Intelligent Houses and Gardens / Intérieurs et jardins intelligents
The rhetoric of domestic objects and of their representations
in the British Isles and the American Colonies
from the late 16th century to the late 18th century
A Conference organized by the Programme d’Etude sur l’Angleterre de la Renaissance aux Lumières
(PEARL, PRISMES), Université Sorbonne Nouvelle
At the Musée Nissim de Camondo and the Musée Carnavalet in Paris
With the support of the Institut Universitaire de France
8th-10th December 2022
Long before the current age of smart homes and domestic automation, the house and garden together materialized a sphere of the exertion of human intelligence, which is also shaped by its practice of language and writing. This conference proposes to look together at objects and texts that relate to this basic social, economic, cultural and material unit. For the home and/or its garden can indeed be seen as an intelligible metonymy for the human subject and his/her relation to the exterior material world or environment. The conference will consider not only England but the British Isles and early colonial territories, where this model was both exported and modified by encounters with different spaces, domestic cultures, and material experiences. It may also reflect on British appropriations of continental domestic models and its mediation of these models in its own meeting with the “New World”. China, too, figured in this equation, as with the earlier eighteenth-century arrival in Britain of irregular garden plans—what later would be called the “jardin anglais”. More centrally, this conference will seek to track down the intelligent qualities of things such as they are highlighted in literary and artistic representations of domestic objects, as much as in the objects themselves. As rhetorical, narrative and/or mimetic devices, texts and paintings often make for rich processes of mise-en-abyme by which we can better gauge the forms of intelligence they imprint upon the surrounding material world.
The surge of studies in the history of material culture in recent decades has led specialists of literature to re-examine texts in light of their material conditions of production and their interactions with a complex, multi-polar globalized material world. But this approach also sets at a remove texts and the study of literary or poetic specificities by making language subservient to the objects it describes, represents or stages.
This conference proposes partly to reverse and nuance such perspectives by shedding light on the ways in which material objects and their technological innovations draw their own ‘intelligence’ from rhetorical, narrative and textual structures. It takes as its privileged perimeter the home and the garden (considered as the prime ecological extension of the home) in the late 16th century, 17th and 18th centuries – a period in which England experienced an unprecedented rise in literacy as well as in domestic improvements and gardening innovations.
The importance of the home and the garden has long been studied in relation to the development of subjectivity, intimacy, and of new forms of literature and painting in the long-eighteenth century. Such places as the studiolo or private cabinets of curiosity have likewise been a recurring topic of interest for Renaissance literary scholars. However, much has yet to be said about the ways in which domestic objects (including mundane ones) and spaces offer and extend structures that are inherent in textual and literary sources, about how domestic objects are conceived, invented or created after rhetorical and narrative structures, how they embody these structures, and how, in turn, these domestic material things and improvements shape new literary and textual forms. Among better known cases in point are eighteenth-century landscape gardens; these invoked classical writers as contemporary models but were also, with their temples, shell-grottoes and inscriptions, readable texts integrating in their space the narrative of the progress of English gardening, the initial classical narrative itself and that of the status of their owners. A more trivial example dating from the end of the sixteenth century might be the intertwining of moral, political and sanitary discourses in John Harrington’s Metamorphosis of Ajax, written in praise of the technological innovation of the privy seat and promoting a new model of urban technology, while renewing the forms of political satire. These examples testify to the overlapping and reciprocal influence of objects over texts and texts over objects. They draw attention to the joint performativity of domestic objects and texts in relation to discursive structures.
While late sixteenth-century literature continued to use objects in a mostly symbolical or emblematic fashion, it would be a mistake to think that their material or “real” qualities were not also bearers of dialogic significance. This is perhaps particularly true of domestic objects that were experienced daily, and that therefore furnished prime material to be glossed—such as china, furniture, wall hangings, carpets. Conversely, the rise of “realism” in the eighteenth-century novel should not be regarded as a form of neutral verisimilitude. The specificity of real domestic objects in literary and pictorial representations did not erase their language, their political, social and religious innate discourses. Yet, one of the questions this conference would like to pose and possibly answer, is how, in an age of commercial expansion and growing consumerism, when rhetoric increasingly seemed to give way to conversation, domestic objects reflected and embodied linguistic, cultural, and epistemological shifts. By bringing together a variety of points of view on domestic objects and their texts over a period of rapid change and material “progress”, we hope to shed light on the way the domestic unit of house and/or garden has been deeply shaped by but has also long embodied human intelligence in ways that continue to fashion today’s smart homes and their thinking.
We invite, in particular, comparative approaches that look at textual and material sources together. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:
- Literary, theatrical and pictorial representations of (specific) domestic objects, pieces of furniture, homes and/or gardens, with a focus on their uses and/or on their narrative or rhetorical functions
- Domestic objects in meditations, sermons, advice literature, and gnomic literature
- Comparative studies of “It-narratives” and the material history of domestic objects
- The homes and gardens of specific artists, craftsmen and craftswomen, writers, or other social and professional categories
- Forms of writing addressing the home, written in the home, or serving home economics (such as domestic handbooks and manuals, manuscript ego documents, chapbooks and commonplace books… – all of which may focus on domestic objects and related practices)
- Early magazines and other forms of cheap print or press devoted to the household, garden, and domestic objects, or advertising new objects
- Ecological approaches to domestic objects and decorative arts of the period
- Interactions between country homes but also urban homes and gardens, notably through the circulation and transformation of objects, goods, and materials as they move from one space to the other
- Technological innovations in homes and gardens, both in the British Isles and in the “New World”
- Domestic objects with textual inscriptions
- The political, social or religious values or “discourses” inherent in certain domestic objects and their uses, and/or the performative quality of domestic objects in relation to these “discourses”
300-word proposals, along with a brief CV (1/2 page maximum), should be sent by June 20, 2022 to the organizers: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Notifications of response: July 15, 2022.