In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

PREFACE T HIS BOOK starts from a sense of the inadequacy of critical efforts to define that elusive yet indispensable category of nineteenth-centuryfiction,“realism.”Whetherevaluatedpositively (as it is by Harry Levin and George Levine, as well as by Georg Lukács and Fredric Jameson) or pejoratively (as it is by Roland Barthes and Stephen Heath), realism over the last half-century has generally been taken as a synonym for representation, that is, as a joining of—or for some critics, a split between—words and things, conventions and reality, signifier and signified, or soul and form. Consequently , arguments about realism have tended to trail off into the sterilequestionofwhetherrealismgoesbeyondconventions,forms,or signifiers to represent reality “adequately”; or whether realism is merely the literary expression of a “naïve” philosophical assumption that the words in a realistic novel are transparent to a reality they represent; or whether realism on the contrary is an effort to achieve a fresh, defamiliarized vision of reality by breaking down conventions through parody, dialogization, or the mixing of styles. To go beyond this impasse without altogether abandoning realism as a category in literary history, we need to rethink the entire issue of realism in terms other than those of a problematic of representation, of the relation between words and things, signifiers and signifieds, conventions and reality. The way to do this, I believe, is to take seriously Bakhtin’s assertion that the novel is woven out of discourses (rather than out of signifiers or conventions). If the novel is a texture woven out of discourse, then one ought to be able to describe particularnovelisticgenres (therealisticnovel,thenaturalistnovel,thesensation novel, the modernist novel, the detective story, and so on) not by their implicit theories of representation—or of the impossibility of achievingrepresentation,asisoftensaidofmodernistfiction—butby thekindsofdiscourses,andtherelationsbetweendiscourses,thatpredominateineachgenre .Theresultofsuchadescriptionwillbetogive amorelocalprecisiontothe“real”oftherealisticnovel:arealthatcan then be aligned to the “real” offered by the specific discourses that novelists like Balzac, Flaubert, and Eliot adapt in distinctive ways. Thisbookhasmuchincommonwithwhathascometobecalledthe “new historicism” in nineteenth-century studies. Like such critics as D. A. Miller, Mark Seltzer, Jonathan Arac, and Catherine Gallagher, I set out to show how fiction is linked to hitherto overlooked but none- xii PREFA CE thelesspowerfullyinstitutionalizeddiscoursesoperatingwithina culture .ButIthinkthenewhistoricistenterprisewillremain unachieved so long as certain questions are left conveniently vague. The most important of these is the question of how the relationship between discourse and power should be understood. To both Seltzer and Miller, for example, discourses in the novel seem to exist only as a pretext for thepowerthatisexercisedthroughthem;bothcriticstendtosubsume the intricacies of criminology or moral management or sociology underthemorefundamentalphenomenonthatMillercallsa“general economy of policing.”1 I argue that this view of power is, if not mistaken , at the very least oversimplified. The problem is not that power actually has nothing to do with discourse (whether in a novel or in a culture), but rather that power is immanent in the particular discourses through which it functions. If a literary phenomenon such as realism emerges from a given cultural situation, we need to interpret it not by treating what goes on in a realistic novel as an allegory of the “generaleconomy”ofpower,butbyidentifyingthespecificdiscourses that are woven into the novel and tracing them in the culture at large backto their disciplinary precincts, the local sites wherethey exercise their power. Only by proceeding in this way, I think, can one hope to understand the cultural struggles in which these discourses engage and the role the novel can play in such struggles. IproposeinVital Signstointerpret worksof fictionwithina cultural context that is first and foremost a discursive one. Such an approach avoids oversimplification, but raises problems of its own. How does one decide which discourses might be reasonable starting points in the case of realistic fiction? In principle, a novel can accommodate anything from scientific jargon and professional argot to street slang andreligiouscant.Analyzingall,orevenasubstantialportion,ofthese discursive threads would be a hopeless task. To trace even a single thread through a series of novels and within the larger culture, on the other hand, would no doubt yield some insight into the texture of realism, even if that thread were only adventitiously woven into the texture. The problem, then, is a pragmatic one: which discourse offers the best Ansatzpunkt (to borrow Auerbach’s word), the most fruitfulpointofdeparture?Mychoicehasbeendeliberatelytorestrict this study to a single discourse whose network of relations I want to explore: that of nineteenth-century clinical medicine. As I point out in chapter one, clinical discourse seems attractive for several reasons. First,thismedicine’scharacteristics—itsrhetoricalrules,itsobjectsof knowledge, its aspirations...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.