Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
During the early part of the eighteenth century, the growth of the book trades depended upon a series of technological advances. With each innovation, new forms of printed material, such as newspapers, essays, novels, and biographies became available and in many cases, extremely popular. Cultural perceptions of popularity among the growing body of readers, however, immediately relegated most of these new forms to a subaltern status. As the new readers became new writers, subcultures developed around each new form, which then changed the perceived social status of both the members of the subculture and the textual form. Even though printed materials has often been seen as simple commodities, reading subcultures of the eighteenth century had the power to redefine the social meaning of a given textual form and they often did so because in changing the status of the text they could also alter their own status. The members of these various subcultures used their associated textual form as a means to redefine their own identity as well as the social status of the text itself. Each of the varieties of publications gained or lost social status based upon their association with particular subcultures. In this way, the formation of textual subcultures provided a conduit through which individuals could create, maintain, and renegotiate personal identity. By examining the creation of specific textual subcultures in conjunction with shifts in technology, my work offers a new, empirically supported model for understanding the precise relationship between reading and identity formation at the moment when modern, market-based culture came into existence. Challenging the interpretive tradition established by Ian Watt in the 1950s, I formulate a dynamic model of identity creation based upon the perception of technological membership. Because Watt's focus, as well as those of many succeeding critics, was upon a single genre rather than upon individuals' interaction with new print mediums, the current understanding of eighteenth-century identity is a progressively static model of reading which cannot be applied beyond that specific historical period. My work directly challenges current ideas of subculture formation and the inherent bonds between members by establishing how writers negotiated their own self-perceptions through authorial participation and, ultimately, defined their own social status. By determining how people created their own cultural identities through associations with forms of printed material and evolving technologies, my work reconsiders previous interpretations of literary history based upon economic class formation and prompts re-evaluations of basic critical literary terms, such as `literature,' `popular,' and `aesthetic worth.' With a new model for understanding identity formation in market culture, my research offers models extending beyond the eighteenth century and informing current debates about textual cultures. In recent years, the mass digitization of printed material has prompted announcements of both the death of the book and a decrease in mass literacy; yet, online communication, particularly social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, has grown dramatically. Computer technology, in this respect, is no more than another phase of printing innovations, which itself is fostering the creation of new reading subcultures.
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