Robert Mitchell, Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era: Systems, State Finance, and the Shadows of Futurity

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Robert Mitchell, Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era: Systems, State Finance, and the Shadows of Futurity. New York: Routledge, 2007. 280pp. $148.00 (Hdbk; ISBN 978-0-415-77142-9).

Reviewed by
Tobias Menely
Willamette University

Since when has public debate—about the state’s responsibility for the indigent, about foreign wars and homeland security, about the regulation of international commerce—been so thoroughly informed by issues of financial speculation and public debt? Since the eighteenth century, argues Robert Mitchell, when the parasitic greed of speculators and the dangerous expansion of national debt were the subject of plays and poems, pamphlets and speeches. Mitchell describes his ambitious, fascinating, and timely book Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era as an example of a “new economic literary criticism” (206). Literary critics, he maintains, have as much to teach us as economists do about finance capitalism, a phenomenon (as we have recently learned) that reflects the exigencies of social psychology and imaginative speculation no less than the materialities of production and consumption. Mitchell links the development of a theoretical language of sympathetic identification with the crises in state finance that periodically rocked Britain in the century and a half after the establishment of the Bank of England. Elaborating on Thomas Haskell’s seminal work, “Capitalism and the Origins of Humanitarian Sensibility,” Mitchell shows that financial speculation, social sympathy, and humanitarian reform politics share a cognitive style defined by its “open sense of the future” (vii).

Ever since Benedict Anderson identified the eighteenth-century rise of the nation with “homogeneous empty time,” the steady forward movement and social simultaneity of newspaper reading, scholars have been drawing our attention to the period’s other forms of time consciousness. In Mitchell’s account, the eighteenth-century present was bound by promises made and debts accrued in the past just as it was oriented by speculations about what was to come. Finance capitalism relied on “investment instruments that located value in the future” (14), but there was also a parallel sense that communities mediated by imaginative sympathy are themselves lived in the future tense. This open relation to futurity was enabled by a novel conception of “society” as a contingent and variegated “system” of relationships. Britons perceived an increasingly intricate and extensive collective life, in which the economy, the government, and “collective psychology” were growing more inseparable as they grew more complex. Mitchell argues that social systems, and particularly a financial system in which shared opinions establish value, became acutely visible during economic crises. Financial calamity and constraint turned people’s attention to the mediating forms that undergird collective belief, as they sought means of reflecting on and intervening in economic systems (5). Moreover, the writers studied by Mitchell—David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, the antislavery poets of the 1780s, William Wordsworth, and P.B. Shelley—drew on the speculative temporality and systemic contingency of finance capitalism in order to reconceive the social order.

Renaissance thinkers, Mitchell reminds us in Chapter One, would have been perplexed by the modern idea of imagination as a form of cognitive projection that produces virtual community by enabling a self to enter another’s situation. Before the eighteenth century, imagination was “a quasi-corporeal faculty that mediated between animal spirits and intellect,” only producing social factions of a dangerously enthusiastic or otherwise aberrant nature (29). It is, Mitchell argues, only with the financial crises of the early eighteenth century, and particularly the South Sea Company stock panic of 1720-1, that imagination came to explain “affective relationships between individuals” (29). This etymological shift is paralleled by a new interest in the relation between the circulation of images through mass media and the collective sentiments that determine stock prices and the availability of public credit. While political economists soon turned away from the problem of imagination, moral philosophers did not, because imaginative speculation offered a way of conceptualizing the formation and maintenance of social systems. In the second half of the chapter, Mitchell argues that David Hume identified the specific imaginative mechanisms of sympathy as a way of explaining how “social stability” is possible without “epistemological certainty” (48). For Hume, sympathy—the self’s capacity to speculate about another’s speculations about itself—produces the intersubjective domain, a kind of affective gift economy in which we come to know ourselves. Mitchell distinguishes Hume from conservatives like Bolingbroke, who attributed social cohesion to the sedimenting influence of past experience. Hume defines two temporalities of social formation, one linked to the closed futurity of “the promise,” which is dependent on the continuity of convention, and one linked to the open futurity of speculative acts that inaugurate “new forms of sociability” and new systems (55).

In Chapter Two, Mitchell considers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith, both of whom, in the years leading up to and during the Seven Years’ War, worried that social imagination produces violence and faction. Commentators had noticed a disconcerting relation between speculative finance and war, as both Britain and France saw martial victory as the first step to paying down the war debt. This is the context in which Rousseau and Smith asked whether imagined communities are intrinsically violent. Rousseau offers two accounts of identification: one, in the Essay on the Origin of Languages, which depends on a speculative economy of imaginative representation, the other, in the Discourse on Inequality, which identifies the workings of an “energetic identification” that precedes “the subjective development of a virtual imaginative space” (69). As Derrida showed, it is impossible to trace the development in Rousseau’s system from primordial pity to the representational identification that underlies social systems. In Mitchell’s analysis, the energetic form of relating that comes before social subjectivity allowed Rousseau to imagine how affects may emerge “from elsewhere than representation,” as an “immanent potential . . . always able to surge forth and disrupt social systems” (75). Rousseau, in other words, required contradictory accounts of social identification to account for how systems are maintained and made anew. Smith, by contrast, focused only on sympathetic identification mediated through the imagination. Because of his emphasis on the representational foundations of the social, on what Mitchell calls “simulacrum sympathy” (79), Smith has appeared particularly amenable to poststructuralists. Yet Smith, Mitchell reminds us, anchored the social and economic order “by positioning the claims of the dead as a form of currency that could be deployed in the present” (82). Just as paper money gains its perceived value through the continued circulation of coin, Smith saw sympathy with the dead, and fear of death, as necessary to maintain social concord and control.

In Chapter Three, Mitchell turns from political and moral philosophy to the work of antislavery poets who aspired to provoke legislative action, and thereby end the “system of slavery,” by transforming public sentiment. They did so despite Smith’s contention that sympathy has natural limits and “neither could, nor should, be extended much beyond one’s own limited circle” (94). Thus the abolitionists returned to the question asked by Hume and Rousseau: does sympathy flow only within the boundaries of pre-existing social systems or might sympathy establish new social systems? Poetry’s instrumental ambitions, in turn, produced anxieties that political aims were incompatible with aesthetics and, inversely, that poetry was “powerless” to influence legislation (100). Antislavery poets like Hannah More, William Cowper, and Samuel Jackson Pratt drew on a referential conception of sympathy, documenting the suffering of slaves on Caribbean plantations with the aim of mobilizing readers, but they also worried that sympathy’s mediations might attenuate feeling. Mitchell discovers in antislavery poetry a recurrent logic of the sympathetic supplement, images of motherhood and of reformed empire that make the case for abolition by bringing the slave into the reader’s horizon of self-interest. His most extended reading focuses on Ann Yearsley’s 1788 Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade, which, Mitchell claims, develops a reflexive understanding of sympathy, according to which poetic language triggers speculative image-making in its readers. While defenders of slavery argued that present conditions of commerce and debt meant that Britain had already financed its future on the returns of slave-trading, Yearsley’s speculative poetics of sympathy provoked an “intuition of the incalculable and unprecedented” forms of relating that would exceed the causal logics of commerce and finance (120).

Mitchell claims in Chapter Four that, even as the revolution in France stalled the antislavery movement, William Wordsworth was refining a “self-reflexive mode of poetry” that would articulate alternative conceptions of wealth and value (122). In 1797, the British gold standard collapsed when Parliament instructed the Bank of England to stop converting banknotes into specie, sparking a highly politicized debate about the nature of paper money and public credit. The same period saw Wordsworth struggling with his own significant debts. In order to analyze the relation between national and personal debt, Mitchell calls upon Michel Serres’s theorization of the parasite. The parasite defines the constitutive but peripheral status of beggars, pedlars, poets, and speculators. It figures the limits of reciprocity within a system and thus also the possibility of systemic change. In poems written immediately after the Bank Restriction Act, Mitchell contends, Wordsworth grants the parasite a privileged status in speculative social and economic systems. Much as Smith understood sympathy with the dead as solidifying relations among the living, Wordsworth saw sympathy with parasitic figures like beggars as an example of the “necessity of one-way social relations” (133). In The Ruined Cottage and its companion poem “The Pedlar,” Mitchell identifies in the pedlar’s narration a scene of instruction that reflects Wordsworth’s parasitic re-imagining of the Bank Restriction debate. In an unstable present defined by speculative economies and wartime finance, these poems offer their readers two imaginative resources: “entwining,” which redirects the past; and “mineralization,” the image of tranquility out of which speculative futurities arise. Although in later editions of Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth firmly situated the poet within a stable social system, Mitchell claims that Romantic poetry develops out of Wordsworth’s earlier parasitic stance. This formation of romanticism appropriates its images from other discourses, including finance, and allows its readers opportunities for further speculative resignification.

Britain’s national debt quintupled between 1792 and 1815, and the Bank Restriction Act remained in effect until 1822. According to Mitchell’s final chapter, Percy Shelley viewed such a growth as proof that state debt and paper money had mortgaged Britain’s future. In A Philosophical View of Reform (written 1819-20), Shelley contended that the founding of the Bank of England and the expansion of public debt had aligned political and business elites against the interests of the nation. Even worse, state finance and currency “encouraged the belief that the present and future were continually indebted to the past,” by (for instance) linking the value of money to the continuity of state sovereignty (165). This conservative view of the temporality of social identification was cultivated in martial pageantry and the orchestrated mourning of Princess Charlotte. To counteract such images, Shelley developed a model of sympathy that enables “communication between the inequitable present and a utopian future” (169). Drawing on Hume, he realized that sympathy is itself facilitated by modes of time consciousness and explanations of causality. One does not aspire toward emancipatory aims because one sympathizes with another, Shelley decided—rather, one sympathizes with a subjugated other because of a belief in the possibility of emancipation. The most important poetic images, then, are those of time broken open. For example, The Mask of Anarchy, Shelley’s response to the Peterloo Massacre, contrasts the constraining logic of credit with a counterfactual “imageless image” that anticipates a “presence-to-come” (184). Where in The Mask of Anarchy he dramatizes the effect of such spectral images on readers, in Prometheus Unbound Shelley endows these images of futurity with vivid definition. He also narrates an instance of the open-endedness of what he calls “philosophic necessity” through the repetition of Prometheus’s curse on Jupiter. That it can be cited without again being enacted uncovers a relation to time according to which the past conditions the present but does not determine the future. Prometheus learns that he can recant his curse and thus remake the world.

Given his interest in the way information moves from one system to another, it is unsurprising that Mitchell borrows concepts from chemistry, economics, and biology. The trope of the parasite, for example, offers an alternative to homology and influence for tracking the movement of ideas and images between discourses. While this is a compelling conceptual borrowing (or act of parasitism), more specialized terms like “mineralization” and “entwining,” when they propel intricate literary readings, may obscure as much as they reveal. In several cases an exotic concept substantiates a causal historical explanation. Mitchell, for instance, argues that the sudden definitional shift in “imagination” occurs around the time of the South Sea Bubble because an accelerated print culture enabled “far more rapid mutations of concepts” than the slower pace of philosophical rumination and publication (41). Although the objections to such a claim might be obvious, the biological trope naturalizes the explanation. Such figurative “cross-pollination” stimulates new ways of reading literary texts and thinking about the cultural past. At least for this reader, however, some of the results were more felicitous than others.

Cultural and literary historians no longer dismiss sentimentalism as a corrupt aesthetic mode or an embarrassing phase in the history of moral philosophy. We now recognize the sentimental language of sympathy as a significant player in the emergence of modern aesthetic, socio-political, and economic formations. This reappraisal has put pressure on critical periodization by revealing the extent to which Romanticism must be defined both by its furtive appropriation and its rejection of an eighteenth-century analytic of the social life of feeling. Although its definition of the “Romantic Era” remains vague, Sympathy and the State is an innovative contribution to this new genealogy. By characterizing sympathy as both a theory and a practice of social circulation, Mitchell’s intervention in the rich scholarly conversation on the relation between Georgian culture and the financial revolution manages to resist liberal teleologies. Adam Smith may have characterized society as a union of preexisting selves, but for the other writers engaged in Sympathy and the State society is the fabric of identificatory possibilities in which a self comes to identify its interests by speculatively identifying with others. Mitchell focuses on the asymmetries within this emergent financial society, not so as to unveil the partiality hidden beneath liberal universalism, but as a way of examining how eighteenth-century thinkers and writers confronted the essential instability of their world, which they recognized as an amalgamation of disjunctive systems and temporalities. While most accounts of sympathy have seen it, as Smith did, as an essentially conservative social technology, Sympathy and the State asks us to think about the connection between sympathy’s speculative openness as it is laid bare in moments of financial crisis, and the forces, systemic and imaginative, that generate social change.

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