Looking at Magazines: An Argument for Not Reading (Part 1)

What follows is the slightly edited version of my portion of a paper that Mark Gaipa of the Modernist Journals Project and I co-presented at the  Space Between Conference on June 15.  The paper’s title was “Re-materializing Magazines:  A Network Analysis of The Freewoman, The New Freewoman, and The Egoist.”  I’ve included in Part 2 some of the slides I presented.  For Mark’s visuals, check out the section of the MJP Lab dedicated to Dora Marsden’s magazines.  This work is preliminary to a piece we’re working on for a special issue of the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies dedicated to visualizing magazines, so please share any thoughts, questions, criticisms, etc.

Part 1:  Stop Reading. Start Graphing.

There are many good reasons to think about the materiality of culture, but one of the strongest incentives for reconsidering materiality is the increased prominence of the immaterial—or at least seemingly immaterial—in all our lives.  I am talking, of course, about computers and the like. We read digitally nowadays, we research digitally, we shop digitally, we bank digitally, we converse digitally, and we meet and keep friends and even lovers digitally.  Where bodies once met and smelt and felt, we now interact with binary data presented to us in a primarily visual format.

There are, no doubt, great benefits to this decoupling of so many of our activities from physical materials and particular, public spaces. During the Q&A at a panel on magazines at MSA last October, a woman stood up to praise the Modernist Journals Project, saying how great it was to read The Freewoman at home, drinking coffee in her pajamas. Reading in various states of undress is not the only benefit, however, to the MJP, HathiTrust, and other sites that digitize books and periodicals.  In the process of digitizing magazines, these sites also generate huge amounts of data which allow us to search thousands of texts and tens of thousands of pages in a millisecond, not only discovering what we are looking for but also making the kinds of serendipitous finds that all researchers treasure.  In this respect, sites like the MJP don’t simply create virtual archives; they improve upon them, and they do so  because they have decoupled texts from matter.

On the other hand, what about the material dimensions of these texts and all that they contribute to the effects they have on readers and other kinds of users?  Isn’t something lost in the dematerialization of books and magazines?  You don’t have to be Nicholson Baker or Jerome McGann to think that the physical features of books and periodicals can play a role in how we categorize, interpret, and even enjoy texts.  Another problem:  for all their speed, computer interfaces slow down or even preclude the kind of quick sorting and comparing that page turning does.  Because the interface of many sites that provide full-text versions of texts allow you to see only one page at a time and search functions point  readers to pages and contributions, they end up encouraging readers to look at contributions or even pages in isolation from the immediate context of the work’s publication, by which I mean the complete issue, and its larger context, by which I mean the entire run of the magazine.  There are, of course, larger contexts yet, including other magazines and books that belong within the same constellation or network.  It actually takes more work to situate “Tradition and the Individual Talent” within its immediate and larger context on screen than it does if you sit down with a volume of bound issues of The Egoist.  As a result, the digital environment can end up reinforcing rather old ideas by encouraging readers to look at texts as verbal icons floating in cyber space waiting to be plucked and consumed in isolation, stripped of their historical situatedness, in much the same way that Norton anthologies do.  Or even worse:  the anthologized text, at least, is abutted by contemporaneous works, so a reader gets some sense of literary history.

The good news is that the same mechanism that dematerializes and decontextualizes magazines also allows us to rematerialize and recontextualize magazines in ways that lie beyond the grasp of reading magazines in paper format.  When sites like the MJP or Google Books first came on-line, most of us thought they were a reader’s paradise—and they are—but they are more than that—they are also massive repositories of data and to leave that data un-mined would be a terrible waste since, among other things, data can help us gain access to different forms of materiality not made available by reading alone.  Computational analysis and visualization allow us to grasp and manipulate material aspects of magazines that manifest themselves only over long periods of time, such things as average lengths, average numbers of contributions and contributors, and networks of authors who appear together in the magazine.  The network, as we hope to show you today, provides a particularly powerful tool for reconsidering the magazine’s materiality since it maps the data found not just in the intranet of a single magazine but in the internet of magazines linked by co-appearance, genres, and other ties.

The benefits of visualizing data are not simply that it reduces the processing time required to find meaningful patterns in information; visualization also helps us direct our research.  The information scientist Katy Börner describes data visualizations as maps because like maps they not only show us how data are positioned relative to each other but also help us determine where to go next and, ideally, allow us to link maps to each other.  If we are to determine where the young field of modern periodical studies is to go, visualizations will play a significant role.  And, to make a broader pitch, if we are going to get a richer sense of literary history, we need to visualize the material links that provide the actual, historical basis for the phenomenon we now know as modernism.  We needn’t look to essences, zeitgeists, traumatic events, or some other half-baked notion in order to explain what modernism was, where it came from, and who was and was not a modernist. Forget trying to define modernism only by reading a heavily restricted set of authors, practices, and beliefs; look instead at the much larger network out of which this set was drawn.

This is a tall order, not to be accomplished by one or two people.  We need lots of hands and eyes building and analyzing modernist networks, and if nothing else we’re here today to encourage you to give it a go.  The subject of my show and tell in part 2 will be the three magazines that we lumped under the convenient heading of the Dora Marsden magazines, following Robert Scholes example.  The Marsden magazines comprise three titles published in the UK during the nineteen-teens: The Freewoman (1911-1912), The New Freewoman (1913), and The Egoist (1914-1919).  I can only provide a very brief overview of the magazines here, but I recommend looking at Scholes’ introduction to the Marsden magazines on the MJP site.  The Freewoman was founded in 1911 by Dora Marsden and Mary Gawthorpe, after the two of them broke with the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union.  When Marsden started The Freewoman, she did so in order to create a periodical that addressed the political and economic condition of women but went beyond those issues to examine and critique the sexual conventions and morality of the day.  In 1912, after reading Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own and falling under it’s spell, Marsden’s thinking moved further yet from suffragism.  In October of that same year, The Freewoman ceased publication due to financial failure. Rebecca West and Harriet Weaver helped Marsden create The New Freewoman, which was much more Stirner-esque in its editorial programme but which also, under the influence of West, devoted much more attention to literature than did its predecessor.  In January 1914, at Marsden’s behest, The New Freewoman became The Egoist, more clearly indicating the editorial direction it had taken.  Soon after the name change, Marsden stepped down as editor of The Egoist and was replaced by Harriet Weaver.  After bringing in Ezra Pound to help with the literary section, Rebecca West was replaced as literary editor by a series of Pound’s friends—first, Richard Aldington, then H. D., and finally T. S. Eliot. Until fairly recently the received account of the magazine was that control of it was wrested away from Marsden by Pound, who transformed it from a political organ dedicated to women’s causes into a means to carry out his aesthetic program, but Marsden’s biographer and others have demonstrated that this account is almost certainly wrong.  Marsden led the way in the magazine’s transformation and its name changes as her interests grew more literary and less explicitly political.  What I hope to do in part 2 is provide a way to look at the transformations the Marsden magazines underwent not so much in intellectual and individual terms but structural and collective ones. The goal of this work is not to read magazines, but, to paraphrase Conrad, by the power of the image . . . before all, to make you see.

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2 responses to “Looking at Magazines: An Argument for Not Reading (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Looking at Magazines: Marsden Networks (part 2) | Magazine Modernisms

  2. Pingback: Looking at Magazines: An Argument for Not Reading (Part 1) | Magazine Modernisms | Silver and Dark

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