A History of the New Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century has always been new. Ab ovo, Tristram Shandy might say: right from the egg. Even when it lay in the future—or maybe especially when it did—it was new. Take, for instance, John Dryden’s Secular Masque (1700), written in the fledgling months of that new century. Literary historians and critics usually think of Dryden’s short piece, itself an epilogue to a revival performance of a Jacobean play, as a backward glance—a valediction to a turbulent past. That Dryden died shortly after finishing it means that we also often treat the Secular Masque as a farewell to his own turbulent life. “Tis well that an old age is out,” Dryden’s voice of Janus remarks. But this isn’t how the masque ends. It ends by reminding us that it is “time to begin a new.” An “old age… out;” a “new” one to “begin.” Like a portal topped by that uncanny, double-faced god, Dryden’s Secular Masque closes with an opening that glances forward and back. Like any good couplet, it pairs to distinguish; it joins to divide. “Cleave” is the word I want, here—an enantioseme, its own opposite, sometimes called a “Janus word.” Cleave apart, and cleave together. In cleaving itself from and to tradition, newness was all along a property of the eighteenth century.

No one can tell the future, but Dryden has told its terms. The zeugma-like opposites of his couplet turn up again in the cleavings of Modern and Ancient, the New Science and the old Aristotelianism, Whig and Tory. Much as “Whig” was a term of opprobrium leveled by an emerging coalition of Royalists and “Tory,” a slur leveled by that newly named progressive wing, each emerges in opposition. So, too, this characteristic yoking of new and old is signaled by the sustained backward glance of the period’s anthologies, miscellanies, florilegia, and compilations; these are matched by the mushrooming of publications announcing themselves as New Systems, New Plans, New Worlds, and even New Histories—literally thousands of such documents, defining themselves with and against tradition.

Perhaps because the eighteenth century is the century most associated with the history of criticism, the terms of Dryden’s couplet turn up regularly in our assessments of ourselves. So, when Lawrence Lipking was in 1974 invited by the English Institute to contribute to a collection called New Approaches to Eighteenth Century Studies, he constructed a mild millennialism in terms that Dryden would have found congenial. Lipking echoes Dryden’s foundational distinction of the new and the old as the originating gesture of eighteenth-century thought. Of the old age, which is out, Lipking reflects that the glory of his past generation was in recovery and elaboration, in the production of valuable critical editions, and in a general project he summarizes as “Retrenchment.” Lipking thinks of George Sherburn’s Restoration and Eighteenth Century (1948), which he praises, faintly: “clear; reasonably comprehensive; authoritative without dogma; not too long.” He thinks of the major schools of literary criticism and the names that signal them: G. B. Hill, R. S. Crane, Geoffrey Tillotson, Earl Wasserman. And he wonders if the study of the eighteenth century hasn’t run its course—whether it isn’t too dominated by “convention and orthodoxy” or maybe isn’t “a little played out.” Of the new, which is beginning, Lipking laments a scholarly ethos of novelty, a theoretical lubricity he calls “Fashion.” Fashion names the application of “new” or “theoretical” approaches, which Lipking thinks tend to “look through” eighteenth century texts and are overpowerful in this way. Ancient and modern; that is old, but this is the future; that is “out,” but this is “new.” So Lipking’s division, while not claiming particular novelty, is in fact an artifact of the dix-huitièmiste’s reflexivity—of what the eighteenth-century has represented to eighteenth-centuryists from the start.

Lipking’s terms are repetitions. The essay in which they appear also repeats. Lipking’s “A History of the Future” would turn up, a decade later, in what is probably the best-known manifesto for a new form of the eighteenth century: Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown’s The New Eighteenth Century (1987). The key strategy of Nussbaum and Brown’s collection was to articulate the old distinction between old and new through a deliberately categorical definition of “theory.” Labeling as “theoretical” any approach that “question[s] the status quo,” “theory” (the quotation marks are theirs) became in the moment a means of orienting scholarship along a spectrum between emerging and established or between (as Brown elsewhere puts it) “new approaches” and “close-minded, backward-looking, … narrowly self-interested” ones. Striking about that volume is its heterogeneity; it gathers a batch of essays otherwise recognizable as somehow alike only in contradistinction with “tradition.” The collection, Nussbaum and Brown write, “does not recite a single story about the period, its texts, or the methods used;” rather, The New Eighteenth Century only proposes a “critical pluralism” against the “traditionally historical.” Lipking, it is worth mentioning, was mostly consigned to “tradition.” “Sooner or later,” Lipking has more recently reflected, even a “history of the future…becomes a souvenir of the moment when it was written.”

“Theory” offers Nussbaum and Brown a sorting mechanism, taking contemporary scholarship and polarizing it by age. No middle way, here. “‘Literary theory,’” writes Gerald Graff, “ha[d] come to be associated with an assault on tradition.” Nor did the effect only touch scholars self-identifying with the category of the “new.” “Whipped” by Brown and Nussbaum’s collection, Paul Alkon organized his 1989 review of the field for SEL around two nearly isomorphic poles: of historicisms that “attempt recovery of the historical text on its own terms, and books that attempt explication by recourse mainly to present thought-structures.” And while Lipking would, a few years later, lament that The New Eighteenth Century “invents an old one for its own purposes,” even he would find it useful to stretch field definitions across a temporal frame: the old and new historicism, for instance, or a new critic (now of the old school) and a new-style historical materialist.

The distinction between “new” and “old” itself was hardly new to eighteenth-century studies in the last third of the twentieth century. It had been played out already in the “New Criticism” (which largely turns up as one of the “old formalisms” in the new-new paradigm), and before that, there was Lewis Namier’s “new” historiographic method, and so on and so forth. “There is a point of view,” Joseph Levine remarks, “from which the whole history of ideas can appear to be a struggle between old and new, between the ancients and the moderns.” Two things, however, appear to have been new to that most recent moment of novelty seized by The New Eighteenth Century. The first is the motivated articulation of “theory” to Dryden’s division. The second is the way that this articulation of “theory” motivated the explicit reorientation of eighteenth-century studies as a field—for the phrase, “the field of eighteenth-century studies” (in the modern sense of the word “field”), dates roughly to this moment and to this distinction. While critics, historians, and scholars had, of course, been studying the eighteenth century as a century, or as a batch of texts, persons, and ideas at least since Hazlitt bundled authors together as the “writers of the last century”—and while the notion of a “field” of scholarship is at least also as old as Hazlitt’s bundling—the term, “the field of eighteenth-century studies,” starts turning up in the 1980s, when the very notion of the “field” experienced a modern reimagination, a new way of organizing this oldest of distinctions.

The transformation I have in mind is akin to what Ian Hacking would have called an incommensurability, the way a single word, like “field,” can undergo a transformation in meanings as the culture in which it is embedded changes. When R. S. Crane, in his 1926 omnibus review for Philological Quarterly (among the first in a series that would be handed off to SEL in 1961), refers to the “field of eighteenth-century studies,” he generally means something like an archaeological field: a place of resources or archival materials, time reimagined as space. Crane also, without contradiction, thinks of Jonathan Swift as a field, or the history of science as a field. Graff calls this the “field-coverage” model of disciplinary definition; once a subject earns its spot as an agreed-upon topic that demands space in the university curriculum, it becomes a “field.” But when Brown and Nussbaum say “field,” they mean something like a magnetic or gravitational field: an arrangement of scholars and scholarship oriented by an invisible pair of attractants, “theoretical” versus “historicist.” This sense of “field” leans on a physicalist metaphor developed variously in the life sciences, physics after Einstein, the Gestalt theories of Frank Lewin after Ernst Cassirer, and so on. It is not topographical, though it may be topological (on which, more below).

William Epstein, fragments of whose unfinished history of mid-century literary criticism began appearing in documents associated with the Brown/Nussbaum iteration of the new eighteenth century, points specifically to Pierre Bourdieu as the source for this theoretical turn. Bourdieu’s field theory had been the subject of a sharp intellectual clash in the 1980s, pivoting roughly on the distinction that would also prove so critical to field-invention in eighteenth-century studies. At stake in the debate about Bourdieu’s work was exactly the question of novelty and its origins, of the capacity of scholars or activists to “produce forms of thought that expose and threaten the reproduction of class structure”—or, in short, to produce something “new” against what is “traditional.” Bourdieu’s key insight was to argue for any discipline as a contest over a fixed amount of capital; capital could be money, but was more often some other mutually recognized good, like respect or cultural acclaim and prestige. The field-figure invites us to think of any profession or subject of study as a set of spatial relations reminiscent of structuralist diagrams—a “field” like a field of battle, champ de bataille. Every entrant into the field merely stakes out a position relative to the principles that define the distribution of capital; one scholar might occupy a relatively “new” position, anticipating that the field rewards novelty, while another would target a consecrated method, in hopes that success would tilt towards a position which is relatively “old.” By 1987, then, Graff could remark that “today not only have theory and traditional humanism parted company, they define the polar extremes of the literary-critical spectrum.” It is “polar” because the new field was experienced as a quasi-magnetic distribution; it is a “spectrum” because it was understood as a scattering between the mutually repulsive and constitutively different positions of old versus new.

Because such a field exceeds any one person, it can feel like it precedes the people who occupy it. Such a field can seem, in short, superficially topographical. But Bourdieu continually reminds us that the field, on the contrary, is itself entirely constituted through the positions which are taken up relative to one another. The field is defined and redefined by the voluntary entrance of people into the game of position-taking, each such entrance affecting the whole reciprocal set, a combined process that Bourdieu risks calling a “field-effect.” The key thing is that the players of the game recognize emerging conceptual positions (“new” and “old”) as resources in the position-taking exercise. They take their positions relative to one another, in a web of differences and alliances. For this reason, the development of a field touches old and new equally; the “’nouveaux philosophes’ came into existence,” Bourdieu for instance remarks, “as soon as consecrated philosophers felt called upon to take issue with them.” Or, as Lipking puts it, the “new” eighteenth century invents an “old” one for its purposes (and vice versa). So: not topographical, but topological, a system of relations. Thus, we might say, disciplinary practices are repeatedly imagined to supervene on sets of relations (which might be genealogical, institutional, intellectual, etc…)—an approach Bourdieu, in a slightly obscure reference to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s desire for a geometry of relative positions, calls an “analysis situs.”

Epstein’s gambit was Bourdieuvian in the topographical sense; the field provides a way of thinking about the patterns emerging in the eighteenth-century studies of the ‘80s and ‘90s, indeed offering a possible guide to critics who were asked to choose a position. But Epstein’s method was Bourdieuvian of the topological sort, too; field analysis offered him a stepping-stone to a virtuosic description of affiliations, reducing the “field” of eighteenth-century studies to “specific networks of discursive practice reticulated” through departments, major textural and bibliographical projects, and individual scholars: the Yale Walpole project, for example, or the schools of criticism associated with Columbia’s James Clifford or Yale’s Chauncey Brewster Tinker. This is a pattern that repeats; fields repeatedly reduce to networks.

In resisting the lumping-together of William Wimsatt, R. S. Crane, Earl Wasserman, and Reuben Brower as consecrated icons of the “old” sort, Lipking traces the schools they represented through affiliations of like-minded scholars. He means “school” semi-literally, in the sense of relatively closed and clubby families of critics: Crane’s from Chicago, Wimsatt’s from Yale, Wasserman’s from Johns Hopkins, Brower’s from Harvard. Thus, Lipking concludes, “the history of eighteenth-century studies could be written in terms of a handful of graduate programs, branching out into family trees and lines of succession.” Or, as John Bender concludes, in defense of the then-“recent revisions of critical methods by feminism, new historicism, and cultural materialism,” categories like race or class are never “fixed object[s] but a multiplicity of relationships and techniques that have continuously to be reproduced, and therefore changed, in order to maintain themselves”—a lesson he argues applies equally to the study of the eighteenth century and to “a fully historicized, fully theorized” field of eighteenth-century studies itself.

And so it seems to be that the very triumph of the last new eighteenth century has left us hesitant even to risk characterizing eighteenth-century studies as a field in the first place—not even as a catalytic gesture or a straw-man argument or a gambit to open a deeper game. The newest eighteenth century appears to be eclectic, a complex of sustaining interests, commitments, and approaches repeatedly explained though a loose batch of fiber metaphors: webs and networks, knots, tangles, ties, and so on. That is, we skip the topographical gesture altogether, plunging into topology. Jenny Davidson, who begins her 2016 review for SEL with the explicit abandonment of the search for a “field,” instead finds “web-like properties to the material…in that any given publication will likely connect to three or four or five other nodes in the set.” Cynthia Wall’s 2018 omnibus survey in SEL similarly abandons organizing systems. Wall reverts instead to finding affiliations or associations between books—tracing intellectual connections and debts, ending with the closest thing she can find to a sustained topical interest: a “Collection of Collaborative Communities.” And Jayne Lewis, who in 2019 begins her review for SEL with an “attempt to follow the lead” of her predecessors, hopes to “identify conceptual clusters… [and] make distinctions.” Instead, Lewis confesses to being repeatedly lured into dwelling on acknowledgements—a relational genre if ever there was one—as sites of “authorial sociality in the twenty-first century” and the “place… where scholarship’s true story is told.” The “word of the year,” Lewis concludes, is “networks.”

Which brings me to the present moment, which is to say, to the newest new system of eighteenth-century studies and the shape of its possible futures. We inherit a discipline without schools, at least in the traditional sense that scholars self-identified prior to the field-making transformations of the 1980s and 90s. When Lewis remarks on the importance of acknowledgements in today’s eighteenth-century monograph, it is not to signal the presence of schools of this sort; she finds no such genealogical regularity within current scholarship. Similar to how the eighteenth century itself witnessed a general reorganization of influence structures—from aristocratic, family-oriented systems (tree-like and genealogical) to the more mobile, open dynamics of print culture and the city—Lewis finds an eighteenth-century studies which is “transcultural and intermedial…powered by dynamics of transfer across increasingly porous boundaries.”

The emerging preference for network-style analyses of the profession has yielded a revisionary history of disciplinarity itself based on recovering historical print and correspondence networks. A consecrated approach to the genesis of criticism might trace it to the disputations between ancients and moderns, Tory and Whig—as in, for instance, Joesph Levine’s Battle of the Books (1991), or Douglas Lane Patey’s summary contributions to the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism (1997). Here, a history of criticism is a history of a field-effect generated by a primal difference, of the neo-Aristotelianism and a countervailing (yet newer) turn. By contrast, Michael Gavin’s Invention of English Criticism (2015) locates the genesis of criticism in the emerging print market of the long eighteenth century, what he calls “new publishing practices,” “new modes of authorship,” “new ways of reading,” and “new forms of social interaction.” We might think of patterns of ad hominem attack and pointed satire, the stuff of print culture and epistolary exchange, but also the “sharing of critical opinion” as a “sociable, even friendly act;” these, Gavin remarks, are best understood as “network[s] of disputation,” “networks of communication,” a “complex repertoire of communication practices,” or “web[s] with many knots.” In constructing an history of literary criticism, Gavin offers not a field explanation with parties disposed along an axis, but instead a network-style explanation, an analysis situs. Yet that history rediscovers the old distinction between new and old in a new way—as a difference between tradition and connectivity, between a clubby patronage system and the autotelic networks that succeed them. Indeed, Gavin frames his argument as a network explanation for a network age; he has constructed a version of what Lipking had described as a “double complexity,” of “knots tied between a ragged past and a ragged present.”

So: eighteenth-century studies has always been new, even when it lies in the future—or, perhaps, especially when it does. And if we accept that the field of eighteenth-century studies has always been sustained by a shifting arrangement of interests and investments, that it has always built in network dynamics in the (early) modern sense, then the immediate future is clear. Thinking of eighteenth-century studies as a network of affiliations means moving beyond framing strategies that attend to certain stable features of a historical landscape—like the boundary markers of a field—and towards a more open conception of the alliances or shifting relationships forged between ideas, approaches, and the intellectual energies of the currently modern academy. It is a characteristic of the intellectual or scholarly “problem” that it asks us to activate new alliances with old materials: a reading of eighteenth-century Georgic which requires a turn to cognitive philosophy (and vice-versa), or of the novel which requires a serious foray into the history of curatorial practice, and so on. Our work, problem-driven, finds the methods that it needs to answer them; in this sense, our work is naturally interdisciplinary, which is to say, relational, associative, complex.

Thinking in terms of networks asks us to orient our work less towards ostensibly stable temporal markers, like historical events or the publication of key texts, and more towards ideas or alliances, like the discourse of rights or theories of imagination and cognitive processes. The last new generation taught us that stable markers, let’s call them canonical texts, are the product of intersecting interests both produced in the old new moment and also sustained in the latest new one by a web of interdisciplinary crossings which change as affiliations change. Moreover, thinking in terms of networks asks us to think less about statistical distributions within and across a university imagined as a formal entity of systems and subsystems—questions of falling enrollments, for instance, or the general drift towards presentism that tends to favor media- and cultural-studies programs (or engineering and neurobiology)—and more about the precise affiliations and alliances that can be nurtured within a modern university. Finally, thinking in terms of networks asks us to think temporally flat, bringing into conjunction traditional and emerging, the eighteenth century and the modern academy.

In his history of the future, Lipking identified one version of a middle way in the style of criticism epitomized by Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization; Lipking hoped this would be the future of eighteenth-century studies. What interested Lipking was Foucault’s binding of historical precision with an openness to radical difference. By Lipking’s reading of Foucault, the eighteenth century presented an opportunity “to reinspect our own ideas, and the sorts of question[s] we ask, in an eighteenth-century light.” Foucault offers, Likping suggests, “a whole new way of writing history.” The best work in eighteenth-century studies, at least to my eye, plays a similar combinative game with the components of the new and old. It brings the expertise won from long study of eighteenth-century methods, objects, and concepts to pressing material, philosophical, or theoretical questions, and vice versa; it finds the seeds of the human condition, or of our historicized positions as critics, in problems formulated in eighteenth-century thought.

Dryden’s couplet is a call to interdisciplinarity, respecting the productive anachronism that is always implied when we secure the position of the eighteenth century in modern academic labor. This is what I have been attempting to model in this essay by finding a way forward through the manifold possibilities suggested by the closing couplet of Dryden’s Secular Masque, one version of which is to register the modern stakes of novelty as the legacy of the new eighteenth century.

If Bourdieu was the key theorist of the last new eighteenth century, Niklas Luhmann might very well be the key theorist for its current new form. Luhmann reminds us, in the first place, that reduction is the inevitable cost of perpetuating a discipline. It isn’t only the field-figure that reduces manifest complexity into a simple scheme; clearly, webs and networks are also reductive, though they are reductive in a different way. Each differently offers a means of conceptualizing the organization of a discipline, thereby providing a means of defining its concerns and its distinctive methods or styles of thought. Each also, differently, defines the forms that productive labor can take. Reductions are the cost of operational closure and the perpetuation of a discipline. But Luhmann would also remind us that closure is only effected for the purpose of further reconnection in a two-stage process he calls “structural coupling.” I am, therefore, not encouraging what has elsewhere been called “de-disciplinary” thinking. That is, I am not calling for the dismantling of the hard-won expertise that attends a history of practices and professional new-modelling. The particular way that eighteenth-centuryists put things together is unique to our profession and worth sustaining. Rather, I am ending with a plea for active interdisciplinarity—for recognizing the particular history and methods of our profession as a further overture towards collaborative community, not least in thinking about novelty as a traditional category given new form and urgency in the new eighteenth century.

Sean Silver is Associate Professor of Literature at Rutgers University. He has written widely on the literature, philosophy, and sciences of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain. He is author of The Mind Is a Collection, an award-winning exhibit catalogue and virtual museum of objects used to model cognitive processes in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain and Europe. Please visit at www.mindisacollection.org. Sean is currently at work on a history of complexity.

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