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This chapter asks how social networks form institutions, and whether this process means that institutions are only networks by another name. Its method is to trace networks of scientific lecturing in the long eighteenth century that eventually culminated in establishing new scientific and literary lecturing institutions in Glasgow and London around 1800. For the most part not studied since the 1960s, itinerant scientific lecturers formed pathways across northern and southern England that can be called decentered networks linking various provincial cultures before they crystallized in new institutional experiments like Anderson’s Institution at Glasgow in 1796 and the Royal Institution in London in 1800. The chapter focuses most closely on the forming of the Royal Institution out of disparate networks, from 1796 to 1802, and the process by which the gathering of those networks also created conditions for their mutation into the Royal Institution that Romantic audiences and lecturers knew in the early nineteenth century. More broadly it asks what kind of institutional values or mission statements make an institution more accountable to social and political critique than networks themselves would be capable of sustaining.
The Enlightenment’s promotion of the potato reflect the close relationship between new ideas about the political importance of everyday eating habits, and new ways of thinking about the economy. Just as Adam Smith recommended that allowing individuals to pursue their own interests would ultimately result in a flourishing economy, so potato-enthusiasts (Smith included) argued that the best way to build a robust population was to empower individuals to make sound dietary choices through campaigns of information and exhortation. Rarely did they suggest that people be obliged to grow or eat potatoes. Such suggestions would have run counter to the entire philosophy that underpinned much enlightened interest in food supply: the new discipline of political economy. This history reveals the eighteenth-century origins of the current, neoliberal, insistence that healthy eating is best understood as a form of individual consumer empowerment that at the same time builds a stronger economy and body politic. Potatoes offer a concrete, everyday example of how this confluence of private interest and public benefit was imagined to occur, at the very moment when these ideas were first theorised.
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