I wrote a book. Like most scholarly books, its argument is meant to be multifaceted and to speak to a variety of audiences, but I will try to reduce those to an extremely limited set of claims here. With that in mind, here’s what the book is about:
- The service sector begins to emerge clearly as a separate sector in the mid-Victorian period.
- Political economy, due to its focus on productive labor, has difficulty theorizing the “immaterial” production of service workers.
- Victorian novels, as cultural texts, provide a clearer view of the ways in which class, gender, and race differentiated modes of service work.
- In other words, novels allow us to see the mechanisms available in the period to discipline service workers, including the wage, discourses of respectability and gender, and violence.
- For Victorian studies, this focus on service work reframes our understanding of mid-Victorian novels that take on themes of finance and financialization as more broadly novels about different modes of immaterial work and their social value.
In terms of theory, my argument applies to Victorian novels about finance what might be most widely understood as a post-work political lens—that is, I take work to be the fundamental mechanism of social discipline in capitalist societies. This perspective effectively brackets issues of work’s productive role in the social metabolism a la Marx to examine instead the forms of domination that work creates at particular historical moments. That is, it means to offer a conjunctural analysis of Victorian novels about finance from a post-work perspective.
I think one of the benefits of this theoretical approach is that it helps show how the instrumentalization of social relations that we often trace in Victorian texts is in fact part of a process of proletarianization in the services. One might object that we already have reification for these issues—that’s true!—but discussions of reification in literary studies tend to privilege objects and commodification and to lose sight of human interaction. When work and workers drop out of sight, we’re left with Marx’s talking table at best, Aristotlean analysis of objects at worst. So one of the underlying arguments in the book is that literary criticism is more meaningful when we reflect on how literature captures the affects and percepts of large-scale historical change than by attempting to craft history or philosophy from literature.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t engage with big questions, but that the kinds of big questions that we can engage are going to—and should—be different than the kinds of questions raised by scholars in other disciplines. This is especially important when we think about how new economic criticism and the like, which has led some of us to believe we can effectively respond to economists because we read in the history of political economy. In a way, we can… but we will never really be talking to economists. Even if some scholars believe that can point to flaws in current models or problematic assumptions within economic theory, the audience for any work that comes from the intersection of literature and economics will be one engaged with the humanities first. As literature scholars, we are unlikely to affect economic debates.
What can we do? We can examine people think about economic life and represent changing economic experiences, and we can use those examinations to reflect on our culture as such. That’s a different, though related, project than carving out space for discursive examinations of political economic texts. It is a project about the political, economic, and emotional experience of abstract social forces. Hence my last point, which covers too many chapters:
- The novels that I examine reveal the changing experiential contours of service work, focusing in particular on questions of discourse and affect.
- Silas Marner reveals discursive fractures in discussions of productive and unproductive labor in the early 1860s.
- Our Mutual Friend takes on the proliferation of services in the period, and how to discursively discipline its improvisational work.
- The Moonstone reveals how financial networks solicit invisible affect economies in the domestic sphere.
- The Way We Live Now showcases the role of violence as the coercive background to the use of discursive work discipline in services.
Of course, there’s much more than that in each chapter, and more in the book besides—from an examination of political economy’s notion of unproductive labor to a reading of Dracula as the affective meditation of service work—but that’s why it’s a book, not a blogpost.