- 'Deficit Subjects':Realism and Species Belonging
It is no exaggeration to say that, with her 1993 Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poets and Politics, Isobel Armstrong helped put the serious study of Victorian verse – so long overshadowed by its Romantic and modernist bookends – back on the map. Victorian Poetry was not the first to do this. Building on a generation of scholarly work by Carol Christ, Herbert Tucker, and others, it argued for Victorian poetry's intellectual seriousness, its aesthetic and formal experimentation, and its meta-level enquiries into the political and constructed nature of communication. Nonetheless, Victorian Poetry was paradigm-shifting, both in its comprehensiveness and in the strength with which it made its claims: 'Victorian poetry is the most sophisticated poetic form, and the most politically complex, to arise in the past two hundred years', Armstrong wrote.1 In Novel Politics, she makes similarly provocative, arresting, and strongly argued claims as she attempts to breathe new life into the (much less neglected) realist novel, arguing that it too could be both 'democratic' and (occasionally) radical.
As in her earlier works (Victorian Poetry and also The Radical Aesthetic), Armstrong's arguments are built on a deep enquiry into the ways in which particular formal and structural modes express, interrogate, and invent political imaginaries. On this last point she is particularly emphatic – in her third chapter she argues against Foucault's influence on readings of the novel which render them, by default, conservative. And she argues vehemently against what she sees as hegemonic methods of reading that have turned literature into a 'symptom' of history. In this she echoes the provocative V21 Manifesto, whose authors claim that 'Victorian Studies has fallen prey to positive historicism: a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past'.2 [End Page 365] Taking on a range of the most influential commentators on the Victorian novel – Catherine Gallagher, Patrick Parrinder, and Elaine Hadley – Armstrong offers an alternative to their accounts of generic and formal disjunction in the novel as symptomatic of ideological disjunctions in the culture at large (and of the domestic sphere as a space for the resolution of those larger antagonisms). Instead, she argues that the realist novel enacts a 'developed or purposive and continuous critique' of normative politics (p. 53). It does so in order to evince democratic possibilities, imagined through form, which were not yet able to be directly articulated or imagined explicitly. Literature, she claims, is not symptomatic of history, but a site for thinking 'through alternatives', imagining 'change', and in which to 'see round the power of the dominant order' (p. 52).
Giving greater weight to the realist novel's aesthetic, imaginative, and speculative properties, then, Armstrong claims that the democratic imagination is an 'underlying project of the long nineteenth century' (p. 65). The question of 'what constitutes a truly human freedom in a complex society, a society shaped by the new industrialization of a global economy', was central to this project (p. 65). Hegel, in particular, produces the philosophical underpinning to this discussion. In this reading, Hegel 'analyses and repudiates the economic creation of what [Armstrong] call[s] the deficit subject, the subject in and of need and lack' (p. 67). And in a characteristically insightful analysis, Armstrong notes that 'the logic of the voracious individualism that multiplies need, is to multiply ever more sophisticated systems of production and ways of simplifying the mechanics of labour that throw the labour force out of work with an inevitability matched by the propagation of need itself'. This system is 'structurally predisposed to create destitution, structurally organized to create a wholly dehumanized subject', who is atomised, stripped of connection with others, and who recognises need as a purely material phenomenon (p. 67). This links to a paradox regularly noted in the nineteenth century – as Henry Mayhew put it, 'We increase in poverty … as we increase in wealth'.
Most importantly, for Armstrong, family was not really ever offered as a realistic answer to these antagonisms. For one thing, in...