Reflection by Rithika Ramamurthy
Emily Steinlight’s book Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life is a work of scholarship that fulfills and exceeds the multitude of promises contained in its title. After describing and delineating the overcrowded demographics of Romantic and Victorian writing, Steinlight makes a provocative claim about population: in an age of efflorescence of biopolitical principles and quantitative social science, population becomes a political, economic, sociological, and, above all, literary problem. Nineteenth century novels invent and inspire a new political paradigm, one that mobilizes “a vast and heterogeneous human aggregate that contractual models of society could no longer govern” (3). Reading Gaskell, Dickens, Hardy, and several others, Steinlight demonstrates how novels produce populations which their societies cannot count, care for, or contain. This literary overproduction shows that rather than slipping into the solipsism of personal progress narratives, nineteenth century novels shift their focus from the individual to the aggregate, formalizing the problems of surplus life and promoting a “politics for which the individual is no longer the basic integer and social integration no longer the telos” (15).
Steinlight’s deft attendance to literary texts and the dynamic agility of her argument follows through on the methodological polemic offered in her introduction. If I can condense that idea, it would say this: literary form is not a simple census or ideological tool. In opposition to the proliferating positivist interest in empirical observation, description, and extraction of information from novel systems within literary studies, Steinlight prizes literary form for its ability to make the mass defy every referent, emphasizing the “systematic emplotment of superfluity” and “semantic incoherence” surrounding every attempt at representing multitudes (20, 22). She further defends narrative against any subjugation to political theory by suggesting that rather than naively serving as an “explanatory device for culture’s ordering logic,” literature ingeniously “exposes the inadequacy of existing political structures” (222, 141). In other words, novels do not simply reflect the terrors of life stripped of political agency or enact the tabulation and production of subjectivities, but instead tackle the contradictions within the biopolitical model itself, the paradox that “population management produces the problem it has to manage” (11). This problem, the problem of surplus life, becomes an “empty signifier in an affirmative sense,” an open-ended possibility of a collective subject that evades every predetermined representation (22). Steinlight’s ambitious argument is supported by sensitive and sophisticated close readings, all of which insist on mediation and autonomy as the primary aspects of novelistic power. In this way, she truly takes the torch from Jacques Rancière, acknowledging the intellectual influence of The Politics of Literature (2011) while performing rich readings that surpass any simple extension of his work. The surplus life generated by literature thus becomes an exciting figuration of political resistance rather than another reflection of our social ruin.
I think we need, in our particularly desperate political moment, this kind of attitude towards publics and people. In our cultural present and contemporary literary studies alike, there is a tendency towards a particular account of networks and power that posits society and its subjects as entirely produced: there is no outside of ideology, we are told. The problem with this is that social life is emptied of any possibility for resistance, and the novel becomes an object that simply reflects our total domination. The readings in Populating the Novel are especially exciting because they present a set of contradictions in these systems that seem to produce our lives, and use literature to light up that problematic. In other words, we are not just products of ideology and power; there is still room for us to be something that we may not know. In my own work, I am driven by this question of how collectivities both live and know in large systems. What sort of ideas can art have about an outside within these systems, and how do representations of common life reach for new notions of social being, for “obscure claim[s] of community”? (207) The novel can provide us with a plan for knowing the modes by which we are mediated en masse, and perhaps that is all we need from it.