Tag Archives: domestic

James Vernon: Hunger A Modern History (2007)

Vernon tracks the concept of hunger as it shifts from being understood as the result of Providence and individual choices of those that are hungry to a result of large social forces existing outside the causal nexus originating in the hungry person. He calls this the “humanitization” of hunger, since it gives rise to humanitarian aide in its modern form. This is a cultural history, Vernon persistently insists, “concerned with elaborating not the material causes or consequences of hunger, but its changing and historically specific meanings” (8). He inherits various paradigms of social power form Foucault: “The struggle to define and regulate hunger produced its networks of power, its own political constituencies…. it was not that hunger was an ungovernable problem; on the contrary, it was so amenable to a range of reforming schemes that the circuits of power multiplied around the many locations in which the war on hunger was fought” (8-9). The book has its most verve when reveling in hunger’s (that most materially based activity) susceptibility to cultural analysis’ ability to understand ideology’s ubiquity.

[For my part, I am curious how this intersects with Blumenberg’s work on non-conceptuality, where something like “taste” or “hunger” cannot be reduced to a range of clear material referents, on the one hand,  nor can it be abstracted from the material world all together. Vernon is working in this middle zone with impressive competence.]

The early parts of the narrative involve a shift in values at the level of statecraft: England slowly moves away from a Malthusian acceptance of hunger (resignation, inevitability, larger healthy body dependent on broad swaths of population dying of starvation because they do not refrain from sex, etc.) to a Smithean belief in the market’s ability to eventually remove hunger from the polis, and finally to a system of groups functioning outside of the market, working to alleviate hunger that has been produce by systems such as Imperialism and neoliberalism.

After the so-called “discovery of hunger,” various political radicals (inside and outside of the metropoloe–suffragettes, Gandhi, etc.) mobilized hunger as a form of political critique, through hunger strikes, fasting, and hunger marches. The wanted to pinpoint the incompetence of British rule. In the first two decades of the twentieth-century, political minorities participated in hunger strikes. Terence MacSwiney fasted to his death (after 74 days) in 1920, which “the whole world watched in anguish” (62). Thomas Ashe died in 1917 from force-feeding (62), causing mass protests in Dublin. Suffregettes in London were routinely force-fed, causing public outrage. The act was likened to rape in the media (67). The government often combated hunger strikes by “demystifying” the physiological processes of the hunger strike.

Vernon focuses more on the attempts of scientists in the early decades of the twentieth century to demystify  the mechanics of hunger. In short, the emergent field of nutritional science shifts the attention from quantity to quality. Nutritional scientists began to hold increasingly important government posts, as cafeterias became a way of maintaining a healthy and productive work force. The focus on production should not be underplayed: the documents that Vernon cites are explicit about efficient and productivity, and their rudimentary metabolic and biochemical science is put to the service of the factory. “Scientific food” was distributed (89). Not surprisingly, Vernon contends, “nutrition was revealed to be a historically specific science whose universality was always breaking down in the process of constitution” (100). Extensive experiments were conducted using animals, but transfering these results to the human “motor” proved difficult. Scientists turned to the colonies in order to make human analogies–Sir Robert McCarrison fed Indian and British food to rats and then imported racial stereotypes to describe their relative weaknesses and strengths. Gandhi would later protest that this revealed a bias towards meat-heavy diets. The English began to revert to older explanations for starvation: the refusal to eat good English food is what caused famine in India. “In this way, nutrition made possible the discourse of colonial development” (109). The tension between biological and social understandings of nutrition still persist:

During the first three decades of the twentieth century our understanding of hunger thus assumed a novel, profoundly technical, form, by contrast with previous definitions of hunger, which were highly politicized, local, and subjective. (117)

The science of nutrition was integral to the establishment of canteens and other public institutions in the post-war years. By 1917, 840 canteens were established, feeding more than 800,000 workers, which increased productivity (165).

These welfare developments were accompanied by a rigorous educations of the domestic sphere—housewives often took the fall for the relative malnourishment of the populace. The Ministry of Food was established in 1917, and it played a crucial role in creating “model” kitchens and nutritional programs. Self-rationing was incentivized, but in 1918 was made mandatory (206-7). The poor and middle-class resented the well-to-do preaching to them about lessening their food intake (Vernon’s end notes are choc full of useful primary resources on this topic…all sorts of great stuff on scientific cooking, etc.). The food industry jumped on nutrition as a means for marketing, and the critiques of industrialized, processed food began. “Natural foods” and “male slimness” became in vogue (215). Vitaman “overdosing” threatened imbalance in diets. Dorothy pell began editing the Daily Mail’s Women’s Page, which constructed a very specific ideal of home efficiency. Exhibitions of the ideal home included contrasting rustic appliances with American counterparts, etc. The “art of living” was ultimate goal (218). During these years, poor housing for the first began to separate out separate rooms for cooking (222).

Vernon concludes:

It has been my contention that, far from being a timeless and unchanging condition, hunger, along with the meaning that people gave to it and therefore the systems used to govern it, underwent a series of dramatic transformations between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Broadly speaking, although the classical political economy of Smith and Malthus had established hunger as an unavoidable, man-made problem, rather than the curse of nature or providence, their view of hunger removed responsibility for its control from the state….

…[But] in the wake of the New Poor Law and the Irish famine, journalists and social innovators developed new techniques to represent the innocent suffering of the hungry…giving it a human face.

Yet hunger remained a vague object of human  sympathy until, at the turn of 20th century, social investigators enlisted the new science of nutrition to offer a precise definition and measure the extent and social costs of hunger.

When nutritionist redefined hunger as malnutrition after the First World War, it was no longer perceived as the problem of the poor alone but was instead reconceptualized as a nutritional challenge for all…[it] was ceded back to individual consumers, responsible for promoting their own nutritional health.


[Interesting to read Wyndham Lewis’ invectives against vegetarianism in these contexts, as well as Loy’s political radicalism/anti-domestic stance]

Rebecca West – The Return of the Soldier (1915)

Chris suffers from shell-shock and when he returns to his wife and cousin (Kitty and Jenny) he can can’t remember the last 15 years of his life. Instead, he is living as if he is still in love with the lower class Margaret with whom he had a brief but intense relationship before he met his wife. Him and Margaret reconnect, ecstatically, but eventually a psychoanalyst intervenes and they “cure” him (by reminding him of his son that died when a child), which entails both the re-shattering of his youthful dreams and his incipient return to Flanders.

Talk about how the war pentrates domestic space. Not unlike the domestic space described in David Jones In Parenthesis or in Cummings The Enormous Room. Talk about how Fussel recounts the forceful making of English gardens in the trenches, etc…flowers that do not have nutritive purpose…the desire to create a domestic sphere that is impervious to war finds expression in the mirror image: real domestic spaces that are penetrated.

Talk about memory and its relation to trauma. The curing of Chris consonant with the death of love–the death of the object of desire itself. Interpretation in some sense kills that third term (talk about Laplanche)

The world that we thought the war killed is in fact simple another reality that has replaced an existence that was someone even more ideal than the England we thought we had lost, etc.

Talk about Hardy in reverse. In Hardy, his attempt o get into the melancholic modd reveals the impossibility of telling the difference between his current state of loss and the the loss that was always-already a part of his relationship with his wife. here, when the soldier returns (no longer a cause for mourning), the two companions realize that they were only ever substitutes for a love that already been lost. This can in turn be connected to Joyce’s “The Dead.”

The end of Chris’s life is the last day he can remember. Link this to Bergsonian notions of time, memory and durée.

Rather than read the trauma as a stark break with a past life, we can fact read it as revealing a thread of loss that was otherwise repressed. Chris as a young man had a sense of the “imminence of the improbable,” which shell-shock in some ways allows to occur–namely the rebirth of a prehistory that was otherwise consigned to wither away.

Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

The opening declarative sentence: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The question remains, “to whom did she say this?” From the beginning, performance of the self is highlighted, how we comport ourselves within restricted fields to determinate others. Also, after the lark and the plunge (exaltation of larks is the term of venery…connect with Yeats discourse on birds), the field of phenomena is presented by way of clauses separated by semi-colons, a formal feature characteristic of Woolf. Think of the semi-colon as somewhere between the (Joycean) colon and the more traditional comma—granting relative autonomy to clauses, but binding them into some sort of narrative that makes the part more than the whole. Bring together with Hulmean-Bergsonian reflections on stasis and movement—how to render movement in an instant..-to render becoming more fundamental than being, etc. Further, a good example of what she calls the cotton-wool of daily life, how the myriad impressions (along with certain social roles such as wife, host, etc.) become constitutive of the self. Clarissa actually feels herself becoming “invisible, unseen; unknown” (11).

THE URBAN IN WOOLF: as opposed to Joyce, in which Bloom sifts and sorts through a barrage of commodities and advertisements, the Woolfean character sees the reflected back in the objects that we confront in our daily rounds: So while Clarissa might “slice like a knife through everything,” opening up an absence consonant with her subjective shrinkage, she also recognizes in “the ebb and flow of things,” the survival of a history she has already brought into being. CRUCIAL: the temporal present of everyday experience is punctuated by a history that is never suppressed by habit; rather, it is disclosed through habit. At times, the self seems to dissolve: individuals are united into loose collectivities when they see the figure aristocratic god passing in the carriage, or the new god of advertising appearing in the sky–much like in Wandering Rocks. This points forward to the experiments with the multiple self in The Waves.

Contextualize this reading of the ordinary within her distinction of being and non-being in “Sketch of the Past.” It is somehow as if non-being is exactly those trivial facts of life that we always overlook, but which fiction must labor to unveil. How this intersects with her notion of the trivial in “Modern Fiction” is up for debate. One can at least say that the play between being and non-being is not immediately conscripted into Hegelian becoming, but non-being seems able to exist as an autonomous field. Relate this to the Time Passes section in To the Lighthouse. Also, worth contrasting the various modes of habit that characterize Proust, Beckett, Beckett on Proust, and Woolf. For Beckett, habit makes like possible…but it also circumscribes life within its tight loop of repetition. For Woolf (and for Proust, too), habit is precisely that which evades representation because it is so close to the very mechanism of memory itself. Elucidating habit, outside of the scope of habit, is precisely the task they set for themselves.

And then contrast Dalloway’s phenomenology with that of Septimus Harding, who is, in some sense, a too perfect reader of modernist literature (“susceptibility to impressions had been his undoing”)…that is, his psyche has undergone the same forms of fragmentation that lead to the arbitrary collection “anarchy and futility” of daily life. He is not capable of making new wholes, in the Eliotic sense. Rather, he finds beauty in the advertisement in the sky, “

bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible clarity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signaling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks. (22)

Can relate this to Benjamin’s theory of aura and the commodity. In some sense, he has understood too exactly the mechanism of the modern artwork. But Clarissa is attuned to the social coordinates that are in fact ordering this fragmentation. Like the viceregal calvalcade in Wandering Rocks, the carriage draws together and orders the perceptual fields of the myriad characters in the opening passage. But even them, Clarissa must stand in front of mirror to constitute to herself a coherence of the self. Talk about this mirror in terms of the many other mirrors: the cracked looking glass in Wilde and Stephen’s Telemachus chapter; the pool in Nausicaa; deKoven in Rich and Strange; Mill on the Floss; Lady of Shallot; etc. Peter also has his own idea of beauty, on that inheres within the furniture of drawing rooms, piano, gramophone and corridor, the glimpse of the social as it is revealed in the sudden moment of seeing a dinner party through a window (163)

The not entirely arbitrary imposition of unity in the form of the bell tolling from Big Ben: Contrast this with the Eliot-Joyce mythical method. Also contrast with the bell ringing in Murphy, how Murphy’s “internal” clock is impossibly aligned with such tolling. Such devices are common, present even in Gabriel Oak’ watch that has a minute hand but no hour hand. Talk about Bergson. Spetimus has a different relationship to Time: it engulfs him, its splits it husk, poured its riches over him (cf. Baudelaire: “Le Temps m’engloutit minute par minute”). SO TIME: on the one hand,  can become overwhelming if not ordered, if it becomes overly subjective (as in the case of Septimus), but it’s overly objective ordering (in the form of Big Ben) can be equally harmful. 

Sally Seton and the kiss. Established as an alternative pre-history. In general, talk about how the past punctuates the present. Contrast the shock of the past in Septimus, to the healthy sublimation of the past in someone like Clarissa. Also crucial spatial aspect: her memory is located in the pastoral countryside, while Spetimus’ memory is dislocated from that landscape…on the battlefield (Evans appears with frightening immediacy).

Peter, at the end, feels ecstasy and terror (much like “terrible beauty” of “Easter 1916”) at the “presenting” of Clarissa Dalloway. Read Peter as a Prufrock of sorts, an educated professional class on longer valued in terms of land, blood and money, but in terms of functional work within the system of Imperialism. Compare to Cecil in Passage to India…the product of an England that has dissolved (in contrast to Whitbread, Bradshaw, Richard Dalloway, etc.)

Robert Louis Stevenson – The Master of Ballantrae (1889)

A sprawling jumble of things are crammed into this pretty stellar novel: adventure, family saga, historical fiction, pioneer exploration, buried treasure, etc. Centers on the Durie family, comprised of the father Henry (Lord of Durrisdere), his second son Henry (the current Lord), and his first son James (The Master of Ballantrae). The tension between the two sons is the main plot-mover, which is narrated almost entirely by Mackellar, a servant in the house of Durie. He is drawn rationally and morally to the cerebral but week Henry, but is drawn affectively to the morally corrupt, romantic “master of the arts and graces,” Katherine, a wealthy Scotitsh noblewoman, marries Henry despite loving James. James (who is presumed dead) returns to the house of his fathers, despite being a wanted man in Scotland,  after traveling on a pirate ship with the Irish Jacobite Francis Burke (some of the narration is pulled from his MS). After insulting his brother one too many times, they have a duel, where James seemingly kills him. But he doesn’t die. He escapes and travels throughout the orient, mostly India, where he picks up the Indian servant Secundra Dass. He returns and Henry and his wife (and two children) go to New York. Mackellar watches over James, but they eventually follow. Once there, James leads an expedition to recover the treasure he buried after escaping from the pirate ship with half the booty. An attempt to take the treasure all for himself, he buries himself alive. When Henry, refusing to believe that his brother has died, journeys back to his grave, they find Secundra Dass digging him up (he has learned to swallow his tongue). He comes to life for a single moment, and Henry and James die simultaneously. Mackellar writes their epitaphs, which reveal his conflicted sympathies.

Voice vs. wirting: can think of as elaborate competition for mastery between Mackellar’s “will to narrative” and the protean capacities of the Master charm, elude and evade any sort of simple representation by way of song, polygotism, etc. The final engraving could be read as MacKellar’s final victory, but the tune of his intended story has changed so much that the Master appears to have rewritten the story. Also, the tombstone will hardly ever be read, hidden as it is the in the American widlerness.

Life and Renewal: A pretty damning critique of 19th century tales of renewal. Can compare to Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, where drowning in Thames becomes the means for narrative rebirth. Or even to the end of Mill on the Floss, where the two characters are sublimated into some sort of aesthetico-natural landscape. Not so here. James keeps coming back to life, but to end…he cannot successfully write himself into a lineage or a history that would make such rebirth socially payoff--and their being swallowed by the American landscape seem less a moment of aesthetic colonization, than the withered failure of a line.

Servant narrator: Mackellar can be read in conjunction with Gabriel Betteridge (Moonstone) and Nelly Dean (Wuthering Heights). They became useful means (devices) for refracting the differences of their masters–for instance, that one need choose between two masters becomes an issue because it is shot through the consciousness of Mackellar. He not only struggles between two masters, but also between modes of narration: between the tragic decline of the House of Durie and the more sympathetic-practical modes of realism. And there is a related tension between tragedy and the story of the story itself, which constantly threatens to fracture that tragic glaze.

The Master: As much as we are supposed to sympathize with the Master, we should also recognize that Stevenson is hollowing out the trope of the Byronic hero–or at least disassociating the literary heroism from political constancy (James gets immunity in Scotland by becoming a political spy for England).

Inheritance and history: In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff interrupts the family chain of inheritance, which is then restored in the end. But here the family line is “interrupted” by none other than the heir himself.

Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1860-1)

The orphan Pip is brought up by his sister and her husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. One night Pip encounters a convict in the cemetry, and he does him an act of kindness which the convict, who will turn out to be Magwitch, Mr. Provis and Mr. Campbell all in one, will never forget. He soon goes to Miss Havisham’s house to be a playmate with Estella. He starts to become ashamed of himself and his lower-cultured childhood friends. He becomes and apprentice with Joe, and works alongside Orlick, who is a sort of double that plays out all the crimes that Pip almost commits but never does. [An instance of shadowing the protagonist with doubles, sorta like Bertha Rochester and Jane Eyre.] Pip receives an inheritance (via Jaggers) from an unknown source, but he assumes it is from Miss Havisham. This enacts the processes of accumulation that correlate with the field of desire associated with Miss Havisham.  But he soon gets into debt and it is revealed that Abel Magwitch–and it is further revealed that he is the father of Estella (her mother is Molly, Jagger’s housemaid). Pip tells Havisham this story, she stands to close the fire and dies from her injuries, despite Pip’s attempts to save her. Magwitch is arrested and dies; Pip is about to be put into debtor’s prison, but he gets sick, and then is nursed back to health by Joe. He returns to Joe’s home, where they have had a child named Pip [cf. Sydney Carton at the end of Tale]. He visits Stalis house, where he meets Estella. It’s ambiguous whether they marry or not.


Guilt vs. desire – One can frame Pip’s two worlds according to this tension. Pip is marked by guilt from the very beginning, as his actual inheritance. The world of desire, or lack, is associated with Havisham and Estella. Cognitively adjusting to the knowledge that his inheritance comes from guilt rather than desire entails a confrontation with a world of crime that does not square with the tenants of individuality and subjectivity he had adopted in the middle part of the book. Rather, crime seems somehow universal: Magwitch somehow emerges from the landscape, he is an atmosphere of sorts. Pip himself will toggle between these two spheres.

Is Pip being a bad reader because he has not yet grown up? (structure of dramatic irony to deal with how these things can be known at all) Contrast this with Maisie (does not give signification, only registers impressions). As an example of better reading by way of negative contrast: Magwitch shows Pip how he acted poorly towards Joe. But where do we locate this knowledge?

In David Copperfield, the impetus to give full signification (retrospective and fully) is the same impulse as in Great Expectation (Pip as narrator does know things that phenomena subject does not know) but sometimes we just get the narrated Pip and we see his ignorance negatively. In the end, Pip the narrator and narrated converge but there is not a full knowledge. Indeed, the reduplication of Pip as a young boy points to the “bad infinity” that could ensue: the second Pip is able to effectively truncate the narrative with a new beginning. And to the degree that “family” is posited as a source of final cohesion, it should be noted that Pip is excised from that family.

Two ends in Great Expectation: 1. very clear that Estella and Pip don’t get married 2.  you don’t know whether they get married or not, structurally undecideable.

More broadly: Can think of Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope as obsessed with evidentiary character of narration, must give an account fo how the narrative has come into being. On the other hand, Eliot, Hardy and James fully accept the arbitrary nature of the narrative–they can’t justify it, so they just start. [in Hardy in particular, one has the sense that anyone walking along a road could furnish the novelist with a story]


Christina Rossetti – “Goblin Market” (1875)

Tells the story of two sisters, the elder Lizzie and the younger Laura. Laura is tempted by the Goblin’s trying to sell her a bunch of exotic fruits. Lizzie holds her back but can only do so for a little while. Laura sells her hair for some fruits, but then cannot quench her appetite and the goblins disappear. She pines away. The goblins return but only Lizzie can hear or see them. To help her sister, she tries to buy some fruit, but the Goblins will only sell it to her if she eats it. They try to force-feed hear and the smashed fruits gets all over her face. They return her penny and she goes to let Laura lick her face. But the taste is bitter. She flies into convulsions and almost dies. But she recovers. Surprise! Both sisters eventually marry, bearing their own “fruit,” to whom they tell the story of the nasty goblin merchants.

Rossetti is obviously worried about the market. Part of the problem is that it is impossible merely to taste–since taste is always already implicated in a cycle of appetite that cannot be quenched on the terms set by the market. Laura becomes listless, yes, but also voracious. Can think of this as a rewriting of the Lotos-Eaters. While males can taste the pleasures of the market and afford to not work, women, in order to taste those pleasures, must bear the burden of labor that is the precondition of something like the male aesthetic dimension.

The eating of fruit as violation of the aesthetic dimension.

Contrasting figures of Eve and Mary. How does Rossetti solve the antinomy of female sexuality: portrayed as always-already fallen but require to be completely pure nevertheless. How does this connect with the discourse of the secret and with purity and virginity more broadly (in Hardy, Brontës, etc.)


Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species (1859)

Important topics:

The difference between natural selection and sexual selection. Gets taken up by Mill in On Liberty to distinguish the role of government: on the one hand, the rigorous respect for individual growth, and the processes of selection which occur through discourse and conversation.

Species vs. individual: Darwin refuses the fixed category of a species. It is merely a name for a set of creatures that resemble one another. This will trouble, eventually, the division between man and animal.

The tiny sublime: in Darwin, the sublime becomes infinitesimally small: “Natural selection can act only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small modifications, each profitable to the preserved being.” This follows the extended discussion of domestication, the visible  and invisible, man’s ability to see or not, etc. Connect to the broader topics of the secret: small, inhering in change, transformation. Connect this to the larger topic of transition, historical, aesthetic and otherwise. Also connect to the opening of Daniel Deronda, where the “author” claims that the “beginning” of any story is arbitrary because the units of experience can be cut up into infinitely tiny pieces, thus making the discovery of some originary cause impossible.

The domestic: good way to start a conversation about domestic fiction more broadly. Written in 1859, so in the midst of later Dickens (Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) and the same year as Collins’ Woman in White. Darwin’s argument is that man can select for the purposes of domestic farming, but that no man can see the processes of “natural” selection. “Man can act only on external and visible characters: Nature cares nothing for Appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being” (65).  As evidence, he shows that domesticated animals revert back to a state of nature when released into the wild, returning to certain instinctual patterns that are inexplicable within the parameters set by human understanding.  Interesting to talk about Wuthering Heights as presaging this work on domestication.

“Perfection” – argues, just as Ruskin does in The Nature of the Gothic” that nothing in nature, nothing living, can be held to the standards of human or aesthetic perfection: nevertheless, these processes recur as the very thing judged according to the beautiful…and as constitutive of that very beauty.

Geological record: as an imperfect text that tells the history of mankind extending beyond mankind, in languages that are not our own. Relate this to the cathedral of Notre-Dame.

The Tree Of Life as an analogy for the development of the world–i.e. dead branches fall off, new ones replace them, and the tree keeps growing. Connect this with the notion of perfection and the aesthetic more generally. What is metaphor accomplishing for Darwin? How does this relate to wonder? How does the shift the conversation from worries about the dry and mechanical, to one of beauty and wonder.


Thomas Huxley: “a mass of facts crushed and pounded into shape, rather than held together by the ordinary medium of an obvious logical bond.”

Cathy Gallagher on The Body Economic: distinguishes between bioeconmic plots (how political economies circulate Life) and somaeconomic plots — how accounts of pleasure and pain, unhappiness, desire, exhaustion, etc. stimulate bio plots and are in turned transformed by them. Central paradox: “the social body is growing old precisely insofar as the actual demographic proportions of the society are increasingly weighted towards youth, since, under optimal conditions, each generation would be twice as large as the generation preceding it. For Malthus to make sense, the body/society homology needs to be considered as a body/society opposition.”

George Levine: distinguishes Darwin studies from Literary Darwinsimsm; among other points, talks about hwo Darwin inspires wonder and not dry mechanical reducitonism. Everything signifies beyond itself, infinitely but immanently.