Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Reading Projects: Historical Schemes as Literary Artifacts


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What follows is a guest post by David Alff.

Last year I finished writing a book about projects. Not art projects or housing projects or chemistry projects, but the idea of projects itself. I wanted to learn how humans came to organize their lives and worlds through discrete endeavor. I wanted to understand how enterprise became such a widespread vehicle for ambition that we seldom notice its existence. What are projects anyway? Why are we always doing them? How else could we spend our time? These questions drove me to see the project as a distinct form with a traceable past rather than as a daunting abstraction or the container of something more salient. Studying projects on their own terms, I thought, would give me fresh vantage on the history of ideas. My book set out to reveal nothing less than the basic unit by which anything has ever been done.

Right. I was lost soon and hopelessly. Projects began to feel impervious, unlocatable, like fog everywhere and nowhere. What’s more, my seemingly-original topic revealed itself well-tread. Projects and projection famously anchor English translations of discourses ranging from Heideggerian ontology and Freudian psychoanalysis to Sartrean existentialism and Marxist definitions of value. Sometimes the self-conscious language of projects grows so wild in these texts that it gets in the way of their deliberations. Taking issue with Sartre, who celebrated projects as anything that “propels itself toward a future,” Georges Bataille described his Inner Experience as a “projet contre projet” (project against projects), a manifesto for “existence without delay” that ironically (and inevitably) took shape as a book project. Some clever friends joked that I too was undertaking a “project project,” claiming my work an instance of the thing it was trying to explain. Which of course it was. Their teasing and Bataille’s lament made clear that I needed to get out from under projects in order to see what made them tick.

This is where my training in an English Department helped. Literary studies finds meaning in the sight, sound, and order of words. It suggests that the biggest ideas in history – democracy, capitalism, sovereignty, property, history – are made of words, shared through words, recollected, legitimated, and contested through words. And these words obtain meaning through other words, the denotations, connotations, and syntactical patterns that enable language to carry thought. We can trace the formation and decomposition of ideas through the writing they left behind. This approach does not permit us to reduce all human events to text, or to forget that history happens to bodies that hunger, tire, and bleed outside of signification. Rather, literary studies at its best offers tools for gleaning ways of thought from rhetoric, for recovering what Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt call “the single voice, the isolated scandal, the idiosyncratic vision, the transient sketch” to penetrate the everydayness of the world and see things afresh. Reading with care and closeness is a good way to make strange what has gotten too familiar.

I wanted to give projects their own literary study by analyzing the documents that made them ubiquitous. Specifically, I began reading the proposals, plans, and blueprints that launched new schemes into the public sphere, the tracts that criticized these visions, and the poems, plays, and novels that thematized the promise and pitfalls of new enterprise. My goal was to identify the persuasive devices, narrative scaffolds, grammatical habits, and patterns of diction that made the project a distinct form of a writing, a recognizable rhetoric of forethought. My focus would be writings composed in Great Britain during the 1600 and 1700s, the period of history I know best, and the era during which projects assumed a central role in the making of Anglophone culture that they have not since relinquished. It was in these centuries, I argue, that projects also lapsed into given-ness, becoming an unquestioned, unnoticed social fixture at the time our enterprise-driven present got going.

My “project project” became less heady and more painstaking. I read hundreds and hundreds of self-proclaimed “project” proposals to wage war and diplomacy, to abolish religious tests and refine common etiquette, to build libraries and administer lotteries, to bolster maritime trade, cultivate wasteland, sanitize London, invent new goods, and conquer overseas territories. Wherever something could be done, it seemed, a proposal was there to light the way. Digging through print archives, manuscript collections, and electronic databases, I saw how these attempts to redirect British society drew complaints from those who preferred the status quo or (their own) competing schemes. “Project” in early modern Britain picked up connotations of deceit, hazard, and upheaval. New words were coined to get a better hold on projects and what they did: a “projector” (1596) was an author of projects, while “projection” (1611) and “projecting” (1616) signified the creation of new schemes. By the 1690s, Daniel Defoe could refer to his present as an “Age of Projects” for its rapid proliferation of chancy schemes.

Projectors had to become clever writers in this fraught environment, lest they be dismissed as conniving frauds or talentless blowhards. One of my favorite blowhards was Andrew Yarranton, a prolific inventor and ambitious careerist who used stories, maps, and hyperbole in his proposal, England’s Improvement by Sea and Land (1677), to claim that he could help the kingdom defeat the rival Dutch Republic “without fighting,” “pay debts without moneys,” “set at work all the poor,” “prevent unnecessary suits in law,” and achieve several other happy outcomes. Equally enthusiastic and fruitless was Aaron Hill, a poet and dramatist who started a company to sell the essence of beech tree seeds as a homegrown replacement for olive oil. Hill affixed sample seeds to an investor’s prospectus and wrote panegyric poetry to court the Earl of Oxford as a patron, dubbing him lord of “the oily Harvests.” Proposals like those by Yarranton and Hill were seldom belletristic masterpieces, though they employed conventions that we have come to associate with capital-‘L’ literature. They gratified the taste of culturally-literate readers to advance their arguments for making money and improving society. Their poetics of projection serviced but also exceeded their argumentative needs.

Treating proposals for beech oil, highway repair, and fen drainage as literary artifacts helped me appreciate the persuasive craft of projectors. But beyond their argumentative tactics, project writing seemed most to resemble literature to the extent that it created new worlds out of words, portraying possibility in order to spur readers to action. “A technological project is a fiction,” claims Bruno Latour, “since at the outset it does not exist, and there is no way it can exist yet because it is in the project phase.” As a discipline that knows its way around fiction, literary studies is well-suited to grasp the world of projects that hinges between an indicative present and a subjunctive future, hard facts and fleeting predictions, ideation and labor. In mapping this liminal space between the real and hypothetical, my study of projects asked how all authors use language to create belief, and how textual faith alone can alter our conditions of being.

Close reading and formal analysis helped me grasp the conceptually slippery project as a linguistic entity whose story I could discern and retell. But just because I used these methods to get at the project itself does not mean we should restrict projects to the rhetorical domain. To the contrary, projects invite study through the frameworks and sensibilities of numerous disciplines, including history, philosophy, anthropology, political science, industrial archaeology, and any other field vested in questions of how ideas come to exist and do things. I believe projects are so fundamental to the work of so many disciplines that they offer an opportunity to train our disparate analytical powers on a single object, compare our modes of claim-making and qualifications of knowledge, and learn what we can learn from one another about ourselves. This effort at interdisciplinarity would, of course, be its own project, one I hope that can use my book to learn from and think with.

Notes on the Contributor
David Alff is an Associate Professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo. His book The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture 1660-1730 was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2017.

 Edited by Alex King.

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