“(In)forming Revolution Series: Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions” – Introduction

By Bryan A. Banks

“We have entered the information age, and the future, it seems, will be determined by the media. In fact, some would claim that the modes of communication have replaced the modes of production as the driving force of the modern world. I would like to dispute that view. Whatever its value as prophecy, it will not work as history, because it conveys a specious sense of a break with the past. I would argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that communication systems have always shaped events.”

Robert Darnton, Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Chicago, January 5, 2000.

Robert Darnton, Emeritus Harvard University librarian and renowned historian of the French Enlightenment, delivered a lecture on the history of communication before a large crowd at the American Historical Association. Only a handful of days after fears of a global collapse (Y2K) subsided, Darnton historicized our own information age and argued that “communication systems” have always shaped events. Darnton described the growing print industry of the eighteenth century, as well as the oral news networks at work in the city of lights, mobilizing le peuple, along with would-be French revolutionary politicians, to revolution.[1] Other historians picked up where Darnton left off, examining the ways that French radical and conservative news outlets shaped the revolutionary experience itself. In short, information networks formed and imagined Revolution.[2] The series we’ve put together here at AoR, seeks to explore the information age of the Age of Revolutions, examining the ways that information traveled and made revolution thinkable.

In many ways, this series covers fairly well-trodden ground, but addresses a very real contemporary issue. Seventeen years later, Darnton’s words continue to ring true — the future and the present are constantly battled over in the media. Our contemporary political world also begs scholars to continue to think about information networks and media politics. For example, eighteenth-century readers shared information in different ways, and any news that challenged one’s political position was called into question. “Fake news” is hardly a new opprobrium.

Over the last three decades, considerable efforts have been made to rethink the history of communication in general and in the revolutionary period in particular. The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing was founded in 1993 and its annual conferences have led to hundreds of great publications on the history of communication. Many communication historians have also harnessed the digital humanities to rethink, re-conceptualize, and visualize information networks in new ways. Projects like the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe and Mapping the Republic of Letters (certainly not the only two) have made eighteenth-century books and the book trade far more comprehensible, and our narratives of the Enlightenment information networks far more complicated. These projects have challenged us to think about networks well-beyond national boundaries.

What follows this month is our effort to continue the work of historians of communication in the Age of Revolutions and to re-examine those actors who shaped the information landscape of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Who produced, shaped, and facilitated the flow of information in the early age of empire across national boundaries and bodies of water? How did information lead to and imagine the revolutionary experience? How can digital tools help us to rethink the spread of information and the formation of communication networks? 

(In)forming Revolution Series: Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions

September 6, 2017:

Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt, “Information, Empire, and Roads to Revolution

September 11, 2017:

Joseph M. Adelman, ‘Meer Mechanics’ No More: How Printers Shaped Information in the Revolutionary Age

September 13, 2017:

Rob Taber, “Rumor and Report in Affiches Améciaines: Saint-Domingue’s American Revolution

September 18, 2017:

Jordan Taylor, “Information and Ideology in Henri-Antoine Mézière’s Canadian Age of Revolutions

September 20, 2017:

James Alexander Dun, “Le Cap to Carlisle: News of the Early Haitian Revolution in the United States

September 25, 2017:

Melanie Conroy, “Visualizing Social Networks: Palladio and the Encyclopédistes, Part I”

September 27, 2017:

Melanie Conroy, “Visualizing Social Networks: Palladio and the Encyclopédistes, Part II”

September 29, 2017:

Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions Bibliography

[1] Robert Darnton has made many of his publications free and available online. Check them out here.

[2] Jack Richard Censer, Prelude to Power: The Parisian Radical Press, 1789-1791 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); Carla Hesse, Publishing And Cultural Politics In

Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1810 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Béatrice Didier, Ecrire la Révolution, 1789-1799 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1989); Jeremy Popkin, Revolutionary News: The Press in France, 1789-1799 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990); Pierre Retat, ed. La Revolution du Journal, 1788-1794 (Paris, Éditions du C.N.R.S., 1989); Darrin M. McMahon, “The Counter-Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France,” Past and Present 159 (May, 1998): 77-112; Haydn Trevor Mason, The Darnton Debate: Books And Revolution In The Eighteenth Century (Oxford : Voltaire foundation, 1999).

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