The Multigraph

The Interacting with Print Research Group is launching an innovative collaborative book project as part of its ongoing attempt to change how we think about print media. Taking as its theme the subtitle of our group, the "multigraph" will address the variety of cultural practices of intermediality prevalent in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Our aim is to investigate how individuals interacted with printed matter, how they used print to interact with each other, and how print itself interacted with other influential media from the period, such as handwriting, illustration, sculpture, the theatre, musical performance, public readings, and polite conversation. "Interactive" is a word most often associated with digital technologies, but we contend that a nuanced and historicized concept of interactivity is key to developing a deeper understanding of print technology. The multigraph will provide readers with a systematic overview of key concepts for the study of this vital period of media transition, from print's emergence as the predominant communications technology in Europe until the onset of electronic media in the twentieth century. 

The multigraph not only aims to challenge how we think about the history of print media. It also aims to challenge how we as scholars write about the history of print. Putting our own thematic concerns to work, the goal of the multigraph is to draw on the interactions of both digital and print media, ultimately taking the form of a printed book, but one whose creation utilizes the collaborative tools of online communication. Eschewing the two traditional models of scholarly publishing – the monograph (one author, one idea) or the edited volume (one conductor and numerous players playing their own tune) – the multigraph is a collaborative effort: a symphony of ideas in which the performers are the conductors.

One of the primary arguments of the Interacting with Print research group is that print still has a valuable role to play as a -- if not the -- central medium of humanistic communication. The relative stability of the printed book versus the all too fluid dynamics of the digital interface is a core component of the values associated with the durability and referencability of humanities research. New technologies allow us to challenge older paradigms of print production, however, emphasizing values of process, community, and collaboration over and above the long history of scholarly hermeticism, hierarchy, and charismatic insight that have largely characterized humanistic inquiry. 

At the same time, the collaboratively authored monograph can be a useful tool for addressing one of the central problems of today's scholarly landscape: the surplus of research. As no doubt many of us acutely feel, with so many journal articles and new books (not to mention blog posts and websites) appearing, it is increasingly difficult to make an impact on any particular field of study today. In bringing together a wide range of scholars, but in such a way that works towards synthesis rather than differentiation, the aim of the multigraph is to address these dual problems of coherence and scale. It combines the multi-perspectival nature of the edited collection with the unified vision of the monograph. In so doing, we think the fusion of print and digital media will prove in the end to offer a substantial contribution to how we as academics think and communicate.

The project will consist of three stages:

Seeding. (Nov – May) In this stage we ask participants to offer brief contributions (roughly 1500 words) on a key concept for the volume from any area of their own research (see the seedbed for examples). Inherent in the idea of the seed is that it be generative, motivating further additions from other contributors. The ideal seed is one that can grow in several directions. It encourages us to think about the openness of our research questions.

Grafting. (June – Oct) During the second stage, authors will be expected to expand on at least two seeds of other authors (roughly 500-1000 words per graft), but may contribute in any way to any of the available seeds. As in any good garden, the point of the graft is that it must take – it requires consideration of the ideas of another and an attempt to draw connections with thoughts that are not one's own. In order for a graft to survive, and to promote subsequent grafts, it must integrate well.

Pressing. (Nov – Jan) The final stage will be the fixation of the project into a stable form, to shift from the vitality of the web to the more permanent form of the hortus siccus, the specimen book of pressed flowers. For this stage, we will ask authors to become editors, engaging in the pruning and refining that is necessary for any finished product. Each author will be responsible for editing his or her own seed/section, but all authors can edit all parts of the multigraph. There is no hierarchy between authors and editors in this project. 

The intended outcome of this process is to publish a printed book. Why, you might ask, a printed book in this our late age of print? Because we believe that the ability of print to order, shape, and fix an argument is essential to the mission of the humanities. Humanistic ideas are meant to be durable, to have a periodic impact, never timely and then immediately out of date. Print allows for the type of reception we believe in -- extended, yet concentrated engagement with a text. We feel this type of reading is essential for the mission of the humanities and is not -- or not yet -- entirely possible online. Producing a print object will ensure that our collaborative work is enrolled in the durable system of preservation that has come to be known as the modern research library. We want to argue for the importance of the intellectual stability and accessibility that libraries have stood for and that we do not yet see replicated online.

Finally, if there is a polemical edge to this project, it is this: producing a print object with multiple authors will move in a different direction than the academy's increasing over-reliance on measures of accountability, in which, unable to measure what we value most, we have come to value what we can measure. Effacing the acute measurability of academic work is a first step in moving past the absurd -- and in our view deleterious -- tendency towards quantifying the assessment of learning and research today. It is time to develop new models of creativity and thought that are not easily subsumed within the accountant's black arts. This project intends to affirm the argument that when it comes to the making of ideas the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.