Dazzled, Blinded, & Numb: The Body and Society in Eighteenth-Century France Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Bryan, Joseph
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • One of the defining features of eighteenth-century France was a pervasive anxiety over the possible collapse of the hierarchical and corporate social order. Although influenced by a variety of political and cultural crises, contemporaries often channeled blame for the tenuous state of society to the increase in commercial activity and the effects of luxury. While historians have recently used this anxiety as a key to explore innovative social thinking, they have often neglected two fundamental aspects of eighteenth-century culture. First, opponents of luxury did not simply put forward abstract moral critiques; their criticisms stemmed from the increasing availability of “superfluous” material goods, the noticeable expansion of social activities, such as public leisure and shopping, and new understandings of social interaction through practices of civility, taste, and refinement. The attention given to unprecedented forms of behavior is indicative of a larger point: the notion of society itself as a realm of human independence and interdependence was being invented. Religious and political boundaries circumscribing the "social" had been loosened. Commerce challenged the foundations of Old Regime society, luxury confused the symbols that represented the Old Regime socio-political hierarchy, and a wide range of writers envisioned new roots for society based either on the harmonizing capacity of individual interests, the innate human quality of sociability, or the vague concept of social utility. Second, and more important, historians have neglected the critical physiological aspect of contemporary confrontations with the increasingly-unsteady social order. There is a marked presence of physiological language in eighteenth-century socio-political writing; science, however, was more than a convenient idiom. In attempting to understand novel human interaction, writers appropriated evidence about the passions, the sensibility of nerves, and the organisation of the body. I propose that it was through the body, and the body’s capacity to “feel,” that many thinkers understood, argued over, and ultimately constructed new social institutions and forms of social interaction. Explaining the relationship between bodies—human bodies, material goods, specks of matter—became the key to understanding society.
Date of publication
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • DuVal, Kathleen
  • McIntosh, Terence
  • Reid, Donald
  • Kramer, Lloyd
  • Smith, Jay
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2016

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