The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England

The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England

The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England

The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England

Synopsis

This collection enriches and complicates the history of prose fiction between Richardson and Fielding at mid-century and Austen at the turn of the century by focusing on it-narratives, a once popular form largely forgotten by readers and critics alike. The volume also advances important work on eighteenth-century consumer culture and the theory of things. The essays that comprise The Secret Life of Things thus bring new texts, and new ways of thinking about familiar ones, to our notice. Those essays range from the role of it-narratives in period debates about copyright to their complex relationship with object-riddled sentimental fictions, from anti-semitism in Chrysal to jingoistic imperialism in The Adventures of a Rupee, from the it-narrative as a variety of whore's biography to a consideration of its contributions to an emergent middle-class ideology.

Excerpt

Mark Blackwell

IN “THING THEORY,” AN ESSAY THAT SERVES AS THE INTRODUCTION TO a collection entitled Things (2004), Bill Brown considers the cyclical modishness of “things” as an academic and artistic subject before declaring that every “decade of the [twentieth] century” had “its own thing about things.” No one can dispute the geographical, temporal, and disciplinary range of the essays collected in Brown’s volume, yet his introductory emphasis on the twentieth century continues in subsequent pages, the largest number of which are devoted—perhaps disproportionately, perhaps appropriately—to things of the last century. Nonetheless, three of the volume’s essays—Jonathan Lamb’s “Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales,” W. J. T. Mitchell’s “Romanticism and the Life of Things: Fossils, Totems, and Images,” and Jessica Riskin’s “The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life”—demonstrate that even the eighteenth century had a thing about things.

Was there “thing theory” in the English eighteenth century? One recalls, of course, James Boswell’s famous account of his conversation with Samuel Johnson about George Berkeley’s “ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter.” “I observed,” Boswell writes, “that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’” Yet Boswell’s anecdote does not convey us beyond the stark opposition between an idealism that denies the objective status of things, on the one hand, and the crudest empirical account of the mute resistance of matter to subjective manipulation, on the other. Like the foot and the stone, Johnson’s and Berkeley’s very different senses of things make brief contact only to rebound from one another, without leaving much trace of having touched. Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley, then, does not offer promising evidence of a period interest in “the way objects and subjects animate one another,” as Bill Brown puts it.

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