D.A. Miller – The Novel and the Police (1981)

The novel is not conceived as the doomed attempt to produce a stable subject, but instead would be the successful project of “forming–by means of that very failure–a subject habituated to psychic displacements, evacuations, reinvestments, in a social order where power circulates all the better for being pulverized” (xiii).

Oliver Twist offers a good illustration of this thesis. Despite levying critique of institutions of social control, the novel participates in the logic policing by showing how there is in fact very little tension between the various forces seeking to control Oliver: their methods are different, but Fagin, the police, Monks, and Bromlow all participate in acts of coercion. The space of delinquency is thoroughly implicated with the space of the official police: the workhouse and apprenticeship are shown to be logical steps in an evolution towards Fagin’s gang. Further, Bromlow’s desire to know Oliver’s “story” is an attempt to impose a story that shores up the gaps in the fragmented plot, etc.

Bleak House gives a lightly different model, in which instituions of incarceration/control are not confined to out of the way, peripheral spaces, but in the form of Chancery Court, inhabit the very center of the text. In fact, Chancery is so prominent that its totalizing presence can not be perceived, making inside/outside binaries meaningless or at least inadequate. Furthermore, the contradictory elements of the Court–both efficient and inefficient, etc–are not merely symptomatic of, say, capitalism, but are also constitutive of the novel’s strategy of coercion. The illegibility of the the Jarndyce suit eventually requires reduction to legible “criminal case”: which explains how this sprawling novel turns into a murder mystery. Miller argues that the tension between the law and the law enforcement takes many different guises [one is faceless while the other has a face in Bucket, etc.], it is finally the very contradictions between these terms that the novel actively produces: not consciously, but as part of the novel form itself. The excessively long novel Bleak House differentiates itself from the excessively long court case Chancery by promising a moment in which meanings will be finally revealed, the text digestible, etc: Esther and the anonymous narratorial voice gradually merge, etc.So while the novel trains us to be patient within structures of Chancery-confusion, it makes good on this promise through a logic of delayed gratification: compare Richard and Esther, for example. But this negative relation, productive of a difference that is at first negative, finds a positive dividend in the form of family practice: which is both outside of social institutions, but also, at the same time, invested in carrying out its programs of order and discipline.

Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White offers us different paradigm of control in relation to bodily sensation. The “sensational novel” is relegated to the margins of the canon because it is perceived to mechanically function on the body, the flesh, and therefore to be devoid of meaning, or sense, in a more spiritual sense [already the vocabulary of sense is showing troubling contradictions]. But Miller argues that sensational novels, like that of Collins, provides its own ways of representing and reading bodily sensation: in other words, troubling the critical lens that relegates sensational effects to mere textual immediacy. “Nervousness” is the condition not only of the characters within the novel, but also the affect dimension of the readerly experience. The paradigm for nervousness is found in the 19th-century theory that homosexuality is a case of a female soul imprisoned within a man’s body: which is also a way of describing the plotting of this novel. This upsets traditional privileging of the reader who observes the processes of coercion and social violence but is immune for their effects: in a sensational novel, we feel what the characters feel. When Fosco reads Marian’s journal, we are shocked, but we have also already participated in that form of virtual rape: we identify and disidentify with Fosco simultaneously. The paranoia produced in these acts of identification is productive of the readerly nervousness (suspicion, surprise, etc.) that the second half of the novel, narrated by Walter Hartwright having returned from Central America more masculinized, which seeks to find and fix a determinate meaning ending in domesticity. But Woman in White is unique in that it dramatizes the production of those subjective traits that will need to be overcome in the course of the novel’s development.


ongoing post on Miller::::


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