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.

3 responses to “McKeon’s Secret History of Domesticity: First Impressions

  1. Carrie,

    I like your idea that McKeon has taken the public/private differential, which practically every 18c author had to negotiate one way or another, and made it available (explicitated it?) for theorization.

    We’re all familiar, for example, with how this dynamic works with the canonical authors of this period (Pope? Swift? Gray? etc. etc.), but this also has an interesting effect on our perceptions of the less familiar authors, as well.

    Every one of these authors seems to be struggling with the question of access to the public sphere, or to publication.


  2. Before I’d delved much into McKeon, I found myself teaching Addison’s first Spectator essay and asking my students what it means to the Spectator to be anonymous. They immediately caught onto his anxiety about getting to be a person in the public world without a private counterpart; someone who can’t be called to answer for apparent hypocrisies and biases. And tomorrow we’re talking about several literary prefaces, in which authors send their books out into the world with these little notes of advertisement/warning/guidance attached. It would be fun, I think, to base an entire class in the period on these self-conscious private/public movements.

    It is to McKeon’s credit, I think, that I spent the whole first two chapters banging my fist and yelling “WHAT ABOUT BEN JONSON?” I know he brings up Jonson later, but, as Jonson is my own personal obsession with regard to publication and the public sphere, I couldn’t but wish him space there. It’s such a fruitful idea that one’s own private obsessions call themselves up ready to hand.

  3. In Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis, Koselleck (impishly, I think) announces that all his quotations could have been exchanged for similar quotations from other figures.

    It’s an interesting way to argue the generality of one’s historical argument, that it doesn’t much matter who is used as an example, since these conditions are more general than any individual writers’ career and specific sayings.

    Similarly, I wonder who wouldn’t fit into these powerfully generalizing schemes, and why. That’s the strength of this kind of generalization.