Historicizing Networks

by , under Uncategorized

Talk and writing about networks is reaching frenzied heights. You cannot pick up a newspaper or magazine without finding articles about the ubiquitous,  twittering, “networked” classes. Most deal with cognition and consciousness, and to what degree mind is as embodied as brain. But networks loom as large.

The “humanities” of networks lags: their history, anthropology and sociology. How old are networks? How have they changed? Why did they arise in the first place?

The history of networks, broadly construed, is not yet a mini-subdiscipline. But universal agreement exists that networks flourished throughout the last century. Nods are made at the Victorians too. And glances at the Romantics (those groups of Byronic aficionados and Shelleyan extended families). But before then – before the high Enlightenment and French Revolution – networks remain foreign concepts.

This is odd. The Republic of Letters flourished from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, with a vast secondary literature documenting it. It was “virtual” in our sense (had no fixed physical home) but nonetheless existed. Everyone attached understood its codes and practices and goals for the enhancement of human knowledge and sociability. The Republic was indeed a pleasure-offering “network” no less than Facebook; its far-flung members twittering as prolifically by snail-mail.

We need a history of networks; even more pressingly we need a sociology. We need to understand why human beings require networks in this transhistorical way. Saying that man is a social creature is not at all the same. Networking is not the opposite of being a solitaire or celibitaire.