I am planning to take my comprehensive Ph.D. exams late in the fall, near the end of the semester. But my reading list doesn’t seem to get any shorter, although my time does.  Right now I’m trying to get through The Novel and the Police by D.A. Miller. It’s a really interesting book of criticism of the novel as a genre, based upon the ideas in Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. The “police” in the title really refers to the rise of social control, or “discipline”, and its role in the development of the novel, especially in its zenith in the Victorian era. Miller argues for “a radical entanglement between the nature of the novel and the practice of the police” and asks two questions: “How do the police systematically function as a topic in the ‘world’ of the novel? And how does the novel–as a set of representational techniques–systematically participate in a general economy of policing power?” (2).

Michel Foucault argued that social control in Western society moved from the “traditional power” utilized by European feudal systems prior to the 17th century (wielded through shows of power and corporal punishment, imprisonment and torture), to the “disciplinary power” of the secret police, of surveillance, and of internalized social norms such as social disapproval and shame, in more democratic societies. For Foucault, this shift was not necessarily an improvement, in the sense that social control is still control; society still structures and controls the individual, only in more subtle ways. Miller is arguing that the novel (which arose as a form during this power shift) participates in this process of social control by helping the individual to internalize social norms. This would be a good thing, except (as Miller argues) the 19th century novel pretends to eschew discipline; so it is a form of indoctrination or ideological formation – i.e. secret morality police.

I’m still thinking his argument through, but it has a lot of applicability for my interest in the role of shame in 19th century literature….

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