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Auctioning Tea, Extrapolating Swift and the Swansong of the Dutch Enlightenment. ISECS FINAL DAY

August 1, 2015

ISECS 2015

And so it ends.  ISECS 2015 is no more.  The closing ceremony has itself closed.  The flag has been lowered.  The torch has been passed to Edinburgh for ISECS 2019.  And with only 1461 days until the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies meets in Auld Reekie, the sense of mounting anticipation is palpable.

Of course, we had to take care of business first.  The day began with another committee meeting of international bigwigs in which our diplomatic skills were exercised so as to ensure the peace and tranquility of the world.  The eighteenth-century studies bits of the world at least.

And then we were released to enjoy some actual intellectual food.  I learned a deal about auctions in the eighteenth century.  Auctions (or “vendues”) in Pennsylvania and South Carolina as well as Danish and Swedish tea auctions – not to mention the ways in which house clearing auctions were advertised in the mid eighteenth-century in England.

Refreshed by our very last brown bag full of nutritious lunch compatible items, I’m upstairs listening to papers about new ways to imagine the biography of Jonathan Swift?  When does Swift’s “decline” begin?  Why do biographers start to accelerate things once they’ve got past Gulliver’s Travels?  Do they take Swift’s despairing letters to his English (but not his Irish) friends too seriously?  Are the biographers themselves just tired?  Why do they give such relatively short attention to the poems written between 1728 and 1736.  And how can we understand the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin in light of the legacy and influence of Jonathan Swift?  Why can’t we restore a bit more of Franklin’s English context – Franklin who, after all, spent more years living in London than Jonathan Swift did.

I almost forgot to attend the final plenary.  The sight of people drifting away from the conference was becoming very emotional and I was on the cusp of slipping away myself.  Had I done so I would have missed a superb concluding keynote lecture that explained the economic, political and cultural context for the real as well as perceived decline in the intellectual influence of the Netherlands in the later seventeenth century.  Paradoxically, agricultural improvements in the Netherlands weakened the proudly independent western urban centres at the expense of the more rural eastern half of the country. The growing centralising and military authority of the House of Orange didn’t help either.

So I learned something extra.  As always, my ignorance was partially alleviated so as to help me to map new vistas of hitherto unimagined ignorance.  And this is why I love conferences.

The sun was shining at last.  The weather was better than it had been all week as we all stumbled outside for the last time, divesting ourselves of conference badges and blinking in the daylight.


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