Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sensational Fiction and the Thrilling Enculturation of Correlationism

             D.A. Miller names the process through which reader and text enter into mutual yet vicarious contact with each other “thrilling,” an arcane nominalization of the verb “to thrill.” For Miller, thrilling harkens back to its originary 14th century meaning of the piercing or penetrating of material bodies. In claiming that Miller’s Too Close Reading shares much with Object Oriented Ontology, I pointed primarily to his revised scope of textual focus. His stress on the original meaning of thrilling – and in contrast the now common meaning of the word as a subjective emotional transport – hints at a deeper sympathy with OOO.
            Thrill, originally referring to material bodies’ penetration, undergoes a dramatic shift in meaning at the close of the 18th century, when it takes on its subjective, anthropocentric meaning of an emotional transport. Although first used in this modern sense in 1616 by Shakespeare (King Lear: “A Seruant that he bred, thrill'd with remorse, Oppos'd against the act.”), this meaning lay dormant until Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe used it in 1789 (Romance of Forest: “A kind of pleasing dread thrilled her bosom.”), followed sixteen years later by Romantic heavyweight Wordsworth (“Waggoner:” “His ears are by the music thrilled.”). That this anthropocentric shift in meaning emerges out of both Gothic fiction and Romanticism cannot be an accident. On the one hand, Gothic fiction is the thrilling genre par excellence, initiating a genealogy of fiction that peaked during the fin de siècle with Sensational fiction. On the other hand, Romanticism shares strong roots with Kantian idealism – the parallel German Romanticism, after all, took its philosophical cues from Kant and his descendants Fitche and Schelling. The crucial philosophical presupposition with Romanticism and its redefining of thrilling is the Kantian sublime, an intensely internal experience stemming from an external object, the representation of which infinitely exceeds the power of reason and intellect. The sublime, in this sense, is not something out in the “world,” but instead a subjective experience of the infinite excess of that world; accordingly it is an experience of human freedom. Thrilling, as an emotion transport, corresponds with the Kantian sublime in two crucial senses: first, as internal transportation and reorientation presuppositionally sparked by an external influence; second, as a purely human experience.
            Thus it is no accident that thrilling undergoes such a radical shift around 1800. To hazard a generalization, thrilling’s redefinition registers the emergence of correlationism.  What then, of the Gothic heritage and the gradual ascendency of thrilling’s currency during the 19th century?
            Using Google books new and amazing database tool, we can see that thrill’s usage steadily climbs throughout the later half of the 19th century – approximately the period when sensational fiction garners gross popular appeal – before briefly peaking around 1900 and ultimately climaxing at the close of World War I:
Now, while Gothic and Sensational fiction may appear different from the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth, they do, I argue, share a similar paradigmatic foundation. After all, Sensational fiction concerns the subjective experience of a thrilling transportation of characters and, ultimately, readers. Hence the excessive stress of such fiction on nerves, nervousness, and hysteria.
            Plugging nerve and hysteria into the Google book database we see for these nouns a trajectory similar to that of thrill: a steady increase in use peaking at the close of the nineteenth century.
Of course this pattern correlates in large part with, among other factors, the rise of Sensational fiction, broadly conceived. Yet, I wonder, might something else be going on with this historical trend? If thrilling and its progenies in fiction (nerve and hysteria) undergo a dramatic anthropocentric shift at the beginning of the 19th century, it is possible that the ascendency of these terms at the end of the century represents an intensification and widespread enculturation of the anthropocentric paradigm of correlationism. Of course tying correlationism with something as seemingly disparate as the sensational fiction of, say, Wilkie Collins seems farfetched, but I have a hunch that this radical hypothesis is, in truth, not that radical. 
            In Victorian studies it is now commonplace to understand the novel as a technology of bourgeois subject-formation, as what Foucault calls disciplinary power and Miller, in The Novel and the Police, defines as an “amateur supplement.” Given the novel's intense popularity during the Victorian period, it certainly had a dramatic impact on the underlying, paradigmatic conception of subjectivity within a capitalist culture (critics often turn to the most popular of English writers, Dickens, for evidence of such a subject-forming project). The novel’s cultural work, then, was to provide readers with a sense of what it meant to be an effective subject within the capitalist system at large. While 19th century critics lamented the rise of “thrashy” sensational fiction, this genre too participated in the general cultural project of the novel: producing subjects who effectively particulate in a capitalist system, albeit a system undergoing drastic changes during the fin de siècle (a shift to a predominately consumer-driven economy).
            Taking this critical conception of the Victorian novel’s disciplinary role and the concurrent rise of the anthropocentric “thrilling,” might we see the novel as also participating in the proliferation of a correlationist paradigm? Although it exceeds the scope of a single blog entry, this quirky hypothesis might help to historicize and expand our understanding of correlationism as not simply a philosophical issue, but a much broader cultural paradigm – a paradigm under whose bankruptcy we now limpidly drift and wallow in inaction over crucial issues like climate change. And if correlationism lies at the heart of sensational fiction and nouns such as thrilling, Miller’s evocation of the now arcane definition of a non-anthropocentric “thrill” serves as nothing less than an attempt to forge a post-humanist, post-correlationist interpretative method.

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