38.0 On Print Culture Studies
I spent this weekend at the conference sponsored by the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America (http://slisweb.lis.wisc.edu/~printcul/). This conference happens every other year, with a change of theme. The theme this year was "The Culture of Print in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine (STEM);" the theme two years ago (which I also attended) was "Education and the Culture of Print."
Print Culture is an odd field of study. This is the tentative definition from the Center's website:
"For centuries Americans have been informed by print. All people in America's multicultural and multi-class society have used or been influenced by print, sometimes for common purposes, sometimes for different purposes. In recent years scholars from a variety of academic disciplines who are interested in studying this phenomenon have begun to refer to it as "print culture history.""
I like to think of the field of study this way: Start with Tylor's definition of culture: "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society."
Then, pepper in this bit: "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society as mediated by the presence of print (as a technology for communication and information) in that society."
This definition is a bit idiosyncratic, though, to me. It stems, probably, from a graduate student love of works by Havelock, Ong, McLuhan, Eisenstein, Anderson... works which posit a relationship between forms of life and even forms of cognition and the existence of literacy and of printed materials in mass production. That perspective is NOT widely held in this conference community, at least based on the sessions that I saw. The legacy of that research lies in the Media Ecology community, rather than the print culture community.
But realistically, the emphasis at this conference is the "print" over the cultural. In fact, I'd bet that most of the researchers at these print culture conferences don't have an articulated theory of culture to drive or frame their research. This doesn't mean they don't know what culture is. It just means that a definition of culture isn't a starting point in their research. I'm not sure that this is a limitation.
It's probably better to call this a "print" conference. Any object that is printed is fair game. The technologies of printing are fair game. The institutions for storing, disseminating, and manufacturing printed materials are fair game. The relationships between printed objects (between novels and newspapers) are fair game. The objects of study are wide and far-reaching; nearly anything inscribed is fair game.
But we might lose something interesting here. Everything is fair game, but the study is not systematically connected under a larger intellectual project.
. . .
Bodley's definitiion of culture comes 100 years after Tylor's:
"Culture involves at least three components: what people think, what they do, and the material products they produce."
...and we add the key phrase: "as mediated by the presence of print (as a technology for communication and information) in that society."
What would we gain by such a definition? First, the most important research done under the umbrella of "print culture studies" would be adequately framed. Much of that research is about readership: the communities that coalesce around the reading of a text and the ways that reading a text or texts crafts and creates "what people think, what they do, and the material products they produce."
Second, it would force some research in print culture to stretch from the recounting of historical narratives toward implications for a conceptual field.
--I heard papers this weekend on James Fenimore Cooper's references to other, nonliterary genres in his fiction. If you are not intrinsically interested in Leatherstocking, why would you care? You could, if the research culminated in some knowledge about what people think, what they do, and the material products they produce.
--I heard papers about the changing technologies and aesthetics in woodblock/lithography. Again, why would you care, unless the research culminated in some knowledge about what people think, what they do, and the material products they produce.
Some merely narrative research could become argumentative. And argumentative research is more compelling.
Such a focus would also draw papers on Leatherstocking, Melvil Dewey, Robert Boyle, the digitization of Robert Hooke, and engraving techniques into full conversation with each other, rather than being separate and parallel tracks. It would help create print culture as a disciplinary formation.
If I were editing the collection (from this conference or from the next one; each conference ends in a volume), that is the question I would encourage the contributors to consider.
But then, I am fascinated about the ways that a body of scholars become a discipline. Or maybe using the anthology to create a discipline.
This does not undercut the value of the conference; it is one of a half dozen conferences that I would attend, no matter where it is held. It is an awesome experience.
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