Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Metadiscursive Struggle and the Eighteenth-Century British Social Imaginary: From the End of Licensing to the Revolution Controversy
by Jump, Daniel Kyle, Ph.D., Yale University, 2016, 271; 10584952
Abstract (Summary)

In many advanced societies today, it is taken for granted that the relatively free circulation of opinion on a minimally regulated print market brings social and political benefits. Such benefits can only be taken for granted if one assumes that markets are capable of regulating themselves and that the clash of opposed opinions in venues of public expression is salutary for the society in which those clashes occur. Early eighteenth-century Britons lacked both of these assumptions, and so for them the deregulation of the print market that resulted from the 1695 lapse of the Licensing Act was a formidable problem, a challenge to the intelligibility of their world that had, somehow, to be confronted. This dissertation seeks to give an account of this confrontation. Specifically, it seeks to understand how key metaphors within British culture were adapted and repurposed as descriptions of what printed writing was, what it was good for, and what rules and norms readers and writers needed to respect in order to serve that good, at an historical moment when such descriptions were lacking but badly needed.

The first two chapters argue that the early decades of the eighteenth century were characterized by an intense struggle, conducted across an array of printed genres, over which descriptions would be prove authoritative in this new environment of reading and writing. In this contest, two key metaphors—one was "debate," the other "conversation"—emerged as particularly strong candidates as ways of figuring print and mediating it for its users. These two candidates were called upon to do similar work: to provide the procedural and ethical norms needed to turn the unruly production and consumption of printed matter into an orderly and beneficial cultural routine. Because these two metaphors were substantively different, however, they produced divergent understandings of the meaning of print. Indeed, a main claim of these chapters is that the two metaphors struggled for authority in the early decades of the century, with conversation emerging as the dominant (though certainly not exclusive) metadiscourse. These chapters give an account of how metadiscursive struggle was conducted and offer some claims about why it took the precise form that it did. Along the way, they complicate existing scholarly histories of eighteenth-century British print that locate the major metadiscursive innovations of the century in the legal realm. By contrast, I emphasize the extent to which writers, in trying to make of print an ordered and rule-bound totality, drew on their existent discursive culture and its metaphors as resources for figuring print. The resulting cultural process was a complex and dynamic one, whereby the application of these metaphors to print changed both the meaning and force of the metaphors and the practices of reading and writing.

The first two chapters contribute to the history of how British culture helped to mediate print technology for eighteenth-century Britons. The third and fourth chapters are somewhat narrower in scope; they work to identify a particular formal category, crafted by Hogarth and Sterne, and then to demonstrate that this category came to be used, by writers like Burke, to represent British society to itself. In Burke's hands, this politico-aesthetic category, which I call "the eccentric," represented the British social and political order as the intricate result of historical time rather than the work of purposive human agency. Through it, Burke forged a rhetoric designed move his fellow Britons to understand their "country" as an intricate totality whose very existence was threatened by Jacobin "political metaphysics." In adapting this formal category as a vehicle for political and historical thinking and argumentation, Burke invented a style of public address in which whole social and political orders could be revealed as precious, fragile things in need of the protection that a reading public might provide simply by feeling grateful for them and concerned about them.

As a whole, the dissertation seeks to identify and theorize forms of "thin mediation"—that is, forms of mediation that have discernable formal and affective features but few necessary ideological entailments. The metadiscourses analyzed in the first half of the dissertation and "the eccentric" analyzed in the second are "thin" in this sense: they are able to disconnect themselves from robustly articulated ideologies, to circulate widely, and to give strangers a sense of their social order as a totality and of their place within that totality. If, as I suspect, such thin forms of mediation are indispensable to "liberal governmentality," this dissertation may contribute in its modest way to the on-going genealogy of liberalism.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Fry, Paul
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 78/07(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: European history, British and Irish literature, Sociology
Keywords: Eccentricity, Edmund Burke, Free Thought, History of Print, Liberal Governmentality, Metadiscourse
Publication Number: 10584952
ISBN: 978-1-369-63537-9
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