On Systems Failure: The Uses of Disorder in English Literature

The idea that society is a system—or that it frequently acts like a system—is so familiar that we take it for granted. In a broad sense, we often find it easy to generalize about the behavior and beliefs of large groups of people. We talk confidently about social roles and social norms—and recognize when those roles are too restrictive or those norms are violated. We understand our own paths in life and those of others in relation to larger narratives about the forces that shape the social world. Our experience of society as a system or of the particular social systems we inhabit (family, home, work, school) is as likely to be one of conflict as of comfort, but, in an important sense, what is most striking about this relationship is that it is a personal response to an abstraction. Society is out there, we know that it exists and that it is ordered in particular ways, but we feel it primarily in terms of its effects.

From Newton’s “system of the world” to d’Alembert’s claim that “the true system of the world has been recognized, developed, and perfected,” the Enlightenment was an age of systems. But alongside the drive to discover in the social world the kind of order that philosophy and science were revealing in the natural world, the eighteenth century also saw the rise of a growing skepticism about the explanatory power of systems. In Systems Failure: The Uses of Disorder in English Literature, I argue that much of the imaginative literature of the long eighteenth century was shaped by this skepticism and by a preoccupation with how systems, especially social systems, fail. My book traces how authors explored the idea that society is a system only to find that the plans and principles thought to govern the social world inevitably came apart and that schemes of social organization were forever falling short of social reality.

For writers ranging from Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne to Jane Austen and Thomas De Quincey, the unraveling of social order—or the impossibility of capturing or comprehending it in prose—becomes an obsession. In his Life of Savage (arguably the first literary biography in English), Johnson repeatedly comments on his failure to make sense of his subject’s disordered existence—but he is equally frustrated by the sense in which to write about Savage’s life at all is to give it a shape that misrepresents it. For Sterne, the biographer’s dilemma becomes the novelist’s practice: his novels are the records of his characters’ attempts to find or create an order that perpetually escapes them. Systems Failure argues that this fascination with failure shapes an important tradition of the novel that is less interested in representing the social world than investigating its resistance to attempts to explain or contain it. 

Andrew Franta is an associate professor of English at the University of Utah. He is the author of Systems Failure: The Uses of Disorder in English Literature and Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public.