While at CRASSH, I will be beginning work on a new book project, which explores the stakes of simplicity as an object of social inquiry and literary representation in nineteenth-century France. Variously connoting political responsibility, moral integrity and stylistic prowess, simplicity has enjoyed historical primacy as an arbiter for social, ethical and aesthetic contact. How, I want to ask, do competing understandings of simplicity shape and engage political tensions within a community? And how do these tensions find symbolic expression in the cultural objects of that community? The nineteenth-century French context provides particularly rich terrain for thinking through these questions. More than a mere vehicle for ancien régime nostalgia, the term is ubiquitous in all spheres of nineteenth-century French society: in moral and spiritual life; in medical and scientific disciplines; in political discourse on the Left as on the Right; and in literary and artistic debates. Yet the century’s consistent investment in simplicity as an intellectual and aesthetic category – which remains, in many ways, our own – has rarely been examined. Informed by a faith the in value of cultural production for the history of ideas, my project will set narrative fiction in dialogue with insights from aesthetic theory, political sociology, philosophies of education, and cultural history. How, it asks, are discourses of simplicity embraced and weaponised to determine ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing? What motivates nineteenth-century authors’ fantasies of universal legibility? And why do we, as critics, so often feel the need to redeem them from the avowed pursuit of readability? What might this tell us about our own anxieties? In this way, my project looks to the literary culture of nineteenth-century France to ask wider questions bearing on the roles and responsibilities of the critic. In the context of a crisis in the humanities, accusations of jargon, pretension and needless abstraction continue to dog literary and cultural studies.
My CRASSH research will thus participate in broader conversations concerning the histories of resistance to, and defences of, difficulty and obscurity. What do we mean by ‘intellectual’ or ‘philosophical’, as distinct from ‘intuitive’ or ‘commonsensical’? What is the work of scholarship and how should we approach it? A more attentive critical focus on simplicity’s political and affective functioning, I want to argue, allows us to ask important questions not just of our objects of study, but of the character of analysis itself.
Rebecca Sugden is a College Lecturer (College Assistant Professor) in French at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. She completed her BA in Modern and Medieval Languages (2014), her MPhil in European and Comparative Literatures and Cultures (2015), and her PhD in French (2018) at the University of Cambridge. From 2018-20, she held a research fellowship at Gonville & Caius College. Her research centres on nineteenth-century French literature and culture, with a particular interest in the epistemological and affective stakes of narrative fiction. Rebecca’s doctoral research explored the interplay between conspiracy thinking and the nineteenth-century novel. More details about her research interests can be found on the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics website.