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.