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Saying Things: Collecting Conflicts in Eighteenth-Century Object Literatures

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Abstract

The British literature of the long eighteenth century, from 1660 to 1820, represents objects as sites of complex meanings. In recording the changing culture of collecting, the various, “factual” literatures of collection – collecting catalogs, museum guides, and advertisements – present things paradoxically both as physically real objects, and as transcendent representations of identity and idea. They negotiate this paradox by descriptive and organizational modes that translate material culture into a literary theme, structure, and technique. These narratives thus embrace divergent registers of meaning: history, myth, science, religion, and personal and social valuation. This narrative practice of juxtaposing or collapsing contrary meanings informs the self-consciously “literary” devices of antithesis and of authentication by means of provenance in eighteenth-century literature.

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