(In advance of ‘Institutions as Actors’, some thoughts toward a revised definition of ‘institution’, based on the network’s discussions – M.S.)

When we wrote the proposal for the ‘Institutions of Literature, 1700-1900’ network in 2015, and when we advertised via our open call for participants in the autumn of 2016, we left what we meant by ‘institution’ purposefully hazy.  The closest that the call came to providing a definition was a description of the functions that we claimed institutions came to occupy during the period we proposed to examine: ‘Between 1700 and 1900, institutions came to play integral roles in literary culture: teaching people how to value writing; providing sites for discussion and networks for circulation; serving as archival repositories; raising and disbursing money; inventing new genres; distributing laurels and condemnations; and authoring works and conducting readings.’[1]  Our invitation to ‘stakeholders and curators who work in surviving institutions originating from [the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries]’ perhaps implied we were privileging definitions focusing on organisations over those centred around practices, but in seeking participants and collaborators, we were keen not to be too prescriptive.  In part, this was because the network was designed to facilitate rather than to dictate, and in part because our hope was that by bringing together a diverse group of scholars and institutional personnel we might collectively arrive at a definition that would be more cogent, representative and useful than any initial formulation.

Now that two of our workshops have taken place, with the third fast approaching, it seems like an apposite time to return to this issue in an attempt to summarise the patterns that have emerged from the network’s discussions thus far.  This, then, represents a provisional attempt to offer a definition that might serve as a jumping-off point for further discussions.

Based on the responses to our call for participants, and the papers that have been given at the workshops thus far, the consensus seems to be that the phrase ‘institutions of literature’ is most commonly understood in line with the seventh definition offered in the Oxford English Dictionary:

An establishment, organization, or association, instituted for the promotion of some object, esp. one of public or general utility, religious, charitable, educational, etc., e.g. a church, school, college, hospital, asylum, reformatory, mission, or the like; as a literary and philosophical institution, a deaf and dumb institution, the Royal National Life-boat Institution, the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (instituted 1798), the Railway Benevolent Institution, etc.  The name is often popularly applied to the building appropriated to the work of a benevolent or educational institution.[2]

Conveniently for the rather arbitrary chronology of the network, the earliest usage example that the OED provides for this sense is from a sermon by Francis Atterbury given in 1707, in which he opines, ‘’Tis not necessary to plead very earnestly in behalf of these Charities […] These, of which you have had an account, are such Wise, such Rational, such Beneficial Institutions.’[3]  While this describes the activities of organisations with longer-standing remits – the charities associated with the church and city – it might be taken as an indication that such organisations were beginning to be seen in new ways around this time, proliferating and operating in manners that were increasingly independent from older and more capacious formations like the state, the church and civic corporations.

This OED definition provides a helpful summary of the types of organisations that are commonly seen as being institutions and its point about the ways that institutional identities can inhere in buildings is one that deserves further consideration, particularly when discussing how institutions endure over decades and centuries.  However, this definition is less helpful for describing what an institution actually does.  Over the course of the network, it has become clear that the practices that institutions employ for promoting their particular objects can be placed within broad categories.  Describing these categories allows us to propose a more detailed definition that might better capture the nature of institutional operations and more fully register the self-reflexive natures of their activities:

An institution is an assemblage that organises, transmits and validates, and that self-consciously represents itself as doing so.

This is a more prescriptive definition than the one that the OED provides, both in an overall sense and in its choice of key terms (italicised).  Therefore, in order to facilitate proper debate and discussion, it is worth being more explicit about why each of these terms was preferred.

Assemblage: This word occupies a crucial position within the definition, having the duty of clarifying what an institution is without blurring the category either with too sharp a specificity or too hazy a generalisation.  As it stands at the moment, assemblage is the trickiest part of this definition, and a word that could potentially be switched out for several different alternatives.

One possibility – although a slightly inelegant one within the context of the current framing – would be to follow the OED and use the word organisation.  Institutions are certainly organised to a greater or lesser extent, and serve importantly as organisers.  However, organisation is problematic both in its being quite closely synonymous with institution and in its implying shades of difference that distort some of the connotations of authority, permanence and materiality that the word institution evokes.  One of the key insights of the ‘Institutions as Networks’ workshop was that while the network is a productive metaphor to put into conversation with institutions and while institutions often arise out of and play key roles in constructing networks, once an institution has emerged, it is necessarily less flexible and open than a network is commonly understood as being, requiring formal procedures and a more tightly-defined identity in order to operate effectively.  As a word, organisation feels like it sits somewhere on a spectrum between network and institution.  Using it to define the latter therefore risks an unhelpful looseness.

For a fair amount of time during the drafting process, collective was used in this part of the definition.  This still has a considerable amount to recommend it.  The strength of collective as a descriptor lies in its reflecting the ways that institutions emerge from the combined efforts of groups and validate their activities through evoking the involvement of combinations of people occupying roles that might include members, fellows, officers, subscribers, students and users.  An institution’s authority depends on the social recognition of the value of its work, which is often demonstrated through affiliations advertised in forms such as the membership list, the annual report or the post-nomial title.  Even when in practice the vast majority of an institution’s work is carried out by a particular individual or by a small group of individuals, this work is legitimised as being institutional through the tacit consent of larger groups of stakeholders.  Collective also evokes the ways in which institutions create social bonds between their stakeholders; these bonds rely in part on positive practices of inclusion, but also on the exclusion of those unwilling to sign up to an institution’s ethos and of those who an institution’s insiders judge to be unworthy of its consideration.

Assemblage is a more complex term than collective, which brings with it the usual disadvantages of specialised disciplinary language, but it is also a term that addresses the importance of nonhuman elements in the propagation of institutional identities.  Its use either follows Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari or draws on Manuel DeLanda’s refining of their conceptions.[4]  In his recent introduction to assemblage theory, DeLanda glosses the translation issue from the original French in a manner that explains the senses that the term is meant to evoke: ‘The word in English fails to capture the meaning of the original agencement, a term that refers to the action of matching or fitting together a set of components (agencer), as well as to the result of such an action: an ensemble of parts that mesh together well.’[5]  Deleuze himself, in a more lyrical mode, describes assemblage (in what DeLanda characterises as the ‘simplest definition’) in the following manner: ‘It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures.  Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of a co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a “sympathy”. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind.’[6]  As a descriptor, it therefore shares a number of functions with collective, while being less deterministic and allowing for the easy inclusion of traditions, archives, buildings and collections within an institution’s identity.  These are factors that become increasingly important as institutions age and human participants disaffiliate or pass on, with some institutions necessarily continuing due to their legacy properties and holdings.  The non-determinism of assemblage in Deleuze’s definition is perhaps a point against it when it comes to considering institutions, where successions and lineages are often very important.  Institutional histories play key roles in promoting and sustaining institutions’ identities, as evidenced by practices like listing presidents; collecting officers’ portraits; and naming funds, collections, rooms and buildings.  However, these hierarchising tendencies are covered in the proposed definition through the descriptions of institutions’ typical activities.  The general heterogeneity permitted by the term assemblage is therefore checked within the definition without counteracting its useful inclusiveness in terms of the elements that might make up an institution.

Organises: The third definition of ‘institution’ that the OED provides, discussing early usages, is ‘The giving of form or order to a thing’.[7]  This ordering aspect of institutional practice has remained important for modern institutions.  What an institution organises can vary widely – many institutions organise forms of knowledge in some manner (often with a disciplinary focus), many organise physical collections, and many organise social processes and practices (the law, education, financing, charitable giving, professional recognition).  Regardless of precise forms, from the examples presented at the network workshops, it seems fair to contend that all institutions aspire in part to be organisers (although in practice they are not always successful ones).  This is apparent from many of the key genres of institutional interaction, including the constitution, the catalogue, the annual report, the minute, the form and the meeting, all of which seek to impose structure and order.  More loaded terms might be employed here (regulate; control), but organise is both broadly applicable and helpful in terms of figuring the ways that institutions seek to create meaning.

Transmits: There may well be room for adjustment here, as transmit might not be the most effective word to use to cover the connective functions of institutional practices; other viable options might include circulate (although this implies a reciprocity that is not always present in institutions’ operations) or publish (a more heavily determined possibility).  Whichever word is preferred, its role within the definition is to serve as a token of the crucial role that communication plays in institutions’ work.  The nature of what institutions transmit varies widely – from knowledge or expertise, to capital, to access to physical objects – and institutions will usually transmit a number of different manners of thing.  A museum, for example, could be figured as transmitting over quite small distances to its visitors, but it will commonly transmit on a larger spatial scale through publications, loan arrangements, reproductions and networks formed with those employing its resources.  In the nineteenth century, the Royal Literary Fund transmitted funds confidentially to worthy writers, but it also promoted literature in more obvious ways through reports and publications and through its lavish, well-reported Anniversary Dinners, at which literary genius was lauded by the great and the good.  In addition, it communicated with a wide array of applicants and stakeholders through extensive correspondences, gathering information and transmitting its officers’ judgements.  These sorts of interactions are crucial for effective institutional operations, serving both to advance an institution’s objectives directly and to raise awareness of its activities in ways that buttress its disciplinary and organisational authority.

Validates: The word validates forms part of the definition to acknowledge the importance of the claims that institutions make regarding the areas over which they extend their purviews.  Institutions commonly seek to define (or organise) fields of knowledge or practice, and through doing so they often reserve for themselves the right to police their boundaries and determine value within them.  The giving of prizes, premiums or charitable aid to worthy objects is one obvious mechanism through which this occurs, but this aspect of institutionality is evident in a diverse range of practices, including the admission of members, the accessioning or deaccessioning of collection items, the construction of curricula, the awarding of titles or degrees, and inclusion within publications.  The sixth OED definition describes an institution as ‘An established law, custom, usage, practice, organization, or other element in the political or social life of a people; a regulative principle or convention subservient to the needs of an organized community or the general ends of civilization’[8]  A successful institution will often seek to represent its activities along these lines, achieving recognition for its judgements and assent for its regulative ideals.

Self-consciously represents itself as doing so: Institutional practices are only authoritative insofar as they are socially and culturally recognised, and only of enduring value to the institution itself if its influence is made clearly apparent.  While institutions may sometimes organise, transmit and validate in clandestine manners as part of their core activities, it is crucial for their long-term success that they be perceived to be acting effectively.  Institutional self-advertisements can take many forms, from actual advertisements to buildings, periodicals, ceremonies, branded materials, annual reports and commemorations of achievements.  Such forms do not necessarily exclusively serve the function of representing an institution as conducting valuable work, but their existence or propagation is often crucial for ensuring that an institution is seen as worthwhile and legitimate, forming a feedback loop that empowers it to intervene more effectively in its chosen field, further increasing its perceived legitimacy.

This definition does not cover institutional purviews, but these can easily be inserted to make it more specific, as in the following example: ‘A financial institution is an assemblage that organises, transmits and validates capital (or wealth), and that self-consciously represents itself as doing so’.  For the purposes of this network, a literary institution might therefore be defined as ‘an assemblage that organises, transmits and validates literature, and that self-consciously represents itself as doing so’.  A potential problem with this definition is presented by the shifting meaning of ‘literature’ over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which it moved from being a quality vesting in individuals to knowledge represented in books to a subset of those books containing creative works.  However, this problem is mitigated in large part by the lingering of the older senses of literature in institutional contexts.  In most cases, a literary institution might be defined accurately as ‘an assemblage that organises, transmits and validates knowledge’.  The discipline that we now call literature emerged in Britain partly through constructing itself in opposition to institutions, relying instead on Romantic ideals of individual genius and artistry.  However, while ideologies of literary artistry have often been ostensibly hostile to institutionalisation, they have also been heavily promoted by institutions through processes of education, celebration and collection, among others.  Further analysis of this phenomenon is perhaps better placed elsewhere, though, as it begins to pass beyond questions of definition into the realms of history and theory.


[1] Matthew Sangster, Jon Mee and Jenny Buckley, ‘Call for Participants’, Institutions of Literature, 1700-1900, <http://institutionsofliterature.net/call-for-participants/>.

[2] ‘institution, n.’, Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000-), <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/97110>.

[3] Francis Atterbury, A Sermon preach’d before […] the Ld Mayor […] of the City of London in St. Bridget’s Church on Easter Tuesday, April 17, 1707 (London: Jonah Bowyer, 1707), p. 14.

[4] See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) and Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (London and New York: Continuum, 2006).  These works were discussed at the network’s second workshop, with David Worrall playing a key role in their introduction.

[5] Manuel DeLanda, Assemblage Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), p. 1.

[6] Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II, revised edition, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 69; DeLanda, Assemblage Theory, p. 1.

[7] OED.

[8] OED.