The Wreckage of Intentions
Projects in British Culture, 166-173University of Pennsylvania Press Alembics: Penn Studies in Literature and Science
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Britain saw the proposal of so many endeavors called "projects"—a catchphrase for the daring, sometimes dangerous practice of shaping the future—that Daniel Defoe dubbed his era a "Projecting Age." These ideas spanned a wide variety of scientific, technological, and intellectual interventions intended for the betterment of England. But for all the fanfare surrounding them, few such schemes actually materialized, leaving scores of defunct visions, from Defoe's own attempt to farm cats for perfume, to Mary Astell's proposal to charter a college for women, to countless ventures for improving land, streamlining government, and inventing new consumer goods. Taken together, these failed plans form a compelling alternative history of a Britain that might have been.
The Wreckage of Intentions offers a comprehensive and critical account of projects, exploring the historical memory surrounding these concrete yet incomplete efforts to advance British society during a period defined by revolutions in finance and agriculture, the rise of experimental science, and the establishment of constitutional monarchy. Using methods of literary analysis, David Alff shows how projects began as written proposals, circulated as print objects, spurred physical undertakings, and provoked responses in the realms of poetry, fiction, and drama. Mapping this process discloses the ways in which eighteenth-century authors applied their faculties of imagination to achieve finite goals and, in so doing, devised new ways of seeing the world through its future potential. Approaching old projects through the language, landscapes, data, and personas they left behind, Alff contends this vision was, and remains, vital to the functions of statecraft, commerce, science, religion, and literature.
Introduction. What Is a Project?
Chapter 1. Improvement's Genre: Andrew Yarranton and the Rhetoric of Projection
Chapter 2. Company in Paper: Aaron Hill's Beech Oil Bust
Chapter 3. Projects Beyond Words: Undertaking Fen Drainage
Chapter 4. Inheriting the Future: Georgic's Projecting Strain
Chapter 5. Swift's Solar Gourds and the Antiproject Tradition
Coda. Imaginary Debris in Defoe's New Forest
"In his fine new book, [Alff] recovers a rich history of social, economic and agricultural improvement ventures . . . There was a time when this sort of book would have arrived at bleak conclusions about technocratic control and domination. Alff, in contrast, prefers to dwell on possibility . . . Most projects fail, but some succeed, and a portion of the successes are utterly disastrous for the Earth and human well-being. David Alff rebalances the scales, but academic debate, itself an abiding project will surely continue."—Times Literary Supplement
"[A] superb first book . . . The combination of superb close reading and impressive scholarly research, of historical depth and literary power, features in every elegant and gripping chapter . . . Wreckage of Intentions makes a compelling argument about the power of paying attention to the debris of the past, of the might-have-beens before they were killed off. The Wreckage of Intentions makes us question the historical ground we're standing on."—Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
"Elegantly organized and incisive in its analysis, The Wreckage of Intentions opens up the narrative cage that our stories of progress and modernization have locked us into. David Alff's close reading of tracts, pamphlets, and treatises that propose various improvements, from insurance to agriculture, enables us to understand the ways in which future possibility and change were imagined in early modern Britain."—Wolfram Schmidgen, Washington University in St. Louis