Corporate Romanticism: Liberalism, Justice, and the Novel

Corporate Romanticism: Liberalism, Justice, and the Novel

Corporate Romanticism: Liberalism, Justice, and the Novel

Corporate Romanticism: Liberalism, Justice, and the Novel

Synopsis

Corporate Romanticism offers an alternative history of the connections between modernity, individualism, and the novel. In early nineteenth-century England, two developments—the rise of corporate persons and the expanded scale of industrial action—undermined the basic assumption underpinning both liberalism and the law: that individual human persons can be meaningfully correlated with specific actions and particular effects. Reading works by Godwin, Austen, Hogg, Mary Shelley, and Dickens alongside a wide-ranging set of debates in nineteenth-century law and Romantic politics and aesthetics, Daniel Stout argues that the novel, a literary form long understood as a reflection of individualism’s ideological ascent, in fact registered the fragile fictionality of accountable individuals in a period defined by corporate actors and expansively entangled fields of action.

Examining how liberalism, the law, and the novel all wrestled with the moral implications of a highly collectivized and densely packed modernity, Corporate Romanticism reconfigures our sense of the nineteenth century and its novels, arguing that we see in them not simply the apotheosis of laissez-fair individualism but the first chapter of a crucial and distinctly modern problem about how to fit the individualist and humanist terms of justice onto a world in which the most consequential agents are no longer persons.

Excerpt

No man, if he had his choice, would be the angel Gabriel
to-morrow! … He might as well have an ambition to be turned
into a bright cloud or a particular star…. He would rather
remain a little longer in this mansion of clay, which, with all its
flaws, inconveniences, and perplexities, contains all that he has
any real knowledge of or any affection for.

—William Hazlitt, “On Personal Identity”

What are we? Personified all-powerful points.

—Novalis, Logological Fragments §55

It has come to seem axiomatic that modernity and individuation are essentially synonymous processes, the twin faces of what we know variously as the history of liberalism, secularism, bourgeois capitalism, or, sometimes, just “the Enlightenment.” Virtually every major account of modernity contains a version of the story Charles Taylor has recently called “the great disembedding,” the process by which individuals are extracted (or abstracted) from some earlier, more integrated form of collective life. For Taylor, writing on secularism and modernity, the historical break occurs within religion: when the “collective” and “often cosmos-related rituals of whole societies” are supplanted by an “individuated religion” organized around “individual responsibility” and “rationally understood virtue.” But the basic shape of this story—in which “whole societies,” as Taylor says, are “reconceived as made up of individuals”—remains more or less the same, regardless of which aspect of modernity one emphasizes. We can see it, for instance, in Foucault’s account of the individuating, disciplinary regimes of modern power; Habermas’s account of the bourgeois public sphere as a meeting of rational minds; Ian Watt’s account of the realist novel as the literary inheritance of rational individualism; and in the seminal histories of Lawrence Stone, E. P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm, all of whom chart, in their various ways, the decline of a collective imagination. Depending on the history you are writing, the inflection point might be Gutenberg, Locke, Defoe, or Bentham, but the trajectory remains the same: wholes (groups, communities, families, aristocracies, collectives, etc.) are disaggregated into the single, universal currency of the individual.

Corporate Romanticism draws our attention to some of the limits of this . . .

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