How eighteenth-century writers stretched systems designed to explain social relations to their breaking point, showing the flaws in their design.
The Enlightenment has long been understood—and often understood itself—as an age of systems. In 1759, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, one of the architects of the Encyclopédie, claimed that "the true system of the world has been recognized, developed, and perfected." In Systems Failure, Andrew Franta challenges this view by exploring the fascination with failure and obsession with unpredictable social forces in a range of English authors from Samuel Johnson to Jane Austen.
Franta argues that attempts to extend the Enlightenment's systematic spirit to the social world prompted many prominent authors to reject the idea that knowledge is synonymous with system. In readings of texts ranging from novels by Sterne, Smollett, Godwin, and Austen to Johnson's literary biographies and De Quincey's periodical essays, Franta shows how writers repeatedly take up civil and cultural institutions designed to rationalize society only to reveal the weaknesses that inevitably undermine their organizational and explanatory power.
Diverging from influential accounts of the rise of the novel, Systems Failure audaciously reveals that, in addition to representing individual experience and social reality, the novel was also a vehicle for thinking about how the social world resists attempts to explain or comprehend it. Franta contends that to appreciate the power of systems in the literature of the long eighteenth century, we must pay attention to how often they fail—and how many of them are created for the express purpose of failing. In this unraveling, literature arrives at its most penetrating insights about the structure of social life.
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