Favret, "Field of History, Field of Battle"

Over the course of the eighteenth-century, Great Britain built a formidable military power stoked in no small part by financial instruments devised not by merchants but by the state. "The ability of government administrators to establish the routine by which revenues were collected, money raised and supplies requisitioned," writes historian John Brewer, "could make the difference between victory and humiliation." The rise of the "fiscal-military state" strengthened both British military forces and the state itself to an unprecedented degree. The financial, even clerical mode of waging war gained extraordinary value over the course of the eighteenth-century; hardly visible to the public at large, their effects were felt more than they were seen. New modes of taxation and deficit spending "put muscle on the bones of the British body politic, increasing its endurance, strength and reach" (xvii). Brewer's magisterial account deliberately turns attention away from military exploits and heroes, even away from devastating violence, to focus on the driest aspects of a nation dedicated to its martial power: taxes, book-keeping, numbers. In doing so, his account translates a system of fragile abstractions into corporeal tissue, converting what might be dead matter—the bare bones of the field of history or the field of battle—into a robust "body politic." More curious perhaps, and a sign of the uneasy passage of numbers to bodies, is Brewer's acknowledgement that the fictive body is also a feeling one: "humiliation," rather than defeat per se, is the haunting alternative to British victory. The figurative conjunction and conversion of numbers and flesh under the banner of war remains familiar. Harder to analyze in these verbal maneuvers is the level of sentience involved: what can the bodies born of numbers feel? The form of modern war emergent in the eighteenth century via taxes and debt financing is allied with other emergent regimes associated with numbers and finance: to what degree did the force of numbers amplify, dampen or otherwise transform the feeling body? If, as Brewer suggests, the economic repercussions of war in this period "are difficult to measure," how much more difficult is measurement when it tries to align what one contemporary called "the system of war" with the nervous system (xxi)? I would like to argue for a particular emphasis and delineation in the Romantic period on feeling numbers, especially among a group of reform-minded tinkers: Bentham, Godwin and Shelley—often in conversation with non-reformists such as Malthus. Heirs to and subjects of the fiscal military state, commenting both during and after the cataclysmic global wars with France that opened the new century, these writers unravel the neat allegory that Brewer paints, where the numbers of state finance and the cells of human bodies appear neatly woven together in the history of war. They employ numbers, by contrast, that tax the body to the point of disintegration so that, in fact, only numbers are left to register feeling. Following recent critical studies on numbers and finance capital by Mary Poovey and Ian Baucom; and studies of the history of affect, I consider Romantic debates on the numbers of war, and how reformists developed philosophical and rhetorical instruments to convert a system of value so closely associated with and productive of imperial warfare, into a system of feeling numbers that resists and works to disintegrate the fiction of the robust body politic. My aim is less to show how these writers argued against the system of numbers, but rather how they embraced and reconstituted numbers, insisting on the correspondence between pained and suffering bodies and state accounting, pushing that correspondence for its affective yield. In these cases, it is difficult and perhaps counter-productive to decide whether the appeal to numbers by opponents of the "war system" can be read as irony or complicity. "In the scale of just calculation," observes James Callender, a reformist forced to leave Britain for his criticism of Britain's war policies, "the most valuable commodity, next to human blood, is money." In his tirade against the "war system," Callender literally seethes with numbers. Here is just his concluding flourish: “The question to be decided is, are we to proceed with the war system? Are we, in the progress of the nineteenth-century, to embrace five thousand fresh taxes, to squander a second five hundred millions sterling, and to extirpate twenty millions of people?” (8) The question that motivates my essay concerns what "just calculation" might mean in this view of history. I argue for war as a particularly potent site, indeed, perhaps the most potent and generative site for friction between universals and particulars, between theoretical (or in this case, numerical) systems and those forces (in this case, feeling or affect) that accompany as much as they disrupt such systems. The putative "difference" between calculation and sentience may be more complex than conventional accounts of Romanticism have led us to believe, especially when we are asked to respond to something like an unembodied sentience.