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Showing posts from June 19, 2011

Analysing vulgarisation: when a fact is a clue

When Fontenelle wrote the Dialogues on the plurality of worlds, he was working in the libertine tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac and in the heretic tradition of Bruno. By his own account, he was bringing the new philosophy down from the level of abstraction (and mathematics) in which it was couched, in order to make it understandable for those, for instance, adored novels such as the Princess de Cleves. And on the account of historians who study the early enlightenment, Fontenelle was a ‘vulgarizer’ or ‘popularizer’ – terms which have been applied to him at least since Emma Marie Sioli’s book on Fontenelle in 1910. In order to answer the question of motive and audience, historians often have recourse to a sort of warmed over classical economics explanation – it is the consumer that did it. That is, there was a ‘demand’ for books on natural philosophy. Sometimes this is expanded into the idea that there was, somehow, more leisure for reading. Or it is mixed with the idea that this cons

division of labor and the writer

In describing the ‘workshop’ of the bel-esprit, La Bruyère is, unconsciously, positioning the writer, the quintessentializing writer, within the factory system. It is a rather fascinating coincidence that a decade after Fontenelle is satirized for being a mere producer, with a p.r. advance man and a bag of rhetorical tricks, we have accounts, for the first time, of how skilled labor – for instance, in the making of ships or watches – can be distributed among workmen so as to make the ships and watches more precise and the output speedier. In the light of that development, La Bruyère’s Characters already looks retrospectively obsolete. Or rather, it looks like an ideological investment in the obsolete: in a classical steady state political economy and order, founded ultimately on preserving Nemesis as the limit of growth. Addison and Steele were exactly the kind of atelier writers that La Bruyère was warning against. They were very consciously writing for the ‘bourgeoisie’, or the comm