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This interlude pivots from the neofeudal to the neoliberal, terms that are sometimes used synonymously in contemporary political theory. It addresses two popular film adaptations of Austen and Scotts novels: Clueless and Rob Roy. Released during the mid-1990s, an era of hyperactive economic speculation, both films dramatize the perils of a quantifiable form of social relations made possible by mass financialization. However, while the films critique financialized honor, this time it is an aesthetic derived from Austen, and not Scott, that deftly undercuts honor codes premised on credit and debt.
Not just embraced by reactionaries, aristocrats, or committed duelists, the idea of honor had widespread cultural and sociopolitical purchase in the Romantic era. As a master value – or a value so prolific that it is becomes the hidden assumption of a range of different theories and practices – honor, this introduction argues, addresses three major developments in modernity: the growing split between private and public selves, the development of new kinds of civic virtue, and the ascendent place of affect in cultural production. Placing Keats, Coleridge, Equiano, Wollstonecraft, Burke, Kant, and Hegel in conversation with contemporary critics such as Wai Chee Dimock, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Achille Mbembe – all of whose recent work is concerned with honor and mutual recognition – this introduction further reveals Romantic cultures diagnosis of the limits of liberal republican notions of liberty when faced with the social necessity of material forms of dignity.
Known for its brutal descriptions of punishment – and the resistance of its narrator – The History of Mary Prince is usually read as a slave narrative that argues for abolition by way of affective appeals. While its explicit set pieces of violence and sexual humiliation played upon the sentiments of British readers, provoking an instinctual repulsion towards slavery, these scenes may have also encouraged readers to identify the enslaved as permanently degraded. Mary Prince and her editor Thomas Pringle, however, challenge this acceptable debasement of slaves by connecting the concept of honor to Prince’s physical character. In doing so, the History addresses a prejudice long-held by both abolitionists and colonialists towards the black female body and demonstrates how Romantic abolitionism could pivot from the bourgeois liberal ideal of freedom – or the negative right of non-restraint – to dignity, a positive, material affirmation of social worth. A concluding section treats the History as a prospectus – or, perhaps, Afrofuturist manifesto – for the political subject that can exist outside of the state, capitalist institutions, and even the bounds of recognizable sovereignty.
In the early nineteenth century, honor and disrepute were increasingly synonymous with terms like credit and debt. In Austen’s Emma, credit becomes a primary figure for the broader speculations about the inhabitants of Highbury. Long affiliated with a Whiggish ideology of commerce and its supposed levelling effects, credit, in Austen’s representation, turns out to be an elitist phenomenon, something made available only to those who already have honor, members of a “neofeudal” vanguard such as George Knightley, who can distribute credit at their discretion. However, Scott’s Rob Roy seems to rebuff Austen’s approach to credit and honor. Featuring a young protagonist who throws himself into the 1715 Jacobite uprising, rescues errant bills of credit from his father’s stock-brokerage, redeems family honor, and tries to impress his love interest, the novel at first appears to be an ideal neofeudal text, blending chivalric romance with modern commerce. But Rob Roy himself challenges the merger of these two paradigms. By decoupling honor from credit and disrupting the financialization of social value, the highlander becomes an unlikely scourge of incipient global finance capitalism.
A postlude acts as a précis of my argument about honor across the Romantic period. In the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands – the popular 1857 autobiography from a Creole nurse known as “the Other Florence Nightingale” – we witness the complex legacy of feminist honor in the literature of the black diaspora. Building her reputation at the height of Britain’s imperial conquests, Seacole seems to embrace the “manly” liberal-republican values that Mary Wollstonecraft urged women to adopt. But Seacole also deliberately cultivates her outsider status, especially within the colonial borderlands’ autonomous black collectives, where mutualist activity happens beyond the sanctioned, Western apparatus of respect.
Addressing a chronology of texts – the Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads, the Preface to its second edition, the ballad Michael, and the “Residence in France” sections of the 1805 Prelude – this chapter reconsiders Wordsworth’s great decade as a struggle between two types of honor: a commercial value of hierarchy that operated within the day’s market for “dignified” literary productions, and a social value of egalitarianism that allowed poetry to appeal to the “native and naked dignity” inherent in all humankind, regardless of economic status. Addressing a legacy of criticism on Wordsworth’s canonicity and self-fashioning, this chapter demonstrates how honor refigures Romantic cultural capital, inasmuch as Wordsworthian honor pits society against commerce. Such a tension between honorable egalitarianism and commercial success reframes the poet’s politics. Addressing claims that Wordsworth became more conservative as his career progressed, this chapter shows how he also stages a classic paradox inherent in liberalism: the conflict between market distinction and social equality.
Prompted by what he perceived as the chaotic tendencies of the Jacobins, Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, proposes a modern revival of honor, a virtue derived from the time-tested principles of chivalry, hierarchy, and, above all, the shared sentiments that bound together the social order. William Godwin’s preeminent Jacobin novel Caleb Williams represents one outcome of living under Burkes sentimentalist honor code: its relentlessly skeptical protagonist is cowed by the emotional demands of chivalry and is ultimately left unable to think about anything but his master, with whom he shares a psychic bond. Instead of eliminating a sense of honor from public life, however, Godwin offers an alternative version of honor. Sharing with Burke a similar fear of post-revolutionary atomization, Godwin presents what he calls “true honor,” a virtue that avoids the sentimentalism and obsession with rank that characterized Burkean chivalry. In commiting to the general good whose circumference expands beyond white, propertied citizens, Godwin presupposes – or even exceeds – the ideals of liberal social democracy by more than a century.
This interlude argues that Percy Shelley’s closet drama The Cenci reunites honor with affect. Refiguring Godwin’s “true honor,” Shelley suggests that the artistic depictions of his degraded heroine Beatrice Cenci prompt a different form of universal dignity – and intersubjective connection – without succumbing to a dichotomy between “concrete,” perhaps chauvinist, solidarity and feminine care. Crucial here is Shelleys suggestion about drama, which, through its logic of iterative re-enactment, reveals the material persistence of archaic honor codes, as well as the insistence of new modes of dignity.
Despite our preconceptions, Romantic writers, artists, and philosophers did not think of honor as an archaic or regressive concept, but as a contemporary, even progressive value that operated as a counterpoint to freedom, a well-known preoccupation of the period's literature. Focusing on texts by William Godwin, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Mary Prince, and Mary Seacole, this book argues that the revitalization of honor in the first half of the nineteenth century signalled a crisis in the emerging liberal order, one with which we still wrestle today: how can political subjects demand real, materialist forms of dignity in a system dedicated to an abstract, and often impoverished, idea of 'liberty'? Honor, Romanticism, and the Hidden Value of Modernity presents both a theory and a history of this question in the media of the Black Atlantic, the Jacobin novel, the landscape poem, and the “financial” romance.
At Margaret Thatcher's funeral, in 2013, attendees received a program with William Wordsworth's Immortality Ode printed on the back. This was unsurprising. The ode has always been popular with figures who champion liberal capitalist democracy as the most efective form of governance, one that delivers reform through incremental change and pragmatic policies rather than revolutionary idealism. Framed by the current unrest in Western civic life, this essay paints a darker picture of this reigning political order. Considering readings of the ode by John Stuart Mill, Cleanth Brooks, and Lionel Trilling, I suggest that the poem allowed liberal intellectuals to romanticize reformist politics. For these readers, Wordsworth reveals a core of sublime possibility within systems built on routinized order. However, idealizing a gradualist approach to reform allows progress to be pushed into the future indeinitely. Tracing the commitment to practical sublimity may reveal an emergent theory of liberal technocracy, in which citizens are compelled to operate under a vast, incomprehensible array of protocols that never quite deliver meaningful social change.
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