"The Use of Conversation": William Godwin's Conversable World and Romantic Sociability

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WILLIAM GODWIN'S DIARY HAS THE FOLLOWING ENTRY FOR NOVEMber 22, 1791: "Holcroft calls: talk of the Widow. Webb calls: talk of necessity virtue & perception. Call on Jacob, fr. Sup at Hollis's, talk of David, Canaanites, and the use of conversation." (1) Around a century earlier, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, a newly commercial culture had begun to think of its activities across the range of human endeavors as a kind of general "conversation," this metaphorical shift being accompanied by the promotion (in handbooks and other places) of the social practice of conversation. In this context the question of the uses of conversation became, long before Godwin's time, a key issue for inquiries into the unity of the new society and the means of its further development. My particular historical window on this conversation of culture is the Romantic period, roughly speaking 1780 to 1822. For at least one critic, "the conversable world" (the phrase is Hume's) meets one of its ends in Romanticism, where it runs into a wall of "solitude and the sublime." My own perspective is closer to David Simpson's in so far as I think the conversational turn remains one of the defining shifts into modernity. (2) From this perspective, Romanticism may have asked new questions about the ends of conversation, but it was far from signalling the end of the conversable world. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's conversation poems and William Wordsworth's attempt to reorient poetry towards "the language of conversation" in the preface to their Lyrical Ballads may serve as a provisional proof of this view, although the peculiar ends to which they put conversation are not my concerns in this essay. (3) My primary focus will be on the philosopher and novelist William Godwin.

The idea of "the conversation of culture" has, of course, become a cliche. Attempts to inaugurate various cultures of conversation in a range of different spheres are also legion today. Governments in Britain and the United States frequently figure exercises in public consultation in terms of "conversation." Possibly this tendency has filtered down (or up) from political theory. Certainly, theories of "deliberative democracy" (indebted more or less to Jurgen Habermas's ideas) and also various attempts to revivify the classical republican tradition have both placed a great deal of emphasis on the model of conversation. (4) Both are attracted to it as a metaphor, at least, for an idea of community that is open to difference rather than the teleological fulfillment of prior identity. Although, strangely perhaps, he has little to say about Habermas or even developments in political theory in this regard, Simpson has recently related these cultural reflexes to various trends in academic philosophy and literary criticism, most notably in the work of Richard Rorty and the new historicism respectively. (5) Simpson sees in Rorty a tendency to make philosophy "a matter of conversations between persons rather than a matter of interaction with nonhuman reality." (6) For Simpson, both the academic and political manifestations of this reflex ought to be understood as part of the long modern history of the "turn to the personal." (7) At its worst, from Simpson's point of view, the appeal to conversation represents a form of regulation that wants to muffle righteous indignation in the codes of politeness.

Simpson also sees the conversational turn as complicit and at times even synonymous with the modern idea of the literary, a proposition that was also explored at around the same time by Clifford Siskin. (8) Siskin, like Simpson, draws attention to the intensifying identification in the eighteenth century between the literary and "the flow of conversation." The idea of literature-as-conversation is understood by Siskin as a reaction to the more general anxiety associated with "communication-at-a-distance" in an expanding print culture. The skeptical perspectives of Simpson and Siskin were not simply historical analyses, but also shots fired in a sideshow of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s fought around conversation. …


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