Baron d’Holbach brought back to the motherland by a ‘joyous sett’

Ruggero Sciuto, Baron d’Holbach (on the screen), Nicholas Cronk

Ruggero Sciuto, Baron d’Holbach (on the screen), Nicholas Cronk.

He was ‘the most learned nobleman’ in Paris according to Laurence Sterne, ‘un des hommes de son temps les plus instruits, sachant plusieurs des langues de l’Europe’ for the abbé Morellet, ‘le vrai cosmopolite’ in Diderot’s words: there is no doubt that Baron d’Holbach won the affection and the esteem of those who met him.

Two hundred and thirty years after his death, Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723-1789) continues to be a challenging figure of the European Enlightenment. Not only was he a materialistic philosopher, a champion of anticlericalism, the author of the monumental Système de la nature known as ‘the Bible of atheists’, an idéologue, a populariser of the natural sciences and a prolific contributor to the Encyclopédie, but he also played a fundamental role as a producer and circulator of clandestine literature and as the centre of a wide intellectual network. All over Europe he was known as the ‘maître d’hôtel de la philosophie’ (in the words of the abbé Galiani), and as ‘the great protector of wits, and the Sçavans who are no wits’ (in those of Sterne). D’Holbach’s house in the rue Royale in Paris hosted one of the most influential and cosmopolitan literary circles of the eighteenth century. According to David Hume, it was ‘a common receptacle for all men of letters and ingenuity’, and it was dubbed ‘the joyous sett’ by Sterne: this is where philosophers, men of letters, statesmen, and churchmen from all over Europe met to engage in free philosophical discussions and be introduced to Parisian society.

Alan Charles Kors lectures on d’Holbach’s skepticism

Alan Charles Kors lectures on d’Holbach’s skepticism.

German by origin (he was born in the village of Edesheim in the Palatinate), Dutch through his academic training (he studied in Leiden), French by adoption, and cosmopolitan by choice, d’Holbach spoke several languages and translated scientific works from the German and philosophical and irreligious works from the English.

For three days, 9-11 May 2019, the Institute of Advanced Studies of Göttingen at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg hosted ‘The Great Protector of Wits. D’Holbach 1789-2019’, the first international conference entirely dedicated to Baron d’Holbach, organised by Dr Laura Nicolì and Prof. Franziska Meier. Our own ‘joyous sett’ of Enlightenment scholars gathered to discuss the Baron’s works, as well as his figure and his legacy. Speakers engaged with the complexity of d’Holbach’s intellectual agenda, with d’Holbach the philosopher and the philosophe, but also the encyclopédiste and the scientist, the strategist and the ‘metteur en scène’, the translator and the creator of ‘fictions d’autorité’, the clandestine author and the centre of intellectual networks, the pessimistic skeptic and the inspirer of a revolutionary consciousness.

Charlotte-Suzanne and Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, by Louis Carmontelle, 1766.

Thanks to the participants’ contributions and through the ensuing debate, there emerged a more nuanced, multifaceted understanding of d’Holbach than is typically conveyed by the secondary literature.

Left: Gerhardt Stenger, Emilio Mazza, Alain Sandrier. Right: Iryna Mykhailova and Tony La Vopa.

For everyone present, this conference on one of the most important yet neglected figures of the eighteenth century amounted to full immersion in a true microcosm of the European Enlightenment!

– Laura Nicolì

The Göttingen ‘joyous sett’

The Göttingen ‘joyous sett’: ‘Beaucoup de disputes, jamais de querelles’ (Morellet on the salon in the rue Royale).

 

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Digital d’Holbach

Grâce à un don de la Mellon Foundation, la Voltaire Foundation a entamé une édition numérique des œuvres complètes du baron d’Holbach, l’un des penseurs clés des Lumières radicales françaises.

Le baron d’Holbach, par Louis Carmontelle.

‘Vivre heureux’ et ‘faire des heureux’. Ce sont là, d’après le baron d’Holbach, les deux seuls objectifs que tout être humain doit poursuivre dans la vie. Comment les atteindre? Il suffit de suivre la nature et de se tenir fermement au ‘flambeau de la raison’. Sauf que… sauf que des ‘fantômes effrayants’, engendrés par la superstition, viennent souvent nous détourner de la ‘voie du vrai bonheur’. Et quand on est soi-même malheureux, il est bien difficile de s’occuper du bonheur des autres. Il faut donc saper les fondements de toute religion, démasquer les ‘imposteurs’ qui nous rendent malheureux, et ramener ‘les esprits égarés à la raison’.

Une telle entreprise, d’Holbach le répète à plusieurs reprises, n’est pas sans risque, car présenter la ‘vérité’ aux êtres humains, comme le dit Diderot, c’est ‘introduire un rayon de lumière dans un nid de hiboux’. Néanmoins, dès le début des années 1760, le baron saisit la plume et commence à bombarder ‘l’édifice ruineux de la religion’. Pendant presque quinze ans les attaques se succèdent sans interruption. Ce sont des traités de morale et de politique, des dictionnaires de jargon théologique, des livres qui prêchent le matérialisme et le déterminisme. Tous ces textes paraissent de façon soit anonyme, soit pseudonyme. Seul un petit nombre de gens de lettres, y compris – fait remarquable! – quelques hommes d’église, savent qui se cache derrière le Système de la nature et Le Bon SensFait encore plus remarquable, ils gardent tous le secret, et lorsque d’Holbach meurt au mois de janvier 1789, il est enterré dans l’église Saint-Roch à Paris, à coté de Diderot.

Depuis lors, des chercheurs se sont essayés à définir les limites du corpus des œuvres du baron d’Holbach, tâche ardue, bien sûr, étant donnée la fâcheuse (mais compréhensible) habitude du baron de ne rien signer. D’ailleurs, un autre facteur vient compliquer la situation: c’est que d’Holbach ne travaillait pas isolément. En effet, on sait par diverses sources que Diderot et Naigeon se donnaient tous deux beaucoup de peine pour blanchir les ‘chiffons sales’ du baron avant l’impression. D’ailleurs, on ne saurait dissocier le baron de la société de gens de lettres qui se réunissait chez lui, sa ‘coterie’ ou ‘boulangerie’: comme il l’écrit lui-même dans l’une de ses lettres, son existence au sein de la république des lettres était une ‘existence collective’.

Grâce à un don généreux accordé à la Voltaire Foundation par la Mellon Foundation, nous travaillons depuis quelques mois à un projet d’édition numérique des œuvres complètes du baron d’Holbach (si tant est que l’on puisse parler d’œuvres ‘complètes’ pour un corpus aux contours aussi difficiles à délimiter). Ce projet nous aidera à jeter quelque lumière sur des ouvrages longtemps oubliés par les chercheurs, et nous permettra de mieux comprendre la genèse et l’évolution de la pensée de l’un des plus importants philosophes du dix-huitième siècle.

Image BnF/Gallica.

Nous avons décidé d’entamer notre édition par les Lettres à Eugénie, un traité sous forme de lettres qui s’adresse aux femmes en tant qu’agents fondamentaux de changement social et culturel. Parallèlement, nous travaillons également à une édition de la correspondance du baron, dont un catalogue est désormais disponible sur le site internet d’Early Modern Letters Online (j’y reviendrai ultérieurement dans un nouvel article de blog). Nous invitons tous ceux et celles qui veulent en savoir plus à venir nous rejoindre à Edimbourg, le lundi 15 juillet à 16h15 (panel 88, voir ici, p.24)!

– Dr Ruggero Sciuto, Hertford College/Voltaire Foundation, Université d’Oxford

Networks of Enlightenment: new approaches, new perspectives

While many ‘great men and women’ stand out in eighteenth-century Europe, what is notable about the Enlightenment is the prominence of its ‘great groups’, or, as we like to call them, networks. Many individuals owe their participation in the Enlightenment to their membership in intellectual groups and institutions: the philosophes, the salons, the academies… the list goes on. And these networks were, in turn, central to their participants’ identity. What’s more, the leading figures of the Enlightenment were not only members of these groups or networks, but they were often the central nodes of networks that were integral to the Enlightenment: from Voltaire’s or Catherine the Great’s correspondence networks to Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, mediated and unmediated communication were essential to making the Enlightenment possible.

Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein, is the June 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters presents a series of case studies of correspondence networks, social networks, and knowledge networks throughout Europe, with a particular focus on France. Authors examine anew some of the pre-eminent networks of the Enlightenment, drawing on digital methods and Social Network Analysis (SNA) to pioneer historically driven methods for thinking about networks in early-modern societies.

Although scholars have long zeroed in on the importance of social groups and networks in the Enlightenment, from networks of publishers and booksellers to provincial academies, the salons, and correspondence networks, technological innovations have only recently made it possible to study these networks from new perspectives. Data-driven approaches provide a more comprehensive and granular understanding of the many different types of networks that formed the intellectual and cultural infrastructure of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. The digitization of correspondence collections has been essential for data-driven scholarly projects, allowing scholars to study these networks at both the micro and macro levels, and to explore the worlds of the philosophes and the ‘nodes’ in their networks in rich detail. Indeed, it was thanks to metadata produced in large part by the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University that many authors in this volume first developed and applied methods for historical data analysis in a project reconstructing ‘The French Enlightenment Network.’

Working from historical data to study networks is not without its challenges, and one of the core concerns of this volume is how to responsibly study historical networks in the absence of complete data. At the most fundamental level, a social network is a system of actors (nodes) and the ties between them (edges). Social Network Analysis can be applied to virtually any type of network, and an SNA study relies on both information about the nodes and the relational ties between them. Reconstructing complete historical networks, however, is not only difficult and messy, but near impossible in most cases due to the quality of historic sources. Often, we do not know if someone was truly not ‘in’ the network, or if his or her membership was simply not recorded. The mathematical and statistical metrics typically used for SNA studies, which rely on complete or representative samples, would thus produce results that would distort reality when applied to historical data. As such, the adoption of SNA methods by historians requires creativity to tailor SNA methods to the object of inquiry, the data available, and the research questions at hand.

The authors of the essays in this volume do precisely that: they elegantly combine traditional humanistic inquiry with innovative digital methods to offer fresh perspectives on important networks and issues of the Republic of Letters. At this intersection of Enlightenment historiography, data capture, and social network analysis, the essays in this volume take advantage of new data sources, configurations, and modes of analysis to deepen our understanding of how Enlightenment sociability worked, who it included, and what it meant for participants.

Authors not only examine various types of networks, but they also use the term ‘network’ in very different ways. While part I of the volume concerns ‘correspondence networks’ with case studies of Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Francesco Algarotti, and Jacques Pérard, part II focuses on ‘social networks’, or who interacted with whom in milieus of sociability. These studies include Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, Gustav Philip Creutz’s Parisian networks, and Casanova’s theater network. Finally, part III examines ‘knowledge networks’ from two very different approaches: the first, by examining the role of the academies in the Republic of Letters, and second, the knowledge networks present in Johnson’s Dictionary.

This volume emerged out of a conference held at Stanford University in 2016, and it seems fitting that the first volume in the series Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment dedicated to digital approaches to eighteenth-century studies would originate in the heart of Silicon Valley. This conference, which brought together an international group of scholars, demonstrated the exciting possibilities that can ensue when technological advancements are leveraged in the service of the humanities. Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters is very much the culmination of many years of figuring out how best to accomplish that, through interdisciplinary collaboration and experimentation on projects that preceded and gave rise to the ones contained in this volume.

– Chloe Summers Edmondson, Stanford University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Chloe Edmondson is co-editor of the June Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters, which provides exciting new perspectives on the European networks that made up the Republic of Letters.

D’Argenson’s Considérations

Enlightenment political theory has received a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years as intellectual historians and political theorists have mined the riches of eighteenth-century ideas about human rightsthe self, or international law. Surprisingly little of this work, however, has been devoted to the so-called Early Enlightenment, the decades before the eruption of the high Enlightenment at mid-century with the publication of seminal works such as Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) or Diderot and d’Alembert’s great Encyclopédie (1751-). Yet, this time was rich with the fermentation of ideas that would make their mark later in the century.

One of the key texts of the early Enlightenment, penned by René-Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, marquis d’Argenson (1694-1757), which circulated clandestinely in manuscript for decades before its posthumous publication as the Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France in 1764, mounted a scathing indictment of the Old Regime social and political order, championed equality as a central moral and political value, and argued for extending democracy within the monarchy. Originally titled ‘Jusqu’où la démocratie peut être admise dans le gouvernement monarchique’ and composed primarily in the 1730s, d’Argenson’s treatise called for the redistribution of land, improving the material circumstances of the peasantry, and establishing municipal magistrates with substantial autonomy. With the establishment of his system, d’Argenson wrote, ‘the kingdom would change face’. Indeed, the abbé de Saint-Pierre, upon reading the manuscript, wrote to d’Argenson that he ‘appears a bit more partial to democracy than to monarchy’, while the fermier général Dupin wrote to d’Argenson that there was an ‘immense distance […] between our current situation and what you propose’. This is the first critical edition of d’Argenson’s treatise, based on four different manuscripts held in archives and libraries in France, and presented here with a selection of d’Argenson’s other political writings that have never been published.

D’Argenson is probably best known to posterity as a chronicler of his time thanks to his widely cited nine-volume Journal et mémoires, one of the most important existing sources on the politics of the 1730s to 1750s, as a member of the short-lived Club de l’Entresol, and for his Notices sur les œuvres de théâtre published in 1966. Among the philosophes, d’Argenson was known, as d’Alembert wrote in the dedication to one of his books, for his ‘breadth of knowledge’, ‘love of the common good’, and for being a ‘philosophe in your sentiments’. His true intellectual passion was ‘the principles of the true science of humanity, those of morality and politics’, as le Beau stated in the eulogy given to the Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres upon d’Argenson’s death.

The depth of d’Argenson’s critique of the social and political order is perhaps more surprising given his status as the scion of a powerful political family. His father was the powerful lieutenant general of police under Louis XIV and then Keeper of the Seals during the Regency, his brother Minister of War, and he himself served a brief tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs during the War of Austrian Succession. Rousseau commented when citing d’Argenson’s manuscript in the Social Contract, published two years before the Considérations: ‘I have not been able to deny myself the pleasure of occasionally quoting from this manuscript, although it is unknown to the public, in order to honor the memory of a good and illustrious man, who kept even in the Ministry the heart of a good citizen, and views on the government of his country that were sane and right.’ This critical edition of d’Argenson’s Considérations brings to light for the first time those views and, in an introductory essay, situates them within d’Argenson’s full political philosophy and the political and intellectual context of his time.

– Andrew Jainchill, Queen’s University (Canada)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Andrew Jainchill is the editor of the May Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume, D’Argenson, Considérations sur le gouvernement, a critical edition, with other political texts, which utilises rare manuscripts and previously unstudied archival sources to produce the first critical edition of d’Argenson’s Considérations.

A born-digital edition of Voltaire’s Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite

Just as the print edition of the Œuvres Complètes de Voltaire is fast approaching its completion, we at the Voltaire Foundation are starting work on two new, highly ambitious digital projects thanks to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: a digital edition of Voltaire’s works based on the Œuvres complètes (Digital Voltaire), and a born-digital edition of the works of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (Digital d’Holbach).

With a view to gaining the necessary skills required to begin my work on Digital d’Holbach, in autumn 2018 I attended an intensive course on digital editions run by the Taylorian Institution Library. Taught by Emma Huber in collaboration with Frank Egerton and Johanneke Sytsema, the course takes students through all the phases of the digital edition workflow, from transcription to publication and dissemination. It is a goal-focused, hands-on course during which students are warmly encouraged to create a born-digital edition of a short text from the Taylorian’s collections.

Although short and apparently light in tone, the piece that I chose to edit – Voltaire’s Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite sur la nécessité et l’enchaînement des choses – is a key text in the evolution of Voltaire’s philosophical views. As the title suggests, the Dialogue hinges on the question of determinism (or fatalisme, in eighteenth-century French parlance) and touches on such crucial notions as moral freedom, causation, and the problem of evil. It was first published anonymously in the Abeille du Parnasse of 5 February 1752, and it then went through several reprints during Voltaire’s lifetime, with very few variants.

My edition of the Dialogue is of course not meant to replace the one already available in OCV. Rather, it was conceived to meet the needs of the broader public – and more specifically those of students. A very short introduction, displayed on the right-hand side, provides essential information on the philosophical issues at stake while situating the Dialogue in relation to other key texts by Voltaire. An original translation into English by Kelsey Rubin-Detlev makes the text more widely accessible, allowing students working in fields other than modern languages (e.g. philosophy) to engage with Voltaire’s ideas. High-quality pictures of the 1756 edition, which provides the base text, aim to give non-specialists a taste of what it feels like to leaf through a (dusty) eighteenth-century book. Finally, a modernised version of the text is available next to the facsimile, and a rich corpus of annotations – displaying in both the French transcription and the English translation and featuring links to several other digital resources (the ARTFL Encyclopédie and Tout Voltaire, but also Wikipedia and BibleGateway!) – aims to render the reading experience as informative and rewarding as possible.

But there is more to this edition than first meets the eye! For example, by clicking on ‘Downloads’ in the menu bar, a fifth column will appear from which the user is invited to download pictures as well as TEI/XML files, which can then be used as models to generate further digital editions. Also, a drop-down menu in the transcription column allows users to choose between two different versions of the text in addition to the modernised version displayed by default: a diplomatic transcription of the 1756 edition and a diplomatic transcription of a 1768 edition, which comes with its own set of images that are also available for download under a Creative Commons Licence. By looking at these texts, users will get a sense of how radically French spelling evolved in the mid-eighteenth century.

Readers of this blog are most cordially invited to browse my edition. Any feedback on content or presentation (e.g. the way footnotes or variants are displayed) would be greatly appreciated as I work towards an edition of a considerably longer text by d’Holbach. But more on that in the coming months!

Ruggero Sciuto

 

 

 

Surviving and thriving, cheerful and imperturbable

The OUP bookshop on Oxford’s High Street marks International Women’s Day 2019.

While in the UK the eighth of March often passes unnoticed, International Women’s Day is a national holiday in Russia, on which women regularly expect flowers and other gifts from the men in their lives. This saccharine twenty-first-century custom is a far cry from the holiday’s revolutionary origins in Russia. Invented in the US in 1909 and established as an annual holiday by the Second International Conference of Women the following year, International Women’s Day was first marked in Russia in 1914. Only three years later, in 1917, women’s protests against food shortages on 8 March (23 February according to the Julian calendar then used in Russia) marked the start of the February Revolution, which brought down the Romanov dynasty and opened the door for the Bolshevik revolution later the same year.

One of the many outstanding women in Russian history and perhaps the most powerful woman anywhere in the world in the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great would undoubtedly have been horrified by the Russian Revolution. But she might have had a bit more sympathy for the theme of this year’s Oxford International Women’s Festival (28 February-16 March 2019): ‘We Will Survive and Thrive’.

Women demanding an increase in rations for soldiers’ families in Russia, February/March 1917.

Catherine’s Selected Letters, translated and edited by Andrew Kahn (Oxford) and myself, recently appeared in the Oxford World’s Classics series, and tells in Catherine’s own words the story of how she learned to ‘survive and thrive’ in the perilous worlds of the Russian court and international politics in the eighteenth century.

Catherine the Great’s Selected Letters in the OUP bookshop window, Oxford.

Catherine was in many ways a self-made woman. Born to a German princely family in what is today Poland, she was brought to Russia at the age of 14 to be married off to her first cousin and the heir to the Russian imperial throne, the future emperor Peter III. As she recounts in her marvellous memoirs, when she first arrived in Russia she was forbidden even from having pen and paper, for fear that she would meddle in politics. Her marriage was very unhappy, and Catherine found herself extremely isolated. As she put it in an epitaph she later imagined for herself, ‘Eighteen years of boredom and solitude made her read many books.’ But she also began to dream big and to see herself as a future stateswoman who could make a difference in Russian history. She told the English ambassador (writing in the third person so that, if enemies at court intercepted the letter, they would not immediately recognise its author): ‘she will never advise anything except what she believes to be for the glory and in the interest of Russia […]. But she also knows how very much the nation needs to be well managed internally.’

Catherine the Great’s coronation, by Vigilius Eriksen.

And then, in 1762, Catherine brought about her own revolution: a coup d’état overthrowing her husband, the recently acceded emperor (in the eighteenth century, any major political change was called a ‘revolution’). She still had an uphill battle to fight: not only was she unrelated by blood to the Romanov family, she had not been designated by the previous empress, Elizabeth, as the legitimate heir in accordance with Russian law. Many people expected Catherine to rule as regent for her young son, Paul, or to be overthrown too in short order. Instead she ruled for thirty-four years, acquiring unprecedented political and cultural clout for Russia and the epithet of ‘the Great’ for herself. If asked the secret to her survival and success she would point to her resilient and positive personality, dubbing herself the ‘Imperturbable One’, and telling an old family friend, ‘one must be cheerful. Only with that can one overcome and endure anything.’ Reading Catherine’s letters one can watch that personality in action, as she handled everything from diplomatic tangles to the challenges of grandmotherhood with pragmatism, good humour, and the will to survive and thrive.

– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev (University of Southern California)

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is assistant professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California. She is the author of ‘The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great’.

 

‘Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs of the new Revolution’

Must they? Ian Hamilton Finlay is the author of this startling command. It is one of his Detached Sentences on Gardening (1980-1998): Finlay was a concrete poet and artist who developed a now-renowned garden by the name of Little Sparta, just to the south of Edinburgh, from the late 1960s onwards. His work, we read, is characterised by an ‘unwavering engagement with the relationship between civilisation and violence’, which his curious ‘detached sentence’ presumably illustrates in the way it connects the garden centre to the Jacobin Club and thence to ‘the new Revolution’. Yet it still seems rather hard to perceive the route from political engagement to garden centre.

William Shenstone, by Edward Alcock

William Shenstone, by Edward Alcock (1760).

Finlay was, it appears, directly influenced in the form and subject of his ‘detached sentences’ by William Shenstone’s Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening (1764). Shenstone was a poet, landowner and landscape gardener. Consultation of his Unconnected Thoughts does not reveal a revolutionary, but it does reveal a dogmatist who opposes the straight line. Not for him the admiration Montaigne expresses in his essay ‘Des Coches’ (On Coaches) for the straight, wide, paved, walled, tree-lined, stream-washed and generally highly usable road linking Quito to Cusco. Shenstone, on the contrary, slams ‘strait-lined avenues’ as giving ‘actual pain to a person of taste’. He singles out two ‘famous vistas’, one in Russia and the other in India, for his particular ire, and this is the comparison he makes: ‘For [a person of taste] to be condemned to pass along the famous vista from Moscow to Petersburg, or that other from Agra to Lahore in India, must be as disagreeable a sentence, as to be condemned to labour at the gallies.’ What, really? Here we find taste and politics brought together with a vengeance. This nasty brew of British imperial superciliousness is so potent, so intoxicating, that it enables Shenstone to use his reference to a vicious penal system as part of a pithy put-down of other tastes, other cultures, other countries. On he goes, empathising with the experience of the galley convict: ‘I conceived some idea of the sensation he must feel’, he says, ‘from walking but a few minutes, immured, betwixt lord D’s high-shorn yew hedges.’

And here, in amongst Lord D’s hedges, is where I ended up, not along a straight line, but after several diversions and detours as pleasingly various as anything the disagreeable Shenstone might have endorsed, and understanding rather better than before how civilization and violence might come together in a garden prospect.

Where I started off was, however, somewhere else entirely: I gave a paper last May at the Voltaire Foundation’s Enlightenment Workshop, run by Nicholas Cronk and Avi Lifschitz. I was talking about eighteenth-century French materialist thought upstream and downstream of Diderot. I was wondering about style and voice and recognisability, and I was trying to understand whether materialist thought – that beast so loathed and reviled by the censoring authorities that it had to go about in disguise, or at least its authors did – had other ways of making itself visible and ensuring its perpetuation. I was wondering whether the repetition of arguments or examples might be part of that, and whether, if what you’re looking at is the ongoing flow of collective voices, it is legitimate or even possible to identify particular ones within the flow.

Basically, I was trying to understand whether Diderot’s late medico-philosophical text the Eléments de physiologie was or was not being cited in Revolutionary Paris of the 1790s; I was also trying to understand what sort of arguments or tools I could use to find this out, given the wall-to-wall silence regarding it; and finally, I was trying to understand whether there’s something somehow against-the-grain in my approach, given that materialist thought tends to privilege connections and the ebb-and-flow of the whole, and does not see any one part as meaningful when separated from any of the rest (thereby interestingly meeting a historicist approach to texts and contexts). Diderot’s work shows this over and over, whether we’re looking at bees in a swarm, an organ in a body, a workman and his loom, a hanger-on in a society of sycophants, or indeed at matter in the universe. And there you have it: the problem in a nutshell. Nobody apart from Diderot writes about this so imaginatively, so interestingly, so self-reflexively. And he’s the one talking about inseparability, the whole being greater than the part, and so on. Back to square one.

Square one, in fact, is that Diderot’s Eléments de physiologie is supposed to be fragmentary and unfinished. You know why? Because he said so, in the preface, in which he describes himself as already dead, and having failed to assemble these promising fragments into a complete text before sadly perishing. Strangely and/or hilariously and/or entirely understandably, this claim has always been taken at face value. Understandably, because it reappears verbatim in his disciple Naigeon’s Mémoires sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Diderot (1823), which Diderot scholars always seem to take literally, drawing on it as an eye-witness source of factual information. Of course Naigeon was simply quoting Diderot’s own preface, not that anyone has noticed. Fragments, then: why is Diderot focusing on fragments? What is a fragment? Something unfinished, something detached (as in Finlay’s work), or unconnected (as in Shenstone’s)? Something – an element – that’s defined by its relation to the whole of which it is part and without which it has no meaning?

This is what Laura Ouillon, graduate student at the ENS Lyon, disputed. She heard about my paper from Ilya Afanasyev, a medievalist historian specialising in questions of nation and identity who attended the Enlightenment Workshop. Laura is working on Ian Hamilton Finlay, and she sent me her dissertation, ‘Mémoire et Expérience de/à Little Sparta: Le Jardin de pensée selon Ian Hamilton Finlay’, thereby introducing me to his writing, his art and his gardens. Laura is a specialist on British contemporary art, and hopes to pursue her initial work on Finlay in a doctoral thesis. She suggests that we consider the experience of the fragment as an experience in itself, as something that expresses the possibility of sharing and association, of ‘re-membering’, that even invites it. In Finlayan language, the fragment is a crucial brick in the process of bricolage, so beautifully explained by the late lamented Chris Johnson. Or as illustrated in concrete terms here by Finlay himself, with reference to the Jacobin and revolutionary Saint-Just, minus the garden centre. Or did he mean that the garden itself is a centre, a hub of new elements, new fragments?

Little Sparta

Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

Thinking about connections, juxtaposition and flow, all such crucial aspects of eighteenth-century materialist thought, even if the gorgeous notion of bricolage was not then available, one wonders what sorts of connections there are between the materialism of then and the materialism of now, and what happens if one puts their writing together. Do current theoreticians of materialism, the new materialists, with their intermediary experience of Marxism, think about eighteenth-century materialist writing, Diderot, his upstream and downstream, at all? Of course they have a dense relationship to the tradition via Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault too. Rosi Braidotti, Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University, important feminist philosopher and articulator of the new materialism, says this about the body. It is:

‘A piece of meat activated by electric waves of desire, a text written by the unfolding of genetic encoding. Neither a sacralised inner sanctum nor a pure socially shaped entity, the enfleshed Deleuzian subject is rather an ”in-between”: it is a folding-in of external influences and a simultaneous unfolding outwards of affects. A mobile entity, an enfleshed sort of memory that repeats and is capable of lasting through sets of discontinuous variations, while remaining faithful to itself. The Deleuzian body is ultimately an embodied memory.’ [1]

I like what she says, and I like her philosophical verbosity, her urgency. But is what she says new, exactly? It sounds continuous with what we read in the Eléments de physiologie:

‘La douleur, le plaisir, la sensibilité, les passions, le bien ou le malaise, les besoins, les appétits, les sensations intérieures et extérieures, l’habitude, l’imagination, l’instinct, l’action propre des organes, commandent à la machine et lui commandent involontairement’ (Pain, pleasure, sensibility, the passions, well-being or discomfort, needs, appetites, internal and external sensations, habit, imagination, instinct, and the natural functioning of the organs, they all command the machine, and do so involuntarily) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on free will).

And in this context, what the self is, is memory. Thus: ‘la mémoire constitue le soi’ (memory constitutes the self) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on memory). What Braidotti says, therefore, sounds more like an iteration in modern philosophical language, a renewal of the sort of thing we find in Diderot, than something completely new. As Braidotti herself says, ‘I think French philosophy is rich in minor traditions, which we would do well to revisit.’ She then confesses that her ‘personal favorite is the enchanted materialism of Diderot‘ (p.28).

How great that the affinity is recognised, even if these earlier texts are somehow downgraded, made inferior, relegated to a ‘minor tradition’? What does it matter that she engages with Diderot via the charming title of Elisabeth de Fontenay’s famous study, rather than directly with his words, he not being very likely to use the vocabulary of enchantment or magic in this context? What does it matter that Braidotti’s description of the body seems like a new version of something pretty old? What does it matter whether she knows she’s doing it or not? What does it matter if the point is simply that the collective voice is managing to make itself heard?

The answer is that it doesn’t really matter if an individual contribution is overlooked, but that it does matter if this new materialism preaches collective connectivity while conceptualising it in a flat or forward-facing time frame of now and novelty. That would be a weakness, a failure to acknowledge that connections can made backwards in time as well as sideways in space, a failure to explore the richness of retrospective ‘re-membering’ bricolage. Perhaps all we need to do is to encourage new materialists to do more of the revisiting Braidotti proposes, and rather less of the hierarchical arrangement of ‘traditions’ into ‘minor’ and ‘major’. Because who knows what might happen when you combine elements or place fragments in a new way? You might make new connections, new associations. You might even end up in a garden centre, having started off with Diderot. It might be an experience all of its own.

– Caroline Warman

[1] Braidotti, ‘Teratologies’, in Deleuze and Feminist Theory, ed. I. Buchanan and C. Colebrook (Edinburgh, 2000), p.156-72 (p.159), quoted in ‘Interview with Rosi Braidotti’, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, ed. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin (Ann Arbor, 2012), p.19-37 (p.19).