What networks are made of

I will be giving a paper in Lyon next week at the “Matinée d’études sur les réseaux intellectuels historiques“. It was one of these papers which I take big pleasure in writing (and yes, I have finished writing it, or else I would be having nightmare after nightmare by now) first, because it gives me the opportunity to synthesize work that has already been done and second, because writing it helped me formulate more clearly new ideas – this time on the methodical side.

The main hypothesis of my research project “Berlin Intellectuals 1800-1830” is based on the idea that 18th-century scholarly networks evolved around 1800 towards a more politicized form of intellectual interplay. I avoided mentioning “networks” in the project title (it is in the subtitle though) because I did not want to be automatically put in the historian drawer. I am not a historian, so that settles it.

But I still needed a structuring concept. The challenge was to find a way of putting together scholars, writers (male and female), journalists, publishers, without subsuming their unity as a group under a unique ideological tendency (like, say, romanticism). The focus on the strategies of communication, e.g. on the texts and the relationships (between persons, between texts), understood as a basic political gesture, was what mattered me most. I figured I would be able to use, twist, rely on the concept of network in a not-too-historical understanding of it: as a way of saying that people are connected, in multiples ways, that change within time.

Two years later, I have to admit that the concept is not optimal for our analysis. It certainly has to do with the methodical input of the other group members, but also with my own wish to get back to the texts at last after years of wandering around in the context in terms of history of ideas. This was certainly necessary for me. Considering how educated the people were that we are working on, we need more than a superficial knowledge of what was going on in terms of history of science to be able to understand what their debates really were about. I was imagining that we would at some point be able to name clear historical or religious polarizations. Who is more liberal, who is not.

Not only singular individuals have positions that vary in time and in context: all in all, it does not bring so much to be able to label said position left or right wing. What is more interesting for us is: what does it tell us about the relationship between this writing/publishing individual and the people he is writing for (whether those are real or phantasmatic). How does the concerned writer/scholar construct this relationship, give it an original shape, include it in the wider context of his social position and aspirations, how does he try to communicate his ideas? How much tempting it might be (it certainly was for me when I wrote the general application in 2009) to envision comparisons between scholars acting/writing like this or like that in 1760 and others acting/writing like this or like that in 1810, I don’t think it is possible to do so in detail. You can observe general tendencies, but cannot compare texts so closely that were composed in so different contexts. So what do we have left apart from close reading, defining hands on manuscripts, and scrutinizing each text’s history?

In the course of the group’s reading sessions of the last year, one concept began to emerge. We are working on it now, trying to see how it might help us seize those relationships, give them a shape that fully renders their complexity and interest (the next move will then be to see how we can work with it in the digital edition). So I give you: generations.