Interacting with Print is an interdisciplinary, interinstitutional research group devoted to the study of European print culture in the period 1700-1900.

Since 2005, our group has developed and continues to elaborate an innovative approach to the study of print culture based on the concept of interactivity. We investigate how people interacted with printed matter, how they used print media to interact with other people and how printed texts and images interacted within complex media ecologies. ‘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, which emerged as the predominant communications technology in Europe in the period 1700-1900.

Print was undoubtedly important before and after this period, but European culture can most fully be described as a ‘print culture’ in these two centuries. From the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 that freed English printers from government control to the technological innovations of 1897 that allowed photographs to be printed in newspapers, our period saw print in all its forms move to the centre of cultural life, without eliminating other communications media.

Collaborative research allows us to build a solid understanding of the cultures of print in a way that disaggregated studies could not. Bringing together five scholars and three collaborators from departments of English, History, German, and Modern Languages, trained in the analysis of different media and working on different national contexts, our team’s own interactions aim to produce a distinctive new approach. Interactivity is both our topic and our method: in order to study the interactions of the past, we will create new kinds of interaction in the present.



Connectivity has become the dominant framework through which contemporary knowledge is increasingly understood. From networks to clouds to close reading to reconstructing historical social worlds, making connections is at the core of what we do. And yet the very ubiquity of the term has largely hidden it from critical view. This workshop is devoted to exploring the diversity of what it means to be connected. What constitutes a connection? How have different periods and different kinds of media constructed different understandings of connectedness in the past? How do different concepts of connectivity alter or inform the stories we tell about that past? And how do these understandings of historical connections inform our own connectedness to history? We are looking for contributions that explore some aspect of connectivity as it relates to historical media change and that can take a wide variety of possible avenues to what kinds of connections do print media make possible and how might those differ from their digital next of kin? how do notions of connectivity impact a changing sense of time and space; narrative form and the connections within texts; or the idea of scale itself? similarly, how do new notions of connectivity impact our own scholarly accounts of the past, changing the time-, space-, text-, and social-frames of analysis? In short, how does an understanding of connection, connectedness, and connectivity inform the work we do in the humanities, the questions we ask, and the way we go about answering them?


Dr. Mark Algee-Hewitt, Stanford University
“The Principals of Meaning: Networks of Knowledge in Johnson’s Dictionary.”

Like the “Encylopédie” of Diderot and d’Alembert, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 “Dictionary of the English Language” has all the hallmarks of an Enlightenment era project of knowledge creation. At once descriptive and prescriptive, highly idiosyncratic in design and universal in application, it offers a unique textual site in which to examine not only how Johnson himself understood the role of language in society, but also how this relationship was shaped in Britain for the next two centuries. Johnson’s most important addition to the dictionary projects that came before is his inclusion of quotations, intended to illustrate words “in their different significations.” His project then links meaning to use through references to predominately British authors (often literary authors) at a crucial moment of literary history when the novel was just beginning to assume the dominant form it would take in the nineteenth-century. This project uses a quantitative semantic and network-based approach to understanding the implicit patterns in Johnson’s Dictionary, between definition and citation, between words and their uses, and between the different domains of knowledge that are signified by the authors Johnson chooses to represent in the dictionary.

Dr. Rebecca Braun, University of Lancaster
“Authorship as Collaboration Actor-Network Theory and Literature”

This talk asks what literary studies can learn from science & technology studies’ actor-network theory, and what STS can learn from literature in return. Exploring first how Goethe’s ideas on world literature emerged from a larger conceptual programme of relatedness between people, things, and ideas, I then move to a discussion of 21st-century literary networks and the different ways they are sustained through physical and virtual spaces. Running throughout my talk is a concern with how we define agency, who or what comes together around literature, (how) have these connections changed over time, and what might my conclusions tell us about the way we conceptualise the social significance of creative work?

Dr. Michael Gavin, University of South Carolina
“A Mathematical Theory of Authorial Intention”

My presentation will turn to Warren Weaver’s and Claude Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) to offer a new theory of authorial intention. When Weaver defined communication as the process by which one mind affects another mind, he was not aware that “intention” was being hotly debated in literary theory. Some critics, like I. A. Richards, embraced Shannon’s and Weaver’s theory, but others distrusted explanations that posited a causal mind at work underneath the text: W. K. Wimsatt and M. C. Beardsley inveighed against the “intentional” and “affective” fallacies; G. E. M. Anscombe, in Intention (1957), de- naturalized all forms of explanation that rely on reference to mental states; and Jacques Derrida critiqued speech-act theory with a force that threw the entire “communication” concept into doubt. In each case, these critics argued that intentions can only be modeled through observable phenomena: actions and texts. The function of language is to create effects that readers interpret as an author’s intention.

If so — if language creates intention-effects — these effects should be measurable. Semantic models of large corpora like Early English Books Online approximate word meaning by measuring connections between words and representing them as a single, total system. Against this model of the language as a whole, individual statements are mathematically evaluated to see how their combinations of words deviate from statistical probability. Without ever engaging the question of “intention” as it’s debated in literary theory, computational linguists developed a robust theory of how human volition affects language. Based on their principles, I describe a method for keyword extraction that measures intention at the larger scales of the document, the author, and the historical period, to model how intentions push concepts in new directions.

Dr. Helge Jordheim, Oslo University
“Connecting and Disconnecting Times in Print: In and Out of Sync”

In this talk I will deal with a particular format or genre of print, the so-called «synchronistic table», which was used in 17th- and 18th-historiography to connect – and in a certain sense to disconnect – the multiple times of global space. In the brief historical moment after Christian chronology had all but collapsed, but before the profane teleology of progress had taken hold, inventive authors and printers found ways of representing a plurality of times across different forms of global space, both geo- and typographical, in order to think about their connectivity, in terms of «synchronisms» or Zeitzusammenhänge, «time connections». The tables were published in separate books, so that the students could bring them along to their history lectures, and use them to get a broader and more global view of universal history than the narratives of their professors could offer them – a view in which times and histories – were multiple.

Dr. Caroline Levine, Cornell University
“The Order of Networks”

Networks have often been seen as non-hierarchical and emancipatory, and connectivity implies the potential for ever new linkages and collectives. But as physicists and sociologists have shown, networks follow rules, and they organize bodies, texts, and ideas according to surprisingly orderly principles. This paper will investigate networks’ power to impose order, and will ask what kinds of political implications follow.

Dr. Dahlia Porter, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
“Disjunctive Conjunctions”

In this paper, I want to illuminate the relationship between two forms of connectivity in the period from 1750-1850 and the way objects are connected in spatial organization of the museum and its textual counterpart the catalogue, and the affective connections between people and the natural world posited in Romantic poetry. The former has been examined in museum studies, art history, and anthropology as part of the large scale organization of knowledge that led to the consolidation of modern disciplines. The later has been central to eco-critical approaches to Romanticism, which have honed in on the desire for an integrated perception of, as Coleridge put it, “something great — something one & indivisible”—that “something far more deeply interfused” that Wordsworth’s older, wiser self discovers in “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey.”

As I’ll argue here, both of these forms of connectivity rely on disjunctive conjunction. The museum and its catalogue are organized spatially: in the absence of narrative, things come into relation by proximity or contiguity—by being next to one another in space. The genre of the catalogue thus functions as a “conceptual propinquity engine” (Delbourgo and Müller-Wille) in which connections are forged imaginatively in the gaps (blank wall or blank paper) between items or entries. This process underwrites the conceptual work performed by the museum and catalogue for emergent disciplines like comparative anatomy: John Hunter’s unifying concept of life is subtended by his museum’s organization of detached organs into functional systems that transcend the physical structure of any individual organism. Affective connection to the world in Romantic poetry works on a similar principle: to perceive oneness, the lyric speaker or poetic subject fractures into multiple, temporally-distinct subjectivities that are subsequently spatialized in relation to other objects, sunny leaf and walnut tree and humble bee. Enumerated objects joined and parsed by conjunctions [“and…and”] create a world in miniature (as Charles Wilson Peale claimed of his Philadelphia museum) in which a “heap of little things” can express the unity of—and with—something great and indivisible. Such formulations in poetry, I suggest, are both trading on and extending the work of the anatomical museum. In conclusion, I’ll consider the implications of my argument for “green Romanticism” and for the role of poetry in the consolidation of scientific disciplines in the first half of the nineteenth century.

IwP Connectivity Workshop Schedule:

Thursday, 23 March 2017

12h30- 13h30: LUNCH

13h30-13h45: Dr. Jonathan Sachs (Concordia University), Welcome

13h45-14h45: Dr. Caroline Levine (Cornell University), “The Order of Networks”

15h00-16h00: Dr. Mark Algee-Hewitt, Stanford University, “The Principals of Meaning: Networks of Knowledge in Johnson’s Dictionary.”

Friday, 24 March 2017

9h30-10h30: Dr. Helge Jordheim (Oslo University), “Connecting and Disconnecting Times in Print: In and Out of Sync.”

10h30-11h00: Coffee

11h00-12h00: Dr. Dahlia Porter (University of Glasgow), “Disjunctive Conjunctions”

12h00-13h30: LUNCH

13h30-14h30: Dr. Michael Gavin (University of South Carolina), “A Mathematical Theory of Authorial Intention”

14h45-15h45: Dr. Rebecca Braun (University of Lancaster) “Authorship as Collaboration: Actor-Network Theory and Literature”

15h45-16h45: CLOSING DISCUSSION, led by Dr. Chad Wellmon (University of Virginia)


The Question of Relevance

APRIL 7 & 8, 2016


10:30 – Welcome and Coffee
11:00 – Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley
“Fit to Print: A Natural History of Relevance
12:00 – Lunch
14:00 – Maurice S. Lee, Boston University
“‘When Found Make a Note of’ Information: Literature as ”
15:00 – Coffee
15:30 – Meredith L. McGill, Rutgers University
“What’ s the Matter with the History of the Book?”

9:30 – Welcome and Coffee
10:00 – Darin McMahon, Dartmouth College
“Illuminating the Enlightenment”
11:00 – Mark Curran, Queen Mary University of London
“Selling Enlightenment: the relevance of space in the eighteenth-century francophone book trade
12:00 – Lunch
13:30 – Chad Wellmon, University of Virginia
“Googling Before Google: A Brief History of the Search”
14:30 – Christina Lupton, University of Warwick
“Reading and the Relevance of the Future”
15:30 – Coffee
16:00 – Jon Klancher, Carnegie Mellon University

McGill University
Thomson House, Room 404
3650 rue McTavish
Montreal, QC H3A 1Y2

Poster (pdf)



New Book by IwP Member Marie-Claude Felton

Interacting with Print member Marie-Claude Felton’s new book, “Maîtres de leurs ouvrages: l’édition à compte d’auteur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle,” is now available from Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. Until the 18th Century, libraries enjoyed an unfair monopoly over the book scene in Paris. The tide turned in 1777 when authors finally acquired the right to edit and sell their own works. Dr Felton has explored in depth the emergence of the modern author and shows how writers fiercely guarded the rights to and outcomes from their works. She reveals how author-editors, sensitive to the material quality of books printed at their own cost, ensured distribution as much by way of by home sales as by advertising.


Digging into Data Grant Awarded

McGill professor among recipients of internationally-funded Digging into Data Challenge

Prof. Andrew Piper of McGill’s Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures in the Faculty of Arts is a leader of one of 14 teams of researchers who will receive funding as part of the third round of the Digging into Data Challenge. The Digging into Data Challenge aims to address how “big data” is changing the research landscape for the humanities and social sciences. Now that there are massive databases of materials available for research in the humanities and the social sciences, what new, computationally-based research methods can be applied to search, analyze, and understand these materials? 

The recipients of the grants were announced today by the initiative’s funders, a group of 10 international research funding agencies from Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. The 14 projects will receive a total of approximately $5.1 million US. 

Prof. Piper is co-leading the project titled Global Currents: Cultures of Literary Networks, 1050-1900, along with Mohamed Cheriet of École de technologie supérieure, Elaine Treharne of Stanford University and Lambert Schomaker of the University of Groningen (Netherlands). The project undertakes the cross-cultural study of literary networks in a global context, ranging from post-classical Islamic philosophy to the European Enlightenment. It will receive funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the National Endowment for the Humanities (US), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. 

“Integrating new image-processing techniques with social network analysis, we examine how different cultural epochs are characterized by unique networks of intellectual exchange,” explains Prof. Piper. “Research on ‘world literature’ has become a central area of inquiry today within the humanities, and yet so far data-driven approaches have largely been absent from the field. 

“Our combined approach of visual language processing and network modeling allows us to study the non-western and pre-print textual heritages so far resistant to large-scale data analysis, as well as develop a new model of global comparative literature that preserves a sense of the world’s cultural differences. We are grateful for the support awarded to our project by the funders of the Digging into Data Challenge.”

Other McGill team members include Gwyn Campbell (Department of History), Grace Fong (Department of East Asian Studies), Derek Ruths (School of Computer Science) and Robert Wisnovsky (Institute for Islamic Studies). The team will analyze 1,194,000 pages of historical material. 

“Prof. Piper and his international team of collaborators are taking a truly global approach to complex – and in some cases previously unexplored – questions that cross borders and eras,” says Dr. Rosie Goldstein, McGill’s Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations). “The Global Currents project, which applies visual and data-driven techniques to literary and cultural studies, demonstrates how interdisciplinarity improves our ability to answer important questions. We deeply appreciate the Digging into Data Challenge funders’ support for such ambitious, curiosity-driven research.”

The sponsoring funding bodies of the Digging into Data Challenge also include the Arts & Humanities Research Council (UK), the Economic & Social Research Council (UK), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (US), the National Science Foundation (US) and The Netherlands eScience Center (NLeSC) (Netherlands). Jisc (UK) will be providing professional program management in the progression of the U.K.-based projects. 

More about Global Currents: Cultures of Literary Networks, 1050-1900:

Four teams from the US, Canada, and the Netherlands are undertaking the cross-cultural study of literary networks from 1050 – the beginnings of Islamic post-classical philosophy and the Anglo-Saxon high middle ages – to 1900, the onset of various global modernisms across China, the Middle East and Europe. Drawing on the diverse disciplinary backgrounds of 11 team members from the humanities and computer science, they will use four separate database collections, which comprise 1,194,000 page images and represent four major cultural domains: post-classical Islamic philosophy, Chinese women’s writing from the Ming-Qing Dynasties, the Anglo-Saxon Middle-Ages, and the European Enlightenment. The researchers will look at how these different transitional periods and places are characterized by networks of shared ideas. They will integrate new techniques of visual language processing with social network analysis to understand the diverse cultures of literary communication that existed during these periods.

For more information on the Digging into Data Challenge: www.diggingintodata.org

“The index card as thinking machine: Media, memory and writing in Hans Blumenberg,” a seminar by Prof Cornelius Borck

Date:  Thursday, February 6, 2014 – 17:30
Location:  McGill University, Arts Building, Room w-215

Dr. Cornelius Borck, professor of History, Theory, and Ethics of Medicine and Science at the University of Lübeck in Germany, will give a seminar entitled, “The index card as thinking machine: Media, memory and writing in Hans Blumenberg.” Before joining the University of Lübeck, Prof Borck served as a Canada Research Chair at McGill University. He has also worked at the Institute for Science Studies at the University of Bielefeld, the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the Faculty of Media at Bauhaus University Weimar. By training a philosopher and a medical doctor with research expertise in the neurosciences, Prof Borck has published widely on the history of the neurosciences, including a monograph on the cultural history of electroencephalography. His research deals with the comparative aspects of the history of medicine in the 20th century, the history of brain research between media technologies and neuro-philosophy, and the epistemology of the unnoticeable in art and science. For details, please visit the website for the Department of Art History and Communications Studies Speaker Series. 

Reading the Body: Johann Caspar Lavater and the Tradition of Physiognomy

Saturday, March 1, 2008 – 09:00 to Monday, March 31, 2008 – 17:00
Osler Library, McGill University
Organized by Interacting with Print

In his Essays on Physiognomy, Johann Caspar Lavater (1741–1801) defines physiognomy as “the Science of discovering the relation between the exterior and the interior.” The Swiss pastor proposes no less than “to decipher the original language of Nature, written on the face of Man, and on the whole of his Exterior” and “to trace a few of the Characters of that divine Alphabet.” This practice of reading the body, of interpreting facial features and expressions as signs to be decoded, draws on a long tradition, which begins with Aristotle and continues to inform modern sciences such as Emotion Psychology and Physical Anthropology.

As this exhibition wants to show, both the elaboration and the distribution of this physiognomic knowledge depended heavily on media other than the human body. Manuscripts and printed texts and especially images were called upon to render the body legible by illustrating the hidden relations between human physical features, character, moral disposition, animal traits, ethnicity, cosmic order, and divine providence. However, what qualified as signs, how these signs were to be decoded to count as evidence, and who was entitled to interpret them, depended on which scientific methods and cultural techniques were considered to best “promote the knowledge and the love of mankind.” Condemned in Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie as an “imaginary science” and praised by Lavater as the “science of sciences,” the history of physiognomy — and its deployment through the medium of the illustrated book — has much to tell us about the intersecting fields of science and art in the eighteenth century and their mutual quest for a universal legibility, whether of books, bodies, or images.

The Multigraph Conference: A Collaborative Monograph on the History of Print Interactivity

Thursday, November 15, 2012 – 09:00 to Friday, November 16, 2012 – 17:30
688 Sherbrooke, McGill University
Organized by Interacting with Print
For the next two days, 22 researchers from 3 different countries will assemble at McGill University to continue the work of collaboratively writing a monograph on the history of print. Over the course of the past year, contributors have been writing “seeds” and “grafts” using a wiki platform to address the history of print interactivity — how individuals interacted with print, how print interacted with other media, and how new kinds of social communities were brought into existence through these mediated interactions. The online contributions will be consolidated through this two-day event of collaborative editing and writing. The process will then culminate at the end of the year in the form of a printed book. By engaging in a multi-platform, collaborative writing process, the aim of the project is to change how we think about the history of media by changing how we as scholars communicate through media.

The project is organized by the Interacting with Print Research Group and is generously supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It is being led by Andrew Piper.

For a fuller description of the multigraph, you can go here.


Interpersonal Print (a two-day conference)

Thursday, March 21, 2013 – 09:30 to Friday, March 22, 2013 – 17:00
Arts Building, Room 160, McGill University
Organized by Interacting with Print
How did people in Europe between 1700 and 1900 use printed matter to mediate and structure their social and interpersonal interactions?  On one hand, silently reading a printed book is usually understood as a solitary activity, even an alienating one.  On the other, engaging with printed matter in particular ways helps to shape large-scale groups such as religious denominations and nation-states.  Between these two extremes, however, lies a world of interpersonal print that is more seldom discussed. This two-day conference brings together specialists in a number of disciplines from across North America and Great Britain to address the interpersonal dimensions of print culture from several angles.

Print entered interpersonal relationships in numerous ways: parents or care-givers reading to children, courting couples reading together, correspondents recommending and discussing printed books in their letters, reading societies pooling their resources to buy books and salons using a printed text to structure conversations are all examples. Print’s interpersonal dimensions will be addressed by our eight invited speakers: Angela Borchert (Western), Michael Gamer (University of Pennsylvania), Denise Gigante (Stanford University), Matthew Grenby (Newcastle University), Leslie Howsam (Windsor), Jon Klancher (Carnegie Mellon), Jon Mee (Warwick University), and Catherine Sama (University of Rhode Island).

An exhibition being curated in association with the conference will showcase examples of how people interacted with print in the period to cultivate new interpersonal interactions.  “Interpersonal Print” will interest anyone concerned with how how print mediates between individuals, shaping even some of our closest interpersonal relationships.

We welcome you to join us for the event in its entirety or for any part of it.

This is the third in a series of three two-day conferences on interactive aspects of print culture in this period.

Graduate Student Symposium



Tuesday, January 15, 2013 – 14:00 to 17:30
Ferrier Building, Room 470
Download the PosterDownload the Schedule
Organized by Interacting with Print
On Tuesday, January 15, the Interacting with Print Research Group will host its inaugural Graduate Research Symposium. The event runs from 2:00 to 5:30 pm, in the Ferrier Building (McGill Campus), Room 470