Undressing nature: the uncertain enlightenment and the hermeneutic ontology of the novel
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_Undressing Nature_ argues that in some of the writing produced by pioneers working in new literary generic forms at the end of the Early Modern period, the characteristics of irony, self-reflexive discourse, and the consistent examination of the fictional in relation to the real function narratively and culturally to undermine the empiricist project of totalizing knowledge that prescribed the field of natural philosophy during the Enlightenment. These characteristics, which came to be identified with the genre of the novel in subsequent centuries, refuse the determination of perfect or exact meaning within systems of signification, and they excavate the Enlightenment subject from Cartesian epistemological interiority. As they contemplated divisions between the external material world and the inner thinking mind, some Early Modern figures relied on the rhetorical tradition of figuring words or expression as the dress or clothing that brings forth human thought or nature into the world of interaction and communication. Because of the philosophical position of language or dress in between the universal and the particular, these metaphors provide fascinating examples of the philosophical nexus between literature, culture, and philosophy. By approaching the task of interpreting both words and the world with skepticism, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, and Henry Fielding scrutinized the ideological infrastructures of Enlightenment thought and reformulated contemporary understandings of knowing and being. Their ironic discourse interrogated the concept of the stable self, and in the process of doing so, these authors tested out, examined, and developed a discursive structure for meaning and interpretation that relied on the subject’s position in a networked system of identification. In such a system, being and identity are contingent upon the subject’s relationship not only with other subjects but also with material objects in the world like books and clothes. The externalizing of subjectivity removes the self from the Cartesian binary of mind and body and implicates the subject in relation to others such that identity and meaning are understood in an hermeneutic network of ontological signification. Undressing Nature argues that the discursive structure of the novel provides a venue in which theorizers of uncertainty and indeterminacy during the Enlightenment produced narratives that exhibit and reconstruct that hermeneutic ontology.