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Clifford Siskin, The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change, 1700–1830

Monday, January 15, 2001 - 06:58
Clifford Siskin, The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change, 1700–1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. x + 285pp. $41.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8018-5696-5).  $16.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-8018-6284-1).

Reviewed by
Ian Balfour
York University

Writing sure is work. And if anyone were in doubt about it, she or he will be persuaded by Clifford Siskin's new and challenging book that probes the fact(s) and the idea of writing during a period when it was particularly transformed and transforming. Siskin's title has a double resonance: he is interested in the work writing does and, to a lesser degree, in writing about work. A book concerned with the former need not address the latter, work being only one among the almost infinite possible subjects or topics of writing. But the conjunction is fortuitous, and one of the numerous virtues of this book on the longish eighteenth century is its attention to the too often unexamined matter of labor (adding to the labors of Donna Landry, Anne Janowitz et al.).

In the flurry of recent work on print culture, we perhaps too often lose sight of the more inclusive category of writing. It is almost as if we had forgotten about the massive achievement of Derrida's Of Grammatology, as well as of its force for our understanding of the "age of Rousseau" broadly understood. But Siskin is alive to the vicissitudes and new possibilities for writing and print, with an eye especially on what is at stake for the changing category of "literature." Most particularly he is attuned to what happens in this period that sees the emergence of a new professionalism of writing, when writing became work in a new and different way. Siskin's own formidable interdisciplinary interests (technology, economics, history of philosophy) come to focus on the disciplinary matters of the eighteenth century and the Romantic period when the protocols of knowledge were substantially rewritten and when the category of "Literature" in the modern sense emerged, almost all of a sudden. One of the motivating forces for this study is that what is now (and then) called "literature" is once again in disciplinary crisis—as literature departments get more and more interested in writing that is not usually called literature. And this in the decades after all those other disciplines had to start paying attention to literary theory.

Though in some places Siskin resists what he calls "the Derridean equation of language with culture" (84)—that criticism seems misplaced, since Derrida argues relentlessly against such logocentrism—I think Siskin is sometimes himself, in his attention to the category of Literature, seduced by what might be called a Foucauldean nominalism. For literature certainly exists avant la lettre, as it were. Take the example of Defoe, for instance. When Defoe in 1726 wrote his Essay Upon Literature (a text almost no one reads—and Siskin can't be faulted for not addressing it) he had in mind nothing at all like our modern sense of literature but rather whatever was written in letters. But isn't Robinson Crusoe (which predates it) undeniably "literature" even if the category had not yet been formulated in its modern sense? (This is not to say that Robinson Crusoe didn't function somewhat differently in the early eighteenth century than it does now, with the marked generic instability well demonstrated by Michael McKeon, Cathy Gallagher, Lennard Davis, and others). But this problem hardly undermines all the force of Siskin's multi-faceted argument.

Following a number of literate social theorists and political scientists (Habermas, David McNally et al.), Siskin links writing (which he calls a new "technology," though one could argue the same for the age of Plato) to economic forces that gave rise to a new professionalism, which he takes to be coterminous with a new spirit of criticism, as if all philosophy now had to be critical philosophy (though not in the Kantian sense). Along these lines, Siskin offers a good chapter on Scottish philosophy and how it shaped the emergent sense of English literature.

Siskin is more than usually well read in women writers of the period and is vigilant about matters of gender. (Though it is odd that at the outset he speaks of "women being excluded in startlingly systematic ways" [2]. Aren't we by now no longer startled by that, but have rather come to expect it [of so many epochs of the past]?) Women writers, despite the rapidly growing number of women readers, had a tenuous relation to the new professionalism of writing—though their relative unimportance to the literary scene is more a fiction of the late nineteenth century institutionalization of the academic study of modern literature—creepily patriarchal—than a fact of eighteenth-century life.

Siskin provides a helpful analysis of how (what passes as) knowledge itself comes to be gendered, or rather is gendered from the very start of the new order of writing. He makes good use of Karen Swann's very fine essay on "The Sublime and the Vulgar," though he could perhaps have underscored more the stark division of aesthetics into the (masculine) sublime and the (feminine) beautiful. But he is attentive to Burke's attempt to rein in, conceptually and descriptively, the unruly realm of experience and to the uneasy and perhaps untenable hierarchies established in his and similar texts. Siskin proposes that if we wonder where the sublime of this period went, we need only look to the sometimes absent term "culture"—a suggestive hypothesis, even if it can't be sustained for every instance or conception of culture.

In the old days most general books on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries could get along fine without any attention to the novel, but Siskin sees the novel as integral to the work that (literary) writing was doing in the period. He welcomes the inclusion of Austen into the Romantic canon now being re-shaped and has some witty things to say about it. And I find his suggestion that "British nationalism functioned, in part, as a domesticating solution to the uncomfortable threat of writing" intriguing (180). Siskin proposes that what he calls "novelism" helped naturalize writing (unlike, we might say, priestly hieroglyphics, which mystified writing) and the privileging of "English" within the British novel "helped to institute the form of nationalism peculiar to a newly united kingdom" (175).

Siskin often glosses his historicist account with an anecdote from or diagnosis of some scene or event contemporary with us, which has a dual and perhaps contradictory effect. In calling to our attention to a certain conjunction between past and present it somewhat undermines the (New or newish) historicist commitment to the specificity of moments of the past. Why get so worked up about historical specificity if it isn't so specific in the first—or is it second—place? How profoundly new, we might still ask at the end of the day, is the new technology of writing? Or consider how, at the moment when Siskin is glossing the phenomenon of the Gothic and suggesting that the reason for its popularity is because it serves as a site for "the symbolic violence of selective forgetting and remembering" (213), could that not be said of virtually every cultural formation?

But my singling out of some minor shortcomings of Siskin's project is more than outbalanced by the massive learning, good local analyses (e.g., on the lyric and labor) and the bold hypotheses that permeate this study. Especially for its resonant hypotheses, this book will be a force to reckon with for some time to come.