Character is given, not developed in premodern fiction. It is a destiny, not a responsibility, and can be detected only by mystical means – astrology, intuition, phrenology, physiognomy.
A new kind of reading (as documented by Chartier) leads to a new kind of pleasure (as documented by Colin Campbell, delineated by readings of 18th commercial fiction).
New pleasure leads to new social order, oriented around a consumption economy producing disposable goods, disposable pleasures for the profit of capitalists, and to pacify more successfully the otherwise restless proles whose labor is exploited.
Ads, social emulation, novelistic production invent interiority and motivational schemes, the identity quest, inventing motivations necessary for mobilizing consumer revolution.
Early commercial novel as a miscellany, read like a shopping catalog by bourgeois in the market for new emotional experiences. This approach to reading may have been linear but consisted of skimming, searching for peaks and valleys, affective intensities tied to a narrative predictable enough to not require careful or sustained attention. Identification is not with a specific hero or heroine but instead multiple choices are offered for a variety of potential pleasures, many of which are contradictory. Sustained identification was not yet necessary for a plentiful yield of satisfactory emotional titillation. It may not be required now, though such identification is ideologically indicated, supporting capitalistic individualism. Readers can always partake of vicarious pleasure in unrelated moments through characters who are diametrically opposed. Sometimes, too, readers can identify with the storyteller as well as with the characters within the story, for the peculiar pleasure that comes from being the presumably unimplicated observer — the joy of transcendence and noncontingent invention.
Bath was a perfect location for English novels in the late 18th century: a locus of gambling, nascent consumerism, medical quackery. The tropes of the early commercial novel are products of the same family, with the same strategies and pleasures offered. The novel is a kind of patent medicine that works on level of emotional fantasy, which is produced as the most basic consumer good, with no intrinsic value other than the faith one puts into believing in it, in exchanging money for it.
From Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (1977):
Douglas argues that the marginalization of clergy along with women provided a whole sector of society interested in having a cultural influence because their real influence was negated. This cultural influence was inculcated through pop culture: novels and such that inculcated sentimental notions that ultimately provided the basis for a individual invested in formulating identity through consumerism. This social segment gains compensatory power for being masters of a discourse that ultimately strips them of “real” power – they can be masters of taste, while that taste is exercised in a field created by their marginalization, by their subordination to a social order that deprives them of “real” “meaningful” work.
A compensatory power was granted to the feminized (women and clergy) for their promotion of values (glamour, narcissism) that kept them marginalized from the true means of production. They could promote values that supported the existing relations of production while gaining only symbolic, cultural capital. This cultural capital is valorized through promoting “self-justification” instead of the “theological” concerns American religious writers began with.
Douglas describes the emergence of a new kind of reading:
‘Reading’ in its new form was many things; among them it was an occupation for the unemployed, narcissistic self-education for those excluded from the harsh school of practical competition . . . . Literature was functioning more and more as a form of leisure, a complicated mass dream life…. Literature was revealing and supporting a special class, a class defined less by what they produced than by what they consumed. [Ministers and women] wrote not just to win adherents to their views, but to make converts to literature, to sustain and encourage the habit of reading itself.” (9).
They were“ intent on claiming culture as their peculiar property, one conferring on them a special duty and prerogative” (10).
Ultimately “sentimentalism provided the inevitable rationalization of the economic order” (12) – i.e. covered up the contradictions inherent to capitalism. Sentimentalism is what is lost in the pursuit of masculine, expansionist goals – what is celebrated even as it’s destroyed. These values come to seem to be lost “naturally,” rather than as a cost of the implementation of an economic system. Nostalgia thus dismantles active protest, and critique.
This applies to all Man of Feeling-type works of sensibility, too – sensibility is a demonstration that manners are being refined but also that capitalism is accepted as inevitable and what will be destroyed can be celebrated, its loss lamented as the sad way of the world and not the result of choices. Heroes of sensibility are nostalgized and marginalized as unable to exist in the real world of capitalist exploitation, which is just a fact of life, which feminized hereos nobly but futilely ignore. (They disdain “interestedness.”)
In discussing the marginalization of women, Douglas makes the standard point about their removal from productive processes as home industry declined. To compensate, women became domestic managers, and this meant more often than not managing the emotional climate of the household — along the lines of Hochschild’s concept of emotional labor. This new role also stressed woman’s role as procurer and consumer. In this way, as domestic workers responsible for producing affect, women become explicitly productive through their consumption, mainly by latching onto the fashion system. (They become early “prosumers.”) But literacy was the bait for the trap, according to Douglas.
The supreme product of feminine fashion, the chief emblem of the emerging female consumer, was not found in the lady’s clothing, but rather, odd as it may initially sound, in her reading and writing. The feminine proclivity for novels, the young miss’s resort to the pen and the confidante, a standard theme for jest in 18th and 19th century fiction, had its serious side. A Marxist might argue persuasively that American girls were socialized to immerse themselves in novels and letters in order to make their powerlessness in a masculine and anti-humanist society more certain and less painful. (71)
The stories they read and wrote were themselves courses in the shopping mentality, exercises in euphemism essential to the system of flattery which served as the rationale for the American woman’s economic position (72-3).
A matter of compensatory flattery: reading/writing supports the value of this flattery of detailed attention to the things that trivialize women, that rationalize her social insignificance, or rather her significance as mere consumer/trophy.
Shopping for luxuries is where one exhibits taste, which certifies its possessors’ value. Taste/judgement are constructed as active skills, rather than passive choosing; as meaningful and productive activity rather than a consolation for exclusion from the real meaningful decisions. She does not do for herself, but persuades, through her tasteful displays, others to do for her – “influence” in Douglas’s sense. She exerts influence through taste, because she has no direct access for power – this exercise of vicarious power is, in Douglas’s analysis, celebrated in the sentimental texts of Victorian America. Women should live by proxy and feel like they have achieved privilege by being reduced to mere shoppers. This privilege of taste becomes their function, what makes them at least feel indispensable.
Male sentimentalists, according to Douglas, find their vocation in depicting and glamorizing female suffering, examining and explaining it: “Sentimentalist self-absorption, a commercialization of the inner life” (308). Sentimentalism promotes the idea that the inner life should be subjected to standards of taste, to consumerist decisions, that feelings exist only to be displayed, to establish an identity in the eyes of others, where it may be affirmed, legitimated, substantiated.
In The Political Unconscious, Jameson argues that there must be, in culture
a process of compensatory exchange … in which the henceforth manipulated viewer is offered specific gratifications in return for his or her consent to passivity. In other words, if the ideological function of mass culture is understood as a process whereby otherwise dangerous and protopolitical impulses are ‘managed’ and defused, rechanneled and offered spurious objects, then some preliminary step must also be theorized in which these same impulses – the raw material upon which the process works – are initially awakened within the very text that seeks to still them (287).
So popular fiction must evoke the conflict it wants to defuse, it must inscribe it with some urgency, and offer, in Jameson’s view, a “Utopian” solution: “visions of external life, of the transfigured body, of preternatural sexual gratification” etc. So these wishes are traces also, hints that a problem is being masked, resolved, when these sorts of fulfillment are offered. “A complex strategy of rhetorical persuasion in which substantial incentives are offered for ideological adherence.” These substantial incentives being satisfying mental habits.