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.[Record]

  • David M. Baulch

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  • David M. Baulch
    University of West Florida

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 …