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The Material Texts Network

The Network brings together current research at Birkbeck on material texts, and provides a base for future projects and grant bids. We also hope to connect with other academic and cultural institutions.

Material Texts is a capacious term - designating, most basically, an interest in the way in which material form influences meaning - and the range of work within the Network is wide. But we seek, in particular, to encourage reflective, critical, imaginative thinking about the relationship between materiality and literary studies: our sense is that the infectious enthusiasm for materiality within current academic research needs to be complemented with more creative self-reflection. We are interested in the contradictory impulses of much current research: on the one hand, the fetishizing of the archive and the frisson of the real text, open before us; and, at the same time, the much-lauded potential of digitization to open up archives by replacing the real with the virtual.

  • What are the assumptions and problems that lie beneath academic research's current enthusiasm for material texts?
  • What are the problems with this ‘archive fever'?
  • What does materiality mean for a digital archive? Is some other term required?
  • What is lost in digitizing projects? What features of texts and of writing cannot be captured? What new canons are created, and which texts are neglected, with this emphasis on material form? Do digitization projects result, paradoxically, in the closing off of archives?
  • Do transitions in media (manuscript to print; print to digital) threaten older forms? Does this matter?
  • To use the term ‘material texts' is also to imply the existence of immaterial texts. But what is an immaterial text? Is it the text we imagine or remember or talk about, rather than read? How might a history of reading respond to this immaterial text?
  • How are books and writing technologies imagined in literature? How does literature evoke the contexts of writing, the experience of inscribing, the physical life of the book after it is written?
  • What insights might performance-based research yield about how material form shapes meaning?
  • What are the questions that have yet be to asked about writing in its various possible embodied forms?
  • Are there varieties of materiality that are critically neglected?

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