We’ve now held the second workshop in the ‘Institutions of Literature, 1700-1900’ series, ‘Institutions as Networks’; this took place at the Society of Antiquaries in London last week (on Thursday 13th and Friday 14th of July). As with the previous ‘Institutions as Curators’ workshop, there were a wide range of fascinating contributions from our participants; the papers were of a universally high standard and opened up a whole series of issues that we hope to address collaboratively in the remaining time that this network will run and through further successor projects. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts from our contributors, which will display the range and scope of the material covered. To kick off this blog post series, I thought I’d write up four observations that I put together as part of my contribution to the final roundtable, which responded to the workshop as a whole.
1) While the title ‘Institutions of Literature, 1700-1900’ was already put under pressure in the previous workshop in Glasgow, the London workshop further problematised every element of that title, including ‘of’. We spent a considerable amount of time discussing what an institution might be defined as being; probing the boundaries of what might be considered literature; considering whether literature was a thing that ever sat comfortably within institutional systems and regulations; and discussing chronologies. None of these discussions was straightforwardly conclusive, but they all opened up questions that literary studies often tends to ignore due to its generally focusing on works of individual writers. While the institutional story of literature remains to be written, it was clear from the many fascinating papers at the workshop that there’s a lot of potential there.
2) ‘Institutions as Curators’ focused to a large extent on collections, archives and objects, considering how these were apprehended, organised, catalogued and curated. However, the contributors to ‘Institutions as Networks’ were generally far more interested in print culture. Papers considered institutional publications and transactions and many focused on the ways that institutions represented and instantiated themselves through the medium of print. While at the conclusion of the ‘Curators’ workshop, Alex Buchanan raised the possibility of defining an institution as something that produces its own archive, ‘Networks’ seemed more inclined to see a media presence as a defining institutional element. Both of these definitions have considerable merit, although with both we should be aware of the potential for evidence bias; after all, an institution’s print and archival remains are often the only evidence that we have for tracing its historical activities. Jon Klancher raised an interesting corollary to this issue when he pointed out that institutions need to stand for something: while networks can be flexible, the successes of institutions are commonly measured by their representing and advancing a purpose or set of purposes. One definition that might follow from this is that an institution is an organisation that draws its authority from the acceptance of a story it tells about itself and the fields of expertise that it claims to be important. I don’t feel that we’ve reached a solid characterisation of institutions yet (there’s certainly more to be said about buildings and spaces), but considering them alongside networks was very helpful for moving forward with this; as Roey Sweet’s account shows, juxtaposing the two concepts can be very revealing.
3) As the papers proceeded, it became clear that participants’ contributions were collectively shading in a broader history of the phases of institutional development, moving from a society regulated by the court, the Church and guilds, to the proliferation of clubs and societies advanced by the middle classes, to the formalisation of these formations into institutions, to the further proliferation, specialisation and duplication of these institutions over the course of the nineteenth century. In particular, two key moments were repeatedly referred to. One was chronologically located in the late eighteenth century and was characterised by the formalisation of older networks of knowledge into institutions and by a surge in publishing activities by these institutions (the Society of Antiquaries, our hosts, and the Society of Arts provide obvious examples of this phenomenon). The more striking period of interest, though, was the 1820s and 1830s. Over the course of the two days, it became apparent that this period was a really critical one for institutional development, as a huge number of new societies were founded along more specialist lines than previous organisations; existing institutions greatly expanded; older modes of authority were challenged; collections passed from private hands into those of public or semi-public institutions; new modes of education were pioneered in organisations like the Mechanics’ Institutes and the University of London; and a great wave of new literary and philosophical societies and colonial institutions spread across Britain and the world. This period is often neglected in literary histories focused around traditional canons of writers, but looking at institutions provides an important lens for reconsidering the enormously important print-cultural developments of this period, during which the expanded franchise legislated into existence by the Reform Bill of 1832 was mirrored by a vast expansion in the audiences for print and for culture. Institutions sometimes supported these new audiences, sometimes were created by them and sometimes sought to regulate them. While there are a lot of intricacies still to be unpacked here, it does seem that there’s a reasonable amount of evidence for dating the emergence of the modern institutionalised world within which we live and work today to this period.
4) Over the course of the workshop, we returned repeatedly to the role of women in institutional formations, within which they were often side-lined or forced into passive roles as regulators of taste and conduct. While it is certainly true that institutions often acted to exclude women in ways that deserve a great deal of further study, it also became clear that thinking about institutions can be hugely useful for modern researchers for addressing groups who are often marginalised within the primary discourses of literary studies. We heard fascinating papers on reading in imperial locations across the southern hemisphere; on the emergence of mechanics’ institutes and the rise of mass education; on the army as a producer of literary materials and ideas; and on the vast range of neglected literary works produced through and by the Temperance Movement. Using institutional records to construct a more accurate history of reading is an enormous project, but it became clear over the course of the workshop that the activities of institutions encode evidence that can usefully challenge our conventional views of literary history, which emerged from relatively elite discourses (often themselves propagated by institutions). A kind of cultural history that accounts for institutions as well as individuals can go a considerable way towards providing us with a fuller, more diverse and more representative picture of the operations of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century culture.