Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

In Search of Enlightenment: From Mapping Books to Cultural History

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

In Search of Enlightenment: From Mapping Books to Cultural History

Article excerpt

For some commentators, the very notion of digital humanities is almost an oxymoron.1 Computers trade in certainty, in absolutes, in yes/no on/off dichotomies, in solid data. The humanities in general depend on subjective interpretation. History is doubly problematic, requiring imaginative reconstruction of an unknown and unknowable past from the incomplete residues it has left behind. There is no finite, self-contained, and self-consistent corpus of texts; there is no single agreed-upon methodology. There are problems here, then, on both physical and conceptual levels: what material survives? How are surviving archives presented? And how does the written record relate to "actual events"? What events are not preserved-and how far is our impression distorted by what does survive or the ways we approach it?

Moreover, the very phenomena we are treating remain fluid, unsettled. We discuss the past in terms of elusive concepts that evade agreed-upon definitions and are open to endless discussion, debate, and re-examination. This is particularly true in the realm of cultural and intellectual history. To take just one example, what was the enlightenment? When did it begin? When did it end? Who was involved? What did it change? These are fundamental but unresolved questions. And I could ask the same of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Romanticism, and so on.

Yet when designed and used imaginatively, digital methods can provide tools for handling gaps and distortions, while offering multiple or open-ended possibilities for analysis and interpretation from a variety of methodological and disciplinary perspectives. This brings me to the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794 or FBTEE project. Along with a handful of other leading digital humanities projects, most notably Stanford University's hugely impressive Mapping the Republic of Letters, the AHRC-funded FBTEE project is both literally and metaphorically remapping the Enlightenment.2 In the process it can help to transform the way we approach, think about, and do cultural and literary history. To be sure, it takes the existence of a historical-cultural phenomenon called "the Enlightenment" as a given, locating it chronologically in the long eighteenth century and sociologically in the burgeoning networks of intellectual and cultural exchange of the period. And since these networks can be located in physical space, computer-aided geospatial mapping can help us to analyze them in new and exciting ways.

Compared to Mapping the Republic of Letters, the FBTEE project has, so far at least, been a relatively finite project. The Stanford project is a longterm, open-ended large team effort that has developed across two decades. It examines both correspondence networks and the topography of international travel across the long eighteenth century, while developing cutting-edge and inspirational visualizations and analytical tools. In contrast, the FBTEE project looks at the pan-European trade of a single, important Swiss publishing house, the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN). It tracks the origins and destinations of almost half a million books that passed through its hands. It draws on a finite, closed data set and is driven by a tightly defined set of research questions. This has been its great strength-although as we shall see there are plans to expand it, perhaps exponentially, and in multiple directions.3

But for now, having introduced the project from several angles, this paper will attempt to answer four ancillary questions: why did I opt for digital humanities methods? What are the project's research questions? How has it used the technology to answer them and where does it fall short? What additional tools have we developed, and what can we learn from them? In the process, I wish to show how the French book trade project has demonstrated both the utility of digital humanities methods, and their potential to answer both established and novel historical questions. …

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