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[f. EPIC + -ISM.]

The mental habit characteristic of the epic poet.

1878 T. SINCLAIR Mount 166 But the lyricism and the balance of epicism in his nature saved him.

My compliments as always to the OED. I've been thinking, as always, about encyclopedism, and recently I've been reading about lyricism (the spell-checker embedded within this blogging software recognizes the latter but not the former--the same holds true in MS Word). I think it's safe to say we recognize encyclopedism as a word -- if we don't, then we should -- but why we should have lyricism without epicism is entirely beyond me.

"Epicism," as the entry above suggests, enjoyed brief usage in the nineteenth century. Sinclair's is the only example recorded by the OED, but according to this page it's not necessarily the earliest. (A quick search of Google Books confirmed D. K. Sandford's use of the term in his 1830 translation of The Greek Grammar of Frederick Thiersch.) In contrast, the OED credits Thomas Grey with the first recording of "lyricism[s]" in 1760, written in a letter to William Mason, a minor poet and Gray's literary executor. I suppose it would be reasonable to suggest that in the latter half of the eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth the lyric had a much better time of it than the epic, which for the most part had been appropriated by a host of novelists and one ambitious Scotsman. Epics as the Augustans would have thought of them had gone out of the world with Paradise Lost, and if they'd had the word epicism in their day I doubt very much they'd have wanted anyone alive after 1744 to use it. That of course explains neither its abence in the 18th century nor its apparent creation and presence in the 19th, but I'll leave such things to the lexicographers.

There's something to be said for Sinclair's deployment of the terms as opposites; lyricism balanced by epicism. Not having read Sinclair, I can't accurately explain precisely what's at work in the statement, but I can pluck it from its context and make an eighteenth-century argument that's relevant to my work with encyclopedias and encyclopedism. Part of what's at stake must refer to scope--the narrow subject of the lyric vs. the expansive grasp of the epic. The author of the Memoirs of Literature for Monday, June 5, 1710 writes that "Lyrick Verses, so call’d because they were sung upon the Lyre, are a Branch of Epick Poetry, and contain the Description of a single Fact, or of a single Passion, and Ceremony” (49). The epic accounts for all or much--the complete range of human characters, emotions, etc., all deployed in the course of relating a complete action. The lyric accounts for one part of that range--or so this author seems to suggest. If lyricism truly entails that kind of specificity (along with its attachment to sentiment or poetic enthusiasm, as the OED and Grey suggest), then what might epicism be meant to comprehend? What is the "mental habit," as the OED puts it, of the epic poet?

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the epic poet was though to require a comprehensive imagination and knowledge as well as the ability to digest and organize his (most frequently his--there are few female epic poets of note, though Dacier of course translated Homer, and epic-by-proxy certainly comes close to the "real" thing in our post-elevation-of-original-genius understanding of authorship) knowledge into a unified literary work. Eighteenth-century poets and critics (including the likes of Dryden and Pope) certainly gave this faculty to Homer and Virgil; they identified Chaucer as having a comprehensive imagination; they said as much of Shakespeare; and of course, they honored Milton with such praise.

I'm bringing up Milton for two reasons: 1) yesterday marked his 400th birthday and 2) one can't talk about epic in the eighteenth century without dealing with it in one way or another. I'm writing in part about generic durability (the usefulness of genres over time) in the context of the search for complete knowledge, and it's widely acknowledged that Milton wrote the last, best example of epic poetry in the English language (yes, we can make room for Byron and others if you really insist, but the epics of the Romantic poets were either acknowledged as incomplete or considered to be too different from the classical model to make the grade). As Marvell observed in his prefatory poem:

"Thou hast not missed one thought that could be fit,
And all that was improper does omit:
So that no room is here for writers left,
But to detect their ignorance or theft" (27-30).

No room for writers left; Milton's successors--Blackmore and a few scattered others excepted--treated the genre like it died in its perfection. What remains for a poet to do, when he or she believed that in Paradise Lost Milton had achieved the following, from another prefatory poem by Milton's friend Samuel Barrow? (trans. from the Latin):

"You who read Paradise Lost, the magnificent poem by the great Milton, what do you read but the story of everything? The book includes all things, and the origins of all things, and their destinies and ends. The innermost secrets of the great universe are revealed, and whatever lies hidden in the entire world is there set out: the land and breadth of the sea, and the depths of the sky amd the sulphurous fire-vomiting den of Erebus--all that lives on earth and in the sea, and everything that lives in dark Tartarus and in the bright kingdoms of Heaven above; whatever is included anywhere within any boundaries, and also that which is without boundary: chaos and infinite God, and what is even more without limit, if there is anything that is more without limit, the love towards mankind embodies in Christ...Anyone who will read this poem will think that Homer only sang of frogs, Virgil only of gnats."

Clearly an argument is being made here for a particular kind of epic comprehensiveness that made Paradise Lost what Johnson would later call, in assent with others, "a book of universal knowledge" (The Lives of the English Poets). At stake in these claims, however, is precisely what is meant by knowledge, the definition and nature of which were in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries changing with the advent of empiricism and the efforts undertaken by the Royal Society, its members, and their like across Europe.

Most of the fallout from the above is the subject and substance of my second chapter (in order of presentation rather than composition), so I don't want to give away the best (worst) bits here. In any case the chapter is currently standing in the corner giving me dirty looks as if to say "go on then, I DARE you to write me. What are you? Chicken?" This has been way way of making a threatening gesture towards it. Epicism. A useful term in no way current in the early eighteenth but still useful--how do discuss the existence of something before the word identifying it exists? Signifiers! Signifieds! Can we talk of culture before the word "culture?" Yes. Can I speak of epicism before "epicism?" Surely...?


Devouring Time

Flummoxed as I am by my investigation of collaborative v. individual composition in the early 18th century and the respective connections of each method to contemporaneous concepts of comprehensive completeness (the alliteration here is an unhappy coincidence, I swear--except, perhaps, for "coincidence"), I thought I'd take yet another break from thinking about something that doesn't matter to think about something that doesn't matter in a much more interesting way.

It seems to me--and I know I'm not alone in this--that the eighteenth century (or eighteenth-century studies, at any rate) has in the last few years achieved new purchase on modernity. I am probably skewing too much towards a kind of presentism in my own work because of the links (dare I say patterns? No, not until I have tenure--tenure!--probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities) I see between individual, institutional, and disciplinary responses to the proliferation (or re-proliferation, thanks very much to digitization) of print in the eighteenth and our own centuries.

Modern technology holds out the promise of advances in learning forestalled by the limitations of print technology, but some of the old obstacles that shaped or altered the course of knowledge production during the Enlightenment have once again been "wired" into new technologies by the limitations of our still untranscended humanness. In short, mortality continues to get in the way of everything I'd like to accomplish--ie., complete knowledge. When faced with the opportunity to surf through an expanding sea of texts, it seems that our first response is the application of some method that will help us to account for less of it. Encyclopedists, system-makers, magazine editors, even novelists and poets have spent centuries applying methods designed to serve this function. So have we: canons, syllabuses, periods, etc. You have 14 weeks to teach a survey course of British Literature--what goes, what stays? I recently listened to a very interesting talk the central argument of which depended on an ECCO-wide quantitative analysis of select key words in full-text searches (demonstrating the merit of the method was also part of the point). This accounts for thousands of texts--in a very limited way. Much less of those texts "comes across" to the "reader" -- or, in this example, the auditor. This method mediates the archive in such a way as to make the comprehensive comprehensible, but this comprehensibility requires a narrower, nigh-paradoxical understanding of what "comprehensive" might mean.

And it STILL took months to accomplish. The problems are many, but the first, as always given our mortality, is time. Which leads me, by circuitous route, to my new favorite clock and the real purpose of this post. As usual I come late to the game, but I've only just learned about it:

The Corpus Clock, designed by John Taylor, was unveiled in September by Stephen Hawking. The 24 karat gold-plated clock--the face of which measures 1.5 meters in diameter--hangs outside the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge. I am fascinated by it for several reasons, but the primary attractions are these:

1) The escapement is of the grasshopper variety; in fact, it's the largest grasshopper escapement in the world. The grasshopper escapement was designed by eighteenth-century English clockmaker John Harrison, whose marine chronometers were instrumental in solving the longitude problem; Taylor specifically included the grasshopper escapement as an homage to Harrison's accomplishment.

2) The clock has no hands; instead the time is told by LED lights that shine out through slits in the faceplate. Thus the clock clearly combines eighteenth- and twenty-first-century technologies in order to do the "same thing" (tell time) in a different way. The clock does not keep "accurate" time in the traditional sense of the term. Rather it keeps a kind of "relative" time, slowing down or speeding up to reflect our perceptions of time's irregular passing. Or our irregular perceptions of time's passing. Or our perception of time's passing irregularity. Or something.

3) THE CHRONOPHAGE! Taylor made the grasshopper escapement into a proper, giant, terrifying, monstrous grasshopper beastie with a working jaw that opens and closes with the turning of the wheel. The escapement thus appears to eat the time as it passes--hence the term Chronophage. That grasshopper has swallowed up my twenties; it's now nibbling on my thirties; and if I don't get a move on with this dissertation it'll have eaten up all my best years and left me nothing to show for it. Taylor meant his monster to be disturbing, and it is.

So I suppose I should get on with it. I take much more solace in the Clock of the Long Now, which reminds me that my life is one in a very long series of lives lived by other people. It depersonalizes the passage of time a bit by reminding me of time's scale. So now I have clocks at both ends of the spectrum--one, a 10,000 year clock suggesting that my lifespan amounts to precious little, the other reminding me that every second is precious and is being devoured one at a time.

For an explanation and description of the Corpus Clock by its designer, click here.



Having received one of the three seals of approval needed to proceed to the next stage of the terrible life choice I've made, I decided to treat myself to a brief sojourn from it-that-must-not-be-named in order to spend some time with something not yet on any syllabus anywhere.

I first read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon four or five summers ago; three years ago I read Quicksilver and The Confusion, the first two parts of The Baroque Cycle. I finally got round to part three, The System of the World, two years ago. If you're not familiar with Stephenson's works, they're incredibly complex, extraordinarily detailed, and meticulously researched. The three volumes of The Baroque Cycle are among my favorite works of historical fiction, and they certainly top the list of modern novels set in the long eighteenth century. (If anyone can point me to more, suggestions are welcome--no more David Liss for the moment, please, unless you are absolutely sure I'd find The Whiskey Rebels compelling.) Stephenson's writing lacks emotional complexity, his female characters are generally underdeveloped, and his endings don't always pay off to the extent you'd like, but the worlds he creates and the plots he weaves through them are thoroughly engrossing. At no point over the course of The Baroque Cycle's roughly 2000 pages did I feel like I was wasting my time. In short, I'm a fan.

Stephenson's latest is called Anathem, a term mutually derived from "anthem" and "anathema." It's set well into what we would identify as our future--so much so that our own time has become ancient history. The reason I can write about this novel in a blog ostensibly dedicated to all things Enlightenment is summarized quite nicely by Stephenson himself in one the "extras" available on his website (careful if you visit; you might encounter spoilers): "the metaphysical thread linking The Baroque Cycle to Anathem begins with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s Monadology, available in various translations, online and otherwise. The idea was submerged for much of the 18th and 19th Centuries but gained currency during the 20th as the inspiration for background-independent formulations of physics." I haven't read Monadology, but I am familiar enough with its basic propositions that I can follow the line from the 18th to the 21st to whatever century Anathem takes place in.

Stephenson explores a number of fairly heady philosophies that range from Platonism and almost-but-not-entirely-un-veiled theories about Ideal Forms to twentieth and twenty-first-century formulations of quantum mechanics. I'm no philosopher, but in addition to the more easily recognized philosophies that emerged from ancient Greece as well as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers like Descartes, Liebniz, Locke, Newton, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, I managed to spot some of what I knew from my brief dalliances with general relativity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and superstring theory. I've always found these things fascinating if a bit over my head, and there are definitely moments at which I felt myself holding on to the book for dear life, but as usual Stephenson gives you enough to keep up even if you have to let some things fall by the wayside. The protagonist, Fraa Erasmas ("fraa" is a title rather than a name, and it carries essentially the same value as our "fra," though without a religious connotation) is a nineteen-year-old student in what amounts to a kind of think-tank, so from the outset learning (mostly in the form of what characters refer to as "dialogs") is foregrounded as a matter of critical importance; characters and readers alike are clearly in for some education.

Speaking of education, students, and schools, readers of the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials series will certainly see parallels; Stephenson takes elements from both and embeds them in a much more sophisticated universe not readily accessible by younger readers. Stephenson has spoken about the failure of Rowling's works to break into what we (snooty bastards that we are) would call Literature, and with Anathem I think he's attempting to elevate the parts he likes to a higher plane. The "concent" in which much of the early action takes place reads like equal parts Pullman's Oxford and Rowling's Hogwarts, which of course were already connected; wands, magic spells, and armored bears aside, Stephenson seems to be portraying some of what might go on in such places at the graduate level. The read therefore is neither as fast nor as fun, but it is in its way far more intellectually rewarding--if, at the end, a bit joyless.

There's a bit more I'd like to say about the connection of Anathem to the Long Now Foundation, but Stephenson does it for me (again, check the website), so really this paragraph amounts to a plug for that entirely fascinating organization. I'll just say in conclusion that some critics have described Anathem as--well, dull. They're not entirely wrong; it lacks the zip of The Baroque Cycle and the immediacy of Cryptonomicon. Thus far, however, I'm thinking about Anathem more in the aftermath of reading it than I did with the others and liking it a bit more in the finish than the palate. If you've read it or are going to read it, I'd like to hear your thoughts.

For some of the weird, some of the world, and some of the words from the dictionary provided alongside both, check out the following widget. But don't watch the trailer. It's awful.


Swiss Miss

Justice has finally been served. Today, the government of the Swiss state of Glarus, in conjunction with both the Protestant and Catholic churches, officially exonerated Anna Goeldi -- the last woman tried and executed for witchcraft in Europe.

One might ask why I have chosen to take note of this. I could say that the DNC coverage has put me in a political mood, and that speeches condemning torture have made Goeldi's story seem strangely relevant. She confessed under torture to having made a pact with the devil, who appeared to her (as he does) in the shape of a black dog.

Her testimony did not lead to the arrest of the devil. Nor, indeed, of the dog.

I could say it's because she was held on the baseless charge of feeding needles to her master's daughter by supernatural means, and subsequently tried by the Protestant Church council -- which did not have the legal authority to try her.

I could also say it's because this brings Pamela to mind. Goeldi left her home in Sennwald looking for work and found a position as a maidservant in the house of Jakob Tschudi, a physician and magistrate. According to local journalist Walter Hauser, Tschudi quite fancied her. The two had an affair, but Tschudi had to have her silenced when she threatened to go public. His prayer was answered when the church council had her beheaded by sword-stroke in the public square.

Say what you will about Squire B., but at least he didn't have poor Pamela done for witchcraft.

Of course not, you will say; Richardson published Pamela in 1740. Witchcraft had gone the way of aether, eye-beams, and decent epic poetry. Perhaps, I will say; but that didn't stop the church council from returning a conviction for the crime in 1782.

This is why I'm taking note. The court probably no longer believed in witchcraft, though it remained a crime. Officially they convicted her for poisoning, but as the act was non-lethal it shouldn't have carried the death penalty. So, really, witchcraft it was. But, according to the government that has just exonerated her, "Goeldi's execution was even more incomprehensible as it happened in the Age of Enlightenment when 'those who made the judgment regarded themselves as educated people.'" Hauser makes a similar claim: "Educated people here did not believe in witchcraft in 1782."

It's a tad difficult to tell about precisely what the officials and other folks of Glarus feel worse: the injustice committed against an innocent woman, or the idea that people will think their ancestors still believed in witchcraft during the Age of Enlightenment. They're caught between the devil (or a dog) and the deep blue sea: history can remember them as having either been evil or ignorant.

I must say I'm not entirely sure that if those were my only options I wouldn't rather choose to go down as evil.

On a separate note--I'm not sure where I stand on the subject of overdue government apologies for crimes committed ages ago by people long dead. I can see their symbolic value, I suppose, but at the same time they strike me as being a bit silly. Was anyone really waiting around for the government to speak up before deciding where to come down on Anna Goeldi's guilt or innocence? And what's this government really got to do with the one that looked the other way two and a half centuries ago?


The library's the thing

It's been about four months since anyone has commented on a post. This saddens but does not surprise me. Really I do prefer to do all the talking myself, as it saves time and prevents arguments.

But, in the interest of generating conversation, and in the even greater interest of not working on my dissertation, I'd like to share a brief anecdote and then solicit the feedback of my readers.

I've always wanted to pretend to have readers.

A couple of years ago, I paid for a lifetime membership to librarything.com. In my more optimistic days I thought I might have a future in academia, and so believed that my library would soon grow out of all compass and want some form of functional catalog. (I see by the little red squiggly dots we're no longer spelling that "catalogue.") I entered everything I owned and have continued to do so, but really it's been an exercise in narcissism. I for reasons passing understanding aspire to have more obscure books; I stand back and marvel at my almost oppressively canonical author cloud; I wonder when my "eighteenth-century" tag will finally dwarf all other tags by a ludicrous margin. It's full-on gloriously self-indulgent book-nerd exhibitionism. But it hasn't been useful.

Until today. Having watched the trailer for Watchmen, I found myself wanting to reread it. I couldn't remember, though, if I already owned it. I was about to buy a copy when I remembered librarything and decided to check it. I searched my books, and there it was. Saved me eleven bucks, plus shipping.

Provided, of course, I can find it, which brings me to the point. Though my library is exceedingly small, my apartment is even smaller, so shelf space is at a premium. Like any actual library, I at some point had to make a decision about what I wanted to have immediately accessible and what could go into the apartment-dweller's version of off-site storage: some plastic bins shoved under my bed, in my closet, etc. Right now, sitting in prime positions on a very comfortable bit of pine, are books that I have not touched in years. Meanwhile, the book I want is no doubt at the very bottom of an unmarked box buried under three years' worth of stuff that even Superfund isn't prepared to deal with. Therefore, as has been the case several times this summer at the British Library, recovery of my requested item could take up to a week. The point is, I got it wrong -- I did not accurately anticipate my likely needs, and failed to make critical decisions about space according to the right criteria. I think I got tripped by vanity; thinking back on how I went about it at the time, I left anything that could be classified as Literature on the shelves and left everything else to the mercy of the dust-bunnies. Old textbooks, pleasure-reading, etc. went first. Eventually the Russian lit fell, then the French. The whole of the 20th century followed, and at the moment it's not looking good for 1850-1900.

So my questions are: 1) do you have a librarything account, and 2) if so, has it been useful? 3) If not, have you ever had to waste half a day looking for a book you couldn't possibly have known you'd need when you deprioritized it and 4) if so, have you actually found doing so a perversely rewarding experience? Lastly--5) how are your books organized now, and by what criteria did you determine their arrangement?


Size Matters

I had intended to use that phrase for a section of my chapter on encyclopedias, but it'll probably get folded in to some larger chunk with an equally inappropriate heading that someone with more sense than I have will eventually make me change.

The last part of that sequence has thus far gone for far more than mere headings.

It's a subject that has been endlessly covered by scholars of compendia from antiquity straight through the eighteenth century. Ann Blair has called it the "experience of overabundance," which is a terrific phrase for it as people have been whining about the "multitude" of books long before the printing press made it abundantly clear (overabundantly clear?) that all that already was was going to become a mere fraction of what would be. I could make that clearer but won't. Vincent de Beauvais, for example, compelled by the multitude of books and the "slipperiness of memory," put together 10,000 chapters worth of at-hand information about the arts, sciences and history in his Speculum Maium, or "Great Mirror," which went unrivaled in size and scope until the mid-eighteenth century. And he did it in the thirteenth century.

One of the main reasons both encyclopedias and periodicals (the reviews and magazines) are the length they are is because of time and space restrictions--or so you'd think. They often say, "I'd have added more here, but production is already behind schedule," or "the additional expense would price us out of the market" or somesuch. Paper got cheaper and people got richer, of course, so in the never-ending quest for epistemological completeness encyclopedias did in fact get longer. A lot longer. As in measurable in feet longer. And heavier, and more expensive. If I don't plan to keep them on the floor I need the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure my shelves can support the weight.

But then there's the reader's part in all this. Wikipedia, about which I don't know nearly enough, is theoretically released from the material aspects of length. Server space might be an issue, but not really--or at least, not to the extent that space was an issue for its meatspace ancestors. But Wikipedia still has length restrictions on its articles, and that to me is terribly interesting.

Harris' Lexicon Technicum breaks everything down into dictionary definitions. Chambers has articles that run to several pages, but in principle it relies on cross-references to render the connections between all the parts of knowledge. The first Britannica digests it all into systems and treatises because the cross-referencing was confusing and didn't work. There's a tension between length and comprehension--too short, you lose the sense of the whole; too long, you start to lose the details. This is the limitation imposed by the human--this is why to some extent the medium doesn't matter.

Wikipedia has (relatively) unlimited space; paper means nothing, shelf space is irrelevant. But we still get this as a big 'old flag on top of the entry on the Roman Empire:

This article may be too long.
Please discuss this issue on the talk page; if necessary, split the content into subarticles and keep this article in a summary style.

The page on article length, to be fair, does suggest that there are in fact technical limitations. Some browsers apparently balk at things that are too long. But the readability issue comes first, and it says this:

"Readers may tire of reading a page much longer than about 6,000 to 10,000 words, which roughly corresponds to 30 to 50 KB of readable prose."

Now if I read 6,000 to 10,000 words about the same thing divided over ten different pages, am I not going to tire?

Kurzweil better be right. Wikipedia is just silly without a transhuman.

I wish this were better thought out, but I'm hungry and late for King Lear.


All the Angle(r)s

In my recently restarted audit of all things compleat--about 900 between 1600-1700, going by ESTC title searches, and about (gulp) 5000 between 1700-1800, I decided to do a little preliminary secondary research into what I imagined would be a largely overlooked body of literature. It gives me no end of pleasure, and absolutely no surprise, to have discovered Defoe adding his two cents to the genre--he gave us at least four "compleats," two of which duplicated the titles of long-running 17th-century works, one that I think deploys the trope ironically, and one--"A compleat system of magick"--that is rather more of a history and which therefore, I think, belongs to a different subgenre. (The boundaries between all these categories, are, as you'd expect, fairly porous, and if early novels frequently called themselves the histories of so-and-so, a lot of histories about non-human subjects did the same.)

As a sort of digressive point of interest, Defoe explains that those who were once called "Magicians" were nothing more than mathematicians, or Men of Science, who "stor'd with knowledge and learning, as learning went in those days, were a kind of walking Dictionary to other people" (2). Magic = Wisdom = Comprehensive Knowledge.

But back to my initial point--why, one wonders, did the North Dakota Quarterly decide in 2006 to make Izaak Walton's "The Compleat Angler" the focus of its interest to the tune of four complete articles, and why have the six most recent MLA entries turning up with a keyword search of "compleat" turned out to be about angling?

There is (he said because he couldn't resist) something fishy going on.


Harry Potter and the Plagiarist's Spellbook

As my dissertation is once again gnashing its teeth at me -- these things turn on you if you don't feed them -- I thought I'd spend a minute luxuriating in yet another run-in of contemporary pop culture and my eighteenth-century literary interests.

For a more detailed and no doubt intelligent explication of what follows, I refer you to this article.

The item in my glib and unnecessarily condemnatory post title is (as those of you more versed in Harry Potter paratexts and fan fiction generally will know) more than a collection of the charms scattered throughout Rowling's series of books. I haven't been to the site whereat the document originated and frankly I can't be asked, but from what I've gathered it seems one Steven Vander Ark has compiled a collection of Potternalia and organized it into something of an online reference source (a "Harry Potter Lexicon"). It got accolades and commendations from Rowling herself and was generally well-thought of until someone got the bright idea of putting it on paper and making it available for sale, thus taking it out of the comfortably not-for-profit world of web-based mega-coterie circulation. Rowling et al. have (somewhat suddenly) labeled Vander Ark a thief and a plagiarist and are suing him for copyright violation.

The legal representative of the press behind the lexicon calls it a legal way "to organize and discuss the complicated and very elaborate world of Harry Potter."

Rowling says the lexicon "fails to include any of the commentary and discussion that enrich the Web site" and calls it 'nothing more than a rearrangement' of her own material."

The haphazard application of fair-use principles and the number of virtual violators of copyright law can render the web a sort of Knockturn Alley with respect to intellectual property. What's REALLY at stake is Rowling's not wanting someone horning in on her future profits--she plans to put out her own Potterpedia and is understandably, if jealously, guarding her market share. But it's more fun to consider the question from the perspective of originality, and the old problem of what it is precisely that an author owns. In terms of legal action, this question goes back at least to the early 18th century, when the passage of the Statute of Queen Anne in 1710 first established authorial ownership privileges. The author, as the act would have it, "owns" the arrangement of the words that constitute the text. This arrangement is unique and cannot be duplicated without the author's giving permission or receiving compensation, within a stipulated number of years.

That's all well and good, and though the act was scarcely enforced (hardly any authors presented cases before courts in the first ten years of the act's passing) it still set up something of a groundwork.

The issue, however, complex as it is, gets even more complicated with the case of encyclopedias, which is what the HP Lexicon purports to be. Throughout the eighteenth century, and particularly in its latter half and last quarter, encyclopedias pilfered from primary sources and each other with relative impunity. William Smellie, compiler of the first Encyclopedia Britannica, claimed to have put the thing together with a pair of scissors. Though he wrote a few entries himself, he touted his great contribution to the world of knowledge as having far more to do with the arrangement and organization of his materials than his role in producing the materials themselves.

One might also think of the quasiencyclopedic texts put out in the wake of Richardson's Clarissa, which are probably more in keeping with this case: a book or books the length of which make information organization difficult necessitate (and I think necessitate is a reasonable word to use, here) a kind of generic intercession. Something must help the reader to organize the information by deconstructing the system it constituted; the mind cannot hold it all at once, and must look elsewhere for assistance on those occasions when supplementary memory is required. The novels, because they are novels, and because the generic codes that delineate them from encyclopedias have nicely hardened up in the aftermath of Tristram Shandy, no longer have embedded encyclopedical (another neologism!) features. Novels scarcely ever have indexes (editions of Richardson's novels did), and some very few have glossaries (the articles refer to Vander Ark's text as an encyclopedia, he calls it a lexicon--there's a difference, but don't ask them what it is).

This is not to say that Vander Ark hasn't stepped over the line; his A-Z rearrangement of Rowling's texts may well constitute a violation of current US and/or UK copyright law. What I take immense pleasure in is the fact that this problem of copyright and encyclopedic reconstitution has been around for a couple of hundred years and we still haven't entirely sorted out precisely how to deal with it.



I recently received the following CFP:

The Eighth Fordham University Graduate English Association Conference
Innovation and Evolution
October 4, 2008
New York, NY

This interdisciplinary conference seeks to explore the impulse to change, improve and evolve. What sparks literary innovation? How does social change reflect itself in emerging cultural artifacts? How will technological innovations manifest themselves in our cultural productions in the coming months, years, or decades? Is the impulse to innovate a historical phenomenon, or is the word innovation a misnomer? What myths of individual or social progress shape our reading and criticism? What is the potential backlash of innovation? How have the academic disciplines evolved (or devolved)? How and why have genres evolved over time, and how have new genres found a place in the literary canon?
Given my dissertation interests (the proliferation of print and its influence on generic development), this seems like it should be straight up my alley. I have already done some work on the novel and encyclopedia, and I imagine I could mold part of my novel chapter to meet the requirements of the conference. That said, I have put in bold something of particular interest to me -- something that is clearly (and worryingly) becoming of greater interest to those at my own and other universities: the impact of technological innovations.

The first thing I think of is online secondary research databases and what I refer to as the JSTOR effect. In a recent class of mine, we were discussing Dickens. I managed to get an article published on Our Mutual Friend in Dickens Studies Annual a year or so ago, and joked to my students that I didn't fret over them seeking it out because it wasn't on JSTOR. Rather, it's moldering away in meatspace, rightfully being ignored by those who already have enough digital material to root through without tip-toeing through the labyrinthine stacks of the library and risking doing themselves a damage by falling off one of those wheeled step-stool contraptions. You're taking your life in your hands, going after something inconveniently shelved. Best leave it alone--if it's not online, it must not be worth having, anyway; someone somewhere who makes decisions about what merits the medium clearly concluded for whatever reason that the poor folks at DSA didn't make the top tier. Or perhaps the poor folks at DSA had neither the means nor the inclination to seek digital distribution. Obviously, I don't like this or agree with it, but if it isn't already the mentality of most undergraduates it soon will be, and from this generation of undergraduates comes the next generation of graduate students, comes the next generation of professors, comes the next generation of undergraduates. The new library is digital; materiality is immaterial; the part replaces the whole; discourse is therefore restricted. This much is just a rehashing of Foucault and Liebniz and a whole bunch of other would-be librarians throughout the ages who fretted the irreconcilable tension between the essential and the comprehensive and ultimately had to make the same sorts of choices that are still made today: what to keep, what to throw away.

Every new technological medium constitutes a new way to manage the chaos--a theoretically temporary but practically long-term act of implicitly hierarchical reductionism. The pattern proceeds from the encyclopedia right through to the great digital archives: out there is everything. For our purposes, everything is infinite, and infinity is meaningless. So really there is only something, and therefore necessarily not other things. The encyclopedias have everything, but don't really; the libraries have everything, but don't really; JSTOR has everything, but doesn't really. What they have--or aspire to have, or think they aspire to have, or imply that they have--is the best of everything. This book, but not this book, this article but not that, and so on. That's all they can do. What constitutes the "best" changes, of course, but there's always a judgment being made that suggests some sort of value. Book A is online. Book B lives in the stacks; Book C lives in the underground facility; Book D lives at some location three days away; Book E lives in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps B through D will all be reborn as PDFs eventually, but the immediate message of the medium is one of temporally based valuation and hierarchization. First things first, as they say.

The "new" genres of the 18th century, and the new features of some old genres, as I'm on about in my dissertation, are technological developments: new media designed to reduce the everything to the something and make the something into everything: the universal canon, everything you need to know. Not everything there is.

I have a Kindle now, and I quite like it. I particularly like the way it fits the pattern of reduction and hierarchization. Never mind the shockingly McLuhanite recreation of the appearance of the printed page--talk about the old medium becoming the contents of the new!--but consider what's available and what's not. Neither the Kindle nor any other electronic reader is likely to render paper entirely obsolete, but imagine an increasing portion of the population choosing this medium over print because (after the initial capital outlay) the books are cheaper, the acquisition is faster, the device is more transportable, etc. All of this should sound familiar. This readership has, at the moment, "more than 110,000 books available, including more than 90 of 112 current New York Times® Best Sellers." You can also get:
  • Top U.S. newspapers including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post; top magazines including TIME, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes—all auto-delivered wirelessly.
  • Top international newspapers from France, Germany, and Ireland; Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and The Irish Times—all auto-delivered wirelessly.
  • More than 250 top blogs from the worlds of business, technology, sports, entertainment, and politics, including BoingBoing, Slashdot, TechCrunch, ESPN's Bill Simmons, The Onion, Michelle Malkin, and The Huffington Post—all updated wirelessly throughout the day.
Boldface added. Kindle is a business venture, they want to attract customers, so they're making the most popular stuff available--the TOP stuff. Whatever constitutes topness on the internet is being carried over to the Kindle--but the Kindle, for the moment, simply does not give access to the not-top stuff. Where's the cutoff? More than 250 top blogs (who knew there were 250 top blogs? Top according to what? Hits? I have no idea)? Is that 260? 270? Why not 271? Who decided where to draw the line, and close off access to those who have decided to make this their principal, if not only, way of reading? This is nothing short of a technodetermined canon--a technocanon that could for some constitute a new, smaller everything. And who on earth is going to read 110,000 books, all the bestsellers, 250+ blogs and however many newspapers?

If we choose these new media--these new technologies--we (for the foreseeable future, anway) accept the temporal hierarchy, the notion that some things are only to be had later, if at all. It is in the nature of these media to demand these hierarchies; not everything can be made available all at once. So the necessity of a canon is technodetermined, but the contents of the canon derive from another, equally necessary but far less transparent process of human mediation. Information has to get through someone (person, institution, policy) in order to get to the Kindle in order to get to us. This has to happen; the human element can't be removed, even if it can be directed. If you set Kindle policy, or JSTOR policy, or ECCO policy, what order would YOU do things in?

None of this is particularly earth-shattering, I'm sure--I was just set off by the CFP. I look forward to watching the progress of archival projects like JSTOR and ECCO and EEBO and so on. I'm no utopian--I don't think they'll ever get around to everything. And even if they did, it wouldn't matter, because I can't read everything.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that the expanding archive will simply result in new opportunities in specialization. We will define whole mini-canons with our search terms, and as we need to weed out more of the more we'll pick narrower and narrower parameters. We will have to know more about less because the more is unmanageable. What does thorough research look like with a million documents at your fingertips? What first book wouldn't take a lifetime to write? The comprehensive archive cannot be understood comprehensively. The seventeenth-century librarians knew it; the eighteenth-century encyclopedists knew it; Sterne even sent up the idea in Tristram Shandy. Hence ever-increasing specialization.

Hello, my name is X. I'm interested in January 1st - January 31st, 1701 studies. What's YOUR period? Oh, you don't agree with periodicity. You say you study three-footed marmosets named Trevor in lyric poetry? I see.

I seem to have gone mad.


Austen hates a know-it-all

In delivering a decidedly off-the-cuff and mercifully perfunctory critique of what I am for the moment referring to as an accidental chapter of my so-called dissertation, one of my directors asked, in so many words, "what about Austen?"

By which she meant, how could I justify my argument that Sterne mocked the encyclopedical (a perilous neologism) projects of the Richardsonian and Fieldian novels with Tristram Shandy because by 1759 the novel was in danger of collapsing under its own weight? Given that--as is certainly the case--we so incontestably have Richardson and Fielding to thank for what did in fact become the novel as we now know it? And further, given that Austen just as incontestably carried forth a great many features of their novels? In short, she asked (thought not with hostility--she seemed rather pleased with the chapter), "are you quite sure you've not done something incredibly stupid? I ask because it's a question you're likely to get in a job talk."

And for the first time while under the lights of this particular examiner, I had a response.

Sterne, I said, declared the end of the encyclopedic novel (the nineteenth centuryists among you are lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks--I should say that "long" does not equal encyclopedic, that Moby Dick did not enjoy tremendous success in its time, and that rather than wipe the form from the face of the earth Sterne merely assisted in highlighting its inadequacies) by writing one that wonderfully fails to achieve what it sets out to accomplish. Certain features of the Richardsonian and Fieldian novels were perfectly valuable and durable--psychological complexity, moral ambiguity, intricate plots, what have you. But systematicity and epistemological comprehensiveness were untenable; complete knowledge was not to be had in any book, be it encyclopedia or novel. Things have to be left out.

Obviously Richardson and Fielding left out a great deal. Their texts weren't comprehensive--but they aspired to a kind of completeness that created a false epistemological totality that I think Sterne thought made them terribly dated and rendered them obsolete rather than immortal. Immortality, Tristram Shandy suggests, is in questions rather than answers; the possibility of further discovery rather than a complete record of the supposedly immutable. Sterne elevates the incomplete and the fragmentary in place of the complete and comprehensive because no work could ever be both comprehensive and complete.

What on earth has this to do with Jane Austen?

From a letter dated Tuesday 9 February, 1813:
Ladies who read those enormous great stupid thick Quarto Volumes, which one always sees in the Breakfast parlour there, must be acquainted with everything in the World.--I detest a Quarto. --Capt. Paisely's Book is too good for their Society. They will not understand a Man who condenses his Thoughts into an Octavo.
Austen is not commenting here on novels, of course--but she is remarking upon a taste for comprehensive knowledge. She had been applied to for information on the oath of Bell Book and Candle, and had none to give (the oath turns out to be part of an archaic excommunication ceremony of the Catholic church--this makes me think of the excommunication that takes place in Tristram Shandy, but of course there's nothing more there than coincidence). There's no need to be acquainted with everything in the world, Austen suggests, and I see no reason why that philosophy shouldn't have been carried over into the composition of her own works.

One might call this a stretch, but when one considers (as I asked my interrogator to do) the sheer tonnage of scholarship done on the significance of what Austen leaves out of her novels, taking this part of her letter for a statement of resistance against epistemological comprehensiveness might make a bit more sense. Austen's novels are very particularly about what they're about, and they're very consciously and, I think, comfortably not about everything. That time in the novel's history had passed; one could have one's sensibility without having to make sense of the Siege of Namur, a trip to Europe, a cyclopedia, or a treatise on the importance of names and noses.

Why my prof. didn't seem to think I should make this part of the chapter, I don't know; maybe it's part of the book that comes later. At least for now I have an answer to what she thought would definitely be a question.