The Romantic Rhetoric of Accumulation
Lenora Hanson



The Romantic Rhetoric of Accumulation

Romanticism, Dispossessed

Dispossession is both a ubiquitous and a marginal term in our definitions of Romanticism. On the one hand, the historical process of enclosure appears consistently in introductory contextualizations of Romantic poetry, especially that of John Clare, where it tends to refer directly to the Enclosure Acts, through which five million acres of common fields were privatized between 1760 and 1810.1 Enclosure here refers to a historical period in which an agrarian mode of production was finally dismantled, making possible the emergence of industrialized labor and commodity production. On the other hand, dispossession has been defined in ontological terms by deconstructive readers of Romanticism, for whom it names an alternative to the self-possessed and autonomous subject inaugurated by a deeply Wordsworthian orientation to a modern market and the extinction of other ways of being.2 A critical enclosure has resulted from these quite distinctive approaches in which dispossession marks the successful subsumption of modernity by capital’s “force of self-infinitizing, subjectifying, repetitive motion” under the dominance of industrialized capitalism.3 As a result, rhetorical and poetic language become fixed as either a lost past or an ontology of difference cut off from material and historical conditions. The constitutive indeterminacy and openness prompted by figurative language is claimed always in oppositional or subversive relation to a modernity defined by the capitalist drives of development and homogenization.

This book proposes another relation across Romanticism, rhetorical reading, and capitalism through the entwinement of subsistence ways of living and the processes of dispossession that seek to destroy them. Dispossession here is not a purely temporal marker that inaugurates an essential opposition between rhetorical language and history but is, rather, the figural, which is to say, the logically contradictory, origins of capital accumulation that rely upon the reproduction of noncapitalist ways of living. Histories of dispossession cannot be separated from the figural means of subsistence with which they become enmeshed and which Romanticism helps us to see as deeply figural ways of living. They are, to borrow from the preeminent Romantic poet of enclosure, John Clare, “a thread’s end in ravelled windings crossing.”4 Where Marxist and deconstructive readers alike have presumed a singular historical model for the development of capitalism, here I propose that dispossession is a historical process that cannot be accounted for by narratives of transition and the loss of “communal property . . . which lived under the cover of feudalism.”5 Instead, this project inhabits the figural knot of capitalism’s simultaneous dependency upon and destruction of the noncapitalist ways in which people reproduce themselves and each other from one day to the next. In this association between figure and subsistence, which is also an association with dispossession and enclosure, it becomes impossible to treat the rhetorical or poetic as an always subversive resource or site of alterity, or capitalist modernity as a machine of sameness or homogeneity. With this project, I work to undo such binaries in favor of ways of life and language rooted in the impure solidarities required by the passage from one day to the next or the “unpalatable agreements and actions communities have to resort to in order to guarantee their members’ survival.”6 If Romanticism is to remain useful for us today, it will be because its peculiarly rhetorical approach to history makes it easier to understand how capitalism has emerged since the late eighteenth century not purely through contradictions but through coincidences, simultaneities, apostrophes, anachronisms, and tautologies.

While often referred to as a meager or bare means of survival, subsistence ways of living also acquired manifold associations with noncapitalist habits, riots, unpaid labor, dreams, wanderings, inactivity, superstitions, and unregulated sensations in the Romantic period. It is these proliferating associations through which subsistence became racialized and gendered, by what Silvia Federici has called the “accumulations of differences,” in which bodies were violently separated and hierarchized as productive or unproductive.7 For Federici, the European enclosures of common lands are historically significant because they enabled the division of subsistence into the devalued labor of social reproduction and the productive labor of commodity production. Along with these divisive processes, I am interested in the simultaneous proliferation of subsistence, as noncapitalist ways of living and being, that emerges alongside capitalism. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, subsistence conjoins “senses relating to the basis or foundation of existence”; “continued existence, the state of remaining in effect or force”; “senses relating to the maintenance and support of life”; and only in “modern use,” “often with reference to a bare or minimum level of existence.”8 Designating the very fact of existence and the “bare or minimum” subsistence suggests a paradoxical sense of necessity both as the condition for everything and almost nothing. Dispossession targets subsistence ways of living for destruction in order to reduce our “maintenance and support of life” to the bare minimum for which capital will pay. But we cannot grapple with the history of dispossession without a rhetorical reading of subsistence, in which “the basis or foundation of existence” is simultaneously an excess of the essential and the basis of use, a historically produced scarcity that continues to rely on the continuation of modes of reproduction superfluous to the market. As Clare once put it, enclosure is a “lawless law.” I only want to add that this lawlessness derives not only from the self-positing claims that turn land into property but also from the wayward and unmeasured ways of living that are required for capitalism’s ongoing emergence.9

In going back to figure in order to read a history of dispossession that continues in the present, I return to one of the most basic commitments of rhetorical reading—namely, to historical origins as a problem that sits outside a purely temporal and successive framework. According to Paul de Man, it is only through figures of substitution that a genetic account of the social can be given, and it is through reading these figures that we come to understand the simultaneously literal and figural, the historical and the metaphorical, production of such accounts.10 While de Man’s reading helps us to ironize bourgeois historical narratives staked in claims of universal equality, his reduction of figure to substitution remains stuck in a bourgeois imaginary of history through the relations of exchange and circulation. My concern here is to show the ways in which the violence of capital’s origins requires attention to figures other than those of substitution, figures such as coincidence, apostrophe, anachronism, and tautology that are never far away from figure’s affective dimensions in Romantic usage.

Such figures are quite visible in the abolitionist and revolutionary rhetoric of Robert Wedderburn, for whom “the earth cannot be justly the private property of individuals, because it was never manufactured by man.”11 Here Wedderburn speaks to that more familiar sense of dispossession, in which what was originally shared in common was stolen and enclosed as private property. But Wedderburn also reveals the other side of dispossession, rerouting developmentalist narratives of history, when he comments that subsistence ways of living afforded to slaves in the form of provision grounds made them freer and more strategically advanced than the workers of England. Dispossession here is not reducible only to the loss of land and home. It also names the simultaneous undoing of straightforward histories and the resources of struggle that were available to slaves rather than to European workers. Instead of a “linear causality,” dispossession organizes global space and historical time through those terms we tend to consider as being outside capitalism—through means of reproduction outside the exchange of money and in the anachronism of enslaved peoples’ historical advance beyond the European worker dispossessed of land. However, as Wedderburn knew quite well, what was lost in land by the English working poor became the recalcitrant habits that the Jacobin, industrialist, and philosophical materialist Joseph Priestley found so pernicious in the Romantic period. Of this dispossessed worker, Priestley writes that “whatever they do get by their labor more than is sufficient for their immediate needs, they too often waste in the most extravagant manner. . . . If the greater part of workmen can earn enough in three or four days to maintain themselves and their families for the week, they will never work anymore.”12 Even in Priestley’s dismissal of what is spent extravagantly outside the time of labor, a surplus beyond what work provides and a sufficiency that does meet needs without any more work is still visible. It is such a manifold of excess, waste, and need all woven together that I mean by subsistence. Along with the upending of narratives of either industrial progress or historical decline that Wedder-burn shows us, Priestley inadvertently loses his way in his condemnation of subsistence and wanders into a predicament of surplus. As even Priestley admits, workers’ rejection of labor beyond what is necessary for subsistence is actually more than sufficient, enough to satisfy a week of reproduction and extravagance. Between Wedderburn and Priestley, we can begin to see that subsistence is never minimal in a measured way. Instead, subsistence is a continuation of existence (subsistere) from below (sub-). The conjuncture of dispossession I address here—as both a way of life and an originating discontinuity of capitalism—is a problem that will constantly be worked and reworked in Romanticism, and that continues its recursions in the present.

This language of simultaneity is in many ways familiar to us from rhetorical and deconstructive readings of Romanticism, particularly in the critical emphasis that has been put on apostrophe and lyric poetry. Significantly, however, such readings are framed as beyond the material and historical, in large part because they have remained locked in a narrow debate with New Historicism. While these approaches usefully remind us that the past is not a transparent body to be reanimated and that being is not a record of fullness and self-identity waiting to be revealed, they also treat New Historicism and its construction of ideology as false consciousness as the only framework for understanding the effects of capitalism upon Romantic sociality and life. In maintaining this delimited engagement with historical materialism, they reproduce a binary between rhetoric and history, because they remain focused on deconstructing a problem of abstraction and ideology of which Marx himself was quite critical.13 These readings represent dispossession as a purely ontological refuge against the depredations of modern capitalism. Here the figural becomes the reserve of endless ontological difference, irrespective of the social and material differences that are cast as peculiarly fixed and determined. Somewhat ironically, such treatments of rhetoric are not far away from orthodox Marxist treatments of capitalism, as such readings tend to separate the difference, transience, and impropriety of poetic and rhetorical language from the presumed measure, fixity, and individuation of modernity.

To put this another way, strictly ontological approaches to dispossession forget that the cultivation and enforcement of individuated and self-possessed subjects is a historical, and thus a contingent and messy, process. Treatments of ontology as a reserve against modern subjectivity tend to buy into the Eurocentric discourse of the self-constituting or self-positing subject on its own terms, acting as if the discourse of such subjects banished all other ways of being to a lost past.14 While de Man was himself obsessed with pushing such a discourse to its limit point of ironization, more recent deconstructive work has tended to enclose all possibilities of alterity within the ironic undoing of the subject. But this cedes too much to a liberal framework, requiring us to continue to invest in the subject and liberal institutions of representation as the only recourse to figural ways of being and living, in the form of projects that “give voice to the voiceless . . . and advocate simultaneously for cosmopolitan futures and local attachments.”15 Another way to say this is that a wholly ontological grounding of dispossession may be the epistemological effect of reading dispossession from entirely within the enclosures of (neo)liberal institutions such as the university. Through such enclosures, a primarily ontological and linguistic treatment of dispossession occludes the difficult but creative recognition that there is no alterity or identity in general; a concern with dispossession cannot prove useful if it does not get caught up in the impropriety of survival within capitalism that is not so clearly split between the premodern and the modern. What we need is an account of dispossession that is useful for struggles in the present, struggles that far exceed the confines of the subject and the aporia of liberal institutionality, and enable us to salvage those non-and anticapitalist ways of being so that they are not, in fact, left to a premodern past.

Such approaches get in their own way by idealizing the deviations of rhetorical language, making it impossible for us to follow noncapitalist ways of being that were and are at the crux of a dispossession in which no reserve, ontological or otherwise, is left pure and untouched. If rhetorical accounts of dispossession are to be useful for us in the present, it will not be because they continue to leave the subject or liberal institutions open to a project of further inclusion or expansion of difference but because they find ways to refuse the trap of idealizing rhetoric or homogenizing history. Rather than enclosing difference either in the past or in language, we might do better to approach subsistence as what Samuel Taylor Coleridge once described as a “something-nothing-everything.”16 Such a term is wildly appropriate to my survey of subsistence in this project, which ranges across scenes of leisure time and inactivity, domestic labor and provision grounds, theft and riot, species reproduction and idle wandering, dreams and gossip, sex work and stage performance, and witchcraft, superstition, and bodily capacities of susceptibility and impressionability. This is no straightforward definition of subsistence, which is why, as I argue, we need to approach subsistence as figural. As this “something-nothing-everything,” subsistence is the coincidence of unmeasurable needs and the indirect and nonequivalent ways of their meeting, akin to what Fred Moten has called “the social economy of dispossession” of “the ones who [in] having nothing, have everything.”17 At once in excess and beyond what is necessary, more than what is needed and unmeasurable by necessity, needs and their meeting constitute the uncanny coincidence of lack and surplus that does not fit any economy but is, to borrow from Moten, “aneconomic.”

One effect of the continued binarism of the rhetorical and the historical is that it has eclipsed the three interrelated senses of figure that appear consistently in Romantic writing: figures of speech as a feature of language in which opposites coincide rather than contradict in “the combination of uncombinables”; the late Enlightenment and early Romantic materialist sense of figure as the occurrence of being affected; and figure as the use of language. The first sense has long been central to deconstructive readings, while the second has recently gained some prominence as a way to critique deconstructive readings of figure by returning to a felt correspondence between the senses and language. But the third sense has largely gone unremarked and merits far greater attention. As I show throughout this book, we need a more sustained account of the ways figural language appears as a use value in Romanticism in order to historicize the dependency of capital accumulation upon subsistence ways of living. It is through this sense of figure as an association between rhetorical language, affectable bodies, and use that it is woven into the problem that Marx designated “so-called primitive accumulation” and the racialization and gendering of subsistence through that process.

Romanticism has often been the site of theorizing the possibility of coincident or simultaneous states of being and thus provides a unique vocabulary by which to reconsider these problems of the historical.18 But the undoing, contradiction, and affordance of simultaneity that are most often associated with apostrophe is not restricted to lyric poetry. It coincides with recent work on a global commons that begins in the ambivalent figuration of Romanticism as a “red round globe hot burning [that] might refer either to what we would call the Anthropocene, with its planetary warming, or to the revolutionary struggles of the era and the fires on slave plantations,” as well as Moten’s discussion of Blackness as para-ontological dispossession of “difference in common” and “common differentiation.”19 Such work points us outside those sites of production that account for the extraction of surplus value and within the superfluous means through which needs are met in heterogeneous and unmeasured ways. Subsistence here is a deeply rhetorical form of life in which otherwise oppositional ways of living and ways of meaning coincide copiously in waste, redundancy, inactivity, reproduction, care-taking, child-making, reveries, chatter, and superstition. Such an account of dispossession requires the tools of rhetorical reading in order for us to understand the apostrophic, tautological, anachronistic, and simultaneous form that the history of capital accumulation takes. The possibilities enabled by such figures have everything to do with the dispossession of a history grounded in binaries of progress and destruction and a turn to the “messy, sensuous, gendered, raced, and unruly component(s)” of political economy in which “living human beings [are] capable of following orders as well as of flouting them.”20

Figuring Subsistence, Historicizing Substitution

Following John Locke, we often consider figure as an ornamental excess to the conventional uses of language. A slightly different version of figure has it as an accepted deviation from convention. In both cases, rhetoric functions to allure, to persuade, and to fascinate listeners with sound rather than sense, with form rather than substance. But late Enlightenment and Romantic speculations on figure often associated it with subsistence. Indeed, associationist theories of mind and body, in which all human knowledge results from accumulated sensorial experience, often located the origins of language in the so-called primitive conditions of human existence. Especially in the Lockean, associationist tradition that was so influential even for early Coleridge, spoken and written language resulted from reactions to the pressure of external objects on the senses and the internal pressure of physiological needs. Language in this account was entirely material, even if histories of it were necessarily speculative. Setting us in the state of nature, Joseph Priestley, radical republican and aggressive proponent of industrialization, tells us that “it is natural to suppose that the first words which mankind, in the most early ages of the world would invent and apply, would be names for sensible objects, as of animals, vegetables, the parts of the human body . . . because these are the things that would first occur to their observation, and which their necessities would oblige them to have the most constant recourse to.”21 In contrast to a Rousseauian version, the origins of language here are tools of survival rather than social utterances. This early language is a response to things that “first occur” to our senses out of necessity. It emerges from the doubled nature of impression—that of outside objects and an internal dependency upon them. This sensational account of linguistic origins associates the subjection of European man to nature with the use value of language. This is not an initial figuration that establishes difference or sameness, as in the case of Rousseau’s giant and man, but a figure in which sensible subjection carries the possibility of satisfaction.22 However, this “primitive language, or that which was spoken by the first family of the human race, must have been very scanty and insufficient for the purposes of their descendants, in their growing acquaintance with the world.”23 In these speech acts, utterance associates need and speech, and so the utterance itself is “scanty” and “insufficient,” barely meeting the threshold of the social relation of sense.24 Priestley’s conjectural history presents the origins of language not just in a state of nature but in a scene of subsistence.

That language is useful in its insufficient origins also means that language is originally figurative. After all, it is also “use and application” through which Priestley defines figurative language, which, in contrast to Rousseau, he understands as primarily bound up with sensible form. Indeed, while figure is understood to be a relation of substitution, for Priestley figure’s originary substitution derives from the “correspondence” between the shape or use of two different things, and in particular the correspondence between the parts of bodies that enable sustenance. The mouth, first associated with the human, becomes a figure when attributed to animals, allowing for an association through function or application; it stops becoming a figure when the difference between these two things is forgotten. And in Priestley’s edited and revised version of David Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind, figure and everyday subsistence are closely entwined: “It is evident, that if a language be narrow, and much confined to sensible things, it will have great occasion for figures: these will naturally occur in the common intercourses of life.” In this origin scene, figurative language is rooted in “the uses and exigencies of human life.”25 Priestley extends this point in his own lectures, noting that in early, primitive languages, figures are useful because they can shelter more than one thing or idea. The mouth of a man can also be the mouth of a bird without implying the sameness or identity that will be assumed when figurative language is forgotten. Figure is useful because even in these scanty and insufficient conditions, there are too many things to say and not enough words for saying them.

Priestley continues to describe the development of language beyond this “scanty” form into “mere custom,” as the complexity of an arbitrary system of signification comes to replace meager referentiality and sensorial touch. History is what is separate from such origins and is the artifice that makes language into a matter of understanding. Priestley’s conjectural scene of language as it meets needs is prior to the emergence of a system of language as understanding, which is based in “arbitrary preference” and where “every thing is regulated by mere custom” rather than any “internal excellence.”26 Given this state of affairs, we can only consider language through “mere custom” and the “uses to which [it] is applied.”27 Figure occurs less as a metaphor that translates between binary oppositions of inside and outside and more as the coincidence of sensation and articulation, constellating impression, need, and sound. But this early language is also figural because, as Priestley notes, it is prior to convention, where signification is created. These figurative origins ground language outside the sense sanctioned by convention and developed over time. Figure is a priori in this sense but is not an a priori with sense. Such a ground is not the same as that of a system of differences that will emerge as the arbitrary grounds of language. Language in its use value, in its function of satisfying the necessity of need, is located in a place before signification, where articulation is a use value. Language here is not regulated by the (arbitrary) signification of the system of custom but inaugurated by the immediacy of need, which sits somewhere prior to the language of understanding. This “insufficient” language does not express but applies; it does not arbitrarily substitute but is used for meeting needs.

Setting figure in this scene of subsistence suggests another origin point for rhetoric, with a surplus that is distinctive from the excesses of ornament. Where ornament associates rhetoric with an excess that, as luxury, is superfluous, Priestley’s scene articulates a coincidence of surplus and need that is foundational and insufficient, vital and scanty, necessary and “present in a greater quantity than is desired, permitted, or required,” all at once.28 In other words, this scene of subsistence is a deeply rhetorical one in which it is possible for a scarcity of substitution to disclose its own luxurious simultaneity. This kind of deviation is not a surplus in the sense of ornament but is rather a coincidence of opposites in which excess is both generated by need and is beyond what is needed. Such a coincidence of opposites has most often been associated with apostrophe and lyric poetry, but this holding together of oppositional conditions is precisely the state to which subsistence also refers us. As noted before, subsistence conjoins “senses relating to the basis or foundation of existence”; “Continued existence . . . the state of remaining in effect or force”; “senses relating to the maintenance and support of life”; and “often with reference to a bare or minimum level of existence.”29 Subsistence is a figure in which the very threshold of existence is coupled with a minimal form. It holds out the appositional possibility that minimality discloses a different form of surplus, the suspension of the necessary or requisite as defined only by what is said to develop after “a bare or minimum level of existence” has been satisfied. Figure and subsistence are rooted together in a coincidence in which our means of meeting needs are entirely illogical but without contradiction. This means that speech is, first and foremost, useful. In a way that will later irritate Kant, these associationist origins not just of language but of knowledge root human beings and their social relations in phenomenal pressures that are logically absurd.

Priestley’s “use or application” of speech for the purposes of subsistence is already woven into rhetorical language, or a use of language in which “the combination of uncombinables” is possible.30 In the rhetorical rather than logical origins of language, sense is made through a use of language that can maintain contradictions and oppositions not against the material world but by maintaining simultaneous senses of it. If language begins in figure, then there is no simple or bare form of language, only a sense of use that departs from mere functionality and remakes the empirical world into a dream in which chairs have feet and birds chatter. Such an association between use and these illogical absurdities—the sharing of a mouth by man and birds in these early days of language, for instance—suggests that we are not so much dealing with the essential meagerness of use as much as its essential vagrancy. It is in this origin scene of use, sense, and subsistence that we find imprecise affinities between the etymologies of the Latin vagārī, to wander, to vagus, wandering, inconstant, uncertain, and to the Old Saxon weg and the Old Swedish vägher. While no point of precise overlap is to be found, J. L. Austin carries us between these words when he suggests that “we are too prone to give . . . explanations” of meaning that reduce it to “sense or reference.” Instead, we must consider the “admittedly vague expression” of “what way we are using [language].”31 Many deconstructive and poststructuralist readings have emphasized the significance of force in Austin’s theory of speech acts, but I want to draw our attention to the using of language as a “way” and this “way” as what has effects beyond the scope of “sense and meaning.” In other words, there is no use of language that would not also be a way, no simple point of origin that was not also a style of doing woven into the uncertainty of its effects in a setting that is always more than the transparency of what the speaker intends. Meaning-as-use will always be bound to a manner of style or way, and in roots of meaning that are in their essence complex and transient rather than insufficient and scanty. This wayness of use takes us out of a bare circuit of communication in which expressions of need carry only reference to immediate satisfaction. The use of language to satisfy needs would always already be caught up in an inconstant passage between different ways of satisfaction that are figural. While Austin does not elaborate upon this vague expression, his use of it opens out to the uncertain motion of the history I follow throughout this book—that of the transformation of noncapitalist ways of living not as primitivized and prehistorical, which others have sufficiently shown, but as the criminalized, gendered, automated and animalistic, spatial and global, necessary and superfluous ways of living that constitute our capitalist present. Such a history requires that we seize the way of using language as a “manner or style” and as a “method of proceeding,” or reading, that is vagrantly vague.32 Such manners disclose an extravagance entangled with those indigent ways of living in an “extravagant manner” that Priestley described above, making good use of what is a waste to sense while also refusing to work properly.

While Priestley’s distinctly non-Rousseauian origins of language might seem to be easily dismissed as non-Romantic, the most canonical of Romantic poets continue to remediate this scene of subsistence associated with the use of a language that is sensational and scarce of sense. Wordsworth is important here, as he remediates Priestley’s conjecturally primitive scene of articulation into the present-day condition of the dispossessed and their sensationalist language, thus making a speculative past into the origins of a present, prepoetic feeling.33 In contrast to a responsiveness subjugated to the immediacy of sensible things, poetry substitutes absence for presence and generates an elevated sense of feeling that is conjured by the poet “himself.” Poetry elevates simple sensation into complex feeling, replacing the surround of stimuli with the effects of a recollection that are “far from the same.” But Wordsworth’s poetry is, of course, full of glimpses that mark this difference. Take, for instance, his prefatory note to “The Thorn.” The narrator of that poem is a Captain, retired on an annuity in a place that is unfamiliar to him but that continues to operate on the social structure of the village. Wordsworth’s depiction of our superstitious narrator and gossip-happy villagers is in many ways the effect of Romantic-era attempts to retroject superstition into a premodern past, a symptom of what Silvia Federici has argued was the entirely modern violence of the European witch hunts and their creation of gendered divisions of labor within capitalism. Our narrator is plagued by a tautological speech, the effects of a malleable mind, an affectable imagination, and the tendency to be stimulated immediately by, as Priestley wrote, “the things that would first occur to . . . observation.”34 Remediated from the origin scene set by Priestley, the chatty, superstitious, and indolent narrator of Martha Ray’s tragic story is overaffected by those sensible things to which he has most frequent recourse, to the gossip that circulates around him and by the landscape on which he discovers Martha Ray. Wordsworth’s prefatory note to “The Thorn” is perhaps best known for its glossing of the difference between tautology and repetition, but the tenuousness of this distinction is crystallized in a figurative phrasing that recalls the coincidence of surplus and superfluity in subsistence. Wordsworth comments that our narrator is “sufficiently common,” thus repeating that coincidence of excess and redundancy produced by Priestley, only now displaced onto the present-day primitivism of the village.35 This phrase is a figure of excessive adequacy, of recursive commonness, and of sparse sufficiency. Speaking a language that is at once superfluous and in surplus, Wordsworth’s narrator carries that rhetorical sense of subsistence beyond his own discourse of history, in which enclosure appears as people who are resolutely lost to the past.

It is probably Coleridge who is most concerned with the continuation of those doctrines in which an insufficient language originates in sensible things. For him, the difference between the imagination and fancy can be divided between “the mind . . . affected by thoughts rather than by things” and language with “a ground, a firmament, a foundation” versus a language that was “mere ornamentation” and “paint.”36 Indeed, Coleridge’s most famous distinction in Biographia Literaria between these capacities reiterates that origin scene of sensible subsistence. Fancy becomes a mode of conjectural history, a “memory emancipated from the order of time and space” that “must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association” in which all knowledge derives from the senses.37 The Biographia also updates an earlier figuration of food rioters, engaged in noncapitalist ways of obtaining subsistence that Coleridge had used in 1795, whom he depicted as mechanistic and sensationally driven. Later, these rioters are substituted for critics, who instead of a “rebellion of the belly” suffer from “a debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity of reliance on the immediate impressions of the senses.”38 Such a condition leads to “a deficient portion of internal and proper warmth” and a search “for a warmth in common, which they do not possess singly.”39 There could scarcely be a more apt figuration of that scene of subsistence set by Priestley, in which needs and their meeting appear scanty and insufficient while, at the same time, a sense of surplus remains. To satisfy this basic need through means that are not possessed by any body “singly,” to exchange warmth externally through common and immediate senses, is to subsist figuratively. Ungrounded and without foundation, rhetoric and subsistence again find themselves rooted together.

Neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge locates such language in the past; rather, they find the response to “immediate external excitement” in everyday language used by dispossessed commoners and their kin—a retired sea captain, rioters, overstimulated factory workers, and, at least for Coleridge, literary critics. Impressed upon by need, the motley crew of the dispossessed must make use of language or use language in order to satisfy those needs. This need and its concomitant absence of foundation generate a language that is poor in feeling but surplus in its superfluity, producing “ideas and feelings [that] do not in that state succeed each other in accustomed order.”40 Across Priestley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge we can track a recursion to an origin scene that launches a narrative in which subsistence is both a form of life and a form of language. Such origins make subsistence into a way of using language different from but coinciding with the successive ordering of history as it is generated by regulated feeling. This scene grounds history in rhetoric, where the rhetorical is what enables the production of sense through the use of language that is not originally sensible as the development from simple to complex languages and forms of life.

The genealogy I have traced here is not meant to be a straightforward or even particularly continuous one. Rather, like the “circuitous paths” that Coleridge’s Biographia is meant to warn youths against pursuing while itself performing endless ellipses, digressions, recursions, catachreses—in other words, rhetorical paths—it is meant to gather and hold together the constellation of sensation, figure, use, and need that echoes throughout a late Enlightenment associations tradition and a High Romantic one.41 While separable in myriad ways, they both find that figure and subsistence share in more than historical origins and locate a rhetoric not of ornamentation but of an entwined superfluity that evades that historically developed system called sense.

This oscillation between a figural subsistence and a historical mode of subsistence is one that persists throughout the Romantic period and finds its way into Marx’s historical account of the role of exchange in the development of capitalism. Marx joins this genealogy not only as the most important theorist of capital accumulation but also because it is with Marx that social relations in the form of substitution definitively surpass subsistence and use value as relevant to class struggle. One of the major revelations of Capital is that our means of meeting needs have been turned into a mode of production organized primarily around exchange, which makes possible the capture of labor power as surplus value through the measure of money. Capital explains how our meeting of needs outside relations of exchange has moved from being the driving force of production into a superfluous status. Social relations instead get subsumed by the abstraction of exchange as a socially necessary action of reproduction, while use is banished to the imagination. Marx does not deny the sensorial experience of use value. He affirms that the material form of commodities and the needs that they meet are incommensurate and nonequivalent. In fact, the problem he puts to us is how a world of difference became one in which everything is exchangeable for everything else. His analysis of the commodity form answers this problem by rendering those heterogeneous features of commodities negligible from the perspective of a historical development that has been driven forward by exchange. The distinguishing feature of the commodity form is its separation between the “motley natural forms of use value” and its capacity to be exchanged despite those material differences.42 As Alfred Sohn-Rethel explains, “The banishment of use may be and can be kept in the private minds of exchanging agents (buyers and sellers of sodium chlorate might have gardening in mind or bomb making).”43 It is the abstraction from material particularity that becomes determining for Marx, while “motley” use becomes superfluous to the commodity as well as its historical effects. This historical, material development reaches its apex with the money form, which is the form that surpasses the mere exchange of commodities to establish a “universal equivalent” in which a thing “appears to be immediately exchangeable with other things just as it exists for the senses.”44 Money, of course, does not develop out of thin air. It is the historical product of exchange and of the progressive separation between commodities as they are used and a single commodity—in this case, gold—that is separated from the motleyness of use and appears as a “pure form.”

Labor too comes to be rendered in this value form of equivalence, through divisions of labor and the standardization of socially necessary labor time through mechanical production. But as Marx tells us, it is ultimately the fact that labor is abstract and general in its essence, and that this essence has been developed through the capitalist mode of production, that commodities are exchangeable in the first instance.45 In other words, it is not the equivalence of money that determines the abstract sameness of all things but rather the fact that they are the products of human labor.

Thus it is not exchange as such that is of concern to Marx. It is the historical process that has led to the universal equivalent of the money form and a historical form of labor that can be represented by it. Labor is defined by the measure of what is socially necessary, and what is socially necessary is the historical product of a labor whose value is represented by money. The development of labor as a commodity determined by the form of equivalence is a violent historical process through which subsistence ways of living are destroyed in what Marx terms “so-called primitive accumulation” and in which the English enclosures play a central role. In order for populations to become dependent upon wages, and more important, money, for their survival, dependency upon communal production and heterogeneous ways of meeting needs had to be eliminated. In order for that to occur, workers had to be dispossessed of their means of subsistence and left only with their labor to sell, a process accomplished by the enclosures in England and “the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in the mines of the aboriginal population [in America] [and] the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins.”46

What Marx designates as the so-called primitive accumulation that forced labor power into the commodity form is no pure abstract analysis. It is a historical narrative bound to a logic of development—both the development of productive forces and of a capitalist system in which those forces produce exchange value. The development of labor power through the contradictory measures of exchange that can never fully compensate for its productivity renders the worker who has been entirely subsumed by this process the potential subject of historical transformation. One of the primary concerns of this book is how this narrative of capitalism’s development makes the associations we developed above superfluous to our understandings of capital and history. The only needs that remain historically relevant for Marx are those held in the contradictions of exchange, because such needs are both produced by and met through generalized labor. All other forms of need, and in particular those identified with subsistence, as in the scene Priestley gives us, become insignificant in a world dominated by exchange and made in the image of money. As many others have noted, Marx’s own Eurocentric model of history and his overdetermination of it by standardized, homogeneous labor led to the exclusion of other forms of labor—slave labor and reproductive labor in particular—as well as of the necessary heterogeneity that enables the superexploitation of workers through hierarchies of race and gender. Such a developmentalist logic excludes the unpaid labor of enslaved people, women, and nature as having any determining force in such transformation. My argument here is related but different. I am proposing that what Marx considers labor power has never broken free from its entanglements with necessarily figural ways of subsisting from one day to the next and that rhetorical relations other than equivalence and substitution are required for surviving the global process of capital accumulation. A more vagrant set of social relations remain historically significant and determining of the emergence and present-day occurrence of capitalist forms of labor. Use value has never been banished from the production of surplus value, because our ways of meeting needs within capitalism are still bound to the manifold thingliness of sensational bodies—human and nonhuman—and their effects upon a capital accumulation that is not “a teleology or an eschatology but a figure (an assemblage of points of entry).”47 Thus, things like dreams and superstition, to which I turn in Chapters 2 and 3, are not peripheral to my analysis; they are the figural social relations through which both capital and labor are filtered.

As I argue in the concluding section of this chapter and in the rest of the book, use value and subsistence ways of living have not been banished to the past despite the tremendous violence wrought by dispossession. Both as a way of living and of language, subsistence and the rhetorical relations of simultaneity, anachronism, apostrophe, and tautology remain a part of our day-to-day lives under capitalism and our social reproduction within and against it. Exclusions of the persistent usefulness and necessity of incommensurate means of subsistence are the conditions that have kept Romanticism grounded primarily, if not entirely, in “the condition of England around 1800, specifically of its evolution into a culture governed by industrial time, machine-driven labor, and commodity form.”48 But use and its motley nature, its dispossession of the single, its essential wayness, persists elsewhere in Marx’s account of capital—namely, in his account of dispossession in a more than historical mode and in a way that situates us back in Romanticism.


1. See Brigette Keegan, British Labouring-Class Nature Poetry: 1730–1837 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 10–36; Helen Pownell, “Syntax and World-View in John Clare’s Fen Poems,” John Clare Society 34 (2015): 36–49; Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, 2nd ed. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013), 56–57; Anne Janowitz, Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 71–79; David Simpson, Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 18–21; and Celeste Langan, Romantic Vagrancy: Wordsworth and the Simulation of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 11. For a fuller treatment of enclosure beyond such contextual reference, see Carolyn Lesjack, “1750 to the Present: Acts of Enclosure and Their Afterlife,” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth Century History, ed. Dino Felluga, Jan. 26, 2021; and Sara Guyer’s reading of John Clare in Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 82–83, 88–91.

2. See Jacques Khalip, Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 1–17; Patrick Greaney, Untimely Beggar: Poverty and Power from Baudelaire to Benjamin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 26–48; and Sara Guyer, Romanticism after Auschwitz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 46–71.

3. Anna Kornbluh, Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 128.

4. John Clare, “The Eternity of Nature,” in I Am: The Selected Poetry of John Clare, ed. Jonathan Bate (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), 38.

5. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 885.

6. Gregory Pierrot, “A Collaborative Review of Francis Botkin’s Thieving Three-Fingered Jack and Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism,” with Gabriella I. Johnson, Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions, Jan. 4, 2021.

7. Federici writes: “Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and age, become constitutive of class tool and the formation of the modern proletariat.” Federici, Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 63–64. Along with Federici, see Jordy Rosenberg, “Original Sin,” in The Bloomsbury Companion to Marx, ed. Andrew Pendakis, Jeff Diamanti, and Imre Szeman (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 363–369.

8. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Subsistence,” view/Entry/193020?redirectedFrom=subsistence#eid.

9. Clare, “The Mores,” in I Am, 78.

10. There are surprising coincidences between Marx’s tracking of substitution as the defining force of history and certain deconstructive critiques of history that bring us back to Romanticism and the centrality of figure to history. For de Man, “figuration is the element in language that allows for the reiteration of meaning by substitution,” and history is nothing if not the imposition of meaning on otherwise arbitrary events. It is, in other words, the singular capacity of figure to generate equivalence between incommensurate things. And history is a “method of reading” that recuperates time as the substitution of movement for monuments. It is the ideology of development that works through relations of equivalence, of succession shaped into forward movement. It is through such an equivalence that a sense of history as meaning is recovered. This relation of substitution makes figure into a universal equivalent in which, in de Man’s own words, “everything can be substituted for everything else” within an exchange economy of mind and world, thought and language. Tropes, then, are the medium of exchange, the material form through which the universals of history and knowledge can be established. For more on this economizing relation, see de Man, “The Epistemology of Metaphor,” in Aesthetic Ideology, ed. Andrejz Warminksi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). See also de Man’s description of the imagination and understanding in Kant as “an economy of loss and gain [that] is put in place . . . though only within certain well-defined limits. The exchange from part to whole generates wholes that turn out to be only parts” (77); of the sublime in Wordsworth as “an instance of the constant exchange between mind and nature, of the chiasmic transfer of properties between the sensory and the intellectual world that characterizes his figural diction” (82); of the Kantian faculties as “the story of an exchange, of a negotiation in which powers are lost and gained in an economy of sacrifice and recuperation” (87); of Schiller’s distinction between the imaginary and the concrete as “a purely structural code of tropological exchange, symmetrical, like all tropes, and as such masterable” (144); of the mutual interdependency of matter and form in Schiller as an “exchange” rather than as a dialectic; and finally, of his description of play in Schiller as “equilibrium, harmony, on the level of principles, between, on the one hand, necessity, rule, Gesetz, and, on the other hand, chance, what is arbitrary.” De Man continues: “Play, games are a good example of that. They have laws . . . on the one hand, and, on the other hand, there is something deeply arbitrary about those laws. . . . It’s an absolutely arbitrary decision, but which taken within itself is the principle of law, and which functions as a law” (152).

11. Robert Wedderburn, The Horrors of Slavery and Other Writings, ed. Iain McCalman (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1991), 82.

12. Joseph Priestley, An Account of a Society for Encouraging the Industrious Poor (Birmingham, UK: Printed by Pearson and Rollason, 1787), 7.

13. Or, as Jacques Khalip writes, figurally attentive approaches to dispossession resist the tendency of New Historicism “to return to the lost body of history” that “invokes a historical closure . . . resembling the Hegelian concept of totality,” thus juxtaposing the material to the abstract, the present to the absent. Khalip, Anonymous Life, 12.

14. By “Eurocentric” I do not mean a certain geographic area but rather a conceptual map of the kind that coexists with other, non-European ways of being both inside and outside geographic boundaries. In this sense, my use is akin to that of Denise Ferreira da Silva or Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who proposes the existence of a “non-occidentalist West” as well as a sense of the Global South not as a geographic concept but as “a metaphor of the human suffering caused by capitalism and colonialism at the global level, and a metaphor as well of the resistance to overcome or minimise such suffering” (51). De Sousa Santos, “Public Sphere and Epistemologies of the South,” Africa Development 37, no. 1 (2012): 43–67.

15. Guyer, Reading with John Clare, 5.

16. S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works, ed. H. J. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 220.

17. Fred Moten, Black and Blur, vol. 1 of consent not to be a single being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 154.

18. Theories of apostrophe have been formative for our concepts of subjectivity, agency, and ideology in Romanticism, as they have enabled readings of the noncontradiction of presence and absence, of persons and nonpersons, of voice and “mere sound.” See Jonathan Culler, “Apostrophe,” Diacritics 7, no. 4 (Winter 1977): 59–69; Barbara Johnson, “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion,” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 28–47, and Persons and Things (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 3–27; and Guyer, Romanticism after Auschwitz, 46–71.

19. Peter Linebaugh, Red Round Globe Burning Hot: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 11, emphasis added; Moten, Black and Blur, 162.

20. Tithi Bhattacharya, “Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory,” in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, ed. Bhattacharya (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 19.

21. Joseph Priestley, A Course of Lectures on the Theory of Language, and Universal Grammar (Warrington, UK: Printed by W. Eyres, 1762), 50.

22. Kyla Schuller has distinguished between the terms “impression” and “impressibility” as a way to differentiate a material relation from the scientific discourse of racialized civilization that designates some bodies as progressively malleable and others as passively senseless. Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 6–8. This is an astute and productive distinction for the purpose of understanding how certain scientific discourses default to temporalizing frameworks in order to mobilize power, or in Schuller’s project, of making life productive in a biopolitical mode. I am not entirely convinced, however, that this distinction applies to racializing discourses of impressionability in Romantic-era cultural or scientific discourses. But, more significant, there are features of impression and impressionability that get lost in its absorption into entirely progressive and temporal understandings of history, in particular, important aspects of the material conditions of capital that are left to the side by this distinction.

23. Priestley, A Course of Lectures, 288.

24. Ibid., 288. In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida provides a footnote that brings this matter into contemporary phenomenology, saying that for Husserl, what must be “excluded from pure expression as such is indication, and thus the association in the sense of empirical psychology. It is the empirical mental experiences which must be bracketed in order to recognize the ideality of meaning at work.” Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 30.

25. Joseph Priestley, Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind, on the Principle of the Association of Ideas, 2nd ed. (London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1790), 126, 115.

26. Ibid., 226.

27. Ibid.

28. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v., “Superfluous,” Entry/194328?redirectedFrom=superfluous#eid.

29. Ibid., s.v. “Subsistence,” view/Entry/193020?redirectedFrom=subsistence#eid.

30. Newton Garver points to examples such as “the colorless green ball” and “the alert response of the dead man” (x). On the contestation between logic and rhetoric in the philosophy of language, see Garver, Preface to Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), ix–xvii.

31. J. L. Austin, “Lecture VIII,” in How to Do Things with Words [1977], Oxford Scholarship Online.

32. The phonetic and speculative connections between “vagrant,” “vague,” and “way” would move from the Latin vagārī, to wander; to vagus, wandering, inconstant, uncertain; and to the Old Saxon weg and the Old Swedish vägher. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v., “Way,” view/Entry/226469?rskey=YtJ1yW&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid. Thanks to David Lloyd and Fred Moten for pushing me toward these connections.

33. For an excellent account of Wordsworth’s power of remediation, see Maureen N. McLane, “Dating Orality, Thinking Balladry: Of Milkmaids and Minstrels in 1771,” Eighteenth Century 47, no. 2/3 (2006): 131–149.

34. Priestley, A Course of Lectures, 50.

35. William Wordsworth, “Note to ‘The Thorn,’” in The Major Works, 593.

36. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 171.

37. Ibid., 313.

38. This phrasing of rebellion is taken from E. P. Thompson’s parody of the riot in “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” in The Essential E. P. Thompson, ed. Dorothy Thompson (New York: New Press, 2001).

39. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 171.

40. Wordsworth, “Note to ‘The Thorn,’” 593.

41. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 157.

42. Marx, Capital, 1:139.

43. Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor: A Critique of Epistemology (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978), 26.

44. Karl Marx, “The Value-Form.”

45. Ibid., 157–178.

46. Marx, Capital, 1:915.

47. Denise Ferreira da Silva, “Transversing the Circuit of Dispossession,” Eighteenth Century 55, nos. 2–3 (2014): 285.

48. Simpson, Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern, 4.