Dickensian affects and the realist novel

When you start to write a book, you know what’s happening in your field at that moment. What’s strange, then, is to see the book enter the world alongside others and to think about how or why they came into existence at this shared historical moment. As soon as the book was finished, I started to see a slew of new books focused on the realist novel. What’s the relation of Dickensian Affects to this interest in the realist novel?

At first, my sense was… not much? After all, realism and genre theory have never much interested me. Intertexts, architexts, cycles–those make sense to me. Aristotlean genre theory–that is, discussions about categories distinct from history–have always struck me as a bit silly. My interest, and the point of departure for the project, is creative production as at once embedded in and disembedded from its social, economic, and historical situation. Creative acts take place in and against their situations. So my disposition as a scholar isn’t to approach something like realism in this way. That’s also, I suppose, a result of a kind of Barthesian hangover. Realism has often served in narrative theory as a drive to limit the drift of signification and intertextuality, to embed while limiting the possibility of disembeddedness.

I’m certain, though, there’s work to be done on nineteenth-century realism as a kind of international literary cycle, one in which authors positioned their works against one set of texts and literary procedures while insisting on the importance and necessity of other texts and procedures. Lauren Goodlad’s internationalization of British realism as part of a larger Victorian geopolitical aesthetic offers one point of entry for that analysis, particularly her discussion of George Eliot’s work. From that perspective, realism becomes important as a set of tropes, plots, and procedures that provide a cognitive mapping of nineteenth-century liberalism.

And here’s where I can see the connection of my work to this renewed attention to realism. Dickensian Affects doesn’t take up this particular framework of Marxist cultural theory–or rather, it writes back to and in response to it. (At one point, I was calling the framework “an anarcho-communist literary theory” but that seemed too grandiose.) The book tries to think through a form of criticism that can step back from what I see as a particularly problematic aspect of social analysis that informs Marxist literary theory, the tendency to treat the social totality in capitalism not as a complex set of relationships a la Althusser but more or less as a drive toward abstraction, a confluence of the abstraction of the commodity form and of subjectivity under capitalism that runs through western Marxism beginning from Lukács. There’s a repetitiveness to this kind of social analysis, a persistent return to abstraction that elides social, material, and historical complexity. Fredric Jameson’s notion of the cognitive map is a particularly good example of this problem for social analysis–though I don’t take it up in the book (see instead my piece on early 21st century films on war and terrorism)–because it persistently offers the same vision of capitalism in literary and visual texts, regardless of the situation of any individual text. The social totality–what we read literary texts in and against–then threatens to lose its complexity and so too will the literary works we examine, replaced by a general analysis in which the tendencies of capitalism stand in for the complications that follow the particular enacting of these tendencies in real situations.

This is why I spend a fair amount of time writing about situations rather than maps and of tonalities and rhythms rather than spaces. I’m using affect theory to attempt a kind of analysis similar to cognitive mapping, but that treats the creation not as a spatialized map but as an unfolding of thinking-feeling events, events of movements and moments. Which, I think, is a better sense of what a “cognitive map” is in practice. Recall that Jameson lifted the concept from an account of how we navigate the spaces of our every day lives. The maps we make of those spaces are events of thinking-feeling-moving, and much as they mark out particular grooves of t-f-m, they are also open and alterable, revised on the fly in a constant process. “Map” suggests a reified symbolic representation rather than embedded and evolving series of thinking-feeling events. Our analyses focus on the synchronic to overcome the difficulty of the series, but it must keep this openness in focus so that we retain the possibilities of difference in repetition.

That’s why it’s a book about affect and form. Dickensian Affects explores how Dickens creates forms that signal particular kinds of affective situations, ones that are at once historically embedded and oddly mobile. Are these situations realist or realistic? Well, I take Dickens as an author more interested in what Sally Ledger calls  “a realism of affect, rather than representational realism” (12). In other words, I don’t view Dickens as a realist author in our generally understanding of the term and he’s interesting to me because he isn’t.

That leads to one of the central claims of the book, one that came in the final stages of its composition and with which I am still grappling. The notion that Dickens is an affective realist means that he presents us with situations that denude subjects of coherence but nonetheless articulate them to a social, economic, and historical situation. Following work in anthropology and affect theory, I describe this as a focus on the dividual:

Dickens’s novels offer something more real than realism. Where George Eliot or George Gissing present us with a realism in which characters aspire to coherent subjectivity, Dickens offers a realism of the dividual, one in which characters are social functions and feelings impersonal and always potentially different. The feeling of life’s precarity in Victorian Britain in Dickens includes an insistence that no matter how one may feel, one might soon feel otherwise. It is this precarity of feeling—most obvious but by no means limited to his quick turns from laughter to tears—that affects most in Dickens’s novels even as their plots and tropes suggest other forms of precarity, from the physical, economic, and political, to the gendered, sexual, and racial.

Dickensian Affects, 14-15

It’s not that the dividual isn’t real but that we don’t experience or represent dividualism in the way that literary realism does. I build on that claim, arguing that

Dickens’s affective realism may have had intentional goals as social reform but his texts and their forms exceed these goals. In their exploration of precarity, they do not so much teach individual readers how or what to feel as produce new dividuals. His forms thus provide fictive events of affective encounter that exceed the staging of visual scenes with existing subjects and subject positions, unitary moral codes, or even the rhythmic alternation of scenes of laughter and tears. They unfold instead as events to be traversed by singularities and to produce readers, characters, and narratives.

Dickensian Affects, 15

This isn’t to say that Dickens’s novels aspire to literary bodies-without-organs. Rather, his affective realism suggests a space of potentiation, possibility, virtuality, what-have-you, that that realism–at least in the Barthesian sense–would like to limit in the name of subjectivity or causality.

The Victorian Novel, Service Work, and the Nineteenth-Century Economy

I wrote a book. Like most scholarly books, its argument is meant to be multifaceted and to speak to a variety of audiences, but I will try to reduce those to an extremely limited set of claims here. With that in mind, here’s what the book is about:

  • The service sector begins to emerge clearly as a separate sector in the mid-Victorian period.
  • Political economy, due to its focus on productive labor, has difficulty theorizing the “immaterial” production of service workers.
  • Victorian novels, as cultural texts, provide a clearer view of the ways in which class, gender, and race differentiated modes of service work.
  • In other words, novels allow us to see the mechanisms available in the period to discipline service workers, including the wage, discourses of respectability and gender, and violence.
  • For Victorian studies, this focus on service work reframes our understanding of mid-Victorian novels that take on themes of finance and financialization as more broadly novels about different modes of immaterial work and their social value.

In terms of theory, my argument applies to Victorian novels about finance what might be most widely understood as a post-work political lens—that is, I take work to be the fundamental mechanism of social discipline in capitalist societies. This perspective effectively brackets issues of work’s productive role in the social metabolism a la Marx to examine instead the forms of domination that work creates at particular historical moments. That is, it means to offer a conjunctural analysis of Victorian novels about finance from a post-work perspective.

I think one of the benefits of this theoretical approach is that it helps show how the instrumentalization of social relations that we often trace in Victorian texts is in fact part of a process of proletarianization in the services. One might object that we already have reification for these issues—that’s true!—but discussions of reification in literary studies tend to privilege objects and commodification and to lose sight of human interaction. When work and workers drop out of sight, we’re left with Marx’s talking table at best, Aristotlean analysis of objects at worst. So one of the underlying arguments in the book is that literary criticism is more meaningful when we reflect on how literature captures the affects and percepts of large-scale historical change than by attempting to craft history or philosophy from literature.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t engage with big questions, but that the kinds of big questions that we can engage are going to—and should—be different than the kinds of questions raised by scholars in other disciplines. This is especially important when we think about how new economic criticism and the like, which has led some of us to believe we can effectively respond to economists because we read in the history of political economy. In a way, we can… but we will never really be talking to economists. Even if some scholars believe that can point to flaws in current models or problematic assumptions within economic theory, the audience for any work that comes from the intersection of literature and economics will be one engaged with the humanities first. As literature scholars, we are unlikely to affect economic debates.

What can we do? We can examine people think about economic life and represent changing economic experiences, and we can use those examinations to reflect on our culture as such. That’s a different, though related, project than carving out space for discursive examinations of political economic texts. It is a project about the political, economic, and emotional experience of abstract social forces. Hence my last point, which covers too many chapters:

  • The novels that I examine reveal the changing experiential contours of service work, focusing in particular on questions of discourse and affect.
    1. Silas Marner reveals discursive fractures in discussions of productive and unproductive labor in the early 1860s.
    2. Our Mutual Friend takes on the proliferation of services in the period, and how to discursively discipline its improvisational work.
    3. The Moonstone reveals how financial networks solicit invisible affect economies in the domestic sphere.
    4. The Way We Live Now showcases the role of violence as the coercive background to the use of discursive work discipline in services.

Of course, there’s much more than that in each chapter, and more in the book besides—from an examination of political economy’s notion of unproductive labor to a reading of Dracula as the affective meditation of service work—but that’s why it’s a book, not a blogpost.