Victorian Value: BAVS 2012 @ University of Sheffield, 30th August – 1st September 2012

This year’s British Association for Victorian Studies conference was on the theme of Victorian Value: Ethics, Economics and Aesthetics, a topic which generated a rich and diverse range of responses across the three days of panels and plenaries. Given the length of the conference I couldn’t possibly write about each of the 21 papers and 4 keynotes that I heard, so what follows here are reflections on some of the main themes that emerged – in this post I focus on the idea of Victorian value, and in the next post I’ll write about a selection of papers on travel and mobility. If you want a glimpse of more of the conference you can check out #BAVS2012 on Twitter, where fellow tweeters did an excellent job of live tweeting the conference.

Professor Francis O’Gorman opened the conference with an engaging paper on the meaning of intellectual value, framing his discussion  of Victorians values within the highly pertinent contemporary context of debates around intellectual value or, as we most often hear it put these days, impact. O’Gorman started with the questions that are raised by a contemporary cultural obsession with valuing the past for its “relevance” today – citing the journalistic trend for asking “Why Dickens/Bronte/Eliot now?” – and questioned why we need to pose our engagement with the past in this way: why the need for “relevance”? What does it mean to speak of “relevance”? Is relevance all that matters, all that we value about the past?

In what followed O’Gorman turned to the work of John Ruskin which affords the opportunity for a deeper interrogation of the idea of value, with a particular view to disentangling the relationship between “relevance” and “impact”. What does it mean to ascribe impact as relevance, and can irrelevance have impact? Ruskin’s work is often described as having great “influence”, but is “influence” what matters? Influence might be easily measured, but is it a true measure of intellectual value? And when we measure significance as consequence does this privilege certain types of thinking – particularly a conformism to established ideas, a lack of originality- at the expense of other, deeper values? Work that is considered irrelevant in its time can come to have great significance and impact; true intellectual value supercedes the immediacy of influence, and uninfluential ideas can come to have immense intellectual significance.

O’Gorman’s paper offered a lot to think about in an academic climate currently dominated by measuring intellectual value as relevance and consequence, suggesting that we need to think more deeply about the assumptions that lie behind these terms and the values that they obscure. What especially struck me here was the shift away from the immediacy that “impact” entails, opening up a longer perspective that understands intellectual value as a historical process – a view that seems entirely absent from today’s fast-moving world of academia that turns on constant cycles of value assessment which leave little space for reflection on what is meant by value.

Dinah Birch’s plenary “Victorian Value: the economies of feeling” developed these themes through a discussion that again drew on Ruskin to explore the notion of what value meant to the Victorians. Birch’s paper highlighted the concept of connectedness as essential to the notion of “value”, positing Ruskin’s notion of value as a concept that embraces the interconnections between all spheres of human life – thought, feeling, emotion, moral value, economies or, as the conference theme put it, ethics, economics, and aesthetics. Birch drew comparisons with George Eliot’s notion of humanity as an organically interconnected web, and cited Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End “only connect” as the centre-point to Ruskinian value.

As with O’Gorman’s paper, Birch similarly opened up a more expansive set of perspectives on the meanings of intellectual value; whilst O’Gorman’s paper worked to expand value through temporality, Birch (as I saw it) complemented this approach by thinking laterally about value, achieving a more encompassing, expansive and organic conceptualisation of value. Both papers gestured towards the importance of a wider perspective and understanding and emphasised the necessity of deeper intellectual thought about the values structuring academia, opening up ideas that warrant much further reflection as we enter into this final year before the REF.

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