In his essay, “Utopia as Replication,” Fredric Jameson puts forward what he himself terms a scandalous proposal: that Wal-Mart is “the new institutional candidate for the function of Utopian allegory” (420). Embodying a dialectical unity of opposites, Wal-Mart for Jameson functions not unlike monopoly capitalism for Lenin and its transformation of quantity into quality. As with monopoly, the point is not to celebrate or castigate Wal-Mart but rather to show how that which currently carries a negative valence “can also be imagined as positive in that immense changing of the valences which is the Utopian future” (423). In other words, the case of Wal-Mart is meant to be a thought experiment in which what he calls the “scandal of multiplicity” (428) becomes the occasion for clarifying the perverse and illuminating work of the dialectic and its relation to the Utopian “method.”
For our purposes, two aspects of Jameson’s proposal are especially important: first is the distinction Jameson makes between representational Utopias and the Utopian impulse. Whereas representational Utopias always involve the representation of a Utopian space or totality, a realized Utopian plan of some sort, the Utopian impulse is allegorical, “deals with fragments” rather than the totality, and therefore “calls for a hermeneutic: for the detective work of a decipherment and a reading of Utopian clues and traces in the landscape of the real; a theorization and interpretation of unconscious Utopian investments in realities large or small, which may in themselves be far from Utopian in their actuality” (415). The Utopian impulse can thus be found in the least likely of places: be it in blockbuster Hollywood movies such as Jaws or The Godfather, or, here, in the possible transvaluation of size and scale, or sheer quantity, that Wal-Mart prompts by way of allegory.
Second, Jameson also uses the analogy between Lenin’s defense of monopoly and Wal-Mart to foreground the difficulty we have of “thinking quantity positively” (419). As Jameson speculates, it is “apparently difficult for us to think of an impending future of size, quantity, overpopulation, and the like, except in dystopian terms” (419). Think of the “return” to artisanal production, the 100-mile diet, co-ops and small farms, and the (over)use of the language of “community,” all in the name of the local versus the global, the qualitative rather than the quantitative, the home-spun over the mass-produced—with the point being, as Jameson underscores, not to choose between one or the other, but rather to see how the difficulty of thinking big, in terms of size and scale, contributes to the “obstacles facing Utopian thought in our own time” (419).
Now what does this have to do with the novel and the poor? Or, as I’d like to pose the question somewhat differently: what does the novel do with or for the poor? As I will suggest, the poor in the nineteenth century British novel figure “the scandal of multiplicity.” Because they are too many, the poor at once carry a negative valence and are carriers for the Utopian impulse: they make demands that by their very being cannot be realized within the social world as it currently exists and they gesture toward a transformed future. In short, they force the novel to think big—an especially timely provocation now when literary criticism seems to be moving away from thinking big—big data aside. I’m thinking here of the turn to Latour and his critique of what Rita Felski refers to as the “panoramic vision” (158) in the hope of regaining the possibility of social action, which, in Latour’s account, necessarily entails a reduction in scale; as he states, it is only by “[cutting] down to size” (252) our critical purview that politics is possible. But of course the nineteenth-century British novel, as anyone who has read one knows, does think big, and hence has much to teach us about how we might envision our entanglements and their longue durée without ceding the global horizon and while heeding Jameson’s provocation to “think quantity positively.” This challenge, undoubtedly a formidable one, requires new temporal models of crisis that, contra Latour and his formalist followers, entail an expansion rather than a reduction in size and scale.
While climate change perhaps highlights most powerfully the need for new temporal models of crisis and new ways of thinking the collective, other historical processes present similar representational challenges. In my own work on nineteenth-century British literature, I have tried to think through these difficulties in relation to enclosure, a challenge I take up by considering both how we look to the past and forward into the future as members of a now fully global commons. In the larger project, I show how we can discern within nineteenth-century realism multiple articulations of the common(s) all of which, in different ways, grapple with the “scandal of multiplicity” that the common embodies—and which is often, although not always, figured through the common poor. Against Alex Woloch’s formulation of the “one vs. the many,” I locate in the common a dialectical and utopian relationship figured in terms of the one as the many, an active problematic that motivates nineteenth-century novelists as they navigate the destruction of one way of life and the creation of a new one. In the interests of time, I will limit myself here to some of the broader strokes with which Dickens envisions the many or the common through the poor.
The kinds of intricate and far-reaching causal relations that contemporary analyses of climate change sketch are precisely the sorts of connections Dickens’s novels persistently take up both in their form and their content. In one of the most overt formulations, the narrator in Bleak House famously asks: “What connexion can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” (256). Whether explicitly or implicitly, throughout Dickens’ oeuvre we are transported from high to low and prompted to ask, like Bleak House‘s narrator, what connexion can there be and what do these connections signify?
The poor occupy a particularly resonant site for unearthing such connections. Here is the illiterate Jo, “the outlaw with the broom,” on his deathbed: “They dies everywheres…They dies in their lodgings—she [Lady Dedlock] knows where; I showed her—and they dies down in Tom-all-Alone’s in heaps. They dies more than they lives, according to what I see” (492). The vision Jo presents of “heaps” of people, of the many transformed gruesomely into piles of the dead, offers the dialectical reverse of the endlessly proliferating cast of eccentric characters that people Dickens’ universe. To reanimate the many would mean to reanimate all of the many, including especially “they” who “dies more than they lives.” Necessity and logic dictate, however, that the many continue to die under the current circumstances, with Jo a case in point. The narrative makes this clear from the first time we are introduced to Tom-all-Alone’s: “Jo lives—that is to say, Jo has not yet died—in a ruinous place known to the likes of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone’s” (256). But, crucially, before he dies he passes on his disease—smallpox—to our heroine, Esther Summerson, who partakes of the many in this way. Much like the fog that opens Bleak House, disease, too, is a common, shared condition in Dickens’s London, whether that disease is literal as in Jo and Esther’s case, or figurative, as in the depictions of the rot and decay of the aristocratic order, or the inescapability of the Chancery suit. But these same diseases also affect characters differentially. Jo dies, Esther lives; Chancery “gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right” (15).
Dickens’s stress on the “monied might” can seem to leave us bereft of any sense of “democratic optimism,” the term G.K. Chesterton uses to describe the “old atmosphere” his contemporaries and their critics before them have lost the ability to see in Dickens. But, in fact, Dickens’s optimism gains its force precisely from its refusal to turn away from systemic suffering; Dickens remains optimistic despite the many forces allayed against the Jo’s of the world. For Chesterton, the old atmosphere of optimism is synonymous with a “confidence in common men [sic] (Charles Dickens 15),” which Chesterton equates with nothing short of the “great glory of the Revolution” (14). As he assesses the critical terrain in the years between Dickens’s writing and his own, “there has been a revolution, there has been a counter revolution, there has been no restoration” (17). The problem, he diagnoses, is that Dickens “[exaggerates] the wrong thing” (19). The Moderns “know what it is to feel a sadness so strange and deep that only impossible characters can express it: they do not know what it is to feel a joy so vital and violent that only impossible characters can express that…They know that there is a point of depression at which one believes in Tintagiles: they do not know that there is a point of exhilaration at which one believes in Mr. Wegg” (19-20). Attuned to the “impossibilities of Maeterlink,” with his fated marionettes powerless to resist the systemic forces pulling their strings, modern readers of Dickens can only perceive the “impossibilities of Dickens” as “much more impossible than they really are” (20).
From the changed perspective of our own critical moment, we can now again, I suggest, imagine the “restoration” that Chesterton was hoping to bring about. In part, this restoration comes from a renewed emphasis on the common in our contemporary politics, a politics that relies less on sectarian factionalism and more on the common condition of what the Occupy Movement referred to as the 99%. (The Age of Trump also shows us how quickly times can change and how adeptly the common can be hijacked in the service of a false populism.) This revitalized vision of the common shares much with the vision of the “common men” Chesterton sees Dickens’s politics embracing and emboldening. In his reading of Oliver Twist, for example, Chesterton notes that Dickens speaks of the poor, rather than the proletariat, of the many rather than any specific class. In other words, against sectarian politics, Dickens gives voice to a blunt politics, a version of what Bertolt Brecht called plumpes Denken—or crude thought that cuts through the chaff. As Chesterton asserts, “Dickens attacks the modern workhouse with a sort of inspired simplicity as of a boy in a fairy tale who had wandered about, sword in hand, looking for ogres and who had found an indisputable ogre. All the other people of his time are attacking things because they are bad economics or because they are bad politics, or because they are bad science; he alone is attacking things because they are bad” (Appreciations and Criticisms 47).
We might then think of Dickens’s stance along the lines of a more recent call to practice “Cynicism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will,” Jameson’s slogan for a politics that is aware of and pushes against the “absolute limits of our current thinking” (“A New Reading 13). In other words, Dickens aims to maintain both: the structural critique and the possibility for human action. The weight of both highlights the fantasy at the heart of all utopias, the value of which, as Jameson insists, rests in “something not realized and indeed unrealizable in [its] partial form” (“The Politics of Utopia” 50). This utopian impulse, for Jameson, is ultimately economic at its core, embodying a “kind of universal plebeianization,” or “new and universal equality” (“A New Reading” 12). The poor as the many becoming a many no longer premised on the poor.
To be sure, the ongoing presence of hunger and want, for Dickens, make all solutions within the present system partial. Jo and the many other characters in Dickens’s novels deformed by inhuman structures—from the most eccentric to the most commonplace—register the partialness of the social and political solutions to date. But they also register the utopian impulse within Dickens’s novelistic universe, the sense that “too many” only pertains to a world where the one is opposed to the many rather than fully part of it. If the existence of the poor marks the limitations of the present, imagining the present otherwise will necessarily entail a reinvisioning of these many poor not as a “scandal of multiplicity” but a proliferation of difference (the utopian as Dickensian eccentricity writ large) and universal equality that, defying common complaints against Utopia, will be more rather than less complex, experientially rich rather than uniformly dull, and pleasurable to boot. In this sense, Dickens’s insistence on the poor rather than the proletariat may in hindsight appear prescient, as increasingly, today, capitalism creates in its wake what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the “‘destructured’ masses, poor and deprived of everything, situated in a non-proletarianized urban environment,” a vision of the many in other words, whose conditions of existence are essentially the same, and who, as in Dickens’s time, constitute “one of the principal horizons of the politics to come” (426).
Chesterton, G.K. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1911.
___. Charles Dickens. London: Methuen and Co., 1906.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Jameson, Fredric. “A New Reading of Capital.” Mediations 25.1 (2010): 5-14.
___. “The Politics of Utopia.” New Left Review 25 (2004): 35-54.
___. “Utopia as Replication.” Valences of the Dialectic. London: Verso, 2009.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Lesjak, Carolyn. “All or Nothing: Reading Franco Moretti Reading.” Historical Materialism 24.3 (2016): 185-205.
Malm, Andreas. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso, 2016.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2011.
Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003.
Žižek, Slavoj. In Defense of Lost Causes. New York: Verso, 2008.
 The following discussion of Jameson’s “Utopia as Replication” condenses a fuller analysis of this essay published in my article “All or Nothing: Reading Franco Moretti Reading.”
 See especially Nixon and Malm for their respective accounts of the formidable challenges the longue durée and “slow violence” (Nixon’s term) of climate change pose.
 Chesterton notes the kind of “sweeping and flat” treatment of “the poor”: “People are so anxious to do something for the poor man that they have a sort of subconscious desire to think that there is only one kind of man to do it for.” Against this levelling of the poor, Dickens, he argues, “saw the problem of the poor not as a dead and definite business, but as a living and very complex one” (Appreciations xix).