Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Manual Dexterities

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Manual Dexterities

Article excerpt

Eighteenth-century texts often reveal the pedagogy of example - the traditional approach to learning whereby a particular instance is established as a model to be imitated - as an authoritarian instrument which valorizes order and uniformity. It is a pedagogy that risks a reduction of the imitator's own particularity, in its emphasis on the replication of an example. However, a potential disruption counters the sameness and stability implied in this process, even prior to the act of imitation, at the volatile moment when one may or may not interpret the particular instance as a model, even when directed to do so. In her 2000 publication, The Domestic Revolution, Eve Tavor Bannet suggests that, although exemplary narratives and characters may imply standardization, the inductive teaching of example is not "fail-safe, monological, or authoritarian": the dynamic is unstable in its reliance on the reader's "inference and interpretation." A subject expected to imitate an example will not necessarily interpret a "particular, local instance" as having a general meaning that would elevate it to the category of model.1 Or the general meanings themselves may change as models circulate.

Bannet's implication concerning exemplary narratives and characters in eighteenth-century women's novels - that the exemplary instance or model implies both stability and disturbance in its replication - supplies a useful entry into the historical, literary, and theoretical wealth of her latest book, Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1680-1820 (Cambridge, 2005). Her examination of the letter-writing manuals that circulated among the English, Scottish, and British-Americans over the long eighteenth century takes into close account the manuals' own insistence on teaching not by precept but "by Specimens," as one manual author puts it (54). The interpretations of the many editors, printers, and correspondents considered by Bannet prove to be variable in ways that preserve regional and local particularity even while creating certain continuities in the "anglicized" world. While the concept of models is central to Bannet's discussion of letter manuals, her exhaustive analysis of the manuals' "architectonics" and of their transatlantic migration yields a definition of imitation based more on creative transformation than on an oppressive reproduction of sameness. She examines these transformative imitations of the models vouchsafed by letter manuals in two broad contexts. The first is that of the individual readers who used the manual as a guide for corresponding on particular social occasions that required tactful negotiation. Bannet argues, on the evidence of the manuals themselves, that they targeted readers at all levels of the social hierarchy above the laboring poor, and thus were not limited to barely literate members of the "trading middle class," as is commonly assumed by modern critics (20). At least three levels of proficiency in what Bannet calls "letteracy" (the "skills, values, and kinds of knowledge beyond mere literacy that were involved in the writing, reading, and interpreting of letters") are identified as eliciting distinctive kinds of imitations (xvii). The least "letterate" would resort to transcription of formulaic letters with a few elementary changes; the mid-level would mix and match classes and styles of letters in strategic adaptations to situations; the most advanced level would glean from more elegant (often real-life) examples how to "disguise and transform" epistolary commonplaces in a manner that aspired to Alexander Pope's definition of true wit, expressing in an uncommon way something recognized by all (99-102, 56).

The second context of transformative imitation (which comprises Part II of the book) is Bannet's close look at how the manuals were changed, from printing to printing and place to place, as they crossed the Atlantic. She provides fascinating examples of how the "intertextual fragments" that made up the manuals were translated within and between different cultures; the production of new texts by means of excision, juxtaposition, clustering, reclassification, sequencing, and recontextualization of letters fashions a context in which Bannet emphasizes the "simultaneous affirmations" of sameness and difference, the demands both of the transatlantic market and of "local needs and tastes" (106). …

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