THE POLITICS OF PARODY: A LITERARY HISTORY OF CARICATURE 1760-1830 by David Francis Taylor, Reviewed by Brian Maidment
 

THE POLITICS OF PARODY: A LITERARY HISTORY OF CARICATURE 1760-1830
By David Francis Taylor
(Yale, 2018) xii + 304pp.
Reviewed by Brian Maidment on 2020-01-15.

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At one point in this original and sophisticated study of the "literariness" of caricature, David Taylor notes, with a nod to Bourdieu, that "something vitally important gets lost when we read pictures as nothing more or other than language"(43). Despite its presence as a formulation in everyday academic use, what does it actually mean to "read" the language of a graphic image? Is "reading" in this sense essentially the application of the processes and techniques of literary analysis to a graphic "text"? (For one recent answer to this question, see James Heffernan, "Reading Pictures"). "Reading" at any level of intensity invokes networks of allusion, a background of previous reading experiences, and a knowledge of grammatical and formal structures. Yet there is a sense in which an image can be read at a glance. The gap between reading and looking can be seen as a conflict between immediacy and allusion, between the simultaneity of visual communication and the necessarily sequential process of reading a text. By focussing on a graphic form that offers particular complexity not just because of its formal characteristics but also because of its cultural history, David Taylor's book offers a sophisticated gloss on what it means to read an image.

Taylor begins by defining the "literariness" of caricature. Besides noting how caricature draws on narratives, characters, and themes of literary texts to shape the representation and understanding of contemporary political events, he probes the kinds of cultural exchanges and negotiations that bring such allusiveness to bear. In particular, he highlights the textual history of literary works, and especially considers how historical circumstances cause them to be re-interpreted. To negotiate the "literary" meaning of a picture is to consider how textuality is represented within or around it, how it parodies or appropriates literary sources, and how it builds up a network of various representational practices and traditions drawn from other cultural discourses such as parliamentary speeches, newspaper reports and theatrical performance. Since "literary" picture-making is thereby both intermedial and formally complex, Taylor argues that caricature was an elite form widely unavailable to the mass public and profoundly undemocratic in its display of cultural capital.

Given Taylor's central arguments about the cultural reach and ambition of caricature, it is hardly surprising that his second chapter should focus on the locales and occasions in and through which graphic satire was read. While Taylor finds the consumption of caricature both sociable and communal, he questions the arguments of commentators such as Diana Donald and Ian Haywood, who have argued that graphic satire was a democratized, uncensored expression of popular indignation, mockery, and anti-establishment sentiment.

This debate about the availability and public understanding of caricature revolves around the status and function of the print shop window in late eighteenth century London. Yet while the print shop has dominated scholarly discussion of the social and political importance of caricature, it accounts for only a relatively limited number of prints--along with passing comments in literary and topographical texts. Underscoring this point, Taylor argues that print shops were gentrified not just by their increasingly prestigious locales but also by their culturally ambitious names and willingness to charge admission. Citing the famous print-smothered screens at Calke Abbey, Taylor finds the domestic viewing of caricature "a media event that served the imperatives of leisure and social lubrication" (41) for the wealthy classes.

Taylor makes two new and important arguments about eighteenth-century London print shops. On the one hand, by mocking proletarian gawping and instead courting genteel spectators ready to catch the allusive range and political significance of their caricatures, print shops reinforced a rigid social hierarchy. On the other hand, Taylor sees a shift in the 1820s towards images of social inclusiveness, of unity within diversity among the print-shop crowd, and he links this shift--from one kind of caricature to another-- to the differing political imperatives of their respective moments in British history.

In making these arguments about caricature, Taylor seconds recent scholarly accounts of the collective, domestic, and public ways in which printed texts were read in the late eighteenth century, most notably Abigail Williams's The Social Life of Books (2017). Although printed texts of every kind were much more widely accessible to the masses than caricature, the early chapters of Williams's book -- "Reading and Sociability," "Using Books," and "Access to Reading" -- anticipate Taylor's approach by defining "reading" as a sociable, communal, and domestic activity. Also, just as the many gawpers at print shop displays would have only a superficial grasp of what they were seeing, Williams acknowledges that many readers would have skimmed the surface of complex texts without ever striving for a full and nuanced reading. Nonetheless, Williams's claim that sociable consumption democratized print hardly chimes with Taylor's argument that the communal and public reading of caricature reinforced its exclusivity.

Having made his case for the literariness, exclusiveness, and intermediality of caricature, Taylor proceeds--in the second half of his book-- to scrutinize groups of satirical prints that evoke particular literary texts and modes: two Shakespeare plays (The Tempest and Macbeth), Paradise Lost, and Gulliver's Travels. He also considers how caricaturists represented Napoleon through tropes drawn from pantomime rather than from culturally ambitious literary texts. The relatively few caricatures of The Tempest, Taylor argues, are a form of "political theatre" (72) suggesting "the precariousness of political caricature's repeated negotiations between Shakespeare and topicality" (100). Between 1770 and 1830, Taylor shows, caricaturists used ideas of the island state allegorically, as a commentary on British anxiety about the effectiveness of the monarchy, the constitution, and territorial integrity. Unexpectedly, Taylor's chapter on Macbeth highlights ideas of comedy and the grotesque, and shows in particular how parodies of the weird sisters express "the ever-mobile political codings of a text" but also "apply critical pressure to its generic status" (105). While the witches are said to have signified "collective political action and intrigue" (106), they nonetheless challenged conventional political analogies to the theatre because their "buffoonish and transvestite figures" enacted "insincerity or even farce" (108).

Turning from Shakespeare to Milton, Taylor shows how much caricaturists re-conceived Paradise Lost in order to reach wider readerships. One strand of graphic and literary commentary, he argues, read Paradise Lost as a mock epic, a satirical commentary forming an "anti-Whig allegory that warns readers of the dangers of opposing the constitutional authority of the sovereign" (141). In this use of the mock epic form, Taylor finds further evidence of caricaturists' desire to chiefly gratify sophisticated readers. But in a second, even more complex group of prints by Gillray, Taylor detects part of a broader tendency in caricature to challenge the nature and boundaries of literary genres. Just as caricaturists treated Macbeth as a grotesque comedy rather than a tragedy, Taylor argues, Gillray not only exploited the ambiguities of the mock epic in caricatures drawn from Paradise Lost (see below), but also acknowledged its complex literary history and reputation in the one hundred and fifty years since its publication.

File:Sin-Death-and-the-Devil-Gillray.jpeg

James Gillray, Sin, Death, and the Devil. Vide Milton (London, 1792)

Taylor's chapter on caricatures drawn from Gulliver's Travels again foregrounds Gillray, especially his famous print, The King of Brobdingnag, and Gulliver. Examining in detail the commercial and political imperatives of using caricature as a form of anti-Bonaparte propaganda, Taylor shows how Gillray's print imbricated Swift's text into discourses about nationhood, offering "often bellicose fantasies of British consensus and indomitability" (183). After explaining how the sketches and ideas of amateur draughtsmen were translated into commercially issued caricatures, Taylor shows in detail how the textual history and formal properties of Gulliver's Travels gradually led to its being re-fashioned in various ways, ranging from an illustrated children's book to a political parable. By combining a complex take on its source text with a clear propagandist message, Taylor says, Gillray's caricature offered something "accessible to spectators across the broadest range of political literacies" (200). It also enticed other caricaturists into generating from Swift's text a wide range of anti-Bonaparte and invasion scare pictures that came to be known as "Gulliveriana."

In examining caricatures of Napoleon as Harlequin, Taylor's final chapter argues again that caricatures not only offered complex political commentary but also heavily participated in the formation and well-being of literary genres. According to Taylor, the Harlequin caricatures exemplify elite literary discourses and their encoding in traditional generic terms that he has identified elsewhere in his book. "In casting Napoleon as a figure of illegitimate theatricality," Taylor writes, caricaturists became warriors in "the assault on popular culture" (212). In their serious as well as playful management of the boundaries that define literary genres, we are told, the caricaturists of 1780-1830 refined the already complex political commentary of their prints by re-affirming the high cultural values of the British literary tradition. Taylor's account of such "literariness" is an original and thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of the complex cultural space occupied by Georgian graphic satire.

Building on the work of cultural historians like Dorothy George and Diana Donald, recent scholars of graphic satire, notably Ian Haywood and (for the later nineteenth century) Richard Scully, have shown how to analyze and deconstruct the freight of historical allusions and contemporary events carried, often in coded ways, by caricatures and cartoons. Whatever the immediate visual pleasures aroused by a satirical picture, these scholars have taught us to reject the glance in favor of the look. Looking, in this instance, is a process allied to "reading" and heavily dependent on a detailed knowledge of political history as well as the graphic vocabulary of comic art. What Taylor adds to our understanding of how to read caricature is literary history. In particular, he asks us to approach the remediations of canonical literary works through textual revision and stage performance as a form of political commentary. He argues, with convincingly detailed evidence, that caricaturists could graphically incorporate subtle and complex shifts in the collective understanding of theatrical and polemical texts, and that only the most engaged contemporary readers and viewers could decode such allusive depth and density. "To register caricature's literariness," Taylor writes, "is....... to insist that the rhetoric of much graphic satire of this time was neither entirely inclusive nor in any way immediate" (3). Throughout this book, to adapt a comment he makes on Shakespeare, Taylor treats forms of cultural production that are "located away from the crowd and within a fairly narrow space of cultural knowingness" (139).

Not everyone will accept this claim. To some extent it undermines the visual immediacy of caricature, which has always seemed to me central to its impact on the viewer. Nonetheless, Taylor's detailed and well informed transmedial approach to reading caricatures sheds new light on their value as historical evidence. This book also helps to show that caricatures are an important form of cultural capital that deserves increased attention from political, literary, and art historians.

Brian Maidment is Emeritus Professor of the History of Print at Liverpool John Moores University.


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