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What is the value of thinking ecologically about communication?

We just ended our two-day print culture extravaganza here in Montreal. Our research group, Interacting with Print, holds an annual workshop where we invite around eight scholars to share their work in progress and reflect on the question of “interactivity” and “intermediality” as it relates to the history of print. This year’s focus was the question of “ecology”: how did print come to be understood within a larger media ecology during the transformative years spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe? Said another way, we were asking participants to reflect on the different kinds of histories we get when we think about print not as an autonomous agent, but as a participant within a larger web of communicative practices.

We were privy to eight excellent papers that explored notions of printed ecologies — Enlightenment networks of learned journals, illustrated print editions of famous play performances, shifts in how operatic libretti were represented on the printed page, metaphorical and real violence in the periodical press (what it meant to kill off an author in a review), architectural representations in print that helped mobilize global networks of charitable giving, guidebooks and maps and how they interacted with real space and the imaginary spaces of poetry, debates about the value and thus economy of engraving, and finally, the post office as its own media ecology.

It was excellent and extensive, eclectic and theoretically smart. It reminded me why the history of print is such a great way to do literary and cultural history, once you dislodge it from the monoliths of rise and fall narratives (the print killed manuscript or computers are killing print kind of thing).

As usual, we reserved the final session for a reflection on larger issues in the field, including our own framing of the issue through the idea of “ecology.” It was a spirited discussion, one that both expressed reservations and identified advantages. For many, “ecology” is a problem because of the way it can (though not necessarily, but can) connote notions of organicism, that there is an attempt to naturalize the technological by talking about ecologies. Others were concerned the way ecology often posits a false sense of a whole, that there is a totality out there that we can recognize and speak of as a totality, which surely does not accord with the difficulties surrounding writing this kind of history nor the real experiences of historical actors who often could not oversee the increasingly complicated communicative environment they inhabited (and which in turn becomes part of the discourse about print — that it is non-navigable). It’s the local interactions that are most often of interest to those of us who are doing this kind of history, the concrete spaces of conjunction, translation, and movement, rather than any sense of a period, Zeitgeist, or system. Ecology runs the risk of making static the real aspects of flow when it comes to communication, the complicated directionality of which way mediations move as they shift from one medium to another.

But for many, the term is useful if understood in a more limited sense: every local phenomenon presupposes its own environment, and there are advantages to thinking about the inherent contextualization of communicative practices. Catherine Golden’s paper on the media ecology of the post office was an ideal example of this kind of case study — a local totality that involved a whole range of mediated interactions. By contrast, as I suggested during the discussion, there are clear ideological biases in trying to imagine media as autonomous: either they act all by themselves (and thus we are the objects of media) or we act by ourselves and media are just our “tools.” Putting print in more complicated networks of communication is also a way, as Chad Wellmon suggested, of creating more sophisticated models of agency and causality — by suggesting the ways print acts with and on other media (and vice versa), we can see the way we act with and on print, just it acts with and on us. My co-organizer Tom Mole poignantly asked why it is we are so wedded to notions of finitude when it comes to communication — why must one form of expansion be considered to take place at the expense of another? Where does the discomfort with imagining mediated cohabitation reside?

Finally, there was a nice argument put forth by Jon Sachs, who suggested that working with ecologies also means working with more heterogenous historiographic temporalities. That is to say, different media have very different genealogies that are not always commensurate with one another, and so focalization will impact one’s periodization. The “book” has a very different history, and is not coincident with, “print,” just as a category like “performance” or “speech” will make you think in different temporal horizons than if you were just looking at print. Ecology puts us in time in more complicated ways, undoing the linear simplicity of either rise or fall.

I’m looking forward to next year.