University of Toronto Press
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  • Everywhere and Nowhere: Anonymity and Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain by Mark Vareschi
Everywhere and Nowhere: Anonymity and Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain by Mark Vareschi University of Minnesota Press, 2018. $25. 230 pp. ISBN 978-1-5179-0407-4.

There is much to learn from Mark Vareschi's informative book, which examines the literary forces that defined anonymity and attribution throughout the eighteenth century. Vareschi fruitfully combines two methodologies currently in vogue: digital humanities and actor-network theory. He provides a wealth of convincing data to demonstrate the ubiquity of anonymous publishing throughout the period, thereby challenging the prevailing assumption that the author function had solidified its hold by the end of the century. Instead of asking why authors chose to publish anonymously—a question that makes no sense if anonymity was the rule rather than the exception—Vareschi explores how anonymous publishing derived its meaning from literary and cultural networks of people, practices, and things, and how those networks ultimately shaped [End Page 156] modern assumptions about anonymity and attribution.

What distinguishes Everywhere and Nowhere is its attention to how these networks were largely genre-specific and therefore dealt with anonymity differently, even as they collectively set the stage for the modern author function. For example, while poetry miscellanies turned "Anonymous" into a "fictive person whose motive and thereby interior life may be guessed at" (39), the theatre aligned print with the named author and performance with anonymity, thereby effacing the playwright's earlier stature as part (and not the most important part) of the theatrical network. Vareschi synthesizes an impressive array of source material to establish these networks and offers particularly rich interpretations of paratextual and cataloguing texts that often receive scant attention. A primary highlight of this monograph is his analysis of circulating library catalogues and their frontispieces to show how circulating libraries detached the value of books from their material form and turned them into "abstractions" that were "interchangeable and exchangeable"—a precondition for the author to function as an abstract principle of categorization (131). I particularly enjoyed Vareschi's readings of visual media, such as the engravings he uses to show the playwright's marginal position in the theatrical network.

I question, however, whether these readings constitute the kind of surface reading that Vareschi often claims to be doing in Everywhere and Nowhere. While he is certainly right that focusing on authorial motive promotes the kind of symptomatic or suspicious reading that leads us away from the text, the often impressive interpretive gymnastics of Vareschi's own readings do not justify the claim that getting away from motive enables us to uncover intention "as it is made manifest in the text" (160). As the passive voice here suggests, this claim that meaning is "in the text," available to anyone unprejudiced by the bias of motive, seems at times to eliminate the literary critic (or more properly literary criticism) as mediator, which is somewhat ironic in a text about mediation. The strength of the book is its use of manifold sources to position literary texts within a dense web of "interlocking contexts," but it is those contexts that produce the meanings Vareschi sees in the literary works he analyzes rather than "mak[ing] visible the connections already present" in them (156). Indeed, while the meaning of a single passage might lie on the surface, "connections" are the product of mediation—the filtering of a text through an interpretive apparatus. Without attending to literary criticism as a form of mediation, we consign it to the same "everywhere and nowhere" status that Vareschi associates with anonymity.

While Everywhere and Nowhere offers a thorough, nuanced account of the discourse surrounding anonymity and attribution, along with a [End Page 157] compelling argument about its impact on the modern author function, Vareschi's argument about mediation never feels quite as central to the book as its inclusion in the subtitle suggests. He makes a convincing case that the categorizing function of authorship and many of the ideas we associate with it come about through the mediation of texts like library and play catalogues. However, it is perhaps an overstatement to claim that "the immediacy of mediation is never more apparent than in the absence of the authorial name" and that it is only through its "categorical instability" that the "processes of mediation finally become visible" (11). Recent scholarship like Christina Lupton's Knowing Books (2011) has suggested that the workings of mediation were hardly invisible to eighteenth-century writers, who engaged with it in very self-conscious ways. Clifford Siskin and William Warner (2010) have even gone so far as to make mediation the defining concept of the Enlightenment, and their collection shows how engagement with questions of mediation pervaded all areas of knowledge at the time. It is never quite clear, then, why mediation would be "more apparent" in anonymous works than in the spate of self-reflexive novels that explicitly interrogate various processes of mediation or in scientific works that puzzle over how to mediate experiments for the general public.

This reader would need to see more engagement with recent scholarship on mediation to be convinced that anonymity deserves the privileged place in the history of eighteenth-century mediation that Vareschi ascribes to it. Instead of engaging with such scholarship, Vareschi often positions his argument in relation to works of book history, some of which feel a bit dated. For example, the chapter on Daniel Defoe engages with Pat Rodgers (1972) and P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens (1988) when there is a growing body of work on Defoe and mediation, such as Paula McDowell's PMLA essay, "Defoe's Essay upon Literature and Eighteenth-Century Histories of Mediation" (2015). That said, I think the book's analysis of how anonymity and attribution functioned in the eighteenth century is insightful without recourse to mediation as a framing concept for the entire book, though it plays an important role in certain chapters.

Perhaps the book's greatest contribution is to make visible how persistent our emphasis on the author function remains even in the wake of New Historicism. In theory, New Historicism unsettles traditional schemas of literary value by reducing all texts to discourse, thereby situating meaning in the circulation of a body of texts (taken in the broadest sense) rather than in an individual text or author. Arguably, New Historicism did result in more attention being paid to anonymous texts, and I question Vareschi's insistence that we remain unaware of [End Page 158] their ubiquity in the period (an ignorance hard to maintain in the face of the online database ECCO) and that we continue to ignore these texts because of our bias toward attribution. Instead, that bias betrays itself in the subtler ways that we often use anonymous texts. Even as it defines anonymous and attributed works as part of a shared discourse, criticism often cordons them off from one another by making anonymous works serve as examples of a discourse that then warrants a more extensive reading in the attributed text. By drawing attention to the literary networks in which anonymous publication was enmeshed, Everywhere and Nowhere convincingly illustrates how much we miss about the eighteenth century when we treat anonymous works as second-class citizens.

Lee Kahan
Indiana University South Bend
Lee Kahan

Lee Kahan is Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor of English at Indiana University South Bend.

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