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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.

Joseph Conrad’s Hope in Lord Jim and Nostromo

To approach hope in Conrad is to understand why French philosopher Gabriel Marcel claims “the conditions that make it possible to hope are strictly the same as those that make it possible to despair” (qtd in Anderson). This is not to say that Conrad’s hope is Marcel’s. For Marcel, hope describes a particular experience of theological transcendence, one that reveals a world of mysteries that demand an exterior space of possibility, something that takes the place of our humdrum instrumentalized world in which everything is merely a problem to be solved and thus a source of existential despair. Conrad’s hope might be glimpsed here not in Marcel’s suggestion of Catholic certainty but in the structural argument that Marcel makes about hope: hope is an experience of multiplicity and potentiality. Subsequent theorists of hope, from Ernest Bloch to Ben Anderson, emphasize precisely this implicit plurality of conditions, a plurality that can be inflected as either hope or despair.As Terry Eagleton puts it, “Potentiality … lays down the material infrastructure of hope” (52). Hope is sometimes treated as an affect, but it is perhaps more proper to understand it as a being-towardthat may raise a variety of affects, whether excitement, expectation, dread, anger, and so on. In other words, hope is less an affect than a relation with potential-laden conditions.

We are closer, here, I think, to Conrad’s hope, but the word “relation” poses another problem. Relation does not mean disposition, something grounded in character. One of the problems that confronts any examination of hope is our readiness to collapse one’s relation to conditions with one’s general disposition toward the world. We might recognize this better, as Conrad did, in questions of character—though as we will see that has its own discourse as well. For now, I want to note that hope is not the equivalent of an optimistic character. In particular, Eagleton offers a useful distinction, one that separates his perspective from that of Marcel, between groundless optimism and a hope premised on reason. After all, if I ask, “Is there any hope?” it is because I need a reason to hope, however remote. By contrast, Marcel’s religion allows him to hope by focusing on reason beyond reason. In what follows, then, I take hope as a particular relation informed by reason about the potentiality of a situation, and that this potentiality includes hope’s contrary, despair. In essence, hope sifts its despair-laden conditions for another route, another possibility. The hope that one may find in Conrad’s work, then, does not operate in spite of his pessimism but as a result thereof. It is a persistent examination of the reasons within despair, and the possibilities therein. In what follows, I have chosen to focus my discussion around the uses of the word “hope” as such in Lord Jim and to connect its usage there to the later text Nostromo.

Hope pervades the first half of Lord Jim as a continually thwarted if not fundamentally misguided relation to possibility. This seems in part a result of the continued link Marlow draws between the words hopeand faith: Jim’s hopes for the future, the hope of the pilgrims, Jim’s desire to remake himself. These hopes express a faith in potential, and it is as faith that the narrative approaches the question of hope, underscoring in the process its emptiness. Marlow frames his hope that Jim’s actions could be understood as not merely dispelled but a desire for “a miracle” (37). He writes:

Perhaps, unconsciously, I hoped I would find that something, some profound and redeeming cause, some merciful explanation, some convincing shadow of an excuse. I see well enough now that I hoped for the impossible–for the laying of what is the most obstinate ghost of man’s creation, of the uneasy doubt uprising like a mist, secret and gnawing like a worm, and more chilling than the certitude of death–the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct. It is the hardest thing to stumble against; it is the thing that breeds yelling panics and good little quiet villainies; it’s the true shadow of calamity. Did I believe in a miracle? and why did I desire it so ardently? Was it for my own sake that I wished to find some shadow of an excuse for that young fellow whom I had never seen before, but whose appearance alone added a touch of personal concern to the thoughts suggested by the knowledge of his weakness–made it a thing of mystery and terror–like a hint of a destructive fate ready for us all whose youth–in its day–had resembled his youth? I fear that such was the secret motive of my prying. I was, and no mistake, looking for a miracle. (LJ 5:37)

If hope is bound to reason, its deployment in Lord Jim maps something hazier, torn between reason and optimism. The hoped for miracle would dispel the mist that envelops and obscures what Marlow calls a “fixed standard of conduct.” It is here that hope’s centrality for the text comes into focus as a collapse of character-based disposition and a reasoned relation to a situation’s potentiality. What Marlow extolls as a standard of conduct is “that inborn power to look temptations straight in the face… a power of resistance” (32). Such a view is of a piece with Conrad’s insistences throughout his work that imperialism reveals fundamental dispositions held in check by European culture. His hope for Jim is one for a standard of conduct based in reason that could obviate this problem of disposition. What Jim threatens to reveal is that his standard is a mere accident of disposition.

The affective—or emotional relation?—here takes seriously what Fredric Jameson dismisses as a mere symbolic ruse, honor. Yet honor, as a word, misses the mark. It is a loss of hope, the revelation of a standard that is no standard. It is this that afflicts Captain Brierly. His final words to Marlow indicate that the degree to which dispositionis in tension with a reasoned hope, and direct us to another relation often mistaken for affect, trust. First and foremost, trust guarantees that the self one presents coincides with the kinds of actions one is likely to undertake. Yet trust is as much about the ability to act in the present moment as it is the predictability of future actions. In his analysis, Niklas Luhmann explains that trust matters precisely because it authorizes action in the present. For Brierly, what is so distressing about Jim’s betrayal is that it cuts at this possibility of present action:

We’ve got all kinds amongst us–some anointed scoundrels in the lot; but, hang it, we must preserve professional decency or we become no better than so many tinkers going about loose. We are trusted. Do you understand?–trusted! Frankly, I don’t care a snap for all the pilgrims that ever came out of Asia, but a decent man would not have behaved like this to a full cargo of old rags in bales. We aren’t an organised body of men, and the only thing that holds us together is just the name for that kind of decency. (LJ 49)

What we see here in Brierly’s concerns are that they are not so much about honor as the broader late Victorian discourse of character. As Stefan Collini shows, character served as the disciplinary code for a disorganized liberal imperialism—in short, as the code for the trustworthiness of imperial action. Imperial administrators’ need to take decisions when necessary led to a reliance on a particular understanding of good character. Such character regulates personal conduct through social pressure and intermittent checks on action—the certification that Jim needs to act as an officer marks him as part of this order that demands a series of initial checks but then releases him unchecked into the world. This may suggest Foucauldian discipline; however, as we see in Lord Jim, character operates through intermittent checks quite distinct from what one would find in a disciplinary structure. In effect, the sea of Lord Jim is one of the earliest forms of what Marc Augé terms a non-place, a space of passage in which identity is suspended and checked only sporadically. Indeed, Augé discusses the role of sea travel in the 19C when explicating the term. For subsequent theorists, the non-place helpfully tracks the displacement of disciplinary societies by societies of control, where the individual is replaced by the persistent subdivision of the person into the multiplicity of the dividiual. For late Victorians, character seems to have suggested the certainty of a disciplinary code. What Jim reveals, though, is that it is a more supple—and at this stage of technology, fallible—system of discontinuous checks. The guarantee of character, which unifies disposition via a specific relation to reality, only guarantees a fragment, a splinter that may not be recomposed as a whole.

In a fully developed control society, this fragmentation can become a source of profit and multiplied control through the proliferation of checks. This is not yet the case for the world of Lord Jim.Instead, trust and hope confront each other as antagonistic relations to temporality. Action in the present against a Benjaminian sifting of possibilities in the present—activity against a passive messianism. This conflict is not an abstract one. As Adam Seligman argues, trust is predicated on the rise of modernity and market society. It is a specific, historic relation. In this sense, the conflicting temporalities of hope and trust reveal an ambivalence in the text toward the imperial project, one situated in the subjective constitution of those who undertook it: a passive hope for the future that inhibits trust’s ability to act in the present. For Conrad, a positive imperial project is based in doing. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow describes the British territories marked in red on King Leopold’s map as “good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there” (32), and he emphasizes earlier that “what saves [the British imperial project] is efficiency” (21). An acceptable imperialism is a project of continual present-tense mediation, of doing to be done. Yet what Jim wishes to avoid more than anything is the reality of his present. Jim’s passive hopefulness threatens to reveal the trust of imperialism as mere disposition. His leap from the foundered boat is a leap over the present, an elision of trust’s temporal focus. Hence Marlow emphasizes that Jim

was not afraid of death perhaps, but I’ll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency. His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped–all the appalling incidents of a disaster at sea he had ever heard of. He might have been resigned to die but I suspect he wanted to die without added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance. (63)

Jim’s hope and despair are bound to his projections of what may come, to potentiality as such, and not to what is. His redemptive second leap, then, is not so much an embrace of his existential condition as an insistent staying in the present that the text makes central to imperial trust.

To a degree, this alignment of hope with an idealism and temporality that undermines trust in the imperial project also marks Nostromo. Conrad’s account in his 1917 preface of the biographical model for Antonia certainly carries more than a whiff of the Intended’s idealism: “how we used to look up to that girl,” he writes, “…  as the standard-bearer of a faith to which we all were born but which she alone knew how to hold aloft with an unflinching hope!” (453). In the text proper, hope is a leitmotif for a more impersonal sense of the imperial social revolution led by the American mining interests in Sulaco. The San Tome mine enchants Charles Gould with a  “magic formula … [of] hope, vigour, and self-confidence, instead of weary indignation and despair” (6:48). Gould subsequently demands capital-first reform in Sulaco as the only possible “ray of hope” (7:68) because it brings “security” to an “oppressed people” (7:68), and the color of the mine, “green,” is called “the colour of hope, being also the colour of the mine” (8:79). Hope again seems a drive to passivity, and the text’s search for reasons to inform hope become increasingly strained. The Excellentisimo who is to defend the interests of the mine is “the hope of honest men”; and the people of Sulaco hide their fears of Sotillo’s army behind “imbecile hope.” Hope’s potential malevolence, however, most clearly appears with its association with Gould’s last load of silver: “the remnants of our hopes.” Nostromo says in the novel’s final pages that “there is something accursed in [this] wealth” (442), and this seems a fitting description for what is a material store of congealed labor, a hoard of potentiality in itself. Indeed, if one considers the silver as a surplus of potential, the suicidal turn of Martin Decoud, Nostromo’s accomplice in protecting this last remnant of hope, becomes a result of his altered relation to this potential. Indeed, the novel’s persistent narration of revolution in the pseudo-iterative, the narrative strategy of presenting the punctual as the habitual, similarly suggests a problem moving between temporal registers, as though the potentiality of hope and despair have infected the present.

For this reason, I want to close by raising two final models of hope. In his account of hope, Brian Massumi similarly emphasizes its engagement with potentiality. However, where most theorists describe hope as future-oriented, Massumi insists that it is best conceived as a relation to the present. A present-tense hope, he argues, is one bound up with the uncertainty and potentiality of a given situation. Hope is thus not a passive waiting for someone else’s intervention in the future but rather what Massumi calls “a margin of maneuverability” (2), a margin that is effectively our sense of freedom. This view of hope insists that one is not inscribed in a situation but rather embodied within that situation in such a way that its manifold potentials for connection are present and available. Hope is the insistence that the world, such as it is, is internally different from itself. It is this agential version of hope that Conrad approaches in Nostromo,a cross-pollination of the action-oriented trust of Lord Jim and its idealist hope, but one that increasingly becomes indifferent to its status as either hope or despair. With the ascendency of Gould and the mining interests, the conclusion of Nostromo seems to suggest hope for a particular form of seemingly beneficent liberal imperialism against Nostromo’s more hopeless and romantic imperial adventuring. This hopelessness extends lexically beyond Nostromo, the “hopeless slave of the San Tomé mine,” to include “the hopeless blackness of the clouds” above the island where he has secreted his treasure and his two competing love interests. The conclusion of the novel thus suggests a feminizing of hope, a framing of the congealed potentiality of wealth as a female fecundity that threats a masculine demand to act, whether Nostromo’s decisive military actions or Decoud’s decisive political intervention. It is this final gendered shift of hope that indicates the one model of hope that remains inaccessible to Conrad, a hope grounded in the past, one that Sara Ahmed argues is central to living a feminist life (see introduction and 46-47. This concluding gendered turn of hope thus suggests an implacable drift in the novel’s understanding of hope and despair toward a masculinized sense of potential’s sheer contingency, encapsulated by Nostromo’s accidental shooting by his aged friend. In this way, the hope of Nostromo suggests a particularly masculine subjective struggle to orient oneself in an imperial surfeit of possibility.

 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.

Anderson, Ben. “Becoming and Being Hopeful: Towards a Theory of Affect.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24, 2006, pp. 733-752, DOI: 10.1068/d393t.

Augé, Marc. Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. 2ndedition. London: Verso, 2008.

Collini, Stefan. Public Moralists. Oxford UP, 1991.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Bedford/St Martins, 2010.

—. Lord Jim, edited by Jacques Berthoud.Oxford World’s Classics, 2002.

—. Nostromo. Penguin Classics, 2007.

Eagleton, Terry. Hope without Optimism. U of Virginia P, 2015.

Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and Power. Polity, 2017.

Marcel, Gabriel. The Gabriel Marcel Reader, edited by Brendan Sweetman. St. Augustine Press, 2011.

Massumi, Brian. The Politics of Affect. London: Polity, 2012.

Seligman, Adam B. The Problem of Trust. Princeton University Press, 1997.

Association, Sentiment, and Becoming-Animal: Dickens’s Feral Children

In 1848, Dickens published the last of his Christmas books, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. Much as in A Christmas Carol, the protagonist of The Haunted Man, a chemist named Mr. Redlaw, finds himself confronted by a ghostly figure on Christmas Eve. Here, however, the similarities end. Where Marley encourages Scrooge to reflect upon his life and live for the better, the Phantom of The Haunted Man offers Redlaw a reprieve from such reflections. Redlaw has long been haunted by grief and anger: his best friend had led his beloved sister to believe he intended to marry her; instead, he married Redlaw’s intended, and Redlaw’s sister dies soon after. “I bear within me a Sorrow and a Wrong,” Redlaw tells the Phantom, and continues, “Thus, memory is my curse; and if I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!” (342). What the Phantom offers to “cancel” (Christmas 343) are his memories of sorrow and wrong; “to leave,” he explains, “but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon” (343). Redlaw knows enough of sentimental philosophy to object that he “would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others” (343). The Phantom assures him that he will lose “no knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections” (343). This phrase, later repurposed in Great Expectations to describe Pip’s more problematic emotional and subjective development, indicates the tale’s narrative trajectory. In The Haunted Man, the Phantom has trapped Redlaw in a kind of Faustian bargain: the elimination of the felt chain of associations with sorrow and wrong quickly empties Redlaw of anything approaching human sympathy. However, because he can still recall the existence of sympathy, he knows enough to mourn its loss, and, as one of the conditions of his bargain was that he would communicate his loss of memory to anyone he encounters, he quickly retreats from human contact. The one exception is that of a street urchin, described as “a creature more like a young wild beast than a young child, shivering upon a door-step” (338). Only the child can withstand Redlaw’s presence, the Phantom explains, because he is barely a person at all; he

is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up.  No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast.  All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness.  All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness.  Woe to such a man!  Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands! (387)

To some degree, one might interpret the child here as the human reduced to the animal. Yet this is not quite right. The absence of softening memories does not render the child an animal but rather, in the Phantom’s words, abandons him “to a worsecondition than the beasts.” Indeed, tropes of animality attach themselves to the child and to Redlaw to demarcate a monstrosity produced by a particular kind of hedonic neglect. This feral child, then, is another of Dickens’s critiques of the Benthamite understanding of humanity as driven wholly by self-interest. Without humanizing memories, the child and Redlaw are always, as Fagin would put it, looking out for “object number one” (43:348). The tale’s goal is to confront Redlaw with such an emotionally impoverished humanity that he accepts the necessity of his sorrows and wrongs as opportunities, the saintly figure of Milly informs us, to “forgive” (Christmas404). It is this Christian sentiment that gives the tale its moral unity, one that Dickens encapsulates with the recurrent phrase “Lord, keep my memory green” (408).

To my mind, the tale’s loosely Christian moral is not so much suggestive of a particular religious key in Dickens’s work—Dickens was certainly loose in his religious thinking, frequenting Unitarian churches but baptizing his children in the Church of England—than of a way of thinking about what it means to be human, in particular how memory and emotion interact to produce the contrasts and humanizing touches of individual character. In what follows, I explore the ways in which the feral child of The Haunted Man reveals a fracture in Dickens’s thought of what it means to be human. This is a consequence of the way in which the becoming-animal that both the child and Redlaw experience includes and excludes them from the human and the animal, and of Dickens’s entwining of sentimentality and analytic psychology. I would suggest that the ways in which Dickens describes this loss of memory and feeling, in particular the metaphoric entanglements of the animal and wilderness, indicates the extent to which Dickens’s work gestures toward the human as constructed, while nonetheless warding off the ramifications of such a view by creating a sentimentality of mental association.

The associationist bent of Victorian analytic psychology offers a point of entry for this view of the human as constructed through the ramification of one’s experiences and their resulting associations. Nicholas Dames has demonstrated analytic psychology’s influence Dickens’s David Copperfield, just two years later, and again with an emphasis on mental representation. For Dames, the midcentury saw “a sustained cultural interest in autobiographical memory” (127); psychological notions of association gave novelists the tools, in Dames’s words, “to plot the mind, and to plot memory, in such a way as to ensure a newly coherent, newly organized psyche” that would create a “cleansed, organized mind free of … uncategorizable detail” (128). For Dames, this is a result of the threat of delirium that the association of images raises and that modernism will later indulge. From that perspective, one might argue that in The Haunted Man, the need to retain memories of sorrow and wrong reflects this urgent desire to narrate the self as a set of sensible and connected associations.

Yet I think that such a reading would miss the moral of the tale. On its face, Dickens becomes Nietzschean here, and Nietzsche comes to seem more Victorian than he would like. More than that, however, it is clear from the tale that Redlaw and those he infects remain coherent as individuals even without these chains of association. In fact, rather than losing their senses of self, they become unshakablyfocused on the self. Association here is not about making or maintaining a coherent self so much as it is about the creation of an affective landscape for the human, an escape from that artificially produced “wilderness” in the boy and in Redlaw. Rooting out one’s sorrows and wrongs encourages either what the Phantom calls the boy, “the growth of man’s indifference”, or what he calls Redlaw, “the growth of man’s presumption” (Christmas 388). These vegetal metaphors leave one with the sense of the self as a kind of cottage garden. One tends not by weeding but through interplanting, since without these memories, one presumes that one needs no one else, and others merely induce indifference.

In effect, by privileging these notions of sense and affect, the tale follows their centrality in eighteenth-century moral philosophy but makes the case that such experiences reinforce or refine that inborn moral sense.In this respect, Dickens differs from moral sentiments philosophers such as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume. For them, the judgments of moral sense may be led astray by ignorance, but reasoned debate and reflection may correct them.[i]Dickens, by contrast, makes this correction one of feeling rather than reason. Moreover, the terrain of Dickens’s argument offers some key distinctions from the moral sentiments. Redlaw’s situation recalls the scene at the heart of moral sentiments philosophy, a spectator confronted by a sufferer. The best instance of this approach appears in Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, and Smith argues there that the situation demands affective regulation on the part of both spectator and sufferer (see Smith 1.4.7:26-7). Redlaw experiences a problem of self-regulation. In Smith’s theory, he should spectate his own suffering, and regulate it according to the reactions of his imagined impersonal spectator. Dickens seems well in on this idea: after all, he gives Redlaw a Phantom in his own image in order to comment on his experience of suffering. Yet it is the Phantom who offers him false absolution in his forgetfulness. Self-regulation, it seems, is not enough.

Here it may be useful to reframe the problem in terms of literary sentimentality and dramatic spectatorship. One of the distinct shifts in sentimental literature of the Victorian period, as scholars such as Miriam Bailin, Michael Bell, and Audrey Jaffe note, is that the role of the spectator has been pushed outside the diegesis. Readers, who before were asked to align themselves with an embedded spectator, take on the spectatorial role directly. Dickens is in part using this shift in literary form with this tale. After all, like all the Christmas tale, it too was effectively shaped around a series of scenes made for the mid-Victorian stage, a result of Dickens’s desire to control stage adaptations of his Christmas books beginning with The Chimes. The Haunted Man perhaps bears more markers of Dickens’s focus on the stage than any of the other books, however. Chapters rarely shift locations, and characters move within these limited spaces in melodramatic ways, from the overly talkative servants bringing in their family members for exposition to Redlaw hiding in a closet so that he—and the audience—may overhear the conversation. Dickens licensed the story to the Adelphi Theatre in 1848, and the playbill neatly encapsulates each of these locales: The Chemist’s Chamber, Tetteryby’s Palour, A Room in Tetterby’s, Outside of Redlaw’s Dwelling, A Ruinous Street, A Room in an Old House, The Ruinous Street (again), and so on. From a theatrical perspective, the stage makes spectatorship a directly embodied question. It also, I would suggest, pushes Dickens’s presentation of sentimentality outside the bounds of the individual.

For this reason, I want to return to analytic psychology, not as an answer to the problem but as a deepening of it. Popularizations of analytic psychology at this time raised two issues that inflect Dickens’s tale, the importance of emotion to association and of associational contrasts. In John Abercrombie’s popular work on the subject, first published in 1830 and running through nineteen subsequent editions, Abercrombie emphasized that “the strength of the association is generally in proportion to the intensity of the mental emotion; and is likewise in a great measure regulated by the length of time, or the number of times in which the facts have been contemplated in this connexion” (emphasis added; 77). For Abercrombie, associations transpire between “facts or thoughts” (ibid.), that is between what philosophy would term images or representations. Subsequent work in analytic psychology will focus on associations as part of organic processes, but that turn comes after Dickens’s engagement here. (Hartley’s discussion of mental vibrations and connections between the nerves and the brain notwithstanding, or rather, perhaps avoided for the reasons that Coleridge raises against him.) Abercrombie also notes that associations also operate by suggested contrasts: “the sight of a remarkably fat man may recall to us the thought of another man we had lately seen, who was equally remarkable for his leanness” (77).

One might understand Dickens’s deployment of both analytic psychology and the moral sentiments as producing a kind of sentimentality of mental association. Associations in and of themselves are not enough to make the self but need a particular set of contrasts to produce the “humanizing touch” that the Phantom says the feral child lacks. This understanding of the mind and memory leaps between discourses: we begin in analytic psychology with the notion of contrast raising the possibility of an internal division within mental associations but then shift to the moral sentiments as this divisions seems to allow for a more properly Smithian spectator to issue judgments. Sorrows and happiness produce an imagined internal distancing for the individual: hence Redlaw can realize his mistake because he can recall happiness, not because he understands the loss of his sorrows (and only transcends his mistake and regains his memory with the further step of forgiveness).

What might this say about other feral children in Dickens? I am thinking in particular of his two most famous vagabonds, Oliver Twist and Jo the crossing sweeper of Bleak House. Of all the qualities that make them distinct, the one that stands out to me is that one knows how to pray and one does not. Prayer is an odd problem in Oliver Twist. Initially, the narrator tells us “It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvelously good Christian too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn’t, because nobody had taught him” (2:10). Yet once he’s taken into Mr Brownlow’s house, we are told “The darkness and the deep stillness of [his] room were very solemn; as they brought into the boy’s mind the thought that death had been hovering there, for many days and nights, and might yet fill it with the gloom and dread of his awful presence, he turned his face upon the pillow, and fervently prayed to Heaven” (12:85). Did he learn this from the prayer book that Mrs Bedwin takes in with her when she sits with him? It is unclear. Yet from this point on, Oliver prays, and, specifically, he prays for others: for his benefactors (31:247), for Rose when she is sick the Maylies (33:262), and for a condemned Fagin: “Let me say one prayer. Say only one, upon your knees, with me” (52:435). Jo, by contrast, remains in the state in which we initially discovered Oliver, oblivious to prayer, a turn that the narrator puts to most effective use in the scene of his death. It is useful to see, however, that this lack of knowledge seems inextricable with the narrator’s representation of Jo as a kind of beast, in particular a dog. Wandering through London, the narrator describes how “Jo and the other lower animals get on in the unintelligible mess as they can” (16:237). In effect, Jo is the child of The Haunted Man given more depth of characterization and narrative meaning, yet with much the same substantive view of the human. When Allan asks Jo “Did you ever know a prayer?”, their conversation reveals something about the direction of prayer and its relation to emotion, association, memory, and the self:

“Never knowd nothink, sir.”

“Not so much as one short prayer?”

“No, sir. Nothink at all. Mr. Chadbands he wos a-prayin wunst at Mr. Sangsby’s and I heerd him, but he sounded as if he wos a-speakin to hisself, and not to me. He prayed a lot, but I couldn’t make out nothink on it. Different times there was other genlmen come down Tom-all-Alone’s a-prayin, but they all mostly sed as the t’other ‘wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded to be a-talking to theirselves, or a-passing blame on the t’others, and not a-talkin to us. WE never knowd nothink. I never knowd what it wos all about.” (47:676)

The Christian moral of The Haunted Man and the role of prayer in Oliver Twist and Bleak House operate as enthymemes: the audience supplies the premise “forgiveness is good” or “children should know how to pray.” Yet these unstated but culturally necessary premises obscure formal connections. Prayer is an appeal to the transcendent, a plea directed to a big Other and beyond the self. Dickens offers a view of the human throughout these texts not merely as constructed through emotionally differentiated mental associations, and as potentially deformed by active forgetting, excision, and social indifference. He also suggests that those constructions and distinctions are a result of encounters with something outside the self. Sentimentality’s displacement of the spectator into the reader or spectator becomes something else again here, an off-loading of sympathetic identification into others more generally in order to create internally coherent and emotionally-aware human beings, and, to a degree, of language as a technology for creating those being. What these feral children reveal in Dickens, then, is a strain of thinking of the creation of the human beyond the human.

Works Cited

Abercrombie, John. “Philosophical, Local, and Arbitrary Association.” Embodied Selves, edited by Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth. Oxford UP, 1998, pp. 76-79.

Bailin, Miriam. “Dismal Pleasure”: Victorian Sentimentality and the Pathos of the Parvenu,” ELH 66, no. 4 (Winter 1999), 1015-1032.

Bell, Michael. Sentimentalism, Ethics, and the Culture of Feeling. Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2000.

Boltanski, Luc. Distant Suffering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Dames, Nicholas. Amnesiac Selves. Oxford UP, 2003.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books, edited by Robert Douglas Fairhurst.Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

—. Bleak House, edited by Stephen Gill. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008

—. Oliver Twist, edited by Stephen Gill. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Jaffe, Audrey. Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knut Haakonssen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Notes

[i]See Bell 11-46, Boltanski 77-95, Eagleton 31-69.

On resonance and strategic presentism

Reading the V21 forum in the recent Victorian Studies and thinking about resonance. Or, rather, I’ve been thinking about resonance a lot lately, and saw it deployed as part of strategic presentism. That seems right, in part, but it doesn’t answer the question that Andrew Miller raises—in essence, why study the past at all if we’re so interested in the present? And I think that resonance can offer some answers, not for strategic presentism so much as for how we articulate our relationship to the past without becoming captured by our interests in the present.
To get at this point, we need to think about one of the potential problems with a theory of resonance, its physicality. As much as resonance suggests, it also threatens to overcode with an implicit Platonism that privileges presence. That a sound can extend beyond itself through the transmission of vibration and via either shared or complementary qualities in objects, is, of course, what makes resonance suggestive. It captures the sense of affective bloom, or affecting and being affected, in the transmission and feedback of vibration. Yet its attachment to the sense of hearing, which like touch, taste, and smell is physical, cannot help but conjure presence.
This is pressing because so much of the theory around resonance can be folded into contemporary work on affect, and, to a degree, the Latourian turn, and critics are thus likely to confront the same objections that deconstruction raised against Deleuze and Foucault forty years ago. That is, in essence, what about what doesn’t resonate? I think this can be more concretely easily understood as a question for Latour: what about what doesn’t register as an actor in a network? The answer is fairly simple: it isn’t part of the network. Here’s the rub, though. Latour’s argument is sociological. It doesn’t to render what doesn’t act ontologically null; instead, it means to trace how a system works—or at least how it thinks that it works. And, operating via another sociological imperative, an investigator moving from one network to another can begin to locate exclusions from networks. It’s hard to know what doesn’t register if one isn’t sure about what does. As Latour makes clear in Reassembling the Social, the politics of redressing exclusions needs to be separated from the methodological analysis of how networks function so that one can see what happens, and, by implication, what doesn’t.
In this sense, then, resonance’s saving grace may be that it suggests both sound fields that extend beyond the resonating objects, and the possibility of resonant failure, of silence, of difference. As scholars, as critics, as readers, we must enter into these fields of resonance and silence carefully. For this reason, we may also wish to consider resonance not just as a form of affects between objects but also as a form of auto-affection, of self-forming. This has the merit of creating another register, another network of operations. In terms of sound, one might think of an amplified chord from an electric guitar extended, shifted, or distorted through the uptake of the amplified sound by the instrument itself to create a new field. In this sense, then, resonance can suggest transversal relations that are not so much articulations of past and present but of durative affective fields. One might say that resonance, then, can offer a way to think through the articulations of past and present that we undertake as critics, not as teleological but rather as indeterminate within a text, and that it also allows us to consider divergent resonances, points of disjunction that may create silences or unexpected feedback loops between textual auto-affections and contrary lines of flight from the present.
Why study the present through the past? Why study the past at all? The answer, I would argue, lies in these baroque affective enfoldings, what can show us not only what resonates with the present but what escapes such resonances entirely.

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

great_expectations_10

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.