Lenora Hanson. The Romantic Rhetoric of Accumulation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022. 288 pp.
Review by Carmen Faye Mathes
Enough is a peculiar concept, at once defined by satisfaction and haunted by never. Never enough is capitalism’s engine and its tagline: never enough hours in the day, never enough earnings to burn, too much is never enough. In light of the arguments contained in Lenora Hanson’s brilliant first book, The Romantic Rhetoric of Accumulation, such a ghostly association, and the analogical rhetoric it evokes, might alert us to the “messier and more contingent” history of capital expressed by the “motley nature of a use value [of a word] that is always a complex way rather than an immediate reference” (pp. 22, 21). This example’s complex way might be to discover in one description of subsistence living, having enough, the concomitant projection of an ideology of infinite economic growth and the histories of dispossession that produce subsistence living as living on not enough. Hanson’s method, which I have tried to model here, is to unite rhetorical and historical forms of reading, so that the linguistic trace (“never”) does not lead to an infinite regress of difference, but, in its figurative evocations especially, points us towards a deeply material history.
Reading historically and rhetorically is itself a complex way. It is to Hanson’s credit that this book is intricate—wide-ranging and lateral in its connections, deeply learned and ethical in its orientation—without being difficult to learn things from. Hanson argues as well as teaches, tells as well as shows through examples, illustrations, and, in one case, a bespoke visualization of the spatial logic of Joseph Priestley’s An Account of a Society for Encouraging the Industriousness of the Poor (1787). Thus Hanson invites readers interested both in and beyond Romanticism to meet the problem of Marx’s “so-called primitive accumulation” in the gendered and racialized forms of subsistence that dispossession produces and figuration records (p. 8). Chapters explore riots and apostrophe; dreams, gendered labor and anachronism; witchcraft, superstition and tautology; industrialization and simultaneity. Framed by, but not limited to, the historical process of land enclosure in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain, Hanson’s rhetorical readings elaborate forms of dispossession that are inextricably transatlantic and whose effects reverberate into the present day.
Hanson’s first and last chapters concern riots, because riots are “ways of meeting needs” (p. 38). In 1795, when inflation coincided with crop failures and a brutally cold winter in Britain, rioters redistributed provisions by blocking the export of food and other supplies at roads, canals and ports. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s apostrophic address to “Famine,” in lectures delivered that same year, is for Hanson a rhetorical response to this historical moment that might seem, at first, “bizarre”: scarcity addressed as a way to satisfy needs (p. 27). Yet, as Hanson explains, “contrary to classical political economics, subsistence-style production was actually good at meeting needs”; the problem for capitalism is that once needs are met, people tend to choose leisure rather than more labor, which means they are not generating the surplus necessary for economic growth (p. 50). Subsistence, in this way, offers a different sort of surplus: unaccounted-for time that is superfluous to capitalist aims. The apparent bizarreness of the apostrophe turns out to signal a coincidence of excess and lack that expresses the unmeasurable, nonlinear history of primitive accumulation which, later on, Hanson also traces in the montage-style simultaneity of an experimental film, released by the Black Audio Film Collective, documenting the Handsworth and Brixton riots of the 1980s.
Between and beyond these riotous accounts are engagements with “unproductive,” “non- and anti-capitalist” forms of subsistence—including dreams, wanderings and superstitions—which, Hanson shows, were devalued and degraded as they became gendered and racialized (p. 6). Women’s work and the work of the enslaved, for instance, intersect with witch hunts and colonial accounts of Obeah spiritual practices in which healing and care work become threatening and threatened. In poems by Mary Robinson (“The Maniac”), William Wordsworth (“The Thorn”), and Coleridge (“The Three Graves”), Hanson shows how anachronism and tautology animate “the knots that were formed in the destruction and remaking of ways of life and systems of knowledge inside and outside of Europe in the Romantic period” (p. 114). Studded by rich exchanges with Marxist feminists and Black studies theorists, Hanson’s way of reading, no less than the readings themselves, bring these knotted histories into contemporary conversations with a vital, moving force. What hope Hanson takes from these interchanges feels, by book’s end, itself like a form of subsistence, something gleaned from gathering on the commons. In the Romantic archive, they conclude, we can discover “creative and vagrant . . . modes of life and mutual aid that can help us begin to create constellations of antiracist, anticapitalist ways of living and forms of pleasure worth recovering and finding in the present” (p. 181).