Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

On "Vulgar Exhibition": Hazlitt, "The Fight," and the Pornography of Popularity

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

On "Vulgar Exhibition": Hazlitt, "The Fight," and the Pornography of Popularity

Article excerpt

Reversing the terms of possession in Andrew Ross's study of pornography, and developing Suzanne Kappeler's detection of something "pornographic in the idea of mass circulation" (27), this essay historicizes the embedding of pornography in the modern discourse of popular culture. The paper articulates a genealogy of this embedding by rereading William Hazlitt's 1822 essay "The Fight" in the contexts of its production. The familiar style and popular cultural subject of Hazlitt's essay--controversial when published--cohere around references to the author's "emotional pornography" (Paulin 45). The genealogy opened by Hazlitt's text and its production context illuminates the historically class-biased imbrication of pornography in the epistemology of popular culture.

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Modern literature [...] is a gay Coquette, fluttering, fickle, vain; [...] courted, she courts again; [...] pants for the breath of popularity [...]. (Hazlitt, Complete Works 16.219) (1)

Despite the revival of literary critical interest in William Hazlitt in recent years, more attention to this writer from Cultural Studies perspectives seems warranted. Where such attention has surfaced, it has broached an interesting question for Cultural Studies historiography. On the cusp of the new historicist turn in Romantic studies, Jon Cook argues that, in Raymond Williams' Culture and Society, 1780-1950, Hazlitt should have replaced William Cobbett contra Edmund Burke on the horizon of the "culture and society" debate ("Criticism" 137). More recently, Tim Fulford remarks that "For E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, Cobbett, rather than Hazlitt, was the journalist who best advanced the cause of liberty by finding a style that gave laborers a political discourse of their own. Hazlitt himself admired Cobbett's power and felt his own relative confinement to a polite language" (Fulford, "Paulin" [paragraph]6). These comments suggest a historiographical question for Cultural Studies, and for the epistemology of culture. Other scholars have noted aspects of Hazlitt's work that, together, sketch a prototypical Cultural Studies critic: his interdisciplinary interests (in "painting, poetry, prose, plays, politics, parliamentary speakers, metaphysical lore, books, men, and things" [qtd. in Mulvihill, "Essayism" 28-29]); his analyses of everyday life, like "The Fight," which Tom Paulin calls a "study in what we now call 'popular culture'" ("Spirit" [paragraph]36); and his alertness to tensions between political complicity and resistance in his own writing (Gilmartin 95).

This essay pursues Hazlitt as a case in Cultural Studies historiography by reading his 1822 essay "The Fight" as a contribution to the historical emergence of the discourse of "popular culture" as a class-inflected euphemism for pornography. This approach also addresses the popular cultural preoccupations of contemporary criticism on the essay, a literature that, as David Higgins notes, seems surprisingly scant (173). Paulin has done much to popularize a view of "The Fight" as a prototype for Cultural Studies--in the above-quoted Guardian article, and in giving the essay titular pride of place in his Penguin paperback Hazlitt selection. (2) Scott Juengel discusses how "The Fight" and other Regency boxing texts mediate masculinity and nationalism ([paragraph]3). Higgins develops a similar reading focused closely on "The Fight" itself; however, Higgins' and Juengel's essays represent the only major readings since Stewart C. Wilcox's 1943 critical edition of its manuscript. Higgins reads "The Fight" as an assertion of Englishness subversively tempered by "effeminate" French sensibility, and so he discusses at length the essay's "removal" of references to Hazlitt's obsession with Sarah Walker (173), the daughter of his landlord in London. Hazlitt's major statement on that obsession, Liber Amoris (1823), has been widely dismissed as poor writing; ironically, it has also received much more scholarly treatment than "Hazlitt's best-known essay" (173). …

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