Neither antiquarianism’s detractors nor its devotees have told the whole story about what it can entail.
In his famous essay from 1950, Arnold Momigliano countered the stereotype of eighteenth-century antiquaries and their modern successors as the “muddle-headed” collectors of old things and odd facts (297). Antiquarianism was not, Momigliano argued, the pastime of eccentric fetishists who hoarded old stuff just because it was old; rather, antiquarianism established the foundation of so-called “modern” history by making the study of primary source material, including physical remains, the bedrocks on which historians’ claims about the past should be based. As Momigliano explained, “religious and political disputations” in the seventeenth century swirled around the work of traditional historians (295). Wary that polemical biases had corrupted the writings of traditional historians, antiquaries bypassed secondary accounts of the past and went straight to examining primary, often nonliterary, sources instead. In so doing, they established archival documents and archaeological artifacts as the most reliable evidence for historical study—and future historians found themselves tasked with discovering and describing such evidence before they could proceed to interpreting it.
Since 1950, scholars have followed Momigliano’s lead and examined how antiquaries disciplined historical inquiry.1 Antiquarianism, however, has come under fire again in the twenty-first century in two documents, both of which were collaboratively authored polemics published online that criticized the fields of history and Victorian literary studies. The V21 Collective’s “Manifesto” (2015) and The Wild on Collective’s “Theses on Theory and History” (2018) advocate for reforming the ways that academics study the past by censuring—in one case explicitly and in the other case implicitly—the antiquarianism that now operates under the guise of modern historiography. These twenty-first century dismissals of antiquarianism share the assumptions of Momigliano’s midcentury readers: that antiquaries collect the detritus of the past for its own sake. They also, however, accept the argument that Momigliano made: that antiquarianism constitutes a rigorous method of study that prioritizes the discovery of history’s bare facts over theories.
Yet the work of two influential antiquaries, John Aubrey (1626–97) and John Britton (1771–1857), suggests that neither antiquarianism’s detractors nor its devotees have quite told the whole story about what antiquarianism as a methodology can entail. Antiquaries were not “muddle-headed” fetishists for objects or for facts who abjured from varieties of speculation. For antiquaries like Aubrey and Britton, old objects had the power to reveal facts about the past. Although this power meant that those old objects constrained interpretive possibilities, it just as often meant that those old objects enticed antiquaries into speculating about matters that exceeded the physical as well as the temporal boundedness of the objects themselves. In this way, antiquarianism was not the deadening methodology that twenty-first century academics who are eager to escape the tyranny of positivism should dismiss. Rather, antiquarianism is a method they might consider returning to for the ways it once offered scholars opportunities to translate their careful, close scrutiny of lively historical artifacts into theories that transcended the boundaries between the past and the present as well as between the personal and the political.
In the process of leveling critiques of the “positivism” that they take to characterize contemporary historical research, both the V21 and the Wild on Collectives isolate antiquarianism as a methodology their readers should disavow. On the one hand, both collectives use antiquarianism to denote a fetish for primary sources and the facts they preserve; on the other hand, they use antiquarianism to signify an interpretive mode that turns the facts one finds in primary sources into constrained interpretations of sociocultural phenomena that render them as the mere effects of the specific historical contexts—particular slices of time in particular places—in which they occurred.
The V21 and the Wild on Collectives claim that giving up what old antiquarian sensibilities persist in historical scholarship will lead scholars to welcome the opportunities their subjective points of view present for developing theories about their old objects of study that are relevant for today’s readers and their political concerns. The V21 Manifesto explicitly uses the phrase “bland antiquarianism” to denigrate what they describe as the “positivist historicism” that typifies the methods of nineteenth-century literary studies: “a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past” (1).2 The most noxious “symptoms” of positivist historicism include “a fetishization of the archival” and “an endless accumulation of mere information” (1). “At its worst,” the V21 Collective maintains, “positivist historicism devolves into … bland antiquarianism,” the “primary affective mode” of which “is the amused chuckle” (1).
In contrast to the limpid scholarship produced by bland antiquarianism, the V21 Collective implores their readers to practice “post-historicist interpretation” (7). Post-historicist interpretation entails embracing “presentism” and emphasizing “form” over facts (7–8). Presentist, formalist critics acknowledge that their research is “motivated by features of [their] own moment” and examine how “forms persist across artificially designated historical periods” (8, emphasis added). Consequently, the V21 Collective suggests that rejecting bland antiquarianism will produce more politicized as well as more germane studies of nineteenth-century literature for twenty-first century readers.
The Wild on Collective does not explicitly single out antiquarianism for a bemused chuckle, but similarly attempts to convince contemporary historians to abandon what antiquarian sensibilities remain in the discipline of history. Specifically, the Wild on Collective calls for historians to relinquish their presumption that “past events are objectively available for discovering, description, and interpretation” (I.4) through “immediately observable, preferably archival, evidence” (I.2). The Wild on Collective, therefore, conflates “positivism” with the historiography that became popularized during the Enlightenment—the period when historians incorporated antiquarianism into their studies of the past, as Momigliano and others have shown (I.1). The first thesis tendered by the Wild on Collective declares, for example, that “[a]cademic history has never managed to transcend its eighteenth century origins as an empiricist enterprise” (I.1). The Wild on Collective spares a generous thought for David Hume’s skepticism but moves quickly to denounce all those other eighteenth-century historians who privileged a “scientistic [sic] method” for “gathering facts” about the past in the archives they fetish (I.1).
Like the V21 Collective, the Wild on Collective proposes that abandoning the search for facts in archival sources will free contemporary historians to practice “critical” or “theorized history:” a method for studying the past in which historians can translate their subjective experiences of the present into politically relevant studies of the past as “structure” (III.2 and “Coda”). “Structure,” in the Wild on Collective’s manifesto, appears to be similar to “form” in the V21 Collective’s manifesto. For both collectives, forms or structures exist in dynamic relationships with their perceivers in the present. The study of archival materials, therefore, fails both to divulge and to produce a comprehensive understanding of forms or structures that must, to a degree, always be theorized.
The emphasis on “theory” marks the telos in both the V21 and Wild on Collective’s manifestos: the final transformation of their rejection of antiquarianism’s imperative that knowledge about the past should be factual and derived from primary sources into a refutation of scholarship that aims to document historical “context.” In this regard, the two collectives enter as the chorus affirming Bruno Latour’s declaration that “context stinks.” Yet without perhaps realizing it, both collectives also thereby reintroduce antiquarian sensibilities about what historical objects of study are, and what they do, back into their reformist methodologies.
Latour first declared that “context stinks” in his 2005 Reassembling the Social. In an imagined dialogue between Latour and a student struggling to practice his actor-network-theory (ANT), Latour attributes the quip to the architect Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas actually said “fuck context” in 1995 as a way of ventriloquizing what really big buildings might have to say for themselves.3 Latour uses the more delicate phrasing to admonish the student who is about to turn to something conceptually “bigger” than the individual case studies that she has gathered for her dissertation in order to conclude what her research has illustrated. The student’s other advisors want her descriptive “case studies to ‘lead to some useful generalization,’” and so the student seeks to find “a frame” or a “typology” they can use to “compare, explain, [and] generalize” (149). For Latour, then, context names that which researchers presume to be prior to, bigger than, outside of their individual case studies.
Latour’s dismissal of context reflects the core philosophical tenet from which the method of his ANT arises. That is, Latour argues that researchers should treat all of their objects of study—even, literally, the objects that they study—as actors, or, “things that do things”: entities vested with varieties of autonomous agency to influence “states of affairs” (We Have Never Been Modern 104). ANT is therefore a method whereby the task of the researcher is simply to “follow the actors” and describe what it is that they do. Applied to studies of the past, in other words, context stinks when a scholar presumes that old ideas, events, or institutions determine the existence and significance of her objects of study.
Latour, therefore, doesn’t think that historical contexts stink. If an object of study refers to or wanders through an old idea, event, or institution, then it has led an ANT researcher to follow it into those historical contexts. Consequently, had Latour’s dialogue in Reassembling the Social occurred between him and V21 and Wild on Collectives, Latour would likely have insisted that their objects of study did not need to be theorized; they theorize themselves. Likewise, Latour would likely have pointed out that the critic as well as the historian have always been “presentist” (“Manifesto” 8) or “psychically, epistemologically, ethically, and politically implicated in their objects of study” (“Theses” III.6). Such realizations are borne, in fact, out of practicing Latour’s actor-network-theory. If an actor doesn’t act, Latour might say, then an ANT researcher has nothing to describe or theorize. This means that the critics’ or historians’ objects of study act by existing as objects of study in the present—and as such, they remain capable of not only revealing facts and inviting researchers to exploring historical contexts but also of leading researchers to theorize about forms as well as structures.
Noah Heringman and I have suggested elsewhere that Romantic antiquarianism was akin to Latour’s ANT.4 Beginning in the seventeenth century, antiquaries like John Aubrey granted antiquities the power “to speak” or “give evidence for themselves” (Monumenta 1.32). In so doing, antiquarianism developed in ways that anticipated Latour’s rendering of objects as “actors” or things that do things. The antiquaries’ task was to find, follow, and describe old objects, which they understood to be vested with the agency to preserve and make manifest facts about the past. Once antiquities were understood to be things that could do things, however, they proved capable of doing a lot of things—including affecting the antiquaries who encountered them personally and inciting those antiquaries to engage in varieties of speculation.
Aubrey’s antiquarian research offers one representative example of how antiquarianism could yield political, personal, and theoretical interpretations about the past while still keeping such interpretations tethered to the antiquaries’ objects of study and the facts they also yielded. In 1845, John Britton published the first comprehensive biography of Aubrey. Britton learned about Aubrey’s antiquarianism four decades earlier while writing the first volume of what would become Britton and Edward Wedlake Brayley’s (1773–1854) The Beauties of England and Wales (1800–1820): a county-by-county survey of the notable sites, including especially the antiquities, to be seen in England and Wales. The first volume Britton tackled was the volume on Wiltshire county, famous for its henges and the place that Britton himself called home. Britton read Aubrey’s seventeenth-century manuscript notes on Wiltshire in 1800 and discovered a kindred spirit. The two men had grown up nearly a century and half apart in the same region, and “[w]hat Aubrey wrote of himself … applie[d] in many respects to myself,” Britton affirmed. (Autobiography 1.40).
Britton’s biography of Aubrey honored the kinship he felt for the early antiquary by attempting to rehabilitate Aubrey’s posthumous reputation. Britton lamented that few of his “general” readers in 1845 were likely to recognize the name John Aubrey—unless, that is, they knew about Aubrey’s Miscellanies (1696). The only work that Aubrey managed to see through to publication in his lifetime, the Miscellanies had unfortunately focused on documenting evidence of supernatural phenomena: “a subject long since trodden down by the ‘march of intellect’” (Britton, Memoir1). Organized under twenty-one headings such as “Omens,” “Apparitions,” “Blows Invisible,” and “Converse with Angels and Spirits,” Aubrey’s Miscellanies struck many readers as superstitious hogwash. As Anthony Wood (1632–95)—Aubrey’s sometime collaborator and accused plagiarizer—put it, the Miscellanies showed that Aubrey had not pursued serious inquiries into serious matters of historical fact; rather, he had “addicted himself to the whimseys and conceits of astrologers, soothsayers, and such like ignorant and superstitious writers” (quoted in Britton, Memoir 6).
In his Memoir of John Aubrey, Britton maintained that the superstitious whimseys of Aubrey’s Miscellanies were simply a by-product of the historical moment in which Aubrey had lived. Everyone in the seventeenth century believed in “ghosts, in haunted houses, in witchcraft, in necromancy, in fairies, and their manufactory of grass rings, in the supernatural influence of jack-o-lanterns, or will-o’-the-wisps, and many other visionary vagaries,” Britton upheld, especially if they were from Wiltshire (Memoir 8). Even Britton had believed such things himself as a young boy and still did, sometimes.
In Britton’s estimation, then, the Miscellanies was a “failing incidental,” but it was still important as a historical record of seventeenth-century beliefs that persisted into the nineteenth-century present. Since the publication of Britton’s Memoir, however, it has been commonplace for scholars to set Aubrey’s Miscellanies aside as an anomaly and proceed to rescue Aubrey’s contributions to historical studies by focusing on his unpublished manuscript materials, which include the report on England’s stone henges and extensive notes he prepared for writing county histories of Wiltshire and Surrey that Britton also prized.5
Although the Miscellanies has not featured prominently in accounts of Aubrey’s or his contemporaries’ antiquarianism since Britton published his Memoir, it should have. The Miscellanies preserves aspects of antiquarianism that have been lost in the disciplinary and disciplining histories that cast early antiquaries in the role of archaeologists in spirit, if not yet in name. Specifically, the Miscellanies illustrates how an antiquary’s careful examination of old objects could produce more than just dry-as-dust facts; it could also yield personal, political, and theoretical engagements with the past that were relevant for the present. These features of antiquarianism not only compelled Britton to appreciate Aubrey and his life’s work; they also speak to the reformist demands of the V21 and Wild on Collectives.
As a collection of first- and secondhand accounts of strange phenomena, Aubrey’s Miscellanies does not initially appear to be an antiquarian publication. Yet on closer inspection, Aubrey’s interest in objects and the histories they alone have the power to convey are hard to miss. The evidence that Aubrey presents throughout the Miscellanies—which suggests to him that there is an “Invisible World” that exists and “knows what we do, or incline to”—derives from observing and describing things, and such evidence assembles into a curious political history of seventeenth-century England (Miscellaniesvi). The Miscellanies describes, over and over again, things that break at untimely but auspicious moments in ceremonies of state, items that fall off the walls during conspiratorial tête-à-têtes, prophecies about treachery written on old parchments that turned out to be true. Aubrey’s catalogue of strange things, therefore, also documents the English civil wars, the Interregnum, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution. Repeatedly, readers of the Miscellanies catch glimpses of the ghosts, visions, and omens that appeared at all the trials, executions, and coronations.
Brief definitions of antiquarianism and antiquities that Aubrey provides in his other writings help to show how his method for studying the past through its objects could produce the kind of subjective perceptions and speculations that vexed the more enlightened readers of the Miscellanies. Aubrey liked Francis Bacon’s definition of antiquities as objects from the past that had “escap’d the Teeth of Time,” but he provided another definition of his own to gloss Bacon’s. Antiquities were often those objects that had escaped not only the teeth of time but also the “Hands of mistaken Zeal” (Miscellanies 38). Having lived through the violence of the seventeenth century, Aubrey knew that people often destroyed old things in order to seize power.
The work of finding and describing the objects that had managed their escape from the past was often a “wearisome” task, Aubrey admitted, and one that frequently met with resistance. He reports that his own research had often been shoved “under pies” (Miscellanies 23). Still, Aubrey undertook his search for antiquities with “a kind of Oestrum,” and he appears to have understood that antiquarianism was more compelling as a methodology precisely because it was capable of generating debate. As Aubrey asserted in his manuscript notes on stone henges, being an antiquary simply meant allowing the objects that remained to “speak” or “give evidence for themselves”—but antiquities could only speak and evince so much (Monumenta 1.32). Although the antiquities that had escaped time’s sharp teeth and zealots’ greedy hands “[kept]” an antiquary’s “Eye from being lost,” they still always left some “room to guess” (Miscellanies 24).
The guesswork is what compromised the Miscellanies for many of Aubrey’s readers. Although Aubrey suggests that the reports he had gathered together in the Miscellanies evinced the existence of an “Invisible World, which knows what we do, or incline to,” he never says anything much more definitive than that (Miscellanies vi). Aubrey concluded that the “matter” recorded in the Miscellanies was “beyond human reach” and that he as well as his readers must remain “miserably in the dark” as to what the phenomena the objects evinced ultimately proved (Miscellanies vi). Aubrey’s refusal to elaborate on either of the observations he assembled in the Miscellanies marks an unusual moment of reticence in the context of the debates over divine rights, doctrines of necessity, and swerves in the cosmos that raged in the seventeenth century’s public sphere. Readers can never quite be sure what all those objects that break, rattle, and move on their own were really trying to say about the political events that they had witnessed and appeared to anticipate; the objects in Aubrey’s Miscellanies spooked royalists and revolutionaries alike.
The antiquarian imperative to defer to the agency of things and, in the process, to defer interpretation was in and of itself a radical political gambit. As Momigliano indicates, antiquaries began deferring to the authority of things that could speak or give evidence for themselves once it became clear that the historians who spoke for the past often ventriloquized the voices of factious politicians. Throughout Aubrey’s lifetime, historical precedents increasingly functioned as lynchpins in debates about the virtues as well as the perils of regime change.6 As the case is now with the “new materialisms” that have been inspired by Latour’s work, so it was in the first blush of antiquarianism’s heyday in the seventeenth century: a deference to objects’ agencies constituted an intervention in the politics of the state. The power of objects, antiquaries like Aubrey hoped, might one day—if not right away—trump the power of political operatives who declared for themselves the authority to determine what the facts really were.7
As a response to the political imperative to invent or misrepresent historical facts, antiquarianism offers the V21 and the Wild on Collectives a methodology that they might revive rather than reject: a methodology that has historically proven amenable for politically activist scholarship as well as for scholarship that finds its objects of study not only capable of affecting their present interlocutors but also capable of introducing opportunities for their interlocutors to engage with forms or structures and theories in the service of revolution or resistance. Aubrey’s Miscellanies is just this kind of project, and it stands as a record Aubrey prepared for future antiquaries: a collection of things that might continue to speak and give evidence for themselves. They are murmuring still about the political crises that Aubrey survived and the slice of time he knew he would not escape. They continue to whisper about the kind of personal and collective bewilderment that rapid, violent sociopolitical upheavals can produce.
Yet as Aubrey knew, too, the Miscellanies would always leave its readers with “room to guess.” Consequently, although the antiquarianism that shaped Aubrey’s Miscellanies can offer the V21 and Wild on Collectives a methodology they might embrace rather than reject, it can also offer them more than a few words of caution. The posthumous reputation of Aubrey shows how the antiquaries’ insistence that things from the past could and should be allowed to speak for themselves—and that they would speak truthfully, without bias—proved to be antiquarianism’s undoing. Aubrey was willing to listen to whatever it was that the objects he encountered had to say with the understanding that they could only say so much. It wasn’t long, however, before every historian started to declare that they had heard and heeded the call of old things, too, as Momigliano has claimed. When different historians turned out to hear the same antiquity telling or evincing competing facts, the room that antiquities left for guessing inevitably came to compromise the truths that they supposedly yielded.
In Aubrey’s case, readers of his Miscellanies seized on the personal credulity as well as the cosmic guesswork that it belied; they dismissed its descriptive mode and political implications, accordingly. Although Aubrey’s readers took steady critical aim at the Miscellanies’s focus on the supernatural, the controversies that surrounded antiquaries for the next two centuries often returned to swirl around the problem of political bias that antiquarianism was supposed to redress. Critics not only dismissed Aubrey’s Miscellanies but also seized on other antiquaries’ claim that their examinations of primary sources redressed the problem of bias that had plagued previous generations of historians. Antiquaries, their critics said, could be biased.
Throughout the eighteenth century, antiquaries responded to their critics’ suggestion that their own research could be politically motivated, too, by providing increasingly exhaustive evidence as proof positive for each and every discreet fact that they had excavated from the objects they studied. In other words, as critics dug into the guesswork that interpreting the past and its objects necessarily entailed, antiquaries doubled down on their first principle that old objects did speak for themselves by insisting that those objects always told the truth. As another Wiltshire antiquary, Richard Colt Hoare, wrote in all capital letters at the beginning and at the end of his Ancient History of Wiltshire (1810), for example, he and his fellow antiquaries “speak from facts not theory” (1.7). Pleading that the study of primary evidence really did result in the revelation of facts turned out, however, to be a zero-sum game in the end. The effect of the widespread adoption of antiquarianism into the study of history was one in which every historian could insist that they were ventriloquizing the facts that historical objects preserved and made manifest—yet because those same objects always left room for guessing, interpretations could always be rebuked as mere theories. The reviewer of Hoare’s Antiquities of Wiltshire for the Critical Review couldn’t resist responding to Hoare’s caps-lock declaration by pointing out that his account of Stonehenge, in particular, was theoretical (395).
When Britton landed the Beauties assignment in 1800, he began reading antiquarian histories for the first time and confessed that the research antiquaries had produced in the previous century was “dull and forbidding” (Autobiography 1.262). Britton would go on to describe himself as a topographer instead of an antiquary, and he was the earliest biographer to describe Aubrey as an “Archaeologist” (Memoir3). Aubrey, according to Britton, was the very “first [person] who devoted his studies and abilities to archaeology, in its various ramifications of architecture, genealogy, paleography, numismatics, heraldry, &c” (Memoir 3). By characterizing Aubrey’s antiquarianism as anticipatorily archaeological, Britton aimed to rehabilitate Aubrey’s reputation. He also, however, aimed to revive aspects of Aubrey’s antiquarianism that had been lost in the pursuit of hard facts in archival sources that had come to characterize the disciplines of historical study in the previous century.
In other words, Britton’s decision to describe Aubrey as an archaeologist and himself as a topographer—and not as historians—is telling. By situating his and Aubrey’s work in these niche pockets of nineteenth-century historiography, Britton also preserved aspects of Aubrey’s antiquarianism, including the vibrancy of its objects of study and the political, personal, and theoretical insights their vibrancy could yield. For example, in his Autobiography, Britton describes what it was like when he and Brayley first began their careers in the antiquarian publishing industry. Once they started their walking tour of every county, encountering in person and up close the antiquities that they had read about and would go on to describe in new ways for the Beauties, Britton was surprised to discover
a superabundance of materials descriptive of objects of antiquity, of beauty, of art, and of nature: of Man, as a rich haughty despot; of him, a philosopher, a patriot, a friend to his fellows; of man, an idler and drone, living and luxuriating on the honeyed produce of the poor labourer, who, though working like a slave, was almost penniless and foodless; of the good and active parish priests…of others, who not only neglected their own offspring and homes, but wasted their substance in besotting and gambling habits; of another class, fortunately a large one, who united the good husband, the discreet parent, the beloved neighbor and friend to the poor, and also the patron of art of literature, and science.(Autobiography 1.190–91)
As he moves from observing antiquities to observing a despot, a philosopher, a patriot, and a friend, Britton invokes the work of earlier antiquaries who conducted their research in the turbulent climate of regime change where the definitions of depots and patriots proved difficult to establish and moves instead to embrace antiquarianism’s possibilities for a politics of the local—of the parish priest, the laborer, the beloved neighbor.
Like the V21 and Wild on Collectives, then, Britton worked to create supportive communities of like-minded researchers; “[i]n combination there is strength; in co-operation much may be effect which would never be propounded, or scarcely hoped for,” Britton believed (Autobiography 1.361). The publication of Britton’s Memoir of John Aubrey was sponsored by the local Wiltshire Topographical Society, which Britton himself had helped to found. Along with a number of young friends, Britton broke from “aged and ineffective” Society of Antiquaries in London in order to undertake the study of neglected antiquities in provincial outposts (Autobiography 1.348). For Britton, the politics of the local as well as the collective were also personal. Britton grew up poor in a rural village. He was one of ten children, the son of a “baker, maltster, ship-keeper, and small farmer” whose various business ventures ran to ground (Autobiography 1.32). “Ruin—complete and distressing ruin—was the result,” Britton writes; his “mother died broken-hearted,” his “father became idiotic,” and Britton was sent to work “in a London wine-cellar” where he was “haunted” by scenes of his mother on her deathbed and of the perils that he imagined faced his nine siblings (Autobiography 1.32–33). From the wine cellars, Britton traveled to work in London’s entertainment industry, picking up odd jobs at the Eidophusikon, at Paul de Philipsthal’s phantasmagoria show, and at Salder’s Wells.
Britton carried his experiences with the wonders of London’s shows and his literary sensibilities to his new antiquarian ventures. He came to value Aubrey’s antiquarianism not least because Aubrey authorized Britain to have intellectual as well as aesthetic encounters with the past and its objects. These convictions coalesced when Britton saw Stonehenge in person and up close. Britton would go on, as Aubrey once had, to write about Stonehenge as well as Avebury, and in those works Britton aspired, like his friend Hoare, to speak from facts and not theory; Britton reports feeling “harassed, and indeed distressed, by the theoretical opinions and visionary speculations” of other writers who had taken up the problem of whether or not the henges were Druidical remains and, if so, whether or not they were sacrificial altars. Britton “despair[ed] of ever arriving at any thing like proof or rational evidence” for claims he might make about the henge (Autobiography 2.50). When he described the henge, Britton “deemed it advisable to limit [him]self to matters of fact” (Autobiography 2.50). He presented the debates about Stonehenge’s origins and its original function, but he did not deign to settle them.
At the end of his life, though, Britton still remembered what it had felt like to see Stonehenge for the first time; the “scene seemed, to [his] eye and fancy, a sort of phantasmagoria—a dream—a romance” (Autobiography 1.368). Martin Myrone has uncovered that although Britton may have stuck to the facts when writing about Stonehenge, he employed the artist John Martin (1789–1854) to preserve the henge’s “romance” and, with it, some of the theorizing it inspired (11). The moody drawing of Stonehenge that Britton commissioned from Martin is not, Myrone observes, “a bare record of known facts” (10). Rather, it is “a projection of the historical appearance of a site” where “a great process of ancient Britons [snake] through the scenery” and a “an unnecessarily elaborate” “sense of scale” is imposed on the scene. The drawing, Myrone concludes, is “pure speculation” (10). Myrone places the illustration in the context of Britton’s interests, writ large, in the democratic possibilities for historical study that emerged in London’s booming entertainment industry.
As Myrone explains, the “heroic narratives” of the disciplinary formation of historical study in the nineteenth-century history told the story of how the new historians’ celebration of the “grand,” “the urgent,” and the “engaged” had overthrown the eighteenth-century antiquaries’ “small-minded,” “cold and distant” focus on the “minute and trivial” (2). In this way, the nineteenth-century discipline of history distanced itself from the “discourse of scientific scrutiny and validation” that arose in the seventeenth century and which was marked by “the rhetoric of disinterest, universality, and inclusion also disguised as social exclusions” (12). Myrone finds that Britton’s collaboration with Martin on producing an illustration for Stonehenge stands as one representative example of the “sympathies, paradoxes, and continuities apparent in the emergence of modern disciplinary formations in the practice of history” (2). On the one hand, Britton found that the “minute and trivial” details of antiquarianism to be vehicles for the “grand,” “urgent,” and “engaged” (Myrone 12). On the other hand, Britton personally welcomed an opportunity to “[undermine] previous generations’ disciplining and policing of knowledge” (Myrone 12). Britton’s interest in authorizing aesthetic responses to antiquities like Stonehenge was, in other words, both personal and political.
The V21 and the Wild on Collectives inveigh against disinterested, detailed descriptions of discreet, contextualized facts—what they take to be the “disciplining and policing of knowledge” that has characterized recent studies of the past, and which they gloss as antiquarianism. They do so in order to encourage their readers to engage passionately and urgently with history: to pursue politically and personally relevant criticism and scholarship. As Caroline Levine clarifies in her essay “Historicism: From the Break to the Loop”—which appeared in the 2016 special online issue of boundary2 inspired by the V21 Collective’s “Manifesto”—the “positivist historicism” the V21 Collective rejects inheres in Stephen Greenblatt’s famous line describing how the new historicists “began with the desire to speak with the dead” (1). Greenblatt’s deferential desire has become, according to Levine, an imperative to “set the self aside” in order to “gain some understanding of the radical otherness of the past through a careful attention to artifacts and documents” (1).
In contrast, Levine describes the presentism that the V21 Manifesto espouses as “[d]eliberately refusing the strict separation between past and present” so that critics and scholars might instead “offer up deliberately strange and experimental chronologies: the not-yet, the thought that can take shape across texts from more than one historical moment, the knowledge of the past that we produce in order to produce ourselves, the past literally compressed into the present, the creative anachronism that could help us to reinvent ourselves” (1). This is antiquarianism as Aubrey practiced it and as Britton appreciated it. Aubrey and Britton also recognized, however, that a desire to speak with the dead was not the same as a desire to listen to the dead—and refusing to listen to the dead and the facts they whispered was one way that people on the wrong side of history “reinvented” the past into some strange and experimental shape for the present.
- See, especially, Rosemary Sweet’s Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain; Graham Parry’s The Trophies of Time: English Antiquarians of the Seventeenth Century; D. R. Woolf’s The Social Circulation of the Past: English Historical Culture, 1500–1730; Angus Vine’s In Defiance of Time: Antiquarian Writing in Early Modern England; Noah Heringman’s Sciences of Antiquity: Romantic Antiquarianism, Natural History, and Knowledge Work. For earlier influential studies of antiquarianism that remained ambivalent about its intellectual merits, see: Stuart Piggott’s Ruins in a Landscape: Essays in Antiquarianism and Ancient Britons and the Antiquarian Imagination: Ideas from the Renaissance to the Regency.
- Here and below, in-text references to online sites are to the paragraph numbers. Unless otherwise noted, italics are original.
- For the original context of Koolhaas’s quote, see his and B. Mau’s S, M, L XL (502).
- See our “Introduction” to Romantic Antiquarianism and my forthcoming monograph, “Artifacts.”
- See, e.g., Michael Hunter’s John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning; Kelsey Jackson Williams’s The Antiquary: John Aubrey’s Historical Scholarship; Aubrey Burl’s John Aubrey & Stone Circles: Britain’s First Archaeologist, from Avebury to Stonehenge; and Kate Bennett’s edition of Aubrey’s Brief Lives.
- See, especially, J. G. A. Pocock’s classic study, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law.
- For more on the politics of the new materialisms and the politics of eighteenth-century antiquaries, see Lake’s “Ten Thousand Gimcracks: Artifacts and Materialism’s Political History at Don Saltero’s.”
- Aubrey, John. Miscellanies (1696). London, 1714.
- ———. Monumenta Britannica. Edited by J. Fowles and R. Legg, 3 vols. Little Brown, 1981.
- Bennett, Kate, editor. John Aubrey: Brief Lives with an Apparatus for the Lives of our English Mathematicians. 2 vols. Oxford UP, 2018.
- Britton, John. The Autobiography of John Britton. 3 vols. London, 1850.
- ———. Memoir of John Aubrey, F.R.S. London, 1845.
- Burl, Aubrey. John Aubrey & Stone Circles: Britain’s First Archaeologist, from Avebury to Stonehenge. Amberley, 2010.
- Heringman, Noah. Sciences of Antiquity: Romantic Antiquarianism, Natural History, and Knowledge Work. Oxford UP, 2013.
- Heringman, Noah, and Crystal B. Lake. “Introduction: Romantic Antiquarianism.” Romantic Circles Praxis Volume. Romantic Circles. June 2014. Online.
- Hoare, Richard Colt. The Ancient History of Wiltshire. 3 vols. London, 1812–21.
- Hunter, Michael. John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning. Duckworth, 1975.
- Koolhaas, Rem, and Bruce Mau. S, M, L XL. Monacelli P, 1997.
- Lake, Crystal B. “Ten Thousand Gimcracks: Artifacts and Materialism’s Political History at Don Saltero’s.” Word & Image, vol. 33, no. 3, 2017, pp. 267–78.
- Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford UP, 2005.
- ———. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Harvard UP, 1993.
- Levine, Caroline. “Historicism: From the Break to the Loop.” boundary2.org, October 16, 2016.
- Momigliano, Arnaldo. “Ancient History and the Antiquarian.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 13, nos. 3/4, 1950, pp. 185–315.
- Myrone, Martin. “Extravagant Typography and Sublime Antiquity: John Martin, John Britton, Avebury, and Pompeii.” Romantic Antiquarianism, edited by Noah Heringman and Crystal B. Lake. Romantic Circles. June 2014. Online.
- Parry, Graham. The Trophies of Time: English Antiquarians of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford UP, 1995.
- Piggott, Stuart. Ancient Britons and the Antiquarian Imagination: Ideas from the Renaissance to the Regency. Thames & Hudson, 1989.
- ———. Ruins in a Landscape: Essays in Antiquarianism. Edinburgh UP, 1976.
- Pocock, J. G. A. The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957). Cambridge UP, 1987.
- “Review: The History of Ancient Wiltshire.” Critical Review, vol. 3, no. 4, March 1818, pp. 386–402.
- Sweet, Rosemary. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Hambledon Continuum, 2006.
- V21 Collective. “Manifesto of the V21 Collective.” v21collective.org, March 2015.
- Vine, Angus. In Defiance of Time: Antiquarian Writing in Early Modern England. Oxford UP, 2010.
- Wild on Collective [Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, Gary Wilder]. “Theses on Theory and History.” theoryrevolt.com, May 2018.
- Williams, Kelsey Jackson. The Antiquary: John Aubrey’s Historical Scholarship. Oxford UP, 2016.
- Woolf, D. R. The Social Circulation of the Past: English Historical Culture, 1500–1730. Oxford UP, 2005.