- The Self and It: Novel Objects in Eighteenth-Century England
As Julie Park details in The Self and It, the eighteenth century marked the rise of fascination with animate and inanimate reproductions of human beings. This was an age when dolls, automata, and puppet-shows were not merely the playthings of children, as they would become in the nineteenth century, but the serious pursuit of ingenious inventors and an absorbing source of interest for educated people, including its writers. The leisure activities of eighteenth-century people included the admiration of waxwork portraits of famous people and fictional characters. Burney's Evelina was just one in a large crowd to visit Coxe's Museum of mechanical objects. Henry Fielding and Charlotte Charke were keen amateur puppeteers. Park's project in this book is to link this fashion with larger cultural and epistemological phenomena and changes that characterize the eighteenth century. The fascination with human-like objects corresponds with the rise of consumerism and the increasing identification of people with what they wore and bought. This commercial objectification of personal identity in turn profoundly affected notions of the "self," which began to be decentered towards external appearances and sensations. In literary production, the novel (as the emergent name of this genre indicates) was driven by the consumer craving for novelty. The novel is, moreover, rather like a doll-show, puppet-show, or exhibition of ingenuous automata. It cunningly reproduces the illusion of real human behavior—though this illusion, like the consumer and mechanical illusions around it, also became a place where readers modeled their understanding of "true" inward identity.
As this synopsis suggests, Park's book zeroes in on an interconnected range of psychological paradoxes that proliferated in the eighteenth century, and that remain, she claims, the paradoxical experience of modernity. The "Enlightenment" (a historical category that I will shortly question) valued itself for demystifying irrationality, a rationalistic drive exemplified by its manufacture of animate phenomena with springs and wheels rather than souls. Yet its experiments produced precisely the kinds of irrational wonder and magical "fetishizing" that reason was meant to dispel. Park deploys the term "fetish" in both its Marxist and Freudian senses. In the Marxist sense, this consumer age obviously invested objects with value abstracted from their material production. It also fixated on automata and puppets that, like Marx's famous moving table, appeared to possess their own animating power. The same delusion characterizes that literary consumer object, the novel, whose cast of characters seems to engage in all kinds of human behavior autonomously and without the manipulation of a creator. The novel thus participated in a more general desire for "the effacement of boundaries between person and thing, subject and object" (38). In measuring and shaping their identities against "things," including the artificial world of novels, the outward became indistinguishable from the inward.
Park's use of Freud's meaning of "fetish" is rich in connections. It is worth noting that Park's return to Freud, a figure repressed in much recent scholarship, feels uncanny, though she treats, or even castrates, Freud as the heir of Enlightenment delusions and paradoxes rather than as a paternal authority. Turning Freud on his head, Park advances the ingenious and entirely plausible thesis that the female, not the male, became the primary model of human selfhood during the eighteenth century. The Freudian (male) fetishist fantasizes over parts or detached accoutrements of a woman to fill her lack of an unseen, and nonexistent, penis. In Clarissa, Lovelace is a fetishist who dwells on parts of the heroine in a desperate search for her genitalia that even rape cannot consummate. Indeed, his creator Richardson is also a fetishist who imagines his doll-like [End Page 350] angel, his fictional automaton, only though the detached excrescence of her letters, or how she is perceived outwardly by others. Clarissa illustrates the male perception of women as essentially automata, painted figures animated mechanically by sensations. But this perception underwrites an uncanny male return to painted female objects, paradigmatically the prostitute, pointing...