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Rewriting History

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Posted: 05/24/2013

From the Spring 2013 issue of the Roosevelt Review

Faculty essay by Bonnie Gunzenhauser

Why read literature? With print culture losing market share and new media emerging daily, publishers, booksellers, and even English professors field more and more questions about literature's utility.

But at the same time, it's easy enough to find a parallel and very public conversation full of vigorous assertions about literature's value. A quick search on turns up dozens of books with titles such as The Book That Changed My Life; recent studies estimate that over five million Americans belong to at least one book club; the social-media site GoodReads claims over 6.5 million members who have posted over 13 million book reviews in the last three years alone; and the National Endowment for the Arts spends some of your tax dollars each year on "The Big Read," a community-based reading program whose aim is "designed to restore reading to the center of American culture" through such programs as One Book, One Chicago (now with analogues in 77 other American communities).

Some of this attention to the value of literature is deeply individual: literature changes me. Some of it gestures toward literature's more collective influence: The Big Read aims to promote reading and, presumably, social cohesion by providing "citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities." Either way, the implication is that literature matters because it creates change – in an individual, in a community, or both.

If you're a reader, you probably feel that too. You may be able to call to mind books or scenes or characters or ideas that you'd call influential, that you'd say changed you. But if I pressed you to say exactly how that change happened, or what it was, I suspect you might struggle to explain it: the effects of our reading are notoriously difficult to quantify. Even so, the conviction that literature creates change – not just personal, but social – stretches back not just decades, but centuries. The ancient Greeks held playwriting competitions precisely because they saw theater as a way to explore political questions and to advocate for particular solutions. Even as literature shifted from something public and performed to something more often private and printed, the idea that words create change remained constant.

In my teaching and research, I investigate the relations between literary and social change, and most often I focus on eighteenth century Britain. This spring, for instance, I'm teaching a course called "Mass Media and the Eighteenth- Century Literary Marketplace." If my students have any first impressions of the eighteenth century, those impressions tend to focus on its foreignness: white powdered wigs, books with antique fonts and strange spellings, characters with elaborately stilted speech. But when we start to explore what commentators in our own day would call the "media ecology" of the eighteenth century, the students quickly see deep analogies to our own historical moment.

For instance, a recent Pew Internet and American Life study identifies our contemporary "information ecosystem" as unique in the ways that it makes information "abundant, cheap, personally-oriented and participatory." But, the fact is that each of these four descriptors could be applied just as easily to the information ecosystem of eighteenth-century Britain. And the parallels aren't just superficial. Both moments see major media shifts that change our ways of interacting with each other as well as the means we use to understand the world around us. These moments of media shift offer important clues for understanding just how writing helps to make social change.

It's fairly obvious that our internet driven culture makes information abundant and cheap (and fairly obvious that, at least in some cases, you get what you pay for). In eighteenth-century Britain, information was abundant and cheap thanks to a convergence of legal and technological changes. On the legal side, a landmark 1774 decision in the House of Lords (essentially Britain's Supreme Court) ended a century-long wrangle over copyright by creating a public domain for the first time in Britain's history. Intriguingly, the justices' decision to create a public domain reads much like Julian Assange's justification of his WikiLeaks project 200-odd years later: the justices created a public domain in order not to "choak [sic] the channel of public information," while Assange notes on his website that WikiLeaks exists in order to "bring important news and information to the public."

At the same time, on the technological side, changes in paper manufacture made the raw materials of books and newspapers far more affordable than they had ever been before. With new freedom to publish and new affordability of raw materials, printers flooded the market with cheap editions of old texts along with hundreds of new experiments in literature and journalism – and since literacy rates rose steadily throughout the eighteenth century, all of this new material found an eager audience. Eager, but overwhelmed: desperate for ways to sort through the plethora of print, readers welcomed new genres of summaries, commentaries and reference guides. Even serious readers praised these books – which were essentially eighteenthcentury search engines – as necessities for coping with information overload. "I esteem these Collections extreamly [sic] profitable and necessary," wrote one eighteenth-century scholar, "considering the brevity of our life, and the multitude of things which we are now obliged to know." Too much to learn and not enough time to learn it turns out to be a lament with a long history.

Google is our modern equivalent to these eighteenth-century reference guides: it sorts and winnows and generally makes manageable the vast resources of the internet. And it does so with an adaptive intelligence that individualizes and personalizes the information it provides. You may have experienced its eerily prescient targeted advertising on your Gmail account, for instance (or its occasional misfires, like ads for Spam recipes after you dump your junk-mail folder).

Our eighteenth-century counterparts didn't experience quite such a precisely-targeted information ecosystem, but their media world, like ours, was becoming more focused on the individual even as it expanded. New forms of non-print media, like the museum and the panorama, crystallized major political and historical events into specific artifacts made available to spectators from all ranks of society (the British Museum opened its doors in 1753; the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768; Robert Barker began displaying his massive panoramas in 1787). Eighteenth-century print media targeted the ordinary individual in unprecedented ways as well. The novel emerges at mid-century, replacing earlier grand comic and tragic dramas with stories featuring the details of the lives of chambermaids, foundlings, small-business owners, parents, children, and other Everymen (and, nearly as often, Everywomen).

Novels asserted that the thoughts, feelings and struggles of even the most ordinary of individuals merited close attention, and readers responded with resounding agreement. One of the first British novels, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, was so overwhelmingly popular that it generated what media historian William Warner calls "the Pamela media event." Preachers held up the fictional Pamela – a chaste and virtuous chambermaid – as a model for moral living, while the marketplace churned out Pamela tea towels, Pamela china, and enough other marketing tie-ins to mark the novel as the eighteenth-century equivalent of a new Disney or Pixar release.

Warner notes that a media event on Pamela's scale "carries genuine effects into culture," and two are noteworthy here. First, Pamela and novels like it created new (and newly-secular) cultural touchstones and frames of reference: readers weren't being asked to sympathize with larger-than-life figures from biblical, mythological, or political history, but rather with ordinary people much like themselves. And, because those characters were like themselves, readers were encouraged to cultivate new habits of empathy, to see the inner lives not only of fictional characters but of their ordinary fellow citizens with what the scholar Martha Nussbaum calls "involvement and sympathetic understanding."

The eighteenth-century novel thus created a version of what the sociologist Benedict Anderson calls an "imagined community": a group of people who might never meet in person but who were nonetheless bound together by common experiences and frames of reference. Anderson suggests that the eighteenth century newspaper built imagined communities even more effectively than the novel by uniting readers not just in a common experience, but on a common schedule. For all of the talk about how our 24-hour news cycle connects the world in unprecedented ways, eighteenth century newspaper readers recognized that their experience was, as Anderson puts it, "being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence they were confident, yet of whose identity they had not the slightest notion."

To twenty-first century readers who read and comment on blogs or news websites in real time (or something close to it), this idea of an intense but entirely virtual community is nearly second nature. But for eighteenth-century readers, the idea that a morning newspaper like Joseph Addison's Spectator should "be punctually served up ... as a Part of the Tea Equipage" each day was something altogether new. Once these eighteenth century readers cultivated the daily news habit, though, it spread like wildfire. Addison claimed that his circulation of 3,000 papers daily reached up to 60,000 Londoners because coffeehouse culture ensured that papers were read aloud, discussed, and dissected communally. "All Englishmen are newsmongers!" a French visitor to London exclaimed in 1726. An apt phrase, since 'newsmonger' implies that English readers were not just consumers of print news, but contributors to it – and many citizen-journalists did produce pamphlets, broadsides and other ephemera responding to established newspapers' accounts of controversies of the day, anticipating the citizen-journalists of the twenty-first century blogosphere by nearly 300 years.

Abundant, cheap, personalized, and participatory: the eighteenth-century information ecosystem was all of these things. But some of these media products, like museum exhibitions and newspapers, don't necessarily seem "literary" – so one might wonder how they fit into a story about literature and social change. One answer is that "literature" was a much broader term in the eighteenth century. Our contemporary ideas of academic disciplines and specialized fields of knowledge weren't yet in play, so "literature" included many different kinds of writing – museum placards and print journalism, along with more familiar forms such as poetry and novels.

The range and volume of this writing, literary historian Clifford Siskin argues, made writing itself "the newly disturbing technology" of the day, because it "changed society's ways of knowing and of working." Siskin is quite right: Britons who had in earlier generations been constrained by the boundaries of their hometowns and circles of acquaintance now, through the eighteenth-century outpouring of print, had hundreds of new perspectives, new ideas, new models for personal identity and new models for social organization at their disposal. And they acted on them. Britons moved from the country to the city in record numbers, they transformed their agrarian economy to an increasingly commercial one, and they developed a vigorous public political conversation about what Thomas Paine famously called "the rights of man."

In short, this new technology of writing was stirring things up. Nowhere was this more evident than in the government's attempts to control and suppress it. Spurred by fears that the radical press would encourage Britons to follow the French path and start a revolution of their own, government officials tried six journalists, novelists, playwrights, and poets for seditious libel and treason in the so-called Treason Trials of 1794. The writers were acquitted, but the Treason Trials ushered in a 20-year period of vigorous censorship and suppression of literature and journalism of all kinds, in the name of preserving social order. Predictably, this era of intense suppression gave way to a more measured approach, but the Treason Trials and their aftermath made writing's influence undeniably clear. For what is censorship – then or now – if not an explicit and institutionalized acknowledgement that writing has a powerful ability to incite, to provoke, and to change?

Underlying these parallels between the eighteenth- and the twenty-first centuries is an uncomfortable truth: moments of media shift expose one of the fundamental tensions of a democratic society. Democracy demands a balance between individual freedoms and social control, and media shifts unsettle that balance by changing patterns of thought and behavior more quickly than institutions can adapt to regulate them. When eighteenth-century publishers challenged prevailing copyright conditions, and twenty-first century producers fight over new technologies like music-sharing services, e-book royalties and open-source software, they're really struggling to redefine individual freedoms: how should we balance consumers' rights to access with producers' rights to intellectual property?

When journalists (in the eighteenth century and the twenty-first) contend with authorities about how much sensitive information they can publish, and when, they're really trying to redefine social control: how do we draw the line between freedom of information and public safety? The rhetoric usually casts these fights in terms of heroic efforts to restore order in the face of upstarts and interlopers (perhaps the most frequent adjective applied to new-media technologies is "rogue"). But the truth is that what may look like static "order" in the moments between major media shifts is actually just temporary downtime in writing's continual renegotiation of the relation between individual freedom and social control.

Readers and consumers of other new media will always devise ways to use technologies outside the bounds prescribed for them, and their reactions to the ideas they encounter there are likely to be fundamentally unpredictable, if not altogether unknowable. "To completely analyze what we do when we read," writes one reading theorist, "would almost be the acme of the psychologist's achievements, for it would be to describe very many of the most intricate workings of the human mind." Writing is going to generate change, like it or not – and the idea that this is a problem that can (or should) be solved ignores centuries of historical evidence to the contrary.

The prehistory of our current massmedia culture shows us that our technologies are neither as new nor as alarming as we might be asked to believe, and it provides perspective to remind us that what we consider disturbing or even revolutionary today may, a century from now, be part of the treasured status quo threatened by incursions from new technologies we cannot yet begin to imagine. "It requires arrogance in the face of history to imagine that history has stopped with us," the cultural critic Adam Gopnik writes – and there may be no better way to combat this arrogance about the future history of mass media than to examine its deep past.

Bonnie Gunzenhauser is associate professor of English and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Roosevelt. Since arriving in 2003, she has taught a wide range of courses and served as chair of the Department of Literature and Languages. She has published on numerous topics within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print culture – copyright, journalism and the novel – and she recently edited the monograph Reading in History: New Methodologies from the Anglo-American Tradition (Pickering & Chatto, 2010). Gunzenhauser holds a PhD in English from the University of Chicago and is currently a scholar-in-residence at Chicago's Newberry Library.

Last updated 06/01/2015