Parker’s Intro, Follow-up: The Pace and Dating of Cultural Change

Carrie, thank you for arranging this event and getting us all started. I’m looking forward to the discussion. Thank you also for your careful account of Blanford Parker’s argument. I appreciate the time you have taken to summarize the complex and wide-ranging argument of the introduction and the ease with which you seem to have done so. My only quarrel with your reading is your claim that Parker details a “slow conceptual divorce of art from the traditional Christian imagination.” In fact, I don’t think the discursive and imaginative changes described arrive gradually in Parker’s literary history at all, but rather arrive suddenly and violently. At various moments, Parker describes the shift from Baroque to Augustan aesthetics as a “rupture,” “irruption” and “interruption.”

It is not uncommon for scholars of the late 17th century to locate shifts of all kinds in this period, but Parker’s attempts to explain the changes are, as Carrie Shanafelt rightly points out, quite radical. What is perhaps unique about Parker’s account of the period is that he makes aesthetic shifts primary (as opposed to, say, philosophical shifts). According to Parker, by the end of the 17th century, not only had the conceptual framework of the scholastics been destroyed, but so too had the imaginative foundation upon which it stood. The rhetorical moves made by Hobbes, and Butler in particular, are the necessary precondition not only for the tropes and argumentative structures in Swift and the later Augustans, but also for the emergence of a secular modernity. Parker’s implicit argument seems to be that changes in philosophy and religion are predicated upon changes in imaginative associations. The later logics of science, literalism, and positivism depend upon lateral, metonymic, and spatial associations rather than upon analogy, and this shift occurs first in Butler and his contemporaries. Once the change has occurred in poetry, every aspect of culture, literary and intellectual, must come into ideological alignment (despite, of course, the persistence, as Parker quickly points out, of figures like Bunyan, Wesley and Whitefield — but their rhetoric, too, is sharpened by the need to respond to the changed imaginative landscape, post-Butler).

Because this change must necessarily occur first in the imagination and be made manifest in poetry, it might make sense to argue for the slow growth of a newly organized set of imaginative relationships and associations, their gradual deployment by writers, and a slow seepage of a new ideology into the broader culture. While we might imagine changes in poetic style to be gradual, Parker makes it clear that these changes in style and the attendant intellectual modes they imply are quite sudden. “The process whereby English culture moved from the acrobatic credulity of Browne to the cool and abject skepticism of Hume in less than eighty years was neither automatic nor inevitable… The suddenness and severity of this moment of Augustan interruption is still of the greatest significance in our endless struggle to explain modernity” (24). Here, in addition to arguing for the speed of these changes, he also insists that their occurrence is far from inevitable. I understand this to mean that these changes seem to grow out of acts of imaginative will, deliberate interventions — both rhetorical and stylistic — on the level of representation. It is the collective effort of writers and thinkers overthrowing the tyranny of scholasticism, and challenging all at once, through a reordered set of imaginative relationships, the four traditions of Christian theology that Parker argues the Baroque world inherited.

The question remains, and I think it may (still and always) be the central question for students of the Early Modern Period (and of the Enlightenment): how radical is the break and how sudden? What is entirely new, and what remains either transformed, or perhaps fully intact, from one period to the next? Parker is careful to distinguish the changed set of imaginative relationships from what others might call “Zeitgeist.” He also challenges Foucault’s assumption that the episteme of one period is unknowable to people of another. Furthermore, he argues for a continuity of imagination — here called modernity — from the age of Butler to our own age (the age of Colbert? — Colbert seems to use similar satirical techniques of exclusion and leveling, especially in his efforts to collapse differences between liberals and conservatives). But, despite Parker’s efforts to argue that history is not marked by divides across which one generation may fail to recognize another, Parker argues for a pretty sudden and severe shift. No doubt, the Civil War is the great traumatic event allowing for such a compressed period of intellectual change. I am inclined to agree with Parker on this point, but I also try to be cautiously skeptical about such arguments (the most recent being the contemporary tendency to locate in 9/11 the spontaneous birth of an entirely new world).

In the discussion of McKeon’s book, Carrie Hintz wrote in one of her comments, “I have medieval colleagues who regularly chastise me (however gently & affectionately) for assuming that the epistomelogical/ cultural/ literary changes which congealed into modernity all emerged in the early modern period.” Indeed, I think there is always a danger of arguing too forcefully that everything or most things changed all at once, and in a few years. In a later post, Hintz referred to “habits of mind” as an explanation for such shifts in culture. It seems that Parker is suggesting a transformation in deeply rooted habits of mind in this period. He makes a compelling case for this kind of reading of history, and in locating the changes in style, rhetoric and associative figures makes their seeming suddenness hard to ignore. This, of course, raises one further question, perhaps the hardest of all to work out, and that is whether the associative structures of imaginative literature cause changes in intellectual history, or if they instead register changes already underway.

5 responses to “Parker’s Intro, Follow-up: The Pace and Dating of Cultural Change

  1. I am tempted to defend my divorce metaphor, if only because divorces are, after all, a series of surprising and painful negotiations, usually instigated unilaterally against the will to continue along in the same path, that often take a long time to complete and are followed by years of false memories, negations, and declarations of “new beginnings” that are never really new…

    but yes, I appreciate your specificity of description here, Matt.

  2. That defense was meant to be a sad sort of joke, of course. 🙂

  3. Indeed, I think it’s critical to see how BP argues for the persistance of older [Baroque, Christian] modes. As he writes, “These elements of older culture which the Augustans attacked have survived even until now” (175).

  4. But I would certainly like to think more about the issue that Matt Williams raised in his post, and that is very present in BP’s book–if older modes persist, but they must engage with a new aesthetic and cultural landscape…can they really be said to be part of an “older culture” that “survives”?

  5. I like Carrie Shanafelt’s divorce analogy, especially as developed here, because it suggests the persistence of habits, however unpleasant, even as a radical break is underway. I also entirely agree with what Carrie Hintz has written here. (Aspects of) an older culture survive(s) through this period of transition, but in the process that culture loses its centrality and its ideological force. So, is it then the same old culture pushed to the margins to make room for the new, or is it a revival of something old within the context of the new? I think the only way to work out some of these problems is by using terms like “dominant,” “emergent,” etc.