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Prospects of Decay: Reflecting on the Decadence of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France

Dec 01, 2023 | 02:00 PM s.t.

Workshop with Jessica Stacey (Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow, Freie Universität Berlin) and Alexander Wragge-Morley (Lancaster University)

Taste was immensely important to authors of the eighteenth century, comprising moral, aesthetic, political and increasingly also biological aspects. The matter of taste linked willed action (the cultivation of taste) and involuntary processes (whether biological or historical). The discourses on taste and its impending decay in eighteenth-century Britain and France thus constitute a broad field of knowledge transfer. In a first step, we will deal with the physical mechanisms supposedly at stake in the cultivation of taste by examining the medical discussions about the effects of consumption on the body. There was widespread fear in eighteenth-century Britain that the new social and individual patterns of consumption would lead to the corruption of taste. In fact, new forms of consumption ¬– whether of food or of the arts – were thought to change the very fabric of the body. Moral debates about the exercise of the will in relation to taste and consumption were thus formulated as medical questions.

The notion of consumption was also deployed metaphorically to contest good taste, good poetry, and the normative role of the poet within a given historical and national context – as in André Chénier’s reworked Classicist image of the modern poet making “new honey” from “ancient flowers”, or his depiction of the poet-prophet “digesting” observations of his time and transforming them into art. The second part of the workshop will examine how French poets, editors and encycplopédistes reused and reworked such metaphors, including depictions of the post-Classical languages as corroded artefacts, corrupted and corrupting, or as young plants or wild animals to be cultivated or tamed. Recurring images served diverse arguments regarding the role of tradition and invention in the defence of taste and morality, and the warding-off of decadence in these twin domains.

The question of taste will finally be contextualised within the debates of the “concours académique”, that is the prize contests of the French academies, which in the eighteenth century reached a broad and diverse audience. Here, matters of taste and the social and moral implications of its decay also played an important part. By turning to the debates on decadence and its characteristic metaphors within the popular medium of the prize competitions we seek to gain further insights into the knowledge transfer connected with this particular discourse in eighteenth-century France.


Anita Traninger (Institut für Romanische Philologie/SFB 980)

Alexander Wragge-Morley (Department of History, Lancaster University)
Taste, Habit, and Degeneration in 18th-Century Britain

Coffee break

Jessica Stacey (Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow, Institut für Romanische Philologie)
Can rusty language be poetic language? Some metaphors for the writer’s medium and craft

Martin Urmann (SFB 980)
The discourse on the decadence of taste in the
concours académique (1720–1760)

Final discussion

Time & Location

Dec 01, 2023 | 02:00 PM s.t.

Collaborative Research Center “Episteme in Motion”, conference room
Freie Universität Berlin
Schwendenerstraße 8
Conference room

Further Information

Please register with: martin.urmann@fu-berlin.de