curiosities

I’m in Edmonton this week, participating in the annual conference of the Canadian Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies. I’ve listend to myriad papers on myriad topics, and together, the little snippets of ideas I’ve taken away from them add up to a cabinet of curiosities, a bunch of seemingly unrelated ideas that, taken together, constitute the absolutely nonlinear workings of my mind.

That said, there was some good stuff there and it’s worth mulling over, sharing, and thinking through. One panel explored European (and colonial) representations of indigeneity. Early proto-ethnography was ambivalent about aboriginal peoples and cultures, sometimes presenting a laudatory image (as in some comments made by Kant, which drew attention to women’s power within aboriginal society, a power that far outstripped the powers enjoyed by their European counterparts), and sometimes a critical image. European visions of aboriginality were fundamentally shaped by two factors: pre-existing assumptions, on the one hand, and travel accounts (of different levels of reliability), on the other. These two factors also informed and challenged one another.

It was an interesting panel, but I shared the concerns of another presenter: why are we always looking at European representations of aboriginality? Can’t we engage with emergent indigenous and aboriginal method/ologies in order to tell stories from different perspectives?

That said, I was very impressed with the attentions paid, by the panel as a whole, to questions of language. All spoke to the concern raised by another speaker, about the process of naming one’s Others. Judith Still observed that to use a more ‘neutral’ term than the French “sauvages” was, in essence, a process of whitewashing that erased the complexity of aboriginal/settler relations, a complexity better captured in the still troubling term, “sauvages,” with all the baggage that it brings along with it. Andreas Motsch, meanwhile, argued that the whole thing was about language: everything was in translation. From aboriginal languages to French to German to English and back again, there were slippages all the way through, Ultimately all agreed that language is a vexed issue; there are no easy answers, only a lot of thinking and questioning.

I was also struck by Darren Wagner’s paper, entitled: “Pain and Pleasure: Physiology, Philosophy and Sexuality.” Darren’s been working in the area of bodies and texts for a while now, and this particular paper gave e a lot to think about concerning the tensions between pain and pleasure. Part of this was due to his understanding of tickling as a form of pain, a statement that sent me skittering over to my Tissot letters, to think through the implications of this in relation to the correspondent’s who understood their sexual initiations as a form of “chatouillement voluptueux.” If pain and pleasure are intimately linked, how might we understand the politics of (sexual) pleasure in eighteenth-century society?

This morning’s papers brought me into the world of eighteenth-century anatomy and its connections with contemporary concerns around biomedicalization. I won’t forget Fragonard (the anatomist, not the visual artist)’s dancing fetuses (fetii?); and I’ll definitely be putting the Museum of Morbid Anatomy on my bucket list! On that same panel, Christina Smylitopoulos explored the figure of the “nabob” in prints, demonstrating that that nabob came to represent anxieties around British identity, economics, and culture, particularly in relation to Britain’s imperialist projects and ambitions.

Bodies in and out of place were also on the agenda on the last panel I went to this morning. Dana Wight offered a a reading of Richardson’s Pamela that focuses on the role and function of fainting in the narrative. On the one hand, fainting (which always happens when Mr. B. is trying to sexually assault Pamela), enables Pamela to perform and maintain her virtue. Mr. B. does not rape her while she is incapacitated, thus allowing her to present both moral virtue and physical virginity. On the other, her fainting paves the way for the moral reform of Mr. B., in the process opening the door for what might be seen as “Virtue’s Reward,” or marriage. A fascinating analysis, but one that makes me question, once again, how it is that a novel that is ostensibly about sexual assault (and then the validation of that assault through marriage to the assailant) ended up being a canonical literary text.

Jes Battis, a former fellow student now teaching and researching at the University of Regina, introduced me (everyone else knew her work) to Margaret Cavendish. Striking in this paper was Jes’ discussion on blushing, both how it was experienced and how it was conventionally read. He observed that blushing was read as coyness, as a signal of acceptance and acquiescence that encouraged amorous young men to proceed in their sexual conquest of a person that cultural scripts imagined as, if not eager, at least willing. For the blusher, however (in this case MC herself), a very different understanding could be at play. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, we’re still having this conversation about “the messages that girls send with their bodies” today. But that, my friends, is an entirely different story that likely deserves its own post.

Finally, I really enjoyed Emily West’s paper on the role of he pen – as a writing instrument that facilitated the articulation of sexual pleasure – in relation to John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Erotic epistolarity opens up the possibility for me to really examine the letters that individuals wrote to Tissot about sexual pleasure, pain, and suffering. I’d already considered the self-referentially voyeuristic qualities of these letters, but now I think there’s even more at play…..

And finally, what was I on about at this conference? Well I was looking at the articulation of pain in two very different, but still related, artistic works, Marais’ “Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille,” and Fanny Burney’s epistolary description of her 1811 mastectomy. I engaged with Elaine Scarry’s notion of the inexpressibility of physical pain. Scarry argues that pain doesn’t only exceed language, it actively destroys it. This can be a really useful way of looking at letters. But I also argued that these two works also suggest the potential of silence: silence is not just the absence of speech; it can be considered as a moment of suspension that allows for collective witness and reflection. Intriguingly, I was able to think through some of my ideas as I listened to others…

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