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How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900

von Nancy Armstrong

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Nancy Armstrong argues that the history of the novel and the history of the modern individual are, quite literally, one and the same. She suggests that certain works of fiction created a subject, one displaying wit, will, or energy capable of shifting the social order to grant the exceptional person a place commensurate with his or her individual worth. Once the novel had created this figure, readers understood themselves in terms of a narrative that produced a self-governing subject. In the decades following the revolutions in British North America and France, the major novelists distinguished themselves as authors by questioning the fantasy of a self-made individual. To show how novels by Defoe, Austen, Scott, Brontë, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Haggard, and Stoker participated in the process of making, updating, and perpetuating the figure of the individual, Armstrong puts them in dialogue with the writings of Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Malthus, Darwin, Kant, and Freud. Such theorists as Althusser, Balibar, Foucault, and Deleuze help her make the point that the individual was not one but several different figures. The delineation and potential of the modern subject depended as much upon what it had to incorporate as what alternatives it had to keep at bay to address the conflicts raging in and around the British novel.… (mehr)
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Nancy Armstrong made her name as a scholar with her 1987 study Desire and Domestic Fiction:A Political History of the Novel. In How Novels Think, she turns to the broader question of what a novel is and does. What is perhaps surprising about this book is its length: works in this field tend to be unwieldy tomes, exemplified by Michael McKeon's exhaustive The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 or, more pointedly, his behemoth The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge (Director's Circle Book). Armstrong takes the alternative approach of focusing only on selected, representative texts from the British tradition to make her points.

While the book itself clocks in at only just over 150 pages, it nonetheless packs a real intellectual punch. Like most people, I find a lot of academic writing dull and pedantic, but there is a sense of clarity and intellectual adventure about Armstrong's prose that rarely falters. That's because Armstrong has a rare sense of vision in her work that allows her to penetrate to the key issues at work in the history of the novel. What particularly stands out for me is the incisiveness of what she calls the "ideological core" of the novel:

"What I mean by 'the ideological core' is not the British, the European, or even the Western features of the novel but the presupposition that novels think like individuals about the difficulties of fulfilling oneself as an individual under specific cultural historical conditions. [...] [N]ew varieties of novel cannot help taking up the project of universalizing the individual subject. That, simply put, is what novels do." (p.10)

Armstrong convincingly traces the evolution of this debate through the historical development of the British novel, from its philosophical roots in the Lockean ideas of Defoe in the early eighteenth century through to the late nineteenth century challenges to individualism presented by Stoker's Dracula and Haggard's She. Along the way, Armstrong details the stylistic responses to the shifting politics of individuality: the downgrading of the novel of sensibility and the Gothic, for instance, or Austen's innovative use of a third-person narrator who mediates between the individual and the collective, or the rise of Victorian domesticity and its impact on gender roles. Her reading of the texts in each chapter is inventive and engaging, and I found myself charging through this book with an enthusiasm I had not anticipated when I started it.

As a literary scholar myself, I do have a couple of minor criticisms of Armstrong's book. The first is the rather arbitrary decision to end her analysis at 1900. I realize that Armstrong's area of expertise is in eighteenth and nineteenth-century fiction, but it seems an unnatural truncation simply to cut off the analysis without considering its implications for today. Secondly, I felt as though the final chapter found Armstrong struggling with a theoretical quandary that she admits to being unable to resolve: namely, she feels a simultaneous need to challenge individualism while at the same time relying on its presuppositions for her own political agenda. I sense that there is an answer to this dilemma buried in her occasional references to Gilles Deleuze but, as with the historical limits of the book, this part of the argument is also left hanging at the end.

On the whole, though, How Novels Think is an excellent piece of work. To engage with it fully, you will need to be familiar with some of the major classics of the English canon, but otherwise Armstrong writes in a clear and concise style without sacrificing any sense of complexity. Her definition of the "ideological core" of the novel is a groundbreaking idea, one that deserves to be studied and applied for a long time to come. ( )
  vernaye | May 23, 2020 |
Lady Wombat writes:

Armstrong makes an argument similar to that in Desire and Domestic Fiction, but one that is more broad: "the history of the novel and the history of the modern subject are, quite literally, one in the same" (3). Or, as John Kucich puts it in his cogent review of the book, "modern subjectivity was first formulated in the English novel, which then reproduced it across all of British (and eventually Western) culture" (368). I agree with Kucich that Armstrong's argument that the novel was the primary producer of modern subjectivity is "debatable (and probably unprovable," and, like him, wish she had made a "more modest set of claims about the patterns of desire that British fiction promoted" (369).

More interesting than Armstrong's too-broad thesis is the way that she traces "shifts in the tradition of British fiction as symptoms of contradictions at the heart of modern subjectivity" (Kucich 370).

In the book's opening chapter, she argues that the novel needed a "bad subject," one who resists interpellation, refuses to be subjected, in order to create a self-governing subject. The "precocious individual" "had to harbor an acute dissatisfaction with his or her assigned position in the social world and feel compelled to find a better one" for "the features that prevent an individual from fitting into the given social order are precisely what provide the narrative motor of the novel and the source of its appeal" (Armstrong 5, 57). By novel's end, the bad subject had pushed the boundaries of respectability, but had also stopped being a bad subject. She uses Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana, and Jane Austen's protagonists as examples. Here, as throughout the book, Armstrong makes sweeping claims about a period with only a few actual examples to back them up, weakening the force of her arguments.

In Chapter 2, she focuses on Romantic era novels (Walter Scott's Waverley and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are the examples). Such novels feature "[e]xtravagant, even monstrous forms of individualism," eruptions that "demonstrate that fiction could not assimilate all that energy to a community of self-governing citizens, not without completely destroying the fantasy that such a community could emerge one individual at a time. Thus this fiction confronted the fact that it could no longer fulfill its generic commitment both to encourage expressive individualism and to imagine a more inclusionary social body. This fiction renounced individualism in the interests of social stability only with great reluctance, however, leaving the reader with a world that was not only monster free but also significantly diminished, as if missing some vital component precisely because family feeling and social duty had won the day" (54). "Even as they throw their ethical weight behind the social stability that comes from harnessing individual energy, both novels invest aesthetic value in precisely what must be sacrificed for the greater good. It is as if the novel form itself were refusing to abandon either the bad subject it used to celebrate or the more inclusionary society that embraced such subjects as its citizens" (56).

Regarding the difference she sees between eighteenth-century novels and romantic era novels: "As envisioned by eighteenth-century intellectuals, the social contract exacted the promise of self-restraint from individuals who saw this limit to their individuality as the first and best guarantee of full citizenship. To their way of thinking, such self-restraint entailed no loss of individuality but, quite the contrary, secured their inherent individuality in the form on private property and individual rights. For Scott and Shelley, on the other hand, what had been represented as an exchange of something wholly negative, what Balibar means by 'animality,' for something wholly positive, in the form of property rights, those qualities that we equate with 'civility' or even with humanity itself, came to be understood as a loss of some core element of individuality that connected men at once to their heroic past and to a competitive nature" (60).

Chapter 3 charts the way that the mid-Victorian novel displaces the aggressive competitiveness of the male under capitalism onto the female, then casts this female out. "Victorian fiction uses displacement to accomplish a very different purpose…. transferring the competitive energy of the ruling-class male onto a female who could then be purged from the newly domesticated world of the text. Through forms of displacement, the novel worked hand in glove with the emerging human sciences to sustain the ideal of modern Britain as an inclusive community during the period between the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867, when pressure from disenfranchised groups within Great Britain combined with the expansion of empire to stretch that fantasy to the breaking point. So pervasive was the strain on the fantasy of humanity as a single, cohesive body that it would not be too much of a stretch, I believe, to chalk up what Georg Lukács considers the premature disappearance of the historical novel to the fact that it had become all but impossible to think of savage man as one's progenitor. How could a novelist relegate his ancestors to the past, to memory, and to art, as Scott had, when that ancestor continued to carry on his violent and obscene practices at the periphery of the modern state?" (83). Armstrong reads Wuthering Heights, Dombey and Son, The Mill on the Floss, and Darwin's Origin of Species and The Descent of Man to support her argument in this chapter.

Chapter 4 examines popular novels often set in opposition to mainstream Victorian fiction, arguing that the latter are invested in a monogenetic theory of humanity, while the former draw on a polygenetic theory. However, both types construct Western man as better than other humans, justifying the subordination of the rest of the world to Western civilization. She examines Haggard's She and Stoker's Dracula here, "both of which suggest that individualism puts Western cultures at a distinct disadvantage in relation to less civilized or 'degraded' peoples. At the same time, these novels understand individualism as the one thing that keeps Europeans from going over to the dark side and losing their humanity. Refusing the kind of compromise formation that resolves novels belonging to the great tradition, She and Dracula create so clear a contradiction between a civil society composed of individuals and versions of mass man that the two cannot possibly mingle or even share the same planet but must engage in a battle to the death" (108). She suggests that while mainstream novels used a linear concept of "reproduction," i.e., novels of development and growth, the novels she discusses in this chapter use "repetition."

The difference between the novels in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4: "Mainstream Victorian fiction considers the difficulties that arise when individual ambitions and desires take antisocial forms and choose the wrong objects as a problem that originates within the individual and requires education, sublimation, and self-restraint. Romance in contrast sees that problem as one that originates outside the individual in a world that allows no alternatives but to belong to the human community as defined by the West or to turn monstrous and perish.
"At the same time, novels so different as She, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Heart of Darkness, and The Turn of the Screw, to mention a few obvious cases in point, acknowledge the degree to which fiction had to imagine what was unnatural and aberrant in order to maintain the normative subject and make readers want to embody it. Fiction, I am suggesting, had to think beyond the envelope of individualism in order to pronounce certain of its excesses unthinkable. Late-nineteenth-century romance did exactly that…. Nevertheless, as my concluding chapter will suggest, the fact that this fiction equates the pleasure of escaping the limits of individualism with the loss of humanity itself ultimately compels us to defend individualism at any cost" (134, 135).

In her final chapter, Armstrong opens by describing a paradox central to modern subjectivity: "To think utopically is to imagine how that insatiable being known as the modern individual might acquire the means to perfect and gratify him- or herself. A conceptual countermove always accompanies such utopian imaginings, as we must immediately devise measures to check the selfish excesses of that individual, lest they encroach on the rights of others" (137). She then focuses on two tasks: "First, I want to approach this paradox by way of the form it took and what it did and did not accomplish as recent feminist theory appropriated certain narrative strategies from Victorian fiction and used them to argue for new reading procedures and a more inclusionary literary canon…. Given that feminism's success in the literary disciplines has not made it any easier than Victorian fiction did to imagine expanding the means for self-expression without simultaneously limiting those possibilities, it should be instructive to find out why both fiction and feminism failed to get beyond this paradox" (138). Second: "I want to try reversing the critical undertow that accompanies modern utopian thought and consider where a reading of Dracula might lead us politically were we to identify with the vampire in rejecting the limits of a realism designed to maintain the autonomy of nation, family, and individual" (139).

She is far more successful in accomplishing the first goal than in the second, giving a succinct account of modern feminist literary criticism, and the drawbacks of its approach: "In recuperating the softer side of femininity, it seems to me, critics and scholars repeated that event in the history of the European novel known as the inward turn. Georg Lukács identifies 1848 or thereabouts as the moment when the novel abandoned its attempts to imagine a more flexible and inclusive social order. After the mid-century mark, even such consummate novelists as Dickens and Flaubert fill what they define as lacking in the social world not through some small shift in social relations but through a change of heart, the excesses of sentimentalism, escapes into exoticism, and the pleasures of domestic life" (142). And "If the family in this precise cultural-historical sense served as the mechanism by which the novel canceled its own democratic mission and naturalized the gendered division of labor and political authority, then why did feminist theory and criticism fail to perform a sustained critique of literary behavior? Unless we can challenge what happens at the level of literature, what chance do we have in political terms? Yes, feminism has produced important examples of antifamilialism over the course of the movement's history. But when examined in a harshly critical light, most such political critiques end up replacing a household composed of the heterosexually monogamous couple and their biological offspring with another version of that household that can in fact do little to change the way a nation distributes goods and services to its population" (144). "This is the way with hegemonic formations, I would suggest: deviations at once threaten and maintain what culture has defined as nature" (145).

Kucich describes Armstrong's critique of feminist theory in this way: She critiques "difference criticism" because it "will always remain embedded in the ideology of individualism it decries, by validating self-expression (whether of individuals or collectives) and by assuming that the accommodation of such self-expression into the social order sums up the concept of social justice…. In the hands of such criticism, particular novels always tell the same story about the difficulties of fulfilling oneself as an individual under specific historical conditions" (Kucich 371).

Armstrong spends less time discussing her final goal. Her reversal of the critical undertow that accompanies modern utopian thought is this: "That feminism has brought us to a crossroads in cultural history is clear. The line of argument that rests on the politics of difference leads us indirectly back to the liberal individual and wins us the power accruing to negative rights: the right not to be violated in one's body, the right not to be unrepresented, implicitly, then, the right to speak for oneself, the right to be different within specified limits. It goes against all common sense to undervalue these rights, especially in today's political climate. Another line of argument is poised within literary theory, however, and ready to challenge the prevailing notion of identity based on the differences we maintain within the category of the human. This counterargument inverts the concept of difference so as to emphasize what we all share by virtue of our individual deviations from the cultural norms naturalized by the modern family." (152-3). And "the trick of formulating a more adequate notion of the human is to find a way of articulating what we lack in positive rather than negative terms: as the sameness we acquire by virtue of always and necessarily falling short of the cultural norms incorporated I the modern individual and reproduced by the nuclear family" (153). What this would look like in fact is something that Armstrong does not explore; as Kucich notes, "Armstrong does not flesh out her call for an alternative model of political desire" (371).

One point of particular interest for my work is Kucich's observation that "[o]ne especially crucial dynamic that she uncovers is the British novelist's relentless campaign against irrationalist and anti-individualist models of desire (which take the formal shape of Gothic, romance, orientalism, horror, dream, and so forth), upon which the realist novel remains uncannily parasitic" (371).

References
Kucich, John. Review of Nancy Armstrong, How Novels Think: The Limits of British Individualism from 1719-1900. Nineteenth-Century Literature 61.3 (Dec. 2006): 368-372.
  Wombat | Nov 21, 2008 |
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Nancy Armstrong argues that the history of the novel and the history of the modern individual are, quite literally, one and the same. She suggests that certain works of fiction created a subject, one displaying wit, will, or energy capable of shifting the social order to grant the exceptional person a place commensurate with his or her individual worth. Once the novel had created this figure, readers understood themselves in terms of a narrative that produced a self-governing subject. In the decades following the revolutions in British North America and France, the major novelists distinguished themselves as authors by questioning the fantasy of a self-made individual. To show how novels by Defoe, Austen, Scott, Brontë, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Haggard, and Stoker participated in the process of making, updating, and perpetuating the figure of the individual, Armstrong puts them in dialogue with the writings of Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Malthus, Darwin, Kant, and Freud. Such theorists as Althusser, Balibar, Foucault, and Deleuze help her make the point that the individual was not one but several different figures. The delineation and potential of the modern subject depended as much upon what it had to incorporate as what alternatives it had to keep at bay to address the conflicts raging in and around the British novel.

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