Print History: Social Artifacts and Transnational Networks

Issue 1.2: June 2011


Questions of Emphasis and Methodology

David Buchanan


The call for papers for Issue 1.2 ‘Print History: Social Artifacts and Transnational Networks’ invited the submission of interdisciplinary articles that trace and/or describe a variety of print artifacts – past or present, upmarket or downmarket – as material, social, economic and political works embedded in transnational networks; the methodologies suggested were book history, literary criticism and cultural theory and the list of potential topics included all aspects of the production, dissemination and reception of literary works across national, linguistic and cultural boundaries. In short, the call was wide-ranging and applicable to a journal of comparative literature that aims to enable interdisciplinary literary research. However, the wording of the call clearly intended to emphasize material approaches to literary works, or at least an integration of the study of the discursive text with the study of the physical object, thus encouraging comparative work that combines literary criticism and bibliography or some form of print history. Given the propensity in the discipline of Comparative Literature to emphasize the text, close reading, theory and translation, there was some question as to whether or not graduate student comparatists would take up the call to explore the material and historical possibilities set forth by such a call for papers. The answer seems to be either ‘no’ or perhaps ‘not right now.’ Inquire did not receive a single submission from a Comparative Literature graduate student in Canada or elsewhere. All submissions came from students in a Department of English. Putting aside the fact that Inquire is a new journal, an interesting follow-up question might be: to what extent could graduate students enrolled in a typical Comparative Literature program or department contribute to a call for papers that emphasizes print artifacts and networks, and to what effect?

The American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) provides the following definition of what Comparative Literature does and what the members of the discipline have in common: “In its largest sense, comparative literature promotes the study of intercultural relations that cross national boundaries, multicultural relations within a particular society, and the interactions between literature and other forms of human activity, including the arts, the sciences, philosophy, and cultural artifacts of all kinds. The members of the ACLA are thus joined not by a national, linguistic, or methodological investment held in common, but by the shared condition of teaching and writing across nations, languages, and cultures – and hence by their lively interest in comparison as both a theoretical and a practical matter” (emphasis added). While the scope of this definition is broad, it seems clear that comparison itself, while not beholden to any single methodology, includes the production, dissemination and reception of literary works as cultural and material artifacts. Accordingly, at a time when the position and transformation of the Arts (see ‘U Views’) are concerns, it is perhaps a suitable moment to consider whether or not and in what ways Comparative Literature might promote an approach to the study of literature that is as practical and inclusive as it is theoretical.

The significance of Comparative Literature is not in question; the discipline continues to contribute to a distinguished past (see ‘CL History’) through contemporary work that is wide-ranging, interesting and important (see ‘State of the Discipline’). The suggestion here is that understanding how literary works represent and connect people, groups, nations and cultures necessarily involves consideration of the material and historical, including the production, dissemination and reception of social artifacts linked by transnational networks of writers and readers, printers and publishers, as well as the addition of downmarket, ephemeral, working class and popular forms alongside upmarket, classic, elite and niche forms. Comparative Literature is reading and re-reading, writing and re-writing – across, in spite of and conscious of the making and un-making of boundaries in and through words; it is social and political, economic and ecological, living at the heart of an embodied world that communicates in complex ways and, as such, inclusive in a way that other disciplines might envy. Comparative Literature, as a discipline that already embraces the transnational, multilingual and global aspects of literary texts is in prime position to consider how social artifacts that move via transnational networks have a central role to play in fostering a compassionate and intelligent understanding of the imagination and realization of everyday life for all people.The resultant possibilities of such an approach, neither new nor unpracticed, for a discipline which already distinguishes itself by openness to otherness and difference, for example, through work on minority or marginalized literatures, are immense. But how many Comparative Literature programs or departments offer courses in bibliography or book history that provide the knowledge necessary to trace and describe works of literature as both material and literary artifacts?

The graduate student articles published in this issue provide two very different and intriguing examples of the sort of inquiry possible for comparative or interdisciplinary scholars engaged in or open to print history methodologies. In “Mass-Observation and the Praxis of Print” Andrea Hasenbank (Alberta) is primarily concerned with how the Mass-Observation project, started in England in 1937, engages with the materiality of lived experience through print institutions and practices of writing; using mutually supporting networks of print and publication, the project seeks to provoke an imagined community of readers and participants into active engagement with the project. Considering writing as a form of praxis, the project offers itself as a solution to modern alienation, whereby Mass-Observation is figured as a conduit for transforming atomized individual experience into a meaningful collective understanding. “The Handwritten Playbill as Artifact: A French Amateur Theatrical Aboard the British Prison Ship Crown” by Mary Isbell (Connecticut) analyzes the only playbill in evidence announcing an amateur theatrical on 10 July 1807 aboard the Crown, one of 20 de-masted naval vessels used as hulks to house prisoners just off the coast of Portsmouth, England during the Napoleonic Wars. In pursuit of a methodology to approach this and other unknown amateur productions, Isbell theorizes the handwritten playbill as artifact, moving from the playbill to its referents, combining print history and contextual reading to consider the complex interaction of social artifacts and transnational networks in the history of nineteenth-century print and performance.

In part anticipating the difficulty of gathering a large and varied set of articles representing comparative print history scholarship from within the discipline of Comparative Literature, other sections of this issue are directly related to the call for papers. The reviews describe recent scholarship with a print history focus, and transnational networks in particular: Gabrielle Kristjanson (Alberta) introduces the website Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History (2011) by Harvard University Library Open Collections Program; Danielle Lamb (Alberta) considers Paul Jay’s Global Matters: The Transnational Turn in Literary Studies (2010); and Linda J. Van Netten (Alberta) describes A History of Reading and Writing (2010) by Martyn Lyons. In ‘Project Room,’ Dr. James Connolly (Ball State) at the Center for Middletown Studies introduces the What Middletown Read Project and ‘New Pubs’ provides a number of current and forthcoming publications of relevance to comparative scholars who share an interest in book history methodologies. Each of these articles helps to describe the material, historical and transnational aspects of reading and writing, and as such, some of the ways by which print history can contribute to the discipline of Comparative Literature.  

As always, the In Every Issue section presents the work of prominent scholars on issues directly relevant to the past, present and future of Comparative Literature in Canada and the world. In ‘State of the Discipline,’ Prof. Linda Hutcheon (Toronto) describes Comparative Literature as in a state of flux and with an important role to play at the university and beyond. ‘CL History’ by Dr. Irene Sywenky (Alberta) outlines the origins and development of Comparative Literature in Central and Eastern Europe, offering a historical perspective on the discipline that helps to locate current debates. In ‘U Views,’ Prof. Len Findlay (Saskatchewan) makes a compelling case for a public humanities surge that is historical, anticolonial, multilingual and green – with Comparative Literature front and centre. ‘Media X’ by Jed I. Cleishbotham (Gandercleugh) offers an improvised and eclectic view of research, pedagogy and publishing relevant to graduate students and established scholars in a digital world.

Finally, every section of CL Hub offers new information and reports of direct consequence to students, teachers and scholars of Comparative Literature and the Arts. Besides the sections already touched on, ‘In the Field’ features an article by Dorothy Woodman (Alberta) titled “At the Threshold of the Job Market,” which gives a unique perspective on issues of practical importance to all university students, bridging the gap between education and the ‘real’ world, offering an experienced and insightful view of the social, economic and political situation facing graduate students making the transition from or the choice between life in academia and other employment. In ‘CL World,’ Sergiy Yakovenko (Alberta) describes recent developments in Comparative Literature in Poland, and Libe García Zarranz (Alberta) and Elia García Zarranz (Zaragoza) outline the breadth of comparative and interdisciplinary literary work in contemporary Spain. ‘Post-CL’ provides a short report composed by three recent graduate students – Cindy Choipodalo (Alberta), Leah Skinner (Alberta) and Catherine Melnyk (Alberta) – offering views on and experiences of the prospects and possibilities after graduation. Anita Buick’s descriptive list of ‘Cool Courses’ will interest teachers and program directors alike. ‘Find It’ remains a robust listing of journals, funding opportunities, employment resources, academic networks, associations and programs with the addition of websites listing current calls for papers and more. Finally, ‘New Trans’ is a forthcoming section under the editorship of Samantha Cook (Alberta) that will publish English translations of poetry, drama or prose not previously translated. 

In summary, this issue poses questions of emphasis and methodology to the discipline of Comparative Literature, enables graduate students to explore the possibilities outlined by the call for papers, provides informed perspectives from established academics in key areas of relevance to the discipline and offers practical resources relevant to professional and intellectual development; further, we are pleased to announce the addition of Dr. David Darby (Graduate Chair, Comparative Literature, Western Ontario), Prof. Simon Harel (Directeur, Littérature comparée, Montréal), Prof. Neil ten Kortenaar (Director, Comparative Literature, Toronto) and Dr. Ken Seigneurie (Director, World Literature, Simon Fraser) to the Advisory Board. As such, the priority for Inquire remains the facilitation of respectful, informed and meaningful discussion between students, teachers and scholars who consider literature from unique perspectives of theoretical and practical importance to a global community of writers and readers in the twenty-first century.




David Buchanan (PhD, Comparative Literature, University of Alberta) is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. 



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at]

Join the Discussion