Fictions of Consent: Contract and the Victorian Novel

(English, Ph.D.)
2017-18 Kenan Graduate Fellow in Ethics

Liberal political theory places a premium on the concept of individual freedom, which is enacted—political philosophers tell us—through autonomous choices that reflect personal preferences. Thus, the exemplary form of modern liberty is contract: we perform our freedom every time we enter into willed agreement with another individual for mutual benefit. This idea, born during the Enlightenment, matured in the nineteenth century when the concept of individual agency was consolidated into the coherent political program that we call “liberalism.” But inherent in contractual understandings of liberty lurk discrepancies and paradoxes. Is willed agreement an accurate index of freedom when environmental, social, or personal circumstances constrain one’s ability to make choices? Can one choose contractually to abdicate one’s own agency? Doesn’t the temporal structure of a contract—promising now to perform later—imply the fettering of one’s future freedom by one’s present commitment? In our contemporary moment, we have inherited the political system of our Victorian forebears, along with its contradictions. As we struggle to reconcile our ethical responsibilities to the often-conflicting ideals of freedom and equity, we might do well to examine how the inventors of this system confronted its challenges.

My research contends that it is in literature that the Victorians most powerfully tested the ideals endorsed by the political theory of the era, ultimately revealing the promise of liberalism as a subterfuge. My argument suggests that reading Victorian novels as theorizing their own political and social contexts facilitates our present understanding of the perils of contractual formulations of agency. The ethical stakes of Victorian novels for us today lie in their ability to defamiliarize the contradictions of a political system that we now view as natural: what we experience as the inevitable endpoint of democratic progress, nineteenth-century novelists could see developing as a contingent response to specific political disputes, prejudiced interests, and calculated agendas. It is to the Victorian novel, then, that we might look for more equitable alternatives to contractual theories of freedom.

My research begins with a nineteenth-century puzzle: certain kinds of anomalous, exceptional criminal behavior seem to have occupied more than their fair share of concern in Victorian jurisprudence and popular culture: survival cannibalism, for instance, or women murdering their spouses. I contend that Victorian law and culture conferred undue attention on certain crimes not because of their sensationalism—not because they were extraordinary—but because they were actually dangerously ordinary. Victorian law was invested in expelling as criminal some behaviors that the novel can help us see as contractual. Given the centrality of contract to quotidian social relations in nineteenth-century England, these ostensible anomalies were a problem for all Victorians because these crimes spoke to—and challenged—foundational principles constituent of the Victorian social order. Today, we have inherited a political system built by the Victorians; my interest in the nineteenth-century novel thus lies in its ability to reimagine and critique the political conditions that we now take for granted.

According to a historically persistent narrative, the modern state distinguishes itself from its pre-modern predecessors by virtue of its foundation in the consent of the governed. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political philosophers posited a theoretical “social contract” as the device by which this consent was established. The genius of the theory lay in its ability to reconcile the desire for personal liberty with the necessity of each individual’s submission to a common good: contract guaranteed the acquiescence of the governed to their subjection. By the nineteenth century, the social contract had ceased to function as mere origin story and became a way of imagining a structure for social relations in which everyone might aspire to participate. With the 1861 publication of Henry Maine’s landmark contract treatise Ancient Law, contract became understood as foundational to ordinary social relations. Sociality was no longer contingent on a grand, originary social contract, but on literal contractual agreements like the exchange of labor for wages, the purchase of goods on credit, and the marriage contract. But it was fiction, I argue, that most powerfully questioned whether the metaphorical consent on which the social contract depended could be actualized in the literal legal contracts that Victorians made with each other or if consent remained no more than mythically foundational to human relations.

Victorian novels, I contend, challenge liberal political theory by exposing contract as the mechanism by which coercion is simultaneously integrated into and concealed within ostensibly consensual forms of association. The novel—the genre most associated with narratives of individual, deliberative action—discloses the concept of the individual’s autonomous consent as political fantasy. Through the novel’s ability to posit situations in which individual agency is deeply compromised—situations, for instance, in which involuntary predisposition, environmental accident, or psychological aberration impairs the individual’s ability to make choices—Victorian literature examines the failed attempts of modern subjects to negotiate consensual relationships with one another at the limits of human experience. Novelists suggest that the structural coercion apparently unique to the extreme situation in fact represents the ordinary logic of liberalism. At the same time, Victorian novels devise alternative forms of agency unimaginable within the framework of contract theory. Ultimately, I argue that reading the novels of writers like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy can help us to better understand the foundations of some of the most intractable problems in our contemporary world.

Contract, Consent, and Cannibalism: Victorian literature and the ‘liberal individual’

(English, Ph.D.)
2017-18 Kenan Graduate Fellow in Ethics

Illustrated London News

In October, with support from the Kenan Institute for Ethics, I attended the annual conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) to present research I completed last year as a Kenan Graduate Fellow in Ethics. This conference represents the largest annual gathering of interdisciplinary scholars working on mid-to-late-nineteenth-century British literature and culture. In addition to enjoying brilliant panels and plenary talks, consulting with a former advisor, and networking with colleagues, I presented a paper to my fellow Victorianists and gathered valuable feedback for use in revising my first dissertation chapter.

My research contests political liberalism’s conventional presumption that a social system organized around contractual relationships among individuals ensures the self-sovereignty of its members. According to an influential nineteenth-century narrative of political progress, societies evolve from a foundation in status-based, group relations to a system based on freely-willed agreements between individuals. This understanding of progress privileges a particular kind of political subject, the “liberal individual,” who is said to exercise rational decision-making procedures to form consensual agreements with others. I argue that while Victorian political theory was conceiving and disseminating this narrative, the Victorian novel was revealing the concept of the liberal individual’s autonomous consent to be a powerful political fiction. In our contemporary society, we remain Victorian in our reliance on a model of individual consent as the underlying justification for our political system; my interest in the Victorian novel thus lies in its ability to reimagine and critique the political conditions that we take for granted today.

My experience as a Kenan Graduate Fellow introduced me to the wider community of Duke graduate students working on the same ethical issues that my dissertation seeks to address, in disciplinary fields only apparently far-removed from literary studies. I met economists, public policy scholars, political scientists, theologians, historians, sociologists, and philosophers, all working from different perspectives on aspects of the ethical implications of constructing our democratic institutions around the concept of the agential rational actor. Learning about my peers’ research on seemingly far-flung issues—abortion rights in Ireland, the psychology of climate change, the interaction of self-help rhetoric and perceptions of inequality, among many others—revealed to me how interconnected our research actually was. By engaging in interdisciplinary dialogue that put into conversation the expertise and perspectives of a diverse set of scholars, I was able to better articulate what I research and why it matters. My experience as a Kenan Graduate Fellow enabled me to contextualize my own work in a wider set of issues while introducing me to a group of smart, engaged, fascinating people with whom I continue to collaborate. The continuing support of KIE made it possible for me to share these insights with my fellow Victorianists at the 2018 NAVSA Conference.

My conference paper, entitled “Contractual Cannibalism in Great Expectations,” discussed an 1884 incident of cannibalism amongst the survivors of the wrecked yacht Mignonette. The “case of the Mignonette,” as it was popularly referred to at the time, caused a sensational public response, much of which centered on the (legally irrelevant) question of whether the men should be held accountable for their failure to observe the “custom of the sea.” This norm sanctioned cannibalism by starving castaways, but also loosely prescribed that the appropriate procedure to follow in determining a victim was to draw lots. The centrality of lot-drawing to the popular understanding of the distinction between licensed survival and illegitimate brutality, I argue, places consent at the center of the determination of who eats whom, rendering an agreement to draw lots a kind of contractual cannibalism. Lotteries make survival cannibalism legible to liberalism by transforming an act performed under extreme duress into the natural consequence of an agreement entered into by willing individuals. I contend that it is the durability of this liberal fiction of consent that the Mignonette Court was invested in maintaining when it found the survivors guilty of murder.

I further argue that more than twenty years before the sinking of the Mignonette, Dickens had anticipated and theorized in Great Expectations (1861) the issues that the law would soon be forced to confront. I contend that in Great Expectations, Dickens employs an association between cannibalism and shipwreck to allude to the era’s preoccupation with castaway criminality and the problems of consent it raises.  Through this historical referent, Dickens suggests that the violent process of individuation that protagonist Pip willingly undergoes in becoming a modern liberal subject resembles a species of self-cannibalism. Pip’s attempts to distinguish himself from the “coarse and common” mass—to exercise individual autonomy under conditions of constraint in order to enter a larger modern civil society—have the outcome of destroying Pip’s agency, apparently by his own consent. In a liberal society, implies Dickens, the act of agreeing to a social contract is an exercise in self-cannibalism, a violence committed against the individual by that same individual. This contractual mechanism resides at the core of civil society in the cases of shipwreck castaways and ordinary citizens alike.

My experiences as a Graduate Fellow in the richly interdisciplinary environment of the Kenan Institute helped me conceptualize how the historical phenomenon of survival cannibalism, the theoretical concept of the social contract, and a literary representation of individual development and social collectivity were in conversation with one another. I’m grateful to my colleagues for their discerning feedback, their ingenious insights, and their lively engagement with the ethical issues that matter in our world today.