Preferred Citation: Dimock, Wai Chee. Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

4— Pain and Compensation

A Cognitive History of the Novel

Incomplete rationalization—understood as an analytic postulate about structural non totality, about what is not integrated, not instrumentalized—thus seems to me to one of the most fruitful ways to think about the form of the novel, about its messiness, its ample proportions, and sometimes its lack of proportions. In chapter 1, I examined the signifying latitude in the novel, generated by its figurations, a latitude I see as residual especially in relation to the increasingly strict constructions in criminal law. In this chapter, I examine the novel's narrative latitude, generated by its complex plot, a latitude residual perhaps along a different axis: residual in relation to the instrumental reason of the nineteenth century. Against the latter's compensatory equilibrium, it is hard not to be struck by the imbalanced form of the novel. There is no symmetry of resolution here, and no symmetry of compensation. That lack of symmetry is most striking when the novel interweaves, as it so often does, a narrative epistemology about the bounds of time and space with a moral epistemology about the bounds of causation and responsibility. This interlocking epistemology—with its ethical imperatives and embarrassments—calls for a form of criticism attentive to the cognitive mapping[101] of the fictional domain, attentive, that is, to the landscape generated by the narrative sequence and associative radius, the length of antecedence and breadth of concurrence. The designation of a length of time understood as meaningful duration and the designation of a width of space understood as meaningful vicinity—these are matters not only of the novel's form but also of its vexed relation to the prevailing rationality of the nineteenth century. I call this a cognitive history of the novel.

From The Pioneers (1823, in which the revelation of a past secret restores Oliver Effingham to his rightful estate), to The Blithedale Romance (1852, in which a similar revelation disinherits Zenobia), to


Pierre (1852, in which yet another revelation literally destroys everyone), the American novel of the mid-nineteenth century might be called the novel of remote causation. In its richly involved (and sometimes richly improbable) plots, in its far-flung attribution of cause and consequence, it gives voice to a deep fascination, and perhaps a deep discomfort, with the bounds of pertinent time and pertinent space, with the range of human connectedness, and with the scope of assumable responsibility.

Howells himself would write explicitly about this problem in The Minister's Charge (1886), published just one year after The Rise of Silas Lapham . In this book, it is once again the Reverend Sewell who is made to deliver the book's central statement. "Everybody's mixed up with everybody else," he observes with admirable succinctness, in a sermon entitled "Complicity."[102] Complicity, the condition of being all mixed up, is indeed an inescapable fact in Howells and in virtually all realist fiction. The ethical entanglements it creates—and the imperfect disentanglements that follow—dramatize not only the need for rational order in the world but also a sharp and sharply unsettling sense of where such an order might not suffice. A cognitive history of the novel, then, might want to focus on those very lapses in its instrumental logic, those very qualities of dissatisfaction and inefficacy which afflict its reasoning. And to the extent that these afflictions are seen to be especially endemic in the novel, this cognitive history will imagine human reason itself not as a unified principle but as a field of uneven development, giving rise to different domains of thought, different shapes of causation and compensation, different shapes of pertinence and answerability.

Paradoxically, then, to approach the novel as a cognitive phenomenon is to destabilize the very idea of cognition itself. It is to acknowledge, within the seemingly integral idea of "reason," something like a constitutive ground for incommensurability.[103] Nineteenth-century humanitarianism[104] and tort law are "cognitive associates" for the novel, then, not only in the sense that they jointly inhabit a universe of thought but also in the sense that they jointly attest to the differentiations within that universe. Even the most ordinary cognitive coordinates—for example, the length and breadth of pertinent connections, longer and broader in some domains than in others, and longest and broadest of all in the novel—will suggest to us some intriguing lines of inquiry both about the contrary claims of reason and


about its contrary institutionalizations over time. "Incomplete rationalization" thus seems to me one of the most helpful concepts, both to think about the imperfect integration of a literary text and to think about the unconcluded dynamics of historical process. Confronting us with what is imperfectly aligned, imperfectly adapted, imperfectly utilized, such a concept restores every naturalized given to a state of underdeterminacy, in which the nontotality of effect also marks the limits of instrumental reason itself.[105]

It is the limits of instrumental reason—its inability to resolve the world in its own image, its inability to translate the world into a functional blueprint—which suggest that human history is perhaps also not a story of functional integration but a story considerably less streamlined, a story of losses unrecovered and residues unassimilated. By the same token, the literary text, too, is not a perfectly working unit, not a feat of engineering, but something less efficient, less goal oriented, less instrumentally assignable, and, because of that, perhaps also less exhausted by its rational purpose, its strategic end.[106] Proceeding from this premise of "incomplete rationalization," what I hope to explore, then, is not a "logic" of the novel,[107] but something like its obverse, an illogic , which is to say, a lapse in its ability to instrumentalize its narrative universe, to make that universe serve one particular end. From the standpoint of practical criticism, what this suggests is a retreat from the functionalist premise which has long dominated our thinking about the novel and which, in its current emphasis on the novel as "cultural work," would seem to align it unproblematically with the reign of instrumental reason. Qualifying that premise, we might want to think of the novel instead as something less seamlessly at work, less seamlessly integrated, something not necessarily unifiable under the category of "function," something that might suggest a limit to that concept.

4— Pain and Compensation

Preferred Citation: Dimock, Wai Chee. Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.