- Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print by Annika Mann
In Reading Contagion, Annika Mann examines the relationship between discourses of contagion and discourses about reading. With case studies of Defoe, Pope, Smollett, Blake, and (Mary) Shelley, she argues that through much of the eighteenth century, reading was considered dangerous because it could transmit contagion. Mann's argument is new because she rejects the distinction between metaphors of contagion and physical contagion proposed by scholars such as [End Page 318] René Girard and Susan Sontag. Instead, she embraces a new materialism where contagion is treated "as a particularly potent example of the inextricable relations among matter, technology, and language" (7). Similarly, Mann rejects Foucault's insistence that the discourse of contagion changed in the eighteenth century to facilitate state intervention into subjects' lives. Instead, she claims, scholars in the eighteenth century already recognized that contagion operated across philosophy, politics, literature, and medicine. As a matter of fact, Mann argues that this interdisciplinarity was unique for the Enlightenment (until the present).
The first case studies in Reading Contagion proceed along somewhat predictable lines: Mann shows how the writers under consideration try to establish some kind of binary or hierarchy, which then turns out to be untenable, even as they follow a trajectory from resistance to contagion to capitulation to it. Thus, in A Journal of the Plague Year, the narrator suggests that print can be useful in responding to contagion because it transports knowledge, and he tries to set up a hierarchy of print (or genres) with his own text at the top and governmental mandates and quack remedies below. However, in trying to quarantine other texts as harmful, he has to concede (or we recognize) that his own might be contagious as well. There is a danger in that the attempt by each new text to answer previous ones in turn spawns further new responses, leading to a proliferation of print that cannot be contained.
Similarly, in the first three books of The Dunciad, Mann explains, Pope uses language and theories of contagion to assert that the commercialization and expansion of print are undermining authorial agency as well as social, economic, and aesthetic hierarchies. However, he exempts his own texts from the accusation of causing involuntary bodily and affective responses. Yet in the fourth book of The Dunciad, Pope capitulates to the sentimental aesthetic new at the time and shows a dark, disordered, and disorganized world without spirit or intellect. In this world, it is impossible to distinguish ephemeral, bad verse from good, permanent poetry. Here, rebelling against this aesthetic simply strengthens it, since the rebellion requires the production of yet more texts, i.e., any attempt to cure the disease simply perpetuates it.
Twenty years later, Smollett tries, in several works, to inoculate readers against the contagion of false reasoning, imperial expansion, and the mixing of classes and genders. To that end, he makes the History and Adventures of an Atom so disgusting that readers would not want to respond to it in print. In the process, however, he has to reject print altogether—including his own text. In Humphry Clinker, Smollett vaccinates his readers by what Mann calls remediation, i.e., Smollett makes it clear to readers that they are reading the text at one or two removes (from its contagious origin) with devices such as grammatical errors and metafictional passages. Thus, he tries to turn reading from an absorptive, affective activity into a mindful, voluntary exercise that readers can walk away from when they want. In the process, however, he accepts the erosion of hierarchies.
In its second half, Reading Contagion presents more complex and compelling chapters on Blake and Shelley. In the first instance, Mann sets up a contrast between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine in which the former argues that the French Revolution has disrupted the stable, static relations between generations, while the latter asserts that generations should interact like commerce, with circulation between equal individuals. Then, Mann proceeds to demonstrate that...