Friday, January 21, 2011

Object-Oriented Dickens?

             This is more or less a short essay I just wrapped up for seminar on Victorian Labor. Other than being about Great Expectations, it has little to do with labor. Rather, it begins to trace what I tentatively call a Dickensian ontology -- which, in closely following Dickens's text, emerges as curiously object-oriented: 
Imploring Pip to keep isolated the moat-surrounded Walworth and the criminal-teeming Little Britain, Mr. Wemmick remarks: “Walworth is one place, and this office is another. Much as the aged is one person, and Mr. Jaggers is another. They must not be confounded together. My Walworth sentiments must be taken at Walworth; none but my official sentiments can be taken in this office” (288, emphasis added). While Wemmick’s petition stems from a desire to separate the personal from the professional (a separation mimicking his employer, Mr. Jaggers’, ceaseless abdication of personal sentiments), his comments point towards a more widespread field of separations. Not only must the personal Walworth be isolated from the professional Little Britain, so too must the persons who inhabit each sphere. Yet, Wemmick’s final sentence further widens the scope of separation. While the modal “must be” hints at the potential collapse of the personal into the professional, Wemmick’s final “none . . . can be” insists on the impossibility of thinking any personal–professional collapse. After all, the sentiments of Walworth are unintelligible to the sentiments of Little Britain.
            Wemmick gives us, on the one hand, a material plane of seemingly tenuous separation, and, on the other hand, a conceptual sphere of irreducible isolation. Simply: things appear able to connect, while thoughts cannot. Yet, Wemmick presupposes not only this dichotomy, but also the conditions of possibility requisite for the collapse of places and persons. Wemmick’s modal “They must not be confounded,” indicates that while Walworth and Little Britain, the Aged P and Mr. Jaggers are equally one and another, they can, potentially, be confounded – thought of as not one and another, but rather one and the same. Only through such confounding thought, Wemmick anxiously argues, can an underlying isolation be mistakenly collapsed. Or, to shift the valence slightly, places and person can be connected only through the medium of thought.
            Wemmick’s implicit ontic claims hint at a larger Dickensian ontology. Once we see the curious isolation–connection model girdering Wemmick’s petition to Pip, we begin to see Great Expectation as teeming with isolated objects connecting with other objects only through the mediation of some third object: Pip serving as a “connubial missile” between his sister and Joe (9); Pip’s fantastic translation of Miss Havisham’s connecting working class with middle class (66-67); Wemmick’s “portable property” yoking former clients to him (199); the “avenging phantom” linking Pip to London’s lumpenproletariat (216); the “oath” ensuring communion between Herbert and Magwitch (336).   
            Given the two constraints I find myself under – Great Expectations’ preponderance of object mediations and a blog format – I will isolate a singular instance of object mediation: Mr. Jaggers' appearance at the Blue Boar. This prolonged yet demarcated scene offers two main advantages. First, Mr. Jaggers can, with relatively little mental agility, be read as emblematic of Dickens’s insistence on the isolation of objects; second, while Mr. Jaggers is fully aligned with the juridical concerns of Great Expectations, he can nevertheless be more easily isolated from the larger social contingencies of the novel, namely class. Like Dickens and his characters elsewhere, I can, with Mr. Jaggers’ entrance, trace an autonomous object’s mediated contact with other equally autonomous objects.
            An unidentified Mr. Jaggers arrives at the Blue Boar amidst a thoroughly one-sided discussion of a recent murder. Immediately isolated from the “that group” of which Pip “was one” (130), Mr. Jaggers is, at first, dimly noticed by Pip as “a strange gentleman,” and then, his presence being made known to the group itself, he appears “as if it were the murderer” (131). As a narrator, Pip sets up a fundamental opposition between Jaggers and the group not simply by marking him out as strange, but by further reducing him to the vague pronoun “it.” Such a nameless and genderless Jaggers stands as an object (an “it”) radically opposed to the group. Out of this second object (the group), Mr. Jaggers enacts his own condensation by separating out Mr. Wopsle as a metonymy for the group. So, instead of a Jaggers–Group opposition we get a Jaggers-Wopsle–Group mediation. Yet, once Wopsle becomes a metonymic mediator between Jaggers and the group, he also becomes an autonomous object by immediately establishing an opposition between himself and Jaggers (“‘without having the honour of your acquaintance’”), an opposition (Jaggers–Wopsle) that demands further mediation.
            Misleadingly, the medium between Jaggers and Wopsle appears to be simply language – the mere fact of their engaging in conversation. Yet, the mediation here is far more complex than any Jaggers–language–Wopsle mediation. Indeed, while the content of the discussion provides the impetus for communication, its initial modality provides the conduit through which it can pass. Jaggers’ demanding from Wopsle a hypothetical verdict on the murder suspect shifts the entire discussion into an abstraction of the conversation’s manifest content, the murder. Immediately, Jaggers comports himself towards Wopsle not simply through language, but through the special modality of abstraction, a gambit Wopsle quickly adopts by identifying himself through the equally opaque appellation, “Englishman.”
            Having entered into an equally abstract modality of language, the potential for any Jaggers–Wopsle mediation appears met. Yet Jaggers not only refuses Wopsle’s “Englishman” response – “ ‘Come . . . Don’t evade the question’” – but also initiates another form of mediation: the act of “biting his forefinger at him.” In pattern that will repeat moments later, the potential mediation of Jaggers and Wopsle through a modality of language is foreclosed upon, immediately substituted with the mediation of finger biting, and then shifted back onto new modality of language – a pattern spatially sketched by the narrator Pip: “ ‘Come!’ [cessation of previous discursive mediator], said the stranger, biting his forefinger at him [gestic mediation]. ‘Don’t evade the question. Either you know it, or you don’t know it [new discursive mediator]” (emphases added). Jaggers’ “it” condenses the previous discursive mediation (the abstraction of a hypothetical verdict) into a crystalline yet vague pronoun. Nevertheless, this condensation of discursive mediation carries with it an exigency for physical mediation; the finger biting is again repeated before Wopsle seemingly connects with Jaggers: “‘Certainly I know it’” (132).
            Nevertheless, Wopsle’s entering into contact with Jaggers through “it” is, for Jaggers, insufficient. So, after another bite and point of Jaggers’ forefinger a new discursive mediator is introduced: the question of the murder suspect’s cross-examination (a procedure to which Jaggers clearly suspects Wopsle). With this new discursive mediation something curious happens. Whereas the mediations of the hypothetical verdict and condensation “it” were only sequentially connected with the physical mediation of finger biting, this new discursive form is irrevocably tied to its own materiality. Wopsle is not simply implored to consult the discursive fact of the suspect’s cross-examination, but also the material vessels through which that fact is made intelligible:  “‘the printed page’” and Wopsle’s “‘eye.’”
            Provisionally, then, we can plot the scene’s overall mediation dynamic like this: Jagger -- Discursive (verdict, it, cross-examination)/Material (finger biting, printed page, eye) -- Wopsle. Rather than a simple Jaggers–language–Wopsle mediation, we have instead a mediation through an intermediary field of discursive and material objects. To read the entire scene as one act of mediation is, therefore, to diagram a mediation not merely through a field, but rather through an object that is simultaneously discursive and material: Jaggers–Material/Discursive–Wopsle.
Overall, my provisional, diagrammatic sketch allows for a tentative assertion: real objects (Jaggers and Wopsle) are mediated not merely through sensual, intentional objects (Jaggers-in-thought, Wopsle-in-thought), but another type of object entirely, one that has “real” content (materiality) and “ideational” form (discursivity): the gesture. Accordingly, in the Blue Boar scene the actual mediation is Jaggers–Gesture–Wopsle. Such a hybrid object as the gesture may allow a more nuanced reading of class (perhaps the parting welded together that Great Expectations is most concerned with) than orthodox Object-Oriented Ontology would allow. The splitting of the gestic object that connects Jaggers and Wopsle into a simultaneously material and ideational form is precisely what enables the mediation to occur, as if the gesture’s dual-frequency alone is what allows for complete resonance between disparate objects.

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