Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Monopolized Government and Robert Tressell's Socialist Revolution

       In an excised chapter from his groundbreaking socialist novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists (1914), Robert Tressell describes the novel's locale, Mugsborough, as "a vast whited sepulchre." While Mugsborough may appear to Britain's leisured classes a prosperous resort town, beneath its veneer "the majority of the inhabitants existed in a state of perpetual poverty which in many cases bordered on destitution" because "a great part of the incomes of the tradespeople and boarding-house-keepers and about a third of the wages of the working classes were paid away as rent and rates.” 
         By 1906, when Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is set, rates had for nearly a century gone to paying down local government debts, which were incurred by maintaining un-remunerative public services and Britain's poor laws. And yet, in Mugsborough "every public service capable of returning a profit was in the hands of private companies” (613). Mugsborough appears to be a city ruled by a laissez faire liberal government. The material services essential to the city’s population are in the hands of private, capitalist hands, where they generate profits at the cost of the users and employees. This would accord with previous conceptions of the Victorian state, grounded in liberal traditions of individualism and retrenchment. 
         But Tressell continues: “and the shares of the private companies were in the hands of the members of the Corporation.” In this second clause, we witness the state’s extension of itself through non-state actors, what historians of the British state call, in the Foucauldian jargon, the “governmentalization of the state.” The private economy of infrastructures binds itself  to the state, the Corporation, through the mediation of the financial market.  However, more is at stake in Mugsborough. The Corporation’s administers are “directors of one or more of the numerous companies which battened on the town.” The directors of the Corporation are the directors of the private companies. This, then, is something different from Foucauldian histories of the British state, which, like Lauren Goodlad, understand the state as comprised variously allied state and non-state actors. Here state and non-state actors are shown to be identical in their administration. Mugsborough comprises not a pastoral state like that depicted by Goodlad or a liberal state by Patrick Joyce, Chris Otter, and Andrew Barry, but a monopolist state. The entirety of social, economic, and material relations into which the population of Mugsborough can enter are controlled by the inner-circle of the town's Corporation. Government and capitalism consolidate. They therein draw together ostensibly public and private control over the varied components of life. So consolidated, these once disparate components – trams, water, gas, land, public works, welfare services – form a seemingly total world: “Mugsborough.” This world, as the novel exhaustively documents, exploits the working classes into starvation and death.
      Tressell’s vision of Musgborough is certainly politically radical. But it figures its critique of capitalist government according to a then common trope: late-Victorian and Edwardian fictional states of exception. From the anti-Bellamy dystopias of the 1890s to Conrad’s metropolis (The Secret Agent) and colonial regimes (Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim), from New Romance’s Kukuanalands to science fiction’s Moreauian islands,  British literature offered the socialist Tressell a common trope: the localized state of exception. In these states, the governing classes not only exert unchallenged power, but they also exert it through nearly every material and social relation an individual inhabitant could encounter. Much as the state in Conrad’s The Secret Agent turns London’s population into homogenized individuals by first standardizing their environments, so too in Ragged does the state denature its population by controlling its every social, economic, and material relation. From conservatives like Conrad and Haggard to socialists like Wells and Tressell, such a state of exception exemplifies the extreme perversion of late-Victorian British liberal governmentality.
     Such governmentality rests on the assumption that populations are best governed indirectly, through interventions between individuals and in their relations rather than directly, through the rule of persons. As characterized by Tressell’s contemporary Thomas Duckworth Benson, liberal governmentality, even in its socialist guise, comprised the control over “the material things of our life” not “the rule over persons” (Socialism 12). The Edwardian state of exception totalizes this mode of government. All relations into which individuals of a population can enter are controlled by the governing class. Instead of some on South Pacific island or in the heart of Africa, in Mugsborough we encounter the state of exception in idyllic Southern England. Instead of witnessing rifles and encampments preserving sovereignty over colonized victims, we observe trams, waterworks, works departments, drains, and gas lines encapsulate and enervate British subjects. In Ragged a monopolized local government reigns, not another Kurtz.
      What then can we make of Tressell’s unceasing advocacy for a strand of State Socialism grounded in the democratization of local government? Pressed by skeptical coworkers to offer alternatives to capitalist governance, the novel’s socialists intone the refrain: municipalize! As Barrington proclaims, “Under a Socialist Administration this principle [municipalization] will be extended – in addition to the free services we enjoy now we shall then maintain the trains and railways for the use of the public, free. And as time goes on, this method of doing business will be adopted in many other directions." Taking their page from the State Socialism of the Social Democratic Federation, Owen and Barrington posit that the first stage of the socialist revolution will involve the democratic, local appropriation “private ownership of land, private ownership of railways, tramways, gasworks, waterworks, private ownership of factories, and the other means of producing the necessaries and comforts of life." Tressell thereby presents us, on the one hand, a socialist vision for revolution working through democracy and, on the other hand, the seemingly contradictory monopolist control over the same machinery of government.
     This tension structures the novel as a whole. It subtends the novel’s various ideological and formal oppositions: socialism and capitalism, utopianism and realism, exposition and description. It also forms the basic rhythm of the novel, a rhythm that performs the text’s political didacticism. Pivoting between lectures expounding the principles of socialism and satirical and realist scenes delineating capitalist Mugsborough, the reader first learns how to think like a socialist and then practices that socialism through the reading of object lessons. This oscillation serves to train the reader in seeing Edwardian local government for what it is, a “vast whited sepulchre.” The novel does so not simply to raise the working-classes' awareness of the fact that they dwell in a state of exception  – this is how Raymond Williams reads the novel, which carries the ultimate message, “You are a prisoner, and you’ll only get out of this prison if you admit it’s a prison. And if you won’t call it a prison, I will, and I’ll go on calling it a prison, come what may’” – but to prompt those classes into socializing the very state of exception they dwell within. 
      Such political activity structures the novel’s loose plot. Unfolding arbitrarily across twelve months – a plotting strategy Williams, Ian Haywood and other commenters see as a rejection of the individualist ideology of the Victorian realist novel – Ragged nevertheless possesses a developmental arc. As Haywood points out, the novel is a social biography: a portrayal of the average masculine worker’s life cycle through its displacement onto variously aged characters. This social biography has, however, a developmental arc of political awakening. It starts with Owen’s invective to the Tory-voting Crass, “‘You are not fit to vote,'” builds through lunchtime lectures, Parliamentary and Municipal elections of the capitalist "Brigands," and ends with the growing ranks of Mugsborough socialists, their solidarity forged through their lecturing and electioneering. As with the plot of any novel, this arc guides the emergent desires of the reader. It gives shape and direction to the nascent socialist reader’s drive to agitate against the capitalist government. Forming the developmental arc of the novel, this political plot steers the newly formed socialist reader into political action, into the socialist takeover of “Mugsborough.”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hardy the Radical: Sensationalizing the Late-Victorian Rural Government Vacuum

   Thomas Hardy's scorn for the newly rich, faux aristocracy in Tess of the d'Urbervilles and The Woodlanders involves something in addition to a centuries-old rustic distain for the landed ruling classes. The son and the wife of wealthy industrial outsiders, Alec d'Urberville and Felice Charmond sexually prey upon their ostensible peasantry, a narrative critique readily recognizable to late-Victorian readers trained on a melodramatic tradition epitomized by Dickens' James Steerforth and his seduction of Lil' Emily. The empowered aristocracy, filled by whomever, preys on the disempowered. Always have. Always will.
   While mid-Victorain anti-aristocracy rhetoric bolstered a growing contingent of industrial, professional, and bureaucratic class interests, Hardy's late-Victorian aristocratic villains undermined the Conservative party's rationale for limited representative county government. In the 1880's  Local Government Act debate, Conservative M.P.'s argued that a fully representative local government would led to the agricultural laborers' takeover of county government. Hodge, after all, was granted an electoral stake in the nation by the Reform Act of 1884, which expanded the national franchise by shifting voting qualifications from property ownership to occupation. The Conservatives contended that the landed powers provided the best class for rural government. As magistrates, assize judges, and justices of the peace, they had long been the traditional governing powers of rural England. These county government positions were to be shifted into newly crafted county councils open to electoral representation. Checks must be built into reform. Hodge mustn't be allowed to oust the landed powers from their traditional seats of power. Sizable portions of the council must be exempt from elections and granted out of hand to the status quo. The fate of the nation, nay, Englishness itself, hung in the balance.
   Except dramatic shifts in ownership of estates belied this rhetoric. Following an estate bubble during the heady mid-Victorian period, the aristocracy and gentry found themselves heavily in debt or holding estates of rapidly decreasing profit. The agricultural depression that began in the 1870's slashed the rents and agricultural profits funding the very class charged with the governance of rural England. Once locally involved aristocrats and gentry took up residency in London or abroad. In dire cases, they sold their estates to wealthy industrialists, professionals, and businessmen. These shifts to absenteeism and new ownership created a vacuum in county government, which was filled by men like Hardy, who became a Dorset magistrate in 1884.
    Alec's and Felice's sexual exploitations sensationalize this power vacuum. Hardy's novels shout: the new landed powers aren't simply aloof from traditional responsibilities; they will exploit their power for their own self-interests -- self-interests like those infelicitously served by the Conservative party in their push for restricted electoral county councils. Withholding complete representation in county government leaves rural England as helpless as Tess exhausted and lost in the Slopes. Here, at least, Hardy was a radical.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Slow Fiction, or Getting Absorbed with Trollope

      My previous post raised the question, what if absorption drove the pulse of Victorian novel reading? I am not alone in asking such a question. In Novel Violence: A Narratography of Victorian Fiction (2009), Garrett Stewart queries, how can we take seriously the "conjuring work" of the Victorian novel's language? To do so would entail unfolding novels "phrase by phrase, sometimes syllable by syllable."   
    When calling to mind Victorian examples of absorptive prose, Trollope comes, perhaps, last. His style has since its publication been regarded as the mimicry of the middle classes' quotidian speech turned back upon readers. In J. Hillis Miller's lasting impression, Trollope gave readers an aesthetics of the same to the same. Similarly influential, D.A. Miller quipped that the best place to read Trollope is ensconced in an armchair because of its staid everydayness. Composed in a seemingly transparent, common, mechanical prose, Trollope's novels send readers into half-attentive stupors. 
    Trollope scholarship has, however, undergone a formalist turn. Long regarded as a formal hack (thanks to Henry James), we now recognize Trollope's numerous formal innovations. In particular, we have come to recognize Trollope as a pioneer in psychological realism, on par with his contemporary George Eliot. But unlike Eliot, whose moral project cultivated critical fellow feeling, Trollope's psychological realism aimed, above all, to simply prolong his reader's time with characters. Surely his fiction provides insights into a character's deliberations on future conduct and their various attendant cultural contortions. But the phrase by phrase, syllable by syllable form of his realism slows readers down. Way down. 
   Trollope’s style is above all pellucid, “as ready and as efficient a conductor of the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader as is the electric spark which passes from one battery to another battery” (Autobiography 235). Such a style was especially important to Trollope’s  psychological realism, because it differentiated his writing from George Eliot's. To Trollope, Eliot’s style lacked ease, thereby demanding rigorous rereading: “there are sentences which I have found myself compelled to read three times before I have been able to take home to myself all that the writer has intended” (247). Such effects, produced largely through her Gibbonesque sentence construction – elongating sentences via parenthetical statements, which therein separate subject from verb over long expanses – imped a reader’s progress within each sentence. Trollope, in contrast, develops a style that at the level of the sentence moves his readers along without digressions. Sentence to sentence, however, Trollope’s prose is as varied as Eliot’s. It both draws readers along and slows them down.
      Trollope develops this style through oscillations between types of discourse and shifts in grammatical mood. Take The Small House at Allington's opening paragraph of Adolphus Crosbie’s pages-long deliberation over “his future conduct” in relation to both Lily Dale and Lady Alexandrina De Courcy:
Crosbie, as soon as he was alone in his chamber, sat himself down in his arm-chair, and went to work striving to make up his mind as to his future conduct. It must not be supposed that the declaration just made by him had been produced solely by his difficulty at the moment. The atmosphere of Courcy Castle had been at work upon him for the last week past. And every word that he had heard, and every word that he had spoken, had tended to destroy all that was good and true within him, and to foster all that was selfish and false. He had said to himself a dozen times during that week that he never could be happy with Lily Dale, and that he never could make her happy. And then he had used the old sophistry in his endeavour to teach himself that it was right to do that which he wished to do. Would it not be better for Lily that he should desert her, than marry her against the dictates of his own heart? And if he really did not love her, would he not be committing a greater crime in marrying her than in deserting her? He confessed to himself that he had been very wrong in allowing the outer world to get such a hold upon him that the love of a pure girl like Lily could not suffice for his happiness. But there was the fact, and he found himself unable to contend against it. If by any absolute self-sacrifice he could secure Lily's well-being, he would not hesitate for a moment. But would it be well to sacrifice her as well as himself? (244-245).
Trollope shuttles between various discourse registers: diegesis (“Crosbie, as soon as he was in his chamber”), to authorial intervention (“It must not be supposed”), to reported thought (“He had said to himself”), to free indirect discourse (“Would it not be better”), back to reported thought (“He confessed to himself”), then wrapping up with free indirect discourse (“But would it be well”). The effect is two fold. First, these oscillations depict Crosbie’s psychological state from as many perspectives as possible, therein providing insight into his deliberations on his conduct and into the self-swindling such deliberations perform. Second, such insights depend upon readers' close attention to the perspective of each sentence as the narration moves along a spectrum of utmost interiority (free indirect discourse) to exteriority (reader’s potential judgment).
            This passage’s back-and-forth shifts in grammatical mood and tense compound the slowing effects of its discourse oscillations. It moves from indicative statements (“he had said to himself”) to the subjunctive, modal statements (“Would it not be better”). Through such formal techniques,Trollope not only represents his characters' deliberative conduct , but also condenses his readers' attention. In so doing, Trollope elongates the reading duration in excess of more his straightforward prose. While at a quantitative level such passages take up a sizable proportion of narrative space, which condenses the total number of words per page in contrast with diegetic prose and dialog, at the qualitative level these passages further elongate attention. They thus create attention sinkholes embedded within what would otherwise be a pellucid unfolding of plot. These common passages intensify of our attention on character instead of  plot. We experience a condensing focus on character and a simultaneous elongation of reading duration.
       Rather than providing us a critical perspective from which we can reflect upon characters's thought processes, Trollope's style, in slowing readers down, gets characters to dwell in the minds of readers. In so doing Trollope’s fiction achieves its didactic aims of “impregnating the mind of the novel-reader with a feeling that honesty is the best policy, that truth prevails when falsehood fails, that a girl will be loved when she is pure, and sweet, unselfish; that a man will be honored as he is true, and honest, and brave of heart; that things meanly done are ugly and odious, and things nobly done beautiful and gracious” (145).
     Absorptive prose here governs readers. It conducts our conduct by drawing us into intimate contact with characters for prolonged durations. We love honesty and truth because we have read slowly, absorbed by style phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Absorbed Victorians

     The three-decades old deconstructive turn in Victorian studies would seem to have less leg than the near-contemporaneous Foucauldian turn. Yet the presuppositions underwriting the work of J. Hillis Miller and George Levine (a new historicist in approach, yet a deconstructionist in formal readings) remain with us today. Levine's Realistic Imagination famously claims that Victorians were not "naive realists." Rather they attempted to use language to grasp that which always exceeds language all the time being cognizant of the impossibility of such a project. The crucial move in Levine's seminal intervention into the study of  Victorian realism pivots on criticality, or rather self-awareness of realist novelists and, presumably, their readers. This move has a long and diverse heritage. Long accustomed to regarding the Victorians as naive dupes (a line produced by interwar Modernist), starting with Levine we presupposed the opposite. Victorians were self-aware, self-reflective, self-critical. They were ironic. They were detached.
    The unfolding trend of nineteenth-century reading experience histories would seem to counter this criticality monoply. After all it commenced with the insight that Victorian readers were distracted as much as attentive to their reading, that they understood reading in physiological terms as much as moral or cognitive.
     Nevertheless, this seemingly counter move to criticality in fact repeats the same presupposition: Victorians were not dupes caught up in ideological mystification. How could they be, distracted and inattentive as they were most of the time? Nevertheless this presupposed distancing from form blinds us to the ways Victorians practiced and valued absorptive reading, reading that looked to scholars after Modernism as naivety.
    Perhaps the 1880's-1890's Gothic Revival tapped into a long running absorptive reading practice. R.L. Stevenson's "A Gossip on Romance" opens with a reminiscence of just such a boyhood reading and a desire to recreate such experience for his generation and create it for a new. Even the anti-sensationalist Anthony Trollope waxed nostalgic about his own raptured readings of Sir Walter Scott.
   What if this reading practice wasn't the other by which mature, cultured, critical (masculine, domineering) reading defined itself, but rather the precondition and pulse of all Victorian reading?
    Perhaps a better way to demonstrate such an alternative history of reading is through an anecdote. My wife and I listen to Setting the Woods on Fire, a vintage county radio show on our local university radio station. While we sometimes chuckle about the overwrought sentimentality of many of the songs, we  often imagine how to listen to these songs sincerely according to the tone, tenor, emotional pitch these songs historically entailed. We treat the show, in other words, as a trial in ironic non-ironic media experience. Rather than feeling the same as 1950's Nashville country fans felt, we instead ask, what the hell would it be to take this song at its word and at its tenor? Would we laugh, dance, simper, reflect, cry? We above all try to think through what absorption within this music would entail. Our efforts seek to counter the ironic, snarky, hipster attitude to anything that ins't ironic, snarky, or hispter-like: derisive laughter.
     Victorianist approaches to form, reading experience, novel theory, and their attendant politics are typified by this very attitude, a posture we ascribe to Victorians themselves in an effort to defend them against our own sense of bad taste. But naivety has little to do with enraptured reading. As Keats teaches us in "Ode on a Grecian Urn, it is as sincere an experience as one can have.