Theses Doctoral

Collecting Knowledge, Writing the World: An Enlightenment Project

Abele, Celia

My dissertation examines the relationship between collecting knowledge and writing the world, taking two central figures of the Enlightenment as its starting point, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and Denis Diderot (1713-84). Employing the disciplinary frameworks and methods of early modern history of science and literary studies, I analyze practices of knowledge collection in their two respective “Enlightenment projects,” arguing for the centrality of knowledge and scientific practices in the constitution of the category of literature, especially realist prose writing. I show this, firstly, by examining Rousseau’s large extant collections of pressed plants, the product of his passion for botany in his final years, which he inserted into a late practice of writing and philosophizing the self as promeneur solitaire. Secondly, I demonstrate that the Encyclopédie (1751-72), Diderot’s massive compendium of all knowledge of the arts, sciences, and crafts, was developing an intermediate register of style and representation of knowledge. I focus on the middling status of chemistry and engraving, and discuss the image of the homme de lettres crossing the thresholds of artisans’ workshops to argue that the Encyclopédie generates a mode of representation of the variety of socio-economic life that is an origin point for nineteenth-century realism. These two models, the promeneur solitaire and the homme de lettres, re-emerge in the second half of my project in two later case studies of practices of knowledge collection and writing the world, Émile Zola’s novel series chronicling Second Empire France, the Rougon-Macquart (1871-93) and W.G. Sebald’s (1944-2001) literary-historiographical writings. These examples serve to make a broader argument about how knowledge collection has continued to be central to the category of literature. The jump forward in time necessitated by such a claim is accomplished via a “grammar of juxtaposition” across time and place, outlined in my introduction, which takes as its basis Sebald’s literary practice of bringing together fragments and moments of the past. I show how the extensive notes or dossiers préparatoires that are the extant evidence of Zola’s practice of collecting knowledge via “scientific,” on-the-ground research, conducted on battlefields, in department stores, mines, and food markets were a weapon in his campaign for getting a new kind of socially engaged novel accepted by the literary institution. My final chapter turns back to Sebald to argue that his texts, which juxtapose instances of knowledge collection assembled by a walking historian of nature and human civilization, are a framework for a history of knowledge collection within a broad concept of the Enlightenment.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Stalnaker, Joanna R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 8, 2020


Keywords: Herbaria, Encyclopedias and dictionaries, Reveries du promeneur solitaire (Rousseau, Jean-Jacques), Encyclopédie (Diderot, Denis), Rougon-Macquart (Zola, Émile), Ringe des Saturn (Sebald, W. G.)