The Novel and the Police

This book is a pleasure to read. I knew it was heavily Foucauldian when I picked it up, but it’s written so crisply and energetically that I almost can’t put it down, and although I find Foucault fairly accessible already, this book renders his ideas so clearly that I feel like I have a better grasp on Discipline and Punish, too. The Novel and the Police is the pretty standard late-80s apply-a-theory kind of scholarship, but although we’re currently taught (well, at least I was) not to simply read a text through a single lens, I think this book is at the top of its category. Much like Foucault himself, I think D.A. Miller is so influential in Victorian studies that he has become the standard for later generations to a) live up to and b) critique. And my critique is pretty obvious: where’s the ladies, D.A. Miller? He writes: “Practically, the ‘nineteenth-century novel’ here will mean these names: Dickens, Collins, Trollope, Eliot, Balzac, Stendhal, Zola; and these traditions: Newgate fiction, sensation fiction, detective fiction, realist fiction” (2). Perfect for my project. But there’s only one female author on that list, and she doesn’t even rate highly enough to get her own chapter–despite being George Eliot. Wilkie Collins gets two entire chapters, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon gets a passing mention somewhere along the way. I know, I know, he gets to decide which texts fit his archive best, and I don’t really think he should have included female authors just because they’re female. I’m just saying it’s weird that in a book about policing, there’s no mention of a population who was policed so consistently, aggressively, and ideologically–and who wrote all the genres of fiction that he’s examining. And to use Foucault so extensively–the guy who wrote The History of Sexuality–and not to talk about gender….? Okay, enough of my soapbox.

Miller traces two things in this book: the trope of the police figure in the array of novels he examines, and the ways in which the novel itself enacts policing techniques. He spends quite a bit of time, at first, discussing the figure of the police or detective, which the novel places at the center of its focus, but which it also quickly moves to the periphery. If the police arrive on the scene, for example, their presence is felt to be intrusive, which posits a world in which the police are generally not needed, not present, not welcome. This does two things: first, it establishes an idea of “normalcy” which = no police presence; second, it demarcates a population (what Miller calls a “delinquent milieu”) in which police presence is necessary, thus separating the police–and by extension, the criminals–from everyday middle-class life. Miller refers to this phenomenon as the “coherence of delinquency” (4), which means that “[p]olice and offenders are conjoined in a single system for the formation and re-formation of delinquents” (5). Delinquency is coherent also because of its closed circuit, which makes it all but impossible for anyone in the delinquent category to escape it. This makes for a neat “outside” and “inside” that makes middle-class people feel safe and cozy. It also makes the closed circuit of delinquency feel isolated and foreign–“the world of delinquency is actively occulted: made cryptic by virtue of its cryptic isolation” (6). So, middle-class communities are defined by the absence of the police.

Following Discipline and Punish, Miller writes that society has moved from “the direct and quasi-instantaneous ceremonies of physical punishment to the prolonged mental mortifications of a diffuse social discipline” (14). Later, he follows up with this summary: “Traditional power founded its authority in the spectacle of its force, and those on whom this power was exercised could, conversely, remain in the shade. By contrast, disciplinary power tends to remain invisible, while imposing on those whom it subjects ‘a principle of compulsory visibility'” (17-18). So, no longer does the town gather around the gallows to internalize discipline through the spectacle of punishment. By the nineteenth century, discipline has become de-centered so that, as Miller writes, “[w]hat most sharply differentiates the legal economy of police power from the ‘amateur’ economy of its supplement is precisely the latter’s policy of discretion” (15, Miller’s italics). (I can really see this in Lady Audley’s Secret… Robert is so concerned about his uncle’s reputation that he carries on his investigation in secret.) I have to stop here and remark that this re-organizes my thinking on professionalization in sensation fiction, specifically Lady Audley’s Secret. I had been seeing sensation detectives and pre-professionalized detective-novel detectives. In other words, before “detective” was really a formalized job description, perhaps novels focused on attorneys, barristers, doctors, etc. as crime-solvers. And I wrote a paper about Robert Audley’s path to professionalization, which is a subject that still fascinates me. But seeing Robert Audley as a more discrete, gentlemanly supplement to the formal police force is really interesting. Robert Audley is “unprofessional” or amateur because the middle-class space of the novel wants to seem to remain police-free, while still enacting the police’s surveillance function. Miller calls this phenomenon disavowal: “By means of disavowal, one can make an admission while remaining comfortably blind to its consequences” (16). For more explanation:

In more general terms, the discretion of social discipline in the Novel seems to rely on a strategy of disavowing the police: acknowledging its affinity with police practices by way of insisting on the fantasy of its otherness. Rendered discreet by disavowal, discipline is also thereby rendered more effective–including among its effects that “freedom” or “lawlessness” for which critics of the Novel (perpetuating the ruse) have often mistaken it. Inobtrusively supplying the place of the police in places where the police cannot be, the mechanisms of discipline seem to entail a relative relaxation of policing power. No doubt this manner of passing off the regulation of everyday life is the best manner of passing it on. (16, Miller’s italics)

Wow. That’s a kickass paragraph. “The aim of such regulation,” Miller continues, “is to enforce not so much a norm as the normality of normativeness itself. Rather than in rendering all its subjects uniformly ‘normal,’ discipline is interested in putting in place a perceptual grid in which a division between the normal and the deviant inherently imposes itself” (18).

This theory of regulation and discipline is important because Miller goes on to argue that “[w]henever the novel censures policing power, it has already reinvented it, in the very practice of novelistic representation” (20, Miller’s italics). [Side note: Miller uses italics all the damn time, which distracted me at first, but then I realized that I was reading his argument like a sensation novel, and I got really, really excited. “And now I’m going to argue this NEXT thing!!! TURN THE PAGE to find out what I’ll say next!!!”] The panoptic, monologic narrative voice of traditional realist fiction is part of the novelistic policing power that Miller goes on to discuss: “For it [the omniscient narrative voice] intrinsically deprives us of the outside position from which it might be ‘placed.’ There is no other perspective on the world than its own, because the world entirely coincides with that perspective. We are always situated inside the narrator’s viewpoint, and even to speak of a ‘narrator’ at all is to misunderstand a technique that, never identified with a person, institutes a faceless and multilateral regard” (24). These realist narrators–especially George Eliot’s–often seem to be reporting the facts of the characters’ lives, while expressing sympathy and sorrow that they can’t intervene and help them when they’re in trouble. Of this, Miller writes: “Impotent to intervene in the ‘facts,’ the narration nevertheless controls the discursive framework in which they are perceived as such. […] The panopticism of the novel thus coincides with what Mikhail Bakhtin has called its ‘monologism’: the working of an implied master-voice whose accents have already unified the world in a single interpretive center” (25).

Here’s the part where Miller says something that might be directly useful to my argument:

The “significant trifle”: a “trifling detail that is suddenly invested with immense significance. Based on an egregious disproportion between its assumed banality and the weight of revelation it comes to bear, the ‘significant trifle’ is typically meant to surprise, even frighten. For in the same process where the detail is charged with meaning, it is invested with a power already capitalizing on that meaning. Power has taken hold where hold seemed least given: in the irrelevant. The process finds it most programmatic embodiment in detective fiction, where the detail literally incriminates” (28).

Miller says that the mainstream novel “dramatizes a power continually able to appropriate the most trivial detail” (28), as if to demonstrate that everything in the narrative world is under minute surveillance. This is another interesting avenue to think about in my own reading of sensational details, and in relation to G.H. Lewes’s “detailism.” Miller writes, “meaningfulness may not always be comforting when what it appropriates are objects and events whose ‘natural’ banality and irrelevance had been taken for granted” and “what had seemed natural and commonplace comes all at once under a malicious inspection, and what could be taken for granted now requires an explanation, even an alibi” (29). This definitely gives me a lot to think about, especially in terms of whether or not I think this can be related to the theater.

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