Robert Mitchell. Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era: System, State Finance, and the Shadows of Futurity.
Robert Mitchell's Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era: Systems, State Finance, and the Shadows of Futurity is an ambitious, provocative, and occasionally frustrating account of what he sees as systemic "resonances" between crises in state finances and literary and philosophical speculations about the nature of sympathy and the imagination over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As the somewhat unwieldy title and subtitle of the book suggests, Mitchell is decidedly more fox than hedgehog; the book defies easy summarization and starts many more hares than it could possibly chase down. This is the kind of book in which one can find the germ of a fruitful research project on almost every page, and one looks forward to the catalytic effect it should have on scholarship in this area.
In some ways, the entire study is merely a case-study for a larger meta-argument that Mitchell proposes in his introduction and occasionally references in the course of the book. That argument has to do with the vexed question of the relationship between what Marxist critics would call "base" and "superstructure": politico-economic and socio-cultural histories. Mitchell draws on systems theory (notably the work of Niklas Luhmann) to argue that rather than trying to posit the causal priority of either, one should instead see these realms as quasi-independent "systems," each of which constitutes the other, to some extent, as the "environment" within which it operates. Certain structural or operational features of each system, then, might, under the right circumstances establish a "resonance" with corresponding features of the other system without the question of causal direction ever becoming pertinent.
This is a plausible and attractive argument--avoiding both the problem of reducing literature and philosophy to mere epiphenomena of "real" processes that are working themselves out elsewhere and the problem of trying to trace the steps from the writing of a poem to the fall of a government--but it faces the same evidentiary problems as all the other ways of constructing this relationship: without parallel universes to play with, we're not going to settle the issue any time soon.
More troublingly, Mitchell's book seems curiously out of step with his own meta-argument. Each chapter moves, both rhetorically and chronologically, from some large economic or political crisis to the literary and philosophical works that--implicitly or explicitly--"reflect" some aspect of the logic of that crisis. In Chapter one, we move from that Rosetta Stone of financial panics--the South Sea Bubble of 1720-21--to what Mitchell sees as the accompanying conceptual transformation of the "imagination" from a purely individual and private faculty to a social medium that allows for systemic intercommunication. The central burden of this chapter is to show that David Hume's theory of "sympathy" in his Treatise of Human Nature derives, in turn, from this "social" form of contagious "imagination." Mitchell argues that Hume places this communicative sympathy at the heart of his version of the originary founding convention that inaugurates a society. Hume thereby makes systemic emergence a generative act of speculative social "investment" akin to that act of social imagination that is the sine qua non both of speculative bubbles and a state financial system grounded in widescale individual investment in a "National" debt.
Chapter two springs off from the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and contemporary attacks on the national debt system of state finances in both England and France as being "intrinsically linked to domestic and international violence" (22). Mitchell explores contrasting responses to the challenge this connection posed to sentimental moral philosophers, to whom it suggested that a society founded in sympathetic imagination must necessarily devolve into violent faction. On the one hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau develops a "haptopraxology" that short-circuits the inevitably corrupting sympathetic social bonds in favor of a pre-rational, pre-reflective mode of "identification." On the other hand, Adam Smith grounds and limits the potentially inflationary growth of new (and divisive) systems of social sympathy by grounding all forms of social sympathy in an originary, unpayable "debt" of sympathy to the dead, establishing a kind of "gold standard" by which all future expenditures of social sympathy are controlled.
The third chapter turns to the slave trade and its poetic opposition--maintaining the link to the state finance system by noting the contemporary anti-abolition argument that hinged on the significance of the slave-trade to continued servicing of the national debt. Mitchell here sees the different strategies for mobilizing social sympathy against slavery as rooted in either a Smithian or Humean understanding of sympathy. The Smithians, such as William Cowper or Hannah More, try to integrate the sufferings of the slaves into the existing, limited economy of social sympathy by straightforward representation: see the suffering slave, feel for him as a man and a brother. The Humeans, here represented largely by Ann Yearsley, seize upon the disruptive possibilities of a foundational sympathy to generate a novel relationship to a "virtual" futurity in which the system of capitalist exploitation is imaginatively overthrown.
In the fourth chapter Mitchell turns to Wordsworth and the Bank Restriction Act of 1797, by which banks were relieved of the requirement to convert paper money into specie on demand. He also describes Wordsworth's own more visceral experiences as both debtor and, on receiving his legacy from Raisley Calvert, ("usurious") creditor. In response to these public and private experiences of the power, and fragility, of the imaginative social bonds of "credit," Wordsworth, Mitchell argues, became fascinated with what Michel Serres describes as "parasitic" relationships. For Serres, all forms of social communion and communication have at least one aspect that is "parasitic" or unidirectional, and these relationships are the sites from which systemic innovation or reinvention can emerge. Mitchell's reading of "The Old Cumberland Beggar" in terms of its curious chains of such "parasitings" (the birds feed from the crumbs that the beggar's palsied hands let fall, the beggar feeds from the charity of the villagers, etc.) is certainly suggestive, although from Serres' point of view, it is impossible to describe any kind of social relationship that is free of such parasitism. In any case, Mitchell's larger argument is yet another version of the familiar turncoat-Wordsworth narrative. Whereas the young Wordsworth valorizes the "parasite" for its capacity for systemic innovation--specifically figuring the poet himself as imaginative and sympathetic parasite--a more financially secure Wordsworth becomes "a respectable part of the existing system" (158) and reconceives the poet's power not as sympathetic parasitism but as complete "identification." The poet becomes another gold-standard controlling the potentially dangerous forces of sympathetic imagination for the good of the whole.
The final chapter turns to Shelley and his Cobbett-inspired preoccupation with the "fraudulent" system of paper-money. Mitchell provides a tremendously helpful overview of the complex political and economic context which informed Shelley's repeated attacks on the system of paper money and the financing of the national debt. It is curious, though, that in his extended discussion of Shelley's A Philosophical View of Reform, Mitchell never addresses Shelley's actual proposal for solving--or dissolving--the problem: for the nation to simply halt payment and "let the mortgagee foreclose," necessitating a transfer of landed property between different members of the aristocratic and moneyed elites but sparing the lower classes the burden of paying interest on the debt via taxation. Mitchell's interest is rather in Shelley's poetic response, his "imageless images" which, rather in the mode of Yearsley's antislavery poetry, construct bonds of sympathy with a futurity that owes no debt to the dead or the past. Shelley takes up Wordsworth's "identification" but makes it an identification that breaks us out of the current system rather than one that confirms us in its existing logic.
This is, as one can readily see, a rich and thought-provoking collection of arguments, one that will spur many scholars to think anew about the relationship between poetry and economic history, about the artificial limits of conventional periodization (this is a "long Romanticism" with a vengeance), and perhaps above all about the surprisingly varied political possibilities contained within the discourses of "sensibility." In the spirit of that anticipated fruitful engagement, however, it is worth noting a major problem with Mitchell's argument as it stands, which can perhaps be seen most clearly in his reading of Adam Smith's discussion of our sympathy with the dead. Far from describing this as a "debt" that we owe to the dead (and very, very far from the "possession of the living by the dead" that Mitchell describes ), Smith's point in telling us that we "sympathize even with the dead" (my emphasis) is to remind us that sympathy is not a medium of communication at all; it is a projection that we make upon the world in the face of certain, purely contingent, circumstances. Our sympathy for the dead, Smith insists, is entirely misplaced, "overlooking what is of real importance in their situation" (i.e, eternal salvation) and focusing on ills which are no ills to them: "[t]he happiness of the dead, however, most assuredly, is affected by none of these circumstances."
This may seem like a minor quibble, but it poses a serious challenge to a fundamental premise of Mitchell's argument. What Smith tells us is that sympathy is not and cannot be a medium of communication. It is not even a parasitic form of one-way communication in the Serresian mode; rather, it is an affective response to information that is, in itself, neutral. As such, it simply cannot be the medium of the kinds of systemic communicative processes that Mitchell's argument requires it to be. At least, it cannot do so until some concept of a genuinely communicative imagination--something like Coleridge's "primary imagination" for example--emerges in European literature and philosophy. This is, of course, to throw the cold water of conventional periodization over Mitchell's argument, but in the end it simply is not the case that Hume or Smith or any of the major early and mid-eighteenth-century philosophers of moral sentiments conceived of imagination or sympathy as directly communicative.
University of California, Irvine
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2010|
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