Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Clifford Siskin and William Warner, Eds.: This Is Enlightenment

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Clifford Siskin and William Warner, Eds.: This Is Enlightenment

Article excerpt

Clifford Siskin and William Warner, eds. This Is Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. xii+505. $75.00.

Jon Klancher (JK): The collection This Is Enlightenment can be hard to review as a stand-alone book because it also belongs to a series of actions or gatherings, a larger and controversial "event" taking place over the past several years (including at the conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism last year in Vancouver). At one level, this event has been radiating panels, lectures, forums and other academic spinoffs, starting with the conference "Mediating Enlightenment" held at NYU in April 2007. It's no small undertaking, and the Chicago volume (hereafter TIE) is only the most crystallized print form of that wider project. Whatever criticisms I myself have, I want to put them in this light--something is happening around here, and we have a pretty good idea by now what it is. But what to call it? This broader "turn" seems to be crystallizing around 2010, but for several years scholars have been trying to give it a name: a bibliographical turn (Leah Price in PMLA), a digital-humanities turn (Matthew Kirschenbaum in the ADE Journal), a quantitative turn (Jeffrey Williams in The Chronicle of Higher Education). (1) Any of these calls could be justified, but my own choice would be to call it a wider "media turn"--on a scale that rivals the scope of earlier linguistic and cultural turns--and this book speaks to such a turn by gathering scholars notable in literary history, Enlightenment studies, and media archaeology and asking them how to put those fields together, accentuating and even redefining "media" as the historical operator. As I read it, the volume is asking: To what extent was the Enlightenment an event in the history of media? But also: what has kept us from grasping literary and art history before the late 19th century as we grasp mechanized and mass media after the advent of telegraphy, photography, movies, or tv: namely, as media. I think the more amorphous term the editors invoke--"mediations"--is an effort to generalize the question, so the editors, William Warner and Clifford Siskin, claim in the Introduction that "Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation" (1). They may get into difficulties, though, by trying to give "mediations" a definite shape and weight, reducing them to "tools," for example.

Alan Bewell (AB): This broader intellectual interest in understanding historically how cultural, literary, and political modes of representation are shaped by the material media through which they were originally communicated or subsequently received is certainly the governing context for this publication, and it is in this area where the book will have its primary impact. In moving towards a discussion of what TIE says about the history of mediation and in assessing to what degree it makes an important contribution to our understanding of how a "media turn" might lead to a transformation in literary and cultural studies, it is perhaps worth stating at the beginning what this book is not: that is, a book about the Enlightenment, or even more broadly, about the mediated reception of the Enlightenment over the past 250 years. The editors promise a book that will use "mediation" to answer the question "What is Enlightenment?" and their answer, that we should read Enlightenment in terms of the forms of media that made it possible, is an exciting one. Unfortunately, despite the degree to which this book focuses on communication (here I am thinking particularly of William Warner's superb essay "Transmitting Liberty," which discusses the role of newspapers and correspondence committees in the formation of an American revolutionary political identity), the editors' idea of what the book is supposed to be about seems not to have been adequately communicated to the contributors. Most, though well known for work in other areas and periods, are not particularly well known as specialists on the Enlightenment. …

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