Committed to the Past

The journal Eighteenth Century Studies will celebrate its 50th volume in 2016-17. Editor Steven Pincus shared some thoughts on the milestone in his introduction to the first issue of the volume, published this fall. We are sharing the introduction here. Read the whole issue on Project MUSE.

The first issue of our current volume marks the fiftieth anniversary of Eighteenth Century Studies. It was this journal and its success that eventually gave rise to the creation of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

That inaugural issue of ECS established the journal as a high-quality outlet for cutting-edge scholarship on “English and American culture.” It is clear that the two inaugural editors, Robert H. Hopkins and Arthur E. McGuinness, both English professors at the University of California, Davis, defined culture in largely literary terms. The editors announced they would welcome “essays of general interest dealing with Continental or other literatures of the period.” In particular they were “interested in essays drawing attention to the relations between literature and theology, philosophy, history, painting, architecture, and music.” This promise they fulfilled in the inaugural issue. In addition to sharply argued essays by the leading literary scholars Ronald Paulson, Ralph Cohen, and Ian Watt, the issue included an article on “The Enlightenment and Music” by the musicologist Paul Henry Lang of Columbia University.

In the ensuing decades ECS has remained the most prestigious North American journal for work on eighteenth-century culture, and has become the flagship journal of ASECS.

How has the journal changed? In many ways the current editorial team is working in the same spirit as its august predecessors. We remain committed to pushing against “increasing specialization” within particular disciplines. We have revived the original plan of having a yearly “special issue.” And we remain committed to “a vital eclecticism” to ensure that all aspects and approaches to the eighteenth century will get an airing.

Nevertheless, the current editorial team is also committed to expanding and redefining the journal’s commitment to the study of eighteenth-century culture. First, we have tried to move away from a prioritization of Anglophone culture by including pioneering work not only from the occasional academic working on Western European culture, but also from those working on the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Africa, and South America. In doing so, we have also tried to reach out not only to scholars working in North America but also to European, South American, Asian, Australian, and African scholars. ECS, we hope, is well on its way to being a global journal of eighteenth-century culture.

Second, we have broadened the concept of culture, perhaps inevitably after the so-called cultural turn, to include almost any aspect of eighteenth-century life. This has meant that, while the journal still publishes many essays by scholars in literature departments, it also regularly includes work not only by musicologists, but also by art historians, historians of science, political scientists, sociologists, philosophers, and historians.

Finally, reflecting changes in the makeup of the academy more broadly, the journal is committed to publishing essays by and about women as well as men. Unlike the inaugural issue of this journal, which included five articles by senior men, we now regularly publish essays by women and men ranging from advanced graduate students through senior scholars.

The first issue of Volume 50 will appear at an interesting juncture in academic life. Everywhere we read about the “crisis in the humanities.” And it is true, of course, that at some institutions majors in the humanities have fallen off the cliff. University administrators have diverted scarce resources from the humanities. Departments are shrinking. There are fewer and fewer tenure-track positions available to scholars specializing in the eighteenth century. Historical tourism has declined sharply. Nevertheless, ECS remains healthy and lively. Article submissions to the journal have risen over 30% in the past four years, with an increasing number coming from disciplines that were not at the heart of the journal’s inaugural mission. This increase reflects, it seems to me, the blockbuster success of major books that take the eighteenth century as their focus. And, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has taken Broadway by storm. The eighteenth century is hardly out of fashion.

Two things unite the success stories. First, they are all attempts to reconfigure the eighteenth century. They invite their audiences to think comparatively and broadly. Second, and fundamentally, they all ask big questions and relate developments in the eighteenth century to contemporary concerns and issues.

It was in the eighteenth century that some of the fundamental problems of modernity began to emerge. Scholars, for example, have pointed to the eighteenth century as the period in which humans decisively began to transform the natural environment, inaugurating the so-called Anthropocene era; it was in the eighteenth century that concepts of racialization congealed; and it was in the eighteenth century that Western economies decisively diverged from those in East and South Asia. Whereas formerly students of the eighteenth century tended to celebrate a triumph of Western modernity, we now know we cannot do that. This is both because modernity is worth celebrating in some but not all cases—it gave rise to industrialization and climatic catastrophe, to abolitionism as well as racism—and because modernity was not necessarily a Western invention. We now need to explore these developments in a global context without taking Western hegemony, primacy, or superiority for granted.

But above all we need to ask questions that matter beyond the academy. We need to ask questions that resonate with people’s lives. We need to show how and in what ways the eighteenth century shaped and informed our world.

The questions that excite us now are not ones that can be answered or should be answered narrowly within the domain of the humanities. These are questions which social scientists, humanists, and in some cases scientists need to pose and answer collectively. I am more optimistic about the possibility of such collaboration because the social sciences have been fundamentally transformed in the last decade. No longer are the social sciences dominated by rational modelers for whom stylized facts are to be preferred over scholarly inquiry. Indeed, since 2008 there has been a profound historical turn (or return) right across the social sciences. In sociology and political science in particular this has been accompanied by a newfound interest in and engagement with culture as a mode of analysis. I am suggesting, then, that the ubiquitous cry of a crisis in the humanities is ultimately self-defeating. There is a crisis. But it is a crisis in the academy—a crisis in which hyperspecialization, calls for methodological purity, and disciplinary wagon circling have made it difficult to communicate the importance and relevance of our work to audiences beyond the academy. Indeed, the financial crisis in journalism, it seems to me, makes it all the more urgent that we seek to make our research available to the widest possible audiences. To do this we need to ask ourselves—every time we set finger to keyboard, every time we enter an archive, every time we read an eighteenth-century text—so what? It is because the eighteenth century did so much to frame the issues of the modern world that I am confident that answers to this anxious but necessary query will not be hard to find.

In making these observations, I am merely defining in new terms the aspirations of the inaugural editors of this journal. They, too, wanted to move away from hyperspecialization and toward cross-disciplinary fertilization. They, too, wished to bring the best cutting-edge work together in a single journal. They, too, wanted ECS to be a forum for eclectic scholarship. I am optimistic that this journal can enjoy a second half century as successful as its first.

Steven Pincus is the Bradford Durfee Professor of History at Yale University and Co-Director of the Center for Historical Enquiry & the Social Sciences (CHESS). He is editor of Eighteenth Century Studies.