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The Government of the Senses: Aesthetic Subjectivity and the Rule of Taste in Britain, 1660-1760

  • Author(s): Weiner, Joshua J.
  • Advisor(s): Turner, James G
  • et al.

The Government of the Senses is a study of how the changes in aesthetic culture that occurred in the wake of empiricism operated as regulating social processes. Tracking the rise of a new concern with tastefulness as well as various approaches to aesthetic detachment, I describe how these critical discourses translated into different styles of subjectification. Each chapter identifies figural representations in literature and visual culture that reflect what it felt like to participate in the new aesthetic culture. Chapter One describes the new interest in ideas of taste and “gust” in John Milton’s work and models of aesthetic detachment in John Dryden, showing how Lord Shaftesbury and Joseph Addison developed these models of aesthetic behavior into a comprehensive social program. Chapter Two argues for a continuity between the cultivation of pleasure in the Restoration libertine discourse of Lord Rochester and George Etherege and the eighteenth-century cultivation of aesthetic pleasures. I show the importance of the fop character type in the transition to socially acceptable enjoyments: at the center of ambivalence about cultural consumption, the fop is the first figure that condenses the experience of modern aesthetic subjectivity. Chapter Three follows the inner sense tradition, arguing that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe narrates an aesthetic self-fashioning by testing the limits of detachment from social life. This wildly popular novel shows how culturally relevant the new aesthetic culture had become beyond the stratified elites. Chapter Four studies the emergence of a socially intelligible figure of the person of taste between Jonathan Richardson’s theory of connoisseurship and the major statements on the standard of taste in the 1750s. It shows that the methods, tensions, and models of authority associated with the new aesthetics were most fully exemplified in the literary career of Alexander Pope. Methodologically, this project studies the regulating effects of aesthetics using Michel Foucault’s late theory of “governmentality” and it describe aesthetics as a self-sustaining social process using the theory of Niklas Luhmann. The chapters also include discussions of the Cartesian theory of pleasure, Hobbesian psychology, the theory of the je ne sais quoi of Dominique Bouhours, the models of conduct in Baltasar Gracián and the Chevalier de Méré, John Locke on secondary qualities and self-education, inner sense theory in Ralph Cudworth and Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith on self-regulation, William Hogarth on utility, and the theories of taste in Edmund Burke, Alexander Gerard, and David Hume. I show that the first phase of modern British aesthetics fashioned a coherent model for the conduct of conduct using the intensities of the sensitive body.

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