Transnational Periodical Cultures: Key Terms in Current Research

(Reading Manuscript from ALA 2017)

Extending Jutta Ernst’s discussion of the programmatic nature of our research initiative, I would like to draw attention to three key terms of research we encounter in recent attempts seeking to theorize the field of periodical studies. Besides the frequently heard lament to move beyond content analysis or close readings of periodicals, present practitioners of periodical studies privilege material readings including a broad range of interdisciplinary approaches inspired by the promises of digital technologies and the newly available opportunities to investigate the global archive of serial prints. These approaches certainly offer new insights and open the door for developing transnational perspectives in our field, but— as Tim Lanzendörfer argues — they also contain major challenges, especially how we deal with the archive, transnationalism or the reader. Especially the history of print cultures and its focus on the circulatory flow of texts and reprints, or books like Trish Loughran’s The Republic in Print that illustrates the overlapping of multiple networks (mail, print, money, roads) in nineteenth-century America, made periodical studies focus on three interrelated key terms: ecology, affordance, and network. In the following, I will very briefly discuss them and problematize some of the theoretical assumptions regarding our initiative’s objectives.

In her introduction to the 2013 MLA roundtable “Towards a Theory of Periodical Studies,” Ann Ardis calls for a fuller understanding of “transnational print media ecologies.” The term “media ecology” demands—according to Ardis—a “scrupulous attention to both the materiality of print and its intermedial relationships with other communication technologies.” In general terms, ecology refers to a set of relationships existing between any complex system and its environments. Media ecology therefore concerns the interdependence of print, technology, and communication, and how it mediates the history of modernity. Conceptualizing periodical studies in terms of media ecology makes us certainly aware of periodicals not as containers of information, but rather as complex configurations of works across media. However, the ecological approach frequently limits periodical studies to the grand narrative of se­cu­lar­­ization and modernization embodied by print or specific national print cul­­tures. Currently, we encounter an increasing number of publications investigating modernist magazines in the context of modernism’s international activities. What our four case studies will show is that we need to expand the term “media ecology”—and perhaps replace it—by historicizing periodical studies and looking at the longue durée of periodical environments understood as a relational and associative web of overlapping socio-economic conditions, institutions, publics, identities, and translations. What the case studies will also show is that by investigating periodicals as complex webs of relations, we avoid any narrow typology or taxonomy of periodical genres.

In practice, we propose to study periodicals less as autonomous objects, but rather in terms of a social textuality evolving from multiple webs of human and non-human relations that sustain them, as will be shown in the statements about the nineteenth-century African Caribbean press and contemporary religious periodicals.

What is perhaps also missing from a media ecology approach with its emphasis on technology and communication is the human dimension (i.e. makers and readers) together with the interactions between people and the periodical as a thing. For this purpose, Stephen Parker and Matthew Philpotts introduce what they call “The Anatomy of a Literary Journal.” Their anatomy studies the codes of how a periodical is constructed in order to understand its symbolic value or cultural capital.

As a method, anatomy focuses on the external areas of an organism, frequently by dissecting it. The anatomy approach thus offers a static tool kit for analyzing periodicals. By contrast, a physiological approach would study the periodical’s “chemistry” or resonance in terms of a “medium through which people pay attention to and understand the things that affect their everyday lives” (Heather Haveman, 2015).

Assessing periodicals as a means of affections echoes what the environmental psychologist James Gibson calls “affordance.” It refers to the invitation a specific thing embodies; a chair, for instance, invites you to sit down, or a pen to write. Learning the affordances of a thing, we learn the thing’s social world and become a member of that world.

Likewise, the affordances of a periodical invite the reader not only to interact with it as a stable object of words and images across multiple copies, but also to follow its multiple different paths that together comprise the periodical’s organism through which people and things move.

Affordance also makes us reassess the periodical in terms of a thing. According to the social anthropologist Tim Ingold (2010), “the thing is not just one thread but a certain gathering together of threads.” As Jutta Ernst has just pointed out, actor-network theory makes scholars read periodicals as rhizomatic things entangled in networks.

However, the somehow inflationary use of network analysis in current scholarship should also make us aware of the limitations of networks’ extensiveness. In practice, networks are limited. Professional networks are controlled by the state, the market, institutions, and so forth that set constraints on how particular nodes may link to other networks. The network’s nodes are also replaceable. Replaceability and temporality, however, demonstrate that networks do not rely on fixed chains, but are perpetually in process. The linking can be voluntary or coercive, hierarchical or egalitarian; characters can act as nodes in more than one network; there are different distributed networks at a time.

We seek to explore periodicals in specific historical environments. We consider periodicals as dynamic configurations of socio-material and human transactions and practices. In doing so, we hope to contribute to a better understanding of the major theoretical and methodological challenges in the field that Tim Lanzendörfer discusses.