In Which Mia Bitches Her Way Through Her Orals Lists


I’m in my third and last library of the day, having arrived at NYPL at 2:00, gone to Mina Rees at 5:00, and tothe Bobst basement from 8:00 to now–I’m starting this at 12:30, and I better be finishing this soon, given the above.

I wanted to write down some of my thoughts for what I think will be my opening statements. I told Talia that I wanted to say something about modernity, something about Ben Anderson, something about how that connected all three lists. She probably stifled a yawn. I reread “Can the Subaltern Speak” for the poco list, and based on GCS’s smackdown of Foucault & Deleuze, and mixed with some Arendt I’ve never read, I’m playing with this rhetorical trope, “the banality of theory.” Or–“Theory always repeats itself, first as audacity, then as banality.” So I plan to begin by rehearsing all the banalities of the modern condition, specifically the modernity post-1800, that we all know.

The modern condition was based on the idea of progress, social and individual, technological and economic. The nineteenth century was the era of secularization, of professionalization, of the silent bourgeois revolution. The Crystal Palace consecrated modernity, especially in its consecration of commerce and capitalism as war continued by other means. Communities were imagined. The novel created modern subjectivity, discipline, and imaginary solutions to real contradictions. The country moved to the city, as a result of expropriation and “primitive accumulation,” and the city nostalgically longed for the country. Victorians turned their eyes outward, seeing themselves at the apex of civilization, charged with leading the rest of the world into modernity.

How, then, can we de-banalize modernity? One starting point is an additional chapter added to the second edition of Imagined Communities. The construction of nationalism through the newspapers and novels is a modern thing, and a banality. I had originally planned by starting here, making slight elaborations. First, Bennie’s understanding of the periodical press, not surprisingly, doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the nineteenth-century periodical press. Daily newspapers were limited to a relatively small elite. Weekly newspapers and especially journals had a much, much, much wider circulation, and the debates in the public spheres took place in these periodicals which were general and miscellaneous and not requiring newspaper stamps instead of news-based, and requiring newspaper stamps. As for novels, he is onto something where he compares the development of novels providing biographical and psychological histories to the development of nationalist histories. If we consider the “Condition of England” novels as instantiating Victorian fiction, which I do, there’s more nationalism. For my poco list, I was thinking about how this nationalism relates to the colonialism/postcolonialism model, and how a world-systems/globalization model might be somewhat incommensurable with it.

This is all in the first chapter. In the appended chapter, he notes how he underread a quotation from Renan that goes something like all true French citizens must learn to forget the Albigensian Crusade and the massacre of the Huguenots. What’s curious is that true French citizens would know what Renan was talking about–so that this diagnosis of historical amnesia is in fact another construction, another imagination of a national history that’s really only possible with modernity. I like this. Historical things that are supposedly traumatic are really just banal. Condemning the “enslavement” of white kids during the Industrial Revolution, calling attention to supposedly ignored issues in need of reform constituted nationhood in its own way. We get something like this with Wide Sargasso Sea and with Clear Light of Day. Antoinette Cosway points to the forgotten Bertha Mason–but isn’t diagnosing this amnesia adding further justification of Jane Eyre as an eminently English text? Doesn’t the whole idea of post-coloniality work all to well in favour of nationalism within the neocolonialist Global North? Isn’t the reason why a novel of the Partition of South Asia, Clear Light of Day, made palatable to a Western audience because the imagined trauma of partition provides a convenient origin myth? As for the periodicals list, I’m not seeing much forgetting as remembering (the labour involved in making things was certainly not forgotten), but what I’m finding interesting is the number of times people refer to it from the perspective of the future. Even in its anticipation, it has been constituted as a world-historical event. And world-historical in this case means not just Really Important but capable of being projected into the future. One article, I remember which periodical it was from, said something like it was unfortunate that the Crystal Palace would have to be removed from Hyde Park, but in a way it was fitting to give it more the air of fixed, historically locatable event.

It’s with historicity and temporality that I’m finding out something new (to me) about modernity. Anne asked me a two weeks why I chose these four texts–Foucault’s Order of Things, Fabian’s Time and the Other, Schivelbusch’s Railway Journey, and Milo’s Trahir le Temps–as my “Temporality Theory” books. I said at the time that it was a pretty arbitrary decision, which it was, but weeks later, a better answer would start with the fact that these are all books that are particularly relevant to nineteenth-century temporality–to temporality, historically, and not ontologically understood. Rereading the “Life, Labour, Language” chapter of Foucault was loads of fun, and I was thinking why it was that Victorianists were all up in the discipline and the history of sexuality and power and knowledge, but not so much into these 3 Ls. The one thing about the Order of Things is the episteme. I guess most people give up after the first chapter. Today I found out that Catherine Gallagher does make use of this chapter–particularly its emphasis on capital L “Life.” My reading of Gallagher was pretty superficial, but I got the sense that Foucault’s historical nuance was missing. Daniel Milo has an amazing chapter on Foucault’s metaphors in D and P, (ritual, ceremony, rites, spectacle for punishment; machine, technology for discipline) and that his “anachronistic” use of metaphors is a way of introducing discontinuity into history, which is what history is all about–at least history within the modern era. So, Foucault’s use of “Life” too points at a discontinuity–at the ultimate failure of representation and taxonomization that ended the Classical Era. The intricate ballet of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, of gazes, light sources, visibilities, invisibilities, surfaces is no longer possible in the Modern Eras search for the dark, hidden depths of truth. (C. Herbert points out in Culture and Anomie, I think, that the whole privileging of depth as metaphor was a nineteenth-century innovation.) On the poco list, I’ve learned that lots of people talk about the moment in Capital when Marx tells the reader when it’s time to leave the noisy sphere of exchange and go to “the hidden abodes of production,” where capital is made. Foucault says Marx fits in the nineteenth century like a fish in water. Take the fish out, it drowns. This call for unearthing “the hidden abodes of production,” in fact, is not by any stretch of the imagination a Marxian innovation, as the practice of factory tourism and periodical articles on factory production and the Great Exhibition itself can attest. Okay, so time-in-C19-modernity involves the search for some fundamentally unrepresentable origin or force that is the condition of possibility for the historical.

Is this not just some Aristotelian return of efficient and final cause? Where it differs, on the one hand, is that in Aristotelian teleology origin and telos are representable, knowable. Not so in the nineteenth century, maybe. But there’s more. With Fabian, we’ve got another kind of discontinuity, another kind of contradiction going on. Fabian’s main idea is about the “denial of coevalness,” where with such practices as the ethnographic present, anthropologists place their subjects outside history, outside contemporaneity, when in the fact they must have been involved in intersubjective time at some time if they were participant observers. The nineteenth century, of course, is when ethnography started to take its modern discursive shape. But I think the contradiction of allochronicity could be applied on a more microcosmic scale–to issues of gender and class, for example. It would be really interesting to do a rhetorical analysis of the novels based on this–I’m thinking in particular of those chapters in David Copperfield which are written in the present tense, the marriage with Dora, for example.

I’m going to collapse Schivelbusch and Milo together because this is getting really long and it’s getting really late. I’ve talked about Milo on this blog at some point before. I’ll quote myself quoting Milo:

His argument is that the century was a relatively recent, and literally revolutionary invention, a tool created in the wake of the French Revolution. He summarizes his findings as follows:

-the century certainly exists within historical writing;

-it is of recent invention (c. 1560);

-its diffusion was more recent (Le Goff speaks of the 18th century, I will date its true launch in 1800);

-it acts as a form of classification;

-it is a form of periodization with two characteristic principals: it has a unity, and this unity is in opposition with the unities of the centuries which surround it;

-it is a very particular periodization, which rests on an arithmetic prinicipal, hence artificial, hence outside of reality: the division of history into centuries is an a priori periodization;

-nevertheless, it was an important conquest in chronology (Le Goff);

-but that it is now necessary to destroy it in order to advance knowledge of the true historical era (la véritable durée historique). (Milo 28)

The century may be an arbitrary unit, but it’s condition of possibility is modernity. And if it involves some flattening out to create a single context out of a time quite longer than most people live, that kind of corresponds with the “panoramic” mode of vision Schivelbusch says the railroad forces. Don’t look at the quickly moving, close whirr of stuff, look at the seemingly motionless distance.

Bottom line: the modern condition involves a historical temporality, but it’s a history that’s more complicated than the banalities of progress.

Okay. Time to go eat and go home.

[You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to be able to write that title. I fear this post, though, won’t be as fun as I had hoped. Feel free to skip to Anne’s posts; she’s returned in style!]

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After therapy, I head over to Bluestockings, New York’s independent activist, feminist, queer, trans friendly bookstore for some coffee, vegan snackies, and orals list reading. There’s not much room for seating–4 tables–so most of the time you have to share your table with other like-minded people. This week, I sat down across from some Bright Sexy Asian Girl. While getting settled, I gave her book the old once-over. She was reading Chantal Mouffe. Then it struck me that the orals book I was reading was maybe the most embarrassing book imaginable in that context: Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I couldn’t help snickering as I read about about the starving Chinese peasants.
I was going to write something about how TGE is More Complicated Than You Might Think, but I’m tired.

Something that’s been at the back of my mind as I’ve been going through these old periodicals is, what would a nutty academic in the year 2160 think about our world if she were to do a similar project to mine? First of all, I’m glad I’m not her! I couldn’t imagine doing a representative cross-section of non-newspaper periodicals for our current moment, let alone all the other forms of media we’ve got. Thinking about circulation numbers–what magazine would have the largest circulation today? Would the researcher include things like Maxim? Don Diva? Is Us Weekly more representative than Harper’s? Readership is a lot more fragmented and segregated in the twenty-first century, and if something’s “general-interest,” that probably means it’s something that white people are interested in.
So, basically, I’m wondering if my methodology, which has been taking circulation figures into account might be potentially misleading. Yes, tons of people read the Family Herald, but tons of people read supermarket celebrity magazines too. If our brave twenty-second century scholar were to flip through the pages of Us Weekly, would that be getting a more representative picture of our society? Yes she would–and it’s a weird feeling for me, since she might have a more comprehensive understanding of American culture in 2010 than I would. (Well, that’s not too hard to imagine, since I only find out about stuff that happens in New York City if it makes it across the pond to the Guardian.) Still, I think the boundaries were less rigid between the periodical strata. The London Journal, for example, always included bad jokes from Punch. People’s and Howitt’s Journal took stuff from Athenaeum. Eliza Cook’s Journal quotes from the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s. It’s very much a semipermeable membrane, though. The monthlies and quarterlies considered the more humble, much more widely read publications (or bought, at least) beneath their notice. I guess the analogy would be, let’s say the New York Times was widely and respectfully quoted by Fox News and talk radio. On the other hand, we might know of those more popular media outlets, but we wouldn’t even bother fighting the crap that O’Reilly and Beck and Limbaugh pollute the airwaves with. Or–it would reflect the amount of coverage of people-of-colour-targeted media within the mainstream (i.e. white) news.

Last night, I had another look at Rita Felski’s 2000 PMLA on why academics don’t talk about the lower middle class. I looked it up because I had misremembered it being about the middlebrow, which it kind of is, I guess. As I’m going blind reading these periodicals, I’m realizing how significant the lower middle class demographic was, and how it’s kind of, but not really reflected in the books we study. (Other random class note: poetry is kind of more highbrow than fiction–I’m looking at you, Mr. Browning–but it’s also more populist–I’m finding quite a lot of working-class poets, and there are a bunch of memoirs too, but novels? haven’t encountered one yet.) I went into the periodicals project hoping that I’d get a sense of the different political orientation of the different mags, but now I’m thinking that class orientation is more important. I looked at two weeklies today, the London Journal and the Athenaeum. The latter’s five times more expensive than the former. (But it’s also twice as long–it’s not very accurate to say that Dickens was paid by the word, but you there’s some truth in saying that Victorians thought about text prices in cost per page–so a twenty-number beast like Pickwick or Little Dorrit would cost ten shillings less than a mere triple decker–what a bargain!) Anyway, everything that falls in between–maybe even just price-wise–goes for a lower middle class audience. Chambers’, Eliza Cook’s Journal, and Household Words all appealed to a lower middle class audience. Here’s where my definition gets circular: the working classes could afford these (might be a bit more than the penny mags like the LJ), but they’ve got a very educationy, moral improvement, useful knowledge feel to them. (yes i realize i’m sounding very educationed right now.) Which leads me back to Felski–her beef with most academic work on the working class is that the idea of lower middle class respectibility, social aspiration, cleanliness, is totally ignored. I’d say that it’s pretty invisible in current cultural representations as well–lower middle class is one of the few groups that it’s still okay to laugh at. The respectable upper working class in mid-Victorian England, though, was culturally central, and far from being reactionary, it was the most progressive class. Coming out of the class wars of the first half of the nineteenth century, education–moral and intellectual improvement–emerged as the solution to lower class immiseration. So, the famed Victorian faith in progress placed a fairly large emphasis on improving the minds and morals of the upper working class/emergent lower middle class.

Braddon started writing Aurora Floyd (serialized 1862-63) in the period between the failure of Robin Goodfellow, which had been serializing Lady Audley’s Secret, and the time when she was forced to finish Audley due to popular demand. All signs point to a formulaic hack job–and, honestly, this is what made me put it on the list, and I thought there’d be some interesting bad writing going on.
But no! I’m finding AF disappointingly good. I’m about a third through it, and it doesn’t really feel like a sensation novel at all–it’s almost as if Braddon listened to complaints about sensation novels and wanted to write proper realist fiction. And i think she succeeds. Here’s one set piece narratorial self-indulgence that sounds like it could have been written by George Eliot:

I might fill chapters with the foolish sufferings of this young man; but I fear he must have become very wearisome to my afflicted readers; to those, at least, who have never suffered from this fever. The sharper the disease, the shorter its continuance; so Talbot will be better by-and-by, and will look back at his old self, and laugh at his old agonies. Surely this inconstancy of ours is the worst of all–this fickleness, by reason of which we cast off our former selves with no more compunction than we feel in flinging away a worn-out garment. Our poor threadbare selves, the shadows of what we were! With what sublime, patronizing pity, with what scornful compassion, we look back upon the helpless dead and gone creatures, and wonder that anything so foolish could have been allowed to cumber the earth! Shall I feel the same contempt ten years hence for myself as I am to-day, as I feel to-day for myself as I was ten years ago? Will the loves and aspirations, the beliefs and desires of to-day, appear as pitiful then as the dead loves and dreams of the bygone decade? Shall I look back in pitying wonder, and think what a fool that young man was, although there was something candid and innocent in his very stupidity, after all? Who can wonder that the last visit to Paris killed Voltaire? Fancy the octogenarian looking round the national theatre, and seeing himself through an endless vista of dim years, a young man again, paying his court to a “goat-faced cardinal,” and being beaten by De Rohan’s lackeys in broad daylight.
Have you ever visited some still country town after a lapse of years, and wondered, O fast-living reader! to find the people you knew in your last visit still alive and thriving, with hair unbleached as yet, although you have lived and suffered whole centuries since then? Surely Providence gives us this sublimely egotistical sense of Time as a set-off against the brevity of our lives! I might make this book a companion in bulk to the Catalogue of the British Museum, if I were to tell all that Talbot Bulstrode felt and suffered in the month of January, 1858,–if I were to anatomize the doubts and confusions and self-contradictions, the mental resolutions made one moment to be broken the next. I refrain, therefore, and will set down nothing but the fact, that on a certain Sunday midway in the month, the captain, sitting in the family pew at Bulstrode church, directly facing the monument of Admiral Hartley Bulstrode, who fought and died in the days of Queen Elizabeth, registered a silent oath that, as he was a gentleman and a Christian, he would henceforth abstain from holding any voluntary communication with Aurora Floyd. But for this vow he must have broken down, and yielded to his yearning fear and love, and gone to Feldon Woods to throw himself, blind and unquestioning, at the feet of the sick woman.

Okay, it’s a bit over the top, but what do you expect from Victorian prose? What I particularly like is that idea of separate selves from different time periods that Andrew Miller talks about in Burdens of Perfection (he puts it much more eloquently than that, but I don’t have time to make things pretty). And the idea of a “sublimely egotistical sense of Time” leads to all sorts of directions you wouldn’t associate with a sensation novel.
Where AF does feel like a variation of the LAS formula, though, is the whole idea of some chick having a secret. Really, it could have been called Aurora Floyd’s Secret. And it’s thinking about these secrets that I got my Clever Idea about the genre of sensation fiction. The Basic Story about it is that it’s like Gothic romance, but instead of taking place in suspect Papist places on the Continent, it happens within the domestic sphere, and that’s what’s so spooky about it. So here’s my Gothic/Sensation grand narrative. In “The Eye of Power,” an interview translated in Power/Knowledge (1980), Foucault explains the Panopticon in relation to the Gothic:

A fear haunted the latter half of the eighteenth century: the fear of darkened spaces, of the pall of gloom which prevents the full visibility of things, men and truths. It sought to break up the patches of darkness that blocked the light, eliminate the shadowy areas of society, demolish the unlit chambers where arbiitrary political acts, monarchical caprice, religious superstitions, tyrannical and priestly plots, epidemics and the illusions of ignorance were fomented… During the Revolutionary period the Gothic novels develop a whole fantasy-world of stone walls, darkness, hideouts and dungeons which harbour, in significant complicity, brigands and aristocrats, monks and traitors. The landscapes of Ann Radcliffe’s novels are composed of mountains and forests, caves, ruined castles and terrifyingly dark and silent convents. Now these imaginary spaces are like the negative of the transparency and visibility which it is aimed to establish. (153-154)

If the Gothic novel (and the Panoptic gaze) centers on the issue of space, sensation fiction obsesses about time. Robert Audley (like Walter Hartright before him) carefully plots events in time, whittling away a mysterious three year period into, finally, two specific days. Everything is about the Andersonian “meanwhile,” and the precision with which it can be fixed. And how is AF’s secret framed? It seems to me that it’s not so much sensational that we don’t know what she did and want to find out–it’s the maddening sense that there’s this span of time with definite start and definite end (which again gets whittled down) about which we know nothing. Dark time instead of dark space.

Dude had some mad mutton chops

I chose that barbarism of a periodization for my periodicals list, because, while 1851 is definitely Mid-Victorian, there’s lots that happened in the Mid-Mid-Victorian Era that makes those years quite a different beast. For one thing, there was a sense that, after the Continental Revolutions of ’48 and the defeat of Chartism, England was entering a new phase of peace, stability, and prosperity. Tennyson was chosen as Poet Laureate, and then the Crystal Palace put a cap on everything. 1851 was a very good year if you weren’t among the millions and millions fucked over by British imperialism. And then, the Crimean War came in 1853, Sepoy Uprising in ’57, Second Opium War from ’56 to ’60: the national mood was quite different. But yet what both the Early Mid-Victorian Era and the Mid-Mid-Victorian Era shared (of the Late-Mid-Victorian Era I am lacking in expertise) was a sense of being in a transition state, escaped from the violence of the Napoleonic Wars, the threat of Revolution, and, not to be underestimated, the immoralities and debaucheries of the Regency, and moving towards… nobody was sure what. As Matthew Arnold put it in his inimitably cheerful manner (from “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” [1855, which we might consider Early-Mid-Mid-Victorian]), Victorians felt as if they were “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.”

Everything I said just now I believe I knew before reading Richard Altick [can I just call him Dick?], at least it doesn’t sound unfamiliar. What is new is thinking about the above periodization in terms of periodicals. During the thirties, there was an extraordinary struggle between those who wanted to disseminate, and those who wanted to repress, the circulation of news among the working class: hence the Newspaper Stamp Duty. The forces of repression won (as they always do, Thomas Hardy might say), in large part because working-class periodicals now focused on useful knowledge and education (or lurid fiction) instead of political issues. What if, in Althusserese, the ruling class could opt for the ISA over the RSA? And so, in the year of the Great Exhibition, the powers that be instituted a “Newspaper Stamp Committee,” investigating whether one might lift the so-called taxes on knowledge without upsetting existing relations of production. Lo and behold, in the Mid-Mid-Victorian period, the duties were lifted. And then, in the late 50s, there occured the “schilling monthly” phenomenon. I’m not paying much attention to this, because this is venturing into late Mid-Victorian period, but it looks like here we’ve got a further class subdivision: those who read Chambers’ or Household Words could sit at the kids’ table of the great monthlies, Blackwood’s and Fraser’s. And then in the 1890s, we get all sorts of crazy stuff like Tit-Bits and The Yellow Book and The Lady Cyclist and photogravures–everything gets too confusing and appealing!

I realize I said before I was going to make rationale pages for each list. This is probably the beginning of one, but I don’t feel like making the page right now. I have to be up in five hours, after all.

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