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Edmund Burke's Aesthetic Ideology: Language, Gender and Political Economy in Revolution.

The blurb proclaims this as a book for our times, enticing the would-be purchaser with an assurance that, 'Tom Furniss's close attention to the rhetorical labyrinths of [Burke's] texts is combined with an attempt to locate them within the larger discursive networks of the period'. In the Introduction Furniss sketches his theoretical position more fully insisting on the centrality of the 'texture and textile nature' of Burke's texts, and disclaiming any interest in what 'lies behind' these texts. In practice this commits Furniss to a close reading of (parts of) Burke's oeuvre, a rich contextualization of his thought and aesthetics, and a willingness to recognize that Burke's writings were located within and indeed against quite fundamental historical events. In so doing he addresses matters of real substance with some subtlety.

Furniss's central contention is that Burke's aesthetic categories, whilst informing his political thought, fail give it an underlying consistency. Indeed, Furniss argues, Burke's bourgeois aesthetics oscillate uneasily between legitimizing the aristocratic constitutional politics he ultimately avows and the democratic participatory politics he finds both vulgar and pernicious. Furniss finds this rhetorical and conceptual ambiguity lurking in Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Burke's understanding of the sublime is complex and competitive, emanating from the simultaneous sensation of terror and delight, and driven by 'sympathy, imitation, and ambition'. Here Furniss insists on Burke's belief that 'bourgeois processes of individuation are the only means by which social "progress" could occur'.

The political meaning of such a position was quite different in the context of the 1750s from that which it was to assume in the 1790s. In terms of its public sensibilities, the French Revolution was palpably bourgeois; its economics, at least in its commitment to paper money, were wholly consonant with commercial economic individualism. But here, of course, Burke perceived not 'terror and delight' but mere terror: the terror of a mass politics and a mass aesthetics. His solution, in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, Furniss suggests, was to stabilize the sublime by loading it 'with the ballast of aristocratic custom grounded in landed property'. Furniss is surely right to argue that, by the 1790s, Burke's ideological and political project consisted essentially in introducing commercial principles into an aristocratic, customary polity. In short, to deny any necessary connection between political economy and commerce on the one hand and a bourgeois politics on the other. As Furniss puts it, 'the strain in Burke's text is to accommodate new economics in old clothes'.

Furniss also offers an illuminating commentary on Burke's reading of the French Revolution. For Burke, Furniss argues, the Revolution was essentially the events of the 5-6 October 1789, hence the central rhetorical scene of the Reflections is his treatment of Marie Antoinette. Burke intended this as a challenge to Richard Price's defence of the Revolution and its principles. Furniss perceives the essential fragility of Burke's strategy. Ideas of the sublime, and thus a politics derived from the sublime, are constructed through theatre and rhetoric. Theatre plays differently to different audiences and rhetoric can be appropriated by others for other purposes. Moreover, as Paine was swift to point out, Burke's clothing this particular Queen in the sublime makes him (and his politics) seem ridiculous.

There is, then, much here to stimulate the critical reader. Furniss's study, as he willingly concedes, is principally preoccupied with Burke's two major texts. His conclusion remains defiantly in the realm of metaphor: 'In representing the British constitution as "firm ground", [Burke's] metaphor seems to naturalize a constitution biased towards the landed interest, whilst French experimentation, since 1783, with hot-air balloons, seems to justify figuring the Revolution as unproven aeronautics - to be admired, perhaps, but not imitated'. In fact, the British were swift to imitate French balloonists, and the first hot-air balloon, piloted by an Englishman, rose from the terrain of the landed interest, beside Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1784. It was, happily for Burke's rhetoric and Furniss's analysis, piloted by a local shopkeeper and wine merchant.

DAVID EASTWOOD University of Wales Swansea
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Author:Eastwood, David
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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