Saturday, September 13, 2008

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 ( 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.



Greg Downey said...

Hi David (from one of the conference organizers) and thanks very much for these comments. I agree entirely with the notion that as a field, "print culture" needs to keep the "cultural" (in all its social, political-economic, institutional, and experiential nuance) front and center and not be distracted (entirely) by the attractions of simply exploring the history of print (or text, or image, or language, or print technology) in general. This is definitely a theme we'll be stressing in the eventual conference volume. Not to get too self-referential here, but I think that part of the process of moving from the performative and auditory/visual moment of giving a presentation at a conference (more often than not illustrated by the Mandatory Powerpoint as one of our presenters jokingly suggested) to the more reflective, productive moment of creating a written article (within the kind of thorough peer-review process that we'll demand for the volume) is in fact answering the "so what?" question with more cultural, historic, and theoretical context. (Then of course we all go out and perform our written arguments in a looser way and the cycle begins anew.) I also think your recognition that print culture studies (as well as visual culture studies, audio culture studies, or any "culture studies" which put the emphasis on one mode or technology or moment of communication rather than another) can benefit greatly from the contextual scaffolding that the field of media ecology has attempted to create ... and vice-versa. My own work constantly swings between the expectations and examples of media studies and information studies (from my two employing departments) as well as historical studies and geographical studies (from my two graduate departments) because I find that this is, for me, the most productive state of tension to be in. It's funny, my understanding of print culture studies is that it originated from the search for the same kind of interdisciplinary tension, but perhaps as any field gets more institutionalized in academia, it has to keep reseeking, reestablishing, and reproducing that tension with each new generation. (OK, now I'm really speculating, but I guess that's what blogs are for.) Thanks for the comment on the conference (I blogged about it too over at Uncovering Information Labor) and I hope this can be the beginning of a nice long cross-state conversation!

David said...

Hi, Greg.

Of course! I forget, sometimes, the ways that oral features of papers are eventually erased in book volumes. Some of what I was locating in the nature of the papers is instead locatable in the oral form of the papers.

Still, I do wonder about the disciplinary array, especially at this conference.

There were: librarians, many of whom engaged in expository papers, outlining their collections or the histories of their collections.

There were: history of STEM people, and here I admit my own weakness. There are, it seems to me, two kinds of H/Sci, H/Med, or H/Tech types: those inflected by the sociology of science and technology and those less troubled by that body of literature. My own preference is for Bijker & Latour over more traditional history of science, and this was in greater supply.

Finally, there were: history of library & history of literature folks.

I suppose the question is: what is the definition of "culture" that this diverse body of disciplinary literature shares as its object.

(I wonder, too, whether there is a touchstone definition of "print culture" that I am missing out on... a canonical work that defines the field...)

. . .

I look forward to learning in the anthology!

Congrats on an excellent conference.