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Laura Mandell, Misogynous Economies: The Business of Literature in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Monday, September 30, 2002 - 09:58
Laura Mandell, Misogynous Economies: The Business of Literature in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. x + 228pp.  Illus.: 4 halftones.  $42.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8131-2116-7).

Reviewed by
Miranda J. Burgess
University of British Columbia

The first word in the title of this book is tonally at odds with the second, and with the argument of the book as a whole. "Misogyny" sounds like a topic for an older or more naïve feminism than Mandell's fresh and sophisticated version, and its transhistorical ring belies the specificity Mandell brings to her cultural study of eighteenth-century economic history. But these impressions are misleading, as Mandell makes clear in framing her book. She begins by arguing that "[m]isogyny in representations is not about women but rather about society" (1). She ends with the assertion that the "[d]isgust allegedly aroused by women's bodies comes in fact from the stench of social inequity" (158). Moreover, she insists that "misogyny is not necessary" either to literature or to culture (158). Criticism that is to be effective in the twenty-first century must be "willing to see gender as a figure, not a thing" (157).

Yet according to Mandell's analysis, the figure of gender and an accompanying misogyny are everywhere in eighteenth-century writing, from the individual poems, plays and economic texts discussed in the first four chapters to the anthologies and critical writings that processed such works later in the century, addressed in chapters five and six. The key to the simultaneous ubiquity and unnecessariness of this seemingly essential discourse is the way in which eighteenth-century poets and Romantic anthologists and critics used misogynist rhetorics and practices to manage the pleasures of their readers. It is eighteenth-century readers and their pleasures, and the social anxiety these pleasures produce in contemporaries, that are the major topic of Mandell's book.

With this emphasis on literariness and aesthetic experience, and on the demand-side of the economy that links readers with writers and publishers, the book positions itself on the cutting-edge of literary history. Its epigraph from Cora Kaplan--"The aesthetic is going to come back: The question is, on what terms?"--gets a page to itself, preceding table of contents, acknowledgments, and dedication. The book participates in the next wave of feminist scholarship about the Romantic period, moving beyond the recovery of female poets to discuss their works in conversation (and at times in competition) with texts by their male contemporaries, and to value female-authored poems on aesthetic terms.

At the same time, Mandell seeks to retheorize questions of aesthetic judgment. What she calls "literariness" and "literary greatness" are revealed as qualities independent of the processes of canon-formation, though they sometimes work antithetically to the canon. They are qualities at stake in historical struggles for social and economic capital, but they are not reducible to products of these struggles. Rather, they are functions of reading: defined by a literary pleasure that is occasioned by literary works but produced by readers' own imaginings. Canon formation responds to, seeking to direct, readers' imaginative pleasures and desires.

Outlined in chapter one, Mandell's theory of reading builds on Freud's analysis of sadomasochistic imaginings such as the beating fantasy. "The pleasure of this fantasy comes from mobility of identifications," the continuous sliding of the mind from one position to another (25). In this way the imagination of the fantasist operates similarly to its operation in reading, and reading eighteenth-century satire in particular, for such texts "structurally push readers toward making multiple identifications" (21). Mandell traces these identifications through Dryden's translations from Juvenal and "Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire," Pope's Epilogue to the Satires, and Swift's "Cassinus and Peter" and Gulliver's Travels. She argues that criticism of these works has emphasized the assumed moral superiority of the satirist over his female satiric targets because of "pressures . . . coming from capitalism" (35).

Unlike reading, which for Mandell offers pleasures of the imagination that all readers share and that do not change with the changes of history, criticism and canon-formation have been historically influenced by economic change. Capitalism requires reading methods that replace play with one-upmanship, the desire to corner the market on literary pleasure. Moreover, capitalism demands texts that "successfully project onto women morally repugnant qualities of the capitalist businessman"--especially voracious and uncontrolled desire--"that are then disowned through disgust" (35). Mandell argues that these developing expectations increasingly governed interpretation of Swift's and Pope's satiric texts, limiting readers' ability to see the potential for play the poems offer. The process of canon-formation pushes readers and writers to substitute a "sadistic" reading practice for the play of identifications of a "sadomasochistic" reading, replacing endless, fluid play with a temporary identification with the satiric object closely followed by abjection of it.

For Mandell, as the book's Introduction makes clear, abjection is more complex than Julia Kristeva's theory, in which disgust with and denial of the body and its drives helps to maintain the subject's idealized experience of a unified self separate from the mother and distinguishable from the body (4). To the private, psychic account of abjection in Kristeva's Powers of Horror, Mandell adds a dimension of public ritual, which she elaborates through René Girard's theory of mimetic violence and scapegoating rituals. Girard describes a process in which the competing desires of many men who violently seek a single object demand the sacrifice of one man, making absolute difference of someone whose danger was that he was too much and too violently the same, revealing the fictionality of social distinctions between men. This sacrifice simultaneously draws off the recognition that one key sameness among men lies in the mortality of the body. One example is Christianity, with its sacrifice of the human Christ as a guarantee of all men's transcendence of the body and its mortal limits. Mandell argues that "[m]isogyny recurs in representations throughout the eighteenth century because it acquires those ritualistic immortalizing and idealizing functions that an increasingly rationalized Christianity can no longer support" (7). Moreover, the eighteenth century, which invented capitalism, marks the invention of the kind of modern individualized competitive subject that Kristeva's and Freud's psychoanalysis addresses (5-6). The "sacrificial crisis" of early eighteenth-century society turns on competition for control of the economic market on one hand and for literary fame on the other--and on the impending revelation that both objects of desire offer the victors a purely symbolic distinction. That literary and cultural historians working on numerous historical periods have laid competing claims to the origins of capitalism and subjectivity points to the single significant problem with Mandell's argument. For Mandell, the logic of canon-formation is at once historically specific and anthropologically universal.

The first of these explanations dominates the first, and strongest, half of the book. Here Mandell moves from Dryden, Pope, and Swift to discuss texts that have failed to become canonical. Chapter two argues that Thomas Otway's The Orphan (1680) plots a competition between men for the love of one woman, and at the same time maps a social transition from a feudal economy of endless self-dedication and self-sacrifice to a capitalist drive toward monopoly. But it does not adequately distinguish between the competing men and the humiliated woman. The woman is, finally, too sympathetic to be an object of disgust, and her power relations with her suitors are too rapidly shifting; the men's motivations are never fully distinguished from each other. For Mandell, the result is a sacrificial crisis that is fully staged but unresolved--an anxious "failure of abjection" (48). In a reading that is interesting in itself but that seems somewhat forced in its connection with Otway's play, Mandell links this failure to the events of the South Sea Bubble's collapse, a crisis that "comes from being too aware that the system is a fiction" (59). In the gap between its promised plot--a favored entrepreneur, an abjected woman, a vanquished aristocrat--and its undifferentiated reality, Otway's play dangerously reproduces the effects of the Bubble crisis.

Chapter three describes the opposite problem, a failure of literariness. Mandell argues that Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees and Modest Defence of Publick Stews (1724) and George Lillo's London Merchant (1731) are capitalist propaganda rather than literature. These texts foreshorten the play of the reader's identifications in pursuit of a single-minded, stable idealization of entrepreneurs and degradation of the prostitutes and female bawds whose activities, arguably, might be seen to resemble theirs.

The second half of the book abandons this narrative of economic explanation in favor of self-reflection on the history of literary criticism, more explicit discussion of canon-formation, and a critique of feminist literary history. Mandell's reading of Mary Leapor's poems in chapter four shows that female poets can use misogynistic representations in satire just as male poets can. It also suggests that misogyny is intimately connected with empiricism and resistance to figuration in the eighteenth century. The consequence is that misogyny and satire work inseparably together in eighteenth-century poetry, and that rhetoric becomes an important object of contemporary feminist critique. Mandell identifies this nexus as a crucial problem for feminist literary historians working on the eighteenth century and renewed attention to literariness as one possible solution. Combining a feminist impulse with a resistance to capitalist monopoly, Mandell shows, Leapor employs the demystifications typical of contemporary misogynist satire while simultaneously resisting them.

Despite a literariness that conforms with Mandell's definition, however, Leapor's poems have not been canonized. Chapter five offers an explanation, reading Romantic-period poetry anthologies as enactments of their society's sacrificial rituals; female poets represent the material life of the body, and must be considered, then rejected, in order to grant male poets monumentality and eternal life. Despite Mandell's frequent references to John Guillory's pedagogical and class-centered theory of canon-formation in his Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (University of Chicago Press, 1993), anthologization appears in this chapter as a gendered process of exclusion.

By moving away from the historical specificity of her economic analysis in these later chapters, Mandell places greater emphasis on her universalizing anthropological account of misogyny. Her readings here at times belie her framing claim that misogyny responds to particular historical conditions but that it is not itself the only possible response. Unlike the birth of capitalism, the processes of abjection and scapegoating are essential and universal, and the second half of the book brings misogyny much closer to them. At the same time, Mandell shifts from her earlier focus on readers' desires, and on the anxieties of writers and critics confronted with them, to refocus our attention on anthologists and publishers.

The closing chapter, on Anna Letitia Barbauld, is a courageous and inventive treatment of its subject, as well as a return to history. Mandell reads Barbauld's poetry through the lens of her Dissenting Christianity, with its emphases on human reform and hope for the material world. She argues that Barbauld's religion enables her to collapse the hierarchy of soul and body that characterized other forms of Christianity and precipitated its various sacrificial crises, as well as the crises of its secular successor, the capitalist economy. In this way, Barbauld overcomes the melancholy that marks most canonical poetry, including that of her own Romantic period, transcending the need for abjection. Barbauld's power of "transcending misogyny" lies in her resistance to dualism, which allows her to construct an account of virtue that lies precisely in the soul's embodied place in the world--a "connection . . . to materiality, coded as feminine"--and so to create an "alternative . . . aesthetic" as well (131-32). In reading several of Barbauld's poems, an analysis that offers its reader many pleasures, Mandell offers an exemplary demonstration of her guiding assumption that "[r]ecovering literariness and denaturalizing sexism turn out to be compatible tasks" (157).

Misogynous Economies feels to me as though it is really two books--one on the cultural effects of eighteenth-century economic history and the other on the gendering of canon-formation--brought together by an anthropological and psychoanalytic theoretical apparatus. Each of these two accounts would have been strengthened by a broader literary and a longer historical elaboration. Even so, each account remains very rewarding in itself, not least because of Mandell's refusal to quail before questions about literary formalism and the possibility of literary judgment, to reduce these questions to matters of ideology, or to empty them of social and political weight.