Reception versus Production

The latest edition of Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (34:4) offers readers a welcome ‘state-of-the-subject survey’ (425). There is much here to reflect on, however I want to briefly offer some thoughts on one ‘general swing’ observed by Matt Grenby in his excellent editorial introduction – ‘a swing from the investigation of production to consumption’ (430).

The question this raises is whether separating out production and consumption is helpful. ‘At their best’, Grenby writes:

‘Studies of reception are about networks not individuals, focusing, for instance, on the relationships between the artist, sitter, patron and audience of a portrait, or the author, illustrator, publisher, printer, retailer, purchaser and readers of a text’.

Surely these networks also shape the processes by which objects made for consumption are produced? Does the audience not profoundly influence what authors, illustrators Imake, and hence the processes by which what they make is made?

With this in mind, I want to offer to observations on this ‘swing’.

First. How far is the move from investigation of production to investigation of consumption a consequence of a rejection of grand-narratives in eighteenth-century studies (‘the decline of theory’, 431), especially suspicion towards Marxist narratives? The absence of economic history, an approach closely associated with mid-twentieth century totalising theories, from the edition (noted by Grenby) suggests ‘production’ has fallen foul of such suspicions.
Anecdotal evidence from conversations with fellow scholars regarding the state of cultural analysis suggests a desire to ground observations on reception of objects with more sustained research into the production of those objects. As Grenby reports studies of material culture have moved towards concerns with, for example, ‘the book as a physical object instead of, or alongside, interpretations of the text’ (430). Scholars of reception should, I argue, take note of such developments, not least because studies of production help us see the strangeness of historical objects compared to their modern equivalents (famously argued by Adrian Johns in his 1998 monograph History of the Book).

Second. Grenby notes the impact digitisation has had on eighteenth-century studies (433). Such projects have made ‘viewing’ objects much easier, making possible analyses which would hitherto not have been possible (or indeed required an exception memory of their details – Ronald Paulson famously based his exceptional study of the satirical artist Thomas Rowlandson on notes taken when visiting the archive and his memory of analysing those objects). What was consumed is now readily available to us. This does not diminish the value of describing these objects nor describing contemporary reactions to these objects, but perhaps pursuing only these two avenues of analysis is the easy option. Much more ambitious and challenging is analysing the geospatial and socio-economic realities of production behind the dynamics of display and consumption ( for more on which see the excellent essay on ‘Geography’ by Withers and Mayhew included in the collection, 445-452).

Whilst noting the swing from studies of production to consumption in art history, John Bonehill notes that where the art history of academia and museums is closest is in ‘an increased attention of late to the materiality of objects, to the processes of their making and signifying qualities of their manufacture, as well as their ongoing histories of their collection and display’ (466). These analyses must be brought together rather forced apart. Revisiting physical objects and their production need not be seen as return to grand socio-economic narratives. It just makes sense.