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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Inventions of the Text Seminar Series

Inventions of the Text complements our Research Seminar series. Inventions is organised by a team of postgraduate researchers, and combines papers by academics from Durham and beyond with presentations by PhD students. Seminars run roughly every couple of weeks during term time, with around eight or nine events a year. After each seminar, attendees are welcome to socialise with the speaker(s) over dinner. They are generally for University staff and students, although sometimes open to the public.

Forthcoming Inventions of the Text Seminars

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 for more information about this event.

Past Inventions of the Text Seminars