Disorienting Fiction: The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels

Disorienting Fiction: The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels

by James Buzard

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This book gives an ambitious revisionist account of the nineteenth-century British novel and its role in the complex historical process that ultimately gave rise to modern anthropology's concept of culture and its accredited researcher, the Participant Observer. Buzard reads the great nineteenth-century novels of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot

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This book gives an ambitious revisionist account of the nineteenth-century British novel and its role in the complex historical process that ultimately gave rise to modern anthropology's concept of culture and its accredited researcher, the Participant Observer. Buzard reads the great nineteenth-century novels of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and others as "metropolitan autoethnographies" that began to exercise and test the ethnographic imagination decades in advance of formal modern ethnography--and that did so while focusing on Western European rather than on distant Oriental subjects.

Disorienting Fiction shows how English Victorian novels appropriated and anglicized an autoethnographic mode of fiction developed early in the nineteenth century by the Irish authors of the National Tale and, most influentially, by Walter Scott. Buzard demonstrates that whereas the fiction of these non-English British subjects devoted itself to describing and defending (but also inventing) the cultural autonomy of peripheral regions, the English novels that followed them worked to imagine limited and mappable versions of English or British culture in reaction against the potential evacuation of cultural distinctiveness threatened by Britain's own commercial and imperial expansion. These latter novels attempted to forestall the self-incurred liabilities of a nation whose unprecedented reach and power tempted it to universalize and export its own customs, to treat them as simply equivalent to a globally applicable civilization. For many Victorian novelists, a nation facing the prospect of being able to go and to exercise its influence just about anywhere in the world also faced the danger of turning itself into a cultural nowhere. The complex autoethnographic work of nineteenth-century British novels was thus a labor to disorient or de-globalize British national imaginings, and novelists mobilized and freighted with new significance some basic elements of prose narrative in their efforts to write British culture into being.

Sure to provoke debate, this book offers a commanding reassessment of a major moment in the history of British literature.

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Editorial Reviews

Novel - Catherine Gallagher
Most exciting to a student of the novel . . . is the book's fresh interpretation of the genre's history in the nineteenth century, the explanation of many of its salient formal features as parts of a cultural project heretofore unnoticed.
From the Publisher

"Most exciting to a student of the novel . . . is the book's fresh interpretation of the genre's history in the nineteenth century, the explanation of many of its salient formal features as parts of a cultural project heretofore unnoticed."--Catherine Gallagher, Novel
Most exciting to a student of the novel . . . is the book's fresh interpretation of the genre's history in the nineteenth century, the explanation of many of its salient formal features as parts of a cultural project heretofore unnoticed.
— Catherine Gallagher

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Disorienting Fiction

The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels
By James Buzard

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-09555-4

Chapter One


[A]lthough it is still spoken of as "the science of culture," modern cultural anthropology might be more accurately characterized as the "science of cultures." -George W. Stocking Jr.

At the end of the twentieth century, the anthropological concept of "culture," once heralded as a colossal advance in social thought, occupied an uncertain terrain. On the one hand, its usefulness and even

indispensability were championed in a series of ambitious studies of international economic and political relations, including such works as Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and David S. Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which sometimes treated "cultural differences" as if they were capable of accounting for virtually every feature of contemporary geopolitics, and especially for every troubling feature. As the title of a recent Landes essay puts it, "Culture Makes Almost All the Difference." Such books reflected the term's phenomenal success outside of academic discourse, where, on talk radio and in book groups, on editorial pages and elementary schools, it is scarcely an exaggeration tosay that sustained conversation about human affairs could hardly be carried on without almost constant recourse to the idea that the world population is divisible into a number of discrete cultures, and that these cultures determine or at least explain much of what goes on in the world.

At the same time, in progressive circles in the field that had developed and promulgated the concept, culture had become something of a pariah, an embarrassing relic of early disciplinary formation and of anthropology's implication in colonial institutions and agendas. Far from being an instrument encouraging sympathetic understanding of other peoples' ways of life, "culture" had been accused of functioning as an "essential tool for making other," corralling subjugated peoples into more readily governable thought-packets and giving the differences, separations, and inequities among groups of people "the specious air of the self-evident." The anthropological concept of culture, it was said, "might never have been invented without a colonial theater that ... necessitated the knowledge of culture (for the purposes of control and regulation)." The "discourse of culture" was seen to operate "through [a] metaphor of totality [that] represses the reality of political differences and historical change." Paul Rabinow had written of the "symbolic violence" that turns real, encounterable-in-the-field people into nothing more than mouthpieces and mannequins for their cultures. Arjun Appadurai had referred to the way culture subjects living communities to "metonymic freezing," trapping them forever in (what James Clifford had called) that "ethnographic present" in which the "common denominator people" of anthropological discourse ("the Nuer," "the Trobriander," et cetera) describe the same "typical" motions endlessly. Anthropology had been found (by Johannes Fabian) to produce an effect of "allochronicity," a "denial of coevalness" by which practitioners separate themselves from their objects, whom they deny any such open-ended, living temporality as they and their Western, history-possessing and history-making cohorts enjoy. The relativism extolled by liberals of an earlier era had been sneeringly dismissed as "the bad faith of the conqueror, who has become secure enough to become a tourist." The best that might be said from within the terms of this critique was perhaps, as Bernard S. Cohn put it, that "[a]nthropologists developed practices through which they sought to erase the colonial influence by describing what they took to be authentic indigenous cultures," but that "[t]heir epistemological universe ... was [ineluctably] part of the European world of social theories and classificatory schema that were formed, in part, by state projects to reshape the lives of their subjects at home and abroad."

The multifaceted critique briefly surveyed here had tarnished the reputation of concepts and conventions central to anthropology, leaving it in a position not unlike that of certain companies unlucky in civil litigation that go on existing solely in order to pay off punitive damages to the plaintiffs ranged against them. Circa 2000 saw the publication of books considering The Fate of "Culture" and looking toward a future Beyond the Cultural Turn. And anthropology's late-century onset of scruples about its foundational idea dovetailed with increasingly aggressive argumentation coming from evolutionary psychologists who strongly suggested that all talk of culture and of cultural difference would soon be giving way to a perspective that recognized every significant aspect of human behavior as an adaptive mechanism, restoring "human nature" to the throne from which mistaken ideas about the sway of culture had deposed it.

Yet at the same time, and somewhat uncannily, there arose in a different corner of the Anglo-American academy a new post- or neo-Marxist interdiscipline or superdiscipline known as "cultural studies" that circumvented most of the questions raised about culture and mystified and frustrated more than a few of the critics of anthropology in doing so. "Why," Virginia Dominguez demanded, for example, "when the concept of culture has such an elitist history, would sympathetic antielitists [such as the practitioners of cultural studies] contribute to its discursive objectification by trying to argue in terms of it?" She might have pointed as well to the so-called new historicism, prominent in literary studies since the 1980s, which sometimes reified units of time and space, such as the "culture of Early Modern England," in treating them as closed circulatory systems of meaning and value.

A hundred years earlier, the habit of putting an "s" to the word culture had not yet established itself in Anglo-American usage. The word culture, a German import, had of course been deployed and debated in works of social criticism arising out of the so-called condition-of-England question of the 1840s, when the polarizing pressures of intensified industrialization had driven essayists and novelists to wonder whether England was in fact one nation or two (rich and poor, capitalist and worker) and whether many celebrated "mechanical" advances from technology to politics did not degrade rather than cultivate humankind. In Matthew Arnold's famous polemic of the 1860s, Culture and Anarchy, a never-defined, singular culture had afforded an external standpoint from which to criticize the shortcomings and blindnesses of a self-congratulatory modern Britain. For the most part, Arnold used culture as a universal standard for judging the development of human faculties, but, like John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, like John Ruskin in "The Nature of Gothic," and like some other leading Victorian theorists of the social, he sometimes drew tantalizingly near the conceptual territory of the later anthropological concept of culture as the wholeness of a particular people's way of life.

Yet the contemporaneous emergence of anthropology as a recognized academic subject-it earned its own section in the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1874-seems to have discouraged further progress toward a pluralizable model of culture, for, as George W. Stocking Jr. has authoritatively demonstrated, mainstream Victorian anthropology, massively invested in the project of constructing one single narrative about the evolution of human social forms and technologies, was committed to dealing with levels of human Culture-frequently written with a capital C-from primitive to advanced, and not with separate, relatively autonomous "cultures," differently evolved under different environmental conditions. In a powerful essay published in 1968, Stocking demolished the myth, favored by many twentieth-century anthropological adherents of "cultures," that exalted Edward Burnett Tylor's 1871 study Primitive Culture as the sacred fount of the modern, relativistic culture-concept: contrary to this pious fiction, Stocking showed, Tylor had never treated culture "as an organized or functionally integrated or patterned way of life, nor did he use the word 'culture' in the plural form"; his method, rather, consistently "forced the fragmentation of whole human cultures into discrete elements which might be classified and compared out of any specific cultural context and then rearranged in stages of probable evolutionary development," and it "presupposed a hierarchical, evaluative approach to the elements thus abstracted and to the stages thus reconstructed." The increasing institutional authority of an evolutionary, comparativist anthropology, unfolding during the period in which the extension and intensification of European imperialism put a premium upon certitudes about the supposedly fixed characteristics-moral, intellectual, and physical-of human races, granted an effective monopoly to the discourse that involved a single human Culture, with higher or lower levels thereof, and that retained the ideologically useful idea of savagery, or a state of human society apparently so unconstrained by morality or law that it could even be said to lie outside the reach or below the line of Culture altogether.

Even around 1900, among authors capable of considerable sympathy for the conditions, customs, and institutions of so-called primitives, one finds at most an inconsistent pluralization of culture, and frequently the persistent avoidance of it. The parallel cases of Joseph Conrad and Mary Kingsley, finde-siècle writers noted for their exploration of the geographical and epistemological frontiers between human groups, are illustrative here. Consultation of the concordances to his writings shows that Conrad, who is sometimes treated as a writer of "intercultural" contact, always operated within the evolutionist discourse that treats of a single human Culture, never in the one that treats of cultures. We read, for instance, of people who are "as innocent of culture as their own immense and gloomy forests" in Almayer's Folly, and of "Don Vincente Ribiera, a man of culture and of unblemished character" in Nostromo. Nowhere in Conrad do we find anything comparable to the meaning in Mary Kingsley's statement, from the 1901 West African Studies, that the "Africans had a culture of their own-not a perfect one, but one that could be worked up towards perfection, just as European culture could be worked up"; and yet Kingsley herself would go on, in a chapter titled "The Clash of Cultures," to speak of "the African" as being "in a lower culture state." Even the 1922 text often regarded as a (if not the) founding work of modern ethnographic pluralism-Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific-harbors both old and new, singular and plural senses of culture, and it is dedicated to one of the foremost comparativists, J. G. Frazer. The discourse of "cultures," from which we are now exhorted to liberate ourselves, was then struggling to liberate itself from the universalizing vision of ethnological comparativism.

One particularly revealing text from that cusp of the twentieth century when culture was still striving to acquire its "s" is William Morris's News from Nowhere (1896), a utopian narrative in which the hero, "William Guest," is sorely tempted to change his status if not his name, leaving behind his troubled nineteenth-century society once and for all and remaining in the (twenty-second-century) socialist paradise he has always longed for and finally dreamt himself into. In order to remain a dedicated late-Victorian socialist, and to avoid contaminating his dreamland by introducing into it the traces of an unjust society he bears with him from the past, he must subject this desire of his, to which he gives ardent testimony, to programmatic containment and disruption. The work is also a valedictory upon the Victorian (bourgeois) English novel, an "antinovel" holding a distorting yet strikingly illuminating mirror up to the major works of midcentury fiction. As I shall return to argue in the fourth part of this work, Morris's text opposes its great bourgeois precursors not so much by departing from their methods as by intensifying or radicalizing them. In doing so, Morris opens a new pathway for us between the frequently dissociated Victorian and modernist narrative forms, because News, functioning as a kind of Minerva's owl for the nineteenth-century novel, suggests that narrative disjunction or interruption constitutes the unacknowledged novelistic principle, a vital element in fiction's treatment of-it is Morris's subject, toothe historical destinies of distinct peoples, nations, or cultures.

I am going to claim that thinking about the nineteenth-century novel as a determinedly self-interrupting form permits us to grasp its relation to twentieth-century cultural anthropology, with which it participates in a general system of cultural representation whose shape and coherence has been obscured for us by separate disciplinary agendas since the early 1900s. In this book, planned to be the first of two, narrative self-interruption will be read as the formal signature of British novels devoted to the performance of a "metropolitan autoethnography"-by which admittedly cumbersome term I mean a number of things that will be specified in this and the ensuing chapters. Regarding Morris's little book as an extreme or (as seems fitting for the 1890s) a "decadent" instance of metropolitan auto-ethnography offers both a way in and then a conclusion to this account of the great nineteenth-century novels' own status as leading precursors to modern anthropological "cultures."

Yet an ethnographic perspective on a work like News from Nowhere-or the nineteenth-century "realist" novel, for that matter-might appear an unpromisingly obvious one, for if we take ethnography in the loose sense of the study of a people's ways, then what utopian work, with its detailing of (imaginary) social practices, isn't ethnographic? What realist novel isn't, with its "thick description" of social existence? It will be evident that I employ ethnography in a stricter sense than is conveyed by such questions: in the twentieth-century sense of a study of a people's way of life centering on the method of "immersion" in extensive field-work and raising the issue of how, and how far, the outsider can become a kind of honorary insider in other cultures. Texts to which we can apply the looser sense of ethnographic do not all warrant the label when the term is more narrowly construed. For Thomas More's Hythlodaeus, becoming a utopian is never as much of an issue as it is for Morris's William Guest. More wrote at a time when the perception of differences among human practices did not so readily usher in the idea that those differences composed separate "complex wholes," bounded life-worlds such as now go by the name of cultures. For writers working after that philological revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the borders between linguistically and territorially demarcated groups increasingly tended to become epistemological borders as well, so that the movements, literal and figu-rative, of an agent capable of crossing those borders generated increased interest and even urgency.


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What People are saying about this

James Eli Adams
This is a wonderfully lucid, erudite and provocative book that will speak to anyone interested in the British novel, nineteenth- and twentieth-century British cultural history, or the genealogy and aspirations of contemporary anthropology. It takes issue with received wisdom on all these fronts, and it does so in graceful prose that refuses the assumption that intellectual depth can only find expression in obscurity.
James Eli Adams, Cornell University
Ian Duncan
This is a splendid piece of work, one that will surely invigorate the discussion of nineteenth-century British fiction. Buzard offers a commanding view of the topic, at once wide-angled and precisely detailed. The substantial introduction is a tour de force—learned, detailed, bracing and dazzling in its theoretical address. It is, by itself, worth the price of admission.
Ian Duncan, University of California, Berkeley

Meet the Author

James Buzard teaches Literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the author of "The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to "Culture," 1800-1918", as well as of numerous essays on nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature and culture. He is also coeditor of a forthcoming collection of essays entitled "Victorian Prism: Refractions of the Crystal Palace".

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