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Reviewed by:
  • The Labor of the Mind: Intellect and Gender in Enlightenment Cultures by Anthony J. La Vopa, and: Anna Seward's Journal and Sermons ed by Teresa Barnard
  • Yaakov Mascetti
Anthony J. La Vopa, The Labor of the Mind: Intellect and Gender in Enlightenment Cultures. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. 360 pp.
Anna Seward's Journal and Sermons, ed. Teresa Barnard. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017. 245 pp.

Addressing gender concepts of the past is, one would assume, a relatively easy task. And yet that is never really the case. Theoretical infrastructures, decades of glorious feminist work to undermine patriarchal preconceptions on womanhood and feminine authorship, and the general tendency to project onto texts of the past make scholarly attempts such as the two books reviewed here appear as untrendy efforts to understand the "large-frame structural changes in social relations and cultural practices" (La Vopa 12). In contrast to the widespread methodological glitch which Anthony La Vopa calls "the presentist oversimplifications of early modern articulations of feminism" (10), these two books place texts within contextual webs of discourses and local "experiences of change" in the "construction of gender differences" (13). While La Vopa endeavors, with an impressive and exhaustive delineation of contextual lexical interactions, to show how contemporary binary conceptions of gender fail to account for the fluidity of early-modern ideas of effeminate and male-like intellectual ability, Teresa Barnard's edition of Anna Seward's personal journals and sermons makes heretofore unpublished works available to the reader. Though they are profoundly different in scope and in the amount of scholarly effort and work invested, both La Vopa's and Barnard's researches give justice to a fluidity and a complexity which are rarely accounted for.

Reading texts as "the performances of rhetorical personae," a conception "somewhat akin to Quentin Skinner's idea of the performance of 'illocutionary acts,'" La Vopa's work re-presents the gender conceptions of 18th-century thinkers such as Poullain de la Barre, Diderot, Malebranche, Hume, and Shaftesbury as part of a broader discussion on the masculine and feminine nature of intellectual labor. The study rests, in other words, upon the dichotomous distinction between the man-like intellectual fixity and discipline required for philosophical study and the feminine nature of mundane and social interactions. The fluidity of early-modern gender conceptions is thus presented and interpreted by La Vopa as the response to, rebuttal, or endorsement of the way in which most men of letters considered women incapable of the manly labor of study, while they also sought in them the "emblems and guardians of a social aesthetic of [End Page 183] play that scorned utility." The accepted opposition was that of the savant toiling indefatigably in his study, far from the distracting interactions with the social and mundane sphere, and the "polished" man or woman enjoying the "rarified play of ésprit" which had "no tolerance for any appearance of strenuous intellectual effort" (23). This opposition of the disciplined study and the sociable politeness of conversation contrasted the Renaissance ideal of rhetorical authority and persuasion to an anti-rhetorical discourse which was not based in the constrained manner of studious pedantry. With this binary in mind, La Vopa presents an intimidatingly documented variety of ways in which thinkers of the long 18th century responded to this opposition between the effeminate pleasures of conversation and the masculine discipline of stoic studiousness and askesis. In France, for example, this "perceived incompatibility between the socially validating freedom of play and the socially invalidating constraints of labor" brought a starkly unconventional thinker like Poullain to shift between his two works, one on The Equality of the Two Sexes (1673) and the other On the Education of Ladies for the Behavior of the Mind in the Sciences and in Mores (1675), from a call "for women to assume work roles that would allow them to perform the same intellectual labor as men" (14), to a more conventional conception of feminine intellectual duties and status imperatives. La Vopa's example of a different approach is Nicolas Malebranche, who, in his 1674–1675 publication of The Search after Truth, criticized the effeminate softness of the mind...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-9247
Print ISSN
1565-3668
Pages
pp. 183-186
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-18
Open Access
No
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