If it is difficult to understand the modern world, it is nonetheless desirable to do so. Speaking to this point, the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing begins Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2005) with a statement and a question: “Global connections are everywhere. So how does one study the global?” (1). Tsing argues that contemporary processes of globalization come properly into view via “an ethnography of global connection” attuned to the fact that world-level forces and the paradigmatic universal abstractions held to comprehend planetary interdependency find form only in practical encounters played out across the world at particular times and places. Hers is an ethnography that insists that the “universal offers us the chance to participate in the global stream of humanity” at the same time as it recognizes that to identify such a stream “we must become embroiled in specific situations,” beginning whenever necessary “in the middle of things” (1-2). In answer to her follow-up question, “Where would one locate the global in order to study it?” (3), then, Tsing turns to the Indonesian rainforests, writing about them in relation to the contingent, uneven, frictional way in which capitalist modernity takes hold in the world.
In Urban Realism and the Cosmopolitan Imagination in the Nineteenth Century: Visible City, Invisible World, Tanya Agathocleous provides a stimulating and accomplished account of the way in which nineteenth-century urban realist writing might be understood to have engaged the epistemological, ontological, ethical, and political challenges that Tsing associates with the complexity of a globalized world. Like Tsing, Agathocleous begins her study by proposing that the Victorians were faced by an increasingly interconnected, interdependent world, a world crisscrossed “with the new and fast-expanding networks of trade, finance, post, steamship, telegraph, print, and immigration” (xv). As a result, she suggests, a range of diverse contemporary writers including William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Morris, and General William Booth, confronted the question of how one might locate the global in order to give it imaginative yet tangible form, in a manner that allowed quotidian experience to be plotted in relation to an abstracted, obscured but nonetheless substantive bigger picture. These writers found their answer, Agathocleous contends, in London. And they did so, she continues, by way of “cosmopolitan realism,” a formal endeavour by which two scalar perspectives drawn from visual culture–the sketch and the panorama–were deployed in order that a visible city could stand in for an invisible world. By moving “between the fragmentary view from the street and a distant, all-encompassing overview,” Agathocleous remarks, the writers she treats could “conceptualize human community at a worldwide level” even as they tested abstracted universalisms against the embodied, diverse, and divided reality of urban capitalist modernity: “The visible world of the polis, in all its grim materiality, was a constant reproach to the invisible, idealistic world of the kosmos” (xvi). Though it turns to London rather than the Indonesian rainforests in order to ground itself in the “middle of things,” Agathocleous’s project nonetheless complements Tsing’s ethnographic injunction to place the local and the global, the material and the ideal, the particular and the universal, in dialectical relation.
As becomes clear, for both formal and ideological reasons, some of these attempts can be understood to have worked better than others. Moreover, while Victorian London inspired a host of culturally pervasive efforts to “participate in the global stream of humanity,” different imaginaries cast the idea of global totality and global belonging in different lights. “Cosmopolitan realism,” Agathocleous concludes, “was both utopian and dystopian in outlook” (xvi).
Fittingly for a study of nineteenth-century writing’s oscillation between the local and the global, Agathocleous structures her work in order to use richly elaborated case studies to frame wider historical, intellectual, and literary concerns and debates. The first part of the book is given over to the emergence of cosmopolitan realism as a totalizing way of thinking about and representing the world. The opening chapter considers the Great Exhibition of 1851 as well as a number of Victorian journals that featured “cosmopolitan” or derivatives thereof in their titles. It explores the sustained but complex and variously inflected ways in which the Victorians privileged cosmopolitanism as a capacious analytic paradigm, as well as reflecting upon the fact that the universal visions it generated were often compromised by their inability either to accommodate or transcend potent and divisive categories of class, race, and nation. In chapter two Agathocleous turns her attention to the way in which “the epistemological power of sketch and panorama” (69) could be brought to bear upon the urban metropolis in order that “London becomes either the world itself or a figure for global modernity” (72). While Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850) has been more commonly understood with relation to Romantic nationalism, Agathocleous argues that Book 7’s “urban sublime” found in London’s disorienting diversity and flux the opportunity to embrace a much more extensive sense of global fraternity (107). Contra this cosmopolitan utopianism, however, in Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-53) the city’s complex international imbrications represent misdirected fellow-feeling and the dehumanising impact of capitalist modernity.
Notwithstanding – or sometimes precisely because of – its dissatisfaction with London’s global connections, Dickens’s brand of cosmopolitan realism energized later writers’ increasing tendency to imagine the city in relation to the world, even if they could not sustain the totalizing confidence of high-Victorian realism. In part two of her study, Agathocleous examines fin de siècle literature, addressing its deployment of sketch and panorama in order to highlight the global scale of urban plot, but in a manner that tested realism’s capacity to accommodate a London that could no longer stand in for the world as it had done earlier in the century.
The next chapter addresses Doyle and James’s “aesthetic cosmopolitanism,” considering how both writers contrived to imagine a global community that seemed both “artificial” and “precarious” (118). Thus, Sherlock Holmes makes sense of the world in A Study in Scarlet (1887) but only with recourse to the ahistorical, typological conventions of the romance. In The Princess Casamassima (1885-86), James’s narrator Hyacinth also utilizes his “quickened” aesthetic consciousness in a way that opens up but cannot resolve a far more historicized vision of the city’s globalized complexity, marked at once by worldly splendour and worldly suffering (141). Another chapter turns to Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) and Booth’s In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890), two distinctly socialist works that argue for global solutions to national problems. But they were written at a time when ethnographic discourse concerning cultural and racial differences rendered the project of imagining a global “brotherhood of man” far more problematic than for earlier cosmopolitan realism (149). Despite the allegorical pretensions of these authors, Agathocleous argues, London and the world do not cohere; Morris reduces the global to the local, while Booth imposes the local on the global. With the realist conviction that cosmopolitan cohesion might be imagined by means of urban collectivity thus threatened, the study’s final chapter considers the way in which Modernist writers “abandoned the totalized view of urban space as a figure for global community” (173). Contending the spatial coordinates of the sketch and panorama were replaced by the temporal coordinates of the moment and evolutionary time, Agathocleous reads Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) with regard to a more (Woolf) or less (Conrad) optimistic account of London’s capacity to generate “a tentative vision of species-being as a site of identification” (174).
This ambitious and provocative study demonstrates an admirable capacity to revise existing scholarly paradigms and reconfigure literary history. Agathocleous convincingly traces the formal strategies and ideological significance of cosmopolitan realism as it was variously realized across generically disparate works throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In so doing her book takes its place amongst recent critical work positioning Victorian literature and culture in an international context, moving beyond the conceptual boundaries of the nation as well as countering the notion that when the Victorians thought globally they necessarily thought imperially.
As Tsing notes in her analysis of contemporary global epistemologies, “Universalism is implicated in both imperial schemes to control the world and liberatory mobilizations for justice and empowerment” (9). One of the most striking features of Agathocleous’s even-handed and nuanced work is that it explicates a literary genealogy characterized by both these sides of this universalist coin. With the more politically progressive imperative in mind, she concludes her book by remarking that recent literature and film has taken up a Victorian-inspired London-world scalar perspective “in order to situate the experience of radically disparate city-dwellers within the context of globalization” (xxii). Given that one of the things London makes manifest (in the twenty-first century as in the nineteenth century) is the persistently uneven development that capitalist modernity structures and sustains, it seems fitting that a version of Victorian realism might be used to critique and hold to account the globalized order that the Victorians did so much to promote.
Paul Young is Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature and Culture in the Department of English, University of Exeter. His first book, entitled Globalization and the Great Exhibition: The Victorian New World Order, was published as part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth Century Writing and Culture Series in 2009. He continues to research Victorian globalization.