The Self and It: Novel Objects and Mimetic Subjects in Eighteenth-Century England

The Self and It: Novel Objects and Mimetic Subjects in Eighteenth-Century England

The Self and It: Novel Objects and Mimetic Subjects in Eighteenth-Century England

The Self and It: Novel Objects and Mimetic Subjects in Eighteenth-Century England

Synopsis

Objects we traditionally regard as "mere" imitations of the human- dolls, automata, puppets- proliferated in eighteenth-century England's rapidly expanding market culture. During the same period, there arose a literary genre called "the novel" that turned the experience of life into a narrated object of psychological plausibility. Park makes a bold intervention in histories of the rise of the novel by arguing that the material objects abounding in eighteenth-century England's consumer markets worked in conjunction with the novel, itself a commodity fetish, as vital tools for fashioning the modern self. As it constructs a history for the psychology of objects, The Self and It revises a story that others have viewed as originating later: in an age of Enlightenment, things have the power to move, affect people's lives, and most of all, enable a fictional genre of selfhood. The book demonstrates just how much the modern psyche- and its thrilling projections of "artificial life"- derive from the formation of the early novel, and the reciprocal activity between made things and invented identities that underlie it.

Excerpt

This book centers on the strange transformation of things into a powerful vocabulary of selfhood during eighteenth-century England's rise to a global market economy. As exotic and manufactured commodities filled its social landscape, eighteenth-century England's human inhabitants encountered new tools for devising novel versions of the self. Within this world of goods, the centrality of the object—as manifested in the material goods themselves, the idealized and ideologically shaped models of the self, and most generally, the perception of a thing—created a rich and exotic idiom for selfhood. Indeed, the eighteenth-century self reached its most lively articulation through the material objects we traditionally consider as trivial imitations or supplements of the human: dolls, machines, puppets, wigs, muffs, hats, pens, letters, bound books, and fictional narratives. Within England's rapidly expanding market culture, these newly prevalent artifacts not only mirrored and symbolized the self, but also became identifiable as the self itself. Imitated by humans, as well as ingeniously imitating them, the anthropomorphized objects of my study created new understandings of subjectivity that have endured as decisive attributes of modern life. Not least are its powerful fictions of the self as a malleable commodity on one hand, and an object of empirical investigation on the other.

Bernard Mandeville in The Fable of the Bees introduces the moral complexities introduced in eighteenth-century England's commodity culture when he attributes “the Wealth, the Glory and the worldly Greatness of Nations” to human vanity and its attendant lust for commodities. “It is the sensual Courtier that sets no Limits to his Luxury; the Fickle Strumpet that invents new Fashions every Week; the haughty Duchess that in Equipage, Entertainments, and all her Behaviour would imitate a Princess; the profuse Rake and lavish heir, that scatter about their Money . . .

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