Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Economy of Recognition in Howards End

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Economy of Recognition in Howards End

Article excerpt

In recent years, interest in E. M. Forster has revived among scholars working in postcolonial and race studies, with new attention being paid to anti-imperialist and pro-Eastern strains in his writings; and also among those working in gender and queer theory, who have developed a body of interpretation of his posthumously published novel Maurice. (1) But there has not been a similar reconstruction of Forster among scholars interested in class, generally thought to be Forster's most embarrassing blind spot. This blindness is perfectly illustrated, critics claim, by the narrator's dismissive pronouncement in Howards End--"We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable" (36)--and by what most consider the novel's condescending treatment of the lower-middle-class character Leonard Bast. (2) It is ironic, given the narrator's scolding of Helen Schlegel for deeming Leonard "not a man, but a cause" (246), that Forster himself is widely scolded for doing the same thing.

Leonard has conventionally been viewed as a flat and unsympathetic character, a sacrifice to a larger argument Forster is trying to make about the state of high culture in modern English society. "Bast is anxious and envious among the rentier intelligentsia," writes Jonathan Rose, "and his attempts to acquire culture are hopeless. Forster frankly stamps him 'inferior to most rich people' " (402). (3) The same kind of treatment of Leonard is at stake in a complementary reading of the whole Bast subplot as foremost an expression of liberal guilt. For Henry Turner, Leonard and his wife, Jacky, are "mere symbols," "figures for surplus and the human cost of capitalism" (339) that allow Forster to work through his guilt over living off the fruits of a system he finds unjust and dehumanizing, yet without which he would not have had the means to become a writer. Others claim that it is the characters Margaret and Helen Schlegel who are using Leonard to assuage their guilt and that Forster is trying to critique their guilt-driven interference with Leonard's life. What no critic questions is the idea that Leonard has been degraded by virtue of the political interest taken in him, by being looked on as a "cause"--whether by Forster, in portraying the clerk as a victim of the class system, or by the Schlegels, in presuming to help him improve himself.

These criticisms voice one side of a current debate that Nancy Fraser has identified as being between recognition and redistribution--between, on the one hand, a respect for difference, whether in the multiculturalist sense of located identity or in the poststructuralist sense of singularity and otherness, and, on the other, an abstract sense of justice and advocacy of socioeconomic equality. (4) The two principles seem to be at cross-purposes, Fraser observes, in that recognition involves positively valuing difference, whereas redistribution equates economic difference with deprivation and, accordingly, aims at eliminating this particular difference (42).Wai Chee Dimock is troubled by the very concept of economic justice, by its implication that instances of human suffering can be measured, compared, compensated for. In Residues of Justice, whose argument dovetails with that of her introduction (coauthored with Michael Gilmore) to Rethinking Class, Dimock explains:

  The search for justice ... is very much an exercise in abstraction,
  and perhaps an exercise in reduction as well, stripping away apparent
  differences to reveal an underlying order, an order intelligible, in
  the long run, perhaps only in quantitative terms. (2)

Dimock points out what most people distant from power might instinctively affirm, that justice is a problematic idea, one whose self-contradictions are constantly on display in its practical applications. But her concerns are primarily epistemological, specifically directed at the problem of cognitive violence wrought by the categorizing act. Accordingly, she ends up not critiquing but rather celebrating the limits of justice, positively valuing the fact that it cannot live up to its self-presentation as total and instead leaves "residues," things that fall outside its terms and thus remain unaccounted for. …

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