Daily Archives: October 3, 2006

McKeon on “the division of knowledge”: when does Modernity know itself to be “modern”?

As I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog, I’ve been teaching Richardson’s Clarissa while reading McKeon’s Secret History, and their conjunction has made me see a number of resemblances between the two books. At the most obvious level, these are both big, encyclopedic books, and together they weigh so much they cannot be safely stowed in the same book bag. Just as obviously, their large scope and close management of details disclose the sheer size of their authors’ ambitions. Both evidence the authorial desire to lay before readers a comprehensive picture of persons and events, and both offer an impressively top-down structure, featuring a large-scale argument buttressed with a full apparatus of quotations, footnotes, and (in McKeon’s case) illustrations.

My class’s discussions of the temporal experience of reading Richardson’s book also reinforced this comparison for me, since I felt a similar sense of immersion while working through the Secret History and corresponding with others about our progress. In an interesting way, this blog’s format of the “collective reading” has recreated something of the spirit of Richardson’s correspondence with his readers, though I doubt that any of us will beg McKeon to change the ending of his book.

As a work of criticism, however, The Secret History of Domesticity is devoted to the distinctively modern “division of knowledge” that emerged out of the historical transition from the early modern to the modern period in England and Great Britain. In political and cultural terms, we are talking about the massive set of displacements and disruptions that accompanied the “devolution of absolutism” following the Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution. These historical changes ramified in the most disparate parts of Anglo-British culture for the next hundred years or so, in areas like political debates, literary genres, graphic arts, architecture, and so forth. McKeon, however, is not merely arguing the sheer contingent fact of change in all these areas (which I think we all know already), but is attempting to pursue something more difficult and evasive: how were all these historical changes assimilated conceptually into this period’s division of knowledge, particularly in its knowledge of itself as “modern”?

McKeon’s answer fastens upon the difference between public and private knowledge as this important difference is registered in “traditional,” as opposed to “modern,” cultures [the scare quotes are McKeon’s, and suggest that these distinctions are purely heuristic]. McKeon writes:

In “traditional” cultures, the differential relationship between public and private modes of experience is conceived as a distinction that does not admit of separation. In “modernity” the public and private are separated out from each other, a condition that both sustains the sense of traditional distinction and, axiomatically, reconstitutes the public and private as categories susceptible to separation (xix).

McKeon goes on to talk about the importantly “tacit” and holistic aspects of knowledge in “traditional” cultures, where knowledge is “deeply embedded in a political, social, and cultural matrix of practice” that discourages its separation for “self-conscious examination.” (We may note how much of this is already suited for being analyzed not just in terms of the absolutist state, but also in terms of communications media, as the new articulations of difference made possible by the development of print forms of communication)

Modernity, however, is precisely what allows members of a culture to begin conceptualizing their own institutions and situations “as such,” allowing them to separate out things from the circumstances in which they are “embedded”:

“Modern” knowledge is, on the contrary an explicit and self-conscious awareness, characterized not by the way it saturates social practice [as we find in traditional knowledge] but by the way it satisfies the canons of epistemology, which impose upon knowledge the test of self-justifying self-sufficiency. Disembedded from the matrix of experience it seeks to explain, modern knowledge is defined precisely by its explanatory ambition to separate itself from its object of knowledge sufficiently to fulfill the demand that what is known be divided from the process by which it is known (xix).

McKeon’s story, then, involves the manner in which large-scale historical changes, and the disruptions they create, help to condition and produce new forms and divisions of knowledge, which are centered upon a new understanding of the difference between public and private.

And yet McKeon also insists that this story of large-scale historical change, which comprehends the entire period known as “the Enlightenment,” involves not just separation but also “conflation,” which he describes as “the demystication not only of traditional distinctions but also of modern separations” (xxiv). In the close interplay of separation and conflation during the Enlightenment period, we discover, in McKeon’s words, a “fundamental tool of modern thought” (xxiv-xxv).

So we begin to see just how intricately this interplay operates in McKeon’s discussion of the period, and how his subject-matter encompasses not merely events or texts as such, but how these came to be distinguished from one another, or conversely, how they came to be conflated together during this period (in the form of genres like the “secret history,” for example, or as historical macro-narratives like the “devolution of absolutism”).

This approach accounts not just for the scale of the book but the interestingly Richardsonian stance of McKeon vis a vis his book’s arguments and events, in which various historical perspectives emerge to do discursive battle, then withdraw, reappear, or disappear altogether in accordance with their author’s bidding.

As I hope to show in tomorrow’s essay, McKeon’s approach also allows for a systematic and historical approach to the questions of genre in this period. That seems to me to be the biggest contribution on offer here.

David Mazella


Tita Chico on McKeon’s notion of “privacy”

[I am posting this on behalf of Tita Chico–DM]

I’m traveling this week (recruiting grad students for the University of Maryland—please encourage your interested undergraduates!) and won’t be free to participate in the collective reading as it happens. So following Dave’s suggestion, I’m offering these thoughts and questions ahead of time, by way of opening up conversation on McKeon’s very engaging book. I’m particularly interested in how McKeon conceptualizes, through definition, argument, and example, “private” throughout The Secret History.

It seems to me that McKeon, of course, leans on Habermas’s division for insight, but that in so doing, he also replicates some of the same problems. While acknowledging, repeatedly, that the public and private emerge dialectically, McKeon states that the antithesis between them is the key precondition for modernity, suggesting that the public and the private have an “interpenetrative conflation” (48)—a qualification, I believe, of the precise nature of the dialectic that Habermas charts. I also think that McKeon is right to suggest that Habermas alludes to but does not analyze what McKeon discusses as an “intimate sphere” in both conceptual and architectural terms. But it is here that McKeon’s notion of privacy begins to confuse. For all of the emphasis on dialectical emergence (and allowance for “interpenetrative conflation”), there seems to be lingering a presupposition of “authenticity” with this intimate sphere, whether he sets up an implicit opposition between “sacrificing the private to the public” and “bringing the private into public discourse” (109) or establishes the key binaristic terms of the book more generally in the introduction by suggesting that privacy is a “movement ‘inward’” that becomes associated with “’the people,’ the family, women, the individual, personal identity, and the absolute subject” (xxii).

Why, in an argument designed to articulate the emergence of “privacy” as opposed to the public, is there an assumption of authenticity associated with the private, when so much work in the field suggests that this gesture to “the private”—whether conceptual or spatial—is not a site of essential authenticity? I’m here thinking of a variety of scholars. Norbert Elias argues that there is a foundational association between “alienation and the increase in consciousness, the ascent to a new level on the spiral staircase of consciousness” (The Court Society, 245-6, 250). For Elias, modern individuals (in the French court) self-consciously insert a gap between “the affective, spontaneous impulse to act and the actual performance of the action in word or deed” (243). Or Francis Barker’s earlier The Tremulous Private Body, which opens with a reading of Pepys’s Diary that not only suggests that domestic spaces are shaped by reading, writing, and sexual desire, but that they are also scenes where authenticity is absolutely thwarted and resisted. Pepys’s Diary famously hides things within its secret, private pages, suggesting that privacy as authentic is itself illusory—is this instead a founding fiction of privacy? I’m thinking, too, of Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator,” which constructs a sense of self (not an authentic claim of selfhood) in relation to others, and—of course, since I’ve written about it—the lady’s dressing room, deeply associated with theatricality, dissembling, and performance. So McKeon’s turn to domestic spaces (and plans) is likewise intriguing, but it seems here, too, to be an occasion to imagine them, at least sometimes, as stable signifiers of “privacy.” The example of Millimant’s marriage demands, for example (p. 226) (that she may “dine in my dressing room when I’m out of humour without giving a reason. To have my Closet Inviolate; to be sole Empress of my Tea-Table, which you must never presume to approach without first asking leave”) seems to be an indication not only that these were distinguished private spaces within the domestic architecture (McKeon’s point), but also that domestic spaces connoted a network of social relations, whether intimate, commercial, erotic, or what have you. I think that Amanda Vickery’s work is helpful in this way, too, pointing out the specific connections between the so-called domestic household and women’s engagement with commercial institutions, for example. Ok, I’ll leave off here, but am intrigued by what I’ve gotten as a kind of privileging of “the private” with the authentic, and the ways that this seems simultaneously to explain some things and to foreclose others.

Tita Chico

[Though Tita will be out of town for the next few days, feel free to post your comments or suggestions on this, since the rest of us would like to hear your responses. Thanks, DM]

McKeon’s Secret History of Domesticity: First Impressions

My first impression upon dipping into Michael McKeon’s The Secret History of Domesticity was that it is very little like becoming absorbed in an idiosyncratic narrative of history, and much more like walking into a vast museum full of stunning pieces and not knowing where to look first. As he makes clear in the “Questions of Method” section of the introduction, McKeon is keenly aware that approaching a vast array of texts and historical situations with any guiding idea in mind readily yields an oversimple objection.

The nature of this objection may be evoked by citing its most frequent negative signposts: abstraction, reduction, teleology, evolution, master narrative. (xxv)

I immediately thought of the many enormous “histories of the book,” which, no matter how detailed or carefully and complexly argued, fall prey to these objections if only because their authors proceed chronologically and with an implicit (or explicit) causality. McKeon takes great pains, in the theoretical chapters, to avoid this kind of chronological-narrative structure.

Rather, he asserts that there clearly was a self-conscious separation of the public and private spheres that occurred sometime between the beginning of the seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth in England. Instead of examining the public-private separation from the teleological perspective of “Where do we come from?”, McKeon instead concentrates on “How did this emerge?”

The significance of the early modern public sphere comes into focus when we approach it not from the present but from the past, not as social scientists testing its adequacy to modern liberal democratic standards of social justice but as historians aware of its context—aware, that is, of what it replaces. (74-75)

He proceeds to hash mostly unchronologically through various examples of what he calls the “explicitation” of that difference, which had previously existed merely as a distinction. To clarify:

The modern separation out of the public and the private is […] like the abstraction of labor [in Marxism], a disembedding of figure from ground, an “explicitation” of what tacitly had always been there but now, in becoming explicit, also takes on new life. (xix-xx)

McKeon is not particularly interested in conjecturing about various authors’ attitudes toward their public and private figures, as there has always been an implicit distinction there. The special thing about the conceptualization of public discourse in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that, suddenly, it becomes one of the main explicit concerns of writers and other public figures. In reference to Charles Taylor’s conception of the “social imaginary,” McKeon writes:

Modern social imaginaries are […] reflexive entities in the radical sense that they not only refer to themselves explicitly and self-consciously; they also constitute themselves through that explicitating act of self-reference. For this reason their deployment of a collective agency bears an illuminating relationship to the self-actualizing capacities of the linguistic performative. (107)

As any of us working in the long eighteenth century are aware, almost every author of the period has passages explicitly describing, defending, and even performatively constructing a particular relationship between the public and the private selves of the author, or even between the private and public selves of the reader. The text itself self-consciously serves as a mediator between those selves, both creating a public community for discourse through the publicity of publication and offering a subject for private contemplation. McKeon moves through hundreds of these private-public passages, many of them immediately familiar, demonstrating again and again how carefully each text defines this separation.

Beyond a few hypotheses, McKeon resists any kind of extended theorizing about this separation apart from short responses to each of his wonderful examples. This method allows the reader of The Secret History of Domesticity to draw many of her own conclusions while being gently nudged in certain directions by the author. As a student working on theories of sovereignty and the public sphere, I often found myself putting McKeon’s book down while my mind leaped from one possible application to the next. It is hard to point to any one particular passage in McKeon that explicitly forms the entirety of his theoretical assumptions, which are somewhat elusive. He allows the historical and literary examples to speak through the filters of excerption and arrangement, rather than through the bullhorn of a dominating theoretical approach.

I am particularly fortunate that we decided to review this book and that Dave Mazella arranged this event. This book is the missing link I was looking for in my dissertation research, and I think it will stay with me for a long time.