I’m reading Herbert Spencer this morning–a lot to stomach on a rainy day. There’s the familiar biopolitical arguments (“Who dreamed that Irish over-population would spontaneously cure itself, as it is now doing?” (Over-Legislation, 303)), and there’s some tea-party-esque arguments (government is stupid, government is slow, government needs to make way for private enterprise), but there’s also an interesting approach to government institutions as too secure in their own future. In his words, “legislation daily assumes that things will go just as human foresight thinks they will go” (Over-Legislation, 303). The answer, of course, is private enterprise that is more adaptable to unknown futures (and more willing to speculate on unknown futures). Nevertheless, his approach to governmental institutions helpfully suggests that less security in the future might improve institutions. I find this helpful not because he rejects institutional futurity in favor of an ever-shifting capitalist futurity (the market reigns supreme in his account), but because it reminds me that if legislation is about the probable and the practical it is always already rejecting radical solutions to political problems. Which, in turn, makes me think about Naomi Klein’s take on climate change: that it requires a radical solution and that we need to choose what we want to fix–our (artificial) economy, or nature (deflecting the sun). In accepting the assumed future of legislators, we’re naturalizing their assumptions about what is probable and practical.
Are realist novels ethnographic? Are they abstractions? This is what I’m thinking about these days as I consider how to resist institutional abstractions (and not just the most recent pernicious abstraction–“civility”). Trollope, who got his start as a novelist while in Ireland but only became successful when he started writing about England, comes firmly down on the side of abstraction. From Castle Richmond:
“The readability of a story should depend, one would say, on its intrinsic merit rather than the site of its adventures. No one will think that Hampshire is better for such a purpose than Cumberland, or Essex than Leicestershire. What abstract objection can there be to the county Cork?” (7)
Tellingly, Trollope is such a good liberal that not only does he articulate setting as abstract, the only objections he can imagine to such settings are “abstract.” (Edmund Burke would be so angry with him).