Knowing Books: The Consciousness of Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Knowing Books: The Consciousness of Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Knowing Books: The Consciousness of Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Knowing Books: The Consciousness of Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Synopsis

The eighteenth century has long been associated with realism and objective description, modes of representation that deemphasize writing. But in the middle decades of the century, Christina Lupton observes, authors described with surprising candor the material and economic facets of their own texts' production. In Knowing Books Lupton examines a variety of eighteenth-century sources, including sermons, graffiti, philosophical texts, and magazines, which illustrate the range and character of mid-century experiments with words announcing their status as physical objects. Books that "know" their own presence on the page and in the reader's hand become, in Lupton's account, tantalizing objects whose entertainment value competes with that of realist narrative.

Knowing Books introduces these mid-eighteenth-century works as part of a long history of self-conscious texts being greeted as fashionable objects. Poststructuralist and Marxist approaches to literature celebrate the consciousness of writing and economic production as belonging to revolutionary understandings of the world, but authors of the period under Lupton's gaze expose the facts of mediation without being revolutionary. On the contrary, their explication of economic and material processes shores up their claim to material autonomy and economic success. Lupton uses media theory and close reading to suggest the desire of eighteenth-century readers to attribute sentience to technologies and objects that entertain them.

Rather than a historical study of print technology, Knowing Books offers a humanist interpretation of the will to cede agency to media. This horizon of theoretical engagement makes Knowing Books at once an account of the least studied decades of the eighteenth century and a work of relevance for those interested in new attitudes toward media in the twenty-first.

Excerpt

I began thinking about this book in England in the mid-1990s. in those days my interest in self-conscious literature led me to fairly well defined places. the reflexive play that made writing self-conscious revealed how language worked as a set of constructed meanings and conventions, and self-conscious fiction exposed the operation of narrative: Miguel de Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, and Italo Calvino wrote, for instance, more self-consciously than Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad. But more important, literary theory seemed able to open up almost any text in these reflexive terms. Postcolonial and poststructuralist theory placed self-consciousness on the side of the critic who exposed the true operation of discourse, typically in spite of an author’s attempt to use words as transparently as possible. We were conditioned not to see the conventions of writing, I thought, and any critical method that brought these conventions to light was working against the mainstream habits and history of reading. in the British and European contexts where I first studied theory and philosophy, there was a political aspect to this too; one that combined Marxian strands of social critique, which identified the raising of consciousness with the transformation of imperialist and class society, the theories of Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno, which celebrated antimimetic forms of representation as the aesthetic branch of this undertaking, and post-structuralism as a way to contextualize the whole Enlightenment project of critical transcendence.

None of these theoretical frameworks made the journey across the Atlantic with me in quite one piece. When I arrived in the United States in the late 1990s, I began reading eighteenth-century literature more closely than I had done before. Almost immediately, I was struck by the ways much of this literature was self-reflexive in its own terms, not just about representation, but about the material, economic, and colonial contexts of textual production. Reading a little outside the canon of British and American eighteenth-century works, I was quickly convinced that Sterne was much more typical in his habits than courses that began with Daniel Defoe and ended with Jane Austen . . .

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