“and when I die, turn him into stars and form a constellation in his image”: stargazing into the diffusions of history

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

It is becoming more and more apparent to me that I gravitate towards materialist historicism, which is, of course, Marxism. Today’s reading, Reading Constellations by Patricia Mckee, follows the logic of Jameson’s Political Unconscious: rejecting linear conceptions of history in which one event leads to the next (causality), Mckee uses a beautiful constellation metaphor (credited to the German philosopher Walter Benjamin) to refigure our marshalling of history, a history that is sprawled out like a constellation, where events “are related in their differences [and] appear simultaneously yet remain in their particular places” (2). In this way, we avoid reducing events to “transitions” into other events (progressive, linear history) and instead realize how all events can possibly relate, converge, and intersect at different times simultaneously. Like capitalism, linear history is obsessed and indebted to the myth of progress, resulting in lost, undocumented, and silenced moments in history–the accumulated “debris of history” that has been left behind (our political unconsciousness of the past, I’d say) as progress has moved forward (3).  Instead of this oedipal-esque killing of the past for the sake of progress, we must acknowledge how the past infiltrates into the present.

[Side note: (I THINK) someone who is unaware of these revisionist takes on history as described above, delineated and explained by modern theorists alike today, will find it difficult to see the relevance of this problem to everyday, real life. I just got off the phone with my mom and as I tried to explain my reading for today, I found myself struggling to explain why linear history is problematic and why Mckee’s idea of history as constellations gets us closer to a more accurate portrayal of history. As I heard myself explaining to her, I felt like I sounded, well, a little loony and I could tell that she plainly didn’t understand. Anyway, maybe reading this to her would have helped:

“A progressive history…requires that events be added to or cut down in order to appear continuous with one another and developmental…This assimilation allows an ease of exchange as it produces equivalences, but it accumulates, too, what Benjamin sees as the wreckage of history as it leaves behind a residue of persons, things, events” (12-3).

Now back to what I was saying before.]

But not only concerned with this temporality, Mckee also extends the idea of constellations to spatiality, which destabilize our conceptions of space and place. Using Benjamin’s concept of “the colportage phenomenon of space,” she writes that along with the constellations of history, “events…[happen] in a place at different times converging, to make the space simultaneously present and past, interior and exterior” (4). This facilitates our understanding of multifarious pasts and places that make up a “discontinuous historical identity” (4). By disrupting containment and continuity, similar to Orpheus looking back to his beloved Eurydice, we must “move forward with awareness always moving backward and bringing the diverse pieces of time and space into collective possibility” (31).

All set within the context of urban modernity, the three novels and one short story she analyzes through these lens–Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, Jude the Obscure, and “In the Cage”–all lend themselves to, Mckee argues, interpenetrations of past and present, interior and exterior. Objects, people, places in these works function as mediums “through which to recall other times and spaces,” times and spaces that have been left behind in the dust by progressive history (6).

A particular scene in OMF came to mind as I read Mckee’s intro. John Harmon, protagonist of the novel, enters the plot with minimal explanation of his past. That his father left him a large sum of money in his will on the provision that Harmon would marry a specific girl (Bella) and that he comes “from abroad” to collect the money once his father dies, is all that is revealed to the reader. What his occupation was prior to his arrival in London is never explicitly addressed. But when Harmon visits Pleasant Riderhood disguised, she, “having an eye for sailors,” almost immediately notices his hands: they were sunburned and had the “unmistakeable looseness and suppleness…his hands were the hands of a sailor” (Dickens 347). Was Harmon a sailor “abroad” before his arrival in London? Maybe… If Pleasant is right, which more than likely she is–elsewhere the narrator describes Harmon’s hands as possessing a “seafaring hold”–then Harmon’s hands offer a glimpse into his sailor past left behind in an effort to rewrite his identity into the middle class and completely separate himself from the likes of Rogue Riderhood and Gaffer Hexam. His encounter with Pleasant, then, is a moment where his past interpenetrates the present, where the past emerges, interrupts, and threatens the (capitalist) progress of Britain’s bourgeoisie.

Essentially, Mckee’s main objective here is to reconceptualize the way we experience….well, experience. Visualizing time and space as constellations allows us to rethink the modes, concepts, and the ways we express, recognize, and understand our experiences. Another important component to experience is the individual self, and Mckee seeks to disrupt that experience too. Rather than realizing our own identity through an “integration of the self,” Mckee argues that we realize our identity, or parts of ourselves, through the identity and parts of others, a nice echoing of Tennyson’s Ulysses (“I am a part of all that I have met”).

And to give another half thought out example, there is Twemlow. Up until the last chapter of OMF, he spends most of his time in a state of utter perplexity, insecurity, and suspicion, indicated by his hand perennially on his forehead. “The abyss to which he could find no bottom, and from which started forth the engrossing and ever-swelling difficulty of his life, was the insoluble question whether he was Veneering’s oldest friend or newest friend” (Dickens 18). Amidst the superficial, veneered society of the Veneerings, Twemlow cannot figure out where he stands; better yet, he has no sense of his own identity. At the end of the novel, though, in a symbolically laden gesture, he removes his hand from his forehead (finally!), and responds, unrestrained by the container that is his hand, to Lady Tippins’s and Podsnap’s diatribes against the intermixing of lower and upper classes in marriage, and becomes the “Voice of Society”. Through the bourgeois identities of Lady Tippins and Podsnap, Twemlow is able to realize his individualized self. Their disapproval of Eugene (a gentleman) and Lizzie (factory worker and daughter of a sailor) marrying act as a trigger for Twemlow, waking him up from the “dreamscape of capitalist culture” (Mckee 31). The novel ends with Mortimor and Twemlow shaking hands, signaling the satisfaction Twemlow has found in realizing his own identity through the identity of others (as Mckee phrases it: “horizontal extensions of self rather than an internal integration of self”[31]).

ohmuhgosh. I could say so much more regarding Mckee’s introduction but I’ll stop for now. I’ll come back to what I have to say as I post about my readings of her interpretations of Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend.




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You are currently reading “and when I die, turn him into stars and form a constellation in his image”: stargazing into the diffusions of history at emotion recollected in tranquility.


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