- Reading in The New Eighteenth Century
The New Eighteenth Century appeared as part of a moment—which included Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction, John Bender's Imagining the Penitentiary, Terry Castle's Masquerade and Civilization, Frances Ferguson's "Rape and the Rise of the Novel," and Michael McKeon's Origins of the English Novel—that we now recognize as providing much of our field's critical DNA. Challenging the reigning view of the period as one of "cultural stability," Laura Brown and Felicity Nussbaum, like their contemporaries, recognized its unsettled temperament and called for theoretical inquiry and canon expansion as means for its redefinition.1 Indeed, the field we had inherited by the late 1990s, when I first encountered this volume as a graduate student, had been transformed by this impetus. Scholarly editions of work by women writers were appearing with presses like University of Kentucky and Broadview; libraries were subscribing to ECCO, providing access to worlds of anonymous, popular, "non-literary" print; and the dominance of cosmopolitan print culture itself was being challenged by book history, oral and manuscript culture, and postcolonial studies. The New Eighteenth Century animated a perspective of our field that was then new, and [End Page 334] is now received: as one with a diverse, amorphous canon of innumerable print, oral, and manuscript forms; as an age of authorship that included women writers, writers of color, and laboring-class writers; as constitutively interdisciplinary; and as consistently disruptive of distinctions between core and periphery, empire and colony, masculine and feminine, high and low. The volume did not try to foretell every way in which the period might be defined as "new," and within its pages it does not anticipate some of our field's more recent developments. Queer studies, book history, and history of consciousness are only nascent and implicit (Harriet Guest and John Barrell, Jill Campbell, Nussbaum, Terry Castle), and areas such as new materialism, oral culture, and mediation theory were yet to be envisioned. But they are of course welcomed by the volume's call for innovative inquiry in the form of "unfamiliar conjunctions" (NEC, 22). And so The New Eighteenth Century might bestow its most explicit legacy by "rejecting the notion of a fixed historical ground," embodying a spirit of experimentation and diversity of method that I take to be our field's greatest attribute (NEC, 19).
In contrast with the diversity of approach that still feels current, some of the volume's central terminology shows its age: "theory," "ideology," and "politics" sound monolithic without the modifiers we now use to specify those discourses being investigated in any given act of criticism. And yet their unqualified use here allows us to see a shared project across diverse discussions: literary analysis that unearths many of the period's deepest uncertainties about its social, political, and epistemological structures. Another set of terms recurs persistently and less conspicuously, referring to matters of literary form and eighteenth-century reading practices. Texts and readers are figured as the entities that contain the semantic collisions, syntheses, and disruptions so characteristic of the "new" eighteenth century. Insofar as the volume represents a moment when our field began to internalize theoretical inquiry, it seems to have done so in part by recognizing the complex interplay between texts and readers inherent to the period. It is a troubled interplay manifested in readers and texts, which may explain why our period was not amenable to the New Criticism's recognitions of unity and wholeness, against which eighteenth-century studies had hitherto "defended itself" (NEC, 2). Texts and eighteenth-century readers themselves articulate—at times loudly—those dissonances that invite criticism. So while theory provides the "conceptual rationale" for discerning the ideological conditions of cultural production, it is not an external tool brought to bear on unsuspecting texts (NEC, 17).
Rather, the critics located their interventions in discursive knots that texts or readers themselves own. John Richetti therefore seems to speak on behalf of the whole volume when he notes that literature makes "in fact occasionally visible" what Marx would call "history" or Jameson "repressed reality": ideological conflicts, he suggests of our period's literature, are registered at textual surfaces...