Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Bitch of Living

According to Samuel Derrick’s General View of the Stage  (1759), opera came to England when William Davenant (who claimed to be Shakespeare’s natural son) organized musical entertainments with story lines. These were not “plays,” of course, because Oliver Cromwell had forbidden that; they were just musical entertainments that happened to tell a story.  There wasn’t anything particularly subversive about these operas, but their inception suggests that there might have been something right from the beginning about the form that was pushing the envelope.  As least in England, musical entertainments were designed to get away with something.  Their disturbing potential did not go unnoticed. In The Prompter, Aaron Hill rails against the popularity of opera: it is foreign; it is performed by freaks who can’t possibly feel the desires they sing about; it banishes reason.  The Spectator also muses about how audiences will flock to performances they can’t understand and that historians of the future will be deeply puzzled by this phenomenon.  John Gay fully mined their seditious potential in The Beggar’s Opera.

 I was thinking about this last weekend when I saw Spring Awakening at the Kennedy Center.  I think if Gay and Brecht had met as teenagers, they would have come up with something like Spring Awakening, an exquisitely poignant musical about, as one of the characters puts it, the “parentocracy” and, of course, “the bitch of living” (as the song goes).  Rather than attempting to naturalize its form, Spring Awakening, like so many plays from the early eighteenth century, explores it.  Spring Awakening highlights the musical interludes as the places where the most devastating critique becomes apparent by having characters conspicuously pull microphones out of their vest pockets and put them away after the song, returning to their repressive and sometimes abusive communities. Characters borrow microphone stands from the band playing in the back; one distributes a handful of them to a line of restless teenaged girls with their hands raised, poised to express themselves.  Like a pre-Garrick eighteenth-century play, Spring Awakening seats a segment of the audience on stage (although I didn’t spot any royalty).  You could read this as a postmodern blurring of lines between stage and spectator, but you could also read it as part of the production’s theatrical self-consciousness.

 The only part I didn’t quite follow was the end. After a series of children are crushed by adult ignorance, brutality, and fear (on the back wall hangs a single blue butterfly wing, elegizing the failure of their metamorphosis) all the characters, living and dead, gather for a final song, smiling affectionately as if they had finally solved the tensions between the drama club kids and the jocks.  “That’s because,” my daughter explained, “it’s a musical so they have to end it that way.  It’s what everyone expects.  But it’s not really what happened.”  Could a beggar have put it any better? See this show with an adolescent you love.

more correspondence from the enlightenment project, this time from the edinburgh/newark bureaus (1985)

Speaking of Richard B. Sher, here’s a nice passage from his earlier Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment (1985), which addresses the local resonance of terms like “moderation” and “politeness” in the context of mid-century Edinburgh, with all its religious divisions and class stratifications:

From the outset the Moderates were strongly supportive of law and order and eager to prevent a recurrence of the religious and political unrest of their early years.  They believed, as Robertson put it, that “there can be no society”–either civil or ecclesiastical–“where there is no subordination.”  As loyal Hanoverian subjects, they praised the British constitution as a nearly perfect blend of order and liberty and accepted without question the prevailing notion of the inequality of ranks . . . . They were, in short, Whig-Presbyterian conservatives (53, 54).

Besides church patronage and church polity, the emerging Moderate and Popular parties disagreed about numerous matters of piety, style, decorum, and attitude that may be considered parts of a wider controversy over the principle of “politeness.” Formally defined in Adam Ferguson as a “behaviour intended to please, or to oblige,” this elusive term actually had broader connotations.  Polite society meant well-bred people of taste and refinement; polite literature and learning meant the rational, elegant, polished poetry and prose and empirical scientific investigations that appealed to polite society; polite preaching meant the the sensible, restrained religious instruction that polite society appreciated.  The Moderate literati of Edinburgh recognized that the cultivation of politeness was fraught with danger, since it could all too easily lapse into over-refinement or affectation.  Within proper bounds, however, and combined with enlightened principles, politeness was in their view the distinctive mark of a fully civilized individual and the happy medium between “effeminacy” and “enthusiasm” (57).

The first thing that I noticed in these passages was the fierce anti-individualism of these sentiments, along with the insistence that subordination was the necessary basis for the existence of “society,” which appears here  in its sacral/secular double-aspect as “civil or ecclesiastical” society.  (The reality of Presbyterian Edinburgh again).

If, as Lawrence Klein has argued, that the notion of “politeness” in the eighteenth century retains some of its Shaftesburyan flavor even into the late eighteenth century, a dramatic shift in emphasis has accompanied its translation into Edinburgh’s : “moderation” is not merely about self-moderation or some version of stoic self-restraint, but the overt subordination of the vulgar by the “rational, elegant, polished” portion of society, who in turn were expected to remain perpetually on guard against excesses either of “effeminacy” (over-susceptibility to the feminine) or of “enthusiasm” (over-susceptibility to the vulgar, lower-class, and passionate [i.e., “Popular”] forms of religion).  Perhaps this was always assumed by terms like “politeness,” by I do think that when we encounter it in writers like Smollett, it is accompanied with a real hatred and fear of the plebeian.

In such an environment, it’s not surprising to me that Macpherson’s Ossian was received by this group far more favorably than the vernacular poems of Robert Fergusson.  What is interesting to me, however, is how dramatically this set of assumptions gets turned around by the time we reach the eras, respectively, of Burns and then  Scott.


project enlightenment, briefing from the cambridge/prague bureau, 1981

From Mikulas Teich’s “Afterword” to his co-edited volume with Roy Porter, The Enlightenment in National Context (1981):

By the eighteenth century the influence of capitalism on trade and industry was global and pervasively affecting the contemporary social, economic, political and intellectual scene from North America to Russia.  This is reflected in the convergencies and divergencies of the different Enlightenments.

In no area is this more apparent than the problem of ‘unfree’ and ‘free’ labour, one of the key issues of this period.  North America and Russia were as different in this period as chalk and cheese.  Yet, although without a feudal past colonial America had its unfree labour.  It has been estimated that at the eve of the American Revolution 80 percent of all immigrants to the colonies were indentured servants or black slaves.  Their position–not unlike that of Russian serfs–was that of chattels, and of relevance to the American theorists and practitioners of the ‘Rights of Man.’  Most agreed that such ‘Rights’ could not be granted to the unfree (216).

This was the passage that leaped out at me, as I was rereading the Porter/Teich volume.  Initially, the essays by Porter (on the English enlightenment) and Phillipson (ditto, for the Scottish) were the ones that really got me started thinking about the historiography of the enlightenment years ago in graduate school.  Now I’m surprised to find Teich’s materialist essay on Bohemia in this collection, and his afterthoughts about the effects of globalization and world capital on the diffusion of Enlightenment in places as different as Russia and North America.  Now his thoughts seem quite prescient to me, but maybe this stuff is old hat to others.

Now, though, I suspect that there’s a new history of the enlightenment to be written (if it hasn’t been written already) out of E.P. Thompson’s memorable attack on Hont’s and Ignatieff”s interpretation of Adam Smith in Customs in Common. How would we begin to write a history of the enlightenment’s discussions of/basis in free and unfree labor?  I suspect we’d have to start thinking again about the historical movement from the “luxury debates” to the birth of sociology and economics (Mandeville, Rousseau, Ferguson, and Smith), but also adopt Teich’s distinction between enlightened discussions of agricultural and other (non-chattel, or “skilled?) labor, wherein chattel labor fails to register as a problem with those who are otherwise associated with the causes of freedom or liberty (most notoriously, Thomas Jefferson).  And somehow the 18th-century technological innovations that led one way or another to the Industrial Revolution need to be factored into this discussion, as well.  It seems significant to me, however, that the economic historians I’ve been looking at repeatedly point to the geographic and regional interactions that helped to foster this historical process.  As one historian points out: “[T]here was only one route to the twentieth century–and it traversed northern Britain.” (historian Bob Allen, qtd. in the DeLong post linked above)

Still, the question that had me rereading Porter/Teich in the first place never got answered: is there such a thing as a Caribbean enlightenment in this period?  If we can talk about the enlightenment in national contexts, why not regional ones, as well?


“18th-c studies” meets “digital humanities”

This post by George Williams.

The CFP for ASECS 2010 is out, and I can’t help but notice that several of the panel proposals (including one being organized by Lisa Maruca and me) deal explicitly with digital humanities topics.

Details regarding these panels are available after the jump, but before you make that jump, dear reader, please indulge me for a few sentences.

Does it seem to you that the various academic disciplines concerned with the humanities are at a turning point with regard to integrating digital tools into their research and teaching methodologies? It certainly seems that way to me:

And yet, does it perhaps also feel to you that the benefits of these developments have not yet filtered down to our day-to-day academic lives?

  • The Gale Group’s Eighteenth-Century Collections Online is an amazing resource of primary texts, but it’s priced out of reach for all but the most generously funded colleges and universities, especially in light of what the average library budget looks like since the developments of the previous 12 months.
  • With the exception of Eighteenth-Century Life, our most-read journals provide RSS feeds that are practically useless.
  • Most of us probably don’t even know what an RSS feed is or why we would want to use one.
  • The English Short-Title Catalog is freely available online, which is wonderful, but the interface does not provide any advanced data output options such as useful information visualizations.
  • In 2009, most online conversations regarding our field of study make use of the exact same tool that was used 20 years ago: email.

This is not meant to be a list of complaints, mind you. We clearly have some amazing tools at our disposal. However, there are many new and powerful tools (some of them free) that could be available to us if we worked on developing them or advocated to our most influential organizations to help integrate them into existing platforms.

The idea for the panel that Lisa and I are organizing  on “The Digital Eighteenth-Century 2.0” came out of conversations with several friends at ASECS 2009: many of us have been trained to a greater or lesser extent in digital humanities methods and now work at institutions without major funding for technology. As a result, we’ve learned to improvise quite happily with what happens to be available to us, which often turns out to be tools such as these:

These conversations and our embrace of these tools make me wonder if perhaps we’re entering a new phase of digital humanities research and pedagogy, and so I coined the not-terribly-original term “The Digital Eighteenth-Century 2.0,” playing off of the “Web 2.0” buzz phrase.

  • Is this new phase a good thing?
  • Are we shortchanging what might be possible if we built our own digital tools (a daunting task) rather than using those already created for non-academic purposes? (Zotero, Omeka, and the SIMILE Timeline are, in fact, aimed at academic audiences.)
  • If one is quite happy to work and teach at a smaller, less-than-wealthy, somewhat-teaching-oriented institution, how exactly does one embrace the field of digital humanities with its traditional focus on research and big grants?
  • At what point, if ever, do we internalize the conventions, the strengths, and the weaknesses of digital media such that “The Digital Humanities” becomes “The Humanities”?

Continue reading

18th connect and the sustainability of scholarly collaboration

An interesting discussion has broken out on Early Modern Online Bibliography (henceforth, EMOB) regarding Bob Markley’s and Laura Mandell’s 18thConnect project.  In their discussion Eleanor Shevlin made an interesting distinction:

Also, it might be useful to distnguish between tools that serve as delivery systems (I regard Project Muse and JStor and the like as such) and those that perform additional, often quite different functions such as acting as finding aids, invitations to reconceive textual landscapes, and more. In this second category I would place ECCO, EEBO, and even, though decidedly quite different, Google Books. When I find and download an article from say, JStor, I do not give too much thought to its printed form that served as the source for the PDF. My response to texts found in ECCO and EEBO is quite different–and I am spurred to ask questions about the materiality, the tactile features lost in digitization, the accuracy of the information provided in notes/records, and much more.

My first thought was that it might be hard to maintain this distinction, which I think is more about varieties of use than about inherent capacities of technologies; we can always use a shovel to stir our tea.  I also remember sitting in a graduate bibliography seminar many years ago with the man described as the “pope of textual editing,” and being told over and over again that xeroxes needed to be checked word-for-word against originals (because of the danger that xeroxes wouldn’t operate simply as “delivery systems”).  And at the time, I thought this was just another example of his Tragic Sense of Life, though nowadays I’m much more sensitive to this question of how media technologies affect our views of “content.” 

But I also understand what she’s talking about, I think: that a breakthrough technology like the ESTC, for example, made possible for the first time very different views of our period’s publishing than ever before (an argument that Paul Korshin, for one, made here in 1998).  And the 18thConnect project is attempting to pull together a group whose impact could have the potential to do what the ESTC did for our scholarship.

One of the obstacles, however, that I think the 18th Connect folks might run up against is something I saw mentioned in Sharon’s EMN post regarding Web 2.0 models of scholarly collaboration and sustainability, where she quotes Cohen and Rozenzweig’s pertinent warning about collecting history online:

Collections created on the web through the submissions of scattered (and occasionally anonymous) contributors do have a very different character from traditional archives, for which provenance and selection criteria assume a greater role. Online collections tend to be less organized and more capricious in what they cover.

None of this is to say that these projects shouldn’t be attempted, but that the scholars involved (and the scholars using it) might reflect further about how to work against the digital media’s inherent tendency towards diffusion by thinking of institutions, structures, protocols that would lend greater cohesion and flexibility to a project like this.  I wish them the best, and hope to hear more soon about the continued development of the project.