Session 384 ~ What Is a Journal? Toward a Theory of Periodical Studies

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Review by Cheryl E. Ball

Presiding
J. Stephen Murphy, New York, NY

Speakers
Ann Ardis, Univ. of Delaware, Newark
Sean Latham, Univ. of Tulsa
Dallas H. Liddle, Augsburg College
James Mussell, Univ. of Birmingham
Matthew Philpotts, Univ. of Manchester

Position papers: http://myblogs.informa.com/jvc/2012/12/24/what-is-a-journal-mla2013/

Although this session may be considered outside the DH mainstream, I attended it because I am interested in historical understandings and connections to my contemporary digital media publishing work. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, nor did I know what periodical studies was when I entered the room. Not surprisingly (if you know anything about Victorian history and literature), it seems that much of the call for a “periodical studies” — as opposed to, or in addition to “book history studies,” comes from Victorian-era literature scholars, although there were scholars of other eras represented in the room. (To be frank, because I am not a literature scholar, I do not know the biographies or disciplinary areas of those who presented. I’d heard of one of the scholars before, probably from Twitter.) Still, to me, it was *the* most interesting session I attended at MLA because of the easy connections between what these scholars were working on and what I do with Kairos and my research. Below I’ll briefly summarize each talk, but I encourage you to go read their positions papers (link above).

What was most obvious to me in this session was that periodical studies is striving for a foothold amongst the other literary-critical areas of study that focus on the production and distribution of codexes (as represented in various names such as textual studies, book history, publishing studies, etc.). The session followed on a 2006 article in PMLA by Sean Latham and Robert Scholes called “The Rise of Periodical Studies,” which is the study of serialized objects that have literary, historical, and material value. It is different from book history and bibliography studies, which have similar methodological approaches, but focus strictly on books. In the introduction (and website) to the roundtable, the session organizers asked panelists to engage with periodicals using textual, topological, sociological, qualitative and quantitative approaches. The session included five speakers who took up these approaches in different ways, using different periodicals from the Victorian era to the Modern era.

(1) First, Ann Ardis, in her paper “Towards a Theory of Periodical Studies,” argued that the nascent field of periodical studies are less well served by notions of typology than by scholars’ need to pay “attention to the historical constructedness,” methodologies, and media applied to and used in different textual genres, and to not ignore the value of visual and media studies methodologies when examining periodicals. Ardis’ interest is in not offering a topology for periodicals is based on the kinds of texts she studies (Robert Blatchford‚ “The Clarion, A. R. Orage‚” The New Age, and The Crisis under W. E. B. DuBois) and edits (Transatlantic Print Cultures), which, she says, are all periodicals that don’t presume a formal stability of genre.

(2) Sean Latham’s talk on “Affordance and Emergence: Magazine as New Media” started by defining affordance and emergence: “Understanding [magazines]as complex systems capable of producing meaning through the unplanned and even unexpected interaction of their components helps us free them from the dominant metaphors of the book.” However, this approach raises the question of what constitutes the unit of analysis in periodical studies: article, ad, illustration, commentary, or serial? Drawing on Espen Aarseth’s work, Latham defined Aarseth’s use of textons (a string of signs) and scriptons (how a reader makes meaning from those strings) as possibilities for understanding the hypertextual nature of magazines — a reader’s path “produce[s]the phenomenon of emergence: the creation of meanings and behaviors generated by the multiple ways in which textons can interact with one another.” Latham concludes by suggesting that games, hypertexts, and other digital texts aren’t new so much as they follow in the long line of modern magazines.

(3) Dallas Liddle’s primary question, in “Methods in Periodical Studies: Follow the Genre,” is how does genre inform or change the system in which a periodical is published? Liddle focused on “big papers” as opposed to “little papers,” by which he meant The Times: the large, British broadside of a daily newspaper. In particular, his research measured the paper’s growth in total text characters printed from 1790 to 1890, Through the course of his data-gathering, Liddle produced an s-curve, showing the number of text characters published in those 100 years increasing from just under 100,000 for the early decades to around a million in the last three decades of study. This curve wasn’t surprising in its similarity to typical s-curves of technology (think Moore’s Law). He said, “two imperatives work themselves out on the s-curve track: the pressure for more available volume, and toward greater variable range.” A large part of his remaining talk focused on answering research questions about the impact that this significant rise in textual characters means for this particular periodical’s production and historical context, and how we can extrapolate this case study to others in periodical studies. Liddle addressed them through analyzing the genre of the article, which functions in Bahktinian terms as the unit of “utterance” in newspapers. He concludes: “What does the genre do, exactly, and what does that function lead the periodical to do? As we search for a better model for understanding the periodical press, those are surely the questions to ask.”

(4) James Mussell’s talk, “The Matter with Media,” also focused on genre, not of the article, but of the collection of genres that make up a whole periodical. While the content changes, the conventions of layout, typography, etc., often remained the same across periodical issues. Thus, repetition is one lens through which periodicals should be studied. Describing genre-as-social-action (a la Carolyn Miller, which got nods of approval from this literary studies audience) as a theoretical framework that helps scholars study periodicals, in that periodicals are both situational and pragmatic, Mussell said that each genre within a periodical—advertisement, article, masthead, etc.—as well as the collection of those genres within the periodical-as-whole engages with the reader based on the social and cultural and historical conventions of the time. Mussell moved into a discussion of digital mediation, suggesting that the digitization of 19th-century periodicals through OCR, while making them highly accessible, privileges the linguistic aspects (what he’s calling the content) of said periodicals in a way that diminishes the materiality (or form) of the article or serial. Having the written content available for data-mining and visualization, such as what Liddel did in the second paper, is great, but Mussell reminds us that there are multiples angles of study within periodical studies, and it’s important to remember the physicality and visuality of such publications.

(5) In the final paper, “Defining the Thick Journal: Periodical Codes and Common Habitus” by Matthew Phillpotts, we get another perspective of periodical studies: neither the written text of “big papers”(Liddell) nor the new-media modern magazine (Latham), but a thick journal Sinn und Form, in which Phillpotts touches on the idea of repetition that Mussell brought up, but also focuses in more closely, by analyzing the author function in a single issue (November 1964) of this fat (probably 200-page) periodical. Phillpotts argues that Sinn und Form—that is, the name of a journal—is such a powerful brand that the name itself functions as the author. In this way, the author function for *thick* journals is actually more akin to books. Phillpotts then draws on Jerome McGann’s use of “codes” that distinguish bibliographic work from its contexts, in the hopes of applying such codes (which Phillpotts’ modifies for periodical studies) to examine how Sinn und Form fulfills the author function. Phillpotts has created “five sets [of periodical codes]that highlight the different dimensions through which a periodical functions: i) temporal codes, ii) material codes, iii) economic codes, iv) social codes, and v) compositional codes.” Phillpotts concludes by suggesting that his framework of periodical codes does “not merely [serve]as a comprehensive descriptive inventory but as a designation for a set of values and attitudes, codes aligned not only with one another but also with a readily recognisable position in the field,” under which other thick journals may be analyzed as well.

A question and answer period followed the presentations for a good 30 minutes, prompted by a word cloud of the talks. It was robust, with the audience asking questions and commenting on the following topics:

    1. Periodic studies’ need for more explicit discussion of methodology and common practices.
    2. Appreciation for the bringing together of Modernists and Victorianists.
    3. The way we think about journals depends on which ones we work with.
    4. Social action as an important concept for periodical studies, particularly when authorship is often anonymous and thus elides the fact that women wrote often for these periodicals.
    5. Readers’ desire for predictability: we have to theorize sameness just as we theorize difference.

I am very much looking forward to v2.0 of this panel, which the moderator indicated would be about digital access issues.

Cheryl E. Ball is Associate Professor of New Media Studies at Illinois State University and editor of Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. She has published in Computers and CompositionC&C Online, Fibreculture, Convergence, Programmatic Perspectives, and Technical Communication Quarterly as well as with Hampton Press, CCDP, and Bedford-St. Martins. http://www.ceball.com/

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