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  • Social and Literary Form in the Spectator
  • Scott Black* (bio)

When Addison and Steele described the Spectator (1711–12) as a “Diurnal Essay,” they were claiming to be doubly modern, combining a literary innovation with a new technology. 1 The Spectator applied the rhythm of the daily newspapers to the essay, making the metropolitan press the measure of this literary form and providing a new use for the essay. 2 In turn, the periodical essay offered a new way to understand a sphere of social relations mediated by that periodical technology, and thus enabled a modern public distinct from both church and state. By applying the “Method” of an “Essay Writer” to the modern “Art of Printing” and the “Penny Papers” (S, no. 124, 1:507), Addison and Steele offered a mode of literary reflection for the modern city, using the form of the essay to represent—reflect, understand, explain, and define—its urban dynamics. 3

In this paper, I present a reconstructive account of the Spectator’s internal logic, formal and developmental, to argue that its particular—literary—history is integral to understanding its place in broader historical and cultural developments. I explain the Spectator as written at the convergence of three early-modern phenomena: a new use of print technology, a new literary form, and a new social space. I argue that the daily press, the essay, and the city were mutually defining; that is, each was defined in terms of the influence of, and its own effect upon, the others. A new literary form was developed at the intersection of the city and the press; a new urbane ethos emerged from this meeting of literary form and technology; and, finally, [End Page 21] that structure of politeness offered an indigenous form with which to explain the modern city to itself.

While recent accounts of the Spectator have complicated the once-standard Whiggish story of the rising middle class that featured Addison as the prophet of the bourgeoisie, those complications have not so much changed the terms of discussion as reversed them. 4 Now Addison is read as the ideologue of the bourgeoisie, an agent of “class-consolidation” or the “disciplinary regime” of modernity. 5 The effect of such criticism has been to focus on the persona of Mr. Spectator as a mechanism of modern subjectivity “constructed to subject readers to the anxiety of being observed” and to “force readers to conform to its values.” 6 The suggestion that literature has its effects because readers simply imitate texts—compelled either to follow the leader or to question authority—underlies the urgent questioning of such texts. But our own practice of criticism belies this simple conception of reading, and we are routinely able to recognize the text’s efficacy without falling prey to its seductions. While critics read texts like the Spectator as enforcing ideological subjection, they demonstrate their own more complicated responses in those readings, raising questions—and kinds of questions—that are supposed not to occur to readers. Similarly, I suggest that the interest of the Spectator is not exhausted by insisting on its “mystification” in grounding authority in a consensus that it helps create, or by noting that its “mode of free, apparently random discourse is used to disguise an ideological program” and remarking that its “cultural achievement” is “deeply political and ideological.” 7 In these terms, what else could it be? The study of ideology, though, often slips, in Raymond Williams’s words, from considering “the general process of the production of meanings and ideals” into an accusatory unmasking of “a system of illusory belief.” 8 When critics who study “ideology” slide from the former sense to the latter and make their points by uncovering “ideology,” they belie their critical assumptions by suggesting a pathos of discovery that could only mean something if there was a discourse somehow not ideological.

This paper is less concerned with evaluating bourgeois subject formation than with understanding its formal preconditions, and such a question can not be answered in the terms of identity without begging a further question about how the forms that were internalized came to be. I offer an account, then, of how a particular literary form...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 21-42
Launched on MUSE
1999-10-01
Open Access
No
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