mla round-up: this is enlightenment

It’s a cold winter night in Houston, and I thought the best use of my time, besides watching “Worst Cooks in America,” would be to discuss the “This IS Enlightenment” panel from last month’s MLA.   By putting it here, rather than on the nifty new “comment” function on the MLA program website, I suppose I’m undermining the MLA’s attempts to make the MLA forum a little more bloggish, but I’m not seeing much evidence that people are extending the discussion there.

Here’s the listing of the panel’s participants:

503. This Is Enlightenment

3:30–4:45 p.m., 402–403, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature

Presiding: Janet L. Sorensen, Univ. of California, Berkeley

Speakers: Peter de Bolla, Univ. of Cambridge

Lynn M. Festa, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

Paula McDowell, New York Univ.

Michael McKeon, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

Clifford Haynes Siskin, New York Univ.

William Beatty Warner, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

I don’t have the space to summarize or respond to every speaker, but the title of the the session echoed the title of an upcoming essay collection entitled, “This IS Enlightenment,”  which is being edited by Siskin and Warner.  Most speakers seem also to have been contributors to the collection, which brings together some of the best-known American scholars in 18th century British studies.

From Siskin’s introductory remarks I gathered that his and Warner’s goal was to redirect discussion of the historical Enlightenment away from earlier cultural studies methodologies (the subject of a long joint essay by CS/WBW in last year’s Profession) and towards Enlightenment as part of the “history of mediation.”  CS argued that such a shift from the murkiness and anachronism of “culture” would help those who wished to depart from the older methods of the “history of ideas.”

CS also suggested that emphasizing “mediation” would enable scholars to focus not merely on ideas, but on the various forms of representation, technology, and social forms (?) that Enlightenment writers thematized and discussed during this period.   CS also stressed how the vast new digitized collections of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century publications would enable a new kind of historiography, one more based on the full range of books produced during this period.  In this respect, CS’s “history of mediation” sounded to me very much like a synthesis of the “history of the book,” what used to be called “cultural history,” and literary and cultural studies.  Something, in fact, that might resemble Richard Sher’s work in Enlightenment and the Book, an example that CS was quite satisfied with when we discussed it after the panel.

Throughout CS’s and some of the other talks, I definitely detected a sense that this new historiography was supposed to be less suspicious and yet less idealizing than earlier accounts of Enlightenment.  There was also a suggestion that focusing on the history of mediation would make Enlightenment itself seem less problematic as a historical process or period-concept, though I believe we have as much chance of resolving the question of “What is Enlightenment?” as we do of deciding “When was the Industrial Revolution?”

So, as much as I think that we might benefit by refocusing the discussion of “culture” to something like “media,” I don’t believe that this kind of gesture is likely to resolve long-standing historiographical conflicts, but will only displace the conflicts into new fields.  Some of the fields that this new approach to mediation opened up included the interactions of scholarship and oral tradition (McDowell), the possibility of a “pre-” post-colonial reading of Enlightenment-era writers (Festa), and the uses of science and scientific analogies in the constitution of the aesthetic (McKeon).  Each of these were about the ways in which this era’s structures of knowledge were shaped by the demands of communication and transmission across certain kinds of distances or past certain pre-existing boundaries.

For my own reasons, I was interested in Peter de Bolla’s discussion of conceptual histories and how the new full-text databases might make possible far more comprehensive and empirical work on the development and differentiation of concepts in our period.  PdB stressed how the concept of the “concept” enabled a certain linkage between mental entities and cultural entities, and permitted a differentiated description of the “architecture” of certain key concepts.  This architecture offered a structure that the political theorist Michael Freeden has similarly described as the internal “morphology” of concepts, which lend a certain shape and predictability to collectively-authored ideologies as these are reproduced in discussion and argument.)

PdB’s discussion of his research into the Enlightenment’s concept of “human rights,” however, left me wondering where this shift toward mediation would leave the concept of ideology?  Or how it might affect our readings of the politics of Enlightenment in its various locales?  The difficulty of these questions may have caused CS/WBW  to jettison the notion of “culture.”  Nevertheless, ideology and politics seem to me crucial to understanding much Enlightenment writing, if we consider writers like Swift or Wollstonecraft, both of whom could be called “occasional” writers and intellectuals.  In this respect, I think that the editors of this collection would need to show how they have superseded the terms of an essay like Said’s “Swift as Intellectual,” if they really wish to move past the terminology of cultural studies or post-colonial studies.

I also wondered about the relation of this account of Enlightenment to our most familiar metanarratives about modernity or modernization?  The temporal paradoxes of Enlightenment-as-modernity are striking when we think about the most familiar texts of a “post-colonial” Enlightenment: e.g., Behn’s Oroonoko, Voltaire’s Candide, Rousseau’s Second Discourse.

Finally, one of my biggest unanswered questions concerned the largely literary focus of this account of Enlightenment.  Judging by their Profession essay, CS and WBW seem to have very little interest in one of the other major contributions of Enlightenment thought, the emergence of the social sciences.  I would think, however, that any attempt to  revise this historiography wholesale would have to come to terms with the multidisciplinary aspect of Enlightenment writing and practice.  So where would the nascent fields of sociology or anthropology belong in such a schema?  This is an issue that McKeon touched upon in his talk about the role of science in the emergence of the aesthetic, but ultimately his talk was about the rhetorical uses made of science by literary writers.

Nonetheless, because of the significance of the  issues it raised, this was certainly the most rewarding panel I attended at MLA.  I’ll be thinking about it for some time to come.


UPDATE: For those interested in pursuing this notion of “mediation,” the upcoming NASSR conference (August, 2010) will feature the topic of “romantic mediations,” and Siskin will speak.  Here’s the link.

UPDATE #2: For yet more information about the project, see this link to the group of initiatives coming from Siskin and his group at NYU, which also involves the NYPL and a number of other universities. (h/t RayS6)


7 responses to “mla round-up: this is enlightenment

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    I too am looking forward to book and certainly agree that, as was argued on the panel and in “Stopping Cultural Studies,” that English departments need to come to terms with remediation. It also seems to me that there is indeed a lot of this going on. What I am finding less clear in this discussion is the issue of disciplinary. In “Stopping Cultural Studies,” Warner and Siskin argue that cultural studies, by conflating ‘culture’ (anthropological use) and ‘Culture’ (ie, ‘high culture’) never becomes interdisciplinary. I think this is a great point, and true, and goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of ‘cultural studies.’ “Stopping Cultural Studies,” however, ends by arguing that “To stop cultural studies is not to give up our past or our values but to reclaim what made our enterprise valuable in the first place.” This is the frustrating part: who are ‘we’? what is ‘our enterprise’ and why it valuable? I don’t think that they mean we should return to philology, which was ‘our enterprise in the first place’ if ‘we’ are faculty in US English departments. In other words, the essay seems to criticize English departments for their failure to be interdisciplinary, but also to assume a kind of permanence to their existence (which seems far from obvious to me). So there seems to be an argument for transcending and returning to a disciplinary home at the same time. I do think, though, that C/cultural studies needs to change and will change in light of new technologies, but I’m not sure that’s the same as stopping it.

  2. I agree that the “who is this ‘we’?”, “what is ‘our’ enterprise?” and “why is it valuable?” questions are the big issues that go unanswered in all of this.

    To me, this proposal seems to claim both a return (let’s get back to what we know) and an advance (let’s do cultural studies, but one better) at the same time.

    To take this gesture as truly advancing what we do, though, I’d like to see more convincing demonstrations of what this new/old approach can do with familiar or unfamiliar texts. That’s why I wanted to see how, for example, this emphasis on mediation would take us beyond the terms set by Said in his Swift essays. If this approach cannot manage to get us beyond Said’s reading, say, of Swift as an intellectual engaged in thinking through the implications of power, of transience, or of hegemony, then I think frankly that these paradigms remain unchallenged.

    I’m also not sure I understand how this gesture returns us to some earlier version of the discipline, if such a thing can even be identified, since the move toward “mediation” is itself yet another “interdisciplinary” squashing term intended to bring together (if I understand it correctly) signifying practices, technologies, and social forms. This broadening of categories takes us way past “literary” categories like style, form, genre, etc.

    Look, for example, at this description from the NASSR CFP:

    The main focus is the communications technologies and print culture of the Romantic period. But we also conceive of ‘mediation’ in a broadly metaphorical sense and look forward to papers on such topics as contacts between peoples and cultures, the tensions between bodies and minds, and the intersections of disciplines and forms of knowledge.

    The moment they make the move toward “mediation as metaphor,” in my opinion, they’re back into the analysis of signification, very broadly conceived, as well as the usual practices of literary or cultural reading.

    So this proposal is too broad, in my mind, to be identified with a return to close reading, stylistic analysis, or focus on individual canonical works.

    At the same time, it’s also hard for me to see this as anything but a rather minimal tinkering with cultural studies methodology. So emphasizing mediation, IMHO, could very well be a productive move, but I doubt it will have the disciplinary effects they’re claiming here.

    I’d rather see less highhanded attitudes towards other disciplines, more “horizontal” interdisciplinary work with an awareness of their historical boundaries (this is something I think McKeon is very good on), and, yes, more awareness of the historicity of print culture and other forms of signification.

    The conceptual approach that de Bolla discussed, and which I’ve attempted, invites precisely such work, because of its focus on the concept as the unit of analysis rather than the author or the work. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be combined with various disciplinary approaches, including the literary analysis of author, work, genre, period, and so forth.

  3. Eleanor Shevlin

    Very interesting report on this panel, Dave, one that raises good questions. And I also appreciated yours and Laura’s follow-up comments.

    I don’t have time to say much here tonight, but Laura’s drawing attention to the call “to reclaim what made our enterprise valuable in the first place” and her query about what that enterprise is and who “we” made me think of the MLA 2008 White paper.

    Consider this excerpt from the 2008 report that offers a definition of English and Language departments’ (foundational) enterprise:

    We firmly believe that language and literature need to remain at the center of what departments of English and languages other than English do. …. The role of literature needs to be emphasized. Sustained, deep engagements with literary works and literary language open perceptions of structure, texture, and the layering of meanings that challenge superficial comprehension, expand understanding, and hone analytic skills. The literary object offers itself to observation and deciphering through narrative techniques, internal clues, and external references that beckon the curiosity and intelligence of readers. (p. 3)

    And throughout the report there seems to be echoes of the tension between “transcending and returning to a disciplinary home” while simultaneously striving for interdisciplinarity that Laura notes above.

    Consider this excerpt:

    While we advocate incorporating into the major the study of a variety of texts, we insist that the most beneficial among these are literary works, which offer their readers a rich and challenging—and therefore rewarding—object of study. (p. 4)

    and then this one:

    The curriculum today faces multiple pressures: to speed up instruction, expand coverage, investigate new interests, use the resources provided by developing media, and meet benchmarks of achievement. But departments should resist the impulse to increase coverage at the expense of intensive engagement with great and complex works of literature. Most departments will feature courses that center on nonliterary texts, including but not limited to newspapers; film, digital, and other nonprint or print-plus media; and documents from law, medicine, and other professions. English and other language departments thus place their disciplinary specialty into a broader, extradepartmental framework from the outset of learning. (7)

    and finally this one:

    Institutions need to be encouraged to invest in the interdisciplinary capacities of their faculty members through support of team teaching and faculty development. Departments need to see the creative advantages of loosening their hold on curricular property, and faculty members need to be acculturated to the broad mission of their colleges and universities. Since the nineteenth century, the disciplinary home of language study has been the language and literature department. For better or for worse, this has meant that the fate of language and literature as subjects of study and inquiry has been linked to the fate of the department as an institutional structure.

    I am really not doing justice to either the “This is the Enlightenment” panel or the MLA paper, but the summary and ensuing comments about this panel made my, at times, all too associative mind recall this earlier report.

  4. Hi Eleanor,

    Yes, the 2008 MLA report to the Teagle Foundation raises a lot of these issues, which you quoted from, raises many of these issues, but there seem to be a lot of tacit assumptions involving the “we” that does what “we” do. As Laura R. suggested, an empirical approach might be a better starting point for this kind of inventory than a handful of people at the most selective institutions in the country. Certainly this is true if we truly wish to describe ourselves at a disciplinary level. But I am absolutely grateful that the Teagle Foundation and the MLA are at least raising these questions.

    As for the disciplinary/interdisciplinary issue, I think that while we would all like more institutional stability, I think that a prescriptive approach to defining literature has not worked and will not work in the future. Certainly not if we are assuming some degree of individual inquiry for both faculty and students, who must be free to make certain kinds of critical judgments and distinctions for themselves, though of course it’s not anything goes.

    My own suggestion would be that we need to think as much about the core skills that we are trying to impart as any group of core concepts. What does it mean to think, or speak, or write, as a literary critic, for example, or as a literary historian?

    I’d rather associate our discipline with a set of practices to be actively pursued–rationalized and explained of course with explicit concepts and categories–rather than an inert body of “content” that students passively internalize. This to me would bring us closer to the expansive, yet difficult regulative ideal of Enlightenment critique that I think eighteenth-century specialists work hard to understand and to aspire to.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    Thanks for putting those paragraphs together, which indeed reveal a similar tension between the desire to transcend and return to a disciplinary home. MLA/Teagle report perhaps leans a little more toward “return” and the Enlightenment panel toward “transcend,” but both have the same tension (contradiction?) embedded in them. Both also, I think, might be assuming a kind of institutional stability that might be in the process of becoming a luxury (although I could be–and hope to be–wrong about this).

  6. To the extent that literary periodizations, genres, forms, linguistic registers, and styles are all socially constituted conventions, that is, conventions formed and reproduced by groups of people within a social setting, and recognized and discussed by groups of people in a similarly embedded situation, I don’t see how we can eliminate the effect of those surrounding circumstances from our study of those conventions.

    In my view, social history has become an irreducible part of our research process, and one of the main ways that we test our literary categories for anachronism. (e.g., the “sentimentalism” of the Victorian novel identifies a different set of conventions than the “sentimentalism” of the 18th century novel)

    So, despite some creative-writing talk of “new formalisms,” I don’t see any retreat from the investigation of contexts in the analysis of the literature, at least from those committed to doing research. For all their talk of a return to what we know, both the Teagle report and the Siskin talk remain committed to some form of contextual investigation and therefore some degree of interdisciplinarity. Admittedly, these contexts are supposed to remain peripheral in comparison with the core attractions of literature. But who can say where that boundary should be drawn, and who will agree to such a prescriptive boundary to their distinctions between text and contexts, before they even begin their investigations or their interpretations?

    Thus,the elasticity of the concept of “context” is its whole point: it can expand as far as your argument and your evidence demands.

    While we’re discussing the elasticity of our critical terms, I should also bring up the very special relation between specific examples and general categories in literary studies: this is why we need to think about the crucial importance of corroboration.

    I don’t think that our critical concepts, which would include terms like “novel,” or “essay,” say, mean very much apart from the specific contexts of use (what argument are you making?) and specific contexts of application (which novels did you have in mind?). That is the reason why we need to see an entire argument about, say, the groupings of works (core and peripheral examples?), the chronological boundaries of one’s examples, and specific qualities of a general term like “novel” before we would accept someone else”s definition. The use of these terms, even the commonest ones, remains highly circumstantial, to be adapted rhetorically to whatever argument one wants to make.

  7. Eleanor Shevlin

    Yes, Dave, the presence of tacit assumptions about the “we” and what it is that this “we” does in the MLA 2008 White Paper (as Dave notes, undertaken with Teagle Foundation).

    I agree Laura the the MLA report leans more toward “return,” while the Enlightenment panel gravitates toward “transcending.”