Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

David Carroll Simon reviews Systems Failure

Andrew Franta, Systems Failure: The Uses of Disorder in English Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. 232 pp.

23 October 2019

Review by David Carroll Simon

This book is at once a counterhistory of the rise of the novel and a meditation on the social world as an elusive object of knowledge. For a number of eighteenth-century authors, Andrew Franta argues, there is a powerful need to understand what it means to live a shared life, to get one’s head around the fact of human association, but that desire cannot be met. As an instrument of social research, the novel founders (along with other literary genres, about which more below), but Franta’s interest is less failure than all of the strange, surprising, mind-expanding acts of invention that become possible in the rubble of understanding. The blocked thought of a life held in common is an engine of literary experimentation and self-consciously partial social theory.

For writers such as Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, William Godwin, Jane Austen, Thomas De Quincey, and Mary Shelley, Franta explains, society is an immersive, borderless, indefinable thing––one that elicits but confounds epistemological desire. Yet literary works can make extraordinarily good use of their limitations; sometimes, they might even be said to flame out on purpose. While many others have emphasized the novel’s commitment to representing the social world, this book demonstrates that such a commitment is compatible with a keen awareness of the inadequacy of the genre to that task. Driven by “an obsession with social forces that are seemingly irreducible to system,” the novels in question embrace a form of understanding that is skeptical about its own scope, organization, and sturdiness (pp. 3–4). Among the salutary results of interpretive breakdown is the ability to examine the role of contingency in the production of the social.

One of Franta’s intriguing claims is that narrative can itself be an effect of “systems failure.” Sterne, for example, responds to the problem of the mismatch between his awareness of contingency and the novel’s suppression of it by telling “stories about characters who fail in their attempts to order the world” (p. 44). A general problem for the genre (the novel imposes order on the randomness it aims to represent) is translated into a narrative situation, and thus into forward motion. It is as if steps forward in time have taken the place of steps forward in understanding––though it is also an argument of this book that the former can be a version of the latter.

Franta describes the strategies by which literary authors, as producers of knowledge, delimit their epistemological ambitions, and he also affirms their willingness to spill over the limits they set for themselves. He explores literary practices that simply run counter to, even as they coexist with, serious-minded efforts to capture what is real. For example, Austen uses the novel to develop a sophisticated analysis of marriage as a pressing social imperative, but she also underlines the reality-defying status of the marriage plot as “narrative closure with a vengeance” (p. 128). As Franta puts it, “the realist novel defines the social by negation as an open-ended collection of movements and processes toward which literary representation can gesture but that it cannot comprehend” (pp. 132–33). Beyond the codes of realism, however, Austen’s “imaginative world” is patiently, lovingly “fit[ted] out” (p. 129).

The special place of the word “system” in Franta’s argument raises the expectation of a focused account of the concept, but his interest turns out to be order, broadly construed. For this reason, the book sometimes feels more like a collection of linked essays than a sustained argument. Yet there is an intriguing resemblance between the book's digressiveness and the form of intellectual activity it describes. Franta suggests that giving up on the impulse to systematize would be the end of thinking, but that the failure to systematize is an opportunity for insight. In my view, and I believe in Franta’s, the paradox is only apparent. It is not that failed understanding somehow amounts to insight, but that the story of understanding X turns out to be the story of understanding Y. If we recast understanding as an experience of knowing disorientation, as I think less schematic interpretations of intellectual-historical modernity, such as this one, encourage us to do, we can part ways with the simplistic assessments of both champions and detractors of Enlightenment; we can resist both a celebratory overconfidence in reason and a condemnatory caricature that confuses rational inquiry with a bid for dominion or a jealous, grasping will to possess.

The chapter on De Quincey is the best—but far from the only—example of Franta’s willingness to wander far beyond his central objects of investigation: beyond the eighteenth century, beyond the novel, and even beyond the specific problem of understanding the social (here he also contemplates the desire to understand the cosmos). Such deviations are invitations to think expansively about Franta’s theme. Serious skepticism about the virtues of systematic thinking, which does not amount simply to the rejection of it, goes back to the earliest glimmers of Enlightenment in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries––to Montaigne’s distrust of medicine and law in his famous essay on experience, for instance, and to Bacon’s related warnings about the idols of the mind. It also carries forward to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School––a tradition about which I would have liked to hear Franta say more. But wanting a book to talk about additional subjects is a measure of its success, and it is an admirable feature of Franta’s argument that it often points past the edges of his archive toward a century-spanning, multidisciplinary history.