David Simpson. Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity.
David Simpson's gorgeously written, audacious study gives us a haunted Wordsworth, an occupant and observer of a modern capitalist world's "ghost-ridden dark and twilight zones" (3). By characterizing him in these terms, Simpson is in part calling attention to how obsessively William Wordsworth's verse treats figures--like the discharged soldier of The Prelude, Book 4, the old Cumberland beggar, or Margaret in "The Ruined Cottage"--who are spooky in their de-animated, death-in-life demeanor and their tragic disconnection from human sociality. He is also underlining how Wordsworth's self-representations partake of the same spectrality, so that the poet somehow "wanders lonely" even when, as Dorothy Wordsworth's journals indicate, he ought by rights to describe himself as enjoying company. To approach this Romantic ghost world Simpson takes a path distinct from that followed by the many Romanticists who, while aligning Wordsworth and Freud, have foregrounded the elegiac strain in verse that seems forever to be rehearsing loss (of Lucy, of a younger self, of his brother John) and that brings the dead back only to lose them once more. The spectrality this book treats is likewise misapprehended if construed as a link connecting Wordsworth to the Romantic period's Gothic tales and ballads and so as yet another indication that a poet in his day perforce lived (as Thomas Love Peacock complained) "in the days that are past" and was obliged to make exploded superstition and premodern custom his stock-in-trade. On the contrary, the ghost-seeing recorded by Wordsworth's verse and demanded of his readers is not the product of a backward look, but rather, Simpson insists, a marker of this poet's ongoing relevance. Wordsworth's specters "express the conditions of their time, which is ... still our time and as far as we can see the time still to come" (11). The poetry in which they feature is the "vehicle of an unresolved history we still inhabit" (13), one reason Simpson has found himself returning to it, making this his third book on Wordsworth (Wordsworth and the Figurings of the Real appeared in 1982, and Wordsworth's Historical Imagination in 1987). In its dramatization of indigence, dislocation, and disconnection, guilt and sorrow, Wordsworth's "poetics of modernity" represents, Simpson avers, a signal resource with which to theorize the conditions of human existence in a modern lifeworld shaped by the achieved dominance of the commodity form.
In Specters of Marx--a key resource for this argument--Derrida pondered the claim about the "specter" "haunting Europe" that had opened Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto and noted that "there are several times of the specter." By returning, the revenant might testify either "to a living past or to a living future." The capitalist societies who post-1989 triumphally declared communism history--obsolescent, a dead end--should have remembered, Derrida suggests, that precisely in never dying the ghost remains both "to come-back" and "to come" (trans. Peggy Kamuf [Routledge, 1994], 99). Through brilliant readings of an immense range of Wordsworth's poems, Simpson seeks in a similar fashion to rebuke accounts of Wordsworth as history, a figure so distant in time from us as to be over and done with. (Generally this is his students' response, he notes in an Introduction whose attention to the travails of pedagogy will, for many academic readers, occasion gleams of recognition and remembered sensations of sad perplexity.) For Simpson, the ghostly figures in Wordsworth's works, rather than blasts from the past, "haunt the present from the present itself" (145). Thus Simpson's Wordsworth finally places little credit in the Burkean traditionalism and attendant notions of an organic social solidarity that he sometimes espoused. He is notable, rather, for his insight into the abstraction, hollowness, and deadness that commodification introduces into human relations. The sense of hauntedness infusing Wordsworth's poetry is the vehicle for that insight into commodification's effects. It registers, as well, the shock of the sociohistorical transition to a world in which the power of the commodity form was augmented by new forms of machine labor, industrial automation, and mass warfare, which "brutally emphasized the general equivalence of everyone to everyone else" (8).
Those Victorian admirers like Mill and Arnold who read Wordsworth nostalgically for his "premodern inclinations" were obliged, Simpson insists, in a running argument with a heritage industry version of Wordsworth, to overlook "the darker intuitions which do not lend themselves to ready consolation" (5): for a start, the sense of impotence that his narrators insist upon, sometimes a touch evasively, when they recount their "concern" for the beggars, war widows, wounded veterans, gypsies, and other specters of capitalist history who cross their paths. Indeed, a particularly impressive feature of Simpson's study is the careful analysis of the complex ethics of concern elaborated by these "uncomfortable," "error-prone," and "alienated" narrators (119). "Concern means being involved and attentive and aware of oneself being so; aware also that concern is not enough, that it does not solve anything.... It is generated by the coexistence of radical subjectivity (acute awareness of how and what one feels) with radical injustice or suffering, and it cannot bring the gap" (5). The narrators' concern is at once an acknowledgement that the poverty they have bumped into is desperately difficult to remedy and, counterbalancing this, as Simpson says (sensitively registering the bad faith sometimes incipient within this stance), an "inclination to arrest practical response by recourse to a state of reflexive bewilderment" (60).
The challenge that a modern world governed by commodity logic posed and poses is epistemological as well as ethical. As Simpson states at the outset, "the increasing dominance of commodity form over labor, productivity, and value has no single, visible form; it is apprehended as uncanny ... deeply unknowable and mysterious" (9)- "Figures in the mist" is the title Simpson gives to his third chapter, which he devotes to close-grained analyses of (among other texts) "Poor Susan" and the discharged soldier episode of The Prelude 4: there he draws on both Giorgio Agamben's discussions (in The Coming Community) of the refugee as modern everyman and Marx's discussion (in The Eighteenth Brumaire) of the "lumpenproletariat" ("the fund from which the capitalist economy selects and discards according to its needs" ) so as to trace the anxious self-reflexivity that colors Wordsworth's depictions of homelessness. But as Simpson well knows, that particular chapter title also recalls "the mist-enveloped regions" (Nebelregion) that Marx, in the chapter of Capital on "the fetishism of commodities," said that we wander through, blinded and baffled, as inhabitants of a world in which "the relation of the producers to ... their own labour" appears to them "as a social relation, existing not between themselves but between the products" that they have themselves produced (Lawrence and Wishart, 1954, 1:77). It was in acknowledgment of that optical illusion that Marx arranged--as Derrida stressed in Specters--for his account of commodity to be staged much as a Victorian-era seance would be, complete with the dancing tables. Being governed by the commodity form means being governed by occult, invisible forces.
Building on the scholarship of Alan Bewell, Celeste Langan, and Alan Liu, among others, Simpson intersperses his consistently brilliant, frequently moving readings of Wordsworth's poems with outlines of the sociohistorical transformations that England experienced as Wordsworth began his career. Readers learn, for example, about the organizational changes in the textiles industries that would have affected the characters in "The Ruined Cottage"; about new forms of machine labor, factory discipline, and the injuries they inflicted on the bodies of workers; about the accelerating migrations in and out of military service and between country and city that produced for the capitalist economy a reserve army of the poor. All such changes, Simpson proposes, helped enable and augment the power of the commodity form. Simpson also demonstrates the extent to which the rural enclaves that Wordsworth makes his scene of operation are themselves "contaminated by the organizing energies of industrial time and factory routine" (213). Wordsworth's reputation as a nature poet might invite us to mobilize tried and true oppositions between city and country when we read him, but "his anti-commodity subculture obeys in its deepest rhythms the logic of its antagonist" (213). (Simpson's first chapter thus opens with a striking discussion of that moment in The Prelude, Book 9 in which Wordsworth remembers how he and his revolutionist friend encountered in the French countryside a "hunger-bitten girl" mechanically knitting, letting herself being led by the heifer to whom she was tied: "She walks along a country lane but she might as well be in a factory, for she demonstrates exactly the symptoms that Marx would identify as typical of working with machines" . Wordsworth's specters, Simpson demonstrates, are the eerier for resembling automatons, making country lanes look like factory floors.) Simpson touches as well--for this reader, a bit too glancingly--on the accelerating commodification of the book trade and alterations in the profession of authorship. Through these means he aims to unpack the "psychoeconomics of insecurity" (13) that predisposes Wordsworth both to represent himself, with a soupcon of bad faith, as one of the dispossessed ("staging ... an imminent symmetry between the haves and have-nots" ) and to depict literary culture, as, for instance, in the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads or in The Prelude, Book 5, as though it were at death's door.
But because the commodity form's operations are "constitutively abstract," because commodification is a "secret ministry" operating in hidden ways that are felt to be deeply unknowable and mysterious (9) and that foreclose on our desire for "ocular evidence" (159), the empiricism of socio-economic history is here declared insufficient. Investigating the world remade by commodification we perforce must refer ourselves to "the evidence of things unseen" and hence, Simpson proposes, to theory as well as history (159). The embrace of post-structuralism in Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern is Simpson's way of registering and coping with the baffling contradictoriness of capitalism. As Wordsworth and Marx alike knew, a capitalist society looks materialist, but it worships immateriality, for in the sphere of the commodity form, the commodity is most itself when it is nothing but pure exchange value: "what we can see (the commodity as a thing) matters less than what we cannot see (the abstract power of developed commodity form) ... there is no 'thing in itself'" (152). Wordsworth's apprehension of the loss of empirical tangibility, the ever-increasing ghostliness of things, was in this sense a counterpart to his apprehension of the ascent of the commodity form. In the passage in Specters crucial for Simpson's argument, Derrida first explains that "the commodity is a 'thing' without phenomenon, a thing in flight that surpasses the senses" (150); then, refining this definition and referring to Marx's anthropomorphic talking, dancing tables, Derrida puts it this way: "here then is the apparition of a strange creature: at the same time, Life, Thing, Beast, Object, Commodity, Automaton--in a word, specter" (152).
The distinction between commodity and commodity form that Simpson recovers from Capital by way of Derrida is central to his discussion of Wordsworth's works, and it constitutes, like his exposition of the ethics of concern, a tremendously important contribution to Romantic studies' critical arsenal. Certainly, Wordsworth only rarely describes the exchange of consumable goods. (Armytage, though a peddler, seems never to have sold anything.) But Wordsworth's engagement with the formal dynamics of commodification nonetheless runs deep. And in helping us to grasp this, in recovering Wordsworth's commitment to the work of theory, Simpson gives us a Wordsworth we have scarcely noticed before: one who in fact looks--counterintuitively but compellingly--to be close kin to two archetypal poets of high capitalist culture and of the "urbanized imagination" (119): to Baudelaire, as read by Walter Benjamin, and Keats, as he is represented by Marjorie Levinson in Keats's Life of Allegory. (These resemblances are most conspicuous in Simpson's remarkable reading, in his fifth chapter, of the rehearsal of wealth-acquisition and imaginative cashing-in that Wordsworth stages in "I wandered lonely as a cloud": there dancing daffodils join in with Marx's dancing tables.) With exhilarating consequences, Simpson has, that is, depicted a poet who, like those two nineteenth-century successors, like Benjamin as well, undertakes his critique of commodity culture by immersing himself within it, a poet who is exercised by the question of how poetry can resist its own commodity status, by the troubling proximities between aesthetic detachment and the "death-in-life whose social correlative is alienation" (183), and between poetry's image-making and capitalist idolatry. Though the rash in some quarters of the contemporary academy to declare not just Marxist theory history but also historicist reading history may seem sometimes to suggest otherwise, these issues have not been resolved, anymore than the ghosts that haunted Wordsworth in 1800 have been laid.
University of Toronto
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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