Corps de l’article
States of Inquiry undertakes a massive project: to examine the multifarious and wide-ranging social investigations and official government reports produced in nineteenth-century Britain and the United States. By now, the Poor Law Reports of Edwin Chadwick and the social surveys of Charles Booth are well-trodden territory for Victorian Studies scholars interested in the construction of poverty as a social problem or the ideological conflation of London’s slums with colonized territories. However, Oz Frankel’s impressive new book brings to our attention a much broader array of investigators and authors and emphasizes their varied roles in modern state formation. States of Inquiry not only suggests fascinating links between British and U.S. efforts to map and analyze their populations, but also makes provocative claims about the performative nature of the nineteenth-century state in both national contexts. In short, Frankel’s book tells us, the modern state is not only because it states, but also because it publishes.
One of the most original contributions of this extensively researched book may also, however, constitute its Achilles heel. We usually encounter social investigations and reports in the context of the study of something else: nineteenth-century prostitution, disciplinary individualism, or the development of classificatory knowledge, to take a few examples. The main object of Frankel’s study, though, appears to be state-sponsored investigations and reports per se. This approach turns up many engaging and surprising details about nineteenth-century methods of social investigation, the investigators themselves, and the improvisational responses of those they investigated. However, I often found it difficult to retrace my steps from Frankel’s richly textured and very concrete accounts back to the more abstract, central claims of the book. States of Inquiry sets out to investigate what it calls two fundamentals of public culture. First are the methods, as well as actual practices and settings, of investigations with particular focus on the relation between investigators and the investigated in the field of action. Secondly, the book claims to analyze the formal and social aspects of the report itself, delineating its generic conventions, as well as the notions of authorship that it promoted, and the material history of its production, circulation, and consumption. Finally, States of Inquiry purports to pay special attention to the ways that those investigated and reported upon interacted with the investigators. It therefore complicates the idea that the subjects being represented were passive or that state power was by any means total. By looking closely at the sites of investigation, Frankel sets out to show that, “rather than simply empower the modern state, official publications and investigations facilitated unforeseen encounters and dealings between governments and legislatures and their local interlocutors” (3).
Drawing on this evidence, Frankel argues that nineteenth-century Britain and the United States witnessed the emergence of a new form of politics that combined the relay of facts with new modes of political and aesthetic representation, namely those of government-commissioned reports. Borrowing from Benedict Anderson’s concept of print capitalism in Imagined Communities (1991), Frankel proposes that social investigations and reports across the nineteenth century in Britain and the United States produced a field of communication between the state and its subjects that he terms print statism. Emphasizing the transactional nature of this relationship, Frankel argues that it is through the exchange of knowledge and texts that scattered and disenfranchised, as well as more central and hegemonic, populations came to recognize the state. The work of Michel Foucault on the power/knowledge nexus and on governmentality certainly hovers over Frankel’s investigation. But Frankel seeks to distinguish his work from Foucauldian studies of knowledge in this period, “haunted by the specter of the panopticon,” by emphasizing what he calls the “state/knowledge nexus” within a larger economy of knowledge and communication (3).
At the heart of States of Inquiry is an argument about representation and what Frankel calls the “double-mirror” aspect of state representation (17). On the one hand, investigators represented the state in the field, while also representing under-represented populations to the state. On the other hand, the state reported on society and was itself a topic of reportage. While this doubling quality is quite interesting, it seems to me that more theoretical implications could be drawn from it. The book adroitly sums up current theories of representation and suggests the uniqueness of the nineteenth-century context, but it stops short of reflecting on how these multiple dualities might revise available theories of representation. In other words, Frankel’s case seems to put pressure upon familiar and still potent notions of democratic and realist representation, ones we have inherited from the nineteenth century. In what ways can we speculate about the state’s distinctive identity as in part deriving from its capacity to collapse classic typologies of representation?
The structure of the book compares British with U.S. investigations and reportage. Frankel argues that this comparative approach yields new appraisals of each national history. For example, while it is standard to view U.S. expedition reports as driven by nation-building efforts in the nineteenth century, it is less obvious to recognize similar imperatives motivating British projects of internal social exploration, which are often defined in terms of the consolidation of bourgeois power. Conversely, British efforts to document and thereby construct an abstract concept of the social cast similar U.S. efforts in a new light, showing a related urge across the Atlantic to map, define, and control the national population. Frankel also argues that this comparative approach illuminates the surprising role of legislatures in forming public opinion in so-called liberal democracies. While many of these claims are compelling and realized in the chapters, the introduction frames them as effects of the comparison, whereas the rationale for comparing them is not explicitly stated. Because this rationale is not directly argued, I often had trouble moving between national cases.
Part One, “Monuments in Print: The State as a Publisher” provides valuable information regarding the production and distribution practices of the British and U.S. legislatures. Frankel’s discussion of Parliamentary blue books is particularly original and provocative. He argues that as the nineteenth century progressed, these publications began to cite each other, creating an archive, or memory, of the state itself. In this way, the state came to take on a kind of personhood: “The British state could now be conceived of as a historically determined unified ‘subject’ propped by institutionalized memory” (68). By virtue of its capacity to review itself, the state also began to emulate the public sphere and thereby contributed to breaking down the supposed barriers between itself and society. Frankel appears to maintain Jürgen Habermas’s largely discredited notion of an ideal public sphere, but takes issue with the latter’s historical account of its decline. Habermas attributed the decline of the ideal public sphere in Britain later in the century to economic shifts toward monopoly capitalism, state intervention into the market, and the emergence of a mass public sphere that consumed objects and advertising instead of engaging in rational debate. But Frankel argues that this ideal public sphere declined much earlier in the century because of “the state’s increasingly aggressive role in generating and distributing knowledge as well as in representing public opinion” (70). Because the state sold blue books to the public, it effectively collapsed Enlightenment notions of free speech and free circulation of ideas with the logic of the market.
In the second part of the book, “The Culture of the Social Fact,” Frankel addresses British royal commissions of inquiry into poor laws, child labor, and municipal governments, following the Reform Act of 1832, and the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission to investigate and propose legislation for newly freed slaves. In both cases, differences of class and race strained the theoretically democratic nature of each nation, thus generating more investigations and reports. In the third and final part of the book, “Totem Envy,” Frankel turns to commissioned studies of American Indians in the 1840s and 1850s and examines their roles in producing a sense of national identity based, if not on kinship, than on constructed cultural affinities.
States of Inquiry has wonderful moments of theoretical and textual savvy, particularly in its discussions of representation, authorship, and state personhood. Because it is perfectly poised to intervene in several disciplines, including literary and textual studies and political science, I often found myself wishing the book would make more daring and creative claims in these directions. Its topic is also timely in an age of government publications, like The 9/11 Investigations (2004), which it addresses in its conclusion, and covert investigations of terrorist suspects, which it does not. The state may be what it publishes, but it is also very much what it withholds, a dialectic that it would have been interesting to see the book address more directly. Nevertheless, States of Inquiry is masterfully researched. It will be of interest to historians and literary critics concerned with the performative and textual aspects of government investigations and reports, a lacuna in nineteenth-century British and U.S. historiography that States of Inquiry happily fills.
Zarena Aslami is assistant professor in the Department of English and core faculty in the Center for Gender at Michigan State University. She is currently completing a manuscript entitled State Fantasy and the Victorian Novel: Liberalism, Unconscious Citizenship, and the Historical Ends of Realism.