Enlightenment research as a vocation

Enlightenment past and present is the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This volume by Anthony J. La Vopa explores the social meanings of Enlightenment discourses in England, Scotland, France, and Germany. This blog post written by Avi Lifschitz discusses La Vopa’s new book, sharing insight into this new publication, its themes, and the introductory essay ‘Finding Meaning in the Enlightenment’.

The Weberian title of this blog post is a fitting tribute to Anthony J. La Vopa, a prominent Enlightenment scholar who has dedicated the last fifty years to the study of what he calls ‘the social history of ideas’ in the eighteenth century. This self-definition might initially conceal the indispensable role of rhetoric, literary genre, and authorial tone in La Vopa’s work on the Enlightenment. As he notes in the introduction to the new collection of his essays, one of his major early insights was that he could effectively ‘derive social meaning from the literary properties of a text’.

The essays collected here do exactly that, covering diverse topics across eighteenth-century Germany, France, and Britain. A new essay on Denis Diderot’s theory of genius joins La Vopa’s classic 1992 article on Jürgen Habermas’s and Reinhart Koselleck’s notions of Enlightenment and its public sphere of allegedly rational debate. Johann Gottfried Herder’s complex relationship with language, print and eighteenth-century readership is discussed next to the peculiar friendship between James Boswell and William Johnson Temple. Kant’s attitudes to sex and marriage are discussed next to an essay on the shifting meanings of enthusiasm (Schwärmerei) from Luther to the late eighteenth century.

Several essays concern methodological issues, from the resurrection of the contextual biography (written on the occasion of La Vopa’s 2001 biography of the young Fichte) to the gender turn in Enlightenment studies, Jonathan Israel’s work on the radical Enlightenment, and the complex interrelations between history, philosophy and literature in Enlightenment studies.

The jewel in the book’s crown is ‘Finding meaning in the Enlightenment’, the introductory essay that serves both as a retrospective stock-taking of the author’s scholarship and as a panoramic overview of Enlightenment studies since the 1970s. This is arguably a modern incarnation of the scholarly autobiographies, or accounts of intellectual development, written by eighteenth-century German professors and clergymen of a Pietist background – a genre so effectively mined by La Vopa over the years.

Indeed, the author applies to himself in the essay some of the questions that have fascinated him throughout his career. Did he follow a calling or a vocation while practising a specific trade, in this case academic teaching and writing on the Enlightenment? How much of his labour, intellectual or otherwise, has been rooted in the unconscious appropriation of a given socio-political habitus? Among other reflections on changing political and social trends from the 1970s to the present, La Vopa focuses on attitudes to higher education. Since the 1980s we have witnessed, La Vopa argues, a steady retreat of humanist ideals in the face of market-based utilitarianism, which has taken its toll on American public universities in particular.

Friedrich Schiller, the Humboldt brothers, and Goethe in Jena.  Engraving after a drawing by Andreas Müller, Die Gartenlaube 15 (1860).

In this respect, La Vopa does not shy away from drawing informed, careful parallels between past and present, based mostly on his book Grace, Talent and Merit (1988), which examined the intellectual and social implications of the career paths open to students from disadvantaged backgrounds in eighteenth-century Germany. The shift from the educational policies of the 1960s to today’s marketisation of academia is comparable, according to La Vopa, to the overtaking of the late eighteenth-century humanism of Schiller and Humboldt by the conservative educational policies of the early nineteenth century.

In both cases, class inequality prevailed, accompanied by a rhetoric that justified exclusions of the disadvantaged from university education even when in principle it implied their inclusion. Two centuries ago, the egalitarian ideals of Bildung and Menschheit were betrayed when ‘a freight of social and cultural capital – the inherited advantages of wealth and family education, including insidious codes of proper speech and manners – became a de facto entry requirement for the new classical Gymnasium, the gateway to the universities.’

This is just one of many intriguing insights in the introductory essay – an example of engaged scholarship at its best. It cautiously situates the Enlightenment in relation to the present without losing sight of diverse contexts, gaps, and discontinuities. The extensive essay spells out a central impulse behind La Vopa’s scholarship: ‘By recovering an Enlightenment field of argument about what education should do, we will not find solutions, but we can at least become more aware that a rich debate has been impoverished.’ This point applies, well beyond education, to all the chapters in this collection. La Vopa conveys here, as in his other publications, a palpable sense of Enlightenment as critique – not only of received ideas and existing structures but also of the writing self and all its habitual predispositions.

– Avi Lifschitz (Magdalen College, University of Oxford)

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Turmoil: post-pandemic paradigm shifts and elastic adaptations

Síofra Pierse is co-editor with Emma M. Dunne of Turmoil: instability and insecurity in the eighteenth-century francophone text, the May volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book is a collection of essays by international eighteenth-century colleagues, who explore instances of turmoil through study of eighteenth-century francophone texts. Turmoil(s) captured appear familiar to the modern readership: revisionism, disasters, realignment, instability, insecurity and resilience. In her introduction to Turmoil, Síofra Pierse proffers a new ontology of turmoil that has ramifications far beyond the eighteenth century. In this blog post, Síofra tests this book’s new turmoil paradigm against more recent geopolitical events such as climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, or war in Ukraine.

Sensational news stories are designed to shock. If they don’t affect us, or our environment, we simply dismiss them, barely giving them a second glance, registering that they are simply that, sensational headlines, and not something closer to home. But every so often, something terrible impinges on our lives, our world, or our consciousness. Then, the world tilts, often imperceptibly, on its axis. Suddenly, that particular headline, state, or event constitutes an instance of turmoil.

This study of turmoil and Jessica Stacey’s recent study of catastrophe narratives (also in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series) clearly capture a certain zeitgeist: that’s unsurprising, given recent global events in 2020-22. Stacey identifies catastrophe within the eighteenth century as a broad ‘meaning-maker expressing hopes as well as fears’. But the ontology proposed by this book highlights the significant difference between turmoil and its close cousins of catastrophe. As Catriona Seth writes in her preface: ‘The three stages of turmoil make it possible to distinguish this phenomenon from other forms of catastrophe studies which do not take the subsequent state into account’ (p.8, n4).

An Ontology of Turmoil

Turmoil proposes a new ontology of turmoil: any time there is turmoil, a paradigm shift subsequently occurs and ultimately there is an adaptation of some sort. Take, for example, the 1757 assassination attempt on Louis XV which did not kill the king, yet it triggered many changes, resulting in myriad instances of spin and propaganda. The significant difference between catastrophe and turmoil is that turmoil consistently manifests with a post-turmoil paradigmatic shift that reveals an elasticity of adaptation. Indeed, this book bears witness to the surprising human ability to engage in significant paradigm shifts. Even more remarkable is the incredible range and elasticity of post-turmoil adaptations. Many adaptations are affirmative ones, such as the reconstruction of post-earthquake Lisbon, or where new body burial directives emerged due to the excess of bodies needing burial during the bloodbath of post-revolutionary Terror in 1793-94.

Turmoil(s)

One of the first revelations of this book is that to analyse turmoil is to burrow into the perennially dark side of humanity, with focus on sempiternal instability, insecurity and marginalisation. Where Kate Tunstall tracks the spin doctors of Versailles under Louis XV, she reminds us that there is nothing new about fake news, beyond its name. Similarly, while the term sadism dates only from the end of the eighteenth century, studies in our book reveal how the images so brutally practised by Sade in fact long predate the marquis and his century: infanticide and feminicide will, sadly, always be headline material. Similarly, turmoil narratives of eighteenth-century natural disasters connect directly to contemporary geopolitics. Most of all, eighteenth-century global turmoil awakens us to our deep, transnational interconnectedness: it was in the wake of the Napoleonic wars that Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich made his infamous quip about France sneezing and the rest of the world catching a cold.

The Paradigm Shift

Where Voltaire considered war as an inevitable curse on humanity, Turmoil addresses war from the perspectives of problematic narrative bias and the unreliability of memory. For anyone who has grown up in the luxury of relatively stable world peace, the invasion of the Ukraine on 24 February constituted a significant instance of turmoil. Perceptions of western stability were rocked by shocking images of bombardment, basement shelters, forced emigration, conscription, and the decimation of a modern European neighbour. Where elasticity of adaptation may permit engagement in local actions to help Ukrainian refugees, we are exposed to a barrage of new discourses around war ‘norms’, while absorbing good/bad dichotomies of cruel exaggeration within the recently-exhumed conventional rhetoric of international warfare. When perspectives shifted irrevocably on 24 February 2022, the complexities of post-invasion reinterpretation and revision became infinite.

Elasticity of Adaptation

The crucial final identifier within our ontology is that of post-turmoil adaptation, exemplifying the incredible elasticity of humanity. Turmoil focuses on many eighteenth-century manifestations of resilience such as Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s reinvention of self during the Revolution, or Isabelle de Charrière’s snappiness with discontent émigré-e-s. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided us with endless recent examples of post-turmoil adaptations and resilience: where government lockdowns engendered everything from shifts in perspective to epiphanies, the world quickly coined the telling term the new normal, and snapped into a universe of masks, hand sanitiser and vaccination certs. To study turmoil is to reveal the perpetual elasticity of the human world and its striking adaptability. This book highlights and celebrates humanity’s dramatic ability to adapt, to repair, to forge on. But it also exposes a new dark side, which must surely become the focus of a future study on humanity’s concomitant ability to swiftly blank the turmoil within its serially new adaptations or accommodations: we suffer, we adapt … and we ultimately forget.

– Síofra Pierse (University College Dublin)

Les Antiquités dépaysées

Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme’s Les Antiquités dépaysées is the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book is the first on the geopolitics of antiquarianism in the eighteenth century. In this blog post Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme discuss this new publication and how the volume came to exist.

In recent decades there has been a proliferation of conferences, books and articles that have rethought antiquarian knowledge in a global context in art history, history of material culture, and the history of knowledge. They were mainly based on the idea of the long – even deep – history of Antiquity and on a comparative approach between cultures of collecting. There were also perspectives on the history of Antiquity more rooted in the colonial world or addressing global Renaissance. In all these cases, the aim was to break with the disciplinary genealogies of modern archaeology in order to recapture the early modern period.

Our viewpoint in this book was slightly different: we questioned the idea that antiquarian curiosity was an anthropological invariant, and we also wanted to interrogate further the shift from antiquarianism to archaeology that occurred during the Enlightenment. We come from two different but complementary backgrounds: Charlotte Guichard comes from art history and has done a lot of work on collecting, expertise and the world of objects, and Stéphane Van Damme comes from the history of science and has taken an interest in urban antiquities. This volume is therefore the result of a series of meetings that took place in Paris that aimed to pool the approaches of a new generation of historians and art historians who belong to different historiographical fields and who have been sensitized to the question of the circulation of antiques in the eighteenth century in worlds and spaces as different as the Mughal Empire, the Chinese Empire, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, the Spanish empires in New Spain, or the antiquarian culture in the young Republic of the United States.

Our problem is anchored in a connected history and we chose to focus on the devices of encounter that constitute moments of testing and appraising of these artefacts. Circulation is not an inert framework but a phase of transformation, translation and adaptation that played a role in giving a new identity to these artefacts. We have therefore always paid attention to the actors, the mediations that made these circulations possible or, on the contrary, hindered them. Less than structural comparison, the connection and circulation between these worlds required agreements on the nature of these objects and their interpretations. The history of knowledge mobilized here is part of the material turn to account for this intense work of qualification, as the ontologies of objects and artefacts are not fixed but constantly discussed and negotiated. The global dimension does not invite us to focus solely on the analysis of the processes of globalization of a material culture of Antiquity, but rather to show the diversity of the collecting enterprises and the variety of local contexts in which they were embedded.

By studying antiquarian knowledge in context, the book aims to give an archipelagic representation of the antiquarian world rather than the plenary vision that has become established, and which gives a false image of these exchanges. In the eighteenth century there were indeed high places and metropolitan cities where these meetings took place: Paris, London, Philadelphia, Constantinople, Beijing, Delhi, Mexico. The collective work therefore consisted in mapping these exchanges. While the paradigm of international trade was established in eighteenth-century European societies, the flow of antique objects was not homogeneous. Antiquarian curiosity was not unanimously shared, and enthusiasm was often tempered. This book reveals, on the contrary, the indifference or the obstacles in this pursuit. In so doing, our collective investigation aims to re-politicize the exchanges, highlight the conflicts and power relations, and even the economy of predation that surrounded these circulations of Antiquity in the eighteenth century.

Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme (Ecole normale supérieure)

Les Antiquités dépaysées: Histoire globale de la culture antiquaire au siècle des Lumières is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This notice first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in March 2022.

Digital approaches to ballet as an interdisciplinary theatrical form

What might the discourse around pantomime ballet tell us about the priorities of Enlightenment aesthetics, and what might a literary study of ballet during the Enlightenment reveal about ballet’s legacies? These are two of the larger questions that I address in Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie, but they also point the reader toward a third question, less obvious from the book’s title but nevertheless situated at the core of the project: how did the rampant textual borrowing that took place during the Enlightenment shape the creation and dissemination of knowledge? Larger projects such as Commonplace Cultures have addressed this question on a macroscopic level. In Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie, conversely, I have used digital tools in combination with close reading to attend to the micro level, focusing on a small number of authors and using paratexts to trace specific borrowings from one publication to the next.

Although the theorizing of ballet might seem an unusual place to begin to answer a question about textual borrowing, ballet’s disciplinary situation in fact makes it an ideal case study: during the second half of the eighteenth century, during which regional variants of the newly established genre of pantomime ballet flourished across Europe, no one seemed quite certain where to situate the artform. In the Encyclopédie, librettist Louis de Cahusac (1706-1759) crafted an interdisciplinary definition for ballet at the crossroads of opera and dance, with strong ties to the spectacular forms of the past, such as comédie-ballet and fêtes de la cour de France. Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), the reform-minded ballet master and theorist, made the case in his Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets (1760) for ballet as a theatrical form that emphasized its spatial and visual qualities. For Noverre and Cahusac, in other words, pantomime ballet was a narrative, theatrical form that relied on the body to tell a story. Anchoring their writings in the aesthetic theories of Charles Batteux and Jean-Baptiste Dubos, they used ballet’s literary and visual elements to justify its place among the so-called high arts, alongside painting and poetry.

Jean-Georges Noverre, Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets, title page (BnF).

Yet by the last decades of the eighteenth century, when the premise of a narrative ballet had already been widely accepted, editors and theorists of drama and dance would begin to complicate this idea. Charles-Joseph Panckoucke’s Encyclopédie méthodique – which brought together ballet-related texts by Cahusac, Noverre, Rousseau, Marmontel, and others – located ballet within five different subject dictionaries: Grammaire et littérature, Arts académiques. Equitation, escrime, danse, et art de nager, Antiquités, mythologie, diplomatique des chartres, et chronologie, Encyclopédiana, and Musique. Each of these dictionaries’ treatments, siloed away from the others, has the potential to be read as a standalone treatment of the subject; readers may have approached them singly, or worked with just a few volumes at a time, as in the case study of Antonio Piazza, editor of the Gazzetta urbana veneta, in my book’s fourth chapter.

Whether read as a whole or independently, the Encyclopédie méthodique is an ideal case study for demonstrating how knowledge was reordered through textual borrowing and editorial decisions. In the case of ballet, Panckoucke’s editors dissolved many of Cahusac’s original cross-references, nullifying the structure that linked his articles together. At the same time, they created new ways of understanding ballet’s past and future, especially through its inclusion under the rubric of dance, rather than the other way around. In this manner, the textual borrowing in the Encyclopédie méthodique demonstrates one way in which encyclopedic structure, just as much as content, can create and change the meaning of individual articles.

Most of the sources upon which this book’s argument rests are literary texts, which I have examined with attention to their underlying structure and arguments. However, I should underscore that I could not have even begun to approach these questions without access to the digital texts that allowed me to map areas of Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, to connect it to and inventory changes in the encyclopedic structure made in the Encyclopédie d’Yverdon, and to identify textual borrowings across the Encyclopédie and its Supplément, the Encyclopédie d’Yverdon, the Encyclopédie méthodique, and Charles Compan’s Dictionnaire de danse. In particular, I have relied on the University of Chicago’s ARTFL Encyclopédie and the Inventaire de l’Encyclopédie d’Yverdon. Through my circuitous navigation of the ARTFL Encyclopédie, I have endeavored to follow the directive prescribed by D’Alembert in his ‘Discours préliminaire’, that is, to understand cross-references as representative of the disciplinary links between articles (and not to define one article by another). This approach has allowed me to reclaim an understanding of eighteenth-century ballet not within a field, as the encyclopedists would have deemed any attempt at its categorization to be reductive, but as a complex form of dramatic performance without disciplinary bounds.

– Olivia Sabee (Swarthmore College)

Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this post appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography

As I type this, experts reach out to us by all means available, on Twitter and talk-shows, to explain the best course of actions to curb a worldwide pandemic. We, lay people of a society as interconnected and literate as ever, have to navigate the flow of information and distinguish the dubiously self-appointed experts from those who are adequately equipped to steer decision-making at both state and individual level.

Epidemiology and social media were light years away from Paul Rapin Thoyras, the expatriate Huguenot historian whose œuvre is at the centre of my book Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography. Yet, in the early eighteenth century, scholars also debated about how to discern and acknowledge a certain kind of expertise: who could produce reliable historical accounts. I reconstruct Rapin’s crafting of the persona of a historian as an ‘expert’ who weighed all available evidence and eventually emitted a plausible verdict, which others could in turn take up and challenge. The book accounts for how history-writing earned Rapin a badge of membership in the Republic of Letters, a self-appointed community of scholars who strove to advance learning in all domains. Such a Republic had to juggle emerging media (the periodical journals); editorial formats (serializations, abridgements, popularizations); and writers (journalists, hack writers, editorial all-rounders) to steer the reception of printed works beyond a narrowly envisioned scholarly circle to an audience that was increasingly literate and hungry for historical accounts.

Chapters One and Two survey how skeptics at the turn of the eighteenth century doubted that history could be a magistra vitae as it had always been conceived: personal bias stood in the way of an impartial reconstruction and history-writing seemed unable to attain the allegedly unequivocal knowledge of physics and mathematics. Rapin drew his pen to fight the mounting skepticism and rehabilitate history-writing as a discipline of probable reconstructions. This resulted in what I call the Histoire-project: commented abridgments of English primary sources (1714-1725); an essay on the English political parties (1717); and the a ten-volume Histoire d’Angleterre (1724-1728) which represented the culmination of his twenty-year enterprise.

Rapin’s historiographical trials are put to test in Chapter Three, to see how his musings on the Anglo-Saxons or the disentanglement of the Popish Plot also responded to ongoing political and religious debates in England. Striving for impartiality did not – does not? – equate to being neutral in things political. Rapin thought of history-writing as a means to understand the deep-seated roots of present issues and advocate for religious toleration.

Rapin’s achievements were extraordinary, yet his strategies and ambitions were common within the Republic of Letters – as were his previous occupations as soldier and tutor, and his multiple displacements: to England, the Netherlands, and ultimately Germany. His personal trajectory thus illuminates how scholars reconsidered the boundaries of their community in the face of the booming printing industry and the interconnected growth of a readership among the general public (chapters Two and Four). Fellow scholars provided Rapin with primary sources, intellectual support and publicity in a common effort to make history-writing a worthy scholarly endeavour.

Paul Rapin Thoyras, Histoire d’Angleterre, 10 vols. (La Haye, A. de Rogissart, 1724-1727), vol.1, title page.

Chapter Four follows the many afterlives of Rapin’s œuvre – continuations, translations, adaptations – to show how knowledge of the past was becoming a ‘widespread cultural currency’ (see note below). The impact and spread of Rapin’s œuvre are further gauged through English political newspapers: Whig and Tory party-writers quarried the history written by a foreigner for their domestic political crossfire. The Histoire was thus brought from the royal and scholarly cabinets also to an audience assembled in coffee houses for their daily news. Commentators on opposing sides of the religious and political spectrum equally strove to guide lay readers’ reception of Rapin, criticizing his works either for being ‘too French’ (in England), ‘too Anglophile’ (in France), or even the product of a motley crew of Dutch pamphleteers. History, traditionally written by retired gentlemen for the edification of their peers, was turning into a popular reading genre; and the Republic of Letters felt compelled to mediate the unscholarly in approaching the past.

This guiding was boldly taken up by authors of Enlightenment narratives, who through history-writing traced the emergence of a modern society from a supposed state of barbarity. Rapin’s crafting of historical expertise is compared in Chapter Five with Hume’s and Voltaire’s histoires philosophiques. Both avid readers of Rapin, they brandished his erudition in their respective historiographical works but claimed an expertise decidedly beyond that of the Republic of Letters. While Rapin detected biased interpretations of events by previous historians, Hume and Voltaire detected the change of mankind through the eras to dispense cures for the evils of current society. The Enlightenment pair hoped to eventually dispel all traces of superstition and intolerance by offering their counselling at royal courts and by widely distilling their wisdom through printed matter.

Clio’s altar, the frontispiece of vol.1 of the Histoire d’Angleterre.

Praising Hume’s History of England – written to challenge Rapin’s – Voltaire admired how the Scotsman ‘talked of barbarity as if it were an epidemic disease’. I wonder how Hume and Voltaire would react at seeing superstitious knowledge about the current pandemic spreading at pandemic speed. Rapin might have spoken his mind clearly only within a restricted circle of friends or in private correspondence, while he would painstakingly weigh evidence in the public arena. Despite the increasing pace of print and scholarship, in Rapin’s view knowledge was still manageable by scholars through ink skirmishes. The same that earned him a place on Clio’s altar in the eighteenth century, and a cover in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series almost exactly 314 years after the signature of his contract for the Histoire d’Angleterre (23 December 1701).

Note: Daniel R. Woolf, ‘From hystories to the historical: five transitions in thinking about the past, 1500-1700’, Huntington Library quarterly 68:1-2 (2005), p.37.

–  Miriam Franchina (University of Trier)

Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

What’s blood got to do with it? Reimagining kinship in the Age of Enlightenment

To pass the time on a recent rainy drive to Pittsburgh with my family, we listened to an episode of The Ezra Klein Show that consisted of a conversation between Klein and American novelist Richard Powers. Powers is the author of, among many things, The Overstory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel recently included in Barak Obama’s list of three books everyone should read. The main characters of the story are the trees, their stories told through the humans that form intimate relationships with them. While listening to the interview, I was struck by how, in describing the relationships between humans and trees (and plants, and other animals), Powers referred again and again to this vast network as one of kinship. He reframed kinship as an immense and powerful interspecies network that brings together all the matter that exists on earth.

In many ways Powers’ project, that of both re-imagining what kinship can be, and of exploring what these different forms of intimate communities can do, is also the project of Queering the Enlightenment. While firmly grounded in human interaction, my book establishes a strong link between kinship, knowledge production, and political critique in eighteenth-century France, arguing that one valid method of critique of the French monarchy was stories about queer intimate communities. Many eighteenth-century French authors were critical of the kinds of kinship that reproduced wealth and social hierarchies through practices such as primogeniture and arranged marriage, and so they turned to figures such as the orphan, the bastard, and the foreigner to imagine how the moving pieces of the family might be rearranged, and how these new kinship formations might change how we think about knowledge and power.

Each chapter of Queering the Enlightenment focuses on a single paradigm of intimacy as unearthed through readings of various canonical authors of eighteenth-century France. A chapter on Crébillon fils, for instance, shows how the author harnesses the power of cruising in his novels to propose that random hookups and one-night stands can lead to meaningful methods of sharing the human experience with others. Kinship, gender, and sexuality lose all fixed meaning in a world such as this one. Another chapter turns to several works of Pierre de Marivaux to examine the possibility of a feminine symbolic that emerges from the space of the maternal and circulates among women who nurture and care for other women. In so doing, it invites us to imagine a queer motherhood capable of nourishing the French Republic in ways unavailable to the bare-breasted Marianne that serves as a symbol of France to this day. Other chapters question the heteronormative family structure guided by analyses of the literature of Voltaire, Montesquieu, the abbé Prévost, and Françoise de Graffigny to see how certain outcast figures find hope in unlikely encounters, and how the relationships they form question the very idea of a cultural knowledge based on (sexual) reproduction.

François Boucher, Le Déjeuner (1739), Louvre Museum, Paris (Wikimedia Commons).

It is not without a hint of irony that I began this post with an incredibly banal scene of heteronormativity. What could be more normative than a family of three driving an SUV to the zoo while listening to a New York Times podcast? And so, to close, I would like to attempt what Voltaire, and Graffigny, and Crébillon, and the others did so eloquently almost three hundred years ago – I would like to take these pieces and see how we might understand them differently. Yes, we were a unit on the same journey to the same destination, but we were also three bodies sharing a space but experiencing the time in different ways. As one body drives, they may let their mind wander in and out of the podcast, thinking about the animals they would see, or the tasks they need to complete, or the bit of news they heard that they want to remember to tell their sibling; another might be riding, enjoying the beauty in the mountains and trees as they pass or wishing their arms were long enough to reach the stuffed animal or the used tissue on the floor – mentally exploring and learning from their interactions with the objects around them; still the third might be contemplating the ethics of visiting a zoo where animals are confined in spaces too small for their bodies, or drafting a blog post in their head, or maybe they are thinking about nothing at all. Or maybe the trees and mountains are watching them, wondering why they are there, or if the roads will ever decay to leave room for more flora to bloom. In any case, by decentering the experience of the nuclear family, we might be able to expand what we expect from kinship and intimacy, and we might be surprised at how such a perspectival shift can change what we think we know about the world.

– Tracy Rutler (Pennsylvania State University)

Tracy Rutler is the author of Queering the Enlightenment: Kinship and gender in eighteenth-century French literature, the November volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Further work on English pamphlets that coopt ‘a Persian’ for political polemics

There is an almost unlimited potential for further work in the area of influences from Persia in the Enlightenment, an area that is explored in our very recent volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Persia and the Enlightenment (2021). Each chapter can be considered a pointer in the direction of further research. For example, my chapter, ‘George Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian’, reviews a number of English texts purporting to be written by ‘a Persian Traveller’. These texts started appearing in response to George Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian in England, to his friend at Ispahan (1735), and are best understood in the context of an intense political fight between Prime Minister Robert Walpole and his opposition. I did not mention one such text, the anonymous Remarks of a Persian traveller on the principal courts of Europe with a dissertation upon that of England, the nation in general, and the Prime Minister. Written originally in the Persian language, and now translated into English and French (London: John Hughs, 1736), which I will discuss here.

[Anon.], Remarks of a Persian traveller, title page of the third edition (London, 1735).

As customary at the time, it insisted that the text, presented as a single letter, was written in Persian by a traveller named Ismael to his friend Ibrahim. The introduction declares that the translator expects to translate other writings by Ismael, particularly a narrative on ‘the History of that Hero of Asia, Thamas Kouli Kan’ (p.5). The author reports from visiting a coffee house in London: ‘I heard most of them celebrate the Praises of our invincible Kouli Kan, in a manner which convinced me that his Reputation was in as high esteem in England, as in Persia it self’ (p.21).

In fact, in 1741, The Complete History of Thamas Kouli Kan, Sovereign of Persia, was printed in London.* It was a translation of Jean-Antoine Du Cerceau’s Histoire de Thamas Kouli-Kan Sophi de Perse, which was first printed in 1740 (Amsterdam: Arkstee & Merkus). One interesting distinction of Remarks of a Persian traveller is that it presents the purported letter from Ismael to Ibrahim in French and English simultaneously, leading to the speculation that it could have been written by the translator of Jean-Antoine Du Cerceau’s Histoire.

Remarks of a Persian traveller is in a distinct way different from the other Persian letters mentioned in my chapter of Persia and the Enlightenment. Although as a single letter it is short, a substantial part of it is dedicated to Ismael’s observations while in the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Denmark, Prussia, Holland, and France, before turning its attention to England. The author, who appears to be knowledgeable about current European affairs, is particularly fond of the Russian and French regimes. Meanwhile, he describes the Ottomans as prejudiced and violent, and their political system as ‘tyrannical, and bloody’ (p.9).

The Complete History of Thamas Kouli Kan, frontispiece of the second edition, London, 1746.

The author of Remarks of a Persian is also relatively familiar with Persia. His choice for the purported Persian author of the letter, Ismael, is much more realistic as the name for a Persian in the eighteenth century than Montesquieu’s Usbek or Lyttelton’s Selim. His reference to Meszat, ‘A Town in the Province of Corassan, whither the Persians go in Pilgrimage’, denotes Mashhad in Khorasan, where the tomb of the eighth Shia Imam, Reza, is a main destination for pilgrims. He knows of Tahmasb Qoli Khan (later Nader Shah) who, as chapter four of Persia and the Enlightenment discusses, was a controversial figure in Europe. The author of Remarks of a Persian has a positive view of Nader referring to him as the ‘Invincible Thamas Kouli Kan [who] so happily governs our Country, and makes it his chief care with great Discernment and justice, to reward true Merit’ (p.9). The author’s remark about the Russians ‘being at all times friends [of the Persians]’, in conjunction with his reference to Shah Abbas III (p.9), is perhaps based on his up-to date information about the 1735 treaty of Ganja that established a counter-Ottoman alliance between Peter I of Russia and Nader, who at the time was Abbas III’s regent.

Particularly relevant to my chapter of Persia and Enlightenment is the author’s assessment of Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian. To begin with, he refutes the authenticity of Lyttelton’s claim that the book was a collection of letters originally written by a Persian, arguing that it was ‘easily perceived, that the Name the Author had taken, was only a Mask which he made use of to cover his Designs’. He continues, ‘I found nothing in those Letters which savour’d of the true Genius of a Persian’ (p.23). The author of Remarks of a Persian accuses Lyttelton of attempting to disturb ‘the Publick Peace’, and claims that Lyttelton has ‘taken’ his ideas from Henry St. John Bolingbroke’s Dissertation upon Parties (p.23).

Frontispiece to Walpole’s A Dissertation upon Parties: in several letters to Caleb D’Anvers, Esq. (London, 1735).

The author is overt about his affection for Prime Minister Robert Walpole. The Prime Minister is described as an eloquent speaker, whose ‘harangues full of Force and Beauty, always filled with such Measures as might render his Country formidable to her Enemies, and serviceable to her Allies’. The author compliments Walpole’s ability to expand trade and keep Great Britain out of war (p.27-30). In fact, the letter ends not by Ismael saying farewell to his friend, but praising Walpole as a great man ‘who by the strength of his mighty Genius, alike admired abroad and at home, has acquired the Confidence of his Master, and is become not only the Glory of his Nation, but is also consider’d as one of those who contributes the most to the many Blessings She at this Day enjoys’ (p.32). Remarks of a Persian traveller further supports the assertion made in my chapter of Persia and the Enlightenment that Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian had a wide reception in England, and because of its extensive influence, the author’s opponents felt obliged to attack it immediately after its publication. It also indicates that in eighteenth-century England, the Persian letter genre had turned into a popular and effective instrument of propaganda, widely utilized in the intense political rivalries surrounding Robert Walpole’s long ministry.

* The 1741 edition is mentioned in Catalogue of the printed books in the library of the Society of Writers to H.M. Signet in Scotland (Edinburgh: Neill and Company, 1762), p. 555. A second edition was published in 1742 (London: J. Brindley).

Cyrus Masroori (California State University, San Marcos)

A version of this blog was published in the Liverpool University Press blog in September 2021.

Cyrus Masroori is one of the editors of Persia and the Enlightenment, the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, along with co-editors Whitney Mannies and John Christian Laursen. The series is published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Artisanal labour and the ethics of craft

Scholars today are rewriting histories of the eighteenth century to be more ambitious in scale and inclusive in scope. As a discipline whose foundations have traditionally been located in the European Enlightenment, art history has long defined itself through exclusive canons of ‘artists’ and ‘art’ that have valorized certain individuals and objects at the expense of others. Recent directives to decolonize art history, as well as architectural history, demonstrate that these disciplines seek to credit those who labour as part of art- and knowledge-making processes.

Artisanal objects represent the material and archival evidence of someone’s work and, accordingly, histories of art and architecture double as histories of labour. Our volume Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks recognizes artisan-labourers and contextualizes their identities in order to acknowledge distinct processes of facture – be that artisanal labour standardized, precarious, oppressed, or coerced – and the working conditions under which eighteenth-century artisans operated. Our volume captures the diversity of artisans from a range of occupations – sculptors, manuscript illuminators, ornamental carvers, desk– and chair-makers, clockmakers, garden designers, ceramicists, architects, and jewellers – working in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, colonial America, viceregal Mexico, Mughal India, Qing dynasty China, and colonial Australia. The dialogues between historians of art, architecture, material culture, sociology, and technology featured in our book demonstrate how contested histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Enlightenment are also fundamentally artisanal histories.

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is the June 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The contributions in Crafting Enlightenment all argue for artisanal participation within the pluralities of Enlightenment thought, along multiple narratives of Enlightenment that existed across the eighteenth-century world. Instead of focusing exclusively on the Enlightenment’s European intellectual origins, we consider how artisans from the long eighteenth-century and the products of their labour responded to a multifaceted Enlightenment that meant very different things in different places, as historian Sebastian Conrad has argued. Our version of this transnational Enlightenment extends well beyond the eighteenth century, from seventeenth-century projects of state building to nineteenth-century consequences of imperialism and cross-cultural encounters. We hope our volume encourages readers to delve more deeply into the intertwined narratives between art objects and labour – like the artisans discussed, the objects themselves also represent critical moments of transnational exchange.

Crafting Enlightenment offers a timely reminder that artisans employed craftsmanship and labour to assert their own creativity across the eighteenth-century world. These important queries around pluralism and inclusive practices continue to resonate throughout the academy and governments via policy. In addition to identifying historical eighteenth-century actors who have been marginalized by history, scholars might further chart ambitious intellectual territory by tracking how the exploitation of labour and extraction of natural resources today continue to advance the problematic agenda of colonialism around the world. Public attention is now increasingly trained on the ways that local materials, outsourced labour, and working conditions determine our habits of consumption. Such ecologies of natural resources and labour, identified as such in the long eighteenth century, have allowed us to explore how transnational networks highlight discrepancies between certain privileged artisans who had access to imperial commissions and others who did not and remain uncredited for their work. These issues are as relevant today as they were in the long eighteenth century. Artisanal craftsmanship remains at the heart of social critique, demonstrating how the objects we make and use reflect our personal biases. The practices of contemporary craft – hand-woven textiles being one example – demonstrate how feminized labour, materiality, gender, and race have pulled these techniques towards ideological ends. Ethical questions prompted by artisanal production inflect ongoing debates in art and architecture, signalling how the structural limitations of Enlightenment thought have persisted in determining the production and reception of craft.

Lauren R. Cannady (University of Maryland, College Park) and Jennifer Ferng (University of Sydney)

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in June 2021.

Reframing Rousseau

What can Enlightenment philosophes – especially Rousseau, arguably the most difficult of them all – have to tell us about modern life that we don’t already know?

Le Lévite d’Ephraïm: la douleur du Lévite (c.1806), by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours of Geneva, 1752-1809 (MAH Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève).

We are a team of scholars from different academic areas, each of whom offers a unique vantage point in understanding Rousseau’s texts. This constellation of approaches – grounded in an appreciation of the shared background of feminist critique promoted by the contributors to our volume Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity – provides the density that allows Rousseau’s nuanced writings to be read in their full complexity.

This book focuses on a relatively unfamiliar work of Rousseau’s: Le Lévite d’Ephraïm, a prose-poem in which Rousseau elaborates on a little-known Hebrew biblical text to interrogate many of the accepted, conventional views on issues ranging from the role of sacred texts; to Rousseau’s self-construction through the representation of guilt and remorse; to the role of hospitality in structuring both individual self-representation and social cohesion; to the place of violence in establishing national and communal self-identity. In each of these spheres, Rousseau reveals a particularly modern perspective in trying to honor both personal and social needs, and in privileging both the individual viewpoint and the political structure.

In keeping with Rousseau’s own multifocal writings as reflected in our own authors’ distinct voices, each contributor here provides a more detailed description of the sections in this book.

Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment May 2021).

In focusing on Rousseau’s rewriting of one narrative in the Hebrew biblical text, the first chapter interrogates the uses to which Enlightenment thinkers put the ancient – to many, still sacred – understanding of the biblical text. Why do 18th-century thinkers feel the need to refer to biblical texts at all? What new ways of reading do they create to construct a world view that differs markedly both from ancient and classical philosophical and political thought? This section foregrounds the ‘strange’ reliance Rousseau places on an ancient text to propose a modern critique of the conventional way of understanding the world.

Although Rousseau named Le Lévite d’Ephraïm the ‘most cherished’ of his works, it has drawn far less scholarly attention than most of his other works. Taking the author at his word, the second chapter of the volume explores the paradox behind Rousseau’s valorization of the most disturbing of his writings and his contention that it provided proof of his gentle nature. This chapter identifies links between Le Lévite d’Ephraïm and Rousseau’s autobiographical works and writings on language and society. Rousseau’s rewriting of this Biblical narrative reflects his vision of language, human nature and the fragility of community bonds while offering unique insight into Rousseau’s understanding of human psychology, manipulation of language, and the dynamics of scapegoating and civil unrest.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Line engraving. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Chapter three looks to how Rousseau incorporates the metatext of hospitality into his œuvre, utilizing the social and textual themes of misguided and absent hospitality. It seems that Rousseau’s personal circumstances intensified his conviction that the subversion of hospitality by the host (individual, group, or nation), ineluctably leads to moral catastrophe. Inter alia, this presentation addresses the issue of failed hospitality as it relates to the marginalization of individuals and to the eventual alienation of the group. In the end, society creates its own strangers, and by mistreating them, prefigures its own demise. Le Lévite constitutes a plea for society to restore its moral compass. While much of Rousseau’s work, including the Confessions and Emile, provides insight into the context of his interpretation of faulty hospitality, it is Le Lévite d’Ephraïm that offers a view from a different vantage point of the developing political philosophy explored more fully in the Contrat social.

The book’s final chapter focuses on Rousseau’s view of how nationalism can intersect with violence. Do these two movements inevitably presuppose each other? What determines the notion of ‘belonging’ to a nation? Concomitantly, Rousseau treats the inverse implication of these questions: what is the status of the stranger, of the person who doesn’t belong? Rousseau’s choice of an abstruse biblical text through which to examine this complicated issue highlights Rousseau’s understanding of the complexities of texts, and of others, as we try to interpret these all to get at their essences.

The Afterword of this volume explores some of the current implications of the questions raised, both implicitly and explicitly, by the text of Le Lévite d’Ephraïm. How do Rousseau’s writings – particularly Le Lévite d’Ephraïm – speak to a 21st-century world fractured by demonization and alienation? This section of the book outlines the ways in which strangeness and nationalism can be utilized to unite the world of variegated individuals and communities that form the complicated texture of our lives.

In Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraim, Abrams, Morgenstern and Sullivan offer us a new look at Rousseau’s writing on political and cultural issues that continue to be salient in contemporary times. The authors look forward to expanding this conversation with the responses and reactions from the readers of this book.

Barbara Abrams, Mira Morgenstern, and Karen Sullivan
(Suffolk University Boston, City College / City University of New York, Queens College / City University of New York)

Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in May 2021.

Mapping a polycentric Republic of Letters in eighteenth-century Mexico

Map of Mexico or New Spain (1708), by Herman Moll. (Wikimedia Commons)

The viceroyalty of New Spain – whose territory largely corresponded to that of present-day Mexico – was, during the eighteenth century, the most important intellectual hub in Latin America and a place of extraordinary scholarly endeavors. During this period Mexico’s viceregal society saw the publication of its first regularly issued newspapers (for example the Gazeta de México), its first biobibliography of Mexico’s written production (Bibliotheca Mexicana), its first scientific periodicals (such as the Diario literario de México), and one of the first – if not the first – science fiction works of the region (Un viaje novohispano a la luna). Despite these achievements the literary production and intellectual life of eighteenth-century Mexico has been overlooked. Why? Perhaps one of the reasons lies in the need for scholarship on this era to go beyond the analysis of the traditional models and genres of the Hispanic Golden Age studied by specialists of the early modern period. Given that literatura was an umbrella term that, during the eighteenth century, extended to almost the entire universe of writing, I think that the literary production of this time in Mexico is best approached as the product of the complex historical, scientific, philosophical, and religious inquiry that marked the era. Viceregal scholars, the practitioners of this literature, were polymaths that notably held a wide array of scholarly interests.

Front pages of the first issues of Mercurio volante (1772-1773), a scientific periodical edited by José Ignacio Bartolache (left), and of Gazeta de literatura de México (1788-1795).

My study Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters aims to fill this critical void by analyzing how eighteenth-century Mexican writers sought to establish their local literary republic’s place within the global community of learning. These individuals formed scholarly networks, engaged in the historical exploration of the past and present, and configured new epistemological approaches to literary production inspired by enlightened ideas. Polemics of different kinds, as suggested in the title of my study, played a crucial role in the formation of scholarly circles. One of the first of such controversies was related to the lack of recognition by European scholars of the intellectual capacities of those born in the Americas. In order to debunk existing prejudices and to be considered part of the res publica literaria, Mexican scholars were eager to showcase their intellectual attainments to Europe. For these scholars, the Republic of Letters was polycentric, with one of its centers located precisely in viceregal Mexico.

Many literary works of this era not only utilized scholarly polemics as unique points of departure, but also gave rise to new controversies. Beyond Mexican scholars’ efforts to defend the intellectual capacities of fellow inhabitants of the New World, these writers, especially during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, were involved in internal, epistemological battles related to the practice of knowledge. My book not only highlights the efforts of scholars in eighteenth-century Mexico to construct a polycentric Republic of Letters in order to receive recognition from their European peers, but also demonstrates the extent to which the intellectual realm was dynamic within the viceroyalty.

Elementa recentioris philosophiae, by Juan Benito Díaz de Gamarra (Mexici, 1774) (Bodleian Library)

As such literary debates on knowledge attest, several intellectual circles coexisted in the viceroyalty that, due to their different characteristics, grew increasingly distant over time. In the works of some Mexican authors there existed two chronologically distinct Republics of Letters, that from the pre-Columbian era and that which emerged after the Spanish conquest. In the late eighteenth century, however, several publications attested to the simultaneous existence of at least two distinctive groups of scholars, one that was old and pertaining to scholasticism – the philosophical-educational system traditionally ruling the world of scholars – and another that was new, or modern, and influenced by enlightened ideas. In other words, the seemingly stable idea of the Republic of Letters in the mid-eighteenth century was to fall apart in the following decades, when Enlightenment-inspired criticism, opposition to ancient authorities, and philosophical and scientific development concerned with social realities put into play innovative approaches to knowledge and the practice of religion in the viceroyalty.

With Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters, I invite those scholars devoted to the study of eighteenth-century cultures to engage in an examination of a less-explored scholarly territory and its networks, and to think about how it was heterogeneously constructed by many-sided polemics and debates manifested through a broad range of literary works.

– José Francisco Robles, University of Washington

Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in April 2021.