Events > Print Agency and Interaction

A one-day workshop

Date: Friday, March 26, 2010
Time: 10:00am - 4:30pm
Place: Arts 160, McGill University

Workshop Schedule

Opening Remarks: Tom Mole

"The Bureaucratic Medium: Marx, the Press, and Paperwork"
Ben Kafka (NYU)

Chair: Richard Taws


"Publishing as Recursive Agency: The Network of Printed Responses to Print"
Mark Algee-Hewitt (McGill)

Chair: Andrew Piper

Lunch (provided)

"Choosing Print in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain"
Betty Schellenberg (SFU)

Chair: Susan Dalton


"Two Case Studies and the Case for Mediation"
Clifford Siskin (NYU)

Chair: Tom Mole

Closing Remarks: Andrew Piper

Speakers and Abstracts

Mark Algee-Hewitt
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
McGill University

"Publishing as Recursive Agency: The Network of Printed Responses to Print"

Of primary concern to late eighteenth-century society was the sheer volume of printed work being produced in England. Even while many considered the freedom of the press to be a cornerstone of liberty, there remained a deep concern over the extent to which extraneous publication actively damaged British society. The response of concerned authors to the perceived crisis was an outpouring of works on taste, aesthetics, genre and literature which attempted to describe and provide corrective solutions to the problem of over-publication. Yet this response itself, of course, added to the number of works within Britain. How did the solution to a deluge of print become more printed materials? Did these authors envision print's agency as a self-corrective process? And, if so, how can we recover and perhaps even model the connections between eighteenth-century that encompassed the responses to print? One of the primary difficulties in answering these questions is the range of texts and authors that deal with this subject and the multiple ways in which they undertake solutions to the crisis. This essay attempts to outline a potential solution to this problem by sampling a highly focused selection of digitized texts that address the issue of over-publication and identifying the particular language used in each to describe the problem. By comparing the ways in which these clusters of texts discuss the power of print (either as a threat to British society or as a potential corrective) to their traditional generic, theoretical or historical groupings, we can begin to examine the process by which the potential power of print became the solution to the dangers it, itself, presented.

Ben Kafka
Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication and History
New York University

"The Bureaucratic Medium: Marx, the Press, and Paperwork"

In January 1843 Karl Marx published a long article in the Rheinische Zeitung denouncing a recent report on the Mosel region by a certain Inspector von Zuccalmaglio of the Trier Cadastre Bureau. The article both precedes and prefigures his critique of Hegel's political philosophy. Moreover, it represents his most sustained commentary on print media: "The free press brings the people's need in its real shape, not refracted through any bureaucratic medium, to the steps of the throne, to a power before which the difference between rulers and ruled vanishes and there remain only equally near and equally far removed citizens of the state." This paper will look at how Marx's early ideas about power and agency developed in the context of his polemic against the Cadastre Bureau's registers, reports, and other bits of paperwork. It will then inquire about the fate of those ideas in his later work. I am particularly interested in a counterfactual question: Had Marx continued as a journalist, might he have produced a theory of media as sophisticated as his theory of capital?

Betty Schellenberg
Professor of English
Simon Fraser University

"Choosing Print in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain"

Bringing into alignment the three conceptual planets of print, agency, and interactivity, let alone their various errant satellites, is a tall order. This is especially the case since we want in this workshop to move beyond the broad generalizations about print (Eisenstein) which have offered useful starting points but have limited explanatory value for a specific moment within a lengthy process: the eighteenth century, identified by our organizers as the moment of print's "social saturation." My paper will begin by delimiting its approach to print and agency as a comparative and individualised one, focused on moments where mid-century individuals articulate the choices they are making, or urging others to make, between media or combinations of media. In this I am influenced by Raymond Williams' insight that the familiar forms of media as social institutions are not predetermined, but rather the effects of "a set of particular social decisions, in particular circumstances, which were then so widely if imperfectly ratified that it is now difficult to see them as decisions rather than as (retrospectively) inevitable results."

The middle of the eighteenth century seems to have been a moment of particular self-consciousness about media choice. This was in part because of an increased perception of print as reliable and effective for uses such as permanent information storage and dissemination across geographical and class barriers, but also because the long-established alternatives of oral communication and scribal culture were flourishing in an urbanising society (facilitating coffee-house conversation, clubs, and Bluestocking salons) and through the developing communications networks of Britain and its growing commercial empire (requiring a sophisticated culture of letter-writing, taking advantage of improvements in the post and in transportation networks). In this context, the choice of one medium over another suggests the selection of a particular form of agency over another.

While much of my evidence will necessarily be taken from written records, I will not focus simply on the author as agent; rather, I will use recent definitions of interactivity to blur the division between author/producer and reader/consumer that is itself one feature of print dominance. My examples will include anonymous fan mail to Samuel Richardson and his experiments with using printed forms in response; Samuel Johnson's deliberate turn in The Rambler from an audience of known gentlemen and female correspondents to a distant, disembodied, future reader; Johnson's analysis of the usefulness of books to access knowledge; Elizabeth Montagu's recommendation of print publication to amateur writers or their friends seeking to preserve their work posthumously; Sarah Scott's use of print to convey her social activism across gender and class divides; and readers of Thomas Gray as, variously, repudiating his coterie ethos, endorsing the greatness of the Elegy, assisting in the posthumous completion of a work, and receiving it passively as the directive of a superior taste. This array of instances will point to some conclusions about the social needs served by print technology in the mid-eighteenth century, but also about accompanying disabling effects of print on other forms of agency. In fact, I will suggest that some of the forms of subjectivity and sociability enabled by print in this historical moment were eccentric swings soon to be modified by a resurgence of oral- and script-based interactivity.

Clifford Siskin
Berg Professor of English and American Literature
New York University

"Two Case Studies and the Case for Mediation"

This paper begins with an example of what Bill Warner and I call "digital retroaction." It illustrates, that is, the feedback loop between the present and the past that is currently transforming our experience of both. This loop in our knowledge-- both in what we know and how we know it-- is an effect of technological change. As we shift into the digital, the new concepts and technologies we bring to bear upon the past alter what we find. But, with surprising force, our altered histories are speaking back to the present, inflecting our own ongoing experience of change. In this first case study, I deploy a term from our digital present-- "interface"-- to analyze an earlier technological shift: the advent of what Raymond Williams call the "history of writing" in Britain in the early eighteenth century. The question of how a club of young women in Edinburgh in 1717 "interfaced" with their new technologies returns an unexpected answer-- an answer that takes the form of an acronym-- H-LAM/T-- that challenges us to rethink some fundamental problems of identity, desire, and the "human." The second case study relocates that problem of the human in the famous debate between Adrian Johns and Elizabeth Eisenstein--a debate in which I will declare a clear winner. The paper will conclude with my making the case for a new conceptual tool for studying "interactivity": the "history of mediation."

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