- Tact: Aesthetic Liberalism and the Essay Form in Nineteenth-Century Britain by David Russell, and: Thinking through Style: Non-Fiction Prose of the Long Nineteenth Century ed. by Michael D. Hurley, Marcus Waithe
Style has returned to the forefront of literary studies as the putative subject of the “new formalism(s)” and as a performative medium of cognition, politics, and sociability: a trend showcased by David Russell’s Tact: Aesthetic Liberalism and the Essay Form in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Michael D. Hurley and Marcus Waithe’s edited collection Thinking through Style: Non-Fiction Prose of the Long Nineteenth Century. Motivated by the insight that “tact privileges encounters over knowledge,” Russell’s Tact addresses style as “an art of the encounter” (1), a “less knowing form of kindness” that “resists the codification of social laws and the pinning of individuals to fixed meanings.” It is, he explains, “an ethic of the ad hoc, continually rereading and rewriting the social” (13). By “virtue of its marginality,” then, tact facilitates “redirection and revaluation” and affords freedom to the [End Page 711] subjects it approaches by refusing to assign static definition to them (2). Tact counters the Benthamite knowledge economy with its facts and imperative progress. Russell’s book thus defends criticism that aspires not to knowledge production, per se, but to “feeling one’s way in society” (6). Such feeling requires “the confidence, even the impudence” to reject conventional, conclusive, disciplined approaches to a subject in favor of tentative, conjectural alternatives that might resolve injustice or generate new knowledge (7).
For Russell, the Romantic essay, as exemplified by Charles Lamb, exhibits a “phenomenology of tactful relation, a virtual reality” cultivated in the form of “a neutral and impersonal space existing between people” (13). This essayistic space contrasts the hierarchical conclusiveness generically produced by the utilitarian endings of Victorian novels. The historical origins of the essay genre, as verbal correlative to scientific experiment, support Russell’s correlation of essayistic tact to indeterminacy, tentativeness, and neutral spaces. But, resistant to generalization, he exemplifies his thesis with subtle readings of Elia’s evasive coyness, impersonality, and eccentricity at the level of the sentence, and of description in Matthew Arnold’s early essays (70). Like Anahid Nersessian’s utopian adjustment and Sara Ahmed’s optimistic unhappiness, Arnoldian “disinterest begins,” for Russell, “with a movement of capacious dissatisfaction with the way things are” (74). Tact begins, as Theodor Adorno noted, with friction, just as novelistic style begins, for Kent Puckett, with so-called bad form.
I wonder whether the style under discussion really belongs to the essay, given Russell’s admission that George Eliot’s novels “are the place in which the potential of her essayism is most fully realized” (100). Tact seems less a generic property of the essay than a pervasive feature of nineteenth-century prose. Walter Pater’s gerund-laden prose, like Eliot’s fiction, resists teleology on behalf of rhythm and the “precious moment of potential, before idea must become opinion” (119). Likewise, Pater’s “punctuated” prose, with its stacked clauses, dissolves ordinary syntax and the conventional connections it instantiates, and in turn gestures at novel, if “diaphanous and fleeting,” relationships (129).
Locating liberalism in style risks marginalizing freedom in the domain of feeling and imagination while conceding power to institutionalized, commodified forms of knowing and acting. This crux emerges in the rupture between John Stuart Mill’s early essays and his later work on liberalism: the essays valorize experience foreclosed by the rationalistic, consensus-forming On Liberty (1859). Mill’s essays thus intuit “the resources of obliquity in communication” (54). “Tennyson’s Poems,” for instance, underscore the ways in which “clarity and certainty in the apprehensions of another’s expressions”—the very principles for ensuring liberty—produce “precisely the conventional thinking...