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The Romantic period and the attendant rise of the novel in England as the preeminent literary form saw the emergence of the first truly popular literature, and with it denunciations of the degradation of culture at the hands of frivolous entertainments and occupations. Fretting critics lamented the idea that the fashion for new and exciting works of literature was crowding out more "important" texts, and the fashionability of knowledge was met not with excitement at the prospect of a public hungry for education, but rather concern based on the belief that a little bit of knowledge was more dangerous than none at all (Revolutions in Romantic Literature 104). Even a cursory survey of the last three hundred years shows that this kind of response has greeted the emergence of nearly every new medium, whether it be novels, radio, television, or videogames. While it might be tempting to simply write off this reaction as the involuntary response of stodgy intellectuals fearful of a slide into popular irrelevance, a close examination of texts decrying the popularity of the Romantic novel, coupled with a look at a more recent yet ideologically congruent text, reveals that this reactionary position represents something far more insidious. In reality, the jeremiads against the novel written during the Romantic period constitute a specific historical iteration of the pervasive and ongoing attempt to constrain knowledge and the transfer of ideas in the service of oligarchical power, and examining these critiques in detail reveals the rhetorical means by which the intellectual apologists of oligarchy attempt to eternally discourage and fragment a public sphere that naturally seeks to encourage the broadest participation possible. Furthermore, comparing these historical attempts to divide and discourage the formation of a robust public sphere with a more recent critical text that attempts largely the same thing will demonstrate that these rhetorical methods are not necessarily unique to the Romantic period, but rather represent a particular tool set of oligarchical power that repeats itself throughout history.
To begin, it is necessary to explicate what is meant by oligarchy in the context of this study. In general, oligarchy denotes a power structure in which authority rests in the hands of a few, and the key presupposition of this study is the notion that throughout recorded human history, the general trend of media has been a movement away from oligarchical control to more egalitarian modes of production, distribution, and reception, largely as a result of cheaper production methods. In regards to the Romantic period, one can reasonably suggest that the key production innovation that led to the rise of the novel was the popularization of moveable type a few centuries earlier, which allowed for more rapid production and increased volume (and to see the logical endpoint of this technologically-motivated movement towards more egalitarian modes of production, distribution, and reception, one need merely consider the possibilities offered by the internet). In this sense, all media remains under oligarchical control to some extent, with the only difference being the particular degree of control.
That the movement towards more egalitarian media represents a natural threat to oligarchy is evidenced by two related phenomenon. Firstly, the movement towards increasingly egalitarian media is largely concomitant with more democratic methods of governance, and secondly, the success of repressive regimes rests largely on their control of the media, because ideological control is infinitely more powerful than mere physical coercion. However, it is important to note that in the context of this study, oligarchical control of media does not refer to any specific regime; rather, it is in reference to the notion of oligarchy in general. As such, this study does not argue that the specific authors and texts under discussion here constitute the united front of a single historical regime, but rather represent a variety of different (though frequently interrelated) oligarchies whose responses to the rise of the novel appear congruent simply because they all participate in the same oligarchical endeavor. Furthermore, it is not the goal of this study to identify these specifics oligarchies, but rather to demonstrate the features common to their response to more egalitarian media (this is why the inclusion of a more recent critical text is so helpful). One can, however, note that the mere fact the authors under discussion here found publication for their work demonstrates that they were a part of "the hierarchical nature of a world where higher learning and the upper classes had a naturally harmonious relationship" ("Towards a romantic literary professionalism" 628).
Before moving on to the analysis, it is necessary to define one more crucial concept; the public sphere, which was first described by Jurgen Habermas in 1962, connotes a "an overtly commercial 'high' or 'polite' culture," and John Brewer convincingly argues that the emergence of a public sphere in England occurred during the Romantic period, with the waning of the royal court and ecclesiastical power and the emergence of a popular literary fascination with the novel (Brewer 341, 342). The notion of a bourgeois public sphere (using Habermas' terminology) is frequently viewed in a negative light, but in the context of the Romantic period, the bourgeois nature of the emerging public sphere may be regarded as revolutionary and anti-oligarchical, in as much as Marx himself acknowledged that the bourgeois class historically served a revolutionary purpose. Though the emerging public sphere of the seventeenth and eighteenth century conformed to a number of arbitrary standards and pretensions, it nevertheless represented a crucial development in the movement away from oligarchical control of the media, because it represented a cultural and ideological space dictated not by the whims of royalty or the church, but rather by the interests and tastes of the consuming public. This public sphere represented a natural threat to oligarchy, because it nurtured the emergence of a public consciousness beyond the complete control of traditional authority, and "observed within [its] institutions an ethos of equality which self-consciously disregarded or ostensibly elided differences of social status among [its] members" (Brewer 343).
Having defined precisely what is meant by oligarchical control of media and the public sphere in the context of this study, it is now possible to investigate the oligarchical response to the rise of the Romantic novel directly by examining four commentaries on literature and novels written during the Romantic period. The first of these responses was written in 1788 by Viscesimus Knox, and is a discussion "Of Reading Novels and Trifling Books Without Discrimination." As the title suggests, Knox is critical of what he perceives as an "idle curiosity" that seeks "its own gratification independently of all desire of increasing the store of knowledge, improving the taste, or confirming the principles" (Knox 107). The key thing to note about Knox's criticism is that it is predicated on a willful ignorance of the texts he disparages; he begins he discussion of "novels and trifling books" by saying that "I am frequently not a little diverted with observing the great eagerness with which tomes, totally unknown to me, who have made books the study of my life, are demanded of the librarian" (Knox 107).
Thus, the presupposition of his entire argument is that books he has not read himself are by definition trifling or worthless, because apparently otherwise he would have read them. This demonstrates one of the key methods oligarchy deploys in order to disparage popular forms of media and knowledge transfer; namely, by rejecting them out of hand, rather than on any specific merits, because actually analyzing a text serves to implicitly grant it some level of legitimacy. By positioning himself as an authority on what constitutes worthwhile literature, Knox is able to criticize novels and the people who read them without having to grant them any kind of legitimacy, even as a degraded form of literature.
In his preface to An Essay on the Manners and Genius of Literary Character, Isaac D'Israeli takes a different tack than Knox, because rather than decry the popularity of the novel directly, instead he laments the fact that literary success is no longer confined to a few well-connected individuals. D'Israeli is literally mourning the loss of a literary oligarchy, to the point that he actually decries the technological innovation that made ubiquitous publications possible. After listing all of the wonderful honors paid to authors in past empires, he remarks that "it is to be recollected, that before the art of printing existed, great Authors were like their works, very rare; learning was then only obtained by the devotion of a life," in contrast to his contemporary era, when, "with incessant industry, volumes have been multiplied, and their prices rendered them accessible to the lowest artisans, the Literary Character has gradually fallen into disrepute" (D'Israeli 111). Here D'Israeli is demonstrating another classic tactic of oligarchy, and the remarkable thing is that he is so open about it.
He uses the notion of a well-respected Literary Character in order to pine for what he characterizes as a kind of golden age, but this golden age of literary…[continue]
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