Thursday, May 28, 2009
Some Methods of Breeding
This is a guest post by David Mazella, an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston, and a co-founder and managing editor of the scholarly blog, The Long Eighteenth. He is the author of a cultural and conceptual history of cynicism, The Making of Modern Cynicism (University of Virginia Press, 2007).
I’m going to follow Jenny Davidson’s lead, and offer a “partial”* criticism of this remarkable book, which is, after all, subtitled a “partial history of the eighteenth century.” And for those puzzled by the precise meaning of “partial” on the title-page, Davidson glosses the term in her Introduction, where she justifies her own critical approach with the figure of Austen’s “partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian.” With this nod towards Austen’s extraordinarily concentrated narration, Davidson hints that this book, like Austen’s, will abjure the usual, chock-a-block style of academic narrative, and cultivate instead a listening-pose, in which she hopes to overhear the “echoes and responses and recapitulations [that] emerge from a congeries of voices” (12).
Consequently, this book is conceived as a “nuance exercise” (11) that is linked with the characteristic strengths of both historical scholarship in the humanities and literary studies in its Barthesian, writerly mode. In its close attention to the nuances of language, rhetoric, and historical change, this book opposes itself to the broader, more continuously narrated accounts of the nature/culture divide found in the history of science, cultural studies and critical theory. Whether she has left these rival accounts behind, however, or simply swerved around them, remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, in the spirit of Austen’s devotion to the single detail that has the potential to tell the whole story, we should think further about this “micronetwork” or sequence of terms, and consider how they might apply, ironically or not, to Davidson’s own project. “Partial” seems an apt way to describe her fondness for the literary, philosophical, and scientific writers she handles with such deftness and care. “Prejudiced” might be the term you’d want to apply to this book, if you were interested in finding more critical treatment of these writers. Ignorant? Not a chance. In a book that repeatedly revisits the role of “selection” in a variety of natural and cultural contexts, Davidson seems hyper-aware of the manifold resemblances and potential filiations of the writings she describes. So it seems best to assume that any omissions here are strategic, part of the way that she cuts rapidly from one scene to the next, as a “partial historian” who can afford to leave things unsaid.
The disciplinary priorities, then, of this “partial historian” are fairly clear, and fairly lopsided. She will subordinate the literal to the figurative, the scientific to the humanist, the argumentative to the narrative, the historical to the literary, and the whole to its parts. She argues, for example,
There’s something to be said for the worm’s-eye view, and I have more or less deliberately adopted the trope of synecdoche—taking the part for the whole, operating by means of contiguity and association—over the more accepted modes of analogy and argument, though I will pay my courtesies (to borrow an eighteenth-century image) to those interpretive modes. (12)
The elegance of this passage, its figurative brilliance and its deliberate echoes of eighteenth-century polite usage, however, put me in mind of another voice, that of the late historian E.P. Thompson, who once observed, “no one is more susceptible to the charms of the gentry’s life than the historian of the eighteenth century . . . . The historian can easily identify with his [sic] sources: he sees himself riding to hounds, or attending Quarter Sessions, or (if he is less ambitious) he sees himself as at least seated at Parson Woodforde’s groaning table” (17). Though I do not think that Breeding ever falls into this kind of morally complacent identification with its sources, this seems to me like a real danger with its self-consciously literary approach. I’m curious whether other readers (or Davidson herself) would be interested in discussing this issue of writerly identification and the ideological operations that dictate their own logic of “parts for the whole.” And isn’t one of the points of an interdisciplinary approach is that it cuts across the fantasies of disciplinary self-sufficiency offered by, say, literature on its own?
The presence/absence of Thompson in this book also made me wonder about the function of Raymond Williams, and more generally social history, in its historical frameworks, which seem largely tacit, but which pop in from time to time to do their explanatory duty (see, for example, p. 33). I’m familiar with this problem of assigning historical causes to longer-term semantic shifts, because I faced a similar problem myself in my discussions of cynicism’s historical evolution, but I was also curious whether others felt that her intermittent references towards, e.g., broad social changes” (33) provided as much explanatory force as they were supposed to?
So those would be the questions I’d put to the other readers (and Davidson herself): how does this book’s literariness, its determination to resemble its literary parents, affect its view of its subject-matter, especially when it seems intent on ventriloquizing eighteenth-century voices and attitudes? And how do social history, and broader issues of collective linguistic usage, fit into an historical account that focuses primarily on individual, literary examples?
*I’m using “partial” in the OED’s senses of “favourably disposed, sympathetic”)
You have raised some deep questions, ones that I have lost quite a bit of sleep over myself! (Especially re: the partial and the prejudiced, and also the question of tracing semantic shifts and the power and limits of a “keyword” approach to literary-cultural-intellectual history.) There’s too much here for me to tackle in a brief comment, so perhaps for now I’ll just respond to the first question in your final paragraph. I skirt around exactly that question in the discussion of Foucault’s “What is Enlightenment?” essay in the last part of the book, but I suppose I fall down on the side of continuities and identifications rather than disjuncture and differences - the Dorinda Outram discussion in opening is also a way of raising though not settling similar questions. I am drawn to the eighteenth century because it is at once deeply familiar (Locke sounds _contemporary_ to me in a way that Hobbes or Milton does not) and quite strange (within a single paragraph, Locke himself can go from sounding like a 1970s-style advocate of progressive education to a highly idiosyncratic seventeenth-century natural historian with more in common with Burton or Browne than Pestalozzi or Montessori or Robert Coles), and I agree with an earlier comment that my own affinities are more “early modern” than “postmodern” - I find the tools I need were already available, for the most part (if in some nascent form!), to eighteenth-century writers, I am natively skeptical about the notion of a form of critique peculiar to the late twentieth or early twenty-first century. That said, I was just having a depressing e-mail exchange with a friend about Locke’s involvement in slave trading - so I don’t want to downplay the ethical questions (as opposed to the more epistemological ones!) that arise from my observations on this front…
All this is understood, and I hope to hear more from you about the keywords approach, which I agree is both very powerful and very constraining, in the way that all good approaches are.
And, for the record, I do think that a “partial” study like yours, which takes on the cluster of lesser-known terms surrounding “breeding,” will yield a far more effective and interesting analysis of the nature/culture divide than the thousandth reiteration that focuses simply on the “dominant” terms in isolation from their fellow-terms.
So keywords get more interesting, in my opinion, when they are seen as clusters (or micronetworks) with historical configurations and reconfigurations, and when the contexts of their use and abuse (including not just author but genre, occasion, reception, etc.) get factored in.
I suppose the most striking thing for me, though, was the degree to which the formalist/rhetorical trope of synecdoche “part for the whole” could be redescribed as “ideological,” and I was wondering whether your uses of “synecdoche” include (or could include?) some notion of “ideology,” with all its assumptions about critique. In other words, is “synecdoche” the only tool you need to understand what’s going on in your story of breeding, or is something like a post-18th century notion of “ideology” floating around in the background?