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Robert Mitchell. Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era: Systems, State Finance, and the Shadows of Futurity. New York and London: Routledge, 2007. ISBN 978-0-415-77142-9. Price: US$135.

  • David M. Baulch

…more information

  • David M. Baulch
    University of West Florida

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Robert Mitchell’s Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era: Systems, State Finance, and the Shadows of Futurity is an often brilliant effort to articulate a complex hybrid methodology for understanding the systemic interrelationships between state finance, imagination, and society that enliven Romantic era texts. While Sympathy certainly has its precursors in such excellent studies as Deidre Lynch’s 1988 The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning and Catherine Gallagher’s 1994 Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women within the Marketplace, 1670-1820, the important difference is that Mitchell’s book does not construct the relationship between the economy and literature in exclusively Marxist terms. Instead, Sympathy seeks to “avoid attributing structural similarities between finance and literature to the ‘influence’ of one on the other,” just as it eschews the way that psychoanalytically-inflected Marxist readings account for such relations in terms of the social imaginary (9). While providing insightful readings of the ways in which some key figures engage with economic systems within the period, it is the critical approach that Sympathy brings to its subject that makes it an important book for the study of the Romantic period.

In its analysis of the connections between literature and finance, Sympathy positions itself as “part of a larger project of ‘new economic literary criticism’ that implicitly contests the purported disciplinary specificity of topics such as finance and speculation” (206). While Sympathy does draw from Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (1994) for its Marxist account of speculation in the development of state finance, it is equally informed by sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s explorations of the systems theory, especially his account of the emergence of functional differentiation in the eighteenth century. Luhmann’s notion of functional differentiation challenges the orthodox Marxist understanding of social systems in their relation to an economic base. Also, particularly in its examination of the poetry of William Wordsworth, Sympathy effectively deploys Michel Serres’s biologically-derived concept of parasitic social relations. Ultimately, however, it is Gilles Deleuze who casts the “shadows of futurity” in Sympathy’s title, providing a way to theorize sympathetic affect as a virtual intensity “which enables the emergence of something new” in a way that is not tied to the past (20). In short, what Sympathy seeks in both the philosophical and literary texts it examines are the ways in which the speculative possibilities for a radically open future can be produced.

In looking at the way affect can exceed the bounds of a given system, Sympathy forgoes what it sees as a psychoanalytic reading of affect “as feeling ‘before’ its inscription in social systems,” to find in it “an experience of the virtual dimension of social systems” (21). Rather, Sympathy finds in the Deleuzean virtual the possibility of what it calls a “speculative temporality of affect” (21). This speculative temporality holds the radical potential for the experience of “the present as the source of the future (rather than positioning the present as simply the link between the past and the future)” (21). Thus Sympathy posits the speculative temporality of affect in opposition “to the speculative temporality of finance” (21). While the speculative temporality of finance works by means of a reference to the past in order to determine the shape of the future, the speculative temporality of affect severs the present from the terms of the past, allowing Sympathy to identify virtual affective intensities that can only become actual in the future. By identifying and reading the possibilities of the speculative temporality of affect, Sympathy identifies an interpertative possibility that would be foreclosed by the Marxist critical orthodoxy of base and superstructure central to most ideological and historicist studies of the period.

Sympathy introduces its subject by looking at one of William Cobbett’s most outrageous moments. In the Political Register of 22 August 1818, Cobbett suggests that counterfeiters band together and, in the concerted action of a single night, initiate a series of events that would ultimately bring down the whole of the state and expose its financial corruption, corruption he sees as dependent on the national debt and speculation at the center of the system of British state finance. Essentially, Cobbett’s proposition is that counterfeiters do an about face. Rather than a counterfeiter’s normal practice of carefully and selectively passing their forgeries off as the real thing, Cobbett suggests that “they were generously to throw their money by night, about the street,” glutting the system with worthless currency, which in turn would expose the purely contingent value of the State’s paper money. According to Cobbett, people would realize that paper money itself was in fact a social system sustained by their ability to imagine that those bills had a certain value. If people could not trust that paper money had a solid exchange value, then, Cobbett projected, all cash transaction would rapidly come to a halt and set off a chain reaction of collapses in related social systems throughout the country. While it is not entirely clear how seriously Cobbett took his own scheme, he was widely denounced for his callousness to the wide-spread suffering his modest proposal would occasion.

Regardless of whether Cobbett’s own scheme was simply a satirical flight of fancy or not, what Sympathy finds particularly insightful about Cobbett’s proposal is not so much its proto-Marxist insight into money as the universal equivalent that measures exchange-value, but rather the way Cobbett’s scheme exposes “British society as a system—or more precisely, a series of interlocking social systems—that are maintained at least in part by the imagination, and he suggests that one can either discipline or crash ‘the System’ as a whole simply by asking people to imagine the destruction of one particular system” (2). In turn, Sympathy is most insightful when it develops a theoretical perspective able to grasp both the dynamic relations of these social systems and to posit a relationship between a series of five crises in British finance—from the 1720’s to the 1820’s—and shifting theorizations of the imagination’s connection to systems of state finance. In its subsequent chapters, Sympathy makes these relationships visible through the study of philosophical texts (Hume, Rousseau, and Smith) and literary texts (Yearsley, Wordsworth, and Shelley).

Chapter 1 takes up the attempts of the periodical and pamphlet literature to adequately describe the nature of the financial crisis created by the collapse of South Sea Company stock. The efforts of these writers transformed “imagination” into “a term that would enable them to describe finance as a system” and that it is this historical moment that makes possible David Hume’s theory of sympathy in his Treatise of Human Nature of 1739-40 (22). Mitchell reads Hume’s theory of sympathy in the Treatise as grounded in a generalized, speculative dynamic that is essentially two-fold. In addition to the liberal and Marxist readings of Hume’s theories of imagination and sympathy that both recognize and replicate a view of social systems as grounded “in the more limited mode of ‘closed’ imaginative projections,” Mitchell stresses that Hume’s account of the founding convention of society is structured as an “‘open’ or formal, anticipation” of the future without a definite idea of what that future would be like (55). Thus, Sympathy can claim for Hume “that society was speculative from the start, for property…emerged only as the consequence of collective ‘investment’ in a future system” (54). So, on the one hand, Hume’s construction of the role of sympathy and of the imagination accounts for the speculative dynamics of a system that binds people and the state together through imaginary relations that constitute a “closed” expectation of a particular, promised future. On the other, Hume also posits the speculative dynamics of the very basis of society as an “anticipation of a new form of social relations, with the specific content of those relations left unspecified” (55).

While Hume’s Treatise provides Sympathy with a schematic view of diverging accounts of two ways the imagination engages with the speculative dynamics of a social system—one which is tied to the past and the other which makes possible the emergence of an undetermined future—chapter 2 identifies theories of imaginative identification developed by Adam Smith and Jean Jacques Rousseau as reflecting each of the paths identified in Hume’s Treatise. Beginning from the premise that both Rousseau’s and Smith’s theories of imaginative identification stress the violent potential of speculative social systems, their differences allow for a distinction between what Sympathy treats as Smith’s “representational identification” in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments and Rousseau’s “energetic identification” in his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (91). With chapters 3, 4, and 5, Sympathy shifts its focus to the philosophical implications of the prose and poetry of Ann Yearsley, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Chapter 3 addresses the challenge faced by the poet/critics of slavery: how sympathy for slaves and against the system of slavery could be mobilized. While the system of slavery had been defended as a necessary way to finance the national debt, Sympathy identifies “the efforts of antislavery poets to create a system of poetry that would enable new forms of imaginative and sympathetic social relations capable of resisting, and perhaps even reforming, the destructive system of the slave trade” (94). Sympathy sees antislavery systems of poetry as engaging in the same divided form of speculative dynamics of affect that pervade Hume’s Treatise, as well as Smith’s and Rousseau’s respective efforts. A majority of the antislavery poets—More, Cowper, and Pratt—work in terms of the representational theory of sympathy identified with Smith. In other words, these poets’ system of opposing the system of the slave trade is grounded in the same form of sympathetic identification based on representation. By contrast, Ann Yearsley becomes the focus of this chapter because of her poetry’s development of a virtual theory of sympathy. The representational poets tend to provide images of the actual sufferings of the slaves, but Yearsley’s poetry attempts to arouse sympathy “through readers’ imaginative production of ‘virtual’ images located in the future” (23). Reading Yearsley’s well-known A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade (1788), Sympathy argues that the task of the poem is to “force human nature into a moral response in which the interest of the other becomes the interest of the self” (112). Rather than focusing its attempts to arouse sympathy strictly for the plight of the slave Luco, the poem asks its reader to imagine a moment where the merchant selling slaves imagines that selling his own family would increase the price he might get for Luco. Luco’s value would increase when set off against that of his own young children or aged mother. In asking the reader to “see the crafty merchant” imagine such a possibility, Sympathy identifies a virtual dimension to the speculative dynamics of the poem that makes “visible the limits of the system that enabled such actions and to produce for oneself proof of the disjunction between gamily and capital, sympathy and self-interest” (115). Through Yearsley’s poem Sympathy, offers a response to recent readings that find structural homologies between the system of the slave trade and the anti-slavery movement as both inscribed in the capitalist logic of the market.

In Chapter 4 Sympathy examines a very different deployment of the speculative poetic image by Wordsworth. Against the financial crisis initiated by the run on banks inspired by fears of a French invasion and the Pitt government’s Bank Restriction Act in 1797 (an act which effectively separates British money from the gold standard), Sympathy sees Wordsworth’s poetry’s concern with money as articulating a one-way or parasitic relationship similar to Pitt’s restriction on the convertibility of currency. In the same way that British money was transformed into a fundamentally different kind of system, Sympathy views the Wordsworthian image as operating by means of what it terms an operation of parasitic “entwinement,” and subsequent “mineralization,” to create a new system rather than replicate the substance of the object entwined. In this way, Sympathy both takes account of the abundance of scholarship on Wordsworth that has focused on the poet’s financial concerns, but in so doing, it recognizes a Wordsworthian theory of the image that exceeds Wordsworth’s immediate biography.

Sympathy’s final chapter, certainly the book’s most ambitious, focuses on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s thoughts on national debt and paper money, viewing them as deeply connected to the development of “the imageless image” at the base of what Sympathy calls “speculative time consciousness.” Mitchell reads Shelley’s objection to systems of state finance as dependent on “a ‘savage’ mode of impoverished time consciousness” (24). It is this mode of time consciousness (recalling Hume’s “closed” mode of imaginative projection and Smith’s representational formulation of sympathetic identification), Sympathy suggests, Shelley finds “impoverished” and “savage.” For Shelley, such consciousness is always tied to the past, thus making the temporal location of causal relations in the social system forever out of the grasp of the individual in the present. Sympathy asserts that it is precisely through Shelley’s resistance to the savage mode of time consciousness that he develops notions of sympathy and imagination that are inherently libratory processes. Sympathy reads Shelley’s “An Address to the Irish People,” specifically its claim that “I can feel for you,” as the deployment of a sympathetic identification dependent upon one imagining the possibility of “a more equitable collective future” (169). While Sympathy claims that Shelley may escape the closed interpretative dynamics of Hume and Smith, I’m not altogether sure that critics focused on English colonial power will be satisfied that this explanation frees Shelley’s text from the charge of speaking as a colonizing voice that presumes to speak for the feelings of the colonized other, simply because Shelley is said to be striving for a “generalized affect…spreading it beyond the local context” (168). The point, however, of Sympathy’s reading of Shelley’s pamphlet is that an “imaginative prospect and sympathy result from the prophetic nature of the Irish cause…. The subject-that-sympathizes does not preexist this ‘sign’ from the future; rather the sign calls the subject into being” (160). This is to say that only by being able to imagine a future situation that has no present image does the sympathetic subject capable of acting emerge. The kind of futural time consciousness that seems only implicit in Sympathy’s analysis of “An Address to the Irish People” is, by contrast, explicit in its reading of various texts from the Prometheus Unbound volume. In taking Shelley’s own note that Prometheus Unbound itself was intended “to create images of the ‘operations of the mind’” as references to temporality, Sympathy works contrary to psychoanalytic readings of the text which tend to schematize these mental operations (193). The critical scene for Sympathy’s reading of the temporal aspect of the mind’s operation is the piece’s treatment of Jupiter’s curse. The “curse positions itself as the continuously active source of future events” (194). Ironically it is the virtual repetition of the curse that “frees anticipation in a way that does not allow it to be bound again” (195). When the Phantasm of Jupiter repeats the curse it, “can be recognized as a curse without being a curse” a realization that “does not bind the future (as the curse does)” (159). In this way the present disrupts the causal relations that enchain the future to the past.

By providing a mere outline of Mitchell’s astute and in many ways ground breaking book, this review falls considerably short of being able to convey both the rare combination of the complexity of its arguments and the truly thrilling reading experience Sympathy provides. Simply put, each subsequent chapter of Sympathy is more engaging that the one which precedes it. Taken as a whole, what is most important about Mitchell’s book is the way it tries to redefine the critical terrain explored by contemporary studies of Romanticism, both in its particular approach to economics and the challenges it presents to methodological orthodoxy. While challenging the central Marxist assumptions that dominate many historicist studies of the period, Sympathy does nevertheless significantly contribute to historicism’s project of carefully delineating the relationships between literary and philosophical texts and the historical contexts from which they emerge. Likewise, by exploring the possibilities of Deleuze’s notion of the virtual, Sympathy presents an effective critical engagement with the persistently reductive tendencies of psychoanalytic criticism. Remarkably, Sympathy doesn’t suffer from the kind of terminological obscurity that seems all but native to most of the critical efforts Deleuze continues to inspire. While not overtly or exclusively Deleuzean in the way it frames its argument, Mitchell’s book provides the kind of innovate approach to Romanticism reminiscent of the way Deleuze’s own two-part Cinema offered a challenge to the psychoanalytic domination of cinema studies in the early eighties.