joshua gooch


Category: academic

The Terrible, Clever Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

I’ve been prepping a course on horror films over the summer. While reading through materials on The Blair Witch Project, I decided it was time to rewatch Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. I saw this film in an actual theater in the year 2000 and could only recall 1) that it was terrible, and 2) it had aerial footage of the forest floor at the beginning and end of the film. That’s it.

Why? Because Joe Berlinger directed it. I had no idea who he was in 2000, but I now know him as the talented documentarian responsible for films like Crude, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and the three Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three. What in the world, I wondered, led Berlinger to direct this terrible film.

The answer, at least according to Berlinger’s director’s commentary, is that he imagined the studio would allow him to create “a taut psychological thriller” radically different from its predecessor. It seems obvious, though, that they hired Berlinger because he was a noted documentarian, and they imagined someone with his resume could quickly produce a film in time for a Halloween release. If it had Blair Witch in the title, then they figured it would make them some money. In essence, they wanted BWP to become something like Halloween, a monetizable franchise.

The demand for quick turnaround seems to be why they allowed Berlinger to make a film that essentially attacks the first film for the problems that it posed to documentary filmmaking. In his commentary, Berlinger struggles to be complimentary about BWP. Toward the end, he says that he thought selling the original film as a documentary was “not right,” and then describes the conflation of fact and fiction in its marketing as “evil.” That’s not what sequel directors usually say about the wildly successful film that’s the basis for their new film. But it is this problem of the indetermination of fact and fiction that Berlinger makes the thematic core of BoS, and in doing so, effectively monkeywrenches the BWP as monetizable property for Artisan.

Whether that was his intention or the outcome of the studio’s interventions in the film’s final cut is unclear. At the very least, the key conceit of Berlinger’s film would pose a significant problem for the franchise. After all, he wanted to begin BoS by discussing the success of BWP as an explicitly fictional film, and then to build a new film about the ways in which fictional representations affect the people who cannot distinguish them from reality. I’d guess the studio okayed his initial script for sheer expediency, fully intending to insist later–as they did–that he remove references to the first film being fictional.

On first viewing, the elimination of the fictionality of the BWP makes BoS incoherent. On reflection, though, the change also undermines the realist pretenses that the first film achieved through both plot and form—most especially, first person shaky cam—more than Berlinger’s initial idea. The plot in a nutshell: a BWP tour group blacks out in the woods and awakes to find themselves embroiled in either a supernatural plot or a murderous group hysteria. Berlinger uses 35mm film for character perspectives as they experience supernatural terrors, and ends the film with the surviving group members confronted by video footage that shows them committing the horrors they imagined had been perpetrated by a supernatural entity. “Someone got to the tapes!” one of the men shouts, and the film ends.

The conceit here is that, while characters in the film imagine that video can’t lie, savvy viewers know that it can. It’s no mistake that Berlinger mentions the OJ Simpson case in his commentary. This is a very ’90s documentary concern. That said, it seems unlikely that this move to create ambiguity for horror audiences would have worked for either the studio or for test audiences unless they either knew of or were Bill Nichols. Judging by the edits, it’s clear they didn’t and weren’t.

So it’s possible that the film made more sense when (or if) the film had a clearer division, narratively and formally, between fiction and fact. The final version, however, not only lacks a clear distinction between the two but has also worked overtime through its interpositions of gory cutaways and mental ward flashbacks to set up its characters as guilty and unreliable. Berlinger tells us that the studio demanded these cutaways—they wanted more gore and to heighten the villainy of one main character. (How badly did they want them? He tells us they were shot five weeks before the film’s international premiere on over 3,000 screens.) This alteration refracts fictionality across all levels of its plot and essentially monkeywrenched the BWP as a franchise.

Why? It is impossible for viewers to believe either version of the film’s events. When I left the theater in 2000, I didn’t ponder for one moment the question that Berlinger wanted me to ponder. I wasn’t wondering what had really happened to those characters. Of course, that question would have been in keeping with the first film. We don’t know what happened but we’re left to wonder. Berlinger’s plan for the sequel attempted to make audiences think about this problem from a more ethical position, one informed by his work as a documentarian.

But I didn’t think about that at all when I left the theater. What I thought was, “What a terrible film.” Where the first film threatened to break out of its narrative space, then, the sequel collapsed the myth entirely, in large part because the studio insisted that it include more gore and less uncertainty. The result is a bad fiction film.

But bad films don’t typically end franchises. That this one did—for sixteen years—is what makes it interesting.

Part of the trouble is that Berlinger seems to have wanted the film to be read in and against the grain of the documentary tradition. Fair enough. That’s what is interesting about the film, and it clearly mattered to him because of the problems to documentary ethics posed by the first film. But audiences came to this film as a horror movie. If he’d raised these concerns in an entertaining horror movie, there would be no problem. But this emphasis on documentary is what poses aesthetic and thematic problems in imagining subsequent films.

In terms of aesthetics, BoS shows that the camera eye of documentary is almost alien to horror. BWP overcame this because of its highly subjective shots. BoS avoided this approach because it seemed both a bad form of documentary aesethics and too readily parodied to Berlinger. But the horror films that he references as influences–The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby–port viewers into the hallucinations of its characters through tight focalization. The clean camera work in BoS is the hallmark of a well-shot documentary, but it is largely too detached from characters.

The best sequence in conveying a group experience is the 35mm campfire montage, which conveys a group feeling (i.e., getting wasted in the woods). The film struggles to manage this visually otherwise, in large part because it wants to give us a visualization of a group hallucination. This makes the construction of narrow focalization almost impossible. The whole film has to become a hallucination–or, what it seems at times, a parody of itself. Kubrick managed it in The Shining by making nearly every shot a creepy experience of ghostly visual floating, and Argento does it in Suspiria through similar killer camera mobility. BoS has no engagement with the camera as the perspective of a terrifying threat. It’s a medium, with all the fallibility of mediums. That empties the visual field of the fact/fiction question. It’s a question of how viewers relate to the medium.

It also matters that BoS was scripted and BWP was the result of long form improvisations carefully edited together. This conjunction of a scripted follow-up to BWP combined with the visually flatness of this fact/fiction problem make it difficult to see where one might push another film.

It also cuts at the heart of the first film. In BWP, video is medial mark of truth, and the “directors” largely abusive methods for coercing Method-style performances from their actors relied on their ability to improv. BoS unmasks that performance and the attempt to make video a medial guarantee of truth. The crucial video undermines its explanatory power: the video of their blood orgy in the woods includes footage of one of the women hiding under the rocks the video of her hiding the video under the rocks. I’d guess that Berlinger means to reference a recurrent truth problem for documentary, reenactment. (In fact, the title card tells audiences that the film is just such a reenactment.) If one wishes to believe the video, then one has to believe that she hid it twice, once for the camera, once for sure. This is Blair Witch Project as directed by Robert Flaherty. The conscious production of video in this context undermines its truth claims, and once video becomes the same space of lies and as film, the franchise is left in a truly difficult medial position. What kind of medium would be appropriate for a followup? What would carry the same claim to authenticity?

Hence a long pass of silence from the BWP franchise.

The success of the first film and the failure of the second also points to something I’d hadn’t pondered much. The wave of found footage films in horror seems not a result of BWP at all but rather of successful scripted found footage films (e.g., Cloverfield). The formula only takes off once its controllable.

On Cuarón’s Great Expectations


I applaud everyone who has forgotten Cuarón’s 1998 remake of Dickens’s Great Expectations. It’s an offensively bad adaptation of the book, but for whatever reason, I am increasingly convinced that there’s something to be said about cultural production in the twenty-first century and the way that the film adapts Dickens’s text.

The key, to me, is how the film adapts the character of Pip to a postmodern US setting. In the novel, Pip is essentially a character without a profession. His desire to rise in status means that he leaves his apprenticeship as a blacksmith to become a gentleman, but this new status comes without profession, and he does not seek one out. Instead, Pip lives off the wealth of his unknown benefactor, lost in fantasies and mired in debt. When his expectations disappear, his adopted blacksmith father pays off his debts and he takes on the most gentlemanly but least skilled work he can find, as a clerk under his friend Herbert. What’s important here is Pip’s incapacity. It is central to his character. (Indeed, that he simply enjoys his new wealth without reflecting on the future has led biographers to connect the story with Dickens dissatisfaction with his adult children.)

The film renames Pip as Finn, and gives him artistic pretensions. His sudden rise to fame is classed, but heavily mediated through art and the art world. Thus his class ascension includes a fancy NYC art show. The film smartly situates him as an outsider artist. Handled differently, this could use the art world to represent the much more diffuse and difficult to represent realities of class in the US. One can imagine the acceptance of Finn’s work by the art world—all of which is purchased by his criminal benefactor—as variant on the rigid yet permeable Victorian class system, willing to recognize a new member only insofar as that member accepts a particular set of values and holds a certain amount of wealth. That’s not the case in the film, though. The outsider artist story becomes a means of adapting Pip’s shame of Joe, so that he at once narrates Joe out of his outsider story and is then embarrassed by his gauche appearance at the gallery opening. The fault lies with the outsider artist, not with the broader social, political, and economic milieu.

Yet this reframing of the gentlemanly-as-artist is suggestive, and I guess that’s why Cuarón’s adaptation sticks in my craw. Rather than taking this suggestive new situation and using it to explore the key thematic issue of the novel—how understands one’s position in the broader social world—the film chooses instead to insist that Finn’s new position in the world is the right position for him. Why? Because is a talented artist. This change in characterization is the film’s critical mistake. If one follows the thematic logic of Dickens’s novel, Finn should either be a terrible artist or one who wastes his talent by refusing to put in the effort of honing his craft. Were Finn even a merely passable but unimpressive artist, this thematic logic would hold. What matters is that the character needs to be in a fragile enough position that the final revelation of his criminal benefactor precipitates an all-encompassing destruction of his tissue of fantasies. After all, Pip does not get to be a fashionable gentleman at the end of the novel. He manages to land a job as a clerk and then, in the novel’s epilogue, to become a partner in his firm. He has come down in the world and is content to be respectable. In Cuarón’s film, however, Finn does not come down. Instead, he achieves further artistic success after he discovers his benefactor. Crime launches his career without scruple, and the only expectation lost is his expectation of Estella.

These shifts raise a number of intriguing critical possibilities. Is this a commentary on cultural production? Is it meant to imply that cultural production now relies on unscrupulous funding to secure positions for the economically tenuous cultural producers? And vis-à-vis Estalla, one might argue that making Finn an artist is a way to explore Estella via cinema’s scopophilia, and thus make his expectations of Estella part of her objectification by the camera. The scenes of her being sketched nude certainly offers the possibility of such an idea.

The reason I hesitate to explore these possibilities is the film’s insistence that Finn is a talented artist. That is the basis of the narrative conclusion, not the criminality of cultural production or an exploration of Estella’s experiences or thought beyond such objectification. The renaming of Pip as Finn underlines this problem. What’s the difference between a pip and a fin? Pips come in groups and you spit them out after eating the fruit. One might become a seed, but maybe not. A fin, though? The answer is embedded in the film’s production design. By relocating the initial scenes to the Florida coast and making our convict pop out of the water at Finn, the film telegraphs its meaning. A fin is a sign above the waterline of something substantial below. Making Finn an artist is thus an indicator of something more substantial underneath the apparently inconsequential signifier. It is this that makes Cuarón’s artist Finn different from Dickens’s no-occupation Pip.

This change in characterization effectively guts the meaning of the novel’s title. Pip’s great expectations are class and sex based delusions that the revelation of his benefactor shatters. The only thing below the surface with Pip is the possibility of being a better human being than the class-focused horror show that he is for most of the novel. By contrast, Finn’s talents mean that he has great expectations in and of himself that no revelation can shatter. He has no better humanity to find, no revelation of connections with others, only a sense of his own specialness. In effect, the film endorses the very adolescent fantasies that the novel skewers.

It’s this fundamental selfishness that makes the film stick with me. This deformation of the novel’s thematics is consistent with the valorization of cultural production in the 1990s: Art becomes a form of work that can move Finn out of the working class in one of the many fantasies of the petit bourgeois in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. More than that, though, the film turns the great tale of adolescent selfishness and class priggishness into its artistic defense. I guess that’s why it still gets me angry.

Polanyi via Stiegler

I recently finished Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy, and was struckby his argument that the role of machinery in economic production, a la Simondon, means “it is possible for the individual of the technical system to proceed in a way that is contrary to the individuation of social systems and psychic apparatuses” (99). In essence, this means that the social world becomes a process focused on the production of technical individuals, and that this has nothing to do with human individuation but rather privileges economic production in and of itself.

As I pondered Stiegler’s idea, though, it seemed more and more familiar. Isn’t this argument, in its basic contours, similar to the double movement that Karl Polanyi describes in The Great Transformation? It’s certainly similar. Using anthropological research, Polanyi begins from the claim that “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships” (46). Yet the rise of the idea of a self-regulating market effectively disembeds economic relationships from social relationships and raises the economic as an imagined fundamental nature that precedes and structures the social, rather than the far more longstanding human organization of economic production to meet the requirements of social relationships. How the economic was disembedded from the social, and the reactions of different social institutions to this disembedding, form the heart of Polanyi’s discussion. His focus on the Speenhamland system and the subsequent New Poor Laws means to highlight how poverty went from a problem embedded in a set of social relations (between landowners, the business class, and paupers) to a structural goad in which hunger forces people to work for wages.

To my mind, Polanyi’s argument offers tangible examples of what Stiegler calls—though clearly thinking of more recent events—“the subordination of the technical to the economic system” (102). The key here is how we understand this notion of a technical system. Stiegler explains it as “a dynamic system in which there takes place… a process of individuation” (99). In his commentary on Simondon, David Scott more helpfully explains it to be the system in which norms and values are produced. In effect, it is the realm of subjectivity and culture. He explains, “the subject belongs to the particular reality posing the problem; the technical object’s invention resolves the problem” (196). Hence the technical system should mediate the production of individuals and collectives, and when it becomes subordinate to the economic, the process of individuation becomes corrosive, dissociative, atomizing—what Stiegler calls “a principle of carelessness” (103). Moreover, as the process of individuation slips away from the social, if not the human entirely, it becomes bound to what Marx would recognize as capitalism’s production for production’s sake.

Polanyi makes a related point when he argues that “it was not the coming of the machine as such but the invention of elaborate and therefore specific machinery and plant which completely changed the relationship of the merchant to production” (74-5, emphasis added). One must be careful not to misread this passage as a claim of technological and/or structural determinism: Polanyi insists that the state produced the notion of a self-regulating market. Yet because his focus falls squarely on the creation of a “free” labor market, he does not return to this point. That leaves us hanging, at least in terms of this discussion. What are the norms and values that allow the creation of a very particular technical object, what Marx called constant capital and Polanyi here specifies as plant? The effects on labor through poor law reform offers one view of its effects on individuation, but the more pressing issue would seem to be the role of greed. Albert Hirschman’s work lays out this ideological shift as an agon between the passions, but that’s not quite to the point either. Why the shift to plant? Is it an extension of the disciplinary structure, a mirror to the problems of poor house organization? And what does it mean that, at least for revolutionaries like Marx, plant was also something to be valued? I’ve analyzed this as an attempt to escape the slave/animal/dehumanizing notion of labor elsewhere. But is this not also a question of character? In other words, rather than trace how a technological shift or environmental shift affected character—i.e., the way Foucault has typically been deployed in literary studies—examine how a particular notion of character (and the social world produced alongside it) allows the economic system to subsume the technical system.

My first book tried something along these lines by considering how novels embedded in the financial innovations of the Great Moderation pioneered discourses and practices that could make service workers more pliable and reliable workers. One of the key issues I had in making my argument was causation. What I wanted to get at was something like the process of dual or multi-causation in Simondon—individuals and social relations are produced simultaneously, and then subsequently modulate. This is why genealogy matters for Foucault, right? The disciplinary individual/society pair is both cause and effect. Foucault sets it out as the resolution of a problem that resides in the heart of a factory-based society, yet as a way of acting, organizing, and thinking, it is less the solution than what we might think of as a set of necessary predispositions that the appearance of technical plant crystallizes as its solution. Biopower, then, operates at yet another level of individuation (or perhaps we might think of individuation as multi-dimensional, with biopower operating on another axis from that of discipline), crystallizing those aspects that solve its problem while leaving operative those of discipline, and so on and so on until or unless these processes of individuation come into conflict or the milieus alter in a way that renders prior modes of individuation impossible.

Why does this matter? In terms of character, it raises the question: what was this for? What problem did it solve? How do components of those resolutions continue to operate, or operate over time? In particular, and for reasons that have to do with research I’m conducting now, what does it mean that notions of character become so closely bound to the rise of military volunteerism in the second half of the century? Polanyi argues that one should differentiate national and international finance during this period because national financial interests profited from war and instability while international financial interests (e.g., the Rothschilds) profited from peace. To the extent that international financial interests helped float national debt and shares of various infrastructure projects, those institutions needed stability. The panic of 1890, due largely to the heavy involvement of Barings in Argentina, supports such an argument. Yet its hardly credible to ignore the role of British military power at this moment to threaten countries that hinted at defaulting on their debts. And the Opium Wars were precisely about opening new markets…

I began trying to think through what character really means as a discourse—hence Mill—and for literature asking how it works, how one lives in it, feels it—and now it seems as though it may be part of the milieu necessary for the aggressive militarism of the second Empire.

Works Cited

Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press, 1944. 

Scott, David. Gilbert Simondon’s Psychic and Collective Individuation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014.

Stiegler, Bernard. For a Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Daniel Ross. Malden, MA: Polity, 2015.

Mill via Simondon

All paths in my theoretical research right now seem to lead back to Gilbert Simondon, who figures especially large in Massumi’s Ontopower and Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy.

 [I’ll note here that I have some reservations about Stiegler’s argument that Marx’s notion of proletarianization can be fully captured in what Stiegler calls “the grammatization of gesture” (39) and the subsequent externalization of memory in the technical object. It’s not that the idea isn’t sensible, but it is without a doubt a Simondonian reinterpretation of Marx rather than an exposition of it as such. Marx values the kind of machinic externalization that Stiegler highlights because the centralization of labor power in machines offers an opportunity for expropriation. In Theories of Surplus Value and the Grundrisse, when he discusses what we would understand to be proletarianization, Marx initially focuses on profit-taking and wage-relations before coming to the conclusion that machinic externalization matters most for these political reasons. The reason I emphasize this difference—and I discuss this in chapter one of my book—is that it elides issues of domination in capitalism, most especially their effects on the construction of gendered and racialized subjects. Much as I appreciate Stiegler’s discussion of grammatization and what he calls the technical individual—highlighting the individuation of technical objects and the elision of the humans from contemporary processes of individuation and collectivity—this aspect of his argument threatens to smooth over historical and theoretical problems that we need to think through in discussions of service economies.]

But what does Simondon have to do with Mill? I’m not sure I can answer that question fully yet, but it does seem to me that their theories of character and individuation bear interesting similarities. In part, this seems to be an effect, at least for Simondon, of Spinoza’s influence. I’ve read more about Spinoza than I like to think about, but this account of Spinoza from Pierre-François Moreau in David Scott’s book on Simondon was particularly striking after my reflections on character in Mill:

Moreau writes: “The feeling of finitude is the condition for the feeling of eternity and even, in a sense, it is the feeling of eternity.” Moreau believes that it is this same movement which in Spinoza permits the soul’s acceding to necessity while conscious that not everything is immediately necessary; as a result, it confronts its powerlessness, cultivating the aspiration for an escape from contingency. (81)

Simondon, Scott argues, discovers in the process of individuation the drive of necessity—something much like Spinoza’s conatus—as well as what he calls “the feeling that acknowledges the failure of individuation to ever complete itself, to be not yet completed in the collective” (81). This incompleteness is central to Simondon’s understanding of individuation, not as a lack but rather as an excess that allows new points of individuation to transpire. Rather than lack, individuation contains an incompatibility that opens not into a pre-existing collective but rather to the pre-individual. The results thus describe the constant process of individuation as the construction of individuals, subjects, and collectives from a field of the pre-individual.

On its face, this sounds very little like Mill. Certainly, Mill follows the hylomorphism that Simondon’s project attacks, and his imagined Ethology confronts without solution many of the problems of the constitution of individuals and societies that Simondon’s approach means to solve. Yet the feeling of incompleteness in Simondon suggests Mill’s feeling of moral freedom, the feeling that one is at once subject necessity and yet could do otherwise. The two notions are genetically different insofar as Simondon’s incompleteness means an embrace of difference and change as part of the individual, whereas Mill’s character is so determined by circumstances and habits that change is at best a distant and difficult possibility. And this is without attempting to account for the multiple levels of individuation and subjectivation in Simondon.

Yet I want to imagine Mill’s character, if only for a moment, in a different way, sans passive voice. What difference is there in saying character is formed by habits, rather than habits form character? Take habits as impersonal, character as a result of a cluster of habits, society as the habits of a cluster of characters. The contingencies that thwart Mill’s attempts to imagine a workable Ethology become a space of potentials…

Is it in Mill, if pushed hard enough, if turned in unexpected ways?

Mill’s feeling and determinism

Part two of a continuing series about Victorian character. First part here.

Last time, I tried to highlight what Mill calls “the feeling of moral freedom” (27) that informs his notion of a deterministic / ”necessitarian” logic of character as the possibility of self-improvement. Circumstances determine one’s various willed actions that, once congealed, become habits and the basis of one’s character, but Mill insists that a space of agency remains in order to allow individuals to alter their circumstances and thus their habits. Moral freedom is the feeling of this space, the ability to trouble one’s circumstances and habits, even if not an ability that one uses.

Mill needs character to be deterministic because he wishes to propose a new science, Ethology, “the science which corresponds to the act of education, in the widest sense of the term, including the formation of national or collective character as well as individual” (54). Mill wants Ethology to be a deductive science—in other words, to begin from general principles and thus to adduce facts—and sees this as approaching questions of psychology from a more speculative ground. It’s clear that Ethology would be a political science, allowing one to analyze the psychological, historical, and social context before offering prescriptions. Hence Mill’s consistent turn to “national character” (52), a turn of phrase that may call to mind Betteredge’s jokes about Franklin Blake’s many-sided character in The Moonstone. Mill admits the “high order of complexity” (50) such analysis would have to address, but rejects experimental science precisely because of the difficulty replicating such complexity. By contrast, the reductiveness of political economy—what he calls “the geometrical, or abstract method” (74)—he views as more effective in its ability to find functional prescriptions. However, he dislikes the Utilitarian position—essentially, a prescriptive reading of the final book of Smith’s Wealth of Nations­—that political rulers retain power by ensuring that their interests as rulers are “identical with that of the governed” (78). Instead, Mill writes:

I insist only on what is true of all rulers, viz., that the character and course of their actions is largely influenced (independently of personal calculation) by the habitual sentiments and feelings, the general modes of thinking and acting, which prevail throughout the community of which they are members, as well as the feelings, habits, and modes of thought which characterize the particular class in that community to which they themselves belong. (79)

The deductive principles that should be all controlling—identical selfish interests—are instead opened to variation through “habitual sentiments and feelings.” Mill’s argument is poised and ready for the arrival of Darwinian natural selection, and it’s easier to see how Huxley’s arguments might have their genesis in a shared worldview with this aspect of Mill. Self-interest may be the controlling characteristic of the individual, but feeling has shaped that interest in ways that political economy has failed to take into account. More than that, Mill goes as far as to argue that the “responsibility to the governed is the only means practically available to create a feeling of identity of interest… where that feeling does not sufficiently exist” (80). At first, I read this as a potential privileging of social feeling over political economy’s selfish interests. That’s a positive way to interpret this focus on feeling. Yet on further reflection it seems equally possible that Mill proposes something much more troubling here: feeling separates the political economic identities of interest to reveal the power of political sentiments as separable from economic determinations. There’s a certain realism to this analysis, but it also indicates a sense that rulers can—and likely should—focus their attention on this shared feeling rather than shared prosperity. When one considers that these ideas come from a man who had already been working for the East India Company for eleven years when the Logic was first published in 1844, it’s difficult not to see the attempts to reground political economy in a broader sense of shared feeling as bound up with the discursive mechanisms of colonial exploitation.

Increasingly, then, Mill uses feeling to create a kind of Althusserian relative autonomy within his imagined science of character-determinism. On the one hand, feeling ameliorates the individual’s experience of determinism as a kind of virtual agency, and authorizes the determinism that Mill needs to deduct individual actions from general principles as a consciousness of one’s (limited) freedom to alter one’s circumstances. On the other, feeling offers rulers a tool that allows them to maintain distinct interests and outcomes from those of their subjects. My kneejerk Marxist reaction is to call this manipulation through feeling, but that is likely too reductive. At another level, couldn’t one say that it is rather that feeling becomes the space of the political? Moreover, it is a politics deeply bound to a forward-projecting temporality, an affection of the present that means to alter the future. Collini describes the Victorian notion of character in one memorable phrase as “traveling… to unknown futures” (113), but, insofar as I can tell, he doesn’t focus on how this opening of temporality operates through feeling. It is that binding of sentimentality and temporality that, one might say, feels most Victorian.


Works cited

Collini, Stefan. Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850-1930. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Mill, John Stuart. The Logic of the Moral Sciences. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988.

New project: On character

I’m trying to think through ideas for a new project about Victorian character, economics, the professions, and war. To start, I want to focus on Mill and character. When it comes to literature and economics, critics often, rightly, treat character as a function of credit, and it is in many respects both the foundation of personal credit and a trope readily mapped to eighteenth-century texts like Defoe’s Roxana. As a Victorianist, I’ve long thought of character in this way while acknowledging that it is also part of a broader discourse of character that operates in tandem with notions like respectability and gentlemanliness. For this reason, JS Mill’s discussion of character in his Logic is far more pivotal than one might expect, both for what Mill has to say about individual and national characters and about the difference between his proposed science of character, what he calls Ethology, and political economy.

Here are the basics of character for Mill. Mill argues for character-based determinism: “our actions follow from our characters, and our characters follow from our organization, our education, and our circumstances” (26). Circumstances are crucial to Mill’s discussion of character throughout the final book of the Logic, since a science of character that encompasses an entire society finds itself hemmed in by the manifold nature of the circumstances that an analysis must take into account. Circumstances also provide the crux for Mill’s argument that his determinism, which he calls Necessitarianism, differs from fatalism. Mill’s basic point is that one can alter one’s character by altering one’s circumstances. One might call this Mill’s Victorian logic of self-improvement: I am who I am because of my circumstances but I can strive to alter my circumstances and thus myself. By contrast, fatalism sees no possibility for such alteration. (Hardy’s use of fatalism in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for example, seems a rejoinder to Mill’s argument here.) One can intervene at the level of circumstance. Mill writes:

They made us what they did make us by willing not the end, but the requisite means; and we, when our habits are not too inveterate, can, by similarly willing the requisite means, make ourselves different. If they could place us under the influence of certain circumstances, we in like manner can place ourselves under the influence of other circumstances. We are exactly as capable of making our own character, if we will, as others are of making it for us. (26-7)

In other words, one may will a new set of circumstances or means, and these may shape character if the habits that make up that character “are not too inveterate.”

Mill’s approach indicates that character has to be shaped indirectly, but the process of character shaping relies on a purposeful remaking of means to achieve a particular end.

So far, so good—and about what one would expect to find in Mill given Stefan Collini’s account of character and Mill in Public Moralists. I’ll return to Collini in another entry. For the moment, three questions come to mind as I look at this material: 1) How can one tell if a habit is too inveterate? 2) If character must be reshaped indirectly, how successful can a purposeful (i.e., ends-focused) reshaping of circumstances be? and 3) What does Mill mean by “if we will”—including his emphasis of the phrase? The first question I can’t answer yet. I am tempted to believe Mill would call a habit inveterate if it were simply too appetitive, but the issue isn’t taken further in the Logic. The second and third, however, receive more explication. Mill’s insistence that one can alter one’s character seems to rely as much on a sense that one could alter one’s character as the reality that one does alter it. He continues:

this feeling of being able to modify our own character if we wish, is itself the feeling of moral freedom … A person feels morally free who feels that his habits or his temptations are not his masters, but he theirs; who even in yielding to them knows that he could resist; that were he desirous of altogether throwing them off, there would not be required for that purpose a stronger desire than he knows himself to be capable of feeling. (27)

What strikes me in this passage is Mill’s focus on the “feeling” of possible change, highlighted by the repetition of the emphatic “if.” Moral freedom is the experience of a virtual space in which one may alter “habits or … temptations”—an interesting combination of skill/repetition and desire—rather than the experience of alteration as such. The notion is reminiscent of the problem of impulse and character in Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, in particular the apparent laxness of morals that Utterson finds acceptable for gentlemen in the opening chapters. Good character is the knowledge that one could resist habit or temptation, not that one does. This sounds like hypocrisy, and one can readily locate versions of Victorian hypocrisy that fit such a description, but I’d hazard that Mill wants to specify something quite different. There’s habit, temptation, and the space of feeling in which one can insert difference or unmoor what seems so stable. Is this related to James’s specious present or the problem of habit as the experience and elision of the present that Massumi locates in Ontopower? What is this feeling, and how does it work?

One way to think about this issue is to look at how Mill describes habits. Temptations aren’t suitable for discussion, apparently. Habits, he writes, are formed through acts of will that anticipate pleasure or pain, but that “we at last continue to will it without any reference to it being pleasurable” (29). Habit dislocates will from utilitarian considerations and their repetitions become what Mill calls “purpose” (ibid.) before insisting that “only when our purposes have become independent of the feelings of pain or pleasure from which they originally took their rise that we are said to have a confirmed character” (ibid.). In sum, from habit to habitus. A feeling of potential difference in respect to habit, then, offers a way to trouble the habitus, to render one’s character unconfirmed.

Next: How this dislocated feeling relates to political economy and Ethology as a search for a study of feelings than the greed via a surfeit of circumstances.

Works Cited

Mill, John Stuart. The Logic of the Moral Sciences. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988.

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.


On Massumi’s The Power at the End of the Economy

Brian Massumi, The Power at the End of the Economy (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2015).

Given the amount of self-citation in this slim volume, it is clear that Massumi wants the economic to bridge key interests in his recent and forthcoming work, most importantly questions of the ecology, the non-human, and war. Such interests, of course, lead Massumi inexorably toward a confrontation with Deleuze and Guattari’s other major disciples, Hardt and Negri. One of the difficulties that I have with this book is that it tries to bury this confrontation rather than subjecting it to rigorous interrogation. Perhaps this will appear in a later work. In any case, the crucial argument with Hardt and Negri appears toward the end when Massumi insists that that the figure of the activist should supplant that of the militant. The activist, he argues, conditions the situation in which events may arise, seeding the world with radical potential; by contrast, militants try to discipline events, in effect subjecting them to a rationalization that cuts off the proliferation of potential. It should be no surprise that Massumi turns this discussion back to the divide between anarchists and Marxists, an argument that we can date to back to the 1860s with the argument between Marx and Bakunin. More on that historical period and this book in a moment. What we should note here first is that his turn to the activist fits his argument overall in that its focus falls on what Massumi calls the “churning” of “infra-individual” “bare activity”—that is, the constant internal cycling of affects within an individual that do not rise to the level of consciousness. In an excellent discussion of this non-conscious affective activity, Massumi describes a human reacting to an unexpected encounter with a bull (a choice that one would assume is meant to recall the Spanish Indignacios and the horror of the 21st century capitalism’s bull market ideology). To my mind, this portion of the book can be read as a brilliant explication of Deleuze’s passing reference to Sartre in his final essay “Immanence: A Life…” The churn of affect, movement, and potential in the encounter with the bull captures what it means to constitute a plane of immanence. Indeed, anyone familiar with Deleuze’s oeuvre will find the book a fascinating reworking of key texts, including a lengthy engagement with Hume and sympathy.

My problems with the book, then, are not with its dazzling discussions of affective emergences and inventions, but rather with its analyses of the economic and of neoliberalism—a term that seems to hold talismanic rather than explanatory qualities here. Massumi begins with Foucault’s explication of neoliberalism in The Birth of Biopolitics, a fascinating seminar held in nearly forty years ago. As insightful as Foucault’s reflections may be for their time, they do not seem an adequate basis for an analysis of the contemporary economic moment in a historical sense. That said, such an analysis does not seem to be of much interest for Massumi. This book is largely a philosophical reflection on… one model of economic thought? A political regime (which one)? An individual experience of a political economic moment in a broader cultural context? It is unclear. The discussion of economic thought often turns to Jocelyn Pixely’s Emotions in Finance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), which is never explicated or situated in terms of its ideas but rather dropped in the text aphoristically, as though it represents all economic thought rather than a particular set of developments in the economic analysis of finance. There’s a general suspicion of market rationality—fair enough!—but in a way that is so broad that it is effectively meaningless. Who defends market rationality and how they defend it, however, is not here a subject of analysis.

Instead, the jumping off point is Foucault’s notion of an entrepreneurial subject. Such is certainly an aspect of “the neoliberal subject,” but it represents a particular view of that subject, one that has been crafted and constructed for us to take in. This issue generates the book’s most interesting discussion in terms of its economic content, an analysis of how neoliberalism pushes discipline beyond the individual subject to construct new forms of control. Massumi’s term for this is ‘priming,’ which ‘[implants] certain presuppositions in the situation … and [activates] certain tendencies in the participants’ (28). In my book, I’ve reflected on this issue a great deal—albeit in a different historical moment—but I tried to continually return these questions to the interaction of subjective experience and work-discipline. In other words, I tried to highlight the ways that economic relations affect one’s experience. One might see this, following Massumi’s account of the bull, as trying to describe how authors create a plane of consistency in which these subjective potentials of a new set of economic relations open up. I fell back upon the language of ‘discipline’ in an attempt to reimagine a much more loose, non-institutional experience of discipline by focusing on the construction of particular kinds of discourses—i.e., ‘presuppositions in the situation’—to which plots and characters respond, most especially in the subjective construction of various characters—i.e., ‘tendencies in participants’. Thus one of the useful aspects of his reframing neoliberal discipline as priming is that it opens up space for deviance. What remains unclear, however, is how multivocal this openness to deviance may be. It seems historically as useful for reinforcing certain tendencies as it does for the construction of resistance.

But let’s bracket that question for the moment to examine two other fundamental notions here that could also use a little more historical reflection: pain/pleasure, and human capital. Massumi’s account of pain and pleasure builds from Hume and his understanding of the passions, and then leaps to the contemporary moment. His term for the comparison of the two is ‘hedonic,’ which is understandable if also curious since the notion of utilitarian calculus never appears once. Given the centrality of this hedonic comparison to political economy, it is difficult to see how or why we must jump from Hume in the mid-eighteenth century to the twenty-first. It is also surprising that, given the competition between passions mapped within the discussion of Hume, that there is no mention of Albert O. Hirschman’s classic The Passions and the Interest, which details the rise of interest as a concept through the notion of the combat between passions. Curious too is the lack of connection of the pain/pleasure contrast to the rise of marginalism, where these tradeoffs were first rationalized using price mechanisms and generated the prevailing theory of employment that gave us the Great Depression and that Keynes dismantled in his General Theory.

And this takes me back to the activist/militant question. In some ways, Massumi’s account here is very ‘60s—that is, very 1860s. His essential response to these issues is what he calls “a politics of the dividualism”:

It would find ways of tending tendencies, in order to navigate the zone of indistinction between choice and nonchoice in such a way as to effect modulations of becoming that producing self-justifying surplus values of life: pulses of life experienced as worth the living by virtue of the event they are, immanent to the event, as a function of its immediate experiential quality, without any tribunal of judgment hanging over them, sovereignly purporting to justify them extrinsically. (35)

With such an agenda, one can see here why the activist would outweigh the militant (and again, why he includes a running comment on the competition between anarchism and Marxism). I appreciate these ideas, but they too need some additional reflection to expose points of difference from this twenty-first century moment and the closing paragraphs of Walter Pater’s 1869 The Renaissance. This is not necessarily a critique, I suppose, especially as Pater’s ideas here grew out of his reflections on William Morris—and, beyond that, it is difficult not to be moved in some very Deleuzian ways when reading the Pater of the Conclusion—but Pater’s ideas and the rise of marginalism are also deeply intertwined. This is the argument of Regenia Gagnier’s excellent The Insatiability of Human Wants, and Gagnier’s book kept coming to mind as I read, both because Massumi’s political/aesthetic project so insistently recalls both Pater’s insistence that we should “get as many pulsations into the given time” through aesthetic discrimination and because his general notion of the economic seems as applicable to British marginalism as to twenty-first century notions of market rationality.

The key distinction may be that contemporary economic thought accords much more importance to questions of finance than nineteenth-century political economy ever did. The introduction of the dividual in Deleuze and in Massumi is certainly of a piece of the random walk and such, but the outcome of this piece returns us to Paterian aesthetics with an emphasis on depersonalization. So we no longer try to ‘get’ pulsations as allow them to happen. But that takes us into questions of the event and decision that I’ll defer for another day.

© 2017 joshua gooch

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