18th century versions of local and universal knowledge in Michael Braddick

Hello folks, sorry to have slowed down on my posts these past few weeks, but it’s been a hectic time: I was redoing the index for my book (now off my desk: woo hoo!),  and I’ve been pulled in to the accreditation stuff going on on our campus.  (If anyone else has had experience dealing with SACS QEPs [don’t ask], write me offline at dmazella@uh.edu).

In the midst of all this, I’ve been going through a book I just picked up, David Armitage and Michael Braddick’s The British Atlantic World:  1500-1800 (Palgrave, 2002), and was really impressed by the quality of the essays.  Braddick himself contributes a terrific essay on “Civility and Authority” in the Atlantic world, which I’d like to recommend to you.  It seems like a precis of the argument of the Cambridge UP book he published in 2000, State Formation in Early Modern England, which I missed, but which I will now definitely look at.

Braddick’s essay is interesting because he begins with what I’d call the “cultural history” approach of, say, Lawrence Klein on politeness and civility, reading “civility” R. Williams-style as one of a series of “key words” or “structures of feeling” for understanding behavior in this period, but then shows concretely and convincingly how these terms helped determine practices of political power and authority up and down the social scale.  This combination of approaches, semantic and material, is useful, because it takes Klein’s groundbreaking insights into 18c politeness, as well as Bryson’s excellent work on the cultural stakes of a rhetoricized “civility,” and pushes the discussion of the history of manners into a whole new phase.

In brief, MB reframes the discussion by taking civility and the material culture undergirding it, and treating both together as part of a social apparatus that allows the “gentleman” to project power and authority over others, in a social order “based explicitly on difference and inequality” (94).  He says, “Political authority was projected and sustained in terms of a language of rule which included the material expression of social distinction: to rule one had to be able to live appropriately, ‘to bear the port, charge, and countenance of a gentleman.'” (95).   We can all think of literary examples of this vision of social order, early and late, that more or less approximates this vision of social hierarchy: 17c pastorals like “Upon Appleton House,” but also nostalgic variants like Matt Bramble’s estate in Humphry Clinker.

Braddick’s discussion of how social position was supposed to mirror, and reinforce, political authority (in what Judith Butler would call a mimetic relation) feels like the missing piece of the puzzle in analyses like Klein’s, which stress the consistency and systematicity of such regimes of politeness, but perhaps neglect the reasons why they were sustained with such passion for such a long time, because of the incremental advantage they gave individuals striving to assert authority over others, who were forced to respond in kind.  So yes, civility and power need to be thought together more systematically.

As I indicated to Laura in our exchanges over Berg, this aspect of civility as projection or display of social position and power could be brought over to the function of antiquarians in such societies, especially under conditions of increased change.  MB notes:

A distinctive genre of writing developed in Elizabethan England, referred to as “chorography.”  In these writngs landscape, history, legal liberties, and local genealogies were intertwined.  They celebrated not simply material aspects of local life but their history and antiquities, particularly the history of important local families.  Distinctive local societies were erected over the land and around local social hierarchy.  These local and social distinctions were expressed in display.  The chimney, the parlor, the glazed window were all signs of social status–in effect they represented a material expression of the right to rule.  As we have seen, keeping up appearances–playing the part of a gentleman–was essential to the maintenance of “natural” authority.  This rested in part on material expressions of taste and distinction on the landscape, in the home, and on the body (102).

In some ways, I’m glad I waited to finish this post until after we discussed Berg, because I believe that MB has put his finger on the historical differences between consumption practices in an inegalitarian setting of inherited birth and worth and contemporary consumption, their power to signify not just money but inherited social rank and consequently social position and genuine power.  I think Bourdieu has taught us all to think in terms of “distinction” and “cultural capital,” but I wonder to what extent these terms can translate backwards to talk about the cultural capital represented by a  family portrait gallery or a pew in a local church.  (Williams is very good on this aspect of the large country houses and the estates they sat on)  I suppose the key here is the fact that the distinction they represent is peculiarly local, and therefore untranslatable, in the same way that local histories are assumed to have little interest for outsiders.

One of the virtues, however, of MB’s little essay is its ability to portray such systems of signifying practices not as closed, but as open and evolving–one of the benefits, perhaps, of its Atlanticist perspective.  And so we find a dialectical counterpart to the local antiquarian’s interest in civility, the cosmopolitan merchant, who had his own perspective on civility:

For many contemporary commentators, trade was closely associated with civility, something demonstrated by the history of Greek and Roman civilization–classical republicanism had as its model a society in which expansion came through the establishment of towns with improved agricultural hinterlands . . . . [T]rade created an Atlantic mercantile elite whose members connected the port towns and their hinterlands in Britain and the New World.  They dominated government in those places, and operated as effective lobbyists in London.  In England, they were often skeptical about the possibilities, or value, of pursuing the status of gentleman in the narrow sense, adhering to their roles in urban life rather than seeking an uncertain acceptance into country society.  But these people nevertheless acquired the trappings of refinement that made them, and their counterparts elsewhere, substantial figures in the port towns of the Atlantic world.  Their charitable acts, their officeholding, their art collecting marked out their place in local society–these grave civic figures bore rule, not as gentleman in the strict sense, but as men of refinement.  Their refinement was in relation to aristocracy a statement of independence; for their social inferiors it continued to mark out a superior local role.  They were not only the products of the Atlantic world of course, but were also the means by which it was created and held together–their associational life was at the heart of the Atlantic world, and it was transnational.  Here were the original “citizens of the world” (104).

For me, this is a better explanation of the complex class status of a figure like Benjamin Franklin, than the one provided in Gordon Wood’s biography, which feels a bit flat in its analysis of Franklin’s fraught relations with the elites in Philadelphia and London.  Moreover, we find here an interesting account of alternative “uses” of consumption (art collecting etc.) for this particular class.  But I particularly value this essay because it really opens up the complexity of the local/universal knowledge distinction in our period.  Clearly, “Enlightenment” is at work on both ends of this dialectic, but for different purposes and with complex ramifications.

So where does Braddick leave us in the discussion on consumption, civility, and the local and cosmopolitan versions of Enlightenment?




One response to “18th century versions of local and universal knowledge in Michael Braddick

  1. For those interested in this volume, you might also want to look at the review here, at H-net: