Scandal, Print, and Performance

I had originally framed this discussion as a reflection on the difference between thinking about print capitalism and performance as shaping forces in nationalism (we’ll get to the Scandal part later).  As Roach suggests, one of the most forceful claims for turning to performance is that it broadens the idea of nationalism.  All cultures, as he suggests, in some ways perform their identities.  By looking at performance, we can think about the way groups without print cultures (enslaved African, native Americans) expressed collective identities and evoked cultural memories.  Rituals around death, then, take on a particular importance because of the ways in which they connect the past to the present.  While one kind of historical narrative might propose the transition from performance culture to print culture, Roach instead shows their overlap. In some ways this reminds me of the way Marx utilizes the fetish: Just as fetishism is not abandoned with historical “advances,” so performance does not give way to print. (Might we also say that theater and even other narrative forms, such as romance, do not actually give way to the realist novel?) Cities of the Dead, then, shows that Imagined Communities only addresses a certain kind of nationalism.

            On re-reading
Anderson last week, however, I was struck as well by how much they share.  One extremely important idea that they both develop is the significance of both remembering and forgetting. 
Anderson develops this idea from a statement by Ernst Renan, who wrote that French citizens are “obliged already to have forgotten”– “doit avoir oublié la Saint-Barthélemy.   “In effect, Renan’s readers were being told to ‘have already forgotten’ what Renan’s own words assumed that they naturally remembered!” (200). For Roach, I believe, the eighteenth century developed a very special knack for forgetting.  In both Cities of the Dead and Imagined Communities, both remembering AND forgetting become crucial in the formation of national identity.  But while Anderson focuses on the formation of nation-states as well as personal identification with such institutions, Roach follows out in more detail both the thread of forgetting (commitments for liberty in an age of enslavement, for example) but also subaltern strategies for collective consciousness through memory.

            What do others think about these two (overlapping) models? How have either of these important and fascinating works influenced the way you think about and/or teach the eighteenth century?


Laura Rosenthal


6 responses to “Scandal, Print, and Performance

  1. David Mazella

    Hello Laura,

    Tonight I’m going to pass on your invitation to consider these books in tandem, because I know the Anderson and am rereading the Roach. But here goes . . .

    What struck me when I was rereading the Anderson was how much of its stye and substance had infiltrated into contemporary critical discourse since its publication in 1983. The social imaginary work we discussed during the McKeon session (McKeon but also Taylor and Warner) was in some respects a reworking and extension of this book’s treatment of virtual communities, but I think we could find lots of other examples with similar treatments of hegemonic concepts like “the nation.”

    The book is so slender and so elegant I’d hate to demand more scholarly heft: it seems beside the point to demand counter-examples or fuller citations for a book as essayistic as this. And yet the more I thought about it, the more I wondered about the unifying, stabilizing effects of print and the vernacular monoglot audience. BA is definitely onto something here, but he also seems to overstate the degree to which this process of modernization occurs uniformly and evenly throughout geographical and linguistic zones.

    I’ve been reading E.P. Thompson, for example, for the next forum, and EPT’s historiography is ranged against precisely these kinds of narratives of uniform modernization.

    So the collective acts of remembering/forgetting in the aggregate should be as uneven and self-contradictory as the process of modernization that set it off.


  2. Laura Rosenthal

    Thanks for your comments. Clearly you’re right about this tremendous influence this book has had on the field–it’s one of those works that is so fully integrated that one risks forgetting about it.

    To add to your observation about the need to recognize unevenness: it seems to be that compared to historians of nationalism (Newman, Colley) Anderson places it a little later–only at the end of the eighteenth century whereas Colley and Newman trace its formation throughout the period. I think Roach additionally reminds us that there were and continue to be other media involved as well. Yet it does seem that print has the advantage of linking people, as Anderson points out, who have never even seen each other, whereas performance depends on a certain physical proximity.

  3. David Mazella

    The seductiveness of BA’s thesis really derives from the unequivocal periodizations he uses–clean, almost Foucauldean epistemic breaks. He gives it the name “print-capitalism,” but I’m sure it could be broken down and shown to be a lot more discontinuous than he does here.

    As I understand your argument about Roach, though, your praise is really about his decision to theorize the historical coexistence of communications-media–print and performance, and interacting in particular ways. It reminds me a little of Adam Fox’s Oral and Literate Culture, because Fox stresses the mutually reinforcing aspects of oral, scribal, and printed communication in the early modern era, and I’m sure we could find similar interactions about print and performance as well.

    In terms of your “forgetting/remembering” trope, Fox’s treatment of antiquarianism might be instructive here, because so much of antiquarian research was devoted to excavation of local customs and practices to celebrate local elites: local monuments, etc. And yet these scattered and localized researches are an important precondition for the more synthetic, narrative, “nationalist” histories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [sorry, I have antiquarians on the brain; one of the costs of an ongoing research project]

    The “simultaneity” of calendrical, secularized time seems to be the key, though, of BA’s reading of nationalism and print-capitalism, and the important thing is his linkage of that temporalization to a specific moment where the density of communications and information in certain places allowed people to regard themslelves as members of a common “community.” [Warner is basing this on BA here, I think]

    This is the moment that Warner talks about in his treatment of publics and public-formation, in which publics–virtual communities–are formed by a certain tempo of communications following one another, because such a tempo suggests not just the existence of a public, but the fiction of a public capable of action. The nation is perhaps the only public that is granted this (virtual) attribute of action: America responds, America strikes out, America retreats, etc. etc. Strangely, Warner has little to say about the unique status of nation as public, because it seems to be the best example of what he is discussing.


  4. Laura Rosenthal

    Antiquarians are an interesting example here. I wonder if the problem with antiquarians is that they remember too much. They are often comic butts in theater anyway, and perhaps this is because they are digging up things that make people nervous–this thought goes back to Trumpener’s reading of antiquarianism where antiquarianism can serve as a form of resistance to the homogenization of empire. But antiquarians are also ridiculed for being fascinated with every little detail with no hierarchy of importance, which also suggests to me that the ridicule of them might be based in part on their failure to absorb Renan’s insistance that citizenship is based on forgetting what everyone already knows.

    Re print: In our discussion of *School for Scandal*, we never quite settled on what the play was doing with print. Print holds great power in the play, but the characters who emerge as honorable (Charles, Lady Teazle) make a point of abjuring it, suggesting that there is a way to stand outside of its power. Is this nostalgia? Another act of forgetting?

    But to go back to your sense of Anderson’s influence: one can also see on rereading this book how influential he was in opening up potential links between the transformation brought by 18th-century print culture and the transformation brought by the internet. Virtuality seems to be key in his argument and something that print culture in a sense is already achieving at the end of the 18th c.


  5. David Mazella

    I was curious how School for Scandal fit into the discussion. Scandal and print go together, in the sense of enhanced density and velocity of communications, but it’s harder to see how Roach’s thematics of forgetting and race might work there. So what happened?

    And I did a separate post that discussed a little bit of the antiquarian strain in Roach’s book.



  6. Laura Rosenthal

    Interestingly, we ended up having a harder time seeing how the print culture issue fit in, as SS is largely negative about print and the “good” character (Charles, Lady Teazle) renounce and ignore the scandal sheets, so it’s not clear in this play how print forms an imagined community. I’m hoping to do a longer post on this later, but in short (on the Roach inspiration) we talked about the scene where Charles “sells off his ancestors” as a comic version of the parade of kings Roach discusses in tragedy. The play thus exploses the switch from “old money” to the imperial spoils brought by the nabob Uncle Oliver. Charles tries to sell off his family memories, but in the end, as Liz Veisz pointed out in the seminar, they are not actually sold but kept in the family.