John Plotz, The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics.
In The Crowd, John Plotz redefines the nineteenth-century public sphere as a space of competing discourses. Plotz positions his argument in opposition to more static or exclusionary models, specifically Gustave Le Bon's Les Foules, which "makes the contingent configuration of working-class protest seem a deep-seated fact of the human psyche" (4), and Jurgen Habermas' Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which credits the public sphere primarily to bourgeois rationalism. Among the many discourses that constitute the public sphere, Plotz argues, literature finds itself in direct contention with the emerging "voice" of London's gathered masses. He goes on to explain that, while a study of crowds provides a valuable means for understanding the struggle for representation, the period's literature, uniquely responsive to the phenomenon of crowds, provides a passageway into their midst.
Interested in both random and politically-charged crowds, Plotz arranges his book to trace a gradual development toward the latter. The first part, "1800-1821," includes chapters on William Wordsworth's "Residence in London" (from The Prelude), Maria Edgeworth's Harrington, and Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The second part, "1839-1849," includes chapters on De Quincey's "The English Mail-Coach," Thomas Carlyle's Chartism, and Charlotte Bronte's Shirley. A brief in-between section notes a shift in crowd phenomena, from bearing "signs of mental imbalance and associated irrationality" to "representing the nation as a whole" (98). The continuity implied by this chronological structure is potentially misleading. The inconsistency of historical and textual variables--that is, the disparate nature of the crowds discussed and the idiosyncracies of their respective authors--somewhat cripples the validity of larger implications. The crowd in "The English Mail-Coach," for instance, consists of spectators bound by a common object of stimulation, while those confronted by Wordsworth are mere inhabitants of the city, using the streets for their various purposes. Some authors are writing autobiographically about crowds really experienced, while others are not. This weakness is partially attended to by the inclusion of two De Quincey pieces--each presenting a very different kind of crowd--as a contrastive juncture between the book's two halves. Still, it seems that a study of crowds similar in purpose and constitution would, from an historical vantage, be more productive.
The ambiguity of the term "crowd" itself (the "gray space" that, ironically, gives the author room to work) further complicates Plotz's hypotheses. Though Plotz notes this ambiguity in his introduction, his book does little to resolve it. Sustained attention to the word's structural complexities as well as a sharpening of the distinctions between its various manifestations would aid the process of deduction.
The Crowd's strengths may be located in its careful examination of the relationship between public politics and literary texts. Suspended in the balance of these adversarial claims for representation is a question of tremendous consequence: what is acceptable as public speech? In the book's strongest chapter, Plotz refers to the Chartist demonstrations of the 1840s as an early argument for crowd actions as collective speech. These peaceful, organized calls for working-class representation redefined the distinctions between public speech and mere bodily intervention. While the Chartist demonstrations posed one threat to the rational-critical discourse of Parliament, Carlyle's Chartism emerged as a rival to both. According to Carlyle, the Chartist crowds embody a "deep dumb inarticulate want" of the English people--a raw and indivisible craving shrouded by multiple political objectives. While these crowds possess an important message, they lack the language to communicate it. Carlyle himself assumes the task, then, of tapping into this message, to "explain the crowds of Chartism better than they understood and explained themselves" (131).
Inherent in Carlyle's rejection of Chartism is an aesthetic dependency upon it; his eccentric style functions as a replacement for rationality and thus imitates the "inarticulate want" of Chartist demonstrators. Throughout The Crowd, Plotz supports his claims with lively close analysis, this time illustrating Carlyle's textual displacement of Chartist intentions:
Action is taken away from men here, and vested in time ("history"), taken away from time and vested in machines ("'National Petition' [...] in wagons"), taken away from machines and vested in Parliament ("Reformed House of Commons"), taken away from Parliament and vested in ambiguous statistical abstractions ("Chartism numbered by the million and half"), taken away from abstractions and vested in weapons ("brickbats, cheap pikes"), taken away from weapons and vested in natural phenomena ("conflagration"). (139-40)
Plotz is quick to link Carlyle's denial of working-class speech, his attempt to swallow up a threatening discourse, to the "redemptive" violence of Sorel and the fascism of Mussolini. A political movement like Chartism, he points out, cannot succeed without public consensus of a connection between massed bodies and signification.
Plotz works diligently throughout The Crowd to undermine his authors' intentions--to show, that is, how texts designed to control or replace the threat of crowds actually draw from them as an aesthetic resource. Chapter One locates in Wordsworth's description of crowds a departure from the "salutary alienation" experienced by Western European writers, including Goethe and Kleist. While Wordsworth's experience with foreign crowds is pleasant enough, native crowds become for him sites of illegibility and alienation. Anonymity in a place of presumed homogeneity becomes a threat to social order and personal control; the crowd, Plotz argues, deprives Wordsworth of his "ability to distinguish between reality and spectacle" (30). This presents the poet with an artistic challenge: his imagination must strive to overcome the crowd's usurping powers. Summoning his muse, he seeks aesthetic elevation "Above the press and danger of the crowd." But a contradiction exists between Wordsworth's insistence on the crowd's nullifying effect, and textual evidence that his poetry is enriched by it. Aesthetic pleasure, Plotz concludes, is in fact heightened by a limited presence of the nonaesthetic: "Because a glimpse of London with its crowds seems--but only seems--to shatter the aesthetic spell, it actually provides an enhancement of the power of that spell" (38).
Plotz maintains a similar argument in his discussion of Edgeworth's Harrington, which pits domestic space against a volatile public. Though the protagonist must overcome his own anti-Semitism, the novel's more serious threat emanates from an irrational public--the spreading of prejudice through congregated bodies. Succeeding through its employment of the crowd where its forerunner The Absentee failed, Harrington makes a strong case against a unified national body. As in Wordsworth's "Residence in London," the presence of an outside threat enhances its alternatives, in this case romance and domesticity. Ethnic diversity becomes in Harrington an important means to "establishing a properly bounded social space" (53). Members of the British middle class are shown to depend on Jewish innovations for their own security. Cash, Plotz suggests, becomes a tool for both disguising and protecting one's identity and values. Art also assumes a very practical value, as it opens a space for sympathy; it is during a performance of The Merchant of Venice that Harrington learns to sympathize with the Jewish people. While Edgeworth borrows readily from the crowd's energy, she manages to contain it within "rigidly controlled spaces" (72). According to Plotz, her work requires a crowd "chaotic" yet "ultimately masterable" (74).
De Quincey enjoys no such power in his Confessions, where the crowds are authoritative precisely because of their transitory nature. Even when present they are fleeting, and in De Quincey's memories they traverse the threshold "between reliable physical fact and powerful but intangible mental recall" (79). There exists within the crowd a simultaneous inclusion and separation, and, in De Quincey's case, real absence makes for powerful memories. Among the most poignant is that of "Ann," a "street-walker" who had rescued De Quincey on a cold night with a glass of wine. Not knowing her whereabouts, whether she lives or has died, becomes for De Quincey a source of perpetual anguish; Ann's lack of concrete identity makes her an even stronger presence in the writer's memory. Plotz broadens the correlation, stating that to lack social identity is to gain textual strength--there is a romanticized pleasure, he contends, in "not knowing." The excesses of the crowd are paralleled by the excesses of De Quincey's text; both produce a sense of the world even when that world is no longer present. The crowd's instability, Plotz continues, is similar to the uncertainties of reading and writing.
Stability is not so elusive in "The English Mail-Coach," written twenty-eight years after the Confessions. The radiant power of this crowd, as it bustles out to receive news of British military victories, remains intact. It becomes possible to assume momentarily a "British" identity, before becoming once again, and without regret, an individual. Conscious of itself as a singular national body, the linearly connected mail-coach crowd celebrates that singularity. The experience is unique in its contingency on the news being strictly national and nonreciprocal, as well as its allowance for a direct enjoyment of both medium and message. De Quincey's language again works to recreate the crowd's peculiar power, establishing a sense of a single yet infinitely repeated occurrence. Plotz finds evidence in this relationship of what he considers an underdeveloped observation by Habermas: the displacement of aristocratic power by a new aesthetic power in the early nineteenth century. In this case, by way of imitation, De Quincey's literary text replaces the mail-coach, an institution of government.
In his final chapter, "Producing Privacy in Public: Charlotte Bronte's Shirley," Plotz makes some interesting though short-lived connections regarding gender. The novel's major female characters, Shirley and Caroline, are positioned throughout as spectators; their role is to observe and to judge, but not to act. Their witnessing of machine-worker rebellions testifies to another important feature of crowds: one can be within them yet remain obscured. Once again Plotz sets out to show how the text contends with what is perceived as a dangerous public force. Just as Carlyle appointed himself representative of the Chartists, Bronte comes to represent the Luddites, an historical group of laborers who "violently resisted the influx of labor-eliminating machinery" (157). In Shirley, the working class exists only as a crowd, not as individuals, and it is their potential identity as a "mob" that justifies violence against them. Like Edgeworth, Bronte molds from the crowd's presence an intensified private space, and a "higher sort of mental freedom" (156).
In focusing on conflict within the public sphere, The Crowd paints a mostly sinister picture of nineteenth-century British literature. Plotz wants his readers to recognize, however, that the textual manipulation of the working-class struggle for political representation is also a kind of acknowledgment. "In reading a novel that teaches one to be self-scrutinizing," he states near the book's end, "a member of the upper classes comes to count him- or herself as part of a certain sort of public" (188). Plotz's emphasis on the instability of meaning, and his sensitivity to the resistance that always attends structures of power, reveal a deep understanding of post-structuralist theory, namely that of Derrida, Foucault, and de Certeau. Although these names are curiously absent from the text, their influence is present throughout. The result is a highly accessible book, informed by but not subservient to theory.
The Crowd's insights shed additional light on studies of contemporary space. Plotz's outlining of a social panic in the early nineteenth century, for instance, suggests a deep history behind the "fear of crowds" discussed by Mike Davis (City of Quartz) as a characteristic of postmodern L.A., whose rapid privatization of public space and obsession with security have frightening implications. Our understanding of public politics assumes, of course, a heightened degree of urgency in the wake of September 11, as the categorizing of "crowds" becomes--as in Shirley--a means to justifying and executing violence.
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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