Some (appropriately-sized) thoughts on the Small Things in the Long Eighteenth Century conference

I was lucky to spend half of last week at York’s Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, where I attended the conference Small Things in the Long Eighteenth Century, organised by Chloe Wigston Smith & Beth Fowkes Tobin. Here are some brief (small?) thought based on the conference…

Firstly, I thought that the interdisciplinarity of the Small Thing was hugely interesting, and actually, of course, something typical of eighteenth-century studies more broadly. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds, including traditional history, art history, English literature, and material culture studies, as well those with museums and heritage backgrounds all came together to present a varied cornucopia of objects; populating an ‘objectscape’ (to borrow Jo Dahn’s terminology) of eighteenth-century stuff of diminutive scale, which operated on the level of physical object, mediated representation, and contextual sources, and everything in between.

Secondly, and more crucially, although the objects of discussion were physically small, they were rich with meaning, history, and interpretative potential. Indeed this dynamic – small thing, big history – dominated the day. Speakers related their small things to decidedly big issues: broad cultural paradigms like the consumer or industrial revolutions; to gender and sexuality; and to contemporary political movements and historical events. Historiographically, one might think about the dynamics of this relationship in terms of the relationship between private (and especially domestic) and public histories, although given that these states were so fluid and indistinct in the eighteenth century, I think the relationship between the micro and the macro is more useful here, in a highly literal sense – micro objects, examined through the detailed methodologies of microhistory, placed in relation to macro contexts, the ‘bigger picture’. As I write the introduction to my forthcoming book, which partly deals with the book’s use of the case study format by thinking through the advantages of a microhistorical approach, such ideas are hugely useful for me.

At the same time, I wonder to what extent this is almost a defensive strategy, deployed as a shield against accusations of a too myopic focus, against time and intellectual space wasted on ‘trivial’ things. Such objects were often termed as such in the eighteenth century itself, and those hierarchical biases have endured throughout histories of art and culture, which have often privileged ‘high’ art and larger-scale works over small (and quotidian) pieces. I felt it was telling that almost every paper (including my own) concluded by reinforcing the manner in which their small thing related to some broader context that thereby ‘made it matter’, which was somewhat surprising given the ‘home crowd’ nature of the conference, full of people already fully invested in the idea that small things mattered, and continue to do so. The questions that arise from this have no easy answers: is there space for a dynamic account of the small thing, in and on its own terms, without reference to these broader narratives? If small things matter, surely, then, they matter on their own? Perhaps, and I think that this is ultimately right, small things can never truly be divested from the larger scale narratives we tell of the history of the period. Nevertheless, I feel that it is revealing that, even as a group of small things enthusiasts, our recourse was to justify the position of the small thing as the object(s) of our scholarly research.

Going forward, I’m looking forward to actively exploring some of these issues in my own work, rethinking the relationship between micro and macro in terms of the histories we write about objects (as well as those written previously), and to seeing what comes out of the conference in terms of publications and its related PhD. In any case, it seems that the conference firmly demonstrated that small thing is very much a central part of eighteenth-century material culture, diminutive in physical scale, but huge in semantic significance. 

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