Speaking to the ‘Institutions as Curators’ workshop from the Huntington Library, where he is currently in residence as R. Stanton Avery Distinguished Fellow in the Humanities, Jon Mee offered some initial thoughts about his ambitions for the network. Below are the notes from which he was working in this presentation, which lay out a number of directions in which the network will be looking to progress.
- Definitions of ‘literature’ are notoriously difficult. For many post-Romantic understandings, literature is by definition not an institution. Jacques Derrida once characterized literature as ‘a place at once institutional and wild, an institutional place in which it is in principle permissible to put in question, at any rate to suspend, the whole institution.’ Historically speaking, the world of letters depended on the church and the court. The marketplace may well be implicated in fostering an idea of the ‘literary’ as non-institutional in ways that reinforced a Romantic hermeneutics of personal encounter between reader and author as its defining aspect, as it was for Thomas De Quincey with William Wordsworth.
- My own understanding of the ‘literary’ – somewhat after Pierre Bourdieu – thinks of it as defined by a field of forces constituted by diverse practices across a dispersed landscape in which institutions play (and/or have played) a key role. I’m hoping in this project to get a more developed sense of this diversity and its dispersal as well as to find ways of considering its recuperation into networks of various kinds.
- In the process, I am hoping to develop the taxonomy, presently pretty impoverished, for thinking though these issues, including, for instance, how one relates institutions to networks. Are institutions networks and nodes in networks, or are they to be understood as too official and/or ossified to be understood as networks? While in residence at the Huntington, I’ve been to a couple of papers by economists looking at the way networks are used to disperse various kinds of financial information, and in each one ‘network’ and ‘institution’ were used as virtual antonyms. I should say that my hope is not to stabilize some proper usage, but to get a degree of self-consciousness about our understanding of groups. ‘Coterie’ is a word, for instance, much in use lately, but it’s not clear to me that those who use it have thought very much about its implications.
- In the process, I’d like to develop a better understanding of how specific institutions have worked as spaces. Did they form physical ‘institutions’ with purpose-built accommodations? Were these accommodations understood as exclusive or inclusive? Of whom? What kinds of practices did they encourage? What kind of things caused controversy or difficulty? What do those practices or controversies reveal about the idea of the ‘literary’ in their particular circumstances? How do these understandings help us think about the broader diversified domain of the ‘literary’ and its relation to other social and cultural forms?