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52 Interdisciplinarity, Estrangement, and Method inVictorian Studies M atthew Row linson • Successful interdisciplinary research estranges the disciplines from their objects.1 For a literary scholar, the power of a work like William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period2 arises partly from the extraordinary data it presents about the economics of publishing in Britain from the lateeighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Its greatest contribution, however, lies in its methodological innovation. The book’s point of departure is the decision to study British publishing with reference to concepts supplied by contemporary economics and business studies. British publishers before the decision of Donaldson v. Beckett, in 1774, thus emerge as “as perfect a private monopoly as economic history can show, in which examples of every restrictive trade practice known to modern regulators can be found”(St. Clair 101).Texts, St. Clair begins by premising, were from the earliest period of print publication capital assets of their publishers: “Since, once created, the text did not have to be recreated with each book manufactured, or each new edition printed, in economic terms the text was a capital asset not an item of consumption, and the income taken was mainly a rent from the text not a profit from the manufacture of the book” (30). The understanding of publishers’ behaviour that St. Clair obtains by applying these premises leads him to propose important changes to received ideas of literary history and periodization, and enables him in particular to show that changes in intellectual property law during this period produced massive variations in the rate at which new literary production—what was actually written at any given date—came into general circulation. Moreover, St. Clair’s conclusions about the formal characteristics of texts as immaterial properties in print capitalism should shape any future discussion of literary form that aims to be historically responsible. If these conclusions do have such influence , understanding a text’s characteristics as property and understanding the modes in which value has historically been extracted from it will come to be as integral to its interpretation as identifying its genre. In this event the history of intellectual property and the theory of cartels will have become fully domesticated within literary studies. The estrangement of the object need not be an effect of interdisciplinary scholarship; it is rather a characteristic of critical thought in general, but one that is currently more visible in interdisciplinary research than in the wellestablished disciplines that dominateVictorian studies, literature, and history. In St. Clair’s work the critical break with the object appears in the apparent incongruity—disciplinary and historical—of using evidence drawn from the modern experience of regulating anticompetitive behaviour to explain eighteenth -century literary production. For another, more theorized instance of 53 Special Forum: Victorian Studies and Interdisciplinarity this kind of incongruity as an effect of interdisciplinary scholarship, we turn to Mike Davis’s extraordinary work of 2001, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of theThirdWorld. Davis’s object, evidently chosen with an eye to its contemporary resonance, is the political economy of the first global market, established by the imperialist powers of Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. He studies the great famines of 1876–77 and 1899–1900 as global phenomena, concentrating on the instances of India, Northern China, and Northeast Brazil. Between thirty and sixty million people died in these areas during crop failures brought on by intense drought (Davis 7). Davis argues that the drought’s effects were enormously worsened by the era’s global economic restructuring: Peasants and farm labourers became dramatically more pregnable to natural disasters after 1850 as their local economies were violently incorporated into the global market.What colonial administrators and missionaries—sometimes even creole elites, as in Brazil—perceived as the persistence of ancient cycles of backwardness were typically modern structures of formal or informal imperialism. (288) The newly globalized market for grain, together with its attendant infrastructures of transport and communication, were the creations of imperialist powers of the northern metropole, whose demand for grain henceforth set the global price. Davis shows that as climatic disturbances unfolded on a global scale, this price became unaffordable...


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