Editors Note: This book is reviewed with Nathan Hensley's
FORMS OF EMPIRE: THE POETICS OF VICTORIAN
SOVEREIGNTY (Oxford 2016)
Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the endless inheritance case at the center of Dickens's Bleak House, is so expansive that it is said to connect everyone in England, whether they know it or not. England's social totality and history (the case has gone on for generations) can be found in the mountains of paperwork that constitute the case, and by extension, England. But as any reader of the novel will tell you, and as characters like Richard attest to, reading this archive to comprehend the totality of "England" would be misguided. The bigness of the world Dickens created, England's social totality, can instead be sensed through the formal elements of the text (its narration of empty homogenous time, simultaneity, the detective plot, the marriage plot, etc.). Rather than spend our time reading legal documents, reading for content, we must instead read for form.
This problem of interpretation is not unlike the one that has haunted Victorian literary studies since its formation: while few projects in human history are as well documented as British imperialism, the British empire rarely appears in Victorian literature (Bleak House, in fact, is a case in point). An infinite number of archival boxes, folders, and folia around the world contain little histories of imperial domination and anticolonial resistance. Yet in Victorian literature, plots almost never go overseas, colonized subjects are absent, and world-historical events like the Indian Mutiny are rarely mentioned. To sidestep this problem of referentiality, the earliest interventions of postcolonial studies turned to symptomatic reading. If the colonies were not on the pages of the Victorian novel, then they were in the text's negative space. Now Lauren Goodlad and Nathan Hensley offer two new ways of understanding Victorian society's commitment to expansion, conquest, and domination, and Victorian literature's commitment to staying at home.
Book titles and dust jackets imply that these two studies have much in common. Both study the contradictions of nineteenth-century liberalism. Both make significant methodological claims. Both study sovereignty in the Victorian period. Both offer extended readings of the same texts. Both converse with many of the same critics.
But this is why we don't trust dust jackets. The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic (VGA) is a sequel to Goodlad's first book, Victorian Literature and the Victorian State (2003). As Goodlad notes, her earlier study of Victorian governance largely ignored the imperial project and thereby restricted its scope to the British Isles (VGA 2). Goodlad's new book is entirely different in scale, method, and argument. Rather than linking the realist novel to the institutions of Victorian governance, VGA shows how the formal innovations of realism allowed Victorian culture to apprehend the global reach of liberalism.
Perhaps because Michel Foucault's own work rarely travelled beyond the bounds of Europe, one can understand why VGA converses with a different theorist of modernity, Fredric Jameson. Goodlad's point of departure is Jameson's claim that modernism, and not nineteenth century realism, made the vastness of empire intelligible. Reconceiving the realist novel as a genre representing the social totality of a fast-globalizing world, Goodlad aims to show how "Victorian fiction provided an ideal medium for channeling the many ways in which a period now remembered for its 'equipoise' and growing 'real' economy, was often experienced as anarchic, vertiginous, precarious, overweening, and surreal" (10). Goodlad views "the work of literature from multiple long and close-range perspectives," where close attention to allegorical figures illuminates the long arc of the Victorian world system (11). Specifically, she seeks to show how the novels of Trollope (especially), Collins, Flaubert, and Eliot (and in afterlife of this aesthetic, Forster and Mad Men) were at once situated within the imperial milieu of the Victorian period (broadly understood), and remarkably attuned to the forces and contradictions of liberalization that organized this world. In spite of its apparent provincialism, then, VGA reveals how Victorian realism represented the dynamics of globalization, and how Victorian realist novels were both situated within and engaged with globalization.
Hensley's Forms of Empire has different investments. It is first and foremost a study of the immanent violence of Victorian law. Though often romanticized as an "age of equipoise," the Victorian period was an age of violent domination. As Hensley reminds us in the introduction, Queen Victoria's reign coincided with 228 named wars--a brutal fact that Victorianists too often forget. Given this historico-political discrepancy between violence and would-be "equipoise," Hensley treats literary objects as "agents of thought" that "mediate" the intimate relationship between law and violence, peace and war, sovereignty and its corruption (84, 17). As he consistently reminds us, Victorian literary forms (and one could extrapolate, aesthetic forms as such) are neither symptoms of imperial ideology nor institutional manifestations of colonial governance. Rather, they are theoretical in performing their "own kind of critical link-making," "disclosing" the relationship between metropole and colony (113). Instead of reproducing ideology, then, texts like Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Collins's Armadale (1864-66) are said to offer theories of violence inherent in metropolitan law.
The narrative frame of Eliot's novel, for instance, exploits "the affordances of prose fiction to document an unrepresentable violence nestled at the foundations of modern liberal peace" (75). Later literary texts show how this corruption endemic to Victorian sovereignty moves to the colonies. Swinburne, Haggard, and Stevenson, Hensley argues, inherit and develop the formal insight of the earlier writers, showing how formal practices were essential to narrating Britain's waning imperial might at the turn of the century. Yet Hensley does not aim to highlight actual representations of violence in their works. By construing sovereignty as a "poetics" rather than a concept, Hensley teaches us how violence is rendered into poetic form across genres, including photography, the realist novel, poetry, and the adventure tale. In doing so, Hensley places the aforementioned writers, and specifically their formal experimentation, into conversation with theorists of violence and sovereignty such as Benjamin, Foucault, Badiou and (briefly referenced), Derrida.
It can be easy to miss the subtlety of Hensley's central claim. Rather than saying that colonial violence happens away from the metropole (which presumes that metropole and colony inhabit different worlds--a mistake that dominates contemporary discussions of American imperialism), Hensley shows how domestic peace and colonial war, metropolitan equipoise and imperial massacres are not just parts of the same story but the same story. Undermining the distinction between law and violence (a preoccupation of nineteenth century Europe), he also questions the comfort of geographic distance, showing how law is uncannily sanguinary in the Victorian imperium as a whole. Well before finishing Forms of Empire, the reader is left utterly convinced that the Victorian state was, as we might say today, a rogue state.
The terminologies of these two studies tell us something about their arguments. Goodlad's central categories always suggest expansiveness and heterogeneity. Imperialism, she writes, "denotes the multiple practices of expansion and domination which gradually advanced capitalism's structurally multi-pronged determination to evolve into a global system" (6). Geopolitics describes "the means and modes through which diverse world actors, including the British state, worked consciously and unconsciously to extend the imperatives of transnational capital, inside and outside imperial formations" (6). Realism is "a diverse narrative fiction that stretches horizontally, as well as vertically" (5). Sovereignty is "a multivalent term used to stand for the political ideal of individual, local, and national self-governance" (8). This multivalence enables Goodlad to cite an intimidatingly large group of scholars and critical debates as well as a vast quantity of historical detail. While linking her arguments about specific texts to criticism on the novel, empire, and aesthetics, Goodlad cites scholars from a wide diversity of fields: Victorian literary and cultural studies, Marxist literary theory, nineteenth century history, transatlantic studies, postcolonial studies, theories of cosmopolitanism, and surface reading. The sheer magnitude of these conversations can be hard to follow, sometimes at the expense of closer, longer readings of the primary texts and their formal commitments.
By contrast, Hensley restricts the meaning of his key terms as well as the range of scholars he cites. Imperialism, he writes, is "the priority of economic and political factors, themselves complex and often self-contradictory, in driving the capture of territory and the penetration of markets in the British Empire's expansive global network" (11). Sovereignty is "law's authority to determine life and death" (12). Poetics is "the capacity of all cultural objects--to generate concepts in excess of the ideological inputs that produced them" (19). Given this capacity, literature "does not recapitulate thought; it is thought itself" (83). The effect of such specificity is bracing. Despite Hensley's substantial citing of different critics and theorists of politics and aesthetics, he constructs a coherent argument throughout the book, partly because his critical intimacy with the texts he examines is sustained, impeccably close, and enviably versatile. Besides closely reading the catastrophism of Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, he also attends to the formal elements of a telegram about the Indian Mutiny and Swinburne's frantic handwriting in the manuscript for Poems and Ballads. In thus highlighting aesthetic form while keeping the theoretical and historico-political stakes in view, Hensley's citations enhance the clarity of his argument and make it eminently teachable, even to undergraduates.
Chapter titles can be telling. Goodlad's second chapter is "Imperial Sovereignty: The Limits of Liberalism and the Case of Mysore." Hensley's third chapter is "Form and Excess, Morant Bay and Swinburne." The different status of "and" in these titles exemplifies the difference between the methodologies of these two books.
For Goodlad, the center of the Victorian geopolitical unconscious can be found in the Mysore debates of the mid-Victorian period, which revealed a fissure within the worldview of nineteenth century liberalism. On the one hand, the British policy towards its colonies had assumed that free trade would bring civilization. On the other hand, events like the Mutiny inaugurated a far more authoritarian regime of colonial domination. This paradox structures the liberal logic that Goodlad's novelistic readings illuminate and track over a very long nineteenth century (culminating in a reading of Mad Men).
But this approach seems to me not so much historicist as borderline New Historicist. In beginning with Mysore, Goodlad implies that the Victorian novel reproduced the contradiction within liberalism. But in examining specific novels, Goodlad sometimes slights the imaginative elements of literary form.
In an entirely original reading of the Victorian ambivalence towards "rootedness and cosmopolitanism," she defines "heirloom sovereignty" (a central term for the book) by noting how the modern conception of property is inscribed with spatial and temporal particularity. She then applies this theory of sovereignty to the concepts of individual, nation, and imperium in Trollope's The Warden: heirloom sovereignty was the "attempt to instill in modern property that concrete imbuing of time with space, or place with history that, for Trollope, constitutes the heirloom's status as non-instrumentality, the cathedral's status as a privileged English location, the status of British sovereignty as the embedded growth of the nation's ongoing historical progress--and, from that standpoint--The Warden's status as a realist fable" (75). Goodlad then shows how a work of literature apprehended the project of Greater Britain well before the dream of an imperial nation-state was articulated by its greatest exponents (Dilke, Seeley, Froude), who wrote travelogues, historical essays and treatises. Yet while highly illuminating, this reading of Trollope's novel misses the opportunity to show how its formal elements do a kind of geopolitical work that other genres cannot, and do not. Stressing these points would also help to rescue the idea of Greater Britain from its typical status as a fringe, late-imperial offshoot of Victorian colonial culture, and would strengthen the novel's claims about form as well as its commitments to historicism.
Furthermore, Goodlad's claims about Trollope seem undermined by her earlier claims that the worldliness dramatized in The Warden's representation of sovereignty (as multivalent register) reproduces Lord Palmerston's "homology between British man and British empire" (71). As a consequence, Goodlad's recuperative reading of Trollope's Greater British imagination (with its innate provincialism) seems to replicate liberal debates on the Don Pacifico affair rather than imaginatively (recon)figuring the imperial citizen-subject of Victorian society. The word "and" in her chapter title ("The Limits of Liberalism and the Case of Mysore") is haunted by a causal link between text and history.
For Hensley, the word "and" separates the literary text from history, but only to let the former reflect on the latter. In a highly illuminating reflection on his own methodology, Hensley writes, "The injunction is to create a critical constellation that would temporarily freeze into the same frame of analysis what were, before the act of reading, disconnected 'worlds' [....] When effective, such ruptured allegories permit us to apprehend the involvement of apparently separate sociocultural instances or levels in a single story we would do best to call 'history,' even while exposing its artifice in performing that structuring move" (192). For Hensley, then, Swinburne's Poems and Ballads (1866) does not echo the crisis of the Morant Bay Rebellion, but rather theorizes the violence of empire that the Rebellion lay witness to. The violence of liberal rule inhabits the form of the poem, which reveals something that could not be fully comprehended by political theorists like John Stuart Mill and John Morley as they grappled with the fact of the massacre. In this mode of reading Swinburne, which he calls "curatorial," Hensley "seeks to preserve the singularity of separate objects while linking them with open artificiality to abstract claims I nevertheless hold to be true" (130). Far from practicing "empty formalism," Hensley argues that the curator must "critically constellate" the literary (or even photographic) object with the historical milieu within which it is situated. By staging the text's encounter with history in this manner, Hensley analyzes literary form in a way that is not predetermined by ideology and discourse, but that would itself be unthinkable without the curator's artificial historicization.
Together, these two books explore the heterogeneity of the Victorian era. Even while considering different questions, texts, and methods, they both portray a multi-vocal nineteenth century. According to Goodlad, the Victorian geopolitical imagination was not a singular liberal ideology, but was animated by a crisis of sovereignty within liberal thought, oscillating between free-trade and domination, English rootedness and cosmopolitanism, little England and Greater Britain. Moreover, realism was well equipped to represent these simultaneously provincial and cosmopolitan policies. Hensley examines the violence that this geopolitical imagination necessitated, and shows how literary texts of various kinds rethought the contradictions of liberalism. Instead of restricting himself to a single genre such as the novel, he shows how the violence inherent in Victorian sovereignty may be read through a range of aesthetic practices. The roguishness of sovereignty, it turns out, saturated all aspects of Victorian culture.
A final question concerns language. While both books challenge some of the central assumptions of Victorian literary criticism--the provinciality of realism, the peacefulness of law--both confine themselves to the traditional territory of Victorian studies: texts in English. While Hensley does not address the limitations of monolingualism, Goodlad's discussion of them in the study of empire concerns the critic's "ethical commitment to attending to otherness," and the importance of "historicism as that aspect of the critical enterprise which strives to illuminate the concrete conditions from which ethics-political and artistic aspirations spring" (26). Yet by shifting the question of language politics to one about ethics, we miss seeing how English literature and language was (and continues to be) essential to the project of imperialism--one symptomatically grasped by the Anglo-centricism of the Victorian geopolitical aesthetic. I mention this as a critic whose own work is also almost exclusively bound to Anglophone texts. To be sure, specialists in the Victorian era--like Goodlad and Hensley--have shown us a great deal about the way its literature reflects upon imperialism without ever going to the colonies. Nevertheless, Victorian studies remains tethered to one of the nineteenth century's most pernicious and persistent technologies of domination: national language.
Nasser Mufti is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.