Some will have it, that I often write to my sell and am the only punctual correspondent I have. This objection would indeed be material, were the letters I communicate to the public stuffed with my own commendations, and if, instead of endeavouring to divert or instruct my readers, I admired in them the beauty of my own performances.
--Joseph Addison, Spectator 271
In an area of historical inquiry that has traditionally been resistant to theory, the post-Restoration periodical has suffered from acute neglect by the practitioners of rhetorical or formalist cultural studies. There are important exceptions to this rule, to be sure, but their scarcity indexes the power of the historicist rule from which they deviate. (1) In a recent article in PMLA, Sean Latham and Robert Scholes offer an incisive assessment of both the promising and the potentially troubling dimensions of what they term "The Rise of Periodical Studies." Ultimately, though, their account of this emerging field of inquiry perpetuates a number of unquestioned assumptions about how these textual objects should be interpreted and why they should be of interest to scholars invested in a cultural-studies approach to the early Enlightenment. (2) In the course of celebrating and suggesting improvements for the increasing digitization of the periodical archive, Latham and Scholes repeatedly (and rightly, I think) insist that these recovered documents should be viewed as coherent cultural objects in their own right, requiring "new methodologies" and "new types of collaborative investigation." (3) The authors imagine a brave new world of academic research organized in "genuinely interdisciplinary or even multidisciplinary" spaces that could be thought of as "humanities labs" modeled after those in the sciences, places where "collaborative networks of researchers and institutions [would] lend their collective expertise to textual objects that would otherwise overwhelm single scholars." (4)
As exciting as this new model of scholarly inquiry sounds, it turns out to be motivated by assumptions about the referential epistemological status of the periodical that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years--assumptions about the "factual" quality of these textual representations that were created by the early periodicalists themselves as an effective and fundamentally misleading strategy for marketing their wares. For Latham and Scholes, periodicals function as "containers of discrete bits of information" for scholars "to mine," or, in a much more elaborate trope, as time-travel-inducing "windows" onto the cultures of the past: in the rapturous conclusion to their otherwise brilliant analysis of how advertising and moralizing get jumbled together on the folio pages of Spectator 75 (May 25, 1711), the authors cannot refrain from claiming of this archival document that "Queen Anne's England is here, and we are invited to enter it through this precious door, which periodical studies can open for us." (5) These metaphors of the mine and the window simply reinforce the longstanding notion that the essays of writers like Addison and Steele are useful primarily as repositories of sociohistorical data about early eighteenth-century English life. According to this commonly-held understanding, periodicals function as a kind of textualized living museum, with narrators like the genial Mr. Spectator leading us through Addison's London as if he were its Virgilian docent. Donald Bond, editor of the standard five-volume Spectator papers, anticipates exactly the kind of language used by Latham and Scholes when he argues for present-day interest in early eighteenth-century periodicals based on the "vivid picture" they give of "ordinary life," how they provide "an inexhaustible source of information on the way people lived ... and re-create the world of Queen Anne's day before our eyes." The "truth" of the Spectator papers lies in their material-cultural details, in pictures so powerful that Bond compulsively re-displays their contents in a catalog of his own--"the size of the hoop-petticoat," "the pinch of Barcelona and the ounce of right Virginia," "the laced and knotted cravat," and "the beaver hat edged with silver"--because these "bits," as he puts it, are the essayistic means through which the world of the periodical is "re-created" for readers. …