Wednesday, October 04, 2006

McKeon, Day 2: From Domestication to Domesticity

In yesterday’s post, I laid out what I considered to be the fundamental diachronic storyline of McKeon’s Secret History of Domesticity: the “devolution of absolutism” that occurred in England and Great Britain in the seventeenth century, and which ramified in so many directions for the next one hundred and fifty years or so, resulting in a distinctly modern “division of knowledge.” One of the most familiar products of this division of knowledge is our commonsense understanding of “the domestic” as what takes place in spaces cordoned off from the public, and “domesticity” as the abstraction that names and conceptually sustains this separation of the private from the public.

It’s worth emphasizing at this point that there is no necessary relation between the events of the Civil War, for example, and these varied discursive effects involving privacy and publicity. This is one reason why mere conceptual analysis of the semantic history of the term “private” cannot address the historically contingent formations and connections that appear during this period. Instead, McKeon wishes to uncover the appearance of these connections at their moment of emergence. He analyzes, for example, the moment when writers like Haywood first began to demand from her readers a distinctly female “ethical” subjectivity in their responses, one that suggests a particular female role in regulating public morality (454-64). McKeon’s gesture is designed to demystify and explicate this particular ethical stance, which seems part of an emergent ideology of domesticity, and to show it as a product of earlier historical factors.

McKeon’s treatment of the movement from “domestication to domesticity” in part II is particularly interesting in this respect, because he develops an extremely complex notion of “domestication” that precedes and conditions the more familiar notion of “domesticity as privacy.” McKeon’s “domestication,” which seems unthinkable apart from the Civil War’s disruptions of the family-state analogy and its hierarchical assumptions, names all the ways in which the great and the little were accommodated with one another during the long eighteenth century. As he writes; “’to domesticate’ is, after all, ‘to naturalize’ or ‘to familiarize’ the great, the distant, the worldly, the strange, or the foreign by ‘bringing it home’—through the medium of the little, the proximate, the local, the familiar, or the native” (326).

Now this notion of “domestication as accommodation” is extraordinarily suggestive to me, because it helps to explain to me one of the historical mysteries of genre in the long eighteenth century: why does our period have such a large number of “transitional” genres that pop up during this process of modernization, serve their purpose, then disappear altogether or become embarrassments to later critics? I’m thinking of the hegemonic successes of our literary histories, like satire and mock epic in the Restoration or Augustan periods, which flourish and then flame out after their cultural moment, but also about our specialist fare, like Restoration tragicomedy or the conduct book, all those works popular in our period though rarely reread afterwords. What McKeon’s historical schema points out is that all of these genres shared this broader impulse of “bringing it home,” accommodating great and little, ancient and modern, epic and romance, etc. etc. with techniques of formal segmentation that helped their readers stabilize their relation to the normative in the face of historical change. McKeon’s historical schema is buttressed with his series of formal analyses of sub-genres like the mock epic or the pastoral, which again address the remarkable preponderance and popularity of generic mixtures across the long eighteenth century, even though these mixtures’ popularity did not survive the period. The critical fate of genres like the pastoral suggests that its mid-eighteenth-century accommodations of historical change were soon overtaken by further, more sweeping changes in the country and the city. What McKeon has articulated here is a global theory of eighteenth-century genres that enables us to recognize their social and historical conditioning and their interconnectedness without falling into the trap of treating a single genre, e.g., the eighteenth-century novel, as the sole vehicle of modernization. [Here I should note as an aside the curious absence of Williams’ and especially Empson’s reading of pastoral, whose readings of the country and the city and the “double-plot” I thought anticipated some of the implications of “domestication.”]

I’ll close by commending McKeon’s sensitive readings of the Martha and Mary paintings at the end of ch. 8 (423-35), which show how the formal and thematic strategies of segmentation and accommodation can be found in the visual arts, as well.

I should note here that I’ve said very little about gender, which represents a special instance of domestication as an accommodation of great and little, to the extent that domestication leads to domesticity as we understand it. This could bear further discussion. I’d also like to see if anyone, including Michael, could tackle the distinction between “narrative concentration” and “narrative concretization,” which I must admit still seems murky to me (437-48).

Best wishes,