The Republic of Letters and the Enlightenment salons formed a social network for intellectual exchange between the salonnieres and 'philosophes' and for political discourse, which is now considered to be the basis of modern democratic society. The ethos of sociability and the egalitarian spirit of conversation adopted in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century salons were transformed into rules for the proper way of speaking and decent manner of expressing an enlightened view or formulating an argument. The discursive and conversational practices in Ancien Regime salons and high society in general created institutional frames for subsequent critical debate and public opinion in the late eighteenth-century French society. All the affiliations and acquaintances that the salonnieres had within the contemporary cultural elite brought with them also political influence. That is how 'politesse' was intermingled with political in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century public sphere. That is why communication was - as it still is - power. Exploring these networks and modes of communication gives us new information about the cultural and social history of the Enlightenment.
In her 'De l'Allemagne,' Mme de Stael wrote in 1810, citing Francis Bacon, that "conversation is not the road leading to the house, but a bye path where people walk with pleasure." Rather than final truths, it was the pleasure produced by agreeable exchange that was considered to be the purpose of conversation. Because of its digressive and worldly nature conversation could give birth to new thoughts and open new paths that no one knew in advance where they were leading to. Exploring the history of worldly conversation from the early years of the Hotel de Rambouillet to the bloom of the Enlightenment salons and other fashionable gatherings of high society, the author suggests that their social identity both manifested itself and was largely defined by interaction and diverse communicative strategies. Of central concern are the ways in which politeness and free interaction bypassed and transgressed social distinctions within the cultural elite of the time.
While recent scholarship on eighteenth-century sociability has regarded the Enlightenment as a historical turning point and has pointed to the unique role of Enlightenment salons as forums of public opinion and free exchange, the author suggests that conversation in Enlightenment salons was largely influenced by their seventeenth-century predecessors as well as by Christian and Renaissance ethics and aesthetics. Whereas some historians - still inspired by the theory of Norbert Elias - have recently suggested that these gatherings were 'aristocratic bastions' marked by social distinction, the book shows that instead their basic characteristics were transparency and an egalitarian spirit. The book also highlights several aspects of Ancien Regime sociability that have been only marginally dealt with in previous studies: the conversational nature of worldly literature, contemporary art and music; the parallel development of figurative language and the culture of politeness; the capability of different strategies of politeness to create unity or distinction; and the interconnections between language, imagination and identification in the formation of social identity.
Transgressing Boundaries Tuomas Tikanoja, author ISBN 9789529326853 Soft cover, 277 pgs Scholarly monograph Price: $43/GBP27/34e Availability: Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
Publisher: Tuomas Tikanoja