Corbin Hiday: How Bleak is Now?
I am the son and heir
of nothing in particular
What is bleakness in the age of *rump? What are the parameters of defining an “age” when time has seemingly collapsed into itself? In v21’s special issue of boundary2 online, we can trace a fruitful thread between atmosphere, temporality and bleakness that grapples with our moment, refracted through the past with an eye toward the future. The illuminating and insightful contributions by Elisha Cohn, Emily Steinlight and Jesse Oak Taylor provide the foundation for thinking through the afore-mentioned triptych. While there are differences in approach and conclusions, we are able to locate a lingering residue throughout the contributions by Cohn, Steinlight and Taylor; in other words, throughout this issue, there seems to be something in the air. To extend the metaphor, during a changing and unstable landscape, the collection provides a deft and thoughtful approach to match our tumultuous political moment. Reformulating the words of Elisha Cohn into a question: what is the “kind of knowledge the humanities are supposed to produce?” If our moment necessitates affirmation, what does it mean to insist on the structurally unstable relationship between knowledge and truth? What does it mean to affirm a lack, in the face of so much pressure to positivize? Maybe in this sense Dickens’ Bleak House constructs a world eerily similar to our own, timely for our political atmosphere and productive in its bleakness.
At the end of her essay, “Untimely Dickens,” Emily Steinlight concludes her thoughts on Bleak House with an apt hypothesis, identifying the novel’s particular disproportion and “too-muchness” with “the dizzying scalar shifts within this novel between a materially accumulating present, multiple historical pasts, and signs of geological and planetary time.” As Steinlight notes, the formal unevenness of Bleak House opens up political space through its “excess,” contra to Jameson’s claim regarding realism’s “presentism” and its relation to ideology in Antinomies of Realism. Steinlight later turns to Ranciere’s notion of the “count of the uncounted,” finding in Bleak House “a throwing off of the proportion between subjects and social places that politics requires.” Within our (Dickens included) capitalist world there exists inherent disproportion between subjects and social space. The subjective alienation of characters within the novel, like the chronically indebted Richard Carstone and Jo the crossing-sweeper, demonstrate this irreconcilability. If, as Steinlight suggests, the subject of the novel is indeed surplus, then the political ramifications align closely with Marx’s formulation of the subjective position of “labour-power” and “surplus population,” what Samo Tomšič recognizes as the “social embodiment of the truth,” the “true subject of revolutionary politics” (Tomšič 90). The disproportion reveals a fundamental social antagonism, a gap in which the novel refuses to fill.
Similarly, in her contribution, “Bleakness,” Elisha Cohn writes that Bleak House “thwarts the production of stable knowledge” and in her connection between the “novel’s deferral,” and her own “theoretical bent toward the inassimilable, the incommensurable,” I find my own resonance, yet with a particular recognition of the negative, in a structural sense, as opposed to the realm of affective feeling and mood. While an avalanche of affective responses has descended post-Nov. 8th, if, following Steinlight, the novel offers its own “political force,” I’m wondering if we can suspend “thinking about feeling,” in deference to thinking through structural antagonisms, a project that seems especially suited to Bleak House. While we undoubtedly “experience a world” while reading Bleak House, what possibilities emerge out of inhabiting the novel’s moodiness and bleakness that offer avenues for construction of a new world, “shared but nonteleological?” For me, these concerns look more structural than affective.
Like Steinlight’s notion of surplus as subject, Cohn locates the collective within Bleak House through the lingering bleakness as a “global effect,” and her own observations of narrative temporality: “In the third-person, present-tense narrative it evokes an ongoing, systemic process never to be completed and not located in or attributable to any one consciousness or agent.” Relatedly, in his contribution, “Anthropocene Inscriptions: Reading Global Synchrony,” Jesse Oak Taylor insists on a synchronous collective through atmospheric reading: “the Victorian past becomes not merely proximate but densely, literally, atmospherically, and combustively present in the substance of a shared geological moment.” In this sense Dickens and Bleak House are anything but “untimely.” Dickens world is our world. To return to Marx and Tomšič, Bleak House produces a collective subject, both in and out of time, refusing the model of the novel as container for liberal individualism; in its dislocations of temporality, and atmospheric insistence, the novel provides a subjective space for possibility, without easily lending itself to positivistic knowledge production.
To conclude, I turn briefly to the titular allusion to The Smiths, and two relevant lines from their 1985 song, “How Soon Is Now.” As Simon Goddard notes, the particular lyrics actually allude to another Victorian monster, Eliot’s Middlemarch: “to be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular.” The lines also provided initial homophonic confusion for producer John Porter, misinterpreting the lines as “ethereal metaphor ‘I am the sun and the air’” (Goddard). This convergence between the lines’ economic and ecologic origins (or, what amounts to an atmospheric misreading) might be particularly apt for a future in which the sun and air preside over “nothing in particular,” brought upon by “production for the sake of production” (Marx 742). In Morrissey and Marr’s lines we also find particular relevance to Richard Carstone and his sense of being out of place, tangled within the infamous Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, which in its later stages can only refer to “nothing in particular”; but the lines also resonate with our own moment as well. Are we not now all sons and daughters of “nothing in particular?” Don’t we all, like Richard, feel like “a part of a great gaming system?” (265). Is this bleak? If, like The Smiths in the middle of the reign of Thatcher, we are “nothing in particular,” then can we not construct something new? Can we not begin the world anew: “Not this world, O not this! The world that sets this right” (Dickens 979).
University of Illinois at Chicago
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House, ed. Nicola Bradbury. Penguin, 2003.
Goddard, Simon. Songs That Saved Your Life (Revised Edition): The Art of The Smiths 1982-87. Titan Books, 2013.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Penguin, 1990.
Tomšič, Samo. The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan. Verso, 2015.