Daily Archives: October 6, 2006

Michael McKeon Responds, part II (Questions for us)

[this is the second part of the email that Michael sent me–DM]


In order to take full advantage of this remarkable opportunity to talk to others at some length about my work, I’d like now to list a number of topics that haven’t yet received attention in this discussion. Some of these are arguments, others are ideas or formulations; some are obvious, at least in outline, some I’ve learned from others, some I’ve developed myself; but all I’ve found peculiarly illuminating in the thinking that went into writing this book. I’d be most grateful for any reflections readers might have on these things, either pro or contra, either their interest and utility in themselves or the way I’ve employed them in Secret History.

1.) The effort to coordinate thinking about the division of knowledge at the most general and the most particular of levels with thinking about the division of labor in a similar fashion (see, most explicitly, 324-27).

2.) The distinction between positive and negative freedom, especially as I’ve conceived it in tandem with the difference between the traditional and the modern.

3.) My attempt to juxtapose literary and graphic means of treating form and structure in the representation of spatial relations. Although my ample use of illustrations in Secret History is of course broadly relevant to this topic, it becomes most explicit in my discussion of genre painting in chapter 8, 423-35.

4.) My characterization of what’s new about “the public” in the modern world as the virtuality of an imagined social totality whose indefinite inclusiveness is able to admit all of those private, actual individuals who pre-exist and determine the nature of that whole. I speak most directly about this conceptualization at 106-9 and 324, where it’s exemplified not only by the public sphere, the market, and representative democracy but also by the realm of aesthetic experience.

5.) The theory that the transition from traditional to modern notions of “personality’ is marked by a shift in the location of “the natural” from the social to the sexual register: see 274-77.

Thanks in advance. And for those readers who haven’t purchased a copy of Secret History, the paperback edition is scheduled to be available by the end of October at about half the price of the hardbound.

Michael McKeon

[Since Michael has been so generous in his responses to our queries, I’d like to keep the McKeon collective reading going for at least another day or so. Feel free to use the comments or to do your own posts to respond.–DM]


Michael McKeon Responds, part I

[Michael McKeon has asked me to post these comments on his behalf–DM]

In the last couple of days I’ve been using the comments buttons to enter into discussion on specific issues. Today I’d like to post a few responses to recent comments, as well as raise some more general issues about Secret History that may deserve more discussion.


Laura has added to her earlier remarks on the liability of the claim that civic humanism dominates sociopolitical thought around the turn of the 18th century and generates liberal discourse and capitalist ideology as a response to it. As she points out, this claim discourages recognition of the degree and depth of various efforts to confront the effects of emergent capitalist practices that occur well before civic humanism is supposed to have seized the reins of debate in the last two decades of the 17th century. I agree: the diverse range of negative speculation on emergent capitalism is thereby reduced to the ideology of a single posture, that of civic humanism, whose meaning and implications we’re supposed already to know. As for positive speculation about capitalist practices, let alone capitalist ideology, the civic-humanism-as-dominant thesis would deny its very existence until the ch critique has generated a positive defense of it. This thesis isn’t supported by the evidence (see pp. 24-33; those interested in a fuller critique of the ch thesis on both substantive and methodological grounds may want to read my essay “Civic Humanism and the Logic of Historical Interpretation,” which will appear in a collection of essays on JGA Pocock edited by DeAnn DeLuna). Moreover the ch thesis imperialistically lays claim to defining the perspective of anyone who uses ideas or words (“corruption,” “luxury,” apprehension regarding the virtuality of credit, etc.) that the proponents of that thesis identify as the intellectual property of ch.


So the ch thesis is in my view a good example of what’s wrong with master narratives (another topic Laura addresses): that is, not with form itself but the form when practiced badly. Master narratives are simply large versions of what all of us necessarily do whenever we generalize broadly about the meaning of the particular phenomena we’re treating. The real question in all such cases is: how persuasive is the fit between particular instances and overarching generalization? How open is the generalization to particular instances that would seem on the face of it to contradict it? How supple is the generalization in adjusting to the presence of particulars that clearly *do* challenge it? Some master narratives–I think Margaret Doody’s True Story is a good example–posit a vast thesis that never is subjected to this sort of questioning; “the novel” is simply asserted to have existed in classical antiquity and to be accessible to us over time as the history of the influence of (what conventional usage calls) “the Greek romance.” Both Dave–“pulling things together”–and Laura–the “accumulation of evidence”–speak of the virtues of a master narrative that throws its net very wide so as to be able to generalize about a very broad range of evidence; and this is what I’ve tried to do in Secret History. But the most important feature of a master narrative that does its job is its capacity to put particulars and generals in dialectical relation and ongoing reciprocity. My greatest ambition in Secret History was to construct an argument of great breadth but, at the most abstract level, also of relative simplicity, one whose broad plausibility might be confirmed by reference to the different kinds of evidence it mobilizes at several levels of particularity. The virtue of simplicity is not that it sums up everything with full adequacy to all it refers to, but that it provides a heuristic key by which to discover similarities between phenomena that at levels of increasing particularity are quite different from each other. This is what I hoped to do with formulaic lines of thought that run throughout the book, like distinction-separation-conflation, tacit-explicit, division-dialectical recapitulation, the devolution of absolutism, from domestication to domesticity. In the Introduction (xx) I approach this generalizing aim from another direction, one that specifies the variety of spheres of human experience that may be brought together under the generalization that “the division of one term into two … has played an important part in substantiating the notion that the modern relation of the public and the private has entailed a splitting of a former tacit whole into oppositional and self-sufficient parts.” The singular categories by which I then exemplify this generalization are estate, status, gender, honor, propriety, religion, subjecthood, knowledge, romance, and individual. In one of my comments the other day I used one of these categories–the splitting of “knowledge” into “external sense impressions” and “internal creative imagination”–as a kind of shorthand, a way of using the emergence of empirical epistemology and scientific method in particular to summarize the entire historical transformation that’s the subject of Secret History. But this is to make epistemology the favored means by which to summarize all other bodies of thought and practice, a risky and potentially biased move if made unconditionally since one might say that it’s precisely the epistemologization of knowledge–its disembedding from social practice–that defines the modern viewpoint. So again, the point is not to reduce each of these developments to the status of all others, but to offer a way of toggling back and forth between the sheer multiplicity of experience in a given historical context and the generalizations by which we may find order in diversity.


One reason I’m hard put to compare my method with that of other literary historians like Gallagher and William Warner, as Dave has asked me to do, is that my aim in this book is to generalize about historical change by using literary history as only one example among several that profit from being understood in terms of the public-private relationship. That’s why I remark that the movement I describe from secret history to domestic novel is meant to offer not a genetic account of the origins of the latter form so much as a “peculiarly persuasive, because structurally eloquent, example of the historical trajectory … from relations of distinction to relations of separation” (xxi-xxiii). Of course the argument I make in this book grows out of a career of reading both literature and literary criticism focused on the 18th century. But to characterize my method I think I need to have recourse to readings in historiography and historical method, especially the distinction between interpretation and explanation–to simplify, the difference between understanding the past in its own terms and understanding it in terms not available to it. I think historical method needs to pursue both of these approaches. But it seems to me that the major tendency of theory and criticism in the past several decades (often enough with positive results) has been toward a presentist strategy by which the past has been made intelligible according to modern standards of understanding. Over the years I’ve been more troubled than informed by the results of this tendency, and so in many respects I’ve aimed here “to view the past not only as a prelude to our present but also as a response to its own past” (xxvii).

Gender, Civic Humanism, Method

Dave posed a question about my brief comment on gender and civic humanism, and this post is a follow-up. It was originally part of the response to Tita’s post, but has gotten off topic so I am following up here.

One problem that I see, in response to Dave’s question, with the over-emphasis on civic humanism has been not only the burial of Lockean theories of natural rights and the Prostestant/secularizing pre-history of modernity, as Michael McKeon points out in one of his comments (as part of the ongoing response to Tita Chico’s original post), but also more of a recognition of the extent to which 18th-century writers were engaging and confronting emerging capitalist relations as such, working through their implications in more complex ways than just embracing or rejecting. Thus various expressions of distress about the marketplace get categorized as civic humanist resistances to emergent economic practices at the expense of thinking of them as head-on confrontations with historical change and its implications. In the context of civic humanism, Addison and Steele become more interesting than Mandeville or the Societies for the Reformation of Manners. Now admittedly the former are more elegant stylists than the latter and the influence of the rhetoric of civic humanism should not be underestimated. But for those interested, I would point to an important book by E.J. Hundert called The Enlightenment’s Fable (Cambridge 1994), which places Mandeville at the center rather than at the periphery. Mandeville, Hundert argues, “introduced into the heart of European social understanding a series of arguments designed to sustain the radically unsettling conclusion that the moral identities of his contemporaries had been permanently altered by a previously unacknowledged historical transformation.” (14) Much Mandeville scholarship, I believe, demonstrates how important Mandeville became to a range of 18th-century thinkers, even (maybe especially) in unacknowledged ways.

Of course, this has to do with gender as well. In the dominance/persistence-of-civic- humanism model, representations of women come to have significance in two ways: (1) hysterical female figures embody fears of commercialization in implicit contrast to stable male figures attached to real property and (2) women serve as civilizing agents against the backdrop of commercialism’s brutality. Well, I read last weekend in The New York Times that hysteria is back. Even so, it is perhaps surprising in some ways that the classic feminist critique of hysteria has not been brought to bear on formulation (1). Certainly and without a doubt we find 18th-century female figures that really do read like hysterical versions of Fortuna. An overextension of this argument, however, runs the risk of obscuring women’s historical contribution to the emergent economy and their particular, vexed relationship to it and the way many 18th-century representations actually confront this. The same perhaps goes for (2), which is convincing in certain ways but also runs the risk of obscuring the way a certain level of material comfort is the precondition for becoming a “civilizing” influence. We might look at this in the context of Ruth Perry’s Novel Relations, which suggests the extent to which women bore the brunt of the brutality of commercialization in Britain. (Not to mention the brutality endured by “women of empire,” to borrow Felicity Nussbaum’s formulation in Torrid Zones.)

The other point I wanted to make responds in part to Carrie Hintz’s post about when modernity happens and Carrie Shanafelt’s post about method. Perhaps the most important contribution of Secret History, and probably the most potentially controversial one as well, is the big picture. Like others, I am looking forward to spending more time thinking about this book (maybe teaching parts of it), but for now I wanted to offer a few preliminary impressions of structure and method. It seems to me that it is made up of much synthesis and many local readings (Dave has mentioned a couple), any one of which could be engaged with, contested, etc. But then there is a kind of accumulation that suggests, for example, structural similarities between Marriage à la Mode and The Rape of the Lock (the juxtaposition of high and low as part of the process of domestication) that add up to a larger point about “modernity” characterized by disembedding, a point nevertheless consistently complicated by a sense of uneven development. Carrie H mentioned medievalist colleagues who will contest certain representations of traditional culture, and we might also find others who will challenge traditionalism itself as a characterization of the period. But you probably also have Victorianist colleagues who will characterize the 18th century as a traditional culture and argue for their own period as the one in which modernity happens. Then there is perhaps the radical alternative of Margaret Doody’s True Story of the Novel, which is not directly an argument about modernity but one piece associated with it, suggesting that there really isn’t much new in terms of narrative in the 18th century at all. On the one hand, I find these explosions of master narratives compelling, especially given that exceptions at any moment can be found. Master narratives can themselves become misleading, flattening, formulaic, and oppressive. On the other hand, what do we give up when we reject them?