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Reviews John Plotz, The Crowd: British Literature andPublicPolitics. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2000. xii + 263. The crowd in the nineteenth-century—'the great century of crowds'—was one of the most overdetermined denominations in the political vocabulary. In Whiggish discourse the modern crowd came of age in its transformation from the many headed monster rioting in the streets to a collective citizenry worthy of inclusion within the pale of the constitution, a tumultuous mob reincarnated as an assembly of the people. Yet for many commentators, particularly in continental Europe, the crowd continued to be nervously perceived as democracy in the raw. Thus while Baudelaire famously urged the artist to marry the crowd, a more common response came in pathological representations of the crowd as the multiple embodiment of the alcoholic male or the hysterical female. If the mass culture critique that emerged at the end of the century read the crowd as sedated by consumerism rather than assimilated as citizens, the unsettling sense of its contagious and mercurial suggestibility remained. John Plotz enters the discursive fray at the very beginning of the nineteenth-century, accompanying Wordsworth's travels across London as he struggles to decipher the anonymities of its teeming streets in his verse. Other texts under chapter length scrutiny for their accounts of the pullulating modern crowd are Edgeworth's Harrington, De Quincy's Confessions and "The English Mail Coach," Carlyle's Chartism, and Bronte's Shirley. It is the last two which most directly focus on the crowd as a political force that generated new forms of political action and new claims on public space. For Plotz, literature 90volume 27 number 2 Reviews not only records features of the crowd unnoticed in other historical sources, but plays a vital role in the discursive representation of the crowd in its bid for political representation; literature helps to define and constitute a new public sphere and its actors in a dynamic dialectic of aesthetics and politics, "establishing the power of text over lived social phenomenon" (95). Literature rules, OK? A key reference point for the book's main argument is Habermas's model of the rational critical public sphere. Constructed by polite bourgeois conversation in the previous century, this idealised social and discursive zone would then seem to be overwhelmed by the mass, density and clamour of the proletarian crowd. Plotz borrows effectively from recent modifications of Habermas's thesis to argue for a succession and multiplication of competing new publics in the nineteenth-century. New modes of radicalised discursive action were literally bodied forth in ways that initially seemed the antithesis of the rational and orderly, but came to constitute a new repertoire of licit critical political practise in the organised mass demonstration and its accessory forms. Plotz's selection of texts, however, serve less to legitimise the new politics and its public than to define and defend other territories against its incursions, especially when the crowd was at its most threatening in the rise of the Chartists. Though sympathetic to their grievances, Carlyle's Chartism (1839) depicted the members of this mass movement as bearers of a virulendy pustular energy (boils on the body politic) that failed to articulate a convincing claim for political representation as the true voice of the people. It is in Bronte's Shirley (1849) that Plotz most suggestively reveals the dialectic between literature and politics and the production of new spatial claims in contest with those of the crowd. Though drawn from a previous generation of crowd activists, the Luddite machine breakers of the novel clearly stand in for the disturbing new presence of the Chartists. The mill owner's repulse of the Luddites is said to signal both the will to contain (and, indeed, reform) the contemporary crowd and to assert a counter claim to the integrity and freedom of the private within the public. Thus the heroine achieves a richer sense of self in the conditions of greater mental liberty and intimacy Victorian Review91 Reviews afforded by a privatised space, defined against "the agglutinative logic" of the crowd (171), albeit within the confines of marriage. It is the crowd, argues Plotz, which is the catalyst for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 90-93
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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