Fashionable subjects: Exhibition culture and the limits of sociability
If, as Harriet Guest has noted, “in recent years some of the most exciting work on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British cultures has focused on issues of sociability,” this may in part be a result of the enormous force that the idea of sociability enjoyed in the age itself, both as a description of what Peter Clark has called the “associational” nature of modern life and as an ideal against which those relations might be judged. This popularity may, in turn, have been at least partially the result of the ability of the idea of sociability to offer people a way of mediating a profound sense of change with inherited codes of distinction. Whether one embraced the transformational power of commerce as progress or lamented it as a sure sign of decline, few truths were more widely acknowledged. This sense of almost tectonic change simultaneously foregrounded the question of how Britain’s emerging social order could best be understood and organized, and heightened the enduring appeal of traditional value systems. The idea of sociability was crucial to both, or more accurately it was crucial because it allowed people to have it both ways, though this very elasticity inevitably created problems of its own. The fluid and contested nature of this changing discursive topography is dramatically foregrounded in the particular claims that were associated with some of the most popular attractions in the early 1780s, which I will turn to in the second half of this paper: the self-described “scientific” lectures of Gustavus Katterfelto, the unique mixture of sexual promise and social distraction offered by James Graham’s Temple of Health and Hymen, the performing wonders of the Learned Pig, and, perhaps most of all, the ballooning craze that caught hold of almost everyone’s imagination following the first flight ever in 1783 and the first flight in Britain the following year. As the intense mixed reaction to each of these examples makes clear, the extraordinary popularity of these attractions helped to unsettle the very forms of sociability that they seemed to promise.
Keen, P. (2017). Fashionable subjects: Exhibition culture and the limits of sociability. In Sociable Places: Locating Culture in Romantic-Period Britain (pp. 122–130). doi:10.1017/9781107587779.006