- Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention, & Community 1762 to 1830
In his short but evocative epilogue, Jon Mee conjures up the specter of a perhaps bygone social practice: conversation as "productive collision" (280). While virtual global communication feigns intellectual freedom, community building, and critical thinking, and the modern university streamlines learning and knowledge for the sake of economic viability and professional accountability, Mee insists that communication, conversation, and debate ought to be challenging and complicated. Indeed, "[c]ommunication need not to be conceived of in terms of either the conquest of alterity or the reciprocity of transparent minds" (281).
Mee's own take on the eighteenth-century history of colliding and critical sociability unveils how the different sociable encounters in conversations—whether in the tavern, the club, the home, or the salon—are all determined by specific historical and ideological paradigms. The idea of "productive collision" is thus just one of the ideological frameworks that we encounter in the long eighteenth century. The aim of this book is to investigate and contextualize the philosophical [End Page 167] and material conditions of conversation. Hand in hand, therefore, goes a discussion about social norms and behavior, gender, religion, and the philosophy of sociability. Mee is particularly convincing in his reconsideration of Habermas's communicative rationality in the Enlightenment public sphere. Indeed, he shows that the idea of "public discourse" and conversation is varied and often contradictory during the period under investigation. He thus taps into the still ongoing reassessment of the Habermasian public sphere, and focuses particularly on the nature of the dialogue as individuals either met in conversation or exchanged views via print media. Mee "understands the republic of letters not as the unfolding of consciousness but as the creation of manifold interactions that may never reach a common voice; a place of collision, misunderstanding, resistance, and silence as much as recognition or communion" (281). He argues that after the 1790s, due to cultural and political censorship, this varied cross-fertilization of ideas and creation of meaning in conversation is increasingly muted, discouraged, or displaced—and, if we follow this trajectory, streamlined into a twenty-first-century "imposed participation in contention" (280).
Conversable Worlds is divided into two parts: the first explores the culture of conversation in the eighteenth century; the second traces the transformation of the idea and practice of conversation throughout the Romantic period. In part one, Mee rightly insists on the diversity of places and practices of conversation. Conversations happened in salons, book clubs, debating societies, taverns, and coffee houses; were recorded in diaries; and were continued in writing in periodicals and epistolary exchanges. Conversations were motivated by eighteenth-century commercial culture, Whig values, ideas of perfectibility, self-improvement, and social mobility, as well as Dissenting strategies of intellectual exchange. Clearly—and Jon Mee introduces his book with this admission—conversation is a complex and contradictory concept that was so much theorized and debated by different authors and philosophers in the eighteenth century that it seems somewhat intangible. Mee nevertheless manages to chart quite clearly the complexities of the idea of conversation in each historical moment. He convincingly traces the overlaps between ideas of social mobility, commercial sociability, and conversation as modernizing, and traces the tensions between precisely this commercial culture and ideas on social coherence and sympathy. The Spectator, as "the key text of the paradigm of conversability" ( ) , presented conversation as a certain social ritual that allowed for communication and exchange, yet solidified existing social identities. Shaftesbury's principle of "amicable collision" (45) challenged The Spectator's polite, but in his eyes vacuous, sociability as much as did Samuel Johnson's "talking for victory" (84)—an overwhelming and alert wit that sometimes skirted along incivility. These few examples show that no one model of conversation reigned sovereign at this time.
A point that deserves more attention than it receives in Mee's book is that what unites all these paradigms of conversation and sociability is their attempt to forge a specifically British national character, as against the "formality of Frenchified manners and the ceremony of the...