Communicating Enlightenment: Debate, Discussion, and Diffusion of Knowledge within Eighteenth-Century Information Networks

AHA Session 29
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Washington Room 6 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Margaret C. Jacob, University of California, Los Angeles
Jeremy L. Caradonna, University of Alberta

Session Abstract

Recent research in the history of the early modern world has emphasized networks that created communities of exchange through which people, goods, and ideas traveled.  A number of digital humanities projects, notably Mapping the Republic of Letters at Stanford, and Cultures of Knowledge at Oxford, bring this new method of organization to early modern sources in an effort to map, visualize, and understand the communication networks that took shape in the 17th and 18th centuries.  However, the data examined in these projects consists chiefly of correspondence between well-known figures who were often published authors.  We know much less about how the general educated public engaged with such ideas, and how these ideas made their way into various media forms beyond the private letter.

Our panel seeks to address this gap by exploring the ways 18th century books, newspapers, and cafés structured spaces for the consumption and debate of information and facilitated the spread of such ideas.  In a world where information was not yet considered proprietary, this panel explores the circuits through which information moved, the means by which information was repackaged and repurposed to suit new audiences, and the ways ideas grew in popularity.

Elizabeth Andrews (History, University of California, Irvine) will deliver a paper on “Information Networks in the Eighteenth-Century French Press:  Published Correspondence and the Culture of Debate, 1770-1788.”  Her paper will discuss how letters to the editor in the French periodical press allowed a large reading audience to debate notions of Enlightenment. In particular, her paper demonstrates how the pacing of information exchange grew, as readers and editors alike copied and reformulated ideas before printing them again. 

Harvey Chisick (History, University of Haifa) will offer reflections on “Unintended Communities: The Role of Reference Works in Crystallizing Ideas and Attitudes in the Enlightenment: The Case of Beneficence.”  His paper underscores the way publications on bienfaisance, that is, social welfare projects, were embedded within a network of publications throughout Europe, which Parisian hack writers then heavily drew from. 

Thierry Rigogne (History, Fordham University will speak on “The Café as Information Exchange: Coffeehouses at the Heart of the Communication System in 18th-century Paris.”  He explores cafés as centers for the dissemination but also the creation of information of different kinds in the 18th century.

Commentaries will be offered by the session’s chair, Margaret Jacob (History, UCLA) and by Jeremy Caradonna (History, University of Alberta). 

The papers and commentaries will ask questions such as:  How were eighteenth century information networks structured?  What factors shaped them?  To what extent did such networks provide a locus for debate?  And how did such networks communicate calls for societal and cultural change?  Ultimately, this panel seeks to elucidate how information was shared between individuals beyond elite circles like salons.  This panel explores shared trends and divergences in the ways information networks formed and developed in the eighteenth century, and how such structures framed the debates that took place within them.

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