One hallmark of much recent literary and cultural criticism is its rigorous
attention to historical "discourses" and their intersections. This
approach has led to the production of an exciting and important body of
work, but these gains have been purchased at what I consider a severe price:
(at least rhetorical) attribution of creative agency to abstractions such as "ecriture," "culture" or "epistemes" and the corollary denial of the significance of individual "authors" or "minds."
Recent developments in cognitive rhetoric, such as the theory of conceptual
blending being elaborated by Mark Turner and others, have the potential
to remedy this situation. In blending, structures from two or more
existing mental spaces are selectively projected into a blended space,
which develops its own emergent structure and logic. This theory
has been developed largely through the study of literary texts, which Turner
treats as a "laboratory" for the investigation of universal human cognitive
capacities. My interest in cognitive rhetoric lies in a different yet
complementary direction: in its use as a framework for the analysis of specific historical discourses.
I illustrate the practical efficacy of this approach by using it to
explain the prohibition against the display of prices at the Great Exhibition
(1851). Several recent critics have treated this prohibition as one
facet of the mystification of production characteristic of commodity culture.
I argue that it may be understood more specifically as a consequence of
an extensive theoretical discourse on industrial design, predicated on
a conceptual blend between ideas of art and manufactures, dating back to
the mid-eighteenth century. The blend "Art Manufactures" (a term
in wide circulation in the years immediately preceding the Exhibition)
reinforced evaluative criteria appropriate to both art and manufactures,
such as quality of workmanship, and suppressed criteria pertinent to manufactures
alone, such as price.
Joseph Bizup is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Yale University.