[This post is a revised version of a paper presented at the 2016 gathering of the North American Victorian Studies Association].

In the Winter 2016 semester, I had one of those moments in an undergraduate seminar on the topic of “Victorian Bodies” when I recognized that my students finally understood the overall rationale and scope for a reading strategy I had been trying to instill in them. We were discussing Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which became my student’s favorite text in our reading list. I was trying my best to show students how Stevenson’s descriptions of Hyde’s strangely unknowable body relates to the broader problem of the body in Victorian literature and culture. In short, the problem I wanted my students to see was the human body’s conceptual and categorical evasion of any kind of rational or utopian system of management or classification. Clearly, this slipperiness of the body’s indexicality relates well to Jekyll and Hyde’s gothic narrative, but my intentions were grander. I was pushing my students toward a reading of the unmediated thingness of the body – the Real that cannot be completely touched by any Imaginary or Symbolic register. At one point in our discussion of Hyde’s body, one of my students put up their hand to ask a question. I could see in this student’s face that some kind of lightbulb had gone off. “Does Hyde’s body relate to Dicken’s notion of “awful unknown quantities” in Hard Times?” my student asked. As I nodded my head in the affirmative, my student continued: “huh, I think I’m finally starting to see how the novels we’ve been reading all relate to each other. At first, I thought they were all so different.”

Admittedly, such moments should be commonplace. I selected the readings for the course, I determined the interpretive focus for each class, and I directed students to how exactly I wanted them to read the texts in our course list beginning with Hard Times and some of Dickens’s railway journalism. I should have expected such a moment of conceptual insight by at least one of my students. And yet, I had set my students on a difficult analytical path – to assess the ways in which fiction by Dickens, Eliot, Collins, Stevenson, Doyle, Stoker, and Kipling consistently recognize the body as a problem of both epistemology and narrative, and playfully exploit that problem for sensational, intellectual, or anxious effects.

Throughout the seminar, our conversations often turned toward lingering problems of the unmediated body in our own times.  But the one thing I wanted students to take away from the seminar was this one phrase from Hard Times about “awful unknown quantities,” so I was pleased when my student saw the connection between Dickens and Stevenson. The passage appears in Dickens’s chapter entitled “No Way Out,” in which his narrator describes Stephen Blackpool “bent over his loom” at one of the Fairy-palace like factories of Coketown. Dickens writes that, despite the miserable conditions, the work of Nature or God cannot be obliterated by the machinery produced by humans. Dickens then introduces this puzzling moment where the novel’s narrator addresses the reader directly:

So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is       known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, for ever.—Supposing we were to reverse our arithmetic for material objects, and to govern these awful unknown quantities by other means! (104)

It is compelling to me that it took my students until the gothic fiction of Stevenson and eventually Bram Stoker’s Dracula to see what I had been saying about Dickens as early as the second week of classes. But Dickens is clearly not working within a Gothic register. His language is about alternative forms of governance. When we discussed Hard Times, I could tell that my students were preoccupied with its didactic binary of the Gradgrind school of Fact and its opposition in the Fanciful bodies of Sleary’s Circus and the Wisdom of the Heart represented by Stephen and Rachel. The novel’s didactic formal structure, they felt, was difficult to see through or beyond, as if Dickens’s clear dichotomy between Fact and Fancy inevitably mediates the bodies that move through the text.

This became a bewildering problem for my students, but I wonder if it’s also a systemic problem in Victorian studies. We just can’t see that Dickens may have had other plans for Hard Times than its intricately crafted narrative structure and clear thesis. In fact, Dickens’s reference to the “awful unknown quantities” of bodies is so seemingly minor that only a small handful of critical interpretations of the novel actually address its impact in the novel’s broader architecture. A Google Books search for the phrase results in only 78 hits, many of which are direct quotations from online editions of Hard Times. A broader Google Search reveals only 678 hits, again many of which are from the same online editions. Carolyn Berman does argue that this passage adopts a “parliamentary authorial voice” (574) in a novel “written to fellow governors about ‘an abstraction called a People,’ and then sold to another abstraction called the Reader” (574). In this interpretation, the passage is satirical in its mockery of a parliamentary voice that can do nothing other than make grand rhetorical claims about better ways of governing the People.

But, such an argument neglects another fundamental abstraction in this passage and elsewhere in Hard Times: the body itself in its unmediated life. Exploited for gothic effects so frequently in fiction of the later-Victorian period, the body as an “unknown” – and more particularly the body’s movements as the Real of experience – are difficult to conceptualize in Hard Times. The task I set my students (and I’m not convinced yet that they were completely up to it) related specifically to how we read this passage in the novel. Do we arrest its meaning by confining it to the novel’s broader critique of Fact? If so, as many critics have suggested, we run the risk of revealing flaws or inconsistencies in Dickens’s overtly Christian sentimentalist message. Or do we apply our interpretive reading skills to determine some meaning (metaphorical or otherwise) to Dickens’s descriptions of the “unfathomable mystery” in all of our bodies? In such readings, we again struggle with the nature of Dickens’s proposed alternative to utilitarian governance by facts and figures.

My question for my students about how exactly we come to terms with Dickensian “awful unknown quantities” has broader implications in critical approaches to the novel. Google search results are different when we adjust our search terms to accommodate Dickens’s formal division between Fact and Fancy. For example, the term “Gradgrindian” results in over 1000 hits in Google Books, many from scholarly texts that apply the term to economic and political developments from the Victorian era to our own age of neoliberalism and “big data.”  We seem willing, in our contemporary context, to see a continuum of economic and political thought from the Utilitarian doctrines that Dickens mocks in Hard Times to the increasingly “Gradgrindian” neoliberal outcomes and best practices that inform the upper, middle, and lower echelons of university administration today or the broader philistine economic and political policies determining the outcomes of our Brexits, economic downturns, and austerity measures. But what is the alternative to Gradgrindian policy? Dickens’s novel does not seem completely up to the task because of its overly sentimental Christian promotion of the wisdom of the Heart and Christian grace and care for others. My students – good secularists as they are – were not comfortable with such an alternative. Nor am I, for that matter.

Our scholarly desires that Dickens had produced a more sustained and less sentimental alternative to Fact often result in reading practices that reduce bodies to facts, figures, and significations. Our critical practices tend to produce Utilitarian readings when we assign meaning and value to Dickensian bodies. Nele Pollatschek argues that Dickens’s changing definition of “Fancy” in Hard Times “opposes utilitarian attempts to force a single meaning onto the word” (278). Indeed, we can glean some real insight into the state of our field of study if we ask serious questions about our scholarly desires to reduce bodies to meaning practices and significations. But what if Dickens’s reference to the body itself as an unfathomable mystery and “unknown quantity” simply doesn’t fit within the novel’s moral message and wholesale critique of Victorian industrialization? We miss Dickens’s startling insight into the radical inexplicability of bodies if we limit our critical frameworks to the novel’s economic and political critique.

In our close reading of the passage, the students in my seminar agreed that Dickens’s narrative voice seems confused or inconsistent. Those myriad bodies whose affective lives cannot be calculated by the National Debt are “unknown” certainly, but why call them “awful,” as well? What is more, it seems unclear how exactly these bodies that resist the “big data” of Victorian statistical initiatives fit within the context of Dickens’s dichotomy between Fact and Fancy. If Dickens’s response to the social problem of Victorian industrialization emerges through satire of the Gradgrind school, the mad melancholy elephants of Coketown, and the dilettantish Harthouses who maintain the broader cultural assembly of fact, it’s not completely clear who or what represents an alternative model of governance. Can we even govern “unknown quantities” in the first place? Fancy, wonder, and the “wisdom of the heart” are the obvious alternatives in the novel, but they rest within the constitution of sympathetic characters: Sissy Jupe, Sleary, Stephen, and Rachel.

Dickens’s fascination with the “awful unknown quantities” of bodies in the immediacy of their affective lives is by no means limited to Hard Times. Think, for example, of the myriad bodies in his fiction that seem to resist disciplinary regimes through their “passing” through of social spaces. I’m thinking primarily of Jo and Lady Deadlock in Bleak House, Mrs. Sparsit in Hard Times, Mr. Lost in “Narrative of Extraordinary Suffering,” and Dickens himself in his persona-driven personal essays, such as those in The Uncommercial Traveller. These are all heavily analyzed bodies in scholarship on Dickens, but I wonder sometimes if the critical frameworks we choose to analyze them through – the flaneur, cinematic representation, Foucaultian disciplinary power, allegory – perform the same utilitarian work that Dickens critiques in Hard Times. By arresting the meaning of bodies and assigning them a value, that “unfathomable mystery” becomes knowable and legible – governable, interpretable.

And yet, the problem of such moving bodies in Dickens’s fiction is that they resist interpretation. Mrs. Sparsit is a perfect example; on one hand, she’s aligned clearly with the novel’s representatives of Fact and its surveillance of suspicious bodies. Such frenetic descriptions of bodies moving at the speed and pace of locomotive engines reinforce Grahame Smith’s work on Dickens’s anticipation of cinematic representation. Sparsit’s bodie moves in similar fashion to the third-person omniscient narrator and the movements of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. But, there’s still something dissatisfying about such a critical position because it neglects the serious political expression at the heart of Dickens’s curiosity about those “awful unknown quantities” – of the crowd, the multitude, the spectral passersby.

How we read Hard Times can serve as a kind of diagnosis of whatever hard times we see in Victorian studies today. Do we dig our heals in and wholeheartedly support the cause of Fancy in any assemblage of affect studies and postcritical studies? Do we adjust the critical tone slightly and keep our sights squarely on the awful abuses of Fact in the emancipatory spirit of liberal critique, despite Dickens’s own political affiliations that seem in the novel more aligned with Thomas Carlyle? Do we, like Dickens, position ourselves with the ironic humor of pointing out Fact’s absurdities (statistics/stuttering, the horse)? Or, as I’m suggesting, do we see the binary that frames Dickens’s novel as the Symbolic order doing its work, continually carving up the world and our place within it into digestible distinctions, all while the real problems of bodies operate as some “awful” irreconcilable problem for all political systems.

While I am sympathetic to, and intellectually engaged, by polemical claims such as V21’s manifesto from last year, what I am suggesting is not an intervention or even a “you’re doing it wrong” claim. Instead, I want to ask the question: what can our interpretations of a novel like Hard Times tell us about our field of study, especially in literary studies? If we go the positivist historicist route criticized by V21 and attempt to “definitively map the DNA” of Dickens’s novel and its critique of Victorian economic and political culture, we’re still left with the unfathomable, unknowable body that frustrates all epistemological fact-gathering missions (especially our own). Conversely, we can have a little more faith in presentist reading strategies, as V21 suggests, focusing more on the novel’s critique of the Grandgrind school as a potentially viable lens into our own neoliberal times. But this strategy also runs the risk of historical inaccuracies and misappropriations. Or, and this is of course my own privileged reading, do we remain in the speculative decision to actually refuse to assign meaning or value to those “awful unknown quantities” that Dickens recognizes in every body, in every beating heart. This was the challenge I set for my students last semester at the very beginning of our seminar. What critical or analytical frameworks can we explore as humanities scholars with interests in the value of immediate experiences and embodiment? The trouble Hard Times introduces in critical discourse relates to a kind of critical frenzy for interpreting bodies, for reducing them to discursive subjects. Brian Massumi argues in Parables for the Virtual that this kind frenzy is precisely what’s wrong with critical/cultural theorization — despite the vibrancy of its own anxieties and frenetic analyses, it inevitably renders meaning static and quantifiable. Massumi writes of this theoretical problem in critical theories of the last few decades that

The body was seen to be centrally involved in these everyday practices of resistance. But this thoroughly mediated body could only be a ‘discursive’ body: one with its signifying gestures. Signifying gestures make sense […] Make and unmake sense as they might, they don’t sense. Sensation is utterly redundant to their description. Or worse, it is destructive to it, because it appeals to an unmediated experience. Unmediated experience signals a danger that is worse, if anything can be, than naïve realism; its polar opposite, naïve subjectivism” (2).

My suspicion is that as Victorian studies scholars, we have ignored Dickens’s plea for a new way of governing those awful unknown quantities because, as humanities scholars trained in all kinds of cultural discourses, we’re not comfortable with working with unmediated embodied experiences, especially when they appear in textual forms in the works we read and cherish. Those unknown quantities of bodies in their naïve unrepresentable subjectivism are awful because they cannot signify anything. As Massumi argues, our critical frameworks get anxious when bodies don’t do the critical or political work we want them to. We ceaselessly desire to arrest their meaning. Unmediated bodies cannot in fact – or in fancy – be governed in any political, economic, or representational system whatsoever.

So what are we left with then? Despite our many diverse anxieties – sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit – about the state of our field or the state of the humanities in general, we should perhaps work less toward rendering everything — our critical positions, our texts, our students’ experiences, our university’s goals and ambitions, our outreach to the world — meaningful and full of signification, and think a little more like Dickens as he thinks within and through the cracks of his own narrative framework and thesis in Hard Times. The “unknown quantities” of our own bodies, our own experiences, our own engagements with literary texts, our students, and our outreach to the world at large are certainty frightening and “awful,” but they are also, as Dickens implies, where we find what it means to be human, to have a heart, and to experience wisdom without the ironic reversal of placing such terms under erasure through constant critique in the pursuit of assigning and arresting meaning.


One thought on ““Awful Unknown Quantities”: Victorian Studies in Hard Times

  1. This is a very heartening post as we head into the teaching semesters (I should probably call them teaching-intensive semester or something along those lines, as lots of people teach –rather intensively too– in the summer). May every classroom have so many light bulbs go off. Students do indeed have a lot of intellectual and cultural hard work ahead of them.

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