The Story of the Multigraph Collective

Allison Miller | May 1, 2018

Thirteen years ago, in Montréal’s university community, four scholars (three of them recent transplants, and all four feeling somewhat isolated) came together and quickly bonded around a set of shared scholarly interests: book history, print culture, and European intellectual history. Over plenty of coffee, Susan Dalton and Nikola von Merveldt (both from the Université de Montréal) and Tom Mole and Andrew Piper (then both at McGill Univ.) threw out ideas about print with the intensity of thinkers on the verge of a breakthrough.

In the 18th century, creating botanical specimens out of finely cut paper became popular. This collage is made up of 230 pieces of paper. ©The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.What linked all their concerns together, they thought, was the way the material experience of reading was inherently interactive. They were also dissatisfied with the received narratives of book history, typically confined to specific nations. Members of the quartet pushed each other in unexpected directions. In 2006, they applied for federal and provincial government grants using Interacting with Print as their project title and, when the funding came through, declared themselves the Interacting with Print research group. They began assembling an interdisciplinary network of scholars from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom to talk about new research in small annual workshops. (Concordia University’s Jonathan Sachs joined the Interacting with Print research group in 2010.)

Eventually 17 scholars were tapped to form a cohort of 22 that would embark on a new project led by the Interacting with Print research group. Joining Dalton, von Merveldt, Mole, Piper, and Sachs were Mark Algee-Hewitt, Angela Borchert, David Brewer, Thora Brylowe, Julia Carlson, Brian Cowan, Marie-Claude Felton, Michael Gamer, Paul Keen, Michelle Levy, Michael Macovski, Nicholas Mason, Dahlia Porter, Diana Solomon, Andrew Stauffer, Richard Taws, and Chad Wellmon. Only Dalton, Cowan, and Felton were trained as historians and worked in history departments, but all were sorting through historically situated questions.

As the larger group came together, Piper had the idea of disseminating the work through an ambitious collaboration: a jointly authored book that would draw on everyone’s research interests, with writing and editing undertaken electronically, via wiki software. Anyone would be able to write or revise, insert or delete, expound or qualify. The book wouldn’t have one author but 22, each taking responsibility for all of its contents: instead of a monograph, it would be a “multigraph.” (The word wasn’t Piper’s originally, but it fit.) And so a massive collaborative enterprise—which came to be called the Multigraph Collective—was born. Its opus, Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation, was published by the University of Chicago Press earlier this year.

The choice of a printed book (instead of, say, a digital project that could take advantage of the work’s methodology) was both ideological and practical. A book, says Dahlia Porter (Univ. of North Texas), reflects the group’s commitment to the materiality underpinning the inquiry. And, she adds, a print book “is useful for pushing academic departments and institutions to think harder about how large-scale collaborative scholarship in the humanities is valued and evaluated.” Sachs also acknowledges that the academic community might one day accord digital publication equal respect as print, “but our sense was that it hadn’t gotten there yet”; therefore, one goal of the work was “to push the envelope and see just how much innovation was possible in a traditional print format.”

There’s no one way to approach Interacting with Print: it embodies reading practices developed centuries ago.

Interacting with Print refutes the assumption that print is static and less interactive than other media. For 18th-century readers, writers, editors, censors, printers, artists, vendors, satirists, and advertisers, manipulation and modification were inherent to the meaning of print. They dog-eared pages, they scribbled in margins, they took new books to be bound and vacillated anxiously about selecting socially impressive covers. They responded to advertisements and flipped from index to text and back. They convened salons to banter and bat around ideas, many that had appeared or would appear in print: poems, novels, plays, treatises, essays. They picked wildflowers and pressed them carefully between the pages of treasured volumes.

There is no one narrative framing Interacting with Print; each of the 18 chapters is an essay focusing on a keyword that reflects one aspect of the experience of reading, from “Advertising” to “Thickening” (or interleaving new material into a printed text). Within each essay lie not only scholarly citations but also bracketed cross-references to other chapters, somewhat like hyperlinks. In “Engraving,” for example, we learn about the aspirations of English engravers to political and artistic legitimacy by depicting grand historical events, and we’re referred to “Frontispieces,” which complements the discussion with a deeper examination of the artwork opposite title pages. Interacting with Print may be read from cover to cover, but there’s no one way to approach it: it embodies interactive practices developed centuries ago.

The keyword structure was an outgrowth of the way the book was conceived and written, which collaborators describe using organic metaphors. As the book explains, the Interacting with Print research group first gathered short contributions from participants “on a key concept from any area of their own research”—half a chapter or so. These contributions became “seeds” that the research group offered to the larger collective. Through a second process, “grafting,” members of the collective elaborated on and edited the original seeds via wiki. “As in any good garden,” the book reads, “the point of the graft was that it must take—it required consideration of the ideas of someone else and an attempt to draw connections with thoughts not one’s own.” (McGill University’s Brian Cowan says a seed on pornography never took, despite its historical relevance and obvious interactivity.) In the third process, “pressing,” the final versions of the keyword essays emerged.

Despite the productivity of the electronic collaboration, the project wouldn’t have been finished without face-to-face meetings. The Interacting with Print research group organized two annual workshops to bring the collective together. In rotating small-group editorial sessions, each devoted to one seed—and notably without the original author present—the 22 scholars got a chance to interact closely, identifying new connections and directions for further inquiry in the process. Some writing was accomplished, but sessions emphasized brainstorming improvements and devising assignments for other members—with deadlines.

The two workshops were caffeine-fueled excursions into common inspiration, as collective members decided how to graft the short sections into coherent essays. David Brewer (Ohio State Univ.) remembers a spirited debate over the project’s periodization—“basi­cally whether or not to stop circa 1850”—when Andrew Stauffer (Univ. of Virginia) exclaimed, “I go all the way to 1900, muthafuckas!” “I really enjoyed that combination of faux-gangsta and nerdy historicism,” says Brewer. Being edited by so many other scholars, according to Paul Keen (Carleton Univ.), was unnerving but also “weirdly liberating. It gave us all a license to put our authorial sensitivities on hold and put our faith in this larger brainstorming process.”

At the last dinner, to bolster resolve about actually getting the book out, the idea of a blood pact was floated.

Indeed, Piper too describes the endeavor as a “leap of faith,” since no one knew how the final work would be received by tenure and promotion committees or by UK Research Excellence Framework evaluators. One Multigraph Collective member, says Piper, was told that since there were 22 collaborators, the member’s work on Interacting with Print would count as 1/22 of a book—by word count, not even the equivalent of a journal article.

In the thick of it all, however, the process was thrilling. Hierarchies of academic rank and disciplinary territoriality dissolved in a shared commitment to the work. “This project fundamentally changed my ideas about what humanities scholarship could look like and what it could achieve,” says Porter. As Susan Dalton recalls, “Everyone felt energized by the exchange of ideas. . . . I also experienced the pleasure and relief of talking through [intellectual] problems with friends and colleagues who were really invested in the ideas I wanted to discuss.” Individual scholars say that the humility behind the project solidified trust within the group.

After the workshop sessions, the collective would take on the evening together. At the last dinner, to bolster resolve about actually getting the book out, the idea of a blood pact was floated. “Someone got safety pins and some rubbing alcohol to sterilize, and we all pricked our fingers and pressed them against a handwritten contract that someone else had drawn up,” says Brewer. Cowan recalls Angela Borchert (Univ. of Western Ontario) drawing his blood at the dinner table. “It certainly reflects the gothic taste of many of the romanticists involved with the project,” he quips. (Porter, who is in fact a romanticist, still has the contract.)

Members of the Multigraph Collective say they would undertake a similar project again, but with stipulations. “Making this [type of collaboration] work requires people who are willing to get along,” says Sachs. “But it also requires people who are willing to stand up for certain points when necessary, though in a way not to offend. It’s delicate from top to bottom. You have to care enough about your sentences to write your best, but you also have to trust other people enough to let them rewrite the work that you thought you had crafted so carefully.”

Dalton likens the project to collaborative writing of the 18th century. The Multigraph Collective, she remarks, reminds her of the Republic of Letters—a germinative network of correspondents that materialized in the Atlantic world over 200 years ago. Collaborations on the scale of Interacting with Print might be one direction for scholarship in the future, but they also call upon habits ingrained in the past, both mundane and profound.

Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.

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