Challenges posed by the MJP Archives — and some solutions
Many of the benefits of the MJP archive that we’ve enumerated above unfortunately come with challenges attached. We’ll discuss some of these challenges here, and point out along the way some tools we’re developing to meet them.
Challenge 1: How do you avoid feeling overwhelmed? The abundance of primary source material in the MJP’s archive of journals may lead you to new ideas and projects, but it may also lead you to distraction. How can you find your way find your way through this welter of words and images without getting frustrated? How do you focus your investigation of the journals so you use your time wisely? David Ben-Merre has suggested that the right way to handle an MJP journal (like Poetry magazine) may be to productively lose yourself in it—but how do that and not just get lost?
Even single issues of magazines may be daunting for readers. Whereas novels and books are organized so we start at the beginning and progress toward the end, magazines don’t presume linear reading: they can be entered at any point and their contents can be read in any order. So how do you read such a text responsibly? Should you try (despite it all) to read every word in every item, from start to finish? If not, what do you ignore—and how you do justify what you omit?
Challenge 2: How do you recover a historical context? We’ve claimed that the dense MJP archive puts readers in a position to relate modernism to various contextual frameworks (artistic, historical, social, political)—but context is usually elusive, something that has to be reconstructed rather than simply observed. How then should readers extract meaningful “contexts” from the words and images in the MJP journals?
A related problem arises from the ephemeral nature of periodicals. Because magazines (unlike most books) are constructed around a specific moment, they are informed by various contexts which their original readers (also a product of the time) will be able to decipher without much trouble. The magazine’s lack of orienting about these contexts poses an obstacle, though, to future readers, who will likely stumble over obscure references in articles or not share the assumptions held by all contributors on some issue. How do we recover the information that is missing from the magazine precisely because it was common knowledge in the day?
Some Solutions: The contextual tools section on the MJP wiki begins this crucial process of recontextualization and rehistoricization for readers by mapping contemporary pedagogical and scholarly concerns onto the MJP contents.
Challenge 3: How do you assign meaning to a text whose authorship is uncertain? Even though the “death of the author” has been a critical commonplace for years now, readers may nonetheless find that magazines frustrate how they normally interpret texts by placing texts beyond the control of a clear author. For instance:
Some solutions: This challenge is one of the key problems that scholars in periodical studies are currently tackling. We can help, though, by identifying some of those authors who commonly wrote under pseudonyms.
Students studying magazines are commonly asked to decipher the bibliographical code of an magazine item, but even this activity touches on different fields of knowledge that go well beyond critical close-reading.
Some solutions: In the near future, we’ll be pointing users toward some handy resources where they might find different kinds of information:
Challenge 5: How handle missing information? In some cases, getting access to an expert point of view doesn’t suffice, since the information simply isn’t available: for instance, circulation numbers for small magazines, determining who its readers were, or how they actually read a magazine, or what their experiences were while thumbing through it. It’s also likely that we may not be able to discover who authored some unsigned pieces, or if some letters to the editor came from real readers or not, or whether certain resonances between items in a magazine are intended or not.
In place of a solution: We obviously can’t solve what isn’t solvable, but perhaps we can help readers determine whether a difficult problem in fact defies all solution. We can also offer activities (in the Projects section) in which students investigate such intractable problems, and come away with a better understanding of the limits of our knowledge.
Next: How to read a magazine
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