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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Event Archive

This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

Some of our public events are recorded and are available as podcasts via our Research English At Durham blog.

Ordering the Eighteenth-Century Essay

25th April 2018, 17:30 to 18:30, Seminar Room, Hallgarth House, Dr. Tim Milnes (University of Edinburgh)

An Inventions of the Text seminar on the art of the essay. All welcome.

About this Seminar

Samuel Johnson defined the essay as a ‘loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.’ In this paper I explore some of the ways in which changing ideas of order were connected to the rise of the essay in eighteenth century Britain. I will consider the essay’s status as a shapeless ‘anti-genre’ in relation to the rhetorical technique of complicatio, which, in contrast to dispositio (establishing order to what has been found), is concerned with the production of pleasure, criticism, and difference. I will also discuss the ways in which the flourishing of this most protean of literary forms in eighteenth century Britain—an age marked by an increasing appetite for classification and formalisation—is bound up with tensions within the dominant empiricist philosophy. This will in turn involve discussing Clifford Siskin’s claim that the competing genres of ‘system’ and ‘essay’ reflect a division between fundamentally different epistemological worldviews in this period, so that ‘[t]o choose one or another was not just to indicate a stylistic preference but to make a statement about what could and should be known, and how.’ Taking Hume and Johnson as case studies, my paper will supplement Siskin’s account by suggesting some of the ways in which the eighteenth-century essay challenged modern knowledge as ordered system.

Contact inventionsofthetext@gmail.com for more information about this event.


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