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Book Reviews in human malleability or, in Rousseau's ironical formulation, "perfectibility." In loosely chronological fashion, Douthwaite examines an array of British and French sources, from novels to pedagogical treatises and natural philosophy. Her focus is experiments on and the experimental attitude towards human and not-quite-human subjects. Many of these experiments are speculative. Condillac envisions a statue endowed with sensibility to bolster his Lockean epistemology. Rousseau imagines a paradoxical pedagogical project: the construction of natural man. As the cases of various "wild children" studied in the opening chapter demonstrate, however, speculation usually runs afoul of experience. Although it was hoped that these children, untainted by society, might lend empirical support to hypotheses about perfectibility, the original human constitution , or the acquisition of language and knowledge, these unruly subjects tended instead to thwart expectations. Likewise, experimentally inclined pedagogues and parents in the real world discovered that theory could translate disastrously into practice. In short, having posited experimentalism and empiricism as desiderata, many thinkers were then forced to face facts. In her epilogue, Douthwaite remarks that the "Enlightenment imagination " was "haunted by the possibility of failure." The specter of failure is so integral to her study that I am tempted to call it the true subject. Here, the author has chosen a daunting task: to write simultaneously the narrative of the steady ascendance of the ideal of perfectibility and the counter-narrative of constant setbacks. While there could be greater methodological clarity on this score, the reader comes away convinced that only an approach that takes up both strands is adequate. For the first of these narratives, the French Revolution serves as a violent culmination of the hope that humanity might be radically reshaped. In this tale of rise and catastrophe, Sade's teratoid libertines become hyperbolic instantiations of the experimental attitude, while Mary Shelley's monster appears the anxious encapsulation of the previous century's obsessions. For the second, Douthwaite shows that the narrative of perfectibility was never particularly stable and always subject to breakdown. In both instances, the author sometimes mounts critiques that appear perfunctory. That implicit biases of class and gender inform many of the works studied can seem more a confirmation of our own confident narratives of progress than a profound insight into the earlier period. Similarly, gestures towards the Enlightenment's hidden "fascism" rehearse claims made long ago by Adorno and Horkheimer in their sweeping dialectical account of Western rationality and with more attention to historical detail by Lester Crocker. These weaknesses are eclipsed, however, by a countervailing strength: Douthwaite provides a picture of the period sufficiently rich to defy such reductive characterizations. Against Hans Blumenberg's thesis of the ever-increasing legitimation of scientific curiosity or Foucault's stifling classical episteme, Douthwaite helps us see clearly that the "age of Enlightenment," while certainly marked by general trends, was a varied, contested, and shifting terrain. James A. Steintrager University of California, Irvine Nick Nesbitt, Voicing Memory: History and Subjectivity in French Caribbean Literature. Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia, 2003. Pp. xviii + 258. Hb $55.00, pb $18.50. Given the prominence in French Caribbean literature of the problems of memory and history, and the amount of critical attention they have already received, the title of Nick Nesbitt's book might lead one to expect that it merely goes yet again over very familiar ground. But in fact this is an original, forcefully argued analysis, and one that is historical, philosophical and even musicological as much as, or more than, it is literary. Not all the texts studied are primarily representations of the past or the processes of memory; rather, Nesbitt is concerned with historical consciousness , defined in opposition to a natural or mythological vision of reality, as the awareness of the historical nature of social reality and hence its capacity for change. It is, he argues, inaugurated by imperialism, and therefore most acutely developed in writers whose lives are marked Vol. XLIV, No. 4 99 L'Esprit Créateur by (neo)colonialism—so that writers from the French Caribbean are best understood from a dialectical perspective in which the present contains the possibility of its own negation, a possibility which is embodied in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 99-100
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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