I propose that “tact” emerged in Britain as an ethical and aesthetic response to social changes in population and urbanization in the early nineteenth century. I briefly contextualize this emergence, against older forms of social “manners,” before demonstrating how the sensibility of tact is best examined in the critically-neglected Essays of Elia, written by Charles Lamb in the 1820s. Close readings show how tact works to oppose and undermine systems of totalizing and imperializing epistemology (like that of Lamb’s work colleague James Mill) and do so in order to open up a “neutral,” uncolonized, middle space of relation, which I relate to the psychoanalyst D. W. W. Winnicott’s theory of “transitional space.” Finally, I compare Lamb’s discursively constructed neutral space with a similar construction in the writings of Jeremy Bentham, to show how they provide a shared sense of the social exigencies of their time (and another point of convergence between the Romantics and Utilitarians) before distinguishing Lamb from Bentham on their very different attitudes towards temporal “progress.”


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pp. 179-209
Launched on MUSE
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