My latest article is out online today.
Binder, Jeffrey M. “The Eighteenth-Century Elocution Movement and Facebook: Reading Emotion Before and After the Subject.” Media Culture and Society. Published online Aug. 18, 2019.
The rise of social media has recently inspired a renewed debate about the decentering of the subject. Some scholars have responded to Facebook’s seemingly intrusive influence over people’s emotions by reviving humanistic notions of the autonomous subject, while others have continued to insist on the subject’s constructedness. This article provides a historical perspective on this issue by revisiting another moment that, in some ways, parallels contemporary anxieties about social media. In the mid-18th century, critics worried that the increasing popularity of reading was producing unruly emotions and extreme opinions. These concerns inspired a number of attempts to reassert the primacy of spoken language, including programs of elocution instruction that trained people in reading out loud. Focusing on James Burgh’s 1761 book The Art of Speaking, this article argues that the elocution movement employed a different conception of selfhood from the modern notion of subjectivity: rather than treating the subject as the ultimate source of emotion, the elocutionists judged emotional reactions to texts based on a normative notion of the general good. I argue that this ethically grounded view of the self could provide a useful framework for understanding the stakes of the present anxiety about the emotional effects of media.