Austen and Cultural Relativism
Jane Austen and the Fiction of
Culture: An Essay on the Narration of Social Realities
By Richard Handler and Daniel Segal.
Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. xvii + 175 pages.
Reviewed by Lorrie Clark.
Written by two anthropologists, this book (originally published in 1990) provides a cautionary example of the perils of some interdisciplinary approaches to literary study. Besides applying anthropological terms (e.g., "alter-cultural") to Austen's fiction, the authors impose on it a highly anachronistic 20th-Century perspective. While their reasons for doing so are laudable--they want to argue that Austen's culture is not so very different from our own--this imposition may distort more than it illuminates.
Briefly, Handler and Segal argue that Austen anticipates the insights of contemporary anthropologists (most notably Chicago anthropologist David Schneider) into "the fictional status of social conventions, including social conventions about what [is] natural." In light of this thesis, the authors explore the "contingency" of social conventions in Austen's fiction: the rules of kinship, family, and incest; courtship and marriage; social rank or hierarchy; the natural vs. the civil; dancing and theatricality. This contingency carries with it familiar implications: for Austen there is no "nature" or "reality" independent of and prior to our interpretive constructions of it; she recognizes that language and representation are not mimetic but performative, creating the social orders they ostensibly mirror in the act of performing and thus constituting them. And at all levels, "Austen's narrative techniques incorporate and explore the meaningful relations of diverse interpretive perspectives, thereby denying the possibility of any authoritative single reading; "there is no impartial viewpoint to which readers can appeal for certain judgment."
But does one indeed find such perspectivism in Austen's fiction? Besides the unarguable point that Austen's heroines do creatively subvert and reform conventions from within, the authors emphasize two central pieces of evidence: Austen's treatment of incest in Mansfield Park, and the oft-quoted remark from Emma that "Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom does it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken." "What better justification than this characteristically noncategorical comment can there be," the authors ask, "for the need to include interrelations among multiple voices without privileging any one of them with unassailable authority?"
Does the revisability of conventions render them "fictional" and "contingent," unmoored from any natural ground? The authors acknowledge the claims Austen's characters make for the "naturalness" of conventions themselves, for instance, Mr. Knightley's view (vs. Mrs. Elton's) that "civil society is thought to be built on nature and to be proper, in a sense natural, for human beings." Yet they then go on to argue that since Mr. Knightley is not infallible, this "ironically undercuts" his appeal to nature as a standard of judgment. Does it follow that because he is fallible in some respects he is therefore fallible in all, especially when his anti-Rousseanean argument for the inherent "naturalness of society is so consistent throughout Austen's novels?
As for incest: because Edmund and Fanny marry each other despite being raised as brother and sister, the authors conclude that "even the most axiomatic social rule is open to negotiation and reinterpretation. The taboo on incest marks an inner limit to endogamy, but the limit lacks any fixed, natural, or objective location: it can be placed variously in social action." Can't one however conclude the opposite: that because there is a "fixed, natural, and objective" fact of nature--namely, that Edmund and Fanny are not biological brother and sister--this is precisely why for Austen they can marry?
Lastly, in the authors' understanding of the line from Emma lies the crux of their view of Austen's epistemology and ethics. They assume that to be an empiricist (or realist, or positivist--terms they use interchangeably) is to believe in interpretive infallibility, objectivity, and certainty; to believe one has complete access to a reality unmediated by interpretive perspectives; to believe that language is transparently referential or mimetic, etc. Yet nothing could be further from the highly skeptical empiricism of Locke, Hume, Dr. Johnson, and Austen, whose interpretive empiricism is most brilliantly exemplified in Elinor Dashwood's weighing of hypotheses and evidence throughout Sense and Sensibility. Elinor is the first to admit that her formulation of cautious judgments of character and intentions are not infallible and indeed often mistaken, but this does not preclude "better" and "worse" or more and less "probable" judgments.
One is struck by the contrast between this 20th Century perspectivist model and the analogies with Aristotle suggested by other "interdisciplinary " critics. Aristotle's idea of judgments "hitting" or "missing the mark" implies the range of perspectives Handler and Segal do rightly see as fundamental to Austen's art. But Aristotle's archery metaphor brilliantly allows for--indeed insists on--a "mark," a precisely exact judgment within a continuum of judgments, as the perspectivist model does not. The precise ranking of points of view along this continuum provides the challenge of Austen's novels for her readers. Surely Aristotle is a more appropriate interdisciplinary analogue for Jane Austen.
Lorrie Clark is Associate Professor of English at Trent University, Ontario, Canada. Author of Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic, she is currently working on a study of Jane Austen and philosophers of sensibility.
JASNA News v.16, no. 3, Winter 2000, p. 28
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