Course: Eighteenth-Century Things: Material Cultures of the Enlightenment

HC 431H

Professor: Daniel Rosenberg

In important ways, the eighteenth century was the century of the thing. Philosophers, artists, scientists, and cultural commentators of all sorts paid new attention to the changing material details of everyday life. In this course, we will pattern our study after the Encyclopedists of the eighteenth century. Like them, we will approach the question of eighteenth-century things through two parallel tracks. On the one hand, we will approach the eighteenth-century world through its characteristic objects, commercial objects, scientific objects, cultural objects and others. On the other hand, we will attempt to understand emerging conceptions of objects and objectivity during this crucial period in early modernity. During the term, we will investigate many different kinds of objects, ordinary and extraordinary, orderly and disorderly, public and private, concrete and abstract. In each case, we will attend to both the historical uses of things and to the cultural and intellectual frames that give them meaning. Some of these objects, such as newspapers and automata, were actually new in the eighteenth century. Others, such as porcelain and sugar were new in the ways in which they were produced, exchanged, and consumed. In both cases, the stories of these objects open up larger stories of intellectual, cultural and political life. Each student in the class will pursue an independent research project on a single eighteenth-century object. Reading for this course is heavy and often theoretical.