On Race in Art

Black Futures: On Race in Art, Curation, and Digital Engagement 
with Kimberly Drew in conversation with Stephen Best

Arts + Design Mondays @ BAMPFA
Monday, October 16, 6:30pm

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY ART MUSEUM & PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE

2155 Center Street, Berkeley

Kimberly Drew has been dubbed an “international tastemaker in contemporary art” on account of her Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art and her Instagram @museummammy. As social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she has been pivotal in moving that venerated institution in directions both democratic and dialogical. Drew will discuss curation, social media, race, and institutions with UC Berkeley professor Stephen Best.

Kimberly Drew is a writer and curator based in New York City. Drew received her BA from Smith College in art history and African-American studies, with a concentration in museum studies. She first experienced the art world as an intern in the director’s office of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she was inspired her to start her blog and to pursue her interest in social media as it relates to the arts.

A member of the Representations editorial board, Stephen Best is an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley and the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession, a study of property, poetics, and legal hermeneutics in nineteenth-century American literary and legal culture. He co-convened a research group at the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute on “Redress in Law, Literature, and Social Thought” that led, in part, to the special issue “Redress” in 2005. He is also the co-editor of the 2009 special issue “The Way We Read Now” and the 2016 volume “Description Across Disciplines.”

Fray: Art and Textile Politics

Julia Bryan-Wilson will be talking about her new book

Fray: Art and Textile Politics

in the Townsend Center for the Humanities‘ monthly Berkeley Book Chat series

 

Wednesday, Oct 11, 2017 | noon to 1:00 

Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

In 1974, women in a feminist consciousness-raising group in Eugene, Oregon, formed a mock organization called the Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society. Emblazoning its logo onto T-shirts, the group wryly envisioned female collective textile making as a practice that could upend conventions, threaten state structures, and wreak political havoc. Elaborating on this example as a prehistory to the more recent phenomenon of “craftivism”— the politics and social practices associated with handmaking— UC Berkeley’s Julia Bryan-Wilson explores textiles and their role at the forefront of debates about process, materiality, gender, and race in times of economic upheaval.

After an introduction by Natalia Brizuela, Bryan-Wilson will speak briefly about her work and then open the floor for discussion.

Julia Bryan-Wilson, co-editor with Shannon Jackson of the recent Representations special issue Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts, is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to Fray, she is also the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War EraArt in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing.

Advance Look: Jeffrey Knapp on “Selma”

In recognition of the speed at which the world and its histories are changing, we’ve just posted an advance version of Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films” by Jeffrey Knapp. The essay will appear in print and online in our Winter 2019 issue, but you can read it here right now.

In the essay, Knapp compares the place of historical fictionality in William Wyler’s 1940 film The Westerner and Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Selma.

“’This isn’t right,’” the essay begins, in the voice of Martin Luther King as depicted by David Oyelowo, in Selma. “Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. ‘I accept this honor,’ he’d been saying, ‘for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.’ What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed. ‘Corrie’ — it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him — ‘this ain’t right.’ ‘What’s that?’ she asks, entering from another room. ‘This necktie. It’s not right.’ ‘It’s not a necktie,’ she corrects him, ‘it’s an ascot.’ ‘Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.’” Read full article …

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992); Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002); Shakespeare Only (2009); and Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published this year by Oxford University Press. He is also a contributing editor for Representations.

Adam and Eve: The Story Continues

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, a new study by Stephen Greenblatt, is the subject of an interview broadcast today on Forum, a production of KQED Radio in San Francisco. You can listen to the interview here.

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve explores the enduring story of humanity’s first parents.

Tracking the tale into the deep past, Greenblatt uncovers the tremendous theological, artistic, and cultural investment over centuries that made these fictional figures so profoundly resonant in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds and, finally, so very “real” to millions of people even in the present. With uncanny brilliance, Greenblatt explores the intensely personal engagement of Augustine, Dürer, and Milton in this mammoth project of collective creation, while he also limns the diversity of the story’s offspring: rich allegory, vicious misogyny, deep moral insight, and some of the greatest triumphs of art and literature.

The biblical origin story, Greenblatt argues, is a model for what the humanities still have to offer: not the scientific nature of things, but rather a deep encounter with problems that have gripped our species for as long as we can recall and that continue to fascinate and trouble us today.

Stephen Greenblatt, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, cofounded Representations, where many of his essays have appeared.

Boccaccio’s Realism

Mimesis on Trial: Legal and Literary Verisimilitude in Boccaccio’s Decameron

by Justin Steinberg

The essay begins:

Boccaccio is generally the least appreciated of the “Three Crowns” of the Italian literary canon (after Petrarch and Dante), yet his focus on the realistic, even gritty details of everyday life, everyday characters, and everyday language has no real precedent, at least not one of the scope of the Decameron. Studies of the novel typically identify Boccaccio’s masterpiece as an influential precursor in the development of modern literary realism, and Erich Auerbach devotes a critical chapter to the Decameron in his monumental history of Western mimesis. Although recent scholarship has called into question Boccaccio’s supposed modernity, underlining the allegorical aspects of the Decameron and its continued debt to medieval textual practices, it is difficult to deny that, at the very least, Boccaccio expands the frame of what can be legitimately represented in literature.

At the same time, something is inevitably lost when we view the Decameron from the end point of the modern novel. Our retrospective glance privileges a very specific conception of realism, a conception defined by its rejection of rhetorical notions of appropriateness and fittingness. (This unruly literary style befits a genre “in which one can tell absolutely any story in any way whatsoever.”) Auerbach, for example, maintains that only once literature has freed itself from the rigid confines of classical decorum is it possible for authors to depict the world in its complex, particularistic entirety. Yet this version of realism does not admit the extent to which Boccaccio’s mimetic art remains preoccupied by rhetorical verisimilitude. While it’s true that Boccaccio incessantly interrogates the status of verisimilitude throughout the Decameron—what it means for something to “fit” in a given scenario—he does so by delving into the precise components of the circumstantiae (the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a case, deployed by an orator to enhance the “true-seemingness” of his argument). Even when exploring its inner contradictions, that is, Boccaccio innovates through, rather than from, rhetoric. Studies that neglect the influence of rhetorical verisimilitude on Boccaccio’s realism, preferring to imagine a seamless evolution from the plausible to the particular, miss this essential tension at the heart of the Decameron between competing notions of the real.

Rather than treating the Decameron as a stepping-stone on the path toward modern realism, I will argue that Boccaccio’s realistic style is a historically specific response to a historically specific crisis of verisimilitude. This crisis was propelled by a critical institutional innovation: the rise and spread of the medieval inquisitorial procedure. In the inquisitorial trial, judges were frequently called upon to estimate the likelihood of circumstantial evidence; this migration of notions about the probable from the rhetorical to the judicial sphere, from persuasion to evidence, is Boccaccio’s primary focus and concern. Through the many trial scenes in the Decameron, he illustrates the dangers that arise when judges, witnesses, and prosecutors are “trapped by a picture”—when the theater of justice becomes a self-fulfilling mimesis of the already known and always seen. The singular, remarkable details that eventually come to the fore in these trials (and that characterize the plot lines of Boccaccio’s novelle) reveal the disconnect between norms of likelihood and the particulars of a case.

Not only do the trials in the Decameron probe the legal uses of verisimilitude as evidence, they also raise questions about verisimilitude as a literary device. What is the relationship between an aesthetic principle of “fittingness” and the normative knowledge of “what happens for the most part”? What is the role of innovation in an art of the probable? How can a plausible account of the facts encompass historical contingency and singularity? These simultaneously legal and literary questions are exactly what the Decameron is wired to navigate: the degree to which the verisimilar picture must be open to the singular case, the structure open to the event.

My argument, then, is not simply that Boccaccio was influenced by rhetorical verisimilitude but also that he employs the numerous “procedural” tales in the Decameron to reflect critically on the nature of, and the increasing real-world power of, realistic narrative. Continually questioning the very realism he employs as a poet, he puts mimesis on trial. Continue reading …

In this essay Justin Steinberg argues that the celebrated realism of Boccaccio’s Decameron responds to the new prominence of verisimilitude in legal contexts in his time.

Justin Steinberg is Professor of Italian literature at the University of Chicago and editor-in-chief of Dante Studies. He is the author of Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in Late Medieval Italy (Notre Dame, 2007) and Dante and the Limits of the Law (Chicago, 2015). He is currently writing a book on Boccaccio, representation, and the law.

 

Talk About Pleasing Everyone

Berkeley Book Chats
at the Townsend Center for the Humanities
presents Jeffrey Knapp talking about his book

Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood

12:00 pm to 1:00 pm Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Shakespeare’s plays were immensely popular in their own day yet history refuses to think of them as mass entertainment. In Pleasing Everyone, Professor of English Jeffrey Knapp highlights the uncanny resemblance between Renaissance drama and the incontrovertibly mass medium of Golden-Age Hollywood cinema. Through explorations of such famous plays as HamletThe Roaring Girl, and The Alchemist, and such celebrated films as Citizen KaneThe Jazz Singer, and City Lights, Knapp challenges some of our most basic assumptions about the relationship between art and mass audiences and encourages us to resist the prejudice that mass entertainment necessarily simplifies and cheapens.

After an introduction, Knapp will speak briefly about his book and then open the floor for discussion.

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992); Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002); Shakespeare Only (2009); and Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published this year by Oxford University Press. The chapter “Throw That Junk!” in Pleasing Everyone was first published in Representations 122 (Spring 2013). An advance version of his new essay “Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films” will be posted here in early October.

Video on the Hippie Ward

Televising Psyche: Therapy, Play, and the Seduction of Video

by Carmine Grimaldi

The essay begins:

In 1967, the San Francisco Chronicle ran the panicked headline “HIPPIES WARN CITY—100,000 WILL INVADE HAIGHT ASHBURY THIS SUMMER.” With the specter of homelessness, disease, addiction, and moral depravity looming, the city scrambled for some response: that summer, the San Francisco Assembly Committee on Public Health held a series of hearings to determine who exactly these new residents were, and how the anticipated crisis could be stanched.

Sitting before the committee, Dr. Ernest Dernburg, the director of psychiatric services at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, offered his professional opinion on the moral character of the hippie. He was working on the front lines of the crisis and would have been considered far more sympathetic to the counterculture than those working in traditional hospitals. And yet the portrait he drew was damning. The new generation, he explained to the committee, was “passive, withdrawn, emotionally unresponsive, drug dependent. They suffer . . . from massive psychological poverty.” He then pointed to a potential culprit: “Keep in mind that this generation is the first to grow up in front of the television set. These children have been sitting passively before it, receiving stimulation from it, living mostly inside their heads, all during their period of development.” This sentiment was hardly new; the moral panic about television has run in tandem with the medium’s history. At the beginning of the decade, when many of Dernburg’s patients were “growing up in front of the television,” one widely read study warned that television “anesthetize[s] a person against pain and distress” and asked rhetorically, “In how many cases does television meet children’s needs in the same way as alcohol or drugs might do so?” If one wanted to assign blame for the legions of white, middle-class kids who were dropping school and acid, television was as good a candidate as any.

Langley Porter Institute, San Francisco, 1966

Following Dernburg’s rather alarmist evaluation, Dr. Harry Wilmer, then a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), spoke before the committee. Like Dernburg, he had founded a new psychiatric clinic for hippie drug users, just twenty blocks from the Haight, at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute. And like Dernburg, he agreed that television and mass media were largely responsible for the emergence of the counterculture. But unlike his colleague, who adhered to popular techniques of psychoanalysis and pharmacological remedies, Wilmer explained that he was developing a new approach that had only entered psychiatry in the last few years: it was a “pilot study” that sought to cure patients through the very medium that had originally harmed them—if used correctly, Wilmer explained, the television screen could be a potent medicine. In the next two years, he planned to use video feedback, made possible by videotape technology, to restructure the consciousness and sensorium of those who had fallen through the cracks of society. As he explained to the committee, “We are trying to reawaken the power to see and to interact.” This Janus-faced power of television clearly caught the imagination of the public—in what was the first of many newspaper articles about Wilmer’s project, the San Francisco Examiner’s headline read, “How TV Produces and Heals a Drug Generation.” Continue reading …

San Francisco’s “Hippie Drug Ward,” an experimental therapeutic clinic opened in 1967, sought to cure a wayward generation through an immersive multimedia environment. Examining archival records only recently made available, this paper explores the way the moving image—and in particular videotape—created a space in which style, affect, and psyche became commingled.

CARMINE GRIMALDI is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago and a fellow at Harvard’s Film Study Center. His writings have appeared in the Atlantic and Filmmaker Magazine, and his films have screened widely at festivals in the United States and abroad.

Anthology Life

Specimen Poetics: Botany, Reanimation, and the Romantic Collection

by Dahlia Porter

The essay begins:

It is now commonplace to say that the canon wars of the 1980s and early 1990s provoked changes to anthologies in the following decades. What we read in the Norton, Blackwell, or Broadview anthologies of British or American literature is not what we read thirty years ago. The change has been characterized as a movement away from aesthetic criteria—Matthew Arnold’s famous “the best which has been thought and said in the world”—to a more representative selection, one that conveys the diverse literary landscape of a defined historical period or national tradition. In the 1990s, space opened for underrepresented authors, genres, historical moments, and worldviews; John Milton and William Wordsworth now mingle with Anne Finch and Olaudah Equiano, appearing alongside anonymous popular ballads, snippets of periodical essays, excerpts from novels, and a smattering of letters and speeches—varied content that projects an overall tilt toward diversity of matter, form, and authorial identity. Ours is not, however, the diversity promoted by the literary miscellany, that popular, eclectic, omnivorous genre so omnipresent in earlier periods. Twenty-first-century anthologies seek to represent a broad and varied spectrum of literary production, but they retain a defining feature of the anthology as it was consolidated at the end of the eighteenth century: organization by author in chronological sequence. Even with the addition of thematic sections, anthologized literature as we know it today remains fundamentally historical, and each selection implicitly functions as a representative specimen, an illustrative example standing in for a larger authorial corpus or class of work.

The justification for a literary collection based on historical representativeness—the legitimating force behind modern anthologies of English, American, or Anglophone literature—emerged in Britain around 1800. It was spurred, as I will argue here, by dramatic changes in what we see as a distinct sphere of knowledge making—namely the collection, organization, naming, and representation of plants in the previous century. This claim is not as surprising as it may seem. Botanical metaphors for the poetic collection have a very long history. Rooted in the Στέφανος, or garland, of Meleagar of Gadara and the Silvae of Statius, for centuries verses have been gathered up into florilegia, anthologia, sylvae, gardens, garlands, woods, wreaths, bouquets, and anthologies, this last from the Greek ἀνθολόγιον, a gathering of flowers. In Britain, collections of vernacular poetry were ushered in with titles like England’s Parnassus; or, the choicest flowers of our modern poets (1600) and Belvedere; or, The Garden of the Muses (1600). Tropes of the bouquet, garden, and forest were regularly deployed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to legitimate the heterogeneous content of verse and prose collections, but the field of nineteenth-century literary annuals was lush with these figures. This efflorescence of the botanical metaphor for collections was spurred by a vigorous debate about the purpose, audience, and content of poetic collections in the decades around 1800. At the turn of the nineteenth century, compilers took up botanical metaphors to argue whether a collection ought to strive for a historically representative selection or for a selection of acclaimed pieces “carelessly mingled with all the ease and wildness of natural variety.” For antiquarians like Henry Headley, George Ellis, and Robert Southey, compilation was a recovery project, a method of preserving worthy specimens of poetry from oblivion; for their contemporaries Vicesimus Knox, William Mavor, and Samuel Jackson Pratt, among many others, the ideal collection contained a great variety of the most influential, recognized, elegant work, poems of unquestioned merit that displayed the richness and vitality of the poet’s genius, an image of living nature. Carried out in the prefaces, title pages, tables of contents, and introductions to collections, this contentious debate predicted the agon of the canon wars.

Scholars of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century poetic collections have noted the abundance of botanical metaphors, even occasionally employing them to structure their own arguments about literary compilations. Most studies of poetic collections in Britain before the twentieth century, however, focus on a set of issues common to miscellanies and anthologies: the economics of the publishing market, changes in copyright law, canon formation, expanding readerships, and editorial practice. Critics have frequently used literary anthologies to take the pulse of the eighteenth-century book trade: printed anthologies and miscellanies proliferated throughout the period, and the forms they took responded (at least in part) to ongoing legal disputes over publishers’ rights to valuable literary property, increases in literacy and access, and changing technologies of print. Scholars agree that the form and function of the anthology shifted in the decades around 1800, but they disagree about exactly when it occurred, how it was manifested, and what provoked this change. I won’t claim to fully resolve this conundrum, but I will insist that we need to look outside the narrow field of poetic or even literary collecting to understand the changing cultural role of anthologies and miscellanies—and even single-author collections of verse—in the Romantic period. Beyond Barbara Benedict’s acknowledgement that “it is no coincidence that the genre of the literary collection crystallized during the long eighteenth century when collecting itself became a popular activity” as a form of self-fashioning for the emergent middle class, existing studies take little notice of nonliterary collecting practices. As I will argue, Romantic-era collections of poetry were not just metaphorically but also materially conditioned by the projects of botanical collecting, preservation, classification, description, and illustration of the previous century. Editors legitimated their selection and organization of poems in collections by trading on the aesthetic paradigms and material practices of botanical science and art. Further, the evaluative principles structuring poetic collecting in the Romantic period emerged when editors drew on, separated, or combined competing strands of Enlightenment natural history, specifically Linnaean taxonomy and Buffonian vitalism.

A pointed antagonism between taxonomic representativeness and an aesthetics of vital nature is thus central to my argument. The dominant theory of poetic collecting in late eighteenth-century Britain replicated a desire in visual and verbal art to represent the vitality of living nature, a trend spurred by transformations in botanical description and illustration. A confluence of factors changed botanical collecting and publishing in the eighteenth century, including shifts in the geographies of collecting; developments in conventions of botanical naming and systems of nomenclature; the emergence of vitalist theories in natural history; and the application of eighteenth-century aesthetic theories to scientific illustration. As a result of these shifts, living plants were collected, dried, and pressed in a hortus siccus (an herbarium or book of dried plants), becoming botanical specimens that were subsequently imbued with the semblance of life in drawings, paintings, and engravings. This process—what I call aesthetic reanimation—reveals how scientific and aesthetic paradigms merge to dismantle and remake objects of botanical knowledge in print. I trace the consolidation of reanimation as an aesthetic paradigm as it was formulated in William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty (1753) and applied to botanical illustration by a group of artists employed by Joseph Banks to illustrate the specimens collected on Capt. James Cook’s Endeavour voyage of 1768–71. I then detail how the reanimated plants of eighteenth-century botanical illustration enter the lexicon of Romantic poetry with Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of an early theory of evolution. Embracing the animating power of prosopopoeia, E. Darwin translated the aesthetic principles of botanical illustration into his two-part allegorical poem, The Botanic Garden (part 1: Economy of Vegetation, 1791; part 2: Loves of the Plants, 1789). In this heavily annotated and illustrated poem, Darwin combines taxonomy with vitalism to promote a particular brand of poetic and aesthetic vitality, one that defined the “nature” of plants collected in his poetic-botanic garden.

Romantic poets variously mobilized and resisted the conventions introduced by Darwin: the philosophical tenets of Enlightenment vitalism find outlets in individual poems ranging from William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” to Percy Shelley’s Sensitive Plant to John Clare’s ballads. But more important for my argument here, Darwin’s reanimated poetic garden concomitantly changed how authors and editors thought and wrote about poetry in the aggregate. Books of pressed plants, catalogs of specimens, and anthologies of poems began to stand in for one another, their contents crisscrossing disciplinary boundaries in the process of consolidation. These conflations imbued the long-standing botanical metaphor for the poetic collection with a new urgency: as Charlotte Smith’s Conversations Introducing Poetry (1804) reveals, the content and structure of a literary collection of verse might intervene in larger debates about natural history and its representational practices. At the same time, the antipodal figures of the reanimated plant and the dead specimen provided the rhetorical ground for competing versions of literary history and evaluation in the period. The resurgence of botanical metaphors in this period signals a new division in poetic collection, a gulf between vitalist aesthetics and the collection as historical medium, a site where the present of literary culture negotiates its past and writes its future. Turning back to this formative moment in the history of literary collecting illuminates how literary history became embedded in our own anthologies of culled flowers. Continue reading …

This essay argues that the modern literary anthology—and specifically its aspiration to delimit both aesthetic merit and historical representativeness—emerged as a response to changes in eighteenth-century botanical collecting, description, and illustration. A dramatic upsurge in botanical metaphors for poetic collections around 1800 was triggered by shifts in the geographies, aims, and representational practices of botany in the previous century. Yoking Linnaean taxonomy and Buffonian vitalism to Hogarth’s line of beauty, late eighteenth-century botanical illustrations imbued plucked, pressed specimens with a new vitality. Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden (1789, 1791) translated the aesthetic reanimations of visual art into a collection of poetic specimens, spurring compilations that promote a vitalist standard of literary value. By rejecting aesthetic reanimation as the figurative ground for poetic collecting, Charlotte Smith and Robert Southey forward an alternative historical model of literary merit, one grounded in the succession and continuity of representative literary types. These competing metrics for selection and valuation underwrite the anthology as we know it today.

DAHLIA PORTER has taught literature, book history, and the history of science at the University of Glasgow, University of North Texas, and Vanderbilt University. Her book Science, Form, and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, and she is a member of the Multigraph Collective, a team of twenty-two scholars who have collaboratively written Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Famously Bad Plots

Bad Plots and Objectivity in Maria Edgeworth

by Yoon Sun Lee

 

The essay begins:

Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849) is famous for her bad plots. A contemporary reviewer of her 1814 novel Patronage complains that “the story is always the worst part of Miss Edgeworth’s novel.” There she consistently proves “inferior . . . to many of those that are vastly below her in everything else.” This backhanded compliment to a novelist publicly admired by Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott may suggest some of the reasons that Edgeworth has fallen into neglect. Despite her popularity and widespread readership in her lifetime, particularly in nineteenth-century America, this Anglo-Irish writer of national tales and novels never fully entered the literary canon. If read at all, Edgeworth’s novels are studied in relation to questions of Irish identity and history, rather than as examples of the genre’s possibilities. This may indeed be attributable to a certain quality that many of her plots possess. In their broad outlines, they are unobjectionable, if not exciting. Their protagonists, whether old or young, male or female, aristocratic or working class, must learn to choose for themselves the way of life most productive of happiness. They need to overcome prejudice, indolence, misdirected sympathies, and unhealthy influences. The alleged badness of her plots, then, does not concern any unfamiliarity of outline. Nor does it derive from over-reliance on arbitrary events, chance encounters, or coincidences. Though these can certainly be found in Edgeworth’s plots, sometimes concentrated toward the end, they are arguably standard features of narrative and certainly of the novel by 1800. Rather, it seems that Edgeworth’s “carelessness” has to do with not sufficiently disguising the epistemological responsibilities placed on fictional plot by the development of experimental science. Her plots usually tell the story of how characters learn to think rationally. But this requires more than learning to distinguish between truth and lies, genuine and false stories or feelings. As one character in her novel Belinda (1801) puts it, “Our reasonings as to the conduct of life . . . must depend ultimately on facts.” For Edgeworth, then, plot becomes the means of producing legitimately objective facts within a fictive universe. In a twist in the dialectic of fictionality, plot has to produce a hierarchy of epistemological certainty within its own orderings.

While fictional characters have been insightfully analyzed by Catherine Gallagher, Deidre Lynch, and others, plot has been relatively neglected by critics. Where noticed, plot is often assumed to embody ideological forces in a fairly straightforward manner. Fredric Jameson’s recent study of realism, for example, argues that “destiny” is “vehiculated” in various plot types that the realist novel can only rework at the expense of plot itself. The tendency to see plot as a conveyance for ideology, as well as the vehicular metaphor itself, were well established by the eighteenth century. In Clara Reeve’s Progress of Romance (1785), for example, novels are commended when they “promote the cause of religion and virtue,” with plots serving as “vehicles to convey [the author’s] tenets to the minds of such readers as were not likely to receive them in any other form.” Such understandings of plot rely on a high-level view that looks at general similarities between stories rather than at particular sequences within them. They also place more weight on the ending than on any other part of the story, since the ending is where poetic justice is supposedly executed. The disbursement of rewards and punishments, deaths, marriages, and property at the novel’s end is understood to constitute the bulk of its ideological work. But it is important to notice what such treatments of plot tend to overlook: that plot concerns not only what happens to whom at the end, but with how things happen along the way—or even with how things happen to happen. Plots ask and answer questions about causality as manifested in particular sequences, and this is the aspect of narrative that seems to concern Edgeworth the most. Her plots are worth examining because they are so keenly aware of the procedures through which actions are warranted and, above all, facts elicited. Edgeworth seems intensely interested in connecting these procedures with the outside world. Instead of trying to create a self-contained world in which occurrences generally reflect the probabilities of modern everyday life, Edgeworth tries to carry into her fictive plots some of the protocols and structures that warranted factuality in modern science. In her tales for children and young adults, for example, the plots focus on concrete objects: coins, flowerpots, thimbles, seeds, paper tickets, and notes. They aim to dispel uncertainties and establish facts about these objects. Usually, these facts concern who found, gave, stole, or used them and how they did so. But establishing a fact requires that certain protocols be carefully followed. Witnesses, authorities, and experiments conducted in neutral spaces are all needed. The protocols and structures of experimental science shape Edgeworth’s plots, the strange, dense network of objects that sometimes compose them, and the ways in which they sometimes frankly defy a larger probability. Sometimes they end with an astonishing pile-up of coincidences. But such outcomes emerge logically from Edgeworth’s desire to recalibrate the relationship between plot and probability. Probability becomes subordinate to the procedural establishment of factuality. Edgeworth’s plots turn on apparently objective events that diminish the centrality of human intentions and subjective desires. They represent a crucial step in the development of fictional realism. Continue reading …

In this essay, Yoon Sun Lee shows how the early nineteenth-century novelist Maria Edgeworth develops objectivity as a dimension of plot rather than of narrative viewpoint, drawing on the protocols and structures of experimental science. In Edgeworth’s novels, plot becomes a means of producing legitimately objective facts within a fictive universe.

YOON SUN LEE is the author of Nationalism and Irony: Burke, Scott, Carlyle and Modern Minority: Asian American Literature and Everyday Life (both Oxford University Press); her articles can be found in MLQ, Studies in Romanticism, and The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel, as well as other journals and collections. Her current book project focuses on the question of how to theorize plot in the novel.

Practices of Resistance

In her essay in our new issue, Debarati Sanyal analyzes practices of resistance as seen through film and photography set in the Calais’s “jungle” refugee encampments, which were razed last year by the French government. She discusses the interplay of humanitarian compassion and securitarian repression in the destruction of the camps, nuancing the view of borderscapes as sites of total biopolitical capture, and of refugees as “bare life.” Making a profound case for both art and resistance, “Calais’s ‘Jungle’: Refugees, Biopolitics, and the Arts of Resistance” is a compelling and visually stunning read.

Still from Qu’Ils reposent en révolte: Des figure de guerres I, by Sylvain George (2010)

DEBARATI SANYAL is Professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony, and the Politics of Form (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) and Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance (Fordham University Press, 2015), she is currently at work on a study of testimony, cultural form, and the refugee “crisis.”