Race to the Top: Knowledge Production and Disciplinary Formation in the Long Eighteenth Century

By Gottlieb, Evan | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Race to the Top: Knowledge Production and Disciplinary Formation in the Long Eighteenth Century


Gottlieb, Evan, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Robin Valenza's Literature, Language, and the Rise of the Intellectual Disciplines in Britain, 1680-1820 (Cambridge, 2009) is extraordinarily timely - indeed, one could almost call it untimely, in the Nietzschean sense of throwing our own moment into uncomfortable relief. With pressure mounting to make the humanistic disciplines ever more accountable to a general public, especially the (often reluctantly) tax-paying public that still at least nominally supports state institutions - and with many of those same institutions reducing or even eliminating their Humanities offerings (see: University at Albany) - the hour may be growing late indeed. Some, like Martha Nussbaum and Cary Nelson, are continuing diligently to make the case for the ongoing general relevance of a Humanities education; others, like Stanley Fish, have long ago retreated into a narrow professionalism. Valenza, however, is less interested in either defending or justifying the Humanities (at least not overtly) than in using a comparativist, historicist approach to shed light on the long-durational trends of disciplinary division and sedimentation that have contributed to our current impasse. Valenza's book thus joins two other recent, high-profile, historicallyminded studies - Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University and Mary Poovey's Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain - in attempting to trace a genealogy of our contemporary disciplinary crisis.1 Whereas Menand undertakes a generalist study that primarily focuses on recent institutional history, and Poovey concentrates specifically on how the discipline of economics successfully split itself off from literary writing in general, Valenza undertakes the even more ambitious challenge of charting the history of the general separation of humanistic from scientific disciplines. While this leaves her less able (or willing) to issue the kind of specific diagnoses and recommendations that cap the other two studies, it means that Literature, Language, and the Rise of the Intellectual Disciplines is able to cover more ground and paint a broader picture of the changing intellectual landscape of eighteenth-century Britain.

Valenza's first chapter, "The Economies of Knowledge," capably clears the ground for her project as well as establishes its primary debts and goals. More than a decade ago, in The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830, Clifford Siskin argued that for the Romantic "discipline" of literature to evolve out of belles lettres, its scope had to be narrowed so that its intellectual investments could be deepened.2 One of Valenza's first tasks, however, is to demonstrate that this Foucauldian paradigm did not mean that all disciplines were equally affected; instead, as she points out, "When managed well, popularization and specialization could thus be complementary phenomena, two sides of the same coin" (4). What mattered - at least in Britain (one wonders whether the picture Valenza paints looks the same in other national literatures) - was how the thorny process of intellectual specialization was handled by its practitioners in a given field and, perhaps more importantly, how such specialization was represented to the public at large. To track these developments, Valenza proposes to focus on three emergent disciplines: physics, philosophy, and poetry. (Again, one wonders what her study would have looked like had she chosen other fields - say, chemistry or mathematics; Valenza hints intriguingly that several such alternative chapters were contemplated, and spends a page discussing why chapters on biology and chemistry were abandoned.)

Eighteenth-century Britons themselves were not unaware of the importance of their moment for the modernization of processes of knowledge production. Moreover, thanks to the historical and economic theories of the Scottish Enlightenment, they were also well aware of the primary engine of such modernization, material as well as intellectual: the division of labor. …

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