McKeon, Day 2: From Domestication to Domesticity

In yesterday’s post, I laid out what I considered to be the fundamental diachronic storyline of McKeon’s Secret History of Domesticity: the “devolution of absolutism” that occurred in England and Great Britain in the seventeenth century, and which ramified in so many directions for the next one hundred and fifty years or so, resulting in a distinctly modern “division of knowledge.” One of the most familiar products of this division of knowledge is our commonsense understanding of “the domestic” as what takes place in spaces cordoned off from the public, and “domesticity” as the abstraction that names and conceptually sustains this separation of the private from the public.

It’s worth emphasizing at this point that there is no necessary relation between the events of the Civil War, for example, and these varied discursive effects involving privacy and publicity. This is one reason why mere conceptual analysis of the semantic history of the term “private” cannot address the historically contingent formations and connections that appear during this period. Instead, McKeon wishes to uncover the appearance of these connections at their moment of emergence. He analyzes, for example, the moment when writers like Haywood first began to demand from her readers a distinctly female “ethical” subjectivity in their responses, one that suggests a particular female role in regulating public morality (454-64). McKeon’s gesture is designed to demystify and explicate this particular ethical stance, which seems part of an emergent ideology of domesticity, and to show it as a product of earlier historical factors.

McKeon’s treatment of the movement from “domestication to domesticity” in part II is particularly interesting in this respect, because he develops an extremely complex notion of “domestication” that precedes and conditions the more familiar notion of “domesticity as privacy.” McKeon’s “domestication,” which seems unthinkable apart from the Civil War’s disruptions of the family-state analogy and its hierarchical assumptions, names all the ways in which the great and the little were accommodated with one another during the long eighteenth century. As he writes; “’to domesticate’ is, after all, ‘to naturalize’ or ‘to familiarize’ the great, the distant, the worldly, the strange, or the foreign by ‘bringing it home’—through the medium of the little, the proximate, the local, the familiar, or the native” (326).

Now this notion of “domestication as accommodation” is extraordinarily suggestive to me, because it helps to explain to me one of the historical mysteries of genre in the long eighteenth century: why does our period have such a large number of “transitional” genres that pop up during this process of modernization, serve their purpose, then disappear altogether or become embarrassments to later critics? I’m thinking of the hegemonic successes of our literary histories, like satire and mock epic in the Restoration or Augustan periods, which flourish and then flame out after their cultural moment, but also about our specialist fare, like Restoration tragicomedy or the conduct book, all those works popular in our period though rarely reread afterwords. What McKeon’s historical schema points out is that all of these genres shared this broader impulse of “bringing it home,” accommodating great and little, ancient and modern, epic and romance, etc. etc. with techniques of formal segmentation that helped their readers stabilize their relation to the normative in the face of historical change. McKeon’s historical schema is buttressed with his series of formal analyses of sub-genres like the mock epic or the pastoral, which again address the remarkable preponderance and popularity of generic mixtures across the long eighteenth century, even though these mixtures’ popularity did not survive the period. The critical fate of genres like the pastoral suggests that its mid-eighteenth-century accommodations of historical change were soon overtaken by further, more sweeping changes in the country and the city. What McKeon has articulated here is a global theory of eighteenth-century genres that enables us to recognize their social and historical conditioning and their interconnectedness without falling into the trap of treating a single genre, e.g., the eighteenth-century novel, as the sole vehicle of modernization. [Here I should note as an aside the curious absence of Williams’ and especially Empson’s reading of pastoral, whose readings of the country and the city and the “double-plot” I thought anticipated some of the implications of “domestication.”]

I’ll close by commending McKeon’s sensitive readings of the Martha and Mary paintings at the end of ch. 8 (423-35), which show how the formal and thematic strategies of segmentation and accommodation can be found in the visual arts, as well.

I should note here that I’ve said very little about gender, which represents a special instance of domestication as an accommodation of great and little, to the extent that domestication leads to domesticity as we understand it. This could bear further discussion. I’d also like to see if anyone, including Michael, could tackle the distinction between “narrative concentration” and “narrative concretization,” which I must admit still seems murky to me (437-48).

Best wishes,

2 responses to “McKeon, Day 2: From Domestication to Domesticity

  1. Michael McKeon


    Thanks for your illuminating remarks on “mixed genres” as characteristic of our period and its status as “transitional” not simply in the sense in which all periods are transitional but because they evince, in their specifically formal mixture, the movement between a more traditional view of the little or the “private” as a means to the end of representing the great or the public and the modern recognition that the private can, in its significance, stand by itself and need be no signifier of a more public signified. My argument is that it’s only in modern culture that the little, the common, the literal, the profane, etc. assumes its own self-sufficient value. In the terms of my larger argument, this is the difference between the lesser realm being so subservient to greater ends as to be conceivable only as “privation,” and its coalescense as a positive norm to which is given the positivity of the “private.”

    What follows upon this period of transitional genres is not so much their extinction as their formal transformation from dyadic structures of signification to more singular forms that represent the substantive significance and value of diurnal human experience. Thus political allegories like the roman a clef give up their dependence on domestication as process of signification and “become” (domestic) novels; thus pastoral becomes something more like “nature poetry”; thus the divided-plot version of tragicomedy, in which we know the lower, comic plot serves as a foil for the high tragic plot, becomes a continuous plot about (as Arthur Miller put it regarding Death of a Salesman) the tragedy of the common man.

    The word “accommodation” is a term of art derived from scriptural hermeneutics that names the optimistic perspective from which the sacred, although by definition inaccessible to our fallen natures, nonetheless can be grasped through the use of homely analogies for transcendent truths. In my usage it applies not only to religious experience but also to the analogous, secular realm of the public in premodern culture (thus sacred:profane::public:privative or deprived of meaning) since until the modern era, the lowly can take on meaning only in so far as it’s used to figure forth that which it’s not, the elevated.

    Narrative concentration names the figure that accommodates the great by as it were shrinking it to the more manageable and recognizable lineaments of a story about everyday life; thus Swift tells the story of the landowner’s seduction and abandonment of a neighboring lady whose land he would enclose as a way of concentrating, through a domestic plot, the history of England’s tyranny over Ireland. The two-levelled structure of narrative concretization is similar to this, because it entails, to the end of accommodation, the transformation of an abstract principle or truth into a concrete representation of it; cf. teaching precept by example. Concretization ceases to be necessary when concrete narrative–as opposed to concretizing narrative, in which exemplarity serves the greater end of teaching abstract truth–has internalized truth within its own exemplarity.

  2. Michael,

    This is very helpful, because I find the book’s argument easier to follow when I trace it diachronically, as a large-scale historical narrative involving the transition from early modern to modernity.

    If I understand you rightly, this transitional epoch shows repeatedly how the subordinate term in the great/little dyad is discovered to have its own value and use, as part of that explicitating movement to separation and self-sufficiency. This transitional phase is what you call domestication, correct?

    Any thoughts about the special case of the great: little::man: woman dyad?

    The singularity and transience of our period’s notions of genre has been something I’ve thought on for some time, but your book was the first place I saw it really addressed and plausibly explained.

    I understood the hermeneutic applications of accommodation just fine, but the terms concentration and concretization were harder for me simply because they seemed related but not quite opposed. Here they seem rather different, though both seem to be strategies of accommodation. This does help, though.

    [The problem you’re having with divided posts has to do with the character-limit this blog enforces for comments]