Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

David Kurnick reviews Serial Forms

Claire Pettitt. Serial Forms: The Unfinished Project of Modernity, 1815–1848. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 348 pp.

Review by David Kurnick

When Claire Pettitt claims early in her book that “seriality is the defining form of modernity,” she’s not just thinking about the periodicals and novels-in-parts that deluged early nineteenth-century British readers—though, she is, to be sure, thinking about those (p. 2). Serial Forms: The Unfinished Project of Modernity, 1815–1848 is an ambitious effort to bring together the specifically material “seriality” of print culture with the more philosophically-keyed “seriality” that characterizes mass society. We might (simplifying things quite a bit) map her project along temporal and spatial axes: while studies of the nineteenth century’s serial print forms have mostly concerned themselves with the parceling out of time performed by periodicals (the question of how the now relates to the time to come), the series theorized by Jean-Paul Sartre is a spatialized conception of the social as comprised of mutually alienated integers, grouped according to purely external constraints (the question of how the part relates to the whole; Sartre’s famous example is of the people congregated at a city corner for no other reason than to catch a particular bus). Part of Pettit’s point is that these two kinds of series cannot be separated from each other.

Serial Forms is ultimately convincing that more than a pun is involved here, and indeed the tension between these two differently inflected forms of seriality makes for the book’s restless intellectual excitement. Questions of the rhythms of history are constantly interlaced with questions of social scale, the extent to which subjects feel themselves to participate in the now of their moment always interwoven with the question of how they feel themselves part of a national, continental, or global frame. The chapters cover a lot of literary and cultural ground, touching on the fiction of Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Alexandre Dumas, and Bulwer Lytton, the poetry of Lord Byron and Robert Browning, the paintings of Théodore Géricault, the essays of Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold. But these well-known objects are transformed by Pettitt’s refusal to treat them in isolation from the wide swath of material culture that occupies an equal share of her attention. An opening chapter entitled “Yesterday’s News,” for example, plunges us into the clashing temporalities created by the copresence of cheap Sunday weeklies and respectable dailies, as well as the ballads, broadsides, and yearly almanacs that recalled earlier ways of gauging temporality—all of them unevenly available to readers according to location, literacy, and class. Another, entitled “Vesuvius on the Strand,” treats the proliferating representations of the volcano’s eruption that Londoners consumed in newspapers, theatrical recreations, and landscape paintings; Pettitt argues compellingly that the popularity of the spectacle indexed both the sense of participating in world-historical events and a new sense of the quotidian (as she strikingly puts it, “Disasters . . . are interruptions of the serial. They are the events for which dailiness is always preparing” [p. 175]). Still others look at the miniaturization of classical history in popular culture, or at how the short midcentury run of the liberal Howitt’s Journal processed its coverage of abolitionism and the Irish Famine through the “chronobiopolitics” of the middle-class family (p. 260).  

Embedded deeply in these contexts, the marquee texts Pettitt treats emerge less as singular achievements than as temporary coagulations or orchestrations of that serial mulch. Scott is not the “Magician of the North” but a master of remediation, a purveyor of a textual “edgelessness,” and Gaskell’s sketches are “interruptible” by design, keying sentimentalism to the demands of the market and the tasks of motherhood (pp. 76, 267). The master theorists Pettit treats are similarly brought down to earth; her signature theoretical intervention is the well-mannered qualification. Thus the association of Scott’s fiction with stadial history canonically argued by György Lukács misses how Waverly’s narrative of progress is “perforated with apertures” (p. 104); Benedict Anderson’s reliance on the false unity of what he calls “the newspaper” in his theorization of national consciousness is too “tidy” to account for historically existing print forms (p. 37); and Reinhart Koselleck’s account of the emergence of secular “historical time” from earlier theological models is both “too smooth and too finished”—a sleekness into which Pettitt seeks to introduce a sense of “how very bumpy this transition actually felt at the time” (p. 183). These and several other grand narratives emerge lightly distressed from their encounter with Pettitt’s wide learning in the period’s serial cultures.

Her hesitancy about big smooth claims extends even, somewhat disorientingly, to her own titular terms: Pettitt takes her subtitle from Jürgen Habermas because “he reminds us of the emancipatory potential of culture if it can only be appropriated by ordinary people,” but repeatedly disavows the utility of the notion of “modernity” (p. 28). I appreciated the term’s prominence in her title for its promise of anti-antiquarianism, and Pettitt’s illuminating use of a range of theorists of contemporary mass media, gender, and racialization—Gilles Deleuze, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Judith Butler, Gaston Bachelard, Saidiya Hartman, Henri Lefebvre, and many more—suggests that she wants a hint of presentism to defamiliarize the archival materials with which her book is replete; the point of her hesitation accordingly remains a bit opaque. Similarly with “forms,” a term Pettit frequently puts inside square quotes, and sometimes swaps out for “genre” or “‘format’” (pp. 293, 20). The latter term, with its capacious sense of an underlying material matrix, seems the best match for the wide-angled ambition of her book. This reader, for one, wants to resist Pettit’s terminological and historicist scruples and say that Serial Forms compellingly limns the cultural grammar of early nineteenth-century modernity, a grammar with deep pertinence to our own. The book is the first of a projected trilogy that will follow its argument through the First World War (the second volume, Serial Revolutions: 1848, is announced as forthcoming): Pettitt’s readers will shortly be able to assess a bit more of her compelling argument’s historical and theoretical reach.