Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Elaine Hadley on the Fortnightly Review

I don't usually do posts on the secondary reading on my lists, but Hadley's chapter on the Fortnightly Review in her book, Living Liberalism was a really interesting and useful take on what she refers to as "mid-Victorian liberalism" (really roughly 1860-1880) but refers to the brand of liberalism espoused by Mill, Arnold, G.H. Lewes (George Eliot's partner) and Anthony Trollope, among others. The Fortnightly Review was founded in 1865.

In brief, Hadley discusses two unique features of the publication: its eclecticism of opinion, and its practice of authors signing their names to their pieces. In the high Victorian era, most Victorian periodicals had clear sectarian interests, which the creators of the Fortnightly Review found to be inconsistent with liberal principles of open-mindedness, free inquiry, and diversity of opinion. Relatedly, the proponents of the Fortnightly Review critiqued the common practice of anonymously hiding behind to an editorial "we" as allowing sectarian interests to become more acrimonious, furthering blind partisanship. Thus, the Fortnightly Review sought to include a number of different political and religious opinions in their pages, and also mandated that the authors which they included sign their names to their works.

This all sounds well and good, but as Hadley argues, the Fortnightly Review's liberalism was caught up in a number of potential contradictions. Certain features of the review indicate a strict and not so open-minded formalism at the heart of their editorial practices. John Morley (the second editor after Lewes), would often invoke "fencing" as a metaphor for the sparring diversity of opinion included within the pages of the review; Hadley astutely argues that this metaphor signifies sparring which isn't so much real fighting but playing by certain, formal rules. Hadley suggests that this kind of formality essentially barred those who would not "play by the rules" from publishing their opinions--specifically, the idea of a "sober medium of black ink and white paper" barred the voice of "masses" who may have been rioting at Hyde Park.

Another important feature of the Fortnightly was its temporality: the publication defined itself against typical dailies and monthlies in order to stand for an ideal that their topics would be timely, but distant enough to ensure rational deliberation. Eventually, economic necessities would force the publication to publish monthly, but it retained its title to continue to signify its separation from what it perceived to be the mainstream periodical press. Hadley explains that this so-called rational deliberation on present-day issues was at the heart of the Fortnightly's somewhat rigid vision for what every white male citizen (the liberal subject) should be doing: cultivating a "disinterested, critical spirit" on important issues of the day.

Other aspects of style valued included a Millian expository style of enunciating the opinions of "others"--a "ventriloquial method" (Hadley's words)--in order to come to a more objective, truthful opnion of one's own. The first person singular of the editorial voice signaled that the editor was going through the ideas of others in his private mind (unlike the "we" which signals a certain taking up of public orthodoxies) which is an important formulation of the liberal subject. In other words, the liberal subject is an individual who is supposed to go through this process of turning over many different opinions systematically in his own mind before arriving at his own, best conclusion. Though the consideration of "diverse opinions" seems liberal, Hadley suggests that the adherence to this formal system of discovering one's own so-called "decided opinion" (term used by the Fortnightly) was rather rigid.

Finally, Hadley spends time, in particular, deconstructing the "signature" in the Fortnightly. The signature tries to get away from the anonymous, editorial "we" but also did not wish to be mistaken for the growing Steadian notion of a celebrity journalist or journalist "personality" (Stead in the second half of the nineteenth century was publishing what was often considered as sensational journalism which exposed sordid social problems in order to call for reform; his own "exposing" of his own personal voice went along with his more sensationalistic style). The signature, in contrast, wished to demonstrate what Hadley calls, paradoxically, an "abstract embodiment"--something which signaled an abstract individuality that was not weighed down with the supposedly unsightly contingencies of everyday concerns (domestic life, for example) but which intimately cultivated opinions in the private space of the mind. Victorian liberals envisioned it was possible, in other words, to formulate these kinds of opinions disinterestedly apart from everyday contingencies that might weigh on the mind.  The signature was thus the "embodiment" of this not-everyday, abstract liberal self, which ironically, as it turns out doesn't differ too much from all the other abstract liberal selves. 

In a word, Hadley argues that the Victorian liberalism of the Fortnightly Review may have allowed for eclecticism, but only a liberal eclecitism (a diversity of content which nevertheless adhered to strict formal processes of cognition).

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