Monday, September 7, 2009

Goodman: Republic of Letters

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the Enlightenment. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Goodman's primary aim is to revise the common picture given of the eighteenth century Parisian salons--and the women who ran them--and their role in the French Enlightenment leading up to the French Revolution. She succeeds, I think, in showing that the dismissal of the salon as a frivolous distraction from the serious work of the philosophes is derived more from the polemics of Rousseau and other outside critics than on the direct testimony of the Parisian solonierres and philosophes themselves.

I am less certain whether she is right in ascribing so much importance to the art of the salonierre in establishing cooperation among men accustomed to the disputation of the schools.The disputatio itself has had everything do with making Western thought what it is, and in the big scheme of things has probably spurred more cooperation than it has prevented. Nonetheless, she demonstrates ably that the polite and intelligent conversation of the salons, governed by the literate women who ran it, provided, in combination with correspondence by post, a crucial piece of the context that made the Enlightenment possible.

I also find it interesting to watch the dance that the modern feminist must do in establishing the important, if underappreciated, roles of women in history, when those roles were almost always viewed at the time (by both men and women) within the traditional, common sense view of the differences between the sexes that feminism rejects. Thus, for instance, the governing role of salonierre that Goodman wants to ascribe so much importance to was understood, by both the salonierres and the philosophes, as a distinctly female role. Goodman is sure to un-"gender" the role by pointing to male exceptions, but that leaves me wondering what the point is. Are we trying to establish the importance of certain historical roles that just happened to held mostly by women, or are we attempting to establish the importance of certain women, even though we are not allowed to agree with them that there is anything particularly "female" about what they did?

I won't presume to judge feminism's coherence from my own limited acquaintace with it. This contradiction is, in some sense, at the heart of the whole modern liberal project, which is only capable of recognizing your full humanity if you shed any of the particular identities that, in any traditional understanding, make you what you are. I'm less comfortable, however, with attempting to celebrate the salonierres while ascribing so much of how they understood themselves to false consciousness.

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