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Aestheticization of Life and Cosmopolitan Modernity: The Poetics of Elegance in the Long 19th Century

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PoetEleg (Aestheticization of Life and Cosmopolitan Modernity: The Poetics of Elegance in the Long 19th Century)

Reporting period: 2016-03-01 to 2018-02-28

By the 18th century, social origin had begun to lose its determinant power in the social order in European societies. New forms of elites rose to elevated positions; they included not only people of noble birth, but also the nouveaux riches and those who had acquired high social status through meritorious service. In response, ‘soft’ social markers such as ‘taste’, ‘politeness’ and ‘modishness’ began to play a significant role in defining the boundaries of elite social groups, which increasingly became imaginary communities. In the 19th century, these kinds of socio-cultural attributes turned into widely accepted prerequisites to social life as markers of people belonging to the ‘beau monde’ or ‘fashionable society’ in particular. Alongside such social imaginaries of a modern urban culture, a new phenomenon emerged that can be characterized using the term ‘elegance’. Aiming at an intensification of life through aestheticization, the pursuit of elegance combined aesthetics with social issues. The research project ‘Aestheticization of Life and Cosmopolitan Modernity: The Poetics of Elegance in the Long 19th Century’ explored the cultural and historical developments which transformed the classical rhetorical rule of elegantia (i.e. how to speak and write elegantly) into one of the central cultural practices of modernity (i.e. how to live an elegant lifestyle).

While mapping out the European topography of the ‘elegant world’, the project investigated the following research questions: 1) What specific cultural scenarios of the ‘elegant lifestyle’ were developed, implemented, or rejected in the interaction between the metropolises London, Paris, St Petersburg and the aspiring European cities such as Vienna, Leipzig, Prague, and Budapest? 2) What was the role of print media in disseminating specific patterns of cosmopolitan modernity and practices of aestheticization? 3) How did representations of urban ‘elegant lifestyle’, in particular literary sketches and reports on cultural and social life, contribute to the spread of transnational socio-aesthetic models? 4) How did adverts and prints in cultural journals and newspapers intensify the cross-border dissemination of the material culture of the ‘elegant world’? 5) To what extent did these images of elegant urbanity pre-shape cultural behaviour and define the sense of social belonging? And finally: 6) More broadly, how did specific scenarios of elegance redefine the elite, re-shape the social structure, and respond to historical events?
The project included three work areas based on the overall research objectives and the purpose of the funding programme. These objectives were successfully carried out using the work plan developed in the proposal.
1) A fundamental part of the project work consisted of collecting and assessing historical sources on the discourse of ‘elegance’. In order to reconstruct the meanings and uses of the term, large quantities of texts in Russian, German, French, and English were analysed. In addition, European collections (including in London, Munich, St Petersburg, and Vienna) were visited in order to examine objects of print and material culture in their holdings. On the basis of this source material individual case studies were carried out in order to illustrate key moments in the semantic development of the concept and illuminate its socio-cultural transformations. Select case studies are being incorporated into a book-length study on the poetics of elegance.
One spin-off study on the semantics of elegance that addresses the tensions between the national traditions and transnational challenges in the field of literary criticism has been accepted for publication. Additional completed case studies explore the media, cultural practices and social spaces of elegance, focusing in particular on cultural journals, leisure culture, salon music, sociability and the circulation of news. In total, eight articles and book chapters (including one contribution to an exhibition catalogue and one book review) were completed and four of them have already been published by the end of the project.
2) Dissemination activities and active networking built the second core work area of the project. A website was developed shortly after the start of the project; it outlines the project’s objectives, provides information about current and past events, lists the publications that emerged from the research, and includes access to selected sources in digital form. The homepage will continue to be updated after the conclusion of the project.
The information disseminated about the project and its activities was intended for both the scholarly community and the general public. In order to increase the visibility of the undertaking, the Fellow participated in multiple international conferences and workshops and gave papers and public talks in the UK, Germany, Austria, and Russia. She organized a public lecture series in London entitled ‘Urban and Elegant: The Aesthetics of Living in the Modern European City’ featuring guest speakers from Moscow, Berlin, and Vienna. Together with the project supervisor she convened an international conference ‘European Elites and Revolutionary Change: 1789 – 1848 – 1917. The Aftermath’ which focused on the dynamics of the social and cultural changes that accompanied three major revolutionary events of the modern era. All of these events were advertised locally and internationally using printed flyers, online portals (H-Soz-Kult, Eventbrite, etc.), and social media outlets.
3) The third core work area consisted of professional training. The Fellow received excellent training-through-research in the new academic environment in both London and Vienna during the secondment. She attended courses given by the Centre for Academic and Professional Development at QMUL and gained new expertise in research and project management at one of the UK’s leading universities. Thus, she acquired new administrative skills and enhanced her international profile.
The project directly addressed the challenges of a new interdisciplinary historiography of the 19th century. The importance of ‘elegance’ as a discursive and social practice for the constitution of identities and social groups has not yet been adequately conceptualized, even less so on a transnational level. Assuming a global perspective, the research operated with a concept of shared European culture that includes the Eastern regions and Russia. The cosmopolitan character of the historical phenomenon of elegance is defined by the dialectic between Europeanization and the nation state. The same problematic tension shapes the concept of Europe as an imagined society today, which is increasingly criticized as a project of the elite. In analysing the media and aesthetic strategies in the social context of elite changes in the formative period of the modern era, the project described several distinctive cultural representations and practices that continue to shape the cultural memory of European societies today. In so doing, the project as a whole contributes to recognizing the various manifestations of this shared imaginary background and thus facilitates a better understanding of the current socio-cultural formations that characterize Europe.
European Elegant Journals of the 19th Century