Tomorrow I leave for the SHARP conference at Scripps College in Claremont, California, where it looks like the weather will be hot, but not humid. I feel pretty good about my paper, in which I position John Wesley’s monthly Arminian Magazine (initiated in 1778) as an interesting case study for considering the institutional and social milieu in which religious publications were produced, distributed, and consumed in eighteenth-century England.
Working on this paper has forced me to reconsider some of the key assumptions I was holding regarding the unifying power of print and specifically of periodicals. Benedict Anderson attributes a great deal of this sort of power to newspapers, but the example of Wesley’s magazine argues against this assumption. By endorsing and vehemently propagating dissenting opinions, periodicals can fragment readers as much as they might unify. Much work remains for me to consider religious affiliation alongside nationalism. This is a good thing.
Meanwhile, I’m also thinking ahead to the paper I’ll be giving at the annual meeting of the Midwestern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in Chicago this November. My paper is entitled “Comic Anxiety and Anxious Comedy: Anti-Methodist Satire on Stage, in Print, and in Person.”
“Anxiety” is one of those words that everyone seems to be using lately with regard to new media, new technologies, and their impact. It’s also used by those who wrote about the impact of print in the eighteenth century and about the reaction to Methodism. But what exactly does the word mean? I’d like to interrogate this term and see if we might complicate what we think we mean by our use of it. And what relationship does it have to laughter?
Among the definitions in The Oxford English Dictionary for “anxious” is the following:
a. Troubled or uneasy in mind about some uncertain event; being in painful or disturbing suspense; concerned, solicitous.b. Const., of an issue dreaded (obs.); for an issue desired; about a thing or person involved in uncertain issues.
And the OED definition of “anxiety” includes these:
- The quality or state of being anxious; uneasiness or trouble of mind about some uncertain event; solicitude, concern.
- Strained or solicitous desire (for or to effect some purpose).
What I find interesting is the mixture of a positive and negative; hope that something will not happen joined perhaps with hope that it will. I’ve really only just begun to think about this issue, and I would appreciate any recommendations for further reading.
The number of coincidences that present themselves to me in this post is quite astonishing. First off, I’m in Claremont (where it is, in fact, hot, but not humid; and where it cools off to about 60 at night, so you may want one slightly warmer thing), a mere three blocks south of Scripps.
Second, and more importantly, the manuscript I’ve recently finished (referenced all over the place at Planned Obsolescence without any real identifying details) is all about anxiety and the relationship between literature and non-literary contemporary cultures. The title, at least at the moment, is “The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television,” and the central argument focuses on the apparent conviction embedded in the postmodern novel that it is a form under siege, obsolesced by more flashy contemporary media forms.
But what I’m interested in in that manuscript is not whether the anxiety is warranted — whether the novel is in fact becoming obsolete as a cultural form — but rather what discursive purposes the manifestation of such anxiety serves. One such purpose is of course the novel’s own continuation; as John Barth suggests in “The Literature of Exhaustion,” one way to deal with such anxiety might be to write a novel about it. But another such purpose is the intentional self-marginalization of both novel and novelist, such that, as an “alternative” culture, the product and the cultural producer can both benefit from the cachet of edginess — and, not incidentally, appropriate the mantle of marginalization from racial or ethnic or gendered or sexual “minorities.” There’s thus equal parts, in my argument, of nervousness and pleasure in this particular form of anxiety.
And it sounds to me like I need to get myself to SHARP this week…
George, with regard to anxiety and eighteenth-century technologies of inscription, my own view is that the so-called “stigma of print” was in reality practically moribund by the beginning of the century, notwithstanding the fact that genteel authors continued to lament the unauthorized publications of their work. The rhetoric of anxiety was still in place, but no real force of sentiment remained to animate it. An author publically chary of print was privately eager for fame, a disconnect that captures the nearly antithetical senses of anxiety that you find of interest.
My claim rests on some research I did as an MA student. A representative chain of transmission for a piece of occasional verse, for example, might look something like this: the author sets the process in motion by releasing his poem to a patron or trusted intermediary, with some contrived rationale for sharing it, with the tacit assumption that it will eventually wind up in the hands of the printer/bookseller. The relay of information, in other words, is relatively indirect and complicated, with the poem passing through one or more way stations before finally reaching its intended destination.
Have a great time at SHARP. Will you blog the conference?
Thanks for the thoughtful posts. I’m about to head for the airport, so I don’t have much time to response.
I will try to post at least occasionally from the conference, but I’m not sure how wired (or wireless) the campus will be.
I found KF’s comments about anxiety in the postmodern novel pretty compelling, specifically because I’m interested in a similar problem from the POV of film. I read many contemporary films (especially time-travel films) as “anxious” about the incursion of digital onto celluloid/analog film. There’s also the filmic anxiety about television, hence most films about TV characterize it as banal, insipid, ideological, or otherwise dangerous (see The Truman Show, Pleasantville, EdTV, Twelve Monekys, etc). Like KF, I think the more interesting question is how film “uses” that anxiety, not whether or not traditional film is in any way in peril (it’s not, really). KF’s language helped me see through this point a little more clearly. Interesting questions, all around.