In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Editor's Note
  • Jeffrey S. Ravel

"What does the Enlightenment have to do with the twenty-first century?" All of us who profess expertise in the eighteenth century have been asked a variant of this question over the last half dozen years by students, colleagues, and even close friends and family. Memories of past struggles to answer this query may have prompted Carol Blum and Jeffrey Merrick to seek answers at a round-table session during the 2005 ASECS Annual Meeting in Las Vegas. Volume 36 of Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture begins with James Swenson's impassioned answer to this fundamental issue, reprinted here largely as he delivered it during the round-table organized by Blum and Merrick in Las Vegas two years ago. Swenson frames his statement in terms of three words, "critique," "progress," and "autonomy," that animated intellectual commitments and political debates in the West over two centuries ago. The meanings imparted to these words in the eighteenth century retain their relevance, Swenson argues, in an early twenty-first century context characterized by rapid technological change, attempted global integration of economies and cultures, and rising religious fundamentalism. The problems we face today would not strike eighteenth-century thinkers as foreign, and the approaches they developed in response to these dilemmas may offer useful guidance now and in years to come. Above all, Swenson implies, if we want a usable Enlightenment we must understand it as a methodology for conducting our ongoing explorations of self, community, and the natural environment, rather than as a settled body of doctrine that appears increasingly disconnected from contemporary concerns.

The remaining contributors to Volume 36 also undertake critical investigation of eighteenth-century ideas and practices. Although the contributions to this volume are based on conference papers given at different times and places during the 2004-2005 academic year, I have grouped them under headings that allow their common concerns to emerge. The first set of articles, gathered under the rubric "Media and Messages," provides novel views of a theme that has been central to research on the eighteenth century in recent decades: the possibilities and limitations of print. Eve Tavor Bannet considers the impact of printed epistolary manuals on letter-writing throughout the British Atlantic world. Her analysis shows that epistolary manuals were hardly fixed [End Page vii] texts, as printers in different colonial outposts adopted formulae first shaped by London expectations to local desires and needs. Furthermore, she notes, the editors of these manuals consistently reminded their readers that information and impressions recorded in hand-written epistles grew out of oral conversation, and that these letters might be read out loud at their destination. While eighteenth-century letter-writing practices took shape in part due to their engagement with print, they remained firmly rooted in oral habits. Madeleine Forrell Marshall expands on the complex relations between print and orality via an in-depth analysis of a largely ignored 1789 book, Sheridan's Strictures on Reading the Church Service. The goal of this work was to instruct British men of the cloth in the proper oral performance of prayers and hymns; its author insisted that they should emulate the "natural" cadence of the illiterate during services, rather than mimicking the stylized rhythms of over-educated elites who had strayed too far from the original, divine word of God. The great paradox of the text, of course, is that the author resorted to print to convey this message; similarly, Marshall challenges readers of SECC to extrapolate from her print presentation in order to gain insight into the nature of spoken communication in late eighteenth-century Britain. Daniel Rosenberg returns our focus exclusively to the world of print, where he explores how the scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley created the timeline in the 1760s. Priestley's "graphic invention of time," as exemplified in his Chart of Biography and Chart of History, has been so spectacularly successful that we have naturalized the timeline as a means of organizing the massive and confusing data of the past. Rosenberg allows us to revisit the moment when the technology of print was first harnessed for this purpose, and he also shows us the response of dissenters like the...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. vii-xi
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.