rhizomes.05 fall 2005

Tarrying with Sensuous Materiality: A Study of the Interplay between Objects and the Human Body in Dickens
Hisup Shin

[1] It is often stressed that the literary language of Western Europe finds its niche in the vicissitudes of periodic temperaments and social outlooks. The conceptual or retrospective vantage ground raised by the image of historical transformations affords a linear vista of changing views and knowledge that resonates throughout linguistic representation, not only literary discourses. The threshold of modern realist fiction of the 19th century thus loomed as part of broader shifting historical patterns that interweaved uneven, complex discourses at all social levels. The impact of 'historical events and forces' that is said to produce a heightened awareness of contemporary social and psychological realities, many critics argue, often settles down to a set of identifiable representational patterns, played out against the evolutionary backdrop of modern literature. [1] While such a view may serve as a convenient signpost of what would follow in the broader frame of modern narrative art, it also contains some interesting implications that need to be pursued beyond the theme of historical or generic continuity. This need for separate investigation becomes more pronounced when we start to consider the extent to which the so-called 'historical events and forces' influenced and shifted the paths of literary representation. At a time when Western Europe was gripped by forces of political, social, and technological transformation, these events and forces must be seen not simply as a fixed entry in the historical logbook of modernity and modernization, but as unleashing a number of intriguing effects that problematize the principles of human perception and knowledge. On this critical note, I would like to examine the functions and implications of literary language, in particular that of Charles Dickens in the context of the dramatic proliferation of man-made objects in Victorian England, as a way of investigating varying assumptions of human signifying activities. There is no secret about the dismissive treatment that has often been allotted to this English writer in European realism studies, which largely has to do with his anti-intellectual, provincial leaning toward domestic order, social virtue, and the moralized countryside. [2] This kind of reasoning is, in my view, indicative of the overall representational frame that maintains the established social and historical views of realist fiction, overlooking other channels of correspondence between social forces and the language of realism. What follows then can also be construed as an attempt to broaden the meanings of literary realism by focusing on what can be described as the figural hybridization of the human body and objects in Dickens's writing, a teasing out of its intriguing theoretical implications.

[2] Charles Dickens consistently produced captivating images of human experience in his major novels. In the style and strategy of his writing, there is a persistent move toward physical tension, which is at loggerheads with one of the most cherished ideas of modern Europe, the Cartesian notion of individuated subjectivity at the core of human consciousness. The assumption is that the human subject is a self-reflective one, constantly projecting images of society and culture, through which it constructs its self-same identity in contrast. In creating and developing his urban characters, Dickens gave precedence to the material substratum of their habits and activities, with which the sense of their existence is inextricably bound. The human substance of the characters and their material background often become interchangeable in his description of urban experience. Railways, carriageways, various kinds of vehicles, pieces of furniture and clothing, and other numerous manufactured goods do not just complement urban dwellers' sense of being; rather they constitute it by becoming their intrinsic parts. In Little Dorrit (1857), for example, Pancks, rent collector for Casby, is a steam-engine, whose appearance is always signaled by his inexhaustible propulsion:

Perspiring and puffing and darting about in eccentric directions, and becoming hotter and dingier every moment, he lashed the tide of the Yard into a most agitated and turbid state. It had not settled down into calm water again, full two hours after he had been seen fuming away on the horizon at the top of the steps. [3]

During the composition of the novel, Dickens kept a 'memorandum book' of hints and suggestions for characters and possible future subjects, in which he made it clear that the mechanical image of Pancks was modeled on 'the snorting little steam tug' on the Thames, towing 'the unwieldy ship.' [4] As things and people coalesce, they tend to adopt characteristics from one another, thus unsettling the notion that the human subject governs the realm of objects.

[3] This confusing, odd mixture of human attributes and those of 'insensate' objects is a cause of bewilderment for many critics to this day. Consequently, they tend to interpret it through the notion of fetishism in the broad sense of the term, assuming that this mutual appropriation, without any consideration of its specific politico-economical and social content, reflects a deliberate attempt to ridicule what Dickens saw as the prevalent crude and inhuman mode of life. In Fetishism and Imagination, David Simpson argues that the writer's peculiarly obsessive figurative play -- that of metaphoric or metonymic conjunction between people, things and other social elements -- is intended critically:

The dominance of the figure in Dickens, which Henry James so aptly noted, can be taken to signal a world upside down and inside out, badly awry in the processes of signification and exchange which it encourages and recognises. Detached or distorted figures, often metonyms or obsessively emphasised synecdoches -- bosoms, helmets, coats, and waistcoats -- are fitting to a society wherein (almost) all authentic relations are inhibited or punished. Aside from the redeeming intelligences who operate as the educative centres to the novels, their societies are energetically miscreative. [5]

It appears that a number of scholars like Simpson find the broad applicability of the term fetishism adequate to capture the unreflective, cold mechanization at every possible conjunction of human experience in Dickens's fiction. In family, office, market, school, and prison, men are figured as a functional part of each social system, and their singularity is marked out only in mutual differential relation to one another, as in Jean Baudrillard's notion of sign value. [6] Without any insight into the psychical depth and social complexity of their experience, their existential wholeness can only be understood as the composite of their mechanical functions and skills. Hence, the term fetishism, denoting the pervasive social mechanization of human experience within pre-established instrumental rules and logic.

[4] What challenges this reading is that the inexhaustible, disseminating energy of verbal agility overlaying Dickens's stylistic fusion often blurs or obfuscates the presumed authorial intent, the nexus of social criticism that channels what is expressed into the schemes of double meaning and parody. This linguistic excess, in turn, leads to another criticism, this time leveled at the writer himself since he, some commentators argue, seems to forget the underlying meaning of his own descriptions of human experience and indulges in the pleasure of 'fetishistic writing'; that the use of language itself becomes ensnared in the logic of social reification. For instance, David Musselwhite's claim that Dickens's artistic development reflects the gradual containment of the youthful energy of his early writing hinges on what the critic considers as symptoms of fetishism manifested at various levels of creative consciousness. Central to this view is what Musselwhite dismisses as the frivolousness of linguistic style in Dickens's later fiction, arbitrarily allotting human attributes to objects and connecting them in random order, as vividly illustrated in the scene depicting Brogley's second-hand furniture shop in Dombey and Son (1848): 'there is some risk that the creative brio might detract from the essentially serious point that is being made. Put another way, the fetishization and commodification has entered into the very language itself.' [7] Before looking into the details of this claim in relation to the passage in question, we need to get to grips with its underlying theoretical makeup, which will cast light not only on such fetishism-wary remarks on the use of language, but also their unexpected link to the general outlook of Victorian material culture, the historical and cultural backdrop against which our understanding of Dickens's language will take on an intriguingly positive turn.

[5] First of all, these critical readings are based on a broader assumption about language and reality, namely that the validity of language is guaranteed by the transparency of what it represents in reality. Hinging on this view, the term 'fetishism' designates the textual locus in which the representational function of language is somehow rendered incapacitated in Dickens, and reveals the 'sensuous' quality of his writing instead of referring to the world outside. I want to claim that this linguistic predicament is not just an instance of stylistic oddity, but reflects the overall sense of perceptual crisis that traversed human experiences in relating to the world. In an attempt to explore various ramifications of this perceptual tension in the shifting social and technological patterns of 19th-century Western Europe, David Harvey finds that the arbitrary, relativistic time-space conjunction of human activities and perception anticipates a fundamental shift in the fields of representation and knowledge:

The certainty of absolute space gave way to the insecurities of a shifting relative space, in which events in one place could have immediate and ramifying effects in several other places. If, as Jameson suggests, 'the truth of experience no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place,' but is spreadeagled across the world's spaces, then a situation arises 'in which we can say that if individual experience is authentic, then it cannot be true' and that if a scientific or cognitive mode of the same content is true, then it escapes individual experience.' [8]

Likewise, debates and discussions across a broad range of professions, drawing and recasting boundaries of representation, struck a note of cognitive crisis in one way or another, overlaying the spectrum of modern experience that exceeded the limits of representation set by the rationalized structures of early modern or Enlightenment architects, philosophers, artists, etc. From the incessant drive for profit in manufacturing and financial industries, creating new market territories by redrawing class and cultural borders, to more rapid, easy-to-access means of communication (telegraph, wider distribution of newspapers), modern experience underscored the way individuals were consistently thrown into a situation beyond the means of their control, the overlapping ground of uncertainty that sheds light on the gap between the meaning of experience and representational transparency. Thus, one of the most striking observations that can be made about modern experience is that the claim of authenticity gains its lasting impression not so much through ordered patterns of representation, but by means of evoking a range of disruptive, conflicting tones, clues, gestures, etc.

[6] In Dickens, clue to this view can be found as early as the 1830s when the writer, while working as a journalist, launched into a successful string of highly charged urban sketches and yarns, later to be collected under the title of Sketches by Boz (1839). Intense, if not bewildering, energy emanating from his descriptions relating a number of contemporary experiences -- ranging from riding various urban vehicles ("The Last-Cab-driver, and the First Omnibus Cad") to the erosion of tight-knit communities thanks to an influx of urban population ("Our Next-door Neighbour") -- reflects the early signs of industrial and technological ambition of Victorian England at both thematic and stylistic level. More intriguingly, this sense of animation crops up as a catalyst for his act of journalistic writing, as attested in his speech given at a Press dinner later in his career:

I do verily believe that I have been upset in almost every description of vehicle known in the country. I have been, in my time, belated on miry by-roads, towards small hours, forty and fifty miles from London, in a wheelless carriage, with exhausted horse and drunken post-boys, and have got back in time for publication....These trivial things I mention as an assurance to you that I have never forgotten the fascination of that old pursuit. The pleasure that I used to feel in the rapidity and dexterity of its exercises has never faded out of my breast. [9]

It is apparent that the "rapidity and dexterity" of journalistic practice was the outcome of his readiness to adapt to and even relish the unfavorable working conditions. Seen in this light, the liveliness conveyed in the young Dickens's coach rides, although not in the same level of technological advancement, set the uncanny tone of his writing that would later create stunning railway scenes in his novels, as famously illustrated in Dombey and Son.

[7] It is no coincidence that there arose a serious concern with knowability or measurability of modern experience in the rapidly expanding landscape of material culture in Victorian England. The earlier advent of the railway, the steamer, and the telegraph brought an enormous expansion of the market; not only for heavy industrial products such as rail iron, and steel, required to build more industrial plants and transport facilities, but also mass-produced consumer goods, altering the lifestyle of many Victorians. In response, material culture adopted the range of perceptual and behavioral adjustments, that is the way people tried to cope with industrial or urban environments and new objects, by treating them as an extended category in defining and understanding human activities. From chemical textile to needles and pins, manufactured goods were not only made in vast quantities; intersected with myriads of catchphrases, practicalities, cultural views and associations adopted by advertisers, cultural historians, social critics, and so forth, they also unleashed networks of signs and attitudes as an integral dimension of Victorian everyday life. As Asa Briggs's extensive study of Victorian objects has proven, a variety of epoch-describing slogans -- 'age of coal,' 'age of iron,' or 'age of paper' among many -- offers us an insight into the way such natural resources or products, while radically changing the country, also became popular household words, as they grew into metaphors and symbols that stood for the subtle, different inflexions of daily patterns and cultural memories. To reproduce Briggs's quotation from Mary MacCarthy's A 19th-Century Childhood (1924): 'I can hear the coal being shovelled and shot and poured and heaped on by servants at intervals throughout the day. My mother even had two fireplaces filled with red-hot coal in her long bedroom, to muse by.' [10]

[8] From this, we can see to what extent Victorian material culture privileged the speaking subject, allowing it to define the world within the familiar, unchanging boundaries of its cognitive experience. Yet, what is troubling is that this anthropocentric tendency has an obverse side, fraught with the haunting images of self-propelling/perpetuating gadgets and objects, a realm of fantastic momentum that overhangs the jurisdiction of the speaking subject by mimicking and displacing it. It is this representational antinomy that is used as the narrative impetus of Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1840), a provocative interplay between Nell, a hapless child wanderer seeking a spiritual haven from the city, and all kinds of menacing, 'fantastic things' that haunt her, as first anticipated by the narrator upon finding the girl in her grandfather's eccentric bric-a-brac shop: 'I had her image, without any effort of imagination, surrounded and beset by everything that was so foreign to its nature, and furthest removed from the sympathies of her sex and age.' [11] Behind the explicit thematic interest in the protection of her innocence and purity, there crops up in the narrative a subversive momentum that conspires with the 'inhuman' sway of bizarre things and figures, embodied here by Mrs. Jarley's grotesque wax models, in the company of which Nell is forced to spend many distressed nights, often imagining them crossing over into the human:

Notwithstanding these protection, she could get none but broken sleep by fits and starts all night, for fear of Quilp, who throughout her uneasy dreams was somehow connected with the wax-work, or was wax-work himself, or was Mrs Jarley and wax-work too, or was himself, Mrs Jarley, wax-work, and a barrel organ all in one, and yet not exactly any of them either. [12]

The significance of this passage and many more along such lines of figuration in Dickens's oeuvre cannot be read without considering the cognitive intrigue they add to the established perception of the author as the custodian of material culture, [13] whose unstinting use of personification in describing man-made things and technologies from paper-mills ('A Paper-Mill') to plates ('A Plated Article') -- mostly published in Household Words -- was often intended for amusement and education. So it is important to recognize that this double-edged stylistic maneuvering evokes the sense of ambivalence overlaying the representational scope of material culture, which is clearly articulated by cultural historian Thomas Richard in emphasizing the intimate link between commodities and language in Victorian context:

Because language has a maddening way of transforming the means of description into a high drama of human agency and intention, a study of the barest facts of commodity always turns out to be an exploration of a fantastic realm in which things think, act, speak, rise, fall, fly, evolve....[This] book makes a detailed historical argument that commodity became...a form so central to Victorian life that it always merited extended description, expanded narrative, and supplemental metaphor. [14]

[9] In seeking to counteract this ambivalent perception, there emerged a number of views and concepts largely gaining purchase on notions of scientific progress and civilization as a way of encouraging 'informed' appreciations of objects and warding off irrational attachments to them. In keeping with the greater European Enlightenment project, these ideas bespeak the need to reconcile in theory the subjective domain of material experience with the notion of rationalism pursuing the universal moral end of human intentionality. This approach was further intensified by the way it expanded its theoretical boundaries, especially in its increasing appropriation of social and psychological elements that are deemed to be opposing. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, the derogatory term 'fetishism' was introduced to European intellectual circles in order to denote the irrational dimension of subjective attachments to sensuous materiality, mostly found in religious superstition and other types of archaic rituals. By the mid-nineteenth century, many Europeans understood fetishes to be the typical cultural artifacts worshipped by primitive non-European societies, reflecting their inability to understand the physical world as both causality-bound (empirical) and morally driven (transcendental), and the consequent subjection to impersonal mechanical laws and events. The fetishes represent human intentionality as highly private and unpredictable, as only being aware of instant gain and loss and contingent upon the arbitrary forces of the physical world.

[10] On the other hand, the cognitive boundaries set by fetishism also drew out a number of European social elements -- religious or philosophical clichés, bourgeois industrial systems, etc. -- that mirror ancient or contemporary tribal cults in their excessive valuation of certain materials and images, which culminates in Marx's radical critique of free-market civil society. Marx's theory of fetishism stands in a suggestive contrast to its earlier counterparts in his careful account of specific, often conflicting contours of material experience constructed around modern fetishes (exchange value and capital), a kind of 'phenomenological turn' that delves into the immediate, sensuous qualities of lived experience, fetishistic or alienating as they may seem, as the integral constituent of social dynamics. [15] In the present context, the significance of this theoretical move does not lie so much in the subsequent political task of identifying laboring classes as the embodiment of that dynamic, channeling their experience into events of historical overcoming. Rather, we are concerned with its underlying theoretical signature laying bare the expanding horizon of modern experience, that is, the way it expands the representational scope of modern experience fraught with social and economic contradictions, thus giving way to the unpredictable momentum of expressions and gestures outside the given confines of conceptualization. From this angle, we can sense the broadening spectrum of the term fetishism, designating diverse relations with sensuous objects or instruments, which, in turn, insinuate the varying range of existential conditions in modern society: "sociological theories of institutional reification, anthropological theories of primitive religion, psychoanalytic theories of sexual perversion, Marxian theories of cultural commodification, all these are integral to the history of the theoretical discourse about fetishism." [16] In its broadest sense, the term makes explicit the shifting, duplicitous ground of human experience in which the expressive momentum of immediate, corporeal experience tends to exceed representational boundaries ranging from Christian dogmatism to bourgeois-capitalist social order.

[11] For our present concern with establishing a point of contrast with Dickens's language, we can refer to the collision of lived experience and cultural conceptualization lodged in the evolutionary notions of Victorian material culture. In seeking to demonstrate 'the succession of ideas by which the minds of men...have progressed,' Colonel Lane Fox (also known as Pitt Rivers), a major Darwinian exponent of cultural anthropology, began collecting material forms, the products of human labor, from all parts of the world, including utensils, machines, ornaments, dress, and arranged them into 'genera, species and varieties.' [17] Much like his cohorts, Lane Fox attempted to resolve the Darwinian dilemma of the historical reconstruction of missing gaps in the continuity of evolutionary progress by resorting to historicized narratives in comparative style and figurative tropes, such as the visual metaphor of the ethnological tree:

The tree was 'the grand type of progress,' and the existing human races were 'the budding twigs and foliage'; but because the dearth of knowledge of their early history made it impossible 'to place them on their proper branches,' one had to rely instead on a generalised rectilinear sequence of civilisation based on the comparative method. [18]

The effort assigned to the gathering and later the first public display of Pitt Rivers' 'universal collection of things' (1874) was indicative of what would be later known as the Victorian 'museum movement,' to which antiquarian, local history, and natural history museums all rallied, taking on the spirit and propaganda of public education. [19] Instrumental to this effort were the intricate systems of arrangement applied to the Pitt-Rivers collection permanently exhibited at Oxford University, supported by a series of academic lectures that lent scientific integrity. Asa Briggs's following remark bears testimony to the vital role that Victorian anthropology played in consolidating the distinct shape of material culture:

It was through nineteenth-century anthropology that the concept of 'material culture' was explicitly introduced to the study of things, from the start bringing into the reckoning materials as well as artefacts, while at the same time relating man-made things to 'minerals, flora and fauna, which compose the environment in which people live.' [20]

Nevertheless, the attempt to signify man-made things in the system of evolutionary sociocultural theory was plagued by a number of conflicting signs, plugged into broader, often politically charged, experiential fields. In stressing the importance of public education, Pitt Rivers argued that his 'scientific' system would help remove the 'designs of demagogue and agitators' from the impressionable minds of the masses: 'the law that Nature makes no jumps [can be] thought by the history of mechanical contrivances, in such a way as at least to make men cautious how they listen to scatter-brained revolutionary suggestions.' [21] The interesting point to be made about this remark, in my view, is not so much the feasibility of its political or pedagogical intent, which is difficult, if not impossible to gauge on account of its obscurity, but the extent to which such a vague allusion evokes the unpredictable, slippery realm of modern experience. Indeed, it is against this backdrop that his taxonomic arrangement was offered, capturing the human body as the focal point of representation with a view to leveling the eruptive moments of singular events into the established order of the material world:

The concentric circles of his 'anthropological rotunda' were designed to illustrate the major phases of evolutionary development; a spot in the actual centre was left empty for 'the relics of tertiary man, when he is discovered'; the innermost circle was for the Paleolithic period; the next for the Neolithic, and then through the Bronze, Iron, and Middle Ages -- each larger than the last, because 'the increased number of forms would require a large area' -- 'until the outer circle of all would contain specimens of such modern arts as could be placed in continuity with those of antiquity'....By following the radii, the 'most uninstructed student' could reconstruct the history of any object and 'trace like forms to their origin'; where 'breaks in the continuity of any art must necessarily occur,' signs might be posted directing viewers to the spot where 'the threads of connection' might be picked up. (italics mine) [22]

This planning of the viewer's movement was intended to eliminate the unknowable dimension of the body, that is, the possibility of the failure of correspondence between the order of discourse and the reality of physical experience, which would render the body, as it were, conceptually inconsistent. It was this ambivalent sign of human corporeality that kept surfacing at the fringe of Pitt Rivers' ideas of museum arrangement. In William Ryan Chapman's words: 'despite Pitt Rivers' hopes that typological arrangements might close working-class minds to "scatter-brained revolutionary ideas," one suspects that those three hundred local agricultural workers who came to Farnham every Sunday may have been attracted more by exotic animals and band concerts than by typology.' [23] Traversing such irreconcilable material encounters, the body then remains a kind of semantic slippage, which undercuts the conceptual categories of Victorian material culture. This insight provides the gateway to alternative non-uniform contours of material experience: expressions of material encounters are heterogeneous, and each instance can demonstrate no model of truth prior to or outside its own specific circumstances. Each expression is contingent on its particular trajectory of behaviors and patterns, on which its style and strategy are based. On this note, I will offer below a critical approach to Dickens's style, a way of taking account of how Dickens's depictions of physical experience at times give his writing the creative impetus for a set of linguistic paradigms different from that of mimetic language.

[12] Nowhere is this stylistic bent more marked than in his career-long treatment of urban laboring or lower classes that continued to capture readers' attention. From roguish characters in his earlier sketches -- Bill Barker in 'The Last Cab-driver, and the first Omnibus Cad' -- to downtrodden figures like Mr Dolls in the last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1867), they are all placed at the fringes of the established order, embodying a viable threat to the vision of the 'modern' city envisaged in a number of social and administrative discourses. At another level, shared among these characters is a sense of unstoppable mobility, which, in my view, reflects writer's insight into positive energy pitted against the mechanical city. While the city is portrayed replete with dehumanizing social systems or gadgets, it can also be observed that the inhabitants continue to fill the city with their appetite for life, a will to overcome any obstacle and obtain their objective. This drive frustrates any cognitive attempt to identify and label it, since it has no pre-determined shape of its own, but constantly adjusts itself to the social conditions and systemic logic in which it finds itself. The energy is manifested primarily through incessant gestures and motions of the body, the trajectory of which takes on shifting social as well as physical perspectives. Thus, the 'inhuman' qualities of the corporeality not only reflect the reified material world with which they are literally conjoined beyond distinction, but also occasion sudden eruptions of social defiance or communal festivity. This is precisely the effect created by Panck's unforeseen renunciation of his servile position in Little Dorrit, leading to his final triumph over his stingy employer, when he discloses all the financial and moral shams perpetrated by the latter, to the great delight of tenants who come out to observe the impromptu street tribunal. Even more delightful is how this episode never drops off into an easy, formulaic closure of poetic justice, but keeps its intriguing tension by focusing on the strategy and implications of the rent collector's action, as they are informed by the reified and disciplinary city. As a result, what ensues is not a violent overthrow, but the tactful subversion of the system, showing how the act of challenge becomes effective through the assumption of all the machine-like features remarked upon earlier, thus blurring the line of division between the sign of reification and that of human defiance:

Quick as lightning, Mr Pancks, who, for some moments, had had his right hand in his coat pocket, whipped out a pair of shears, swooped upon the Patriarch [Casby] behind, and snipped off the sacred locks that flowed upon his shoulders. In a paroxysm of animosity and rapidity, Mr Pancks then caught the broad-brimmed hat out of the astounded Patriarch's hand, cut it down into a mere stewpan, and fixed it on the Patriarch's head. Before the frightful results of this desperate action, Mr Pancks himself recoiled in consternation....After staring at this phantom in return, in silent awe, Mr Pancks threw down his shears, and fled for a place for hiding, where he might lie sheltered from the consequence of his crime. Mr Pancks deemed it prudent to us all possible dispatch in making off, though he was pursued by nothing but the sound of laughter in Bleeding Heart Yard, rippling through the air and making it ring again. [24]

What comes across in this passage with resounding clarity is not so much the significance of Panck's rebellious deed, as the rapidity and efficiency with which it is carried out, perfectly chiming with his earlier engine-like movement that was repeatedly produced with almost mechanical precision. In other words, his 'undefinable' bodily momentum not only survives the systemic constraint of the material city, but also, more importantly, transforms its negative energy into a life-affirming alternative. This introduces the intriguing notion that the human body is not a finished form but a kind of structural modality, which is constantly reformulated through differential negotiations with diverse objects and events.

[13] With a view to taking issue with the critics' charge of 'fetishistic writing' related earlier in the essay, we can now return to Dickens's description of Brogley's shop in Dombey and Son:

There lived in those days, round the corner -- in Bishopsgate Street Without -- one Brogley, sworn broker and appraiser, who kept a shop where every description of second-hand furniture was exhibited in the most uncomfortable aspect, and under circumstances and in combinations the most completely foreign to its purpose. Dozens of chairs hooked on to washing stands, which with difficulty poised themselves on the shoulders of sideboards, which in their turn stood upon the wrong side of dining-tables, gymnastic with their legs upward on the tops of other dining-tables, were among its most reasonable arrangements. A banquet array of dishcovers, wine-glasses, and decanters were generally to be seen, spread forth upon the bosom of a four-post bedstead, for the entertainment of such genial company as half-a-dozen pokers, and a hall lamp. A set of window curtains with no windows belonging to them, would be seen gracefully draping a barricade of chests of drawers, loaded with little jars from chemists' shops; while a homeless hearthrug severed from its natural companion the fireside, braved the shrewd east wind in its adversity, and trembled in melancholy accord with the shrill complainings of a cabinet piano, wasting away, a string a day, and faintly resounding to the noises of the street in its jangling and distracted brain. Of motionless clocks that never stirred a finger, and seemed as incapable of being successfully wound up, as the pecuniary affairs of their former owners, there was always great choice in Mr. Brogley's shop; and various looking glasses, accidentally placed at compound interest of reflection and refraction, presented to the eye an eternal perspective of bankruptcy and ruin. [25]

A cursory glance reveals the predominant use of personification, whereby all the objects are presented as empty self-referential signs, arbitrarily linked and maneuvered by the writer. The figurative play of language -- "gymnastic" tables, "decanter...for the entertainment of...half-a-dozen pokers," etc -- is considered fetishistic by Musselwhite among others, because its self-indulgent manner is devoid of critical intent. It is precisely this feature that many critics find disconcerting in Dickens: the arbitrary intermingling of objects and people. What such arguments cannot reveal, or at any rate do not acknowledge, is the fact that there exists a complex dimension of human experience to which this "fetishistic" writing bears witness.

[14] Two levels of human experience can be discerned here: Dickens's encounter with those second-hand objects (empirical) and the same experience transformed into a scene of writing (textual). At the empirical level, we can easily discern that this scene reflects Dickens's intimate knowledge of everyday life in London, which is sufficiently reproduced in his writing, saturated with people, their occupations, clothes, everyday paraphernalia, etc. In particular, the attention given to common objects such as needles, umbrellas, or wine bottles often stands out for its sharpened evocation of their palpable sensuous qualities, as pointed out by the Dickens critic G. K. Chesterton in the following memorable terms: 'it is well to be able to realise that contact with the Dickens world is almost like a physical contact; it is like stepping suddenly into the hot smells of a green house, or into the bleak smell of the sea.' [26] The passage above is in keeping with this absorbing attention to common objects. The ruinous, disorganized state of Brogley's second-hand furniture dislocates each piece from its daily functional context, and in this sense, one can detect the literary stroke of 'defamiliarization.' Yet, what creates this is not authorial ease in manipulating the scene, but the lack of it, as objects, charged with forces of disruption and intrusion, unexpectedly turn a state of bankruptcy and ruin into one of liveliness. It is wrong to assume that each object designates an identifiable quality, since it is not subject to the representational faculty of recognition. Rather, it is a particular 'effect' of the crisscrossing of diverse sign elements in differential relations, which may or may not be within the limits of human senses. We might compare it to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore; our perceptual recognition of it is constituted by heterogeneous elements of the waves, which reside beyond our sensory confines. What is intriguing is that Dickens explores the complex process of negotiation among co-determining sign variables as the content of a physical experience, rather than reducing it to some general shape of recognizable objects. To experience an object here means to perceive it as part of the continuous flow of intensities generated by varying relations of diverse elements at the limits of human senses. [27]

[15] From this perspective, the use of personification should be contrasted with the humanizing tendency of Victorian material culture couched in cognitive convenience. It is the 'hyper-real' sense of a bodily presence in the unique 'street corner experience' that is attuned to animating forces running through the objects. As a result, the body is not seen as a unifying whole, looking over the objects in detachment. Rather, it is described as part of the differential relations among the objects, since it is plugged into the complex crisscrossings of their energy field, disclosing its particular, disjointed forms in variable motion. This creates the stunning effect of bodily immediacy caught in such an intense experience: 'chairs...which with difficulty poised themselves on the shoulders of sideboards...which in their turn stood upon the wrong side of the dining-tables, gymnastic with their legs upwards on the tops of other dining-tables,' 'dish-covers, wine-glasses, and decanters...spread[ing] forth upon the bosom of a four-post bedstead,' and 'a homeless hearthrug severed from its natural companion the fireside, brav[ing] the shrewd east wind in its adversity, and trembl[ing] in melancholy accord with the shrill complainings of a cabinet piano, wasting away, a string a day, and faintly resounding to the noises of the street in its jangling and distracted brain.'(italics mine) Each of these phrases highlights nodal points, at which the body and the objects intersect with an intensity produced by the asymmetry of their differential relations. In empirical terms, however, the distinctly localized encounter of the human body with objects occupies the primacy of our experience, shortchanging such an intricate intercourse of energy. In response, we need to take up an alternative terrain of interpretation. This is the terrain in which the text can be understood as a vital, performative part of human experience, effecting the complexity and ambiguity of that experience beyond the constraining sway of empirical order.

[16] At a textual level, our attention is focused on the scene of writing, in which some distinct stylistic features can be observed. What is obvious in the passage is the sheer propulsive momentum that drives a variety of syntactic elements beyond the capacity of our reading (understanding), and literally throws us into the complex relations of the signs of objects. Each sentence is run-on, incessantly linking semantic constituents with one another, until it becomes impossible to imagine what the sentence intends to represent as a whole, and we are left with discontinuous moments of images, arbitrarily spliced together. Here, the use of connectives such as 'which,' 'and,' and commas creates the effect of an obsessive attempt to articulate the represented name of each object in cognizable order to the utmost precision, right down to the slightest details of its condition and position, occasioning a sheer cacophony of elucidation -- with too many individualized objects, with too many sides and shoulders kept in too diverse positions. This overkill of lucid representation without any 'unrepresented residue' bears witness to the peculiar condition of Dickens's language. In the passage, language is divorced from its representational function, and becomes synonymous with its opaque materiality, made up of a variety of syntactic rules and modal patterns. Interestingly, Dickens finishes his description of the shop with an item that appears to characterize this unique linguistic condition. Like his language, looking-glasses cannot represent the world in a unifying manner, since they are a material substance that only picks up the random, heterogeneous trace of the Other beyond their knowability: 'various looking glasses, accidentally placed at compound interest of reflection and refraction, presented to the eye an eternal perspective of bankruptcy and ruin.' In this light, the connectives, rather than serving the lucidity of represented reality, function as a kind of 'disjunctive' textual converter, untiringly chopping the continuity of representation into smaller units, and then fusing and pasting them with one another at varying angles and speeds. It is primarily through this process that the unrepresentable energy of the street corner experience emerges; not as the object of a unifying representation, but as a series of shifting actions and intensities.

[17] Likewise, disjointed frames of bodily movements in variable positions and speeds demonstrate the interactive quality of an impetus in the confusing jumble of objects. This physical momentum can be translated into a configuration of stylistic features, informed by incessant physical motion and operational efficiency. Firstly, the body is seen operating 'over' those objects, not in continuous fashion but in a kind of sliced-off, multi-faceted way, creating a collage effect in that they are being simultaneously encountered from different angles and viewpoints. This effect is unmistakably highlighted by 'a cabinet piano,' the discordant condition of which (its 'jangling and distracted brain') echoes 'the noises of the street,' the converging point of diverse, irreconcilable urban motions. Secondly, while the body is seen as linking the disparate objects by arranging and positioning them, its driving force indicates that the joining is not stable but loose and arbitrary, and that it can impair the connection, throwing any remotely possible chance of detecting its significance even further into the maze of mystery. Again, the sense of mystery is enhanced by the din of the city, which adds potential mobility to the musty objects in the shop. It is precisely to this effect that, much later in the story, the apparently unassailable image of Mr Dombey's wealth and social prestige, after his financial collapse, crosses over into its polar opposite, in which his domestic articles unexpectedly draw figural parallels with their counterparts in Brogley's shop, interspersed with a busy traffic of removers, brokers, and auctioneers:

Chaotic combinations of furniture also take place. Mattresses and bedding appear in the dining room; the glass and china get into the conservatory; the great dinner service is set out in heaps on the long divan in the large drawing-room; and the stair-wires, made into fasces, decorate the marble chimney-pieces. Finally, a rug, with a printed bill upon it, is hung out from the balcony; and a similar appendage graces either side of the hall door. Then all day long, there is a retinue of mouldy gigs and chaise-carts in the street; and herds of shabby vampires, Jew and Christian, over-run the house, sounding the plate-glass mirrors with their knuckles, striking discordant octaves on the Grand Piano... [28]

Revealingly, what ushers in this intriguing figural correspondence is the broader backdrop of material experience that is constituted by incessant social activities and adaptations, recasting not only the borders of economic and social hierarchy, but also the traits of common objects -- value, durability, etc -- that outline them.

[18] So we can now sense the crucial role the nomadic pattern of Dickens's language plays in outlining the multiplicity of material experience, offering an account of varying actions and intensities beyond the scope of unifying representation. It discloses the performative dimension of our experience, the capacity for altering its operational pattern in accordance with specific circumstances. For Dickens, the setting for this stylistic venture was, as hinted above, decidedly urban, perhaps the largest, most versatile object that ever prevailed in his imagination, insofar as it brought together irreconcilable events and consequences; he expressed it in the 'memorandum book,' which he kept between 1855 and 1865. In this note, he imagines a story:

Representing London -- or Paris, or any other great place -- in the new light of being actually unknown to all the people in the story, and only taking the colour of their fears and fancies and opinions. So getting a new aspect, and being unlike itself. An odd unlikeness of itself. [29]

This perceptive insight into the manifold dimensions of urban experience reads like the cognitive guideline of Dickens's writing at its most expressive moments; the moment one tries to construct self-identity by defining one's position in the city, the city, as it were, slips out of the frame, and becomes 'an odd unlikeness of itself,' thus questioning the fixed notions of self and society. Alongside the 'unlikely' city, the writer is proposing a fluid and adaptable type of selfhood for urban figures, suited to the immediacy and locality of their various adventures. Broadly speaking, Dickens's city as a whole can be understood as an aggregate of incommensurable accounts of the 'odd unlikeness of itself,' drawing on the intense energy of the streets, the irreducible spatial unit of the city. Urban streets often consist of unique activities of various signs of people and objects. In some sense, the streets are not a representational space for the movement of signs in Dickens; they are by definition virtually constructed by the intensity immanent in the movement.

[19] Seen in this light, many readings drawing on the notion of fetishism, for all their meaningful contribution to Dickens scholarship, can at best only consolidate the frame of mimetic representation that has already become the yardstick of Realist narrative art, a time-honored chapter in the evolutionary paradigm of modern western literary history. While pivotal to our appreciation of literary and artistic products, the resonance of social and historical changes is often overwrought with contradictions and double entendres, which need to be constantly revisited as a critical platform that can unleash new contentious forces of human engagement, challenging the coherence of human knowledge. Dickens's writing bears this force.



[1] Perhaps the most well-known instance of this can be found in Erich Auerbach's descriptions of modern western prose fiction in his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953), p.454~92.

[2] Among several noteworthy examples can be included Auerbach's claim that Dickens has "almost no trace of the fluidity of the political and historical background" in ibid., p.492. Arnold Houser, another influential reader of European art and literature, reinforces this opinion by stressing anti-intellectual traits in Dickens's novels. See his The Social History of Art, vol. 4: Naturalism, Impressionism, The Film Age (New York: Vantage Books, 1951), p. 119~29.

[3] Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, ed. Harvey Peter Sucksmith (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), p. 272.

[4] John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, vol. II, ed. A. J. Hoppe (London: J.M Dent, 1928), p.300.

[5] David Simpson, Fetishism and Imagination: Dickens, Melville, Conrad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982), p.55~6.

[6] Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin, St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981), p.66.

[7] David Musselwhite, Partings Welded Together: Politics and Desire in the 19th-century English Novel (London: Methuen, 1981), p.173.

[8] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990), p.261.

[9] John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, vol. I, p.52.

[10] Asa Briggs, Victorian Things (London: Penguin, 1990), p.298.

[11] Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, ed. Elizabeth Brennan (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), p.19.

[12] Ibid., p.217.

[13] See Asa Briggs, Victorian Things, p.19.

[14] Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle 1851~1914 (London: Verso, 1991), p.11.

[15] For more theoretical and historical treatment see William Pietz, "Fetishism and Materialism: The Limits of Theory in Marx" in Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, ed. Emily Apter & Willaim Pietz, ( Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993), pp. 119-51.

[16] William Pietz, "Fetish" in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Robert S. Nelson & Richard Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p.197.

[17] Asa Briggs, Victorian Things, p.29.

[18] George W. Stocking, Jr., Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987), p.183.

[19] Ibid., p.263.

[20] Asa Briggs, Victorian Things, p.30.

[21] William R. Chapman, "Arranging Ethnology: A. H. L. F. Pitt Rivers and the Typological Tradition" in Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture, History of Anthropology, vol. 3, ed. George W. Stocking, Jr. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), p.39.

[22] Ibid., p.41.

[23] Ibid., p.43.

[24] Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, p.871~2.

[25] Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, ed. Alan Horsman (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), pp.115~6.

[26] G. K. Chesterton, Criticisms and Appreciations of the Works of Charles Dickens (London: Everyman's Library, 1992 [ed.]), p.7.

[27] Gilles Deleuze's theory of human sensory experience can be used in support of my argument. Deleuze offers what can be termed the 'transcendental empiricism' of perception. Rather than unifying sensory faculties under the rational act of cognition -- in the mode of Kant's transcendental idealism -- he pushes his investigation to their extreme limits, in which region he presupposes an intensive flow of energy in the movement of the signs of objects. Here, varying movements of signs, not recognisable objects, reign. In other words, a sign can only be sensed at the limits of perception by detecting some transcendental force immanent in the molecular condition of its material make-up; hence the 'virtual' or 'hyper-real' notion of transcendental empiricism or transcendental sensibility. The movement of signs does not necessarily organize the cohesive representation of their referential objects, since it is constituted by differential elements and their variable relations. For example, while we comprehend the noise of the sea or the optical sensation of the rose only as the identifiable sound of the waves or the color of the red ('molar' perception), we know that each is composed of differential relations of diverse elements ('molecular' perception). It is toward this theatre of sharpened experience, Deleuze claims, that modern art draws: "the work of art leaves the domain of representation in order to become "experience," transcendental empiricism or science of the sensible." See his Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Athlone, 1994), p.56. In turn, this virtual multiplicity of 'the sensible' presupposes the notion of the human subject processing and organising it outside the hierarchical order of its bodily stratum. For an insightful introduction to Deleuze's theory of human sensory experience, see Daniel W. Smith, "Deleuze's Theory of Sensation: Overcoming the Kantian Duality" in Deleuze: A Critical Reader, ed. Paul Patton (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp.29-56.

[28] Charels Dickens, Dombey and Son, p.790.

[29] John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, vol. II, p.302.