Academic journal article Early American Literature

Early American Literature as a Networked Field

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Early American Literature as a Networked Field

Article excerpt

In thinking about Early American Literature at fifty, and looking forward to the fifty years ahead, one concept that I'd like to propose is that of a "networked field." I hope I'm not simply being trendy, taking a word that describes the online phenomenology of the present moment and projecting it backward to an early period. "Network" is a current term, but one with heuristic implications extending beyond the twenty-first century, and with enough critical oomph to give us a push in a new direction, in ways that might help broaden the scope of the early American field and put it on a more experimental footing.


Among other things, the concept of "network" gives us a chance to do something other than the work of traditional historical scholarship: the work of channeling a past presumed to be empirically observable, verifiable, and recoverable. "Positivism" is the name offered by its detractors, highlighting the indebtedness of history as an academic discipline to the nineteenth-century philosophy of August Comte, with its twofold faith in the empirical method as a guarantor of objectivity and in the social world as a field of knowledge that can be investigated in this way. The most common assumption among historians, Jackson Lears says, is "that the facts about the past are out there,' that the historian's primary task is to collect them" (58). What makes this fact gathering not haphazard, not an exercise in futility, is a second assumption, that the past is stable, unchanging, and interference free, an object that will stay fixed, transferring its information to the historian when properly approached.

This is the rallying cry and legitimizing ground for history as a disciplinary formation. Two practices follow, as critically summarized by R. G. Collingwood:

   (1) Each fact was to be regarded as a thing capable of being
   ascertained by a separate act of cognition or process of research,
   and thus the total field of the historically knowable was cut up
   into a infinity of minute facts each to be separately considered.
   (2) Each fact was to be thought of not only as independent of all
   the rest but as independent of the knower, so that all subjective
   elements (as they were called) in the historian's point of view had
   to be eliminated. (131)

Objectified in this way, historical inquiry simply becomes a linear flow of data, the movement of facts from one point to another point, a movement apparently conducted in a vacuum, or at least a transparent medium. It is guaranteed to happen, but will happen only in one direction, from the point of origin to the point of reception: direct, unimpeded, and uncomplicated by the latter. The historian and the circumstances under which he or she writes are simply not a factor here: never a filter, a screen, a barrier, and perhaps not even a conduit. Mediation is not a problem, for the simple reason that it is not recognized to exist.

A network is nothing if not mediation. A linear flow of data is almost impossible here, in this densely populated and crisscrossing landscape, where pathways are routed through multiple sites, interactive at every point, so that the nodes of transfer are also the nodes where data are modified, compounded, added to. User-generated input is what drives these networks, an intervening force that changes not only the overall shapes of the working ensembles but also their distribution of agency, giving rise to common net phenomena such as percolating, cascading, viral spreading, and so on (Barrat, Barthelemy, and Vespignani; Watts). Remixing and repurposing follow as a result, but without homogenizing the field, and without collapsing the initial distances among the participating terms. Rather, heterogeneity, what the network starts out with, remains its energizing force and its ongoing basis for association.

User-generated input is especially interesting as it bears on our conception of history. …

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