Reflection by David Womble

Emily Steinlight has created a way of talking about the aggregation of bodies as something generated from within a recognizable history of political and economic activity in the Victorian era that nevertheless threatens the coherence of the terms such as nation, class, and race in which we have hitherto understood Victorian demographics. Populating The Novel succinctly formulates a dialectic between forms of demographic order and the populations that exceed and overwhelm those forms. Templates for organizing populations inevitably end up assembling quantities of mass life that distend those templates, even as the political future of Victorian society comes to depend on the struggle to manage that surplus. This is a political paradigm with far-reaching application beyond Marx and Malthus, who appear to provide the conceptual model. She manages to think about aggregated bodies at a higher level of abstraction than nearly any other studies, which have generally specified the statistical aggregates of Victorian sociology, the citizenry represented through liberal government, the working-class populations assembled economically, the urban crowds targeted by political economists, and instantiations of the collective human species by enumerating their differences from one another. Steinlight identifies her dialectic of totality and excess operating across this varied field of discourse, from which literature emerges with a distinctive role. By overpopulating itself, generating more life and lives within its pages than it can fully account for in terms of plot and character, fiction mediates as fact the presence of life in excess of existing forms for organizing life—essentially prodding into motion the dialectical attempt of systems of demographic management to incorporate, eject, or reform a range of slippery surplus populations.

This argument puts the terms “population” and “surplus” under considerable strain in holding these diverse cultural contexts together. “The accumulation of life in excess of its means” (9) provides a searching formulation for illustrating the Malthusian premises to population management and colonial expansion, for instance, but offers a comparatively loose analytic for the influence of Darwin’s work, which centered more on the ways variation could be counted on to enter a field of selection during long periods of stasis than on a struggle over means of subsistence. Elsewhere, we are told that the biologization of population management occurred “in concert with the quantitative social sciences,” which is certainly true in a historical sense. By contrast to other aspects of her argument, however, it is a somewhat anemic account of the suggestive conflicts between sociology and the physical sciences; between the disembodied, abstract quality of action when statistically computed, and the situational, processual interaction between a body and its highly particularized environment under physiology.

What is most interesting about the differential application of her argumentative model across such a wide discursive landscape, however, are not the rare points of weakness it reveals. Rather, the strain placed on a single set of terms to describe different forms of collective belonging and mass behavior in the Victorian era points to the differing requirements various forms of massification made on those who belonged to them. As an example: when George Eliot’s Felix Holt (1866) has Felix stand trial for a crime committed en masse by a crowd he was attempting to disperse, he is told at once that to belong to a crowd is to be caught up in a system of actions that are not your own, and to belong to a liberal citizenry is to be held personally responsible, with the assumption of conscious intent, for the behavior of your person. The one form of demography usurps action from the individual, the other insists on returning it. There is a kind of incoherence among different modes of aggregation, and the body seems to be a prime point of contention as the shared object of competing enrollments. If, as Populating the Novel indisputably shows, the value attached to any given life was continually being renegotiated through the management of populations necessary and populations redundant, Felix embodies an overlap between the category of sociological redundancy (the crowd) and the category of liberal belonging (the juridical subject). While Steinlight admirably wrests the Victorian novel away from traditions of novel theory focused on individuality, her account of dynamics at the scale of the population invites potentially rich new explorations of what happens to first-person experience within her schema.

%d bloggers like this: