(Many thanks to Crystal Lake (Wright State University) for sending us a post that reflects on ‘Institutions as Networks’ workshop as a whole while also setting out the thesis of the fascinating talk that she gave with Kristen Schuster (King’s College London).)

At one point deep into the second day the workshop, I jotted a note in the margin of my notebook that captures Matt’s summary of the workshop: “We spent a considerable amount of time discussing what an institution might be defined as being.”  In slanted sloppy scribble, I wrote with less eloquence: “What IS an institution, really … WHAT is it!!!???”

As Roey Sweet explains in her post, the workshop introduced similar concerns about the definition of the term “network.”  If we were sometimes tempted to answer the question, “What is an institution,” with “It’s a network,” then we quickly found ourselves back where were started asking, “What is a network, really … what is it?”

In his talk describing new findings from the Stationers’ Register Online project, Giles Bergel pointed out that the word “network” did not even circulate widely in the long eighteenth century, and so we also found ourselves addressing the question of not only “What is a network,” but also “What was a network?”  Sweet similarly observes in her post that when the term “network” was used in the 1700s, it was used as a “descriptor:” a noun that named a thing manufactured by weaving materials together.  There’s no evidence that the “network” functioned as a verb in the long eighteenth century.

Does this mean, then, that Bruno Latour’s influential work on networks, which proved to be a touchstone throughout the workshop, threatens to introduce anachronisms into our studies of the relationships between institutions and networks?  Sweet worries that such might be the case.  As she writes, “The concept of a dynamic network which can be mapped is a product of modernity – of electricity and railways, of gas mains and sewers.”  Consequently, Sweet posits that “The tendency to visualise networks in the form of arrows, Venn diagrams and heat spots, greatly facilitated by the advent of digital humanities, creates a fixity and permanence that never existed and endows tentative relationships with unwarranted certainty.”

In our presentation discussing one such project in the digital humanities – an online edition of the Society of Antiquaries’s Vetusta Monumenta – Kristen Schuster and I attempted to get at these questions while sidestepping their contradictions by simultaneously drawing on Latour’s actor-network-theory and interrogating the historical narrative that informs it.  Latour famously claims the Enlightenment, and especially the work of the Royal Society, has mistakenly led us to think about networks in just the way that Sweet finds problematic: as fixed and permanent.

For Latour, however, networks are fragile and in flux.  They are built and rebuilt – as well as dismantled, remixed, and dissolved – through a vast array of collaborations between agents that include individuals as well as objects.

Kristen and I think that eighteenth-century antiquaries thought about networks this way, too.

We suggested, then, that Vetusta Monumenta – a series of more than three hundred large, lavish, carefully delineated and engraved prints that were commissioned and published by the Society, each of which depicting what we describe as “at-risk” antiquities (objects that members of the Society felt were especially rare or especially fragile) – anticipates Latour’s theories.

The particular attention the Society of Antiquaries paid to rare and obsolete objects and the care they took to collect, preserve, explicate, and represent those objects indicate, we find, a willingness to welcome the objects themselves as collaborators in the construction of networks.

More specifically, our presentation suggested that the antiquaries took on the ex nihilio nihil fit problem that plagued the period’s attempts to define objects’ material qualities, including matter’s capacity for agency, in a “not modern” way that turns out to be surprisingly prescient in hindsight.  While many of their contemporaries struggled to answer the question of “What is matter?” with tautological certainty (it is something, or it is nothing), the antiquaries took a different tack.  Appropriating the rhetorical figure of litotes that the phrase ex nihilio nihil fit frequently introduced into the Enlightenment’s philosophical and scientific writing on matter, the antiquaries answered the question of “What is matter?” with: “it’s not nothing”.

Such a litotian formulation of materiality allows objects – even rare and obsolete ones – the ability to shape and reshape networks in ways that do not readily lend themselves to traditional historical analysis.  The quality of “not nothing,” in other words, elides problems of teleology and causal determinism; moreover, as “not nothing,” objects can collaborate to build or develop networks at geographic or temporal scales that can be local and quick as well as global and slow, and sometimes both all at once.

These insights have arisen because in the process of digitizing Vetusta Monumenta, we’ve had to rethink our vocabularies as well as hack our infrastructure in order even to represent something like Vetusta Monumenta in the first place, which we’ve discovered was a remarkably sophisticated, innovative project – conceptually and technologically – in its own time.  As a result, we’ve come to understand the collaborative nature of own Digital Humanities work differently: as a project with many actor-agents who operate in different ways across time, space, and medium.

But how can the way the antiquaries seem to have answered the question of “What is matter?” help us answer the question with which I began: “What IS an institution, really … WHAT is it!!!???”  Sometimes, workshop attendees were tempted to speculate that an institution was a building, or a group of individuals, or series of sites routed by new technologies of travel and correspondence, or an archive, or a readership knitted together by the material circulation of print (like those so wonderfully recreated at the workshop by Porscha Fermanis, Nathan Garvey, Sarah Comyn, and Lara Atkin at the University College Dublin).

Jon Klancher suggested at the end of the workshop, however, that an institution was a narrative: an entity that stood for something (not for nothing!) and had a story to tell as a result.  At the same time, however, Klancher also suggested that this quality made institutions surprisingly risky, even fragile things.

I think that by answering the question of “What is an institution?” like an antiquary might have, with a strong “not nothing,” we can catch a glimpse of their delicacy as well their strength at the same time.  Perhaps then we might say that an institution is an entity that proves especially willing, as Sweet puts it, to allow its networks and all the agents therein a degree of “flexibility, a transience, [and] mutability” – the capacity to shapeshift, as it were – at one or various stages of the institution’s development.  This would entail risk, no doubt; such shapeshifting might go disastrously awry (a point frequently made by Latour), but when it works, new actors enter into the network – be they buildings, individuals, sites, technologies, archives, or readerships.  And whether or not it works or it fails, such shapeshifting always creates the occasion for a new narrative about the institution to emerge.  The benefit of “not nothing,” then, extends in both directions.  “What is it?” “It’s not nothing,” which means it’s “definitely something.”