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Systems Failure

The Uses of Disorder in English Literature

Andrew Franta

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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…

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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Systems Failure

Andrew Franta

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Reviews

Franta tells an accurate and important story about how impossibility, unintelligibility, unpredictability, and disorder inform both narrative and style in the latter half of the long eighteenth century... Each chapter of Systems Failure offers a worthy contribution to the criticism of its respective subject, and the book might be especially useful to students and scholars of the Romantic and Victorian eras seeking an entry point into the eighteenth century.

By viewing characters as products of systems, Franta is able to show how the literature of this period contributed to "the idea that society has a structure," paving the way for the development of disciplinary sociology in the nineteenth century. As its title suggests, Systems Failure is a work whose strength lies in its author's ability to handle polarizing abstractions with nuanced attention.

Systems Failure is a profoundly 'human,' humanist book, attentive to explorations of failure, the contours of complex events, and the inevitable mismatch of things to ideas. And it belongs therefore on the shelf of anyone interested in the recent return to the Enlightenment not as a moment of triumphant system-building, but as a moment of encounter with difference, complexity, and the limitations of human knowledge.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction. Unconscionable Maps
Chapter 1. Life without Theory in the Life of Savage
Chapter 2. Sterne and the Uses of Disorder
Chapter 3. From Map to Network in Humphry Clinker
Chapter 4

Acknowledgments
Introduction. Unconscionable Maps
Chapter 1. Life without Theory in the Life of Savage
Chapter 2. Sterne and the Uses of Disorder
Chapter 3. From Map to Network in Humphry Clinker
Chapter 4. Godwin's Handshake
Chapter 5. Jane Austen and the Morphology of the Marriage Plot
Chapter 6. De Quincey's Systems
Coda. The Strange System of Human Society
Notes
Index

Author Bio
Andrew Franta
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Andrew Franta

Andrew Franta is an associate professor of English at the University of Utah. He is the author of Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public.