Voluptuous Philosophy: Literary Materialism in the French Enlightenment

Voluptuous Philosophy: Literary Materialism in the French Enlightenment

Voluptuous Philosophy: Literary Materialism in the French Enlightenment

Voluptuous Philosophy: Literary Materialism in the French Enlightenment


Eighteenth-century France witnessed the rise of matter itself--in forms ranging from atoms to anatomies--as a privileged object of study. Voluptuous Philosophy redefines what is at stake in the emergence of an enlightened secular materialism by showing how questions of figure--how should a body be represented? What should the effects of this representation be on readers?--are tellingly and consistently located at the very heart of 18th-century debates about the nature of material substance. French materialisms of the Enlightenment are crucially invested not only in the development of a sophisticated theoretical apparatus around the notion of matter but in the production of specific relationships between readers and the "matter" of the texts that they consume. How, the book asks, did the period's fascination with a markedly immaterial and ephemeral event--the reading of works of fiction--come to coincide with what appears to be a gradual materialization of human subjects: men and women who increasingly manage to envision themselves transfigured, as the century wears on, into machines, animals, and even, in the work of the Marquis de Sade, tables and chairs? In what way did the spread of new philosophies of matter depend upon the ability of readers to perceive certain figures of speech as literally and immediately true--to imagine themselves as fully material bodies even as they found themselves most deeply compelled by disembodied literary forms? More broadly, in what sense does the act of reading literature alter and transfigure our perceptions of what is, and can be, real? Voluptuous Philosophy articulates the gradual coming into being of literature as a distinct arena of textual production with the rise of an enlightened reader who remains abstracted from the bodily symptoms that any given piece of writing may induce in him. The very definition of "the literary" as an autonomous field, this book suggests, may, ironically, be dependent upon the simultaneous construction of a material world that remains fully immune to its effects.


Formal innovation (of the sort that matters in literature) is a testing of
the operations of meaning, and is therefore a kind of ethical experi
mentation. To respond to the demand of the literary work as the de
mand of the other is to attend to it as a unique event whose happening
is a call, a challenge, an obligation: understand how little you under
stand me, translate my untranslatability, learn me by heart and thus
learn the otherness that inhabits the heart.

—Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature

The benefits of other pursuits come to those who have reached the
end of a difficult course, but in the study of philosophy pleasure keeps
pace with growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning;
rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.

—Epicurus, The Vatican Sayings

Immanuel Kant's famous essay “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784) ends with an oblique reference to the enduringly scandalous materialism of Julien Offray de la Mettrie, author of the treatise Machine Man (1747). Kant writes: “When nature has … developed the seed for which she cares most tenderly—namely, the inclination and vocation for free thinking—this works back upon the character of the people (who thereby become more and more capable of acting freely) and finally even on the principles of government, which finds it to its advantage to treat man, who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity.” “Man,” in Kant's formulation, accedes to enlightened freedom—of thought, act, and polity—in the process of casting off the trammels of a radically determinist mechanism (for which La Mettrie's automaton serves as the porte-parole). Yet a material residue lingers on as part of the autonomous Kantian subject, if only in the obligation to disavow, in the name of dignity, a persistent entanglement with the figure of the man who is also a machine. Kantian enlightenment—that philosophical revolution against which the work of the . . .

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