Mechanical operations of the spirit : the Protestant object in Swift and Defoe
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This study revises a dominant narrative of the eighteenth-century, in which a secular modernity emerges in opposition to religious belief. It argues that a major challenge for writers such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, and for English subjects generally, was to grasp the object world--including the modern technological object--in terms of its spiritual potential. I identify disputes around the liturgy and common prayer as a source of a folk psychology concerning mental habits conditioned by everyday interactions with devotional and cultural objects. Swift and Defoe therefore confront even paradigmatically modern forms (from trade items to scientific techniques) as a spiritual ecology, a network of new possibilities for practical piety and familiar forms of mental-spiritual illness. Texts like A Tale of a tub (1704) and Robinson Crusoe (1719) renew Reformation ideals for the laity by evaluating technologies for governing a nation of souls. Swift and Defoe's Protestantism thus appears as an active guide to understanding emotions and new experience rather than a static body of doctrine. Current historiography neglects the early modern sense that sectarian objects and rituals not only discipline religious subjects, but also provoke ambivalence and anxiety: Swift's Tale diagnoses Catholic knavery and Puritan hypocrisy as neurotic attempts to extract pleasure from immiserating styles of material praxis. Crusoe, addressed to more radical believers in spaces of trade, sees competent spiritual, scientific and commercial practice on the same plane, as techniques for overcoming fetishistic desires. Swift's orthodoxy of enforced moderation and Defoe's oddly worldly piety represent likeminded formulae for psychic reform, and not--as often alleged--conflicts between sincere belief and political or commercial interests. Gulliver's travels (1726) and A Journal of the plague year (1722) also link mind and governance through different visions of Protestant polity. Swift sees alienation from the national church--figured by a Crusoe or Gulliver--as refusal of common sense and problem solving. Defoe points to religious schism, exemplified by dissenters' exclusion from state church statistics, as a moral and medical failure: the city risks creating selfish citizens who also may overlook data needed to combat the plague.