Which brings me to a second resonance between our own recent history and that of the early eighteenth century: while there is a sense that the burgeoning print market is introducing lots of bad new writing into England, there are also deep ambiguities of aesthetic value. Shakespeare and Milton are not self-evidently great in the early eighteenth century in the way that they are now. So what we have during the period is something analogous to one consequence of the cultural turn: namely, what Frederic Jameson describes as ‘the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and socalled mass or popular culture […] to the point where the line between highart and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw.’4 Now Jameson is describing the loss of a distinction between high and low culture that comes after those distinctions had been established once upon a time. By contrast, I’ll be looking at a period before those distinctions were established, when critics dissed Shakespeare and weren’t sure if Paradise Lost was all that good. So I’ll look at the prequel not only to the cultural turn, but also to the ‘Great Tradition,’ which the Cultural Turn eroded. At both moments, aesthetic value is comparably indeterminate, albeit for different reasons.
And so enter the critic, to tidy up the messy cultural marketplace except that the critic is anything but tidy himself, being still an emerging figure. Looking at the early eighteenth-century English context, I find it hard not to be struck by what a precarious business it was to establish aesthetic value credibly and authoritatively - to determine what counts as ‘the Great Tradition.’ Unlike France, early English critics had no academie to legitimise their work. There was a singular lack of institutional structure for English critics. So English critics were self-proclaimed arbiters of culture, and criticism was a highly experimental business. Experimenting within the Michelle Syba medium of print, critics had to find ways to appeal to a growing reading public. And they did. But they also sometimes worried about the impact of print on the quality and effectiveness of their aesthetic judgments. Sometimes they were nostalgic for non-print forms.
Two propositions of my paper are this: first, early eighteenthcentury criticism is intimately tied to the print market, to a degree that makes critics anxious and even nostalgic for earlier non-print forms. Second, early eighteenth-century criticism is a precarious exercise in performing judgment credibly and authoritatively on this unregulated market. If anything, the early eighteenth-century English context shows us what a scrappy business it was to be an intellectual, at one formative moment in the intellectual’s history.
The period from 1660 onward witnesses the rise of a ‘media saturated culture.’ It witnesses the rise of a news culture. It also witnesses the rise of the Culture Industry.5 Mass cultural phenomena such as the blockbuster novel and merchandising for the blockbuster novel, as well as sequels and remakes all take off in the eighteenth century.
In fact, one blockbuster novelist, Daniel Defoe, benefited from the print boom that began in 1695. What happened in 1695 was that the print market suddenly deregulated, following the lapse of the Licensing Act. Until 1695, the Licensing Act had ensured that a London guild known as the Stationer’s Company had a monopoly on the print market. But in 1695, when the Act was up again for renewal, it was allowed to lapse.6 Consequently, after 1695 anybody who had the money to buy a printing press and set up shop as a printer could do so.
What followed was a steep increase in the quantity of print on the market. Jonathan Swift parodied this development in A Tale of a Tub, which purports to be written by a Grub Street hack - by someone who tries to benefit from the burgeoning print market and make a living by his pen. The first page of A Tale of a Tub is a series of advertisements for projected works by the same author: works such as ‘A General History of Ears’ or ‘A Panegyrical Essay upon the Number Three’ - anything weird and novel to catch the restless eye of the popular reader, that is anything that might sell.
For the hack, the profit motive predominates (as it does for the Culture Industry). As a whole, A Tale of a Tub embodies and parodies the phenomenon of proliferating bad art, which a deregulated print market stokes.
In such a climate of bad, proliferating print, one would expect the literary critic to be more necessary than ever. Ideally, the critic would serve as an invaluable guide to the common reader trying to navigate a chaotic print market. But Swift’s Tale also parodies the very genre of criticism. There is an entire section devoted to criticism, which variously characterizes ‘the True Modern Critick’ as a braying donkey and a vomiting serpent.7 In Swift’s work of criticism, criticism itself becomes a paramount instance of modern, 132 Three Centuries before the Cultural Turn bad writing. In other words, criticism becomes embroiled in the same chaotic marketplace that it tries to organize.
Swift’s Tale is one instance of criticism’s uneasiness with itself as a print genre. In fact, early eighteenth century critics rarely have nice things to say about each other. Thomas Rymer, the man who became known as ‘our English Critick,’ launched his career as a critic by complaining that ‘critics are aptest to bark at every thing that comes in their way.’Thomas Rymer is not a name that has had the staying power of Samuel Johnson. But he was well known and influential in his time, beginning in the 1670s when he began to publish criticism. By the end of the decade, the dramatist John Dryden had dubbed Rymer ‘Our English Critick,’ an unprecedented christening of a critic.The portrait of ‘Our English Critick’10 in action is a telling image with respect to how the early critic was imagined. When I first saw this portrait, I had two questions. First, what is this critic doing Second, why is he holding a dog I think that the answers to these two questions are actually related. To answer the first question: the critic appears to be speaking assertively, possibly with concern and even alarm. This is not a reserved man. He also appears to be pointing at something. This is tricky to establish for sure, but the alternatives are not persuasive: he could be holding out an object for inspection, or perhaps shaking hands. But pointing seems more likely, in part because of his status as a critic. Critics in this period describe themselves as ‘pointers out’ or ‘discover(ers)’ of a literary work’s errors and merits.
Second question: why is this man holding a dog This might be a realistic detail. Maybe Rymer really loved dogs. However, there is a more telling answer for the purposes of my examination of early critics. This concerns how Rymer described critics in the prefatory treatise that launched his career. Remember the comment about how critics are aptest to bark at every thing that comes in their way The figure of the dog hearkens back to the figure of the aggressive, bad critic bent on finding errors in what he reads.
Interestingly, the dog in this portrait is calm, whereas the human is not. This is a portrait not of a dog apt to bark but of a critic apt to bark. The portrait conveys the style of Rymer’s criticism, which does a lot of barking, despite his early complaint about critics. Rymer is now best known for his no-holds-barred criticism of Shakespeare’s play, Othello. He charged Othello with psychological implausibility and an impious lack of an edifying moral.
He also detested its difficult language, asserting ‘in the growling of a Mastiff […] there is as lively expression, and, may I say, more humanity, than many times in the Tragical flights of Shakespeare.’11 Given Rymer’s apparent love of dogs, we might argue that this is not such a bad thing to say about literature. But on the whole it is the kind of ‘diss’ that characterizes much of Rymer’s examination of Othello, which is peppered with snide asides (about Michelle Syba the flaky Desdemona) and insults (about the gullible Othello). If anything, Rymer’s critical manner hearkens back to an oral form - to the kinds of comments that an amateur spectator in the theatre’s pit might make, exercising his wit at the expense of the play.
Rymer’s criticism was very popular. It made a name for him and is among the ‘other popular works’ that the frontispiece cites. But I would further add that in this portrait - which came out during the height of Rymer’s popularity - there is a satiric edge. This is a portrait of a barking critic. If anything, the image summons Rymer’s early diss against bad critics who bark, bringing it on Rymer’s own head. In this image, Rymer’s credibility as an aesthetic judge is precarious.12 Just as Swift’s work of criticism satirizes critics, so does Rymer’s portrait likewise.
In fact, shortly before Rymer’s death in 1713, an alternative model of the critic was emerging, one embodied by The Spectator papers.
Beginning in 1711, The Spectator was a series of essays published six times per week. These essays sought to influence contemporary manners and morality; they also sought to model tasteful acts of aesthetic judgment.In the second image14, Mr Spectator’s model of aesthetic judgment differs noticeably from Rymer’s. Here, the scene is of smiling conversation among gentlemen in a tastefully decorated space. In the portrait of Rymer, there is an implicit auditor outside the frame, but it seems unlikely that Rymer’s auditor would be smiling. By contrast, for Mr Spectator and his coterie of friends aesthetic judgment is a genial activity. The manner depicted in this portrait picks up on Mr. Spectator’s language, which is generally amused rather than indignant, moderate rather than heated. Mr. Spectator describes himself as a quiet observer who has ‘more than ordinary penetration in Seeing’ and is unprejudiced in his ‘Judgment.’15 Basically, Mr.
Spectator offers an early model of critical impartiality - a model which eschews the passionate, indignant judgments of a Rymer.
Contemporary readers seem to have found Mr. Spectator a credible and authoritative aesthetic judge. The series was hugely popular, and was reprinted numerous times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it is also striking how Mr. Spectator worries about the way that the series plays out among the reading public. Imagining his readership, Mr. Spectator brings up a species of reader that he calls the ‘Blanks.’ ‘Blanks’ are readers who have nothing on their minds until they read the day’s news, which they passively absorb and parrot in public.16 Mr Spectator confesses himself ‘much disquieted by the incapacity’ of such readers. We would identify these readers as the opposite of ‘critical thinkers’ (a figure much invoked in colleges and universities). If anything, the passivity of ‘Blanks’ makes them sound like mass cultural consumers.
I would argue that what Mr. Spectator is doing in this case is expressing an ambivalence about the medium of print. He recognizes that 134 Three Centuries before the Cultural Turn while he can bring a model of aesthetic judgment to the public in print, he cannot induce aesthetic judgment in his readers through the medium of print.
Print colludes in the culture of consumption that he is trying to organize and reform as a critic.
Indeed, Mr Spectator often likens good reading to an engagement not with print but with people. When he writes about reading Paradise Lost, he conjures up a coterie of authors in conversation - a coterie that includes Milton, who takes a ‘hint’ from Virgil and passes it on to Mr. Spectator. At its best, reading is untrammelled by print, an unmediated transhistorical conversation that transcends print.17 Thus Mr. Spectator’s essays express a nostalgia for oral forms (much as Rymer’s work borrows some of the language of violent speech uttered in the theatre’s pit). This nostalgia is all the more striking in Mr. Spectator’s case, because Mr. Spectator is a fictional critic who exists only in print. He is a creature of print. And yet he is deeply ambivalent about the resources of print and his own function on the print market, even as he would go on to become one of its exemplars.
The contrast between Thomas Rymer and Mr. Spectator also represents a shift in critical norms. As the eighteenth century proceeded, criticism became more polite, with Mr Spectator’s genial, moderate criticism supplanting Rymer’s shock jock approach to criticism.18 Ultimately, Mr. Spectator is the critic who gains the most credibility.
It will be interesting to see how literary criticism develops in the twenty-first century, as we experience our own media transformation. On one hand, the Internet has made possible the amazon review (the review that might complain that Madame Bovary sucks because Emma is annoying and not ‘relatable’). On the other hand, the Internet has also enabled new conversations around print criticism. For example, the literary blog The Elegant Variation might link to a review in The New Yorker, further disseminating a print review of literary fiction. Clearly the consequences of our own media transformations are mixed, at once undermining and shoring up high culture. If there is one generalisable consequence of the Internet, it is that the public is being reconstituted as panoply of coteries - around a given blog or a fan fiction website. If anything, the idea of a single critic (English or otherwise) who guides the judgments of a homogenous public has become obsolete.
Notes J Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, MIT University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1962, p. 43.
Michelle Syba For a recent discussion of coterie criticism, see P Trolander & Z Tenger, ‘Katherine Philips and Coterie Critical Practices’. Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 37, 2004, pp. 367-387.
J Dryden, ‘The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy’, The Works of John Dryden, A. Roper & V.A. Dearing (eds), vol. 13, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987, p. 234.
F Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and the Consumer Society’, The Cultural Turn:
Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998, p. 1.
T Adorno, ‘How to Look at Television’, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, J.M. Bernstein (ed.), Routledge, London, 1991, p. 160.
For more on this, see M Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1991.
RA Greenberg & W Bowman Piper (eds), The Writings of Jonathan Swift: Authoritative Texts, Backgrounds, Criticism, Norton, New York, 1973, pp. 314, 315.