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)