Kevin Binfield, ed, Writings of the Luddites

Kevin Binfield, ed, Writings of the Luddites (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2015) xxviii + 279pp. $29.95 Pb, $55.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780801876127

The 2015 paperback edition of this 2004 collection testifies to the fascinations of Luddism - and to Writings of the Luddites’s continuing appeal and utility.  It is the first collection of texts written by the Luddites themselves, but it also provides ample introductory and editorial information to make those texts thoroughly intelligible.  Although Kevin Binfield, an Associate Professor of English at Murray State University, is listed as the editor on the cover, at least half the contents of the book are written by him.  Binfield aims to allow the Luddites to speak for themselves by making their texts easily available.  His editorial material argues that ‘Luddite writing takes its shape from the discursive contexts of the different regions and the rhetorical needs of the movement’s writers’ (6).

The book is divided into a number of sections.  After a foreword by leading scholar of Luddism Adrian Randall, a preface by Binfield, and a ‘Note on Texts and Criticism’, Binfield’s 69-page ‘Introduction’ familiarises readers with Luddism as a historical phenomenon, with scholarship on Luddism, with the Luddites as writers, and with Binfield’s argument.  He then outlines regionally and culturally specific Midlands, Northwestern, and Yorkshire Luddisms, particularly the ‘discursive features’ (18) of Luddite rhetoric and the meaning of the eponym ‘Ludd’ in each region. Skilfully balancing essential detail with a larger narrative about Luddism, this introduction is foundational and accessible for the reader unfamiliar with Luddism, but nuanced enough to interest the expert.

With a framework established for reading Luddite texts, Binfield moves on to their collection.  The anthology is divided between the three regions, although Midlands Luddism has significantly more pages than Northwestern or Yorkshire Luddism.  Of the 130 pages of collected texts, nearly half are brief, tailored introductions provided by Binfield for each text.  These introductions include detailed rhetorical commentary which reveals the rhetorical strategies - often complex ones - used by Luddite writers.  Especially in the Midlands section, this editorial content builds a narrative out of scattered documents, showing how they participated in the larger story of Luddism even as they shaped its trajectory.

This book goes far beyond merely collecting texts by Luddite writers: it both makes those texts legible and offers a specific reading of them and their relationships to Luddism in regional context.  The entanglement of textual selection with analysis and argument in a single book raises questions about confirmation biases and how Luddism is defined.  Fortunately, Binfield deals with these complications head on.  He clearly identifies his criteria, outlines the types of evidence he uses, and offers his working definition of Luddism as a ‘discursive continuity’ (4), as a ‘continuous thread’ (9). He acknowledges that since Luddism was not a highly organized movement, that ‘every text that might be of Luddite origin has the potential to change the current understanding of Luddism, thereby shifting the criteria for evaluating whether the text under consideration is Luddite or not’ (xxv).  Although he could have used Jaussian reception theory’s ‘horizon of expectations’ here, he keeps his methodology un-theoretical - on the surface at least. He concludes that ‘Luddite writing is best considered not as a totality but rather as a set of discourses generated under unique local circumstances’ (17).

Binfield argues that these texts were more than passive by-products of Luddite agitation.  For him, Luddism was not a coherent movement begetting texts, but itself emergent from its writing: Luddism was created ‘by an act of naming’ rather than by conspiracies or uprisings.  Here he addresses what he perceives as the scholarly failure to see the Luddites as rhetoricians (7), a failure that has led to a distortion of Luddite intentions (9).  Yet he is careful not to exaggerate his claim: he explores the writings of the Luddites without thinking that those texts can tell us everything about Luddism.

Part of Binfield’s project is identifying both the shared and divergent features of Luddite writing.  Across regions, Luddite writing shared several characteristics: it knowingly presented ‘a discursive and active continuity’ with other industrial resistance practices by referencing them while also presenting ‘itself in opposition to a network of oppressive economic practices’ (6).  But Binfield is sensitive to their extraordinary variations across regional cultures.  In the Midlands, centred in Nottingham, Luddite writers based their defence of custom on appeals to a constitutional, originary, and legal document, the Charter of the Company of Framework Knitters.  Thus the knitters demanded legal and national recognition on the foundation of shared communal and national values.  Rhetorically, they blended legal and trade language, appropriating official discourse.  First used here, the eponym Ludd was ‘not a new gathering but rather a method of bringing renewed attention to a charter that had fallen into obscurity’ (29).

Where Midlands Luddism was the defence of an established communal and trade identity, Northwestern Luddism, centered in Manchester and the surrounding textile manufacturing towns, emerged where there was no such established identity among weavers.  Instead, as Binfield argues, Luddite writers sought to create such a collective. Together with established Luddite rhetoric, Northwestern Luddite writers blended ‘petition’, the ‘language of economic analysis’, and ‘Jacobinical language’ (36) in appeals to hierarchy to settle disputes about wages and prices, employing the ‘discourse of grievance and redress’ (43).  Binfield argues that its ‘single most distinguishing feature’ is ‘the sense of a larger economic reality requiring negotiation or engagement among a number of social levels or sectors’ (42).  In this region, Ludd served as a ‘metonym that they hoped could concentrate a variety of discourses and enable the primary group of disaffected workers, the cotton weavers, to constitute themselves as a self-determining and articulate body’ (47).  Because of Manchester’s labour conditions, Ludd could even be gendered female here: one of the included letters is signed ‘Eliza Ludd’.

Luddite writing among the Yorkshire croppers took yet another form and orientation.  Here there was an established communal identity, but its legal trade protections had recently been dissolved.  The features of Yorkshire Luddite writing include: ‘the variety of rhetorical appeals, the tension between local and national orientations, the expansive character, and the importation of language of Nottingham Luddism for use in framing the entire discursive array’ (48).  Moving quickly from resisting machines to resisting the political-economic system, Yorkshire Luddism was expansive: it moved from the local to the national, although it located both the problem and solution within its own community. Part of a democratic regional culture, Yorkshire Luddism still employed ‘the language of moral outrage’ more often than Jacobinical or Paineite appeals (63).  In Yorkshire, Ludd ‘served as an organizing principle that enabled disaffected English workers to think in terms of both the locality and the commonality of their difficulties’ (67).

In its first decade, Writings of the Luddites has been referenced by a huge range of people, from those writing about the costs of a university education to hard-core historians of Luddism, from those curious about the Amish to those engaging deeply with Marxist theory and its offspring, and from those arguing for geeks as a new phase in human evolution and to those exposing a very odd phenomenon: plant maiming as protest in the nineteenth century.  The book has been and will continue to be of use to scholars of Romantic and working class literatures and to historians of labour relations, class, the Home Office, Luddism, regional cultures, protest, Industrial Revolutions, capitalism, and technology.  It could be used just for its collection of hard-to-access Luddite primary texts, but its extensive introductory material is extremely useful for it provision of both context and argument.  Binfield’s exposure of the editorial difficulty of this project also makes it useful for anyone interested in the difficulties of textual editing.

Courtney J. Salvey, Augsburg College