Network narratives start to take hold. Not only their mandatory historical documentation, but the crucial idea that the most basic conception of “networks” has changed over time and needs to be problematized far more than it has been.
Take Voltaire for example, the great networker of the French Enlightenment. He was a celebrity in his own time; far more than Foucault, Lacan, or Derrida in ours. He networked far and wide, especially when he came to England, and hobnobbed with the aristocracy. Revolutionary ideas of “Enlightenment” were then first aired by philosophers in their saloons, and this is where Voltaire first learned about empiricism and the experimental method. He carried these notions back to the Continent and further networked them to launch a pan-European Enlightenment. But its main facets first appeared on English soil, and Voltaire would not have known about them without constant networking.
More recent is the 2012 bicentenary of Charles Dickens. Dickens’s biographical networking cannot not hold a candle to Voltaire’s but something else does. Among new books pouring forward from presses as the bicentenary commences this year, including ever more biographies, is one devoted to “Dickens’s networks”. This is Jonathan Grossman’s Charles Dickens’s Networks (Oxford University Press, 2012). A generation ago such a book would have been unthinkable. Why? The author is an excellent literary historian in the UCLA English Department who could have documented the rise of railways in Victorian England two decades ago and situated their role in Dickens’s novels. But Grossman would not have had the idea. But now he shows how early networked Victorian communities came together, for the first time, with record speed.