A Romantic Premise
What's Romantic about the Romantic Audience Project?
The afterlife of writing — the passage of poetry into an inconceivable posterity — is an express concern of many Romantics. The reasons for this concern have been ennumerated in countless histories of England at the beginning of the nineteenth century; they include a sharply unsettled cultural climate, major changes in publication techniques and print distribution, the rise of mass and niche marketing, and the treacheries of censorship and piracy. Some Romantics welcomed unpredictable and uncontrollable dispersion, prophesying the future vitality of a "torn book" (Blake, "America: A Prophecy" plate 8), or predicting the reviving of "dead thoughts" into "ashes and sparks" (Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind" line 67). Others seemed to resist such open-ended dispersion. But even rigidly fixed scenarios of narration (such as Coleridge's Mariner spellbinding the Wedding Guest) can be considered as relational acts, simulations of discourse instantiating dialogic play between an inscribed auditor and an unknown future audience.
Thus addressed, explicitly or implicitly, how might we use new tools of transmission to cultivate a dialogue of Romantic work with posterity? Much work has gone into the digitization of texts, improving access to resources, and building simple but effective search tools (see the roundup of many such projects at Romantic Circles). But such laudable effort nevertheless restricts collaborative labor (to cite Jerome Christensen's agent of 'hope' in his recent Romanticism at the End of History) to a severely limited — and well-funded — clerisy. As scholars and teachers of romanticism, we should seek wider digital play with texts sent knowingly into the storm of recontextualization.
An answer may lie in technology that mirrors Jean-François Lyotard's formulation of postmodern relations: "no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before … a person is always located at 'nodal points' of specific communication circuits …" (Lyotard 15). Though it is common to understand Lyotard as, in George Landow's words, "reject(ing) nineteenth-century Romantic paradigms of an islanded self" (Landow 91-2), the unforeseeable influence of dispersion is a competing and equally Romantic paradigm, reinvoked by Lyotard and "the computerization of society" (7) he describes in The Postmodern Condition.
While theorists have mulled over social ramifications of HTML-based hypertext, refinements in coding are significantly altering the terms of debate in a very short period of time. As Byron asked and might ask again, "Where is the world of eight years past?" (Don Juan 11.75). Networked communities — operating on web-based platforms developed by gaming and software enthusiasts — are increasingly common. Members of such communities post 'nodes' that are ranked and interlinked by other users. Since authors of heavily linked nodes gain editorial and social power, such platforms can foster pragmatic, communal research of the kind outlined by Lyotard in which "the truth of (a) statement and the competence of its sender are… subject to the collective approval of a group of persons who are competent on an equal basis" (24). Use of wiki software, in particular, points the way to study in which we can harness the "collective intelligence of the network to drive discussion" (Herz 180).
Such collaboration, dynamically and unpredictably driven by a community, is of particular interest in a study of Romanticism. It is a conscious submission to recontextualization enacted even as it is investigated, thereby tapping into the power of what James Chandler terms "performative self-consciousness" (357). Technology inconceivable (if not unanticipated) by Romantics becomes a way of measuring their embrace of posterity as well as the ideological uses that a particular audience, in a particular future, makes of their address.