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The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s:
Print Culture and the Public Sphere

by Paul Keen

Chapter One: The Republic of Letters

  1. The late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century republic of letters was always implicitly political because it was part of a broader hegemonic shift toward the middle class. But Goldgar distinguishes between the literary republics at the end of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (which she identifies as the erudit and philosophe republics of letters) primarily in terms of political orientation. The focus of late seventeenth-century scholars was inward; the public which they cared about was each other. Jean d'Alembert'sAlthough the increase of knowledge was an avowed goal . . . the benefit of the larger society was not a major concern." [11] Their Enlightenment heirs, however, celebrated knowledge as power, believing that they could use it to change the world by encouraging political reform in the public sphere, and moral reform in the private. It is in terms of this growing sense of a wider social obligation that we must locate Dena Goodman"s description of the Jean d'Alembert'sseriousness of purpose" of the Enlightenment republic of letters. [12]

  2. This redefinition of the republic of letters in terms of its relations to its wider social context was reinforced by the increasingly commercial nature of British society. In their studies of different aspects of mid eighteenth-century literary culture, critics such as Jerome Christensen and Frank Donoghue identify the sophisticated nature of the book trade as a key reason for the erosion of the insularity of the older respublica literaria. Authors" perception of their work as property forced them to negotiate a complex array of pressures and opportunities which brought them into closer contact with a widening reading public that was no longer composed solely of other authors. The effects of these developments were double-edged. They reinforced authors" location within a much wider nexus of relations that included publishers and readers, but at the same, they could also alienate authors from their readers by immersing them within a bewildering network of impersonal exchanges that substituted financial reward for the earlier spirit of mutuality. But whether these commercial developments were viewed positively or negatively, observers agreed that like the growing campaign for political reform, they had transformed the republic of letters in a fundamental way. [13]

  3. Jurgen Habermas traces this shift in authors" primary concerns in terms of the changing meaning of the word Jean d'Alembert'spublicity" from the earlier feudal sense of the stylized Jean d'Alembert'saura" of the aristocrat to the rise of the more modern sense of publicity as a cultural domain Jean d'Alembert'swhose decisive mark was the published word". Building on the traffic in news that was established along early trade routes, territorial rulers mobilized the press as an important organ of public authority. Eventually, however, the absolutist government of the mercantile state Jean d'Alembert'sprovoked the critical judgement of a public making use of its reason". Reversing its originally hegemonic role, the public sphere of the printed word Jean d'Alembert'swas now casting itself loose as a forum in which the private people, come together to form a public, readied themselves to compel public authority to legitimate itself before public opinion". [14]

  4. Habermas"s account of this historical shift in the meaning of the word Jean d'Alembert'spublicity" from aristocratic aura to communicative process is analogous to Michel Foucault"s sense of a shift from an earlier epoch in which power functioned by displaying itself in rituals such as public executions to a disciplinary form of power ? symbolized by Jeremy Bentham"s plans for a panopticon ? which reversed this dynamic by emphasizing the visibility of the subjects rather than the rulers. Whereas Foucault"s sense of this historical shift is pessimistic (modern life as a prison), Habermas emphasizes the liberating aspects of this version of publicity in which political subjects Jean d'Alembert'swere to think their own thoughts, directed against the authorities". [15]

  5. Importantly, however, Habermas also stresses that the public sphere was in no way reducible to the literary sphere. The literary sphere was important as a means of fostering a process of Jean d'Alembert'sself-clarification" which enabled a community of private individuals to recognize themselves as a public. This domain included both the actual practice of letter writing, through which Jean d'Alembert'sthe individual unfolded himself in his subjectivity", and the fictional counterpart of this practice, the epistolary novel. Although the political public sphere was constituted through this process of self-discovery, it was rooted in a wide array of formal and informal practices and modes of association that went far beyond the literary sphere. [16] These included various forms of local government and other civic institutions, such as hospitals and charity organizations, theatres, museums, and concert halls, learned and philanthropic societies, organized debating societies and meeting places, such as coffee houses, where the latest news could be discussed. Print culture was only one aspect of a complex array of social relations enabling critical discussion.

  6. As the reform movement in Britain accelerated in the 1780s and 1790s, however, critics attributed an increasingly political role to literature that went far beyond the subjective and therefore private task of facilitating a process of self-interpretation: it was the single most effective means by which people could engage each other in a rational debate whose authority all governments would be compelled to recognize. In this more political guise, literature functioned as a kind of group project where the goal was to project the interests of the group so clearly onto the public consciousness that relations of power would give way to questions of morality.

  7. Political Justice may have been notorious amongst critics who saw little reason for enthusiasm in the growing restlessness for reform, but amongst its advocates, Godwin"s ideas about the role of litera [8] ture were far from unique. Reformers were united by their sense of the contradiction between the closed system of formal politics and the liberating force of a free press as an enabling dialectic fostering a growing critique of the hegemonic order. And they were convinced that history was on their side. The Analytical Review shared Godwin"s interfusion of pessimism and optimism about current social conditions, a blend which guaranteed the heroic role of literature (and authors) as an Jean d'Alembert'sengine" capable of alleviating oppression:

              To dispel those clouds of ignorance, and to disperse that mass of errour, which have hitherto been so baneful to society, ought to be the first business of enlightened minds. It is only by giving men rational ideas of the nature of society, and of the duties and interests of human beings, that the obstacles to the progress of human happiness are to be removed. When such ideas are thoroughly disseminated, reason will soon triumph over tyranny without external violence, and under the auspices of freedom general prosperity will arise.
              Towards the accomplishment of this great end the labours of many eminent writers have, of late years, been directed. Their works have been sought with avidity, and read with attention; and the influence of their speculations has already been visible in the active spirit of inquiry, which has been excited amongst all ranks of men. (22 (1795): 545)

    Paying tribute to the same process, Mary Hays insisted that the gradual pace of the dawning of truth was a sign of strength rather than weakness. Human faculties, enfeebled by the continued effects of prejudice, could not immediately adapt themselves to Jean d'Alembert'sthe sudden splendour" of the full force of these Jean d'Alembert'sjust and liberal notions". [17] The magnitude of these transformations did not make them seem any less inevitable though. The Monthly Review allowed, in their account of an English translation of Volney"s Ruins, that the arrival of a new era Jean d'Alembert'swhen the whole race will form one great society" was not Jean d'Alembert'sspeedily to be expected". But the undeniable fact was that Jean d'Alembert'seven now . . . a new age opens; an age of astonishment to vulgar souls, of surprize and fear to tyrants, of freedom to a great people, and of hope to all the world" (6 (1791): 553). In The Proper Objects of Education (1791), which was originally given as a talk at the Dissenters" Meeting Hall at the Old Jewry, Joseph Priestley agreed that Jean d'Alembert's[i]n science, in arts, in government, in morals, and in religion, much is to be done . . . but few . . . are able, and at the same time willing, to do it" (2). But like his reformist contemporaries, Priestley insisted that the Jean d'Alembert'stimes are fully ripe for . . . reformation" (23), and mocked those who resisted the inevitable dawning of truth:

    The late writings in favour of liberty, civil and religious, have been like a beam of light suddenly thrown among owls, bats, or moles, who, incapable of receiving any pleasure or benefit from it, can only cry out, and hide themselves, when the light approaches, and disturbs them. But may this light increase, and let all who are offended by it retire into whatever holes they think proper. (36?7)

    By juxtaposing the enormity of entrenched prejudice with the Jean d'Alembert'ssure operation of increasing light and knowledge", reformers implied that the conservatives" greatest error was their inability to see the futility of clinging to inherited traditions as the primary guide to future progress. Jean d'Alembert'sCan ye not discern the signs of the times?" asked Anna Barbauld. [18] By transforming the dynamics of the current age into a semiotics writ large, Barbauld converted history itself into a text in the precise image of the reformist dream of publicity: universally available and potentially educational.

  8. Many reformers also shared Godwin"s more particular emphasis on the role of literature in promoting Jean d'Alembert'sthe collision of mind with mind", rather than simply communicating the epiphanies of inspired individuals ? or what amounted to the same thing, unexamined ideas ? to the reading public. The Monthly Review, which celebrated Priestley as someone who, Jean d'Alembert'sby a sort of collision, strike[s] from reluctant minds some sparks of truth" (5 (1791): 303), offered its own pages as a place where these sorts of exchanges might find a home: Jean d'Alembert'sAs discussion is that collision of minds by which the sparks of truth are often excited, we are always desirous of promoting the operation of this mental flint and steel, provided it be used with politeness and good temper" (33 (1800): 371). Mary Hays argued that Jean d'Alembert'sthe truth must . . . like the pure gold, come out uninjured from a trial by fire, which can consume only the dross that obscured its lustre". [19] Intellectual investigations must themselves be open to an unrestricted process of investigation in order that their assumptions might be tested, and their positive contributions extracted. What was not truth was intellectual dross, which would be consumed by those exchanges out of which truth would ultimately emerge.

  9. What remained constant for the advocates of this vision was the connection between the ideal of liberty and the improving powers of what Mary Wollstonecraft called the Jean d'Alembert'srapidly multiplied copies of the productions of genius and compilations of learning, bringing them within the reach of all ranks of men". [20] Exchanges in print might lead to new ideas, but literature"s role as a means of producing new forms of knowledge needed to be balanced against its other function as a medium for the diffusion of these ideas throughout society. Using the example of Russia, the Monthly Review warned that where the various fields of learning did not become Jean d'Alembert'snaturalized to the soil . . . of national culture", they existed in a state which resembled Jean d'Alembert'sa greenhouse, in which exotics are kept alive by artificial warmth . . . In such circumstances, they certainly do honour to the liberality and taste of those who are at the expence of preserving them: but they are of little service in adorning and fertilizing the country" (4 (1791): 481).

  10. Godwin"s insistence that unrestricted discussion was the surest guarantee of liberty was reinforced by the conviction of many reformist authors that vice was a result of ignorance. Properly educated, even the most hardened criminal would recognize that his true interests lay in obeying the laws of his society. Catherine Macaulay argued that Jean d'Alembert's[t]here is not a wretch who ends his miserable being on a wheel, as the forfeit of his offences against society, who may not throw the whole blame of his misdemeanours on his education". [21] William Wordsworth"s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge"s emphasis on the capacity of reading to make us more fully human through the exercise of the imagination finds its Enlightenment antecedent in the stress on education as a basis of individual and social reform. By fusing personal virtue and political liberty in a single redemptive process, reformers were able to counter the conservative argument that genuine political reform was impossible without a prior reform in the character of the people themselves. In its review of Godwin"s Political Justice, the Monthly Review insisted that because Jean d'Alembert'sindividual and general ignorance" was the source of Jean d'Alembert'sall the oppression that exists among mankind . . . A general diffusion of knowledge [was] the only remedy for these evils" (9 (1793): 311). This diffusion of knowledge was frequently equated with the development of a set of rational standards of opinion within and even between nations ? a unanimity that was not necessarily ever fully achieved but which was understood to exist none the less as a kind of vanishing point to which all debates were inescapably destined. Those who dissented from this optimistic position were owls, bats, or moles, who were free to scurry into whatever dark recesses they could find.

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