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

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