut, or about $813 million, from its state budget of $3.61 billion. While the total budget is $19.2 billion, of which only 16% comes from the state, that 16% pays for academic staffing and undergraduate programmes. It is within this climate of academic furloughs (forced unpaid days off) and potential closing of not only undergraduate programmes but even, it has been suggested, whole campuses within the system, that the University of California Dickens Project (http://dickens.ucsc.edu/index.html) has lost its university or state funding.

As RaVoN readers will know, the California Dickens Project is an international consortium dedicated to scholarly research on Dickens and Victorian Britain and its public dissemination. Based in the University of California at Santa Cruz, it includes 36 institutional members in North America, the UK, Australia, and the Middle East, with a history of individual collaborators in Asia, Africa, Australasia, Europe, and Latin America. It sponsors the listserv DICKNS-L, which functions as a clearing house for Dickens scholars around the world.

Over 29 years, the Project has hosted a week-long conference called the Dickens Universe, open to the public, attracting every major Victorianist in the world at one time or another, but in most cases multiple times. It provides a forum for scholarly exchange and disciplinary innovation at the highest levels, a professional training ground and unparalleled networking opportunity for graduate students, daily workshops for high school teachers, seminars for non-affiliated faculty, and a social environment intended to educe all in a Victorian paideuma. Every winter it hosts a second conference specifically for the professionalization of graduate students. It does this on a state budget of $64,000 per annum. The $64,000 support its full-time administrator, with a small buy-out for its Director, the distinguished Dickens scholar Professor John Jordan. All of its activities are funded by the subscriptions of its affiliated universities, the hundreds of students and members of the public who attend the summer Dickens Universe, and private donations from its “Friends,” an autonomous charitable society that has grown with the Project and offers its time and money.

The University of California selection panel did not recommend renewal of the Project from among the 139 proposals put forward (only 27 were funded), ostensibly on the grounds that it was not sufficiently “innovative,” presumably meaning that it was on the canonical English novelist Dickens in the established field of Victorian Studies in a research group that had been established in 1981. Shortly after that, the faculty affiliated with the Project met for the annual meeting in Santa Cruz and in one night pledged personal contributions of $26,000. Now Alumni and Development Officers often complain that academics do not normally put their hands in their pockets in campus fund-raising drives; if this is true, it is because we know that as professionals with callings (vocations) most of us give our time and our labor well beyond what is financially compensated. But in this instance, at risk of losing the Project’s Administrator and possibly the Project, we gave. And this was only the faculty who were present at that particular gathering—only about a third of the affiliated faculty throughout the world. Here is where I want to begin my comparison between British and U.S. Victorian Studies, with the material base.

In Britain, both the British Academy and the research councils, most pertinently the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), now explicitly demand social and economic “impact” and “knowledge transfer” from research that they fund. They encourage researchers to disseminate knowledge in appropriate contexts, increase its flow outward, and enhance quality of life thereby, including in highly skilled labor forces such as graduates and post-graduates. They encourage funding for situations where exchange with non-academics can happen, such as exhibitions and workshops, and in short promote the sharing of knowledge within and outside the academy. They are encouraging academics to think about the relevance of research and debate outside academia, and if that discourages the number of applicants whose research is of interest to no more than the proverbial 1.2 average readership of articles in scholarly journals then, they believe, that is no bad thing. I know of no humanities institution on either side of the Atlantic that provides more impact or service to both the scholarly community and to the community at large than the Dickens Project. And it has been doing this for twenty-nine years, so it has proven its “sustainability,” another key government term.

Britain is demanding impact and Californians are asking why they should support higher education when elementary school teachers are losing their jobs and the state is writing IOUs to pay its bills. Britain is demanding impact because all universities in Britain are publicly funded and therefore accountable to the state. When undergraduate fees of £3000/annum (ridiculously low in American terms) were introduced in 2005, there was a major mêlée. British taxpayers now more than ever expect accountability from academics who live more or less well supported by the state to read and write about novels. Given the current economic climate, American Victorianists will come to appreciate this accountability more and more.

Just a year ago, before the crash of October 2008, I gave a presentation to the Dickens Project on collaborative research grants and how they might explicitly include public outreach, something that has gone on for 29 years in Santa Cruz, so that they could articulate their contribution to taxpayers. Afterwards, one senior academic said that while he personally loved my sense of accountability, American researchers would find it alien; they felt no urgency to consider their research in this context. And it was certainly my experience teaching in the US for the first half of my career that US academics did not consider whether their books and articles had any public interest at all, much less public impact. US humanities scholarship was—and perhaps still is?—internalist to the discipline. The best of it is entirely engaged with its discipline, and US scholars are intensely engaged with their peers, but it is by no means de rigueur for them to consider the question the public are inclined to ask: “So what?”

On the other hand, I cannot imagine the conditions under which a group of British academics (outside workers’ education associations) would contribute the equivalent in GBP of $26,000 out of their own pockets in one night. And they would be Bolshie in their refusal to do so: education, they would say, is a public responsibility not an eleemosynary event. Britain’s is not yet a culture of philanthropy, although there are major forces trying to cultivate one.

So let’s pause here for a moment. The British government wants impact and American universities want innovation. Where might Victorian Studies sit in all this?

During the same week that the Dickens Project was de-funded, I was awarded a grant of £90,000, or $148,000, from the British Academy for a pilot project on the Global Circulation of Charles Dickens’s fiction in which the Dickens Project was named as a partner. This is a pilot for a much larger project on the Global Circulation of Literature and Culture that is being given electronic infrastructure and a special site within Wiley Blackwell’s electronic peer-reviewed journal Literature Compass and technical expertise and advice through NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship).

The Global Circulation Project is a global map and dialogue on how key Anglophone works, authors, genres, and literary movements have been received, imitated/mimicked, adapted, or syncretised outside Britain, Europe, and North America, or, conversely, how key works from outside these areas have been received, imitated/mimicked, adapted, or syncretised within Anglophone literary traditions. (The 1001 Nights would be an example of the second, since the work is highly influential in the development of the British and European novel.) The Global Circulation Project asks: “What forms of intertextuality, reception, etc. are generated through cultural contact?” So

  • How has Dickens been received, imitated/mimicked, adapted, or syncretised outside Britain, Europe and North America?

  • What forms of intertextuality have been generated with indigenous cultural forms?

  • What is the role of Dickens’s Britain in the imaginary of other cultures?

Over the last century, the cultural and educational impacts of empire and global markets in cultural commodities have globalised ‘English Literature’ and its major authors. Yet the prevailing scholarly commentary on major writers has stayed resolutely Anglophone if not nationally oriented. The pilot project will study in an interactive mode the global circulation of the novels of Charles Dickens outside Britain, Europe, and North America. Dickens has historically been the most popular British creative writer after Shakespeare, both a national and international figure. Writers from Fyodor Dostoevsky, Benito Pérez Galdós, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett to V.S. Naipaul, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Cyril Dabydeen, Peter Carey, and Salman Rushdie have written of the impact of Dickens on their own creative practice, whether as representative of the “English Book,” panoramic style, depictions of the masses, the city, the suffering of children, or critic of poverty and injustice. Film auteurs from Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin to David Lean, Roman Polanski, Alfred E. Greene and Tim Burstall have adapted the novels according to their own cultural moments and locations. Recently Jay Clayton’s Charles Dickens in Cyberspace has begun to track Dickens on the internet. Yet until lately studies of Dickens’s reputation and cultural impact have focused chiefly on Britain, the US, and Europe.

The British Academy grant allowed me to spend some time in the Dickens Project’s Ada B. Nisbet archive (Jordan 2009). Nisbet (now deceased) was a noted Dickens scholar and former professor at UCLA. At the time of her death, she was engaged in compiling an international guide to research on Dickens that would have included contributions from scholars in every part of the globe. Michael Hollington’s long-awaited volume of essays—now five volumes (two on Europe and three on Italy)—on the reception of Dickens in Europe has exploited the European materials in the Nisbet archive. Beginning with the Nisbet archive but now rapidly developing new networks, the Global Circulation Project’s research fellow Dr. Ting Guo, a specialist in literary and cultural translation, and I are focusing on areas outside Europe and North America. Whereas Nisbet’s was very much a project of the last century, an international appreciation of Dickens, this is a global dialogue in which the contributions of other cultures are as significant as the western author, in which the forms of circulation rather than the original novels are the primary interest. In brief, Nisbet was a Dickensian; we are historians and analysts of cultures in contact.

For example, some of the first findings from the archive that we shall be testing and exploring through new networks include Dickens’s consistent popularity in China from his first translation in 1907 by Lin Shu (1852-1924), who knew no language but Chinese, to the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. From the beginning, it seems, Dickens’s translators appreciated his “cries of grievance” on behalf of the common people (Chuang 5). In 1925, We-Kuang-chien, one of Dickens’s first literary critics in China, called for Hard Times to be recommended reading for “everyone studying social problems” (Chuang 21). After the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, Dickens remained popular for supplying “valuable documents about a capitalist society” (Chuang 28 citing Hai Kuan, Postscript to translation of Dombey and Son). Under the Communists, scholarly eulogies were tempered by criticism of his compromises with the bourgeois world view—something western critics and particularly New Historicists have been explicating for most of the second half of the twentieth century. His “realist exposition is damped by idealist morality” (Chuang 32 citing Yang Yao-min “The Creative Process and Ideological Characteristics of Dickens,” Wenxue Pinglun No 6, 1962, p. 39). It was only with the Communists that appreciation of Dickens’s later, pessimistic novels Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend grew, as giving realistic expression to the disenchantment of the capitalist world. During the Cultural Revolution, little was printed about Dickens or any other western writers, but between 1907 and 1966, Dickens was probably the most—H.C. Chuang said “only”—influential English writer, and that was not because of his style but his politics of representing the poor.

In relation to our third bullet point above, Dickens’s Britain did not figure prominently in the symbolic imaginary of China except as an objective correlative of market society; more precisely, his Britain began and ended in his London. As late as 1983, Yang Xianyi, the General Editor of Chinese Literature for the Times Literary Supplement, claimed that “even today most Chinese people probably still view remote English society through Dickensian characters” (Yang 670). When school children read Oliver Twist, they did not transliterate the boy’s name, as is customary in Chinese translation, but the title Orphan in the Fog. It was Dickens’s London that captured the imagination of non-European cultures, not his Britain.

By contrast, in Japan, Dickens became widely known only in the 1950s; for in the nineteenth century, the Japanese were more interested in the West’s self-representation of material and martial superiority. The first English novel translated into Japanese was an 1850 translation of Robinson Crusoe, adapted from the former imperial language, Dutch. After that, they studied Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and William Makepeace Thackeray as providing emotional, romantic, and erotic contrasts to British confident superiority.

One of the areas we would like to explore further is the comparative role of Dickens in China and Dickens in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. The Global Circulation Project is showing, in Ting Guo’s words, that literary translation is “not solely a literary and cultural importation or exportation, but a reflection of the complex power relationships existing within the target culture and in its interaction with other cultures” (Guo 18). Furthermore, “literature does not always develop and spread directly from its origin to the other culture, but may pass through a third culture” (Guo 7). Thus Byron’s reception in China was mediated through Japan, and the actual cause of his popularity in China was the situation in Greece as expressed in a couple stanzas of Don Juan. He was a national hero before he was a writer or a poet.

At this point, these are no more than cultural generalizations to be tested in detail by further international dialogue. (For examples, see the Global Circulation Project at http://www.blackwell-compass.com/globalcirculationproject.) But already we can see how dictionary definitions of “impact” can apply even to someone as canonical as the author of A Christmas Carol:

  1. The striking of one body against another; collision. See synonyms at collision http://www.answers.com/topic/collision.

  2. The force or impetus transmitted by a collision.

  3. The effect or impression of one thing on another: still gauging the impact of automation on the lives of factory workers.

  4. The power of making a strong, immediate impression: a speech that lacked impact. (OED)

Contrary to the panel that de-funded the Dickens Project, the fact that Dickens is the canonical English novelist does not make study of him less “innovative” than that of other global or world literatures that American and British universities are rightly cultivating under conditions of economic and political globalization. What is innovative is thinking of literature’s impact, of cultures in contact, not hierarchically or unilaterally, but socially and dialogically. Many publics may well have an interest in the following questions explored by the Global Circulation Project:

  1. How has the literature of British liberalism since John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) and The Subjection of Women (1869) been perceived, accepted, modified, syncretized, or rejected outside the West?

  2. Are there transnational notions of freedom and choice?

  3. Does tolerance toward gender and sexuality map onto liberal tolerance generally, or can rigid gender roles be compatible with other forms of freedom and choice?

  4. Since biological determinism has often been considered an impediment to freedom, what is the perceived role of biology in cross-cultural contexts of liberalization?

  5. What is the perceived role of religion in relation to specific domains of freedom and choice, e.g., to gender freedom or choice in lifestyle?

  6. How do the political contingencies of empire and then globalization cut across and affect these larger questions?

As the example of Dickens in China indicates, the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century was a period of intense cross-cultural exchange on the ideas of liberal freedoms and tolerance. Processes of westernization in contact with traditional norms were debated with mutual influence. By the mid-twentieth century, neo-liberal economics and political hostilities began to erode highly inflected notions of freedom and tolerance until freedom in public discourse came to mean merely market freedom, and choice, merely consumer choice, or the violent rejection of them both as western lifestyle. The questions above, about individual and collective freedoms, optativity and paths of decision, the roles of biology and religion within them, and the rest, are Victorian questions that were probably never better explored (at least in the West, for they were certainly explored outside it) than in Victorian novels. We believe that international publics will take an interest in them in an enlarged cultural context.

Finally, these questions remind us that we need not all go global to perceive the impact of Victorian Studies. The British and North American academics who have been talking among themselves about Victorian novels have, in fact, developed a high-level discourse about the problems of modernity that are of interest outside their professional circles. Two of the most popular presentations at the Dickens Project in Santa Cruz in summer 2009 were by Andrew Miller (Indiana, USA, the Editor of Victorian Studies) and John Bowen (York, UK). These were close textual readings of David Copperfield (in English), Miller’s on what he calls the optative, or each individual’s reflection on the choice or road taken and, more, on all those roads not taken throughout a life, and Bowen’s also on choice, but choice within the constraints of inevitable death, loss, and trauma within which we all live our lives.

The plenary lectures at the Dickens Project are notoriously hard to give, for presenters must address high-level peers who know the literature like the backs of their hands as well as a public audience that includes high fee-paying doctors and lawyers as well as high school students and undergraduates, not to mention the most discriminating of all, the mercilessly critical graduate students. Yet Miller’s and Bowen’s lectures, ultimately on the modern problem of too much choice within lives of equally inexorable constraint, touched everyone, the professionals, who found that they had respected the integrity of Dickens’s work, and the public, who also ruminated from the floor on their own choices, constraints, aspirations, regrets, and failures. Here we may recall the Chinese critics who had noticed how good Dickens was on the cycles of expectation and failure, security and risk, of modern market society. The social and psychological sophistication of Victorian fiction will be innovative and have impact for some time to come.

Parties annexes