Abstract for the Small Things in the Eighteenth Century Conference (6-7 June, 2019)

I’m thrilled to have had the abstract for my paper, ‘‘Joineriana’: the fragmentary form across eighteenth-century culture‘ accepted for the Small Things in the Eighteenth Century conference, hosted by CECS York in June 2019. Details of my paper are included below.

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‘Joineriana’: the fragmentary form across eighteenth-century culture

This paper takes its title from a letter written by Anna Letitia Barbauld to her brother John in 1775, in which she suggested that they might someday ‘sew all our fragments, and make a Joineriana of them,’ going on to list a range of incomplete literary productions, including ‘half a ballad,’ ‘the first scene of a play,’ and some ‘loose similes’, that might form part of a collected volume of such pieces.[1] Using the metaphor of the patchwork quilt, sewn from many fabric fragments to create a complete whole, the letter highlights the intermediality of the fragmentary form in eighteenth-century culture. Existing between literary, visual, and material forms, it encompassed scraps, excerpts, clippings, patches, and pieces of all of kinds. From patchwork quilts, commonplace books, and wunderkammer, to specimen tables, albums, and mosaics, eighteenth-century culture was itself a ‘joineriana’, teeming with a veritable proliferation of fragmentary objects.

Previous literature on the eighteenth-century fragment has focused on two interrelated areas of enquiry. Firstly, scholarship has examined the ‘fragmentary mode’ in contemporary literary production, particularly within texts such as James Macpherson’s 1760 Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language, in which the piecemeal nature of the ‘collected’ poetic prose reinforced ideas of authenticity.[2] Correspondingly, research on the fragment has also focused on antiquarian and Romantic interest in the ruin, compellingly relating this to ideas of history, chronology, and the picturesque.[3] This paper builds on this existing research to scrutinize the fragment across a much broader spectrum of eighteenth-century culture, demonstrating its pervasiveness across a range of visual, material, and literary forms at this time.

Examining cultural production in eighteenth-century Britain at the level of its smallest constitutive elements, this paper looks at a range of collections, assemblages, and composite manuscripts. Arguing that the fragment was a central cultural device during this period, it suggests that paying attention to such forms allows us to think about key issues within eighteenth-century art and literature. Firstly, by asking how and where fragments were encountered, collected, and sourced within eighteenth-century life, the paper will reveal how fragments allow us to better understand contemporary processes of consumption and production, such as acquisition and collection, translation and adaptation, as well as broader cultural paradigms of the period, such as the print and consumer ‘revolutions’.  Secondly, the paper will examine how such fragmentary forms related to self-fashioning, exploring the relationship between materiality and identity, sexuality, and emotion. Finally, the paper will also consider the terminologies and nomenclature associated with such objects to think about the deeper meanings of the fragment during this period. By interrogating terms such as ‘scrap’, ‘morsel’ and ‘mosaic’, the paper will consider how these forms were rooted in regimes of scale, permanency, and value that have survived into histories of art and culture today. In so doing, the paper will demonstrate that although fragments were often by their very nature incomplete, ephemeral, and evanescent, they are nevertheless central to our understanding of both eighteenth-century culture, and the histories we write about it.

[1] The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld. With a Memoir by Lucy Aikin, 2 vols. (London, 1825), 2:9.

[2] For example, see S. Jung, The Fragmentary Poetic: Eighteenth-Century Uses of an Experimental Mode (Lehigh University Press, 2009).

[3] See S. Thomas, Romanticism and Visuality: Fragments, History, Spectacle (London: Routledge, 2007).

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