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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 284-291
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The Self Found in Histories
California State University, Bakersfield
Patrick Coleman, Jayne Lewis, and Jill Kowalik, eds. Representations of the Self from the Renaissance to Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. 296. $59.95 cloth.
Daniel Walker Howe. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). Pp. x + 342. $45.00 cloth.
Susan Clair Imbarrato. Declarations of Independency in Eighteenth-Century American Autobiography (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1998). Pp. xix + 171. $32.50 cloth.
Michael Mascuch. Origins of the Individualist Self: Autobiography and Self-Identity in England, 1591-1791 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996). Pp. 277. $47.00 cloth.
Roy Porter, ed. Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Routledge, 1997). Pp. xii + 283. $25.49 paper.
Thinking about the self in the early modern period continues to offer possibilities for European and American studies, especially considerations of "life-writing," such as biography and autobiography. Common questions implicitly or explicitly shape these investigations; certain answers suggest traditional, postmodern, or combined approaches in criticism. The books under consideration [End Page 284] may suggest that these three approaches continue simultaneously to shape scholarship and that no real consensus has yet been reached.
Asking "What is a self?" obviously involves a host of related questions. Are selves innately equipped with an authentic, mostly stable inner reality, or are they made and shifting: constructed, fashioned, performed, and represented? How does an individual recognize herself as distinct from but related to various kinds of communities? What is the relationship between consciousness and the human body? What kinds of expression, verbal or otherwise, are evidence of the nature of individuality? When is one person representative of his era or of his community, and when is he against its grain? Did any significant changes occur in understanding individuality during the early modern period? And, if so, were these changes causes or effects of contemporary social structures and economics?
On the one hand, familiar accounts, often associated with values ascribed to "humanism" or the Enlightenment, describe the historical emergence of an independent self that both triumphs over internal hindrances to achieve self-knowledge or expression and overcomes external obstacles to achieve autonomy. In some critiques of humanist accounts, especially by feminist and more recently by multiculturalist thinkers, this emerging self is understood as not universal but limited to white, ruling-class males. The concept of a self-determining identity, however, is not always abandoned in such criticism, which continues to envision selves who would be autonomous if cultural circumstances had been altered. On the other hand, this seemingly autonomous, essential self is sometimes held to be a fiction created in the service of cultural goals. Fairly recent explanations of the self involve a high degree of skepticism and a rejection of traditional accounts. Of course, skepticism about the self's enduring integrity is not new. Eighteenth-century philosophers, such as Hume and Kant, explored various difficulties in the idea of a unified, knowable self. What is relatively new, however, is a skepticism about the self as a defensible entity at all. Postmodern thinking, especially that based in the work of Michel Foucault, posits the pre-eminence of "structures," found in every aspect of culture, that shape the self while fostering an illusion of the self's independence. Viewed in this way, the ostensible integrity of the autonomous self dissolves into a collection of contingencies resulting from cultural forces such as language, civic bureaucracies, etc. Therefore, the study of a contingent self is thought to reveal a specific era.
Two concerns seem currently pressing, especially so in a post-Foucault era. First, there is a need to restore a nuanced account of agency in our understanding of selfhood. It's easy to notice how some titles of academic writing indirectly raise this concern: gerunds provide the sole verbal force and sometimes, perhaps intentionally, blur the nature of agency involved. For example, in one title under consideration here, the reader may wonder who is doing the "rewriting": cultural...