In the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant asked, “What is Enlightenment?”
UCSB English Professor William Warner, and Clifford Siskin, professor of English and American literature at New York University, answer Kant’s query in a book aptly titled This is Enlightenment.
The book, which Warner and Siskin edited, posits that Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation, according to a press release in which Warner claims four primary concepts can shift mediation. They are infrastructure such as the postal system, roads, and coffee houses; voluntary association or clubs where people discussed ideas; new genres like newspapers, encyclopedias, and academic journals; and protocols, defined by Warner as modes of communication that embed certain values.
Such advanced communication between people “resulted in new knowledge that changed the world,” according to Warner. He argues that “extensions of enlightenment practices of getting people to together” resulted in movements such as anti-slavery and women’s suffrage.
The book also claims that the relevance of this theory extends to today. “We’re heirs to the Enlightenment,” Warner wrote, “when it comes to the ideals of equality and access to information.” To him, 21st century “mutation” in digital technology is analogous to 18th century changes in the postal system and printed materials; people in both generations must wrestle with the issues that new technology brings. Three centuries ago, Warner noted, “Novel reading was thought of as dangerous and explicit, just as some television shows and video games are today.”