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William B. Warner

Professor of English, UC Santa Barbara; Director of the UC Digital Cultures Project.

William Warner

William Warner’s central interests include eighteenth-century British and American literature and cultural studies, the novel, literary and cultural theory, media studies, and law and literature (free speech and censorship). He is the author of Reading Clarissa: The Struggles of Interpretation (Yale Univ. Press, 1979); Chance and the Text of Experience: Freud, Nietzsche and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Cornell Univ. Press, 1986); and Licensing Entertainment: the Elevation of Novel Reading in Eighteenth Century Britain (Univ. of California Press, 1998). Professor Warner is the founder and director of the Digital Cultures Project (a Univ. of California Multi-Campus Research Group) and a participant in the UC Santa Barbara Transcriptions Project. He is currently at work on a book on media of the Enlightenment period in relation to contemporary information-technology culture. Professor Warner has recently edited a collection with Clifford Siskin modestly entitled THIS IS ENLIGHTENMENT (forthcoming April 2010 U. of Chicago Press). The collection, which includes essays by 20 contributors, seeks to answer Kant’s old question this way: Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation. Professor Warner joined UC Santa Barbara in 1997. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1977, and has also taught at the State University of New York, Buffalo.

Links: Home page | Digital Cultures Project | Transcriptions Project | UC Santa Barbara English Department | “Staging Readers Reading”

Research Sample: From Licensing Entertainment: the Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684-1750 (Univ. of California Press, 1998), chapter 4.

“They became what they beheld.” —Blake
“My consumers, are they not also my producers?”—Joyce

By the 1720s the success of novels on the British print market, and the peculiar powers attributed to absorptive novel reading, made reaching, knowing and influencing the reader a central preoccupation of print media workers and cultural critics. But what is a reader? Within their mobile and transient co-articulation, reader and text dissolve into the act of reading, leaving no trace of what they have been to and for each other. Most reading simply disappears. Only through the belated secondary elaboration of writing—commentary, criticism, letters to the editor, or autobiography—does a reader translate reading into graspable form. But even when this translation is ventured, there is no one to vouch for its success. The discrepancy between reading and writing persists, and in fact may be irreducible. Little wonder that there is a fundamental difficulty in knowing the reader and shaping his or her reading practices. Whether for the opportunistic projector on the eighteenth-century print market, or for the historian of reading practices, a purchase upon novel reading comes only indirectly, through a study of the remnants of writings left in the wake of reading. By mapping the cultural struggle around novel reading that opened in the teens and 20s–from the anti-novel positions of Shaftesbury and Pope, to the pro-novel positions of Manley and Haywood–I will be in a position to interpret the tactics Defoe used to rewrite novel reading in response to the success of the novels of amorous intrigue. In Roxana , Defoe assembles a series of novels in which the machinations of the scheming ego reach such extremes that they short-circuit the pleasures of absorptive novel reading.
. . .

Novels as Print Media, Only More So
Since ancient times, writing has had a decisive role in enabling trade, constituting civil and religious authority and accumulating knowledge. (Inglis, 6-10; Martin, 1994) Writing may be the sine qua non of complex social organization. But from Luther’s translation of the Vulgate to the penning of the Declaration of Independence, writing has also served to contest instituted authority. The French historian of reading Roger Chartier suggests there is an “internal contradiction” at work between, on the one hand, the controlling efforts of author, bookseller-publisher, commentator and censor and, on the other, the practice of reading, which “by definition, is rebellious and vagabond.”

The book always aims at installing an order, whether it is the order in which it is deciphered, the order in which it is to be understood, or the order intended by the authority who commanded or permitted the work. This multi-faceted order is not all-powerful, however, when it comes to annulling the reader’s liberty. Even when it is hemmed in by differences in competence and by conventions, liberty knows how to distort and reformulate the significations that were supposed to defeat it. The dialectic between imposition and appropriation, between constraints transgressed and freedoms bridled, is not the same in all places or all times or for all people. [viii]

While this passage risks situating reading within too stark and too romantic a polarization of constraint and liberty, it reflects the larger stakes of the market’s emancipation of reading, and the resulting struggle around the licensing of novel reading in the British eighteenth century.
Too often literary histories of the novel make a foray into the history of reading so as to provide a context and backdrop for the main event—the rise of the novel as a literary type. Reading practices are seen as one of many global changes sweeping across late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century culture which converge to produce “the” novel: new ideologies characterized as progressive, empiricist, secular, and modernist; more and cheaper print commodities facilitated by the end of licensing and the eclipse of patronage; and finally, changes in the location and nature of reading as it becomes increasingly prevalent and acquires its distinct modern character as silent and private. (Watt, chapter 2; Hunter, 1990, chapter 3; Chartier, 21-22) Few would dispute the importance of these changes. But my study suggests that a struggle around reading practices is not a subsidiary circumstance but the central event in the novel’s eighteenth-century history. Chartier’s three-part program for “a history of reading” allows one to grasp the several components of novel reading in their complex and often conflictual imbrication. Chartier calls for three areas of study which “academic tradition usually keeps separate: first the analysis of texts, be they canonical or ordinary, to discern their structures, their themes, and their aims; second, the history of books and, beyond that, the history of all objects and forms that bear texts; third, the study of practices that seize on these objects and these forms in a variety of ways and produce differentiated uses and meanings.”(2-3) If we consider novel reading under these three rubrics, we can see how the cultural struggle around licensing novel reading bears its effects into the form and content of novelistic texts, the material shape of novels as books to be read, and the reading practices which proliferate around novels.
. . .

A specter haunted early modern Europe, and that specter was the novel reader reading. This specter—cast as characters from Don Quixote to Madame Bovary—is understood to be mindlessly absorbed by the text he or she reads, and compulsively addicted to its pleasures. Whence comes this abject figure of the novel-reading automaton? The new order of print culture we have sketched in this chapter–the form and content of texts, the small book format, and the shift in reading practices–subverts the efforts by church and state to control print in the Renaissance and the seventeenth century. In order to critique an earlier humanistic tradition, as well as transmit ancient and modern knowledge, eighteenth-century writers, book sellers and readers harness print media to pursue their ambitious educational project. However, the new print medium also threatened this enlightenment project. Thus, as the passage from Leibnitz quoted above suggests, a suspicion develops among a broad range of cultural critics that reading small books for pleasure may menace the enlightenment educational project from within. As a symptom of the shift of reading practices examined in this chapter, the phantasm of the errant novel reader appears along the fault line between good and bad reading.

[See also William Warner’s online essay, “Staging Readers Reading”, http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/warner/courses/w00/engl30/ StagingReaders.ecf.8.99.htm]

  wwarner, 04.10.05

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