Commodities and Migration: Things out of Place
8 December 2011
Department of English, New York University
Session 1 of the Commodities and Migration workshop at NYU started the day off on a high note. All of the papers were fascinating in their own right but were also fascinatingly interconnected: each showed how different kinds of Victorian narratives display a deep ambivalence about the meanings of certain objects that they feature (ghosts, pawn-shop objects, cash) and that this ambivalence serves as the terrain of the narratives’ oblique but palpable comment on social relations.
Elaine Freedgood’s paper, “Ghostly Reference and the Play of Belief,” called for renewed attention to the ghost story, showing how it is structurally related to two key nineteenth-century formations: realism and liberalism. Elaine argued that unlike another popular genre of the period—detective stories—ghost stories are characterized by a lack of resolution, for most never provide a definitive answer to their constitutive question of whether or not ghosts exist. This makes ghost stories emblematic of realist novels rather than distinct from them because the realist novel, too, generates a metaleptic fracture between two different levels of reference: one of them real and historical (the world in which the novel takes place) and one of them fictional (the characters and action of the novel). This potential problem of reference is also interestingly connected to the duality required by liberalism, whereby the liberal citizen is both a ghostly, idealized abstraction and an embodied, imperfect person. Rather than being a problem and exception, then, the irresolution of the ghost story emblematizes Victorian representation and the ways in which it both acknowledges and masks its aporetic nature.
Priyanka Jacob’s, “A Taste for Catholic Spoils: Fashion, Dispossession, and Equivocal Objects in Daniel Deronda,” began with an intriguing passage from Eliot’s novel in which Daniel sees missal-clasps (ornate bindings for religious texts) in a pawn-shop window. Though the clasps are only briefly discussed in the novel, Priyanka argued that they signify beyond their moment of appearance in the text by registering “entire histories of human conflict and appropriation, folded one into the other.” The clasps are at once Catholic spoils seized by Protestants; pawnshop items subject to reinvention but also redeemable by their original owners; spolia (items transposed from one religious context to another); examples of the aesthetic decontextualization performed by fashion; and feminine bric-a-brac. They are thus what the novel calls “equivocal” objects—an adjective, Priyanka noted, that Eliot also applies to women in morally ambiguous situations. Through the multiple signification generated by this equivocality, the novel frees its objects (and perhaps its women) from stable associations.
In “Money/Commodity/Fetish: Hard Cash and the Circulation of Madness,” Mia Chen looked at the ways in which various aspects of capitalist fetishism are elucidated by the novel of her title, a form of “it narrative” which features a bundle of cash as a protagonist. Mia argued that the hard cash is given both angelic and demonic properties in the novel, and that this ambivalence reflects the novel’s attitude toward labor (one of the many things the cash represents), which it figures both as alienated and non-alienated. This ambivalence is also discernible in the novel’s attitude towards money fetishism, which fetishizes money’s ability to multiply, and hence be non-identical to itself. An analogue to this is the persistent theme of madness in the novel, which emphasizes how people can be non-identical to themselves. Through this theme, the cash, in its life-likeness, reflects the instability of all subjects under conditions of speculation. The way the cash operates in the novel, in other words, alerts us to the flip side of capitalist reification and the “irreducibly irrational ontological status of all things and people” subject to it.
Hunter College, CUNY