Five Theses on Transnational Periodical Cultures

(Reading Manuscript from ALA 2017)

Two things or so to start off with. This is not going to be particularly subtle, given time constraints, so if you feel I am simplifying stuff: yes, I am. This presentation will at times sound like a series of well-put commonplaces, but there’s some value in that, too. Secondly, I am an Americanist, so as I sketch key areas of research, these often recur to Americanist concerns. Fill in the blanks appropriately.

My brief talk will try and sketch out key areas of research for transnational periodical studies. But let me low-key this a bit: let’s not say: key areas of research, let’s say “things we must attend to if we want to pay more than lipservice to all the parts of our project, ‘transnational periodical cultures’”.  This is so because the things we don’t know, and which therefore could be areas of research, would will many, many books—so for now, it seems helpful to outline the dimensions of those many books, rather than their content.

This transnational periodical thing, then. It’s a bit daunting, no? Many of us, including myself, have worried in print and in discussion about the problem of periodical studies’ unmanageably large corpus, and that’s in what usually are nationally-restricted research; and now we propose to expand this corpus to the transnational dimension; not a smart move, work-load wise. Transnationality, I would insist, is at least two things: it is a somewhat boring fact of periodical production, distribution, writing, and reading, and it is a perspective to use in periodical studies. To speak of transnational periodical studies thus suggests both a necessary expansion (of an already large) corpus as well as a remediation of our approaches to the existing.

And this, I take it, is the first key area of research, the first thing we must do, or, as I will put it in the following, the first challenge. We must begin by taking a step back from the concrete materials at hand, and rather seek to theorize. My first challenge, therefore, is:


In a way, the added corpus isn’t a problem. To steal from Laurel Brake and Ann Humphreys’s by now 28-year-old but (unfortunately?) still apt point: we cannot gain control over the field of transnational periodical research through the accumulation of empirical studies alone (cf. 1989, 94), anyway. Our contention in this project is that “transnational” adds something to periodical research, not so much in expanding the corpus as theoretically. But in as much as transnationalism may often appear to be something of a silver bullet in the contemporary academic arena, we must identify, quite concretely, what that “something” is.

To borrow from and expand on James Mussell: transnational periodical studies could talk about “what stays the same” and “what differs” across periodicals of different places (though ideally at the same time) (2013, 1). It could talk about what transnational networks exist, where texts, readers, producers, materials, and other elements of the field come from, go to, cross each other, but beyond noting the mere fact of these (probably unavoidable) transnational entanglements to go to what these transnational relations mean. With Mussell, we should strive to trace “the inter-connections that structured print culture” (2013, 7), but we should take care to make this be meaningful, in the sense that it should be more than additive, but rather should be interpretive for periodical cultures. The mere fact of these connections, and indeed the mere sketching of their extent, does not fully achieve this: rather, we must theorize what their significance is. This also includes an awareness of what connections are not there, something which can easily be obscured by a sketching of connections. Indeed, this is a problem which brings me to the second challenge:


Which is to say: theorize what the digital, both as an archive and in the form of digital humanities approaches such as distant reading, means (again, sorry). I take from Laurel Brake (2012) the caution that the vast mass of the digital archive, already unmanageable except by distant reading, nonetheless only amounts to a miniscule amount of extant archival material, and an even more miniscule amount of all periodicals ever, and so due cautions apply to statistical methods; as Brake has it, any such work must be indicative only (2012, 225). What does it mean to trace reprints, for example, across the U.S., when your statistical traces are only a smidgen more statistically relevant than simple reading? Since the mere fact of network connectivity cannot stand in for an interpretation of its significance, to theorize the possible meanings of digital research methods is crucially important to periodical studies in general, and it’s not been done enough.

Transnationality adds to this in a number of ways: in the way non-Anglo-American archives are even less accessible digitally; in the way that even so, they expand the things we need to read (or otherwise access), and to boot, in different languages! As Brake says, “…the impetus to comparative work is considerable” in the digital age (Brake 2012, 222), but it doesn’t get easier in a transnational context. What’s the influence to do corpora searches, for example, between different languages. This brings me, in part, to my third challenge:


As Douglas Adams would say, were he alive and a periodical scholar: the transnational perspective at the best of times lets us see the fundamental interconnectedness of all things—how periodicals function in the middle of a media ecology whose impact on people shifts in different national contexts, but is at the same time (like “real” ecology) impossible to tie off at national boundaries. Transnationalism is especially well suited to expanding our view here because, if taken seriously, it automatically brings us into a position in which we have to re-orient our research to new societal contexts. For periodical studies, that means we should not just trace the networks between the national periodical cultures—but also recognize the differences between them, and the ways the distinct periodical cultures of different national contexts are situated in their respective societies, how their relationships with other media are, and what their impact on society is. The challenge, I think, is to take the word “cultures” in our project seriously and determine the specificities of the (national) periodical cultures which we study, even as we realize that such a perspective fails to encompass the holistic nature of the periodical. This also entails the question of translation, though I’m ill-suited to speak about it.

This call for combining the narrower understanding of the individual, regional, denominational, political, with the broader networks of which they are part brings me to my fourth challenge:


Transnational Periodical Studies must be interdisciplinary. This does not just mean that it must take on board different literary studies, depending on the specific “nationals” which the “trans” appears to transcend, so that we will require the contextual and specific knowledges of specialists in order to realize the full potential of transnational periodical studies. It also means to realize the importance of cooperating closely with disciplines such as the history of book in order to trace different versions of materiality across the transnational. This short note brings me to my fifth challenge:


Transnational periodical cultures highlights a persistent problem in periodical studies: the reader. It’s much easier to pretend there is a single class of reader within the narrow confines of empirical (often one-issue) studies; harder to claim that across national divides in which different class structures must be historicized and concretized. As a perspective then, transnational periodical studies requires us to move on this problem: how to discover the reader-consumer, how to parse reception, how to think reading, period. What did readers read when they read? How, in fact, do we recover the act of reading in the digital age, which is also to say: in our attention to materiality, are we overplaying our hand? Laurel Brake notes that the digital archive paradoxically reminds us of the page and of page turning as something one does in reading a periodical, but what reader consciously turns a page? (2012, 224).

Those are the challenges we see standing before transnational periodical studies; and to be sure, they are not much different from the challenges for periodical studies more nationally conceived. But they are certainly heightened, and set into sharper relief, by the questions raised by the transnational approach.