Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Etymological Investments: The Political Economy of Language from Carlyle to Ruskin

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Etymological Investments: The Political Economy of Language from Carlyle to Ruskin

Article excerpt

This paper examines how the emerging field of "new philology" shaped the nineteenth-century critique of political economy advanced by Carlyle and Ruskin. Carlyle viewed the systematic rhetorical conventions of political economy as a threat to all forms of discourse. Written in a climate of rigorous philological debate, On Heroes and Hero-Worship sought through rhetorical eccentricity and linguistic innovation to resist the mechanization of language as a source of cultural meaning. Writing amidst very different philological debates later in the period, Ruskin developed Carlyle's implicit critique into a direct attack on political economy in Unto this Last, but, in attempting to reform rather than resist the discourse, deployed a systematic rhetoric that could only duplicate the machine of language.

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What is the work of writing in an age of mechanical reproduction? A century before Walter Benjamin posed such a question for the modern work of art, Victorian writers explored this similar dilemma. From the 1830s forward, the rapid growth of print culture encouraged the professionalization of writing and made concrete the perception of the written word as a commercial product. The work of writing--both the product and the production--thus reflected the technological advances of modern industrial culture as well as the ideologies that shaped it. Diagnosing the cultural costs of industrialism in his 1829 essay "Signs of the Times," Carlyle suggests that "Literature, the printed communication of Thought ... has its Paternoster-row mechanism, its Trade-dinners, its Editorial enclaves, and huge subterranean, puffing bellows; so that books are not only printed, but ... written and sold, by machinery" (248, 235). Carlyle's use of mechanism, the keyword of the essay, conflates the term's abstract reference to organizational structure with its more specific reference to the action of a machine--a conflation reinforced by his metaphorical use of "bellows" to pun on "puffing," the reviewer's art of rhetorical inflation and excessive praise. Enacting what John Holloway has called a "verbal argument" (41-49), Carlyle employs this strategy throughout the essay, using metaphor and other rhetorical figures to underscore a point he makes explicit only in passing: "Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery," he declares, "but the internal and spiritual also" (234). Against the impersonality and spiritual emptiness of mechanized social experience, Carlyle's use of metaphor as a form of argument represents his resistance to the anonymity of printed language, the way that "printing removes language and places it and its effects beyond the control of the writer" (Armstrong 5).

The cultural status of the work of writing is a central preoccupation in Carlyle's prose, and his belief in writing as a heroic activity forms part of his faith in work itself as a heroic form of worship. Carlyle's valorization of work opposes an industrialized culture that made people "mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand" ("Signs of the Times" 235), and takes part in a broader protest against the discourse of political economy seen to shape and systematize industrial society. Yet political economy itself resisted critique, for through its dominance as a cultural discourse it threatened to subsume the cultural authority not only of writing but of language itself. Carlyle identifies the mechanization of language as symptomatic of a culture spiritually impoverished by industrialism and the discourses that supported it. Tracing mechanistic modes of experience to mechanistic forms of expression, he opines that "Intellect, the power man has of knowing and believing, is now nearly synonomous with Logic, or the mere power of arranging and communicating. Its implement is not Meditation, but Argument." Writing and rhetoric thus reflect the assumption that "what cannot be investigated and understood mechanically, cannot be investigated and understood at all" ("Signs of the Times" 245, 238). …

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