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  • Making the World Safe for Narratology: A Reply to Dorrit Cohn
  • John Bender (bio)

According to Dorrit Cohn’s own description in Transparent Minds, free indirect discourse (FID) is a device “for rendering a character’s thought in his own idiom while maintaining the third-person reference and the basic tense of narration.” Flaubert, the technique’s consummate master, vividly formulated its paradoxical effect in realist fiction in a letter of 18 March 1857: “The illusion (if there is one) comes . . . from the impersonality of the work. . . . The artist in his work must be like God in his creation—invisible and all-powerful: he must be everywhere felt, but never seen.” Thus, I argue in Imagining the Penitentiary that FID disperses authoritative presence into the very third-person grammar and syntax through which the illusion of consciousness is created in realist fiction. The technique’s historically specific emergence correlates with the array of impersonal authority epitomized in the Panopticon scheme, in which Bentham insisted upon the “apparent omniscience” of the inspector as a structural position rather than a personal attribute. Bentham’s idealized plan—never actually built yet refined into ever more ethereal form by its author—revealed that the operational fact of the penitentiary is what he called the “principle of inspection,” not the person of the inspector. The point is not that the actual inspector-keeper is really omniscient, or even that the principle’s operation requires the presence of a personal inspector, but rather that the imputational transparency of Panopticon architecture—like the third-person position in the narration of consciousness—forces him to be imagined as all knowing. Reformation hinges upon the conviction that omniscience enfolds being.

Imagining the Penitentiary does not claim that the inspector, or the narrating grammar in FID, exerts control in obvious ways (as Dorrit Cohn seems to believe) or, indeed, that the realist novel indoctrinates readers. On the contrary, two chapters closely analyzing both Fielding’s novelistic practice and his legal career show how the exercise of power began to shift around mid-century from direct, personally embodied actors (like the intrusively omniscient narrator of Tom Jones) to an impersonal, disembodied matrix that established conditions of possibility [End Page 29] for the modern subject. Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) laid bare the crucial paradox: that the complex, reflective depth manifest in the metropolitan citizen/subject, no less than the freedom of which Dorrit Cohn makes so much, is coextensive with an introjection of the general will as “impartial spectator.” The sympathetic interchange of “I” and “other” is, for Smith, the fundamental psychic mechanism establishing social order. The freedom of the deep, first-person subject and the invisible web of power functioning as third-person presence in individual conscience are indissolubly fused. I maintain no more than that Smith’s impartial spectator, Bentham’s Panopticon, and the emergence of new devices for the narration of consciousness are salient topographic features that allow us to view the coming to being of a profound sociocultural code.

The seven chapters of Imagining the Penitentiary (upon the last of which Dorrit Cohn focuses) trace the emergence of this code with specific reference to the realist novel’s “enablement” of the rise of reformative confinement. Although the book is not a treatise in narratology, it does locate specific narrative procedures in a network of physical and textual conditions characteristic of emergent modernity: the mapping of the subject’s (typically metropolitan) life on precise temporal/spatial grids; the use of accounting, record keeping, advertising, and detection to track behavior; the increasing importance of exact circumstantial evidence in written indictments and of lawyerly interventions to enhance the coherence of the defense in criminal trials; ongoing philosophical discussions by Hume, Bentham, and others reflecting a crisis in the standing of fictionality itself and pointing to an endemic novelization of experience; and, above all, the emergence of constitutive impersonality as the operational condition of subjective identity in fields as diverse as juridical, visual, architectural, and novelistic representation—as well as in institutional practices such as those of the penitentiary. The peculiar form of disembodied presence that I detect in the contemporaneous emergence of FID for the narration of...

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pp. 29-33
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