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?


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