BOOK REPLIES (2014): Cates Baldridge’s (1994) The Dialogics of Dissent in the English Novel

7 April 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Twenty years into the culture wars, this book still offers an analysis and a basis for remaining hopeful in the face of intellectual forces (deliberately malicious or well-intentioned) that would annihilate our rationales for resistance or acting.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Cates Baldridge’s (1994)[2] The Dialogics of Dissent in the English Novel

In this opening chapter, Baldridge contends via the work of Mikhail Bakhtin with the now-dominating (carceral) discourse that the novel, once conceptualized as the preeminent site of social resistance, represents the preeminent site of hegemonic (social) reproduction. In Bakhtinian terms, if at one time critics viewed the novel as inherently centrifugal, it has since become construed as inherently centripetal. Baldridge’s minor point involves insisting that this over-corrects an arguably over-stated earlier view. His major point involves insisting that “in certain ways novels are formally unsuited to the vigorous seconding of bourgeois dogmas and assumptions” (11).

He points initially to the issue of character development, citing (from Bakhtin’s evidence) the pre-capitalist forms of novelistic discourse where precisely the opposite of character development occurs; character development, in fact, becomes anathema to the goals of the literary production. In the “novel of ordeal”, for instance, everything hinges on the two star-crossed lovers not changing as a result of their many travails. The often outrageous series of events that beset them seem intended, precisely, to test the immutability of their character, for if anything were to change “in their souls” then similarly their love for one another might suffer a fatal transformation. Thus, “For Bakhtin, character development, while not the only structural feature that sets the novel decisively apart from its predecessors, is nevertheless a definitional aspect of the form” (7).

What constitutes one of the novel’s most decisive breaks with the past, then, is its representation of protagonists whose personalities alter and develop, usually in small and discrete steps, as a result of seemingly nonpredetermined experiences over the course of an extended narrative. Characters in novels, when first encountered, are usually figures whose biographies have not been inscribed in any other text and who therefore appear to possess a relatively “open” future, in which willed action and blind circumstance (in varying proportions) will combine to determine the direction of their subsequent careers (8).

Consequently, in certain types of novels, which Baldridge identifies as conservative or problem novels, this pressure to develop that this structural feature of the novel embodies causes distortions and contradictions to become visible. Thus, while such conservative “heroes’ or heroines’ abilities to “safely” evolve may indeed be greatly curtailed” (10), because they already represent a paragon of bourgeois culture and therefore cannot change without betraying those valorized cultural ideals, the novel’s:

formal pressure to depict them as doing so does not abate at all, resulting in a situation in which the structural requirements of the genre are at loggerheads with the text’s desire to stridently endorse centripetal bourgeois discourses, and thus in which a good deal of inconsistency and even incongruity infects the unfolding of the plot (10).

For those who would offer critical artworks within culture, this points to a strategy not of depicting the plight of the down-trodden as a means to inspiring social action but of depicting the contradictions of the down-treaders. It proposes a strategy of using the “strength” of the dominant to destroy itself, rather than having to exert all the necessary force to make it collapse. It represents a strategy of perturbation (a disturbing change of state) rather than an attempt at cause-and-effect, the latter being feasible for well-funded projects with massive reach because they already occupy a wide swath of power or cultural cache.

Even if it can be convincingly show that these supposed “new choices” [available to characters in the novel as expressions of emerging bourgeois “freedom”] were largely illusory or trivial, it will not change the fact that the demand for character development in the novel inevitably brought with it dialogizing energies potentially disruptive to dominant structures of feeling, since even if the range of economic, erotic, and peregrinational possibilities in literary texts far outstripped those available in life, the spectacle of social languages in conflict would have continued to undercut hegemonic claims for totalizing competence [by the available language] regardless. Furthermore, this holds true even if one admits that character development may have operated as a pacifying substitute for the self-transformation denied by economic and cultural realities, for the accompanying dialogism offers not an additional vicarious satisfaction but a relativizing perspective on one’s accepted way of life that may be anything but comforting. It is, in fact, the counterhegemonic side effect of a certain form of ideological pabulum (19, emphasis added).

I don’t like the idea of seeming to short this book, but it has so much of value summary would seem to do it a disservice. Though written 20 years ago, it still addresses many of the issues still leaving a wake of veterans of the (ongoing) culture wars—those returning veterans still not receiving the necessary care, &c., due them. Ultimately, it insist on the promise of creating an engaged intellectual pratice that does not permit academia merely to sink into what it usually consists of: empty twaddling.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Baldridge, C. (1994). The dialogics of dissent in the English novel. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, pp. i–xv, 1–203.

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