In advance of the ‘Institutions as Actors’ workshop, we’ve circulated some general questions that we’re hoping the workshop will address – we’ve reproduced the email setting these out below for those who are unable to join us in York.


Dear All,

We’re looking forward to welcoming you all to York at the end of the week for the ‘Institutions as Actors’ workshop.  The workshop begins at 9:30am on each of the two days (Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd).  The Friday sessions (at York Medical Society) conclude at 6:30pm; the Saturday sessions (at King’s Manor) close at 5:30pm.  A full programme is attached (please be aware that we’ve made some small adjustments to the running order that we initially circulated).

As most of you will know, this is the third of three AHRC-funded events organised as parts of the ‘Institutions of Literature, 1700-1900’ network.  Some of you have attended past events, but for those of you who weren’t able to come to these and who would like to get a sense of what was discussed, we’ve published a series of reflections by participants on our website (‘Institutions as Curators’: http://institutionsofliterature.net/category/institutions-as-curators/; ‘Institutions as Networks’: http://institutionsofliterature.net/category/institutions-as-networks/).

The programme has slots at the end of each day for wide-ranging conversations building on the ideas presented and developed.  In advance of these, we thought that it might be useful to circulate some of the larger questions that we’ve been pondering as jumping-off points for discussion:

1) What are the principal terms that we’d want to include in a definition of institutions describing the general character of their activities?

We’ve put up a blog post suggesting a definition based on the first two workshops here: http://institutionsofliterature.net/2017/11/23/defining-institutions/.  We’d be interested in discussing further refinements.

2) What are the key phases in the development of literary institutions in the British Isles? 

In the original proposal for the network, we contended that ‘One of the most significant factors that marks [the period between 1700 and 1900] as a crucial phase in the evolution of modern societal practices and ideologies is the progressive transfer of authority and fealties previously invested in individuals to organised societies and state bureaucracies.’  While compelling arguments have emerged in our discussions regarding seventeenth-century institutionality, there does seem to be a movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that sees institutions formed by voluntary societies in the earlier part of the period both proliferating and increasingly being co-opted into larger state apparatus during the latter part.  The story of institutions seems to be tightly bound up with print culture, particularly with the rise of periodicals in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the explosion of print during the 1820s and 1830s.  It also seems important to recognise that the British story is unusual in many respects, with the institutional ecology being very different from the more centralised systems common in many other European countries (something that we’re glad a number of papers at this workshop will address).  It would be good if in this final workshop we can further refine and develop this picture.

3) How can the study of institutions enhance literary studies more broadly?

One of the network’s main contentions has been that looking at the operations of institutions can tell us things about literature and its users that examining authors and works in isolation cannot.  At the ‘Institutions as Networks’ workshop, for example, it became clear that an institutional angle has considerable advantages for recovering a history of the rise of mass education in mechanics’ institutes (John Gardner) and accounting for the enormous productivity of the temperance movement (Annemarie Mcallister).  Talks across the two workshops have brought into focus the crucial roles that institutions have played in addressing new audiences, organising knowledge, spreading literature across the empire, shaping the self-conceptions of canonical authors and hardening disciplinary boundaries, as well as showing how their archival records provide unique qualitative and quantitative evidence of reading, composition and the structuring principles of the emerging literary sphere.  We’re hoping that this final workshop will add new approaches to this list.

These questions are indicative rather than exhaustive – one of the things that we’re most excited to see in York is what new areas the workshop’s foci will open up.  We’re really looking forward to all your contributions across the two days – many thanks again for making the time to be involved!

See you all on Friday, and best wishes,

Matthew Sangster, Jon Mee and Jenny Buckley