July 31, 2013

Reading and the Early Modern Liberal Subject (revised)

*The following is a working abstract that's currently being prepared for submission.

England's seventeenth century included a prolonged parliamentary struggle, a civil war, a period of republican experimentation, a restoration of its monarchy, and a constitutional revolution that would keep intact a Protestant state church. Centuries later, Christopher Hill famously argued for a reading of these events as the unfolding of England's "bourgeois revolution," the result of which was to establish conditions that were increasingly favourable to capitalist development. Alongside this socio-economic reorganization, liberal political thought, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, posited a model of the individual as a self-possessed, autonomous agent.

This essay engages the correspondence of bourgeoning liberal and literary histories in both the critical and contemporary reception of the later works of John Milton and emphasizes the role of reading as a crucial element in both histories. Through its fixation on the act of reading, Milton's poetry and prose reveal a link between the cause of self-possessive freedom and the hegemonic interests of the emerging bourgeois subject. Areopagitica (1645), for example, articulates the close relationship between conditions of reading and conditions of exchange within the marketplace, treating the threat of censorship as a disastrous intervention that is conceptually indebted to the threats of the Catholic institutionalism on the one hand and state-sanctioned monopolies on the other. In this case, reading becomes a constitutive activity of the Reformed English subject who relies upon open access to a plurality of texts in order to exercise individual choice and discernment.

This essay argues that Milton's late poems install reading as an overdetermined activity through which a modern, liberal subjectivity aligns itself with literary discipline. The term "literary" in this case refers to socially valued forms of writing that gain their support not simply from material conditions but from a historical network of circulation and reproduction; by literary discipline, I mean a specific conception of reading that is both represented and conditioned by Milton's late poetry, and by liberal subjectivity, I point ahead to the bourgeois individual who today remains a residual product of early modern England's socio-economic upheaval.

Already fraught with theological and economic significance, reading assumes an intensified political significance in Milton’s post-Restoration writing. Of True Religion (1673), his short essay on religious toleration, came late in the poet's career, but its argument for a theory of religious freedom based on "searching the scriptures" reveals the underlying logic of reading set out in Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671). For Milton, the act of reading is necessary for salvation, not because reading somehow accomplishes God's work, but because without textual engagement one cannot be prepared to recognize and receive salvation as a free gift. To this end, Paradise Lost establishes interpretative activity as a prelapsarian, prehistorical reality: it thus naturalizes a liberal paradigm of ambiguity, competition, and discernment.

First published together, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes further this project by directly addressing the material conditions of reading in a hostile political climate. Through their joint format, Milton’s final poems lock their audience into a posture of reading that becomes tautological and, in this way, rehearses the contradictions of liberal ideology. Rather than a stance of tolerance and openness, Miltonic readers find themselves in an irreducibly active space of interpretation. While some contemporary critics have celebrated the activist content of Milton's poems, they have ignored the way in which it functions ideologically within an emerging capitalist environment.

Beginning with a genealogy of reading in Milton's early writing, I locate liberalism's ideological origins within a distinctly Protestant approach to interpretation. By focusing on Milton's late poems, I explore early modern reading as an active form of individual trial, increasingly disconnected from its social surroundings. I suggest that Milton's post-Restoration poetry develops a distinction between "fixed" and "fit" forms of reading, which corresponds to a capacity for individual and collective mobility despite what Milton perceived as the closure of England's political horizon. What first appears as a politically, theologically, and ethically overdetermined site of struggle in Milton’s writing returns as a versatile aspect of liberal ideology.

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