My research group just finished up its annual two-day workshop. This year’s theme was about people’s interaction with objects and the challenges of thinking about the objecthood of print media. It was a remarkably idea-packed two days and I am still unpacking my notebooks, so to speak. But I really enjoyed our invited panelists’ contributions and descriptions of their works in progress. It was a great overview of the state of the field.
Here are some of the things we focused on:
Types of print materiality that were discussed included advertisements, letters (both in the epistolary and typographic sense), prints, notebooks, schoolroom reading treatises, religious idols and the realm of eighteenth-century consumer objects.
The types of interactions we discussed covered slow versus fast reading, distant versus close reading, repetitive or collational reading versus distributed reading, devotional reading, and differential reading (which includes reading as a form of viewing, and vice versa). The book or print as material object, as something prior to signification, played less of a role, interestingly enough.
Finally, the problems we covered included questions of how categories like reproducibility, quantity, cultural contact, and singularity — which were all particular to the period — impacted reading and viewing in the 18th and 19th centuries. How did the growing reproducibility of either texts or consumer goods impact how people read books or viewed images? How was the increasing and related problem of quantitative surplus impacting reading and seeing? How did the growing international commerce of goods and texts alter the reading landscape? And finally, how did readers achieve a sense of particularity or singularity in a world of textual surplus? How did they move into and out of various groupings under the heading of audience or public?
We concluded with an open-ended discussion about where the field is headed. There were the usual tensions between visual and textual culture and how those differences could be reconciled within traditional disciplinary backgrounds. Mostly though, it was interesting the extent to which there was very little methodological anxiety or need to gesture towards a familiar tradition of disciplinary classics. Instead, people were very comfortable with moving between diverse methodological practices that included fields like bibliography, art history, literary history and material history.