Aristocracy Ex Machina – Processes of Representation in Fiction and the Legitimation of Power in the Reshaping of Imperial Identities

  • Abstract:

    From the second half of the nineteenth century, the European aristocracy faced numerous challenges to its traditional power. A wave of political changes across empires led to the necessity of ‘rebranding’ the aristocratic elite. In increasingly democratized and modernized societies, the aristocracy had to defend the legitimacy of its traditional power and status: the integrity – and even the existence – of the group was at stake. Aristocrats, sooner than it is commonly perceived, understood that ‘if they wanted things to stay as they were, things would have to change’. Literature was used to debate and to justify traditional power, not only because of the influence that aristocracy held in the cultural sphere, in what concerns the readership, the patronage and the creation of fiction; but also because literature allowed to comment on social and political matters in a very direct manner. It is not surprising, thus, that many representations of aristocrats in late-nineteenth-century fiction have accentuated the separation between ‘who is the aristocrat’ and ‘who should be the aristocrat’; the implications of this split, however, are not so obvious. This presentation shall describe the consequences of this growing discursive division to the collective identity of the aristocracy, by arguing that when elites perceive threats to their political power and/or social influence, they tend to create discourses composed by processes of de-identification and re-identification, in order to preserve and to legitimise power, often reshaping their identities. ‘Aristocratism’ goes beyond a descriptive technique or a plot device: it articulates power by and against others, for and against the empire/establishment, and it is a significant instrument for the continuity and coherence of a collective identity. Moreover, ‘aristocratism’ presents fictional dynamics and actual negotiations of identity and memory that can raise new questions about the identity of political and social elites, and about their crises.