Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Some thoughts on a monograph - James Baker's, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England



I was recenlty charged to say a few words at a launch event for James Baker's new monograph, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England.  I am afraid that in the nature of academic hardback monographs the volume is too expensive to actually buy, but the link to the publishers' page is here; and James has blogged extensively about writing the volume, and the 'soft' and 'hard' digital methodologies that went in to it.  I am posting a version of what I said, because in working up a few enthusaistic words with which to toast the publication, it also became clear to me that this book - or perhaps just books in general - are changing in dialogue with the changing nature of historical research and publication.  While I have been profoundly frustrated by what has appeared to me to be the slow evolution of the monograph (and historians' attitudes to it as a form), this book suggested that I had missed a subtle change along the way.   So, for what's it worth, this is pretty much what I said.



I was asked a few weeks ago to say a few words to help launch The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England, and I thought - why not?  Before I had read the book, I thought I sort of knew both James and Georgian England, and the kind of book it would be.  And at the same time, given that James Baker is seriously into the Digital Humanities, I thought I knew a little bit about that too.  And when I got my grubby hands on the book itself – I thought – OK – that looks like a book – and I know a little bit about those too.  I don't really like them very much, but I own a few and have written a few.   So, all in all, I thought this would be a walk in the park that was unlikely to challenge any of my hard won prejudices or lazy assumptions.  


I was wrong.  This book confounded pretty much everything I thought I knew about James, and books, and Georgian England and the digital humanities. 



My first shock came in the acknowledgements (and yes, that is the first place I looked) – where James very kindly acknowledged both me and a bunch of other people for their support.  But uniquely in my experience, he did so by listing our Twitter user names.  I thank god I chose the relatively innocuous @TimHItchcock – but what this brought home immediately was that this was a book that was created in a self-conscious engagement with the digital humanities, and the modern practise of academic history writing. It may seem a simple thing, but it confounded and messed with the way we still represent books and book writing.  Despite the revolution in how we research and write books, we still pretend they are the product of old-school debate, musty research libraries, foolscap and ink - that they are written in some book-lined study, in the gaps between feasting at high table.  The acknowledgements said that this book was the product of a different technology, a different conversation, held in a different world.  As a result, though a very small thing, it felt remarkably radical – and that radicalism extended through the rest of the book. 
 

Next came the introduction – in which James outlined the intellectual forces that brought him to the topic, and which informed his approach.  The list went from Fernand Braudel and Robert Darnton to EP Thompson – temporarily lulling me into a sense of the familiar – before moving on to Bruno Latour and Franco Moretti.


Anyone who knows the field of eighteenth-century British history will realise in a minute that this is not normal.  You can do Darnton and Thompson, or if you are under 35 and working on a literary topic you can do Latour or Moretti – but bringing them together in the same analysis forms a profound journey across intellectual boundaries more secure than any physical wall.  Here was a mixture of Thomspon’s Marxist literary approach, with Braudel’s social science, and Darnton’s cultural history; with Latour’s anthropology of scientific practice; and Moretti’s tools based explporations.  What looked initially like a book defined by its topic – the late Georgian satirical print – rapidly emerged as a book defined by its intellectual ambition.


In the end, it fulfils that ambition.  It brings together a genre of description that Thompson perfected; with Braudel’s clear understanding of the materialities of life; with Darnton’s sharp ear for cultural difference – and then throws into the mix, Latour’s beautiful engagement with the cultural practises of production, and Moretti’s joy in deploying the tools of distant reading. 


The chapter that seemed to me to epitomise the book – not because it used any of the tools of the digital humanities, but because it contained a breadth of approach and understanding that transcends normal history writing – is chapter three on the mechanics of making prints.  It dealt with that magic combination of copper and paper and ink; of engraving, and etching and mezzotint deployed in pursuit of cultural impact.  It seemed to me that in that chapter, James captures perfectly the ambiguities of making – the extent to which every cultural act and every material act is a balance between purpose, materiality and constraint.  It felt to me he could have been writing about the evolution of the home computer, the internet of things, or the materialities of code. What he has nigh on perfected is a balance between cultures of materiality, and the limits to our ability to escape that materiality.



In the end, what I think I learned most fully from this book is that it is possible to practise digital history – to make new narratives, informed by new technologies, in direct engagement with old ones.  And that the outcome will look different to the kinds of books that historians have now been writing for over 200 years.  This still looks like a book, but actually it is something more than that - it is an encoding of a journey through data and tools; through history certainly, but also through the mechanics of the academy.

One of the complaints heard about the digital humanities – or indeed the digital revolution – is that it has not transformed how we do history, or sociology, literature or anthropology – that somehow it has failed to fulfil the early hyperbole.  But this book suggests that a different kind of history is gradually emerging; and that while it will no doubt retain the form of the codex, it is nevertheless different.  By self-consciously using the conditions of the present, to rework our inherited forms of history writing, this book represents a positive step forward. 


In other words, it is a radical, self-conscious, and technically informed experiment in genre.  It is a practical intervention in the creation of digital history.  Buy it if you really want to subsidse the commercial academic presses, or figure out how to access it in other ways, but read it.

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