Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Veneering Government with Charles DIckens

     In her Mapping the Victorian Social Body, Pamela Gilbert claims that Dickens' Our Mutual Friend displaces the novelist's more famous satire of specific governing institutions onto the all-pervasive, immersive environment of London. Instead of a single, localizable parasitic government figure like Chancery or the Circumlocution Office, we get a metropole of permeable, porous, leaky bodies. This pervasive, uncontainable social ailment radiates from the Thames through its unsanitary tidal flows of sewage and muddy banks. According to Gilbert, such metaphorics exploit a prevalent feature of sanitary discourse: subterranean flows of sewage formed a circulatory system of disease whose heart was the Thames. This vision of the urban social body compelled the construction of the Thames river embankments during the late 1850's and early 1860's.
    Something is missing from Gilbert's account. Any Londoner from that period would wonder, where is the Metropolitan Board of Works? Depending upon one's political inclinations, Gilbert's omission would read like a liberal utopia or dystopia. Or rather, it would read just like Dickens' novel perused rattling about within an omnibus, distracted, preoccupied, and intermittent.
    Not that Gilbert's formal assertions aren't intriguing, especially her claim that Our Mutual Friend is at once hyper-realistic about places while Gothic in its atmospheric placelessness, a tension giving rise to pleasurable disorientation. But what if in this disorientation a grotesque face of government lurks? What if Dickens' once-bellicose satire of institutional authority became so extreme that it vanished into thin air?
    Our Mutual Friend comprises two narrative perspectives, one a past- and one a present-tense third person omniscience. As with Bleak House, the present-tense narration performs much of the novel's satire. Rather than another Chancery or Circumlocution Office, in the satirical narration we get the Veneerings, the epitome of speculative finance's nouveau riche. Ceaseless social climbers, the Vaneerings are Uriah Heep sans "umbleness" ensconced in the nation's ruling classes.
   Dickens introduces us to these social climbers as they throw a dinner party. Of the couple's many guests, "a Member, an Engineer, a Payer-off of the National Debt" form the center of attention. Typical of this novel's satirical de-individualization of the ruling classes, these figures appear as mere titles, mere occupations – an M.P., an civil engineer, and a Capitalist. Or: the constituents comprising the M.B.W., the very institution building the Thames river embankments.
     So what if the powers at the top of the Thames River Embankment project are sitting at Veneering's table? What matters is how they sit at the table. Reduced to occupations, to their positions within overlapping hierarchical professions, these governing figures are just that, figures not individuals. They are caricatures taken to the a veneered extreme. As mere titles, these figures' power and authority disappears from view. They are, in essence, black boxed. All that matters is their input and output – their eating and their, well, shitting.
    While Gilbert misses this detail, she does because of an instructive reason. Gilbert's omission of the M.B.W. and her subsequent claim that Dickens diffuses mis-goverance across the urban social body results from taking the Veneerings at face value. Veneered into "a Member, an Engineer, a Payer-off of the National Debt," the novel's governing institution slips from view. Dickens enacts formally the practice of governance performed by the M.B.W.: infrastructure. Infrastructure when working appears as merely input and output, as pipes, sewers, and embankments. Infrastructure in this guise comprises a black box. Like their sewer pipes and river embankments, the agents of the M.B.W. – politicians, engineers, and capitalists – appear in Dickens' novel as infrastructure, as black boxes –– "a Member, an Engineer, a Payer-off of the National Debt."
   At the Veneerings' table in chapter two, Dickens introduces his readers to a new form of immanent satire, one that turns the obscure, routinized, black-boxing power of infrastructural governance against itself. Yes Our Mutual Friend pursues a trenchant critique of unlocalizable social ills. But it does so by appropriating its routinized form. The threats once posed by Chancery or the Civil Service now pervade the everyday, routine, habitual lives of all Londoners because they have become infrastructure. They have become "a Member, an Engineer, a Payer-off of the National Debt." Our Mutual Friend depicts government not as absent, but rather as everywhere. But being everywhere as infrastructure it evaporates into veneer.

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