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).


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