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.