EDIT: Prospectus can be seen here.

It occurs to me that I haven’t said anything on this blog about what my dissertation project is.  I’ll be putting a link up to my prospectus on my horribly un-updated website sometime soon, but for now I will just put down the three-sentence elevator-explanation (for use when someone asks, in the elevator, “so what’s your dissertation about?” and you have to answer fast):

I am studying the effect of changing technologies on concepts and perceptions of audience, in two distinct historical periods.  More specifically, I am arguing that periodicity (the quality of being repeatedly and regularly published) has a large effect on our understanding of reading context generally and audience specifically, and that past examples of periodic publication can teach us a lot about more recent changes in publication technology.  I take as my object two seemingly disparate time periods and technology sets: 1) early British newspapers (and periodicals more generally), and the coffeehouses and postal system that were used to distribute them, and 2) blogs, podcasts, and RSS feeds generally.

That’s the brief version.

I haven’t written as much as I’d like today, but I’ve been thinking about some things, trying to work out some connections and justifications in my head so that I can put them on paper later.  Some of this also came out of a conversation I had with my co-directors about “rationale for subject selection” (one of them was nervous that I didn’t have a good explanation for why I am studying the things I am studying). Here’s what I’ve been thinking about:

  • After 1703 there were never less than 30 periodicals being published in a given year, and often considerably more than that (according to A census of British newspapers and periodicals, 1620-1800 / by R.S. Crane and F.B. Kaye).  I feel confident in saying that from 1690 to 1720 was the real “taking off” point for periodical publication.
  • I don’t know enough about the history of the British postal system.
  • I really like Stuart Sherman’s discussion of the effect of time-keeping devices on literary form during this period (Telling Time), and I’d like to do something similar/base some of my argument off of his.  I worry, though, that my point will be too abstract, trying to characterize a shift in culture rather than identifiable changes in texts…
  • I’m not sure I should have two whole chapters of my dissertation dedicated to “cultural context,” without analysis of texts… I think that might make English folks nervous.


I did end up writing a little bit today.  So far the best paragraph (of very few!) I’ve written is this one:

Ann Dean suggests that “in eighteenth-century Britain the public sphere was a figure of speech” (11), a way of representing the conversations going on in discrete physical spaces as abstracted and distributed.  By describing scenes from coffeehouses, drawing rooms, and private clubs, authors were able to make readers feel as if they were participating in those same conversations, even if the reader had never actually visited any such space.  Dean’s point is that the establishment of public opinion, ostensibly figured as a shared conversation, had to begin with the representation of conversations that the “public” (if we use that term as inclusively as it is usually meant) might not have had access to.  Dean focuses primarily on two axes of variation in the description of “political conversation”: space and medium.  The spaces Dean discusses are coffeehouses, court, and Parliament (although repeated mention is made of private meetings, in part as replicas of the King’s drawing room); the media are print, manuscript, and oral conversation.  

The book I’m talking about there is The Talk of the Town: Figurative Publics in Eighteenth-Century Britain by Ann C. Dean.  I highly recommend it for anyone interested in periodicals or the historical aspects of public sphere theory.  Dean’s argument is pretty strong, although I wish she did a better job of reproducing the argument against Habermasian notions of universal access; right now I’m struggling to figure out what to say about the cultural context surrounding periodicals, and I have a feeling I could use something to push back against (although J.A. Downie’s “How Useful to Eighteenth-Century English Studies is the Paradigm of the ‘Bourgeois Public Sphere’?” is certainly a good start).