- The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660–1730 by David Alff
In a critical climate dominated by New Historicism, studies of eighteenth-century English culture can sometimes seem derivative, particularly in their choice of topic. Our process of selecting a topic to historicize can blindly fall into binary-thinking (if happiness has been historicized, then why not sadness?) or feel like a critical chore (isn't a certain topic "due for" historicizing?). So a book-length study of failure during the eighteenth century might appear, at first glance, formulaic. Refreshingly, David Alff's The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660–1730 is not one of these books.
Alff's ambitious study recovers a genre—the project—whose permeable boundaries have made it difficult for previous literary critics not only to delimit their analytic object but also to measure a project's influence. The importance of Alff's book is how it furthers our definition of what, precisely, imagination means during the civic-minded eighteenth century, before imagination is reconceived by Romantic poets to mean a subjectively creative faculty of the individual mind. Alff sketches the history of an imaginative genre that forces us to rethink history itself. No wonder the genre of the project has waited patiently in our critical margins for sustained attention; as Alff argues, our preconception of history as something written by past successes rather than past failures has limited our historical sight-lines. Failure is welded to eighteenth-century projects because they "manifested forward-looking intention but also anticipated a form of wreckage incongruous with the positivist narratives we construct to explain this era and connect it to our own" (15). When Alff argues that "unenacted words mattered to the extent they tested new ways of being a society," he suggests that imagined, ideal conditions (like those in natural philosophy) are necessary to conceptualize and inhabit "real-world" conditions (6). Past failures are therefore neither failures nor fully erased [End Page 361] from the present. "Unstreamlining" linear, progressive narratives is Alff's goal so that we can "appreciate how each unconstellated moment implied futures that we can recollect and learn from today" (15).
Alff begins with the usual New Historicist warnings against assuming the inevitability of the present and "our desire to make the past a history of modernity" (14), but Alff's study rises to a larger epistemological critique by evoking Michel Bernstein and Gary Saul Morson's description of history as "a middle realm of real possibilities that could have happened even if they did not" (15). Theorizing "the project's evocation of past presentness" (15) risks abstract theorization, but Wreckage of Intentions avoids the theoretical fog by placing us in the hands of an excellent close-reader. Alff is a consummate grammarian, and it is reassuring to witness what a good close reading can do to civic or governmental writing. For example, Alff draws our attention to how "suturing an indicative present to a subjunctive future forced projectors to become nimble rhetoricians" (11); how "the rough grammatical formula for projection transforms a direct object into an indirect object through the use of a gerund" (46). These close readings enable Alff to connect the conventions found in imaginative fiction such as novels and utopian writing (6–7) with civic or governmental writing not traditionally read as such. Building upon Michael McKeon's description of literary genres as ways to "mediate and explain intractable problems," Alff demonstrates how "the project purports to solve them, or at least explain away that which makes a given dilemma seem insurmountable" (7).
Alff devotes the first three chapters to four stages of projection: the articulation, circulation, undertaking, and reception. Chapter 1 closely reads Andrew Yarranton's England's Improvement by Sea and Land (1677) for how it "legitimate[s] himself" and solicits "readerly belief in his ideas and talents" (20). Moving to circulation, Chapter 2 reads the print culture surrounding Aaron Hill's 1713 beech-seed oil project to question "how nonaction governs the materiality of its...