Pliny the Younger describes the death of his uncle and the events surrounding the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.
In 1794 a historian living in East Hampton, New York, interviewed a seventy eight year old woman. ‘Mrs Miller,’ he discovered, remembers well when they first began to drink tea on the east end of Long Island.’ She explained that none of the local farmers knew what to do with the dry leaves: ‘One family boiled it in a pot and ate it like samp-porridge. Another spread tea leaves on his bread and butter, and bragged of his having ate half a pound at a meal, to his neighbour, who was informing him how long a pound of tea lasted him.’
[…] The arrival of the first tea-kettle was a particularly memorable day in the community.
It came ashore at Montuak in a ship, (the captain bell). The farmers came down there on business with their cattle, and could not find out how to use the tea kettle, which was then brought up to old Governor Hedges. Some said it was for one thing, and some said it was for another. At length one, the more knowing than his neighbours, affirmed it to be the ship’s lamp, to which they all assented.
“Baubles of Britain”: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century
So today I’ve spent reading the majority of ‘Memoirs of Emma Courtney’, which, despite and perhaps because of its terrible importance as an enlightenment feminist text, is also quite exquisitely terrible. It is, of course, vaguely autobiographical (so thinly veiled that contemporary critics, after having read it, went on to make the most fearful caricatures of Hays. In that regard, any criticism feels somewhat mean spirited, especially when one considers the gendered, patriarchal oppression that ran through the period. Despite this, however, not one sympathetic character appears, each being as ghastly as the last. As I’m already familiar with the plot, I look forward to the sad ending, and continue to rue the fact that it will be necessary, proto-feministic and philosophically inclined as it is, to re-read for my thesis next summer.
Apart from enduring this novel, I’ve also sent off a pitch to comment is free. Fingers crossed for that idea, but as ever, I’ve already come up with an idea for pitch number 3, which awaits tomorrow morning to be sent off to the spectator.
You might have noticed by now, I have the tendency to barely complete one thing before being enraptured by the next. Speaking of which, and despite the fact that novel 2 needs another draft or two before being sent off in search of an agent, I’m already super-duper excited about novel three. Whether or not this is due to the fact that I seem to need to be writing something to not be a restless bundle of nerves, or whether I’m truly excited about the plot itself is surely irrelevant, and no doubt a mixture of the two. Then again, that’s how I know that the writing life is for me. A day without thinking about a project feels like a day without coffee.
This evening, I finally finished reading Roy Porter’s Enlightenment. While it was an interesting and erudite enough read (it won the Wolfson prize in ’01), and the fact that it somehow managed the enviable trick of squeezing a survey of the British Enlightenment into <500 pages, it’s brevity and wide scope came at the cost of several costly omissions which ultimately prove fatal to its central thesis.
In brief, Porter argues that as far as we can define it, the British Enlightenment was an argument in print, fuelled by burgeoning print culture and racked by its early temporal position. By being the amongst the first to propose radical ideas, we suffered from being forced to both delineate and defend them concurrently. To back this up, we’re given small mini biographies of English and Scottish figures, whose works are mostly formed though argument with each other and their predecessors. The reason we’re not now a republic, argues Porter, is that our major thinkers were too busy arguing amongst themselves to push the nation in any unified direction.
The first issue here is that while delineating a national enlightenment in terms of print culture, Porter ignores the extent to which these debates were influenced by both European readings and European actions. If, as he implies, the reason we didn’t see revolution here is that we weren’t quite sure what we were arguing ourselves, then we would expect to see a unified French Enlightenment school of thought. This is clearly not the case. In addition to ignoring social and economic forces, the French revolution was a higgledy-piggeldy affair, unified more by the repression of the french court than any real ideological coherence.
This leads us nicely on to another flaw in Porter’s schema. ‘Enlightenment’s’ structure and content tends more to a history of ideas, which as Skinner argued persuasively, ignores the social and econoomic stratas and the extent to which non-aristocratic thought influenced the classics. In ignoring the bigger picture, Porter misses the extent to which, thanks to liberal press laws, English social society was permeated at all levels by news and print in a way that, thanks to court repression, France lacked. By silencing the voice of the masses, we ignore the extent to which literally every section of English society understood, responded and influenced 18th century public life.
Taking this in to account, and thinking of the way in which, pace Israel’s radical Enlightenment, there existed a quasi-european literary culture, if not per se a European Enlightenment, we get a picture of a public conversation informed by European news in place of a parochial disagreement centred on a simple rejection of staid Anglican Oxbridge Discourse.
In his haste to isolate a ‘British’ Enlightenment, then, Porter picks his case studies selectively. He isolates the biggest thinkers, talks about their influence in strictly national terms and then sets them on their merry way before strolling off to the next example. Though not committing the error of Jonathan Israel in claiming that there were such reified concepts as ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ enlightenments, (he does at least chart the extent to which political positions changed, radicals talked with moderates etc), he does commit the same sin, one that historiography should have grown out of a long time ago.
No, this is not a slightly dodgy fan fiction of harry potter. Instead, the harsh sentencing today of Trenton Oldfield for six months represents a significant milestone of the loss of freedom in the United Kingdom, coming as it does at the end of a long line of recent blows to free speech. We seem to have forgotten as a society that a vibrant democracy must include the right to dissent, especially when those dissenters say or do things that seem strange or downright offensive to mainstream society.
I find it particularly odd that the Judge’s sentencing remarks not only seem to recognise this trend, but state the new paradigm of acceptability so blatantly. According to the BBC:
Thereby delineating what is acceptable when it comes to personal political decisions and avoiding jail time. For a demonstration to be acceptable, it must be kept out of quietly out of sight and out of the public eye. Nevermind the frankly odd assertion that it’s prejudicial to demonstrate against elitism, the strangest comment in the justice’s remarks is that Trenton ‘had not shown what he was actually protesting against’. Perhaps the large public discussion about elitism following his arrest does not count. Perhaps the judge was being wilfully obscure. Or perhaps the judge was asserting that one is only allowed to protest against mainstream causes and issues that are already in the public domain.
This statement seems even stranger when we consider that part of the reasons she gave for sentencing him so harshly was that ‘you did nothing to address inequality’ and ‘displayed prejudice in sabotaging the event which he regarded as elitist’. You can’t have this both ways, you can either complain that the stunt was not a true demonstration because it had no clear aim or you can claim that his stated reasons behind the stunt were not valid. You cannot have both.
What the presiding judge does seem to think by her remarks and the sentence handed down is that unless one’s stated cause is acceptable to the political mainstream and is carried out in places where it can be ignored then the person who holds those views should be prepared for harsher punishments than usual. This is the only explanation for custodial time in a situation which would probably usually have warranted a fine.
It goes without saying that this is a worrying development in the history of debate and demonstrations. Because Trenton Oldfield dared to disagree with a rather popular boat race and hold views contrary to those of the political establishment, it somehow follows that he should expect to be judged more harshly than someone who’s protesting for something fashionable. Consequentially, free speech is being modulated along terms of what is acceptable to the hegemony and is clearly free no longer. This is a sad day for democracy and a sadder day for our country.
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