Conference Report: Dissecting Society. Periodical Literature and Social Observation (1830-1850)

Christiane Schwab's picture
(by Christiane Schwab & Ana Peñas Ruiz)

On the 20th of March 2015 the Center for International Research in the Humanities and the Social Sciences (CIRHUS, New York University) welcomed scholars from various disciplines to explore the connections between 19th-century periodical literature and the refinement of social observation. Between 1830 and 1850, literary pieces on cultural manners, social types and societal developments experienced major success in Europe and beyond. These “panoramic” (W. Benjamin) or “protosociological” (M. Lauster) sketches, published in magazines and journals, assembled an extensive array of ethnographic descriptions of urban and rural environments. Many of these writings appeared later in compilations with holistic aspirations, such as Paris, ou le Livre des Cent-et-un (1831-1834), Heads of the People; or, Portraits of the English (1838-1841) or Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (1839-1842). Even though there has been a considerable amount of studies about sociographic literature in terms of literary criticism, its alliances with the emerging humanities and social sciences has rarely been studied. The workshop, organized by CHRISTIANE SCHWAB (Humboldt University Berlin/CIRHUS) and ANA PEÑAS RUIZ (Madrid Open University), aimed to stimulate an interdisciplinary and transcultural discussion to reconsider this literary corpus vis-à-vis the emergence of the social sciences.

The first panel examined how social life was typecasted, classified, and represented in panoramic literature as well as the social positions and epistemic preconditions of the observing writers. JEAN SAMUEL BORDREUIL (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) analyzed the function of the city as a heuristic context of social observation. JUDITH LYON-CAEN (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) explored the “social” uses of panoramic literature and its protosociological strength by questioning the ways of reading of these descriptions of social life; while historians have tended to approach them as “serious” historical documents, literary scholars have usually interpreted them as ironical and self-reflexive works. DANIEL MUÑOZ-SEMPERE (King’s College London) tackled the function of the pseudonyms as filters or masks for the observers and the connections of panoramic writings to occidental traditions of satire. DORDE CUVARDIC GARCÍA (Universidad de Costa Rica) studied how the sketches construct temporality, focusing on different representations of the evening hours in a broad and multilinguistic sample of writings. Finally, CHARLOTTE K. ROSE (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey) closed this first session with a reflection on the reprintings of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poetry in London, recreating the transatlantic dialogues that existed between American fiction and Victorian presses.

The following panel addressed the scientific or protosociological techniques and rhetorics that sketch writers and editors employed to represent national entities and how these methods were adapted within different national and political contexts. PATRICIA MAINARDI (City University of New York) revealed the cross-channel exchanges deployed between London and Paris with regard to  the production of social types under the guise of literary physiologies and, more specifically, the mutual plagiarization of the genre in these two countries, as well as the role of this kind of texts and images in the context of nation building. MARY L. COFFEY (Pomona College) analyzed several Peninsular Spanish costumbrista collections in order to explore what she called “transatlantic costumbrismo”. By comparing the differences in Spanish, Cuban and Mexican panoramic collections, Coffey proved that these writings did not only articulate a specific national project through the portrayal of social types but also created a particular way of distinguish Mexican and Cuban national identities from Spain’s empire. Furthermore, she argued that these works cast out a special perspective on feminine social types that has to be considered when the role of gender in national identity formation comes to the forefront. LEONOOR KUJIK (University of Ghent) presented several Belgian and Dutch sketch series both as products of cross-cultural transfers and as catalysts of nation-building processes, and MEY-YEN MORIUCHI (La Salle University) discussed how visual and verbal sketches were involved in the making of a postcolonial identity in 19th -century Mexico.

The papers of the third panel explored sociographic periodical writings as hybrids of interlocking genres and intellectual regimes. Examining literary representations of the Colombian tobacco industry from a global perspective, FELIPE MARTÍNEZ-PINZÓN (City University of New York) showed how social types and products of a transnational economy were marked as national objects and how these representations served to legitimize economical and political structures. KARI SORIANO SALKJELSVIK (University of Bergen) drew attention to the political engagements of editors and writers, based on a selection of texts from El museo mexicano (1843-1845) as a critical response to liberal politics in contemporary Mexico. CORDULA REICHART (Ludwig Maximilian University) pointed in her analysis of Le Colonel Chabert (1832) to the rhetoric strategies Honoré de Balzac applied to bypass censorship, and she further examined how motifs of European painting were transferred to verbal representations of changing orders. The last contribution within this panel dealt likewise with the transmission of motifs across genres and communication systems: DAVID KURNICK (Rutgers) showed how eroticism and gender were adapted as key topics of social observation and critique by different literary genres and political debates in 19th-century Spain.

The workshop’s primary goal was to give a first impetus towards interdisciplinary and transnational research on the connections between sociographic periodical literature and the emerging social sciences. This report offers only a glimpse into the diversity of issues that were raised. Instead of coming to conclusions, it seems more appropriate to present the questions and research perspectives that were brought up during the workshop and the final debate. First, there was an agreement on the problematical absence of a generally applied critical concept to demarcate sociographic/panoramic/protosociological/moralistic periodical literature, particularly in a transcultural perspective. The writings’ faithfulness was a frequently debated issue. One hint to evaluate this category in the sketches  might be the examination of contradictory or affirmative relationships between verbal and visual narratives; however, the textual diversity of the sketches and collections obliges to study each case separately. Another thoroughly discussed topic was the diverse connections between sociographic literature and the making of national identities on different levels (politics, education, economy, arts, etc.). Since the workshop had brought together scholars working on different national literatures, it facilitated valuable comparison between various contexts of nation-building and different political and social functions of literature. Overall, the discussions during the seminar revealed that the interdependencies between 19th Century periodical sociographic literature and the consolidating social sciences are widely underappreciated by literary scholars, and even more by social scientists. This was demonstrated by the fact that, out of the fifteen panelists, only three were representatives of the social sciences. We conclude this report with the frequently voiced claim that the communication between researchers from different disciplines and geographical backgrounds must be increased to cope with the epistemic and cultural complexity of sociographic periodical literature.


Workshop Program


Christiane Schwab (Humboldt University/CIRHUS) & Ana Peñas Ruiz (Madrid Open University):

Dissecting Society: Periodical Literature and Social Observation


Panel 1: Strategies, Objects and Voices of Observation

Moderator: Kari Soriano Salkjelsvik

Jean Samuel Bordreuil (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique): Paris, 1830-1850: The emergence of a new political economy of gaze

Judith Lyon-Caen (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales): Serious readings of a un-serious literature

Daniel Muñoz Sempere (King’s College London): The urban observer and his masks: Masquerades in Mariano Jose de Larra’s artículos

Dorde Cuvardic García (Universidad de Costa Rica): The Topic of the Evening Hours in European and Latin American costumbrista Writing

Charlotte K. Rose (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey): Poe in Britain: Transatlantic Connections, Markets and Genres



Panel 2: The Construction of Social Bodies

Moderator: Felipe Martínez-Pinzón

Patricia Mainardi (CUNY): Everyone Depicted by Everyone Else: Cross-Channel Exchanges

Mary L. Coffey (Pomona College): Transatlantic costumbrismo: Portraits of Empire

Leonoor Kuijk (University of Ghent): Panoramic Literature in the Low Countries

Mey-Yen Moriuchi (La Salle University): From ‘Les types populaires’ to ‘Los tipos populares’: Nineteenth-Century Mexican Costumbrismo



Panel 3: Entangled Discourses: Politics, Aesthetics, Social Criticism

Moderator: Jean Samuel Bordreuil

Felipe Martínez-Pinzón (CUNY): Cuadro de costumbres as pedagogy: Nation as Civilization in the mid-19th century Colombian Tobacco Boom

Kari Soriano Salkjelsvik (University of Bergen): Social observation and ideology in Mid-Nineteenth Century Mexico: El Museo mexicano (1843-1845)

Cordula Reichart (Ludwig-Maximilian-University): Imagery and social critique in Honoré de Balzac’s Le Colonel Chabert (1832)

David Kurnick (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey): The Erotics of Large Numbers: Social Observation, Sex, and the Novel


Discussion & State of Research Survey