Scriblerus Detecting Agency

My dissertation, as I have now severally said, will explore the problematic of posterity in British Literature of the long eighteenth-century. While life-in-and-after-text has been the concern of authors for millenia, the futurity of writing changed under the pressure of print proliferation in this period. Print widens an author's reachable audience, allows mass production, etc. Do that for enough people and the promise of print is undercut by an unfortunate (from the perspective of the egomaniac) democratization. So how the hell do you manage to get to the top of the field? That's really the question I'm setting out to answer. I imagine you do a number of things. Trod on other authors. Offer more bang for the buck. Create hierarchies based on taste, or wealth, or morals. But you've heard all this before.

In my attempting to put forth an argument, I have apparently skewed too far towards the System. I have cowered behind emergences and mechanisms. Genres emerged to do this or that; some could or couldn't; some lasted or didn't. Where, a couple of my professors asked, is the human agency? You can't simply go around barking about how this or that occurred, because, as one rather poignantly put it, you end up with a dissertation written entirely in passive constructions. Everything is acted upon and nothing (or no one) acts. And this won't win you any friends at parties.

I never intended to leave out the human element. Despite the influence from certain quarters that would have had me taking the human out of the humanities, I never imagined ceding that ground. When we say human, of course, I think what we usually mean is "unpredictable." Samuel Johnson manages to get himself into a position to make pronouncements about the quality of literature. Who on earth could know what he would say? How does the system account for that? The Licensing Act drives Fielding from the stage, so he takes up novel writing. Who's to say he couldn't have gone to law school, like a normal person? If the human didn't matter, then you'd have to conclude that even without Fielding Tom Jones, or something very much like it, would have been written anyway, and done the same work. And to some extent, this is what Foucault has been said to have said. Though I think his position on the matter has been largely overstated.

So I have encountered skepticism in one person, bewilderment in another, and encouragement in the last. And here's me thinking about law school.

Genre is where agency meets system. It's the mediator between the forces at work and the worked upon; it is also what enables the worked upon to work upon the forces at work. The power flows both ways through the gate. This, as I understand it, is feedback. So what I want to do is figure out is the role of genre in organizing literature with respect to time. And when I say genre, I do it with the understanding that human agency is implicit. How do you tweak the genre you've chosen to position yourself at the top of the temporal hierarchy? Ensure you'll reach the future? And how do those genres become durable in themselves? Do genres become disciplines? I think they do. Maybe. Possibly. Who knows.

I have felt utterly stupid now for a year.


Marina said...

How do you tweak the genre you've chosen to position yourself at the top of the temporal hierarchy?

by using another genre, durrrr.

This post was brought to you by the PERIODICALS ARE GREAT ranters, Manhattan division.

Nuff said.

Slanty-Eyed Bastard said...

"I have felt utterly stupid now for a year."

Upon leaving gradual school, I resigned myself, like Socrates, to a lifetime of ignorance. Then I rediscovered the real world, and observed empirically that 99% of the population is dumb, vicious, and utterly incompetent.

Perhaps it was having Howard Weinbrot on my committee that did me in . . . but no, he's actually a gem of human being, despite my disagreement with just about every scholarly point he's ever made.

I stumbled upon your blog while searching for a copy of Kerby-Miller's edition of Scriblerus. Though you've impertinently delayed my bookish acquisitiveness (for which I absolve and forgive you), I'm happy to see that the glorious c-18 is still inspiring others as it did me, in the not-so-distant past.

Long live the long 18th century!

Is it me, or does the long 18th just keep getting longer with each generation of scholars? Not that I really care. Yet I must admit, part of me always will.

(I'm planning to have that part surgically removed, lest I inadvertently re-enroll in grad school to finish my dissertation.)

Scriblerus said...

I'm not yet prepared to give up, but then I haven't properly started. I'm sure the trick is to embrace ignorance rather than hide it, but try telling that to the legion of bloodthirsty semiparasitic buzzkillers who set you up for the sting as soon as they smell sweat.

As to the long 18th getting longer--damn right. Starts no later than 1649 and ends no earlier than 1832. Huzzah!