Deidre Lynch, The Economy of Character

Lynch, Deidre. Introduction. The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1998. 1-22. Print.

In the introduction to her work, Lynch poses the question “what happens if we do not assume that the history of character and the history of the individual are the same thing? What if we come to think of the character as our fellow traveler through time and the expressive analogue to ourselves?” (2).

She suggests that “literary character’s history…converges in particular, unpredictable ways with the history that sees imports of luxury goods into Britain—among them such quintessentially ‘English’ items as the tea and chintzes and muslins that were brought from the East Indies—double in quantity between 1715 and 1800. It converges too with a history that sees writing and reading themselves become commercialized, fashionable activities” (5).

She argues that it is the project of her book to demonstrate that:

In their transactions with the preternaturally legible persons of their books, I contend, early-eighteenth-century readers found a coping mechanism. On the one hand, these readers had to negotiate the experience of a marketplace that was chock-full of strange new consumables and that beggared description. On the other hand, they believed themselves, as literate Britons, to be the beneficiaries of a symbolic environment that was founded on principles of perspicuity and accessibility and in which truths could be self-evident…The uses of character at issue in the first part of the century reveal, in other words, enthusiasms that were adapted to what I will call ‘typographical culture’: an interest in the material grounds of meaning and a fascination with the puns that could link the person ‘in’ a text to the printed letters (alphabetic symbols, or ‘characters’ in another sense) that elaborated that text’s surface. In this context, most talk about the systems of semiotic and fiduciary exchange—the machinery of interconnectedness—that made a commercial society go. (6)

In Lynch’s perspective, that is, character and anxieties about economic status are integrally connected: “characters acquired inner lives, became associated, that is, with ‘deep’ meanings nowhere stated in print, when character reading itself changed. It did so in two paradoxically linked respects. People’s transactions with books came to be connected in new ways, first, to their endeavors to find themselves as ‘individuals’ and to escape from their social context, and, second, to their endeavors to position themselves within an economy of prestige in which cultural capital was distributed asymmetrically and in which not all who read were accredited to ‘really read’ literature” (6).

Books, as commodities, that is, initiated readers in an economy that had implications for social and cultural status. Actually, a more accurate metaphor is that books become currency.

Lynch explains, “character has no autonomous history. Character is not a single object that presents itself in one form at the start of the eighteenth century and another, changed form at the end. Instead, what changes are the plural forces and rules that compose the field in which reading and writing occur. What changes as the eighteenth century unfolds are the pacts that certain ways of writing character establish, at given historical moments, with other, adjacent discourses—discourses on the relations between different sectors of the reading public or discourses that instruct people in how to imagine themselves as participants in a nation or in a marketplace or as the leaders or followers of fashion” (11).

#adaptation. There is an interesting connection to my other list, here, in Lynch’s discussion of trademarks and the protection of characters against ‘kidnapping’ (8).

Lynch suggests that thinking about books—and by extension character—as a commodity allows us to think about the ways in which things like “interiority and literariness” are socially constructed (9).

Her discussion raises questions of how we value characters, when we think they are underdeveloped and overdeveloped, and how our characters compare to those that we find in books. That is, she thinks about the ways in which early 18th century reactions to characterization (during the transition from type (flat) characters to round, interior characters). She argues that “thinking about character in connection with commerce directs attention to how the critiques intent on exposing the ideological machinery of realist characterization themselves operated within a particular economy of critique defined itself in terms of a particular calculus, pitting one measure of quantity against another” (15).

Of course, Lynch’s work is intersecting with McKeon’s work and Watt’s work and Armstrong’s work in regard to formal realism. She argues that, “in displacing mimesis, the realism debate paved the way for histories, such as this one, that would attend to the tactics texts use at definable historical moments—for instance, the changing sorts of contracts texts establish with readers to secure their conditions of legibility and the particular formal techniques that produce the relations of mutual reflection between characters and readers” (16).

#adaptation. There is a connection here between sensibility, affectivity, fan culture, tramsmedia, and etc. That is, as books and even character’s become commodities, they are further commodified via products such as cigarettes, dishes, baubles, paintings, other images, and more. Readers are encouraged not only to participate in the lives of these fictional characters by purchasing the books and reading about their adventures, but also by purchasing items associated with them and also inventing the character’s stories beyond and outside of the scope of the novel’s plot. Characters were interestingly separable from the larger commodity in which they occur—they can be removed from and consumed separately from books.

—. “Fleshing Out Characters.” The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1998. 23-79. Print.

In this chapter, Lynch traces early-18th-century attitudes toward characters and does some interesting work in considering how character was conceived of simultaneously as the literal typographic character, the imprinted character on coins, the individuals and personality, the face, and the “personality” of the people in fiction. It could also mean a drawing or humorous skit of/about a person. She spends an extended amount of time considering the way in which the face serves as an apt metaphor for character as a whole: it is overburdened by significance. Faces are supposed to be unique, but also readable. We are supposed to be able to tell an individual by his or her face and therefore somehow know his or her value as well. But an obsession with character and uniqueness becomes especially complex in a world that has the capacity to mass produce things (such as texts and currency). In this world, can things be originals if they can be reproduced infinitely? How does one distinguish a reproduction from an original?

Why is all of this important, other than its very fascinating nature? Well, if we think about character as a sort of currency or exchange value, then we might consequently think about novels and characterizations from an economic or otherwise more mercenary perspective. In Lynch’s words, “to stress these aspects of sentiment can mean reseeding Clarissa…in ways that can make sense of its preoccupation with record-keeping and reproduction, legibility and replicability” (44). This is actually something I touch on in my Clarissa notes, and have since thought about a lot in terms of bequeathing and wills in general.

In a world that is nervous about originality and authenticity, details become increasingly important. This leads to increased interiority, specificity, and other aspects of formal realism, actually.

Lynch pursues these questions into discussions of representation that consider things like the caricature, noting the fine line between the two.

She concludes with what I think is a telling passage:

What would it mean to understand the history of character in the era when everything is rising—the novel, a distinctively British school of painting, a new style of acting—not as a (teleologically based) story of the ascendancy of a naturalistic or realistic practice in the arts but as a history of social practices? It would mean, I have tried to suggest, acknowledging the competitions and alliances that divided and united these media prior to the age of literature, a rather different project than engaging with each medium in isolation. And it would mean not attempting to define what a character is (a project that very often turns prescriptive and dictates what a character should be), but instead attending to the desires that have been formulated in the name of character. (77)

—. “Fictions of Social Circulation.” The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1998. 80-121. Print.

In this chapter, Lynch “engage[s] with a dominant mid-century model of characterization by engaging with the numerous mid-century fictions that treat the education of a gentleman who eventually becomes worthy of the station assigned him. Characterization is conceived of as the medium of this education.

Most of this chapter is spent further developing the points made in chapter one, with particular reference to Waverly, A Sentimental Journey, and Clarissa, as well as narratives whose main ‘characters’ were inanimate objects—even actual currency.

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