Friday, 1 January 2010

New Year's Message

One of the central ideas of recent literary and cultural theory is that language has a determinacy of its own, that it is always in excess of conscious authorial intention, that it bears meanings and values that neither the author nor the literary text itself can fully master; and over the couple of years that I have been working on this blog I have myself found this to be so too.

The title of this blog, ‘William Morris Unbound’, was suggested to me by my good friend Lucy Morton back in autumn 2007, when she may or may not have had Shelley’s Romantic epic Prometheus Unbound in mind. It sounded a lively enough slogan to me, though I had little idea at that point what its particular semantic force might be, so I adopted it and have worked under its rubric in my seventy entries since then. But in writing those entries that title has come – as if under its own momentum! - to have a specific and illuminating intent, one which I am now glad to find myself working within.

As a nineteenth-century figure, Morris is, naturally enough, intensively studied within relevant Victorian contexts: the social criticism of Carlyle, Kingsley and Ruskin; Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry; the 1880s socialist revival. Such historical work certainly has its valid and valuable place, and I have on occasion tried to contribute to it in this blog (my William Morris in Oxford book is a more extended contribution in this vein). But we inhabit the twenty-first century, not the twentieth. The nineteenth century is no longer breathing immediately down our necks; it is, rather, receding fast, and if we only allow Morris to be a nineteenth-century figure, however important, he will inevitably recede with it too.

We need therefore to liberate him from such well-meaning historicism; for he is also, and crucially, a utopian author, writing boldly and speculatively about worlds which have not yet come into being. And we ought, I suggest, to be true to this impulse in him, blasting him out of the continuum of history (to adopt Walter Benjamin’s dramatic phraseology) so that he becomes our contemporary, engaging our own politics, our own utopias, our postmodern hopes and dreams.

‘William Morris Unbound’, then – unchained from the rock and dragon of retrospective Historicism by the Perseus of a politically forward-looking hermeneutic violence. I hope that this blog, whose title has thus gradually revealed its latent implications to me over the last two years, will continue to contribute to this project through 2010 and beyond. My sincerest thanks to all those who have shown their continuing support for it over that period – you know who you are.

1 comment:

Bodie said...

Yes indeed, we need Morris's utopianism more than ever in these dark political times - keep up the good work!