Eighteenth Century Studies by John Bender

Eighteenth century studies mainly analyze the various aspects of the project of enlightenment. The enlightenment was one of those cultural epochs, the dream of which was to use the reason to free human beings from the enslavement of authority. Grounded on contemporary specific social-political and cultural scenario, enlightenment philosophers claimed that they are living in the age of enlightenment but the age itself is not enlightened.

Hence, the project of eighteenth century enlightenment emphasized firstly on rigorous application of science in all areas of human inquiry, secondaly, autonomy of art, thirdly universal institution of morality, law, freedom and justice and finally, free and unrestrained use of reason with the absolute freedom of speech to make the future enlightened.

In the course of time, these four fundamental principles, which were once accepted by the then society, evolved in the form of totality and the frame of reference? Such historical situations of enlightenment philosophers and the frame of reference- the common stable pattern against the backdrop of which all the social problems are to be analyzed have always been reproduced by the critics of eighteenth century literature until the 20th century.

John Bender claims that since knowledge cannot situate itself within the same frame of work as its object of study. Eighteenth century studies with Anglo-American academics have become tautological (nothing new); for knowledge must conserve its own system of reference and its contemporaneity. Otherwise, it becomes recapitulation (repetition). Positive historicism, American new criticism and other theoretical models that applied in the study of eighteen century literature reproduced enlightenment frame of reference and made the instrumental use of reason to control and dominate rather than to emancipate in the subsequent ages. Because of this, as claimed by Adorno and Horkhiemer “enlightenment regressed into culture industry”. Bender in this connection is studying eighteen century literature by focusing on the revisionist approach of new historicism. These movements have provoked hostility both in Britain and America because they changed and massively altered the frame of reference. Certain assumptions about eighteenth century studies made by the traditional approach are denaturalized and transformed into historical phenomena, whereas the referential framework is changed into historical construct.

Because of this new historicist movement, the earlier boundaries between aesthetic objects and tracts (religious) and pamphlets are gradually dissolved-the institutions; social, political, religious, educational are read as text. Subjectivity is treated as socially constructed and historically changing phenomena rather than a permanent feature of human nature and the fictional texts like plays and novels are understood as culturally constructed rather than reflected of a reality.

In this regard Bender is clarifying the new historical approach of its study of eighteen century literature in terms of three different ideas:-

The liberal humanist and positivist historicists express their uneasiness and after despairing with the Foucauldian sense of power. They always define power as a fixed commodity rather than a range of complex discursive practices. Since the study of the power structure of any society becomes important for the study of the literary production of a given society. Bender has accepted the Foucault’s notion of power as discursive formation and practiced, always through the network of social exercise. Such discursive practices always radically altered they are rarely recognized from one era to another. The contrast is not power, but rather discourse as the structuring principles of human social formation.

Author is not longer a cannon, but an imagined entity. Again, as claimed by Roland Barthes, in his essay “The Death of Author”, once the actual writing begins the author enters his metaphysical death. For writing is the destruction of every voice, every origin, Barthes claims every text is eternally written here and now. In fact a text is the totality of different sources borrowed from thousands of cultures. Rather than being an articulation of the origin, a text is the fabric of different quotations from different sources.

Because of such changing perspectives to look at the author instead of the canonical texts by the canonical write, the text by anonymous and often marginalized and ignored writers; and instead of literature alone, non-literature texts like  tracts, pamphlets, legal, and administrative documents are occupying the prominent place in the scene of literary criticism.

Disinterestedness as an ideal: One of the defining categories of the Enlightenment is the emphasis on transparency, neutrality and disinterestedness as the ideal of the critical discourse in analyzing and judging a work of art.

Kant by the end of the eighteenth century theorized the already existing patterns of critical communication in a public sphere free of special interest. Though the ideals of disinterested satisfactions were circulated in the critical discourse of the Renaissance period, it was the theory of aesthetic, sublime of judgment and beauty in terms of synthetic prior that officially introduced objectivism in judgment of taste. (Judgment of beauty and sublime)

Under disinterestedness impartial rational inquiry or a research of a particular object is conducted and results of such inquiry are examined by impartial audience and are accepted not only as knowledge but as truth.

This disinterestedness, Bender claims, no longer is functioning as an ideal and nor the truth established by such rational inquiry is taken for granted. The disinterestedness is nothing but the interest of the obscure and knowledge as truth is always constituted by the historian. Moreover, history or any other form of knowledge is nothing but empirical representation.

Gender sexuality: As claimed by Michel Foucault ‘sex’ as a biological concept ruled the literary and critical scenario for a long time, whereas ‘sexuality’ is constructed socially and it operates differently in each historical period. According to Foucault, sexuality as constitutive of personality and subject look initial shape during eighteenth century and became fully operative during the nineteenth century. Though most of feminist scholars are still claiming that gender was constructed during 18th century and is working in an oppressive way through art and literature in the course of the development of human civilization, this category has also changed massively because gender is a social construct and any change in ‘social system is likely to affect the existing social truth(s)’.

John Bender redraws the boundary of Eighteenth Century Studies from the viewpoint of New Historicism and cultural materialism. While doing so, he focuses on four Enlightenment categories that have underlain critical reference for Eighteenth Century studies. These categories are those of aesthetic autonomy, authorship, disinterestedness and gender sexuality. John Bender focuses on these categories because they have changed the critical frame of reference of the Eighteenth Century studies. Before the advent of New historicism, the standard approach to the literature of that period was dictated by Enlightenment philosophy, which not only encouraged a value-free scholarship but also allowed for a solution of the abstract dialectical pattern. The changed frame of critical reference, according to Bender, rejects the Maynard Mack’s elitist approach of Eighteenth Century literature that sustains itself on the wit, common sense and good taste of gentlemen like Swift, Pope, Fielding and Johnson. It also discourages the New-critical, ironic approach to Eighteenth Century literature for the same above mentioned reason irony being an elitist rope. Bender argues against these approaches to the eighteenth century studies because they do not recognize that elitism or power does not exist merely as a possession of the elites; it also lives in reciprocation with and partially shared by the marginalized, resistive, disorderly and criminal elements that seem to define otherness in any given society. Bender, agreeing with Foucault, strongly believes that power is never a fixed object but a multiplicity of relationships. It alters so radically over time that the discursive practices are scarcely recognizable from one era to another. So, Bender calls for redrawing of the boundaries of eighteenth century studies from the viewpoint of New patterns-historicism which foregrounds the dialectical. John Bender in particular falls back upon New-historicism because it lets him map the micro-politics of power relation between the center and the margin of all subjects of Eighteenth-Century literature.

Bender singles out, the viewpoints New-Historicism for the study of the eighteenth century. He refers to Schelegel’s redirecting attention away from the evaluative obsession of Enlightenment aesthetics to the organicist aspect, which later flowered into “art for art’s sake” a literary movement, the tenets of which were mobilized into the practice of New-criticism. The excessive focus on aestheticism, according to Bender, leads to an emphasis on disinterestedness and puts it in the services of art but preserves it still. The persistence of the Enlightenment framework even in the 20th Century does not surprise John Bender. He calls it “double jeopardy” in the sense that it is reflective of Enlightenment epistemology as a defining feature of middle class critical consciousness.

Bender critically approaches four fundamental assumptions of the Enlightenment framework i.e. aesthetic autonomy, disinterestedness, gender sexuality and disciplinary and authorship. As regards aesthetic autonomy he makes the point that this category led towards division of knowledge into a discipline that not only separated the arts from the historical, scientific and argumentative discourse but that also led to sharp distinctions among the arts themselves. Clearly, the division paved the way for interdisciplinary criticism; which, while doing nothing to denaturalize the category of the aesthetic, boundary, brought a trans-disciplinary approach in the late 20th Century. The Trans - disciplinary approach has challenged not only the ways of thinking about the aesthetics, but also ways of dividing disciplinary classes. Trans-disciplinary of eighteen-century studies has eroded the Enlightenment category of aesthetic autonomy.

The next Enlightenment category at which John Bender looks critically is authorship. He discusses Michael Foucault’s essay “What is an Author” comprehensibly to show that the concept of authorship is not only an ideological construct but is also historically contingent. He brings up Foucault’s deconstruction of authorship to expose the nexus between authorship and materialism- a nexus that lies at the heart of what is in the “canon” or what is excluded from it. Both, what is a masterpiece and what is not a master piece that is what the unique world of thought is or what is a mere simulacrum, are closely linked up with economic interests. Therefore, aesthetic taste itself has got eroded. As a result, along with acknowledged masterpieces, legal documents, press reports or even pamphlets have standing as texts in the new boundary of the eighteenth-Century studies, a boundary that has been re-drawn from the view points of the new-historical approach.

Bender next takes up disinterestedness for discussion while pushing New Historicism transformation of eighteenth-century studies. He rejects Kant’s concept of disinterestedness by making the point that “disinterestedness dialogue is technically ungendered, but it of course turns out to be presumptively male.” Bender, however, says that new historicists have not been as unequivocal in their challenge to the category of disinterested inquiry as to those of the aesthetic and of authorship. He alleges that new historicism “on the whole has preserved the voice of disinterested inquiry and, despite the fascination with Elizabeth as a woman exercising the power of the monarchy, all too often has treated humanity as if it were ungendered.”

Bender draws our attention to the recent feminist study which finds that the canons of disinterestedness and impartiality camouflage the old patriarchy in a new group that is part of its adoption to bourgeois capitalism. These bring Bender to the fourth and final category of gender sexuality in his attempt at redrawing the boundary of the eighteenth century studies. By referring to Foucault’s late work, The History of Sexuality he makes the point that sexuality is constructed and historically contingent. The social contructedness and historical temporality of sexuality make what looks a biological constructedness ideological. Feminist inventions have brought to the fore the ideological implication of writing for and by women. These interventions and their finding cannot be ignored in the new historicist transformation of eighteenth century studies. Some, such feminist interventions are Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction, Nussbaum’s Autobiographical Subject and Jordan Ova’s Sexual Visions.

Feminist interventions reveal ideological implication, and by so doing, these types of criticism nail the lie of so-called disinterestedness including the special form of interest free discourses to which Habermas’s theory of communicative competence leads John Bender to point out that Hebermas’s legtimation turns out to be an effect of, ideology because “specialized interest-free discourse Habermas describes allows escape from ideology through” participations and applies to new historicism rather as well. For new historicism has under-mined the attempt to assimilate or reconcile representative dissenters, a synthetic method was practiced by new criticism under the garb of reconciling opposite impulses.

However, new historicism itself has come under attack, especially by feminist authors who allege that the movement as a whole has preserved the voice of disinterested inquiry in so far as its treatment to humanity along the lines of ungenderedness is concerned. In spite of that apparent flaw of new historicism John Bender gives it credit for the actual role it is playing in the legitimation crisis that has dismissed disinterestedness. The legitimation crisis that new historicism has valorized privileges not only the view that human endeavor is discursively constituted but also that the discursive constitution is cultural politics.

Summing up, the fact that new historicism works under the hypothesis of Habermas’s legitimation crisis which its nails, the discursivity or the cultural politics of Eighteenth Century must be kept in mind while redrawing the boundary of Eighteenth Century studies. In this transformation of Eighteenth Century studies, the enlightenment markers of taste, judgment, aesthetic autonomy and disinterestedness get discounted at the cost of valorization of the dissenting voices that had lurked in the margins of the Eighteenth Century studies.

Browse 18th Century Studies

18th Century Studies: Introduction

Notion of Power and Historical Development

How is Enlightenment Defined?

Four Assumptions of Enlightenment