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  • The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia
  • Per Serritslev Petersen
Joanna Stalnaker, The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. 240 pp.

Thomas Jefferson famously announced his American Enlightenment project (carved in gold letters on the wall of the Trustees’ Room of the New York Public Library) as follows: “I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man.” Like Jefferson (who actually bought a copy of the Encyclopédie while in Paris), Joanna Stalnaker also starts her study of the Enlightenment with France to conclude it in her native US with the “unfinished” business of Google’s current mass-digitization of books and libraries (Google Books) as a kind of postmodern high-tech Enlightenment project. It is “unfinished” because the American Google project seems to be as riddled with complexities as that of the original French Enlightenment. Will Google Books, for instance, tend to favor the Internet practice of reading only snippets rather than complete books?

Stalnaker focuses on the crucial role of description in French Enlightenment encyclopedism, documented by the sheer number of articles on description in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and the Encyclopédie méthodique. Her study falls into three main parts. Part I deals with the theory and practice of description in natural history as manifested in Buffon and Daubenton’s ambitious Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749–1789) and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s more experimental and less scientific Études de la nature (1784–1788). Part II addresses the issue of description in the Encyclopédie (1751–1752) itself, using Diderot’s article on the stocking machine as a case study, and concludes by analyzing the genre of descriptive poetry as an “attempt to give poetic form to Enlightenment encyclopedism” (125). In Part III, Stalnaker deals with description as physical as well as moral-political topography. She compares Louis Sébastien Mercier’s two descriptions of Paris, the twelve-volume Tableau de Paris presenting pre-revolutionary Paris and its social mores and Le nouveau Paris, presenting revolutionary Paris where Mercier, thanks to his moderantisme, was imprisoned and barely escaped execution during the Terror. The figure of Mercier as describer in the two works is, Stalnaker notes in her Introduction, significantly [End Page 175] differerent: in Tableau de Paris he serves both as “a unifying principle and as an agent of change,” whereas in Le nouveau Paris he has become “a self-conscious historical subject whose fragmented perceptions and limited point of view can only provide a kaleidoscope of perspectives, in a way that marked a definitive break with the Enlightenment’s descriptive project” (27).

As a well researched and well argued interdisciplinary study of Enlightenment description, Stalnaker’s book evidently transcends C. P. Snow’s two-culture chasm, the still on-going post-Enlightenment conflict between the sciences and the humanities. In her Introduction, Stalnaker comments on the late-Enlightenment “cordoning off of literature from science” and on how “the absolute divide between science and literature” was further reinforced by late-twentieth-century structuralism and poststructuralism (4). Still, in her Preface, she insists on describing her book as “very much a literary study,” even though it pays close attention to “epistemological context” (xii), arguing, somewhat paradoxically, that since “the trajectory of [her] work has been from text to context, it is perhaps not surprising that [she] still tend[s] to favor literary analysis” (xiii). But it is surely surprising if by literary analysis she is aligning herself and her interdisciplinary study with some updated version of American New Criticism as distinct from, one would imagine, more suitable methodological paradigms such as Discourse Theory or Cultural Studies.

Stalnaker’s detailed study of the complexities of scientific description in Buffon and Daubenton’s Histoire naturelle and Saint-Pierre’s Études de la nature is perhaps the best and most stimulating part of her book. Buffon and Daubenton were originally collaborators working together according to a specific division of labor, one based on the so-called history-description divide...


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pp. 175-179
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