Transnational Periodical Cultures: Theoretical Approaches

(Reading Manuscript ALA 2017)

Not surprisingly, methodologies for the study of periodicals have been heavily influenced by general trends in literary and cultural theory. So, early endeavors at analyzing periodicals were nearly exclusively discourse-oriented. With New Criticism on the rise, researchers focused on single magazines, practicing close readings of the periodicals’ content, preferably its literary contributions. Magazines and newspapers were culled for the publications of individual authors, initially those who were already known and recognized, later, in an attempt at reconfiguring the canon, for those who had been bypassed. In both cases, periodical content was decontextualized and read outside its original environment.

Furthermore, a magazine’s content was explained by the taste of the editor – a biographical approach which ignored the complex decision making processes of multiple actors. With Women and Gender Studies emerging as independent disciplines, the biographical approach received new impulses: subject constructions and power relations came into play, fostering insight in, for instance, female bonding and its influence on editorial issues. Advertisements, which might fill many pages in a magazine and might ultimately secure its existence, were more or less ignored until the 1980s, but have since become important objects of investigation, thus diversifying content-related analyses and linking them to questions of financing.

A major step ahead were system-oriented approaches, which see a periodical as part of a larger whole, be it a nation’s print culture or a particular media business. Typically, researchers who opt for a system-oriented approach acknowledge various agents and the dynamic processes individuals or institutions are involved in. In so doing, they hark back, for instance, to Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism, to reader-response criticism, or, more recently, to sociocultural models of French origin. Among them, Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the literary field looms large, which highlights concepts like ‘economic capital’, ‘social capital,’ or ‘symbolic capital,’ thereby drawing attention to market mechanisms and combining internal and external analyses of art products.

What has only lately begun to be tested for the analysis of periodicals, but seems, at least to a certain extent, a useful approach, is the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour. Latour bestows agency not only on people but also on “non-human, non individual entities” (2); he is particularly interested in the multifarious weblike connections that develop over time between diverse constituents. The network idea, which has seeped into periodical studies also from other disciplines, i.e. communication technology, and which has given rise to projects relying on large digitized data and forms of “distant reading,” seems to be one of the most promising new developments in the field. Due to its intricate, borderless structure, with nodes at points of multiple intersections, the network may be linked with an older organic concept, the rhizome, introduced into philosophy by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and later adopted by other disciplines. Next to information technology and biology, mathematics has been proposed as a source for new analytical categories. Thus Matthew Philpotts draws on “dimension” and “texture” (Philpotts 310), offering a “thick” description of periodicals, which combines quantitative and qualitative approaches.

A material turn, as it is visible in cultural studies, may also be noted for the study of periodicals. Increasingly, investigators take into account the format of a magazine, its paper, typography, or binding, important aspects which cannot be ignored if, for example, one wants to assess the position of a magazine within the literary field vis-à-vis other publications or explain why periodicals become collectibles. In addition, performative aspects tend to be considered, trying, for instance, to solve the question how exactly readers engage with a particular periodical issue (cf. Mussell 248).

I will now quickly sketch what our research group’s premises for further investigations are and what, we think, have been blind spots that need to be addressed in the future, before Oliver Scheiding will introduce three high-potential concepts, namely ‘ecology,’ ‘affordance,’ and ‘network.’

Our most basic assumption is that periodicals participate in multiple open and dynamic webs that cross national and linguistic borders and change over time. This means that we have to historicize when we look at particular data. For instance, we have to identify the authors, editors, illustrators, printers, etc., also the translators, influential actors that so far have been neglected in periodical research. Just like economic and material aspects, legal issues deserve more attention, in particular copyright regulations, which might explain why certain texts were not published in specific venues. The same holds true for ideological frameworks and practices of censorship, which, overtly or covertly, might shape a periodical. Moreover, processes of identification and differentiation among periodicals have to be investigated, supplanted by an analysis of the relations between periodicals and other media products. The latter is all the more pertinent, as periodicals are often part of a larger enterprise with specific marketing strategies and an overall financial concept, which undoubtedly affect the magazine.

Following Margaret Beetham we argue that the theoretical framework for our analyses need not be neatly shaped – Beetham speaks of “messy theory” (323) – but must enable us to answer central questions with regard to periodicals and their cultural work. Most importantly, we have to clarify the, often metaphorical, terms we use: is ‘periodical network’ a better expression to indicate interconnectedness than, for instance, ‘periodical constellation,’ and if yes, why? In closing, one last idea: as the analytical categories we work with are highly entwined and do not just add up to each other, it might be advisable to adopt an approach developed within Gender Studies, namely an intersectional reading of periodicals.