The Blake Society and Pedagogy Outside the Academy

This article explores what Blakean pedagogy can be through an examination of the United Kingdom’s Blake Society, a non-academic organization. The Blake Society works to promote greater recognition of William Blake’s life and activities but eschews the goals of scholarly knowledge production that often accompany academic Blake activities. Through an exploration of the Blake Society’s pedagogy, this article asks what resources and authority are necessary to do things with Blake.

The Blake Society and Pedagogy Outside the Academy

Paige Morgan
University of Miami and The Blake Society

1.        Autumn, 1999: I am an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University sitting in an 8:00 a.m. course—a survey of British literature from 1700 to the present day. I have a Norton anthology balanced on the tiny desk platform, and the book is open to the section of poems by William Blake. The professor is a Victorianist, but today she has invited one of her colleagues specializing in Blake to give a guest lecture. The poems included in the Norton are culled from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), and include “The Tyger” and “Introduction.” I do not remember the exact content of the guest lecturer’s points. What I remember is feeling quietly nonplussed at the apparent simplicity of Blake’s poems. The guest lecturer seems to see them as entry points into something rich and vast. I’m not sure how—though I am fiercely determined to be a good student—to put all of my energies into studying literature, and so I am certain that he is right. I just need to work harder to understand. But when the class meets again two days later, we have moved on to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as the survey dictates, and I am pouring myself into their work and feeling happier because it seems like there is more to analyze and more with which to do things. I know that I want to go to graduate school in English and become a professor like the professors who have taught me. I am good at close reading and at being very, very determined in my work. I want desperately to be part of a community that matches my enthusiasms, and the English Department and then graduate school seem like my best shot.

2.        January, 2000: I am starting a senior capstone course on Blake, which was not my plan. My plan was to take a senior capstone course on Jane Austen as part of the university’s “European Quarter” study-abroad program in the spring. However, that burning determination to put all of my energies into my studies has been so successful that I have come down with mono. European Quarter no longer feels like an option, and the Blake capstone course is the only way of meeting my graduation requirements. I’m sort of okay with this, I think, because I’m not actually all that fond of Austen. The professor of the Blake capstone is the same guest lecturer from the previous year. Blake doesn’t particularly capture my interest but, really, how difficult can it be?

3.        February, 2000: I am miserable. I don’t understand what to do with Blake, I have no idea how I will write the final essay for this course, and I don’t understand what is so wrong with me that I cannot produce close readings that go anywhere. I read Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (1947)—or I try to read it at least. I don’t feel like I retain anything from Frye’s book or from Kathleen Raine’s or Hazard Adams’s respective books either. I feel like a failure, and this results in my sobbing at the professor during his office hours—multiple times. My professor is sympathetic and encourages me to take a nap, to sleep more, to celebrate Lent by eating a chocolate bar each day (i.e., to try indulging myself rather than self-deprivation). I see his point, though I don’t want a chocolate bar. I am so frustrated that I hardly know what I do want.

4.        Thinking back on that miserable February in hindsight, I realize how much of my anguish was about being part of a system that I did not understand. I knew, of course, the basic components: students, professors, assignments, grades, courses, and degrees. I had embraced the system and was within it by my own choice, but I did not understand the larger scope beyond those components. What was happening to the frantic energy that I was generating? How did the activities of my coursework and of my university fit into the larger world?

5.        Fifteen years and a Ph.D. later—and in my eleventh year of teaching—I still encounter students who have found themselves in a mental space much like the one I found myself in with my Blake capstone course: striving to make progress and feeling trapped by the conventions of the classroom—assignments, deadlines, grades. Often, I can help them, and I also ask questions that allow them to help themselves. I can assure them honestly that the particular misery that they’re feeling while studying Blake’s work is not in any way a sign of ignorance or intellectual inadequacy. I try to show the same gentleness and compassion that I was shown as a student. However, the situation isn’t a simple question of compassionate pedagogy. My students’ anguish is an example of “mind-forg’d manacles” (Erdman 27) and is directly connected with the institutional practices of academia. Whatever understanding and compassion I offer might soothe, but it won’t unlock the constraints that they’re facing. Only they can figure out how to direct their own energies and the significance of channeling those energies in one direction versus another. The problem isn’t that academic endeavors aren’t worth it. Many difficult things are worthwhile, despite causing pain and anxiety. The problem is in understanding how the experience is worthwhile and in the particular context of each student’s individual situation. While I reassure my students that, yes, they will get through these difficult periods, the occasions make me think about Blake’s harsh words about teachers throughout his work.

6.        Of course, teaching and learning are widespread topics in Blake’s writings. Some instruction is beneficial while other instruction is not. Many instructors today would, I suspect, agree with the “wisest of the Ancients [who] considerd [sic] what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act” (Erdman 702). [1]  Clearly, Blake knows that the activity of instruction goes on everywhere and in many and varied forms. On the subject of teachers—in the sense of a professional occupation—there is less ambiguity. The word he uses throughout is “hireling,” and Blake is unambiguously critical (e.g., Erdman 473, 635, 641, etc.). Hirelings are associated with kings, courts, camps, and universities—equating those who teach for money with politicians and soldiers. These hireling instructors are accused of propagating an uncultivated life, being lazy and non-industrious, and participating in corrupt labor practices that build upon Blake’s own advances without giving him proper credit (Erdman 537). Blake’s critique is thus one of institutionalized teaching generally, but there are always particular exceptions. Similar critiques of educators are still being made today of course, and from an academic perspective, these are usually made by people who aren’t fully aware of the academic requirements of teaching and scholarly research or the energy demands that the system makes on its members. Still, if more education isn’t the answer, then what is involved in not teaching Blake’s work?

7.        In this essay, I examine one set of answers to that question and do so by using my experiences volunteering as a trustee of the Blake Society, a non-profit charity organization based in London, England. I first became aware of the Blake Society in 2007, when I spoke at the “Blake at 250 Conference” held at the University of York, and I became a member of its Executive Committee in 2009. Being part of the Blake Society has given me a new perspective on the activity of doing things with Blake’s work—in terms not only of the range of things possible but also the labor required and the challenges that appear. I investigate these topics because they present interesting contrasts with the ways in which academic scholars and instructors often work with Blake. Thus, I seek to explore and discuss some of the questions that have occurred and continue to arise for the Blake Society and to relate its practices in navigating them. This exploration could address many lines of inquiry of course, but for the sake of directness, I investigate in this essay two interrelated questions: What resources are necessary to do things with Blake? And where rests the authority to do things with Blake?

8.         The current incarnation of the Blake Society, as its website explains, was begun in 1985 “on the instigation of Donald Reeves, the then rector of St. James’s Piccadilly,” where Blake himself was baptized (“Brief History”). Instigated is the operative word; what started has since been passed on, and the Blake Society is very much a product of its members and leadership. When it began, it was a society constituted by people for whom Blake was somewhere between a luminous presence and a lever and fulcrum that could be used to change the world. There was no formal registration or declaration of membership because bureaucracy seemed hardly Blakean. From the beginning, some members objected to the link with St. James’s Piccadilly, given Blake’s critique of organized religion, but these objections were not strong enough to overcome the church’s contribution in the form of a space to meet, and the church did not make any attempt to exert particular control over the group or make it into the William Blake Society of the Church of England.

9.        The earliest records of the society’s activities have been lost, but according to the Blake Society’s current chair, Tim Heath, who became involved with the group in 1987, the early meetings were tempestuous, as members sought to develop action from their various interpretations of Blake’s works. In 2004, the society adopted a formal constitution in order to become a charity and to continue growing with an eye towards raising funds and applying for grants and other opportunities open to legal non-profit organizations. This decision caused intense conflict: some members objected that becoming a legal society would violate the spirit of antinomianism that they saw as central to Blake’s arguments while others refused the constitution because they believed that becoming a charity would restrict the society’s ability to engage in political activities. Blakeans have long memories—even eleven years after the constitution and formal membership rules were adopted, some of the original attendees still refuse to join officially but, in the spirit of antinomian disruption, appear at annual meetings to insist that they are still members. The antinomians have a point, as requiring paid membership in order to identify oneself as in society with Blake seems either preposterous or corrupt when considered against the measuring stick of critical interpretation and close reading of the poet’s work. These objections prompt considerations of the types of resources required in order to do things with Blake’s poetry, painting, and printmaking and urge deliberations concerning the channeling of the Blake Society’s energy into the larger systems of the world. [2] 

10.        One vital component to consider in relation to these questions is that of committed labor. Since 2004, ten members have been elected each January to serve one-year terms as volunteers on the Blake Society’s Executive Committee. At the end of these terms, committee members either step down or stand for election again for another year. Committee members then begin bimonthly meetings each February in order to plan out the year’s program of events. Generally, these events run from April until the following January, with one event per month. The timeline for planning is not only tight, because the April events always follow quite quickly behind society elections, but also because a full-color program featuring high-resolution images (similar to souvenir programs sold at theatrical productions) is sent each year to all members, usually by the end of March.

11.         The events hosted by the Blake Society vary widely, depending on what the Executive Committee can imagine and make a reality. In 2007, with the assistance of the British Royal Navy, the society recreated the sketching journey that Blake took in 1780 with Thomas Stothard. In 2008, the committee was able to arrange a tour of the Stationers’s Hall, where Blake was apprenticed, in order to see records relating to his apprenticeship. In 2012, voice specialist Jane Boston led a workshop on reading poetry aloud as the start of a project to increase coverage of Blake’s poetry on Librivox, an audiobook crowdsourcing website, and throughout that year, the society helped to coordinate new online recordings of many of Blake’s texts. [3]  Furthermore, many monthly events are talks given by people who study Blake or who have found him influential on their work or life. While a fair number of these talks are given by working academics and would not be out of place in literature or history departments, other talks have featured filmmakers and cinematographers, composers, musicians, artists, theologians, psychologists, and organizational consultants. The subject matter varies widely: from traditional academic research to artistic projects in process; from discussions of Blake’s work by contemporary artists and writers to investigations of Blake’s writings in the context of John Milton, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Wilfred Owen; and from conversations concerning Blake’s responses to organized religion to various religious traditions, such as Christianity, Paganism, and Buddhism.

12.        Other than the approximate length of talks, speakers are given few boundaries, so sometimes even our organizers are surprised by the content of a given presentation, as when, for example, one speaker discussed his experiences as a spiritual medium in contact with William and Catherine Blake from beyond the grave. Who will speak is determined by a number of methods. Sometimes one of the committee or society members knows someone who would be appropriate (meaning that they have been in contact with an individual who has an interest in Blake, a willingness to speak, and something to speak about). Other times, potential speakers contact the Blake Society to offer their availability as they are passing through London. Speakers in the recent past have included leading Blake scholars and well-known public figures including Anne Mellor, Morton Paley, Philip Pullman, Kathleen Raine, Patti Smith, and Rowan Williams. The Executive Committee has also made a point of inviting talks from junior and independent scholars whose work often goes in new directions and might otherwise be less visible.

13.         Much of what we do might be summarized as making a space for William Blake. But what sort of a space are we attempting to make? The Blake Society Constitution lists our purpose as “educat[ing] the public regarding knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the work of William Blake (1757-1827), artist and poet, and his life and times and his influences on and relationships with others and to encourage studies relating thereto” (“Blake Society Constitution”). This is a fine but rather generic goal—precisely the sort of thing one puts into bureaucratic documents. More illustrative is the self-description of the society provided on the homepage of our website:

The Blake Society honours and celebrates William Blake (1757-1827), engraver, poet, painter & prophet. […] We bring together scholars and enthusiasts, amateurs and professionals on equal terms . . . We look for opportunities to continue the work that Blake began: exploring new modes of expression, and awakening the artist and prophet in each individual. (“The Society”)
Educating is a familiar activity—something that people instinctively recognize when they see it. Honoring and celebrating leave more room for experimentation. The society’s ethos is thus significantly influenced by Blake’s proverb from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790): “The most sublime act is to set another before you” (Erdman 36). Today, Blake’s work is widely available in print and online editions as well as in an infinite progression of excerpted forms—some apt, commercial, eccentric, and even inaccurate. Of course, there are scholarly books and essays of critical commentary as well. To complement those forms, the Blake Society works to create a physical and temporal space in order to listen, discuss, and create, and the society does so while placing as few limits as possible on what results, if any, are the outcome of these conversations concerning Blake’s poetry and art. As an example, Adriana Diaz-Enciso, a member of the Executive Committee, developed in 2013 an idea to have children read Blake’s poem “The Tyger” to actual living tigers. Taking the project from idea to reality took nearly two years of planning and negotiation, but the final event took place in October 2014 in collaboration with the London Zoo and Kids Company, a UK charity that works with at-risk and impoverished children in London, Bristol, and Liverpool. Diaz-Enciso’s vision is an example of what the Blake Society’s Executive Committee aspires to accomplish when it seeks to interpret Blake’s work as broadly as possible. We believe that setting men and women before us takes a concerted effort. We also believe that it is worthwhile to exert that same energy with tigers.

14.        There are obviously significant differences in our practice from the way that Blake is handled in academic settings. We are working towards greater recognition of Blake, but we do not have a specific argument or narrative about Blake that we are trying to advance and offer no metric of achievement or credential after a given event. Our audience has no time commitment, and our events do not build on each other, meaning that missing an event has no bearing on the comprehension of future events. As much as possible, we have worked to become something more like a trading zone for Blake, where multiple parties (i.e., publics) meet and where activities are driven by member or executive committee interests, current events, or simply opportunities that become possible. [4] 

15.        Currently, our official membership numbers at about 300 people who pay either £25 or £15 (students and unwaged) annually. While our members are from all over the world, most of our events are held in London. The local UK event audience has a wide age range (from people in their twenties to their eighties) and a diverse set of interests in Blake. While the society is cautious about overusing the question “What would Blake do?,” we do feel strongly that our events ought to be accessible to people working and earning very little money (as Blake did), and so we rarely hold events that charge any admission fees. [5]  Our income is small, and it goes towards hiring spaces for special events, costs for printing and mailing full-color programs featuring Blake’s art, and to our annual Tithe Grant competition. Rather than striving to acquire more funds, our ethos of working with money has become one of demonstrating how much can be done with as little funding as possible.

16.        The Blake Society is also careful about the measuring stick employed in interpretations of Blake’s work because there are so very many different Blakes present in our membership’s views: scholarly, obscure, occult, ultra-conservative, etc. The society seeks to be as inclusive as possible—partly in deliberate contrast to the exclusivity of academia, but also because the group was not founded with the purpose of researching or proving the veracity of one version of Blake over another. Our programs are full of arguments, but there is no goal of combining all those arguments into a book, for example, or making them compete in order to winnow out the “best” interpretation. Additionally, while our audiences are full of contrasting views (and not shy about voicing them), they tend to be more united and in agreement about rejecting “Corporeal Understanding” (i.e., “Reason” or “Ratiocination” to use the terms that are popular at events) in favor of mental fight, and this results in a tendency to be fairly skeptical or suspicious of new media and digital tools (rather than to embrace them). However, the concerns expressed often involve the social injustices associated with technology, the pressures exerted on users of technology to conform to social and other customs, and a general unwillingness to be dependent on technology (or, in other words, a rejection of the idea that technology is in any way necessary for Blakean vision and action). 

17.        Technology isn’t a particular bête noire of the Blake Society though. The problem would be if the society were to suggest that there were any dominant methods for achieving vision or even that “vision” was something that all our members ought to be trying to achieve. Those arguments would put us squarely into more academic or outcome-based territories. There are so many skill-acquisition programs already in existence that it seems hard to argue that another one is needed. Furthermore, even if the Blake Society wanted to introduce such a program, it is difficult to imagine such an endeavor being successful, simply because it would require more labor and time than such a voluntary executive body is typically able to give without risking burnout or event failure. And because, as a literary society, we offer no credentials and are under little pressure of accreditation, it is easier for us simply to decide not to do things when they seem unmanageable. The exception to this is that for certain activities, we must match the general conception of what various people or organizations expect a literary society to “look like” or “to do.” For example, the majority of our events are sponsored by the Waterstones bookshop in Piccadilly, which provides both meeting space and refreshments, and it is easy to imagine how Waterstones’s support might be complicated or controversial if, for instance, the Blake Society’s meetings were more overtly political or activist.

18.        As a professional academic, I regularly encounter the question of whether something is academic or non-academic, intellectual or anti-intellectual, but as a member of the Blake Society, the question never comes up, and if it did, I would probably sidestep it or ask why it needed an answer. Must we inscribe the bounds of our activities into a particular circle? However, I cannot deny that the Blake Society is responsive to academia and academic systems in certain ways. A primary effect of academia is to elevate intellectual merit through credentials, publications, and awards and to position individuals as teachers or learners. The teachers teach, but what the learners do—or what they are meant to do once they have their credential(s)—is not always clear. Grades have become an intrinsic part of the academic system, and the grades stick—and for some, leave deep impressions. Rectifying the consequences of educational scar tissue, however it was acquired, is incredibly difficult because the wounds are particular rather than general. As I completed my doctorate and learned to teach, I was aware of innovative pedagogical practices being developed to respond better to students’ changing needs, and I am also aware that there have always been pedagogical innovators focusing specifically on teaching—thinking actively about new possibilities and ways to combat the occasional tendencies of institutional education to grind individuals into uniformity. However, the improvements and intentions of recent educators cannot fully cancel out the alienation that might have occurred previously. And the Blake Society does not have the recourse of explaining to people that if they would only read more about pedagogy and current educational practices, they would understand that what we were doing was to their benefit.

19.        The fact that we are no school for Blake, however, does not mean that we have no pedagogy. As a poet and artist, Blake is so challenging that it feels impossible to do anything with him without having some form of pedagogical goal. If I had to sum up the Executive Committee’s pedagogy concerning Blake’s work, I would explain that we seek to make a Blake-centric community that is not contingent upon members exhibiting any particular set of learning behaviors. If one necessary resource for doing things with Blake is the labor and energy of the Executive Committee, then another component is need. Some people write to the Blake Society because they need help with school projects. Others write to inquire about whether a book signed “William Blake” that they’ve found in their attic might belong to the William Blake. In another example, a scholar from an Eastern European country wrote in 2009 to ask whether we could provide a grant for travel to London for the purposes of researching Blake’s work. Initially, this caused moderate conflict and debate among Executive Committee members because of a split on whether it was possible simply to give this scholar the funds as an act of radical generosity or whether doing so would cause legal problems or alienate other members who didn’t know that they could simply ask for funding (thus potentially inundating us with similar requests).

20.        The Tithe Grant emerged out of that conversation as a commitment to give back 10% of our income to an individual “carrying on Blake’s work and art,” an open category that the Executive Committee settled on because it was inclusive of multiple sorts of activities. We considered organizing the grant to be focused specifically on academic research, given the original request for funding, but in the end we rejected such a narrow category because other funding sources were available and because the amount we had available to give (then, around £300) would be insufficient to offer substantial assistance to researchers outside of the UK (our research indicated that such individuals had fewer opportunities when compared with researchers within the UK). We were all in agreement that, if at all possible, we wanted the Tithe Grant to be a “competition” that did not simply replicate existing funding struggles. Specifically, we sought to determine whether there was a particular method of designing an application so that people like Blake (i.e., autodidacts, those not from wealthy backgrounds, individuals possibly but not necessarily embedded in formal training programs, etc.) could locate funding for their work.

21.        The downside of developing an original and uniquely Blakean competition, of course, is that one must figure out all the minute particulars, and each year of running the Tithe Grant has indeed proven to be a learning experience. The first year, we stuck to our commitment not to pre-define what form “carrying on Blake’s work and art” would take and chose to publicize the grant chiefly to our members, but we received no applications by the set deadline. The second year, we again defined no set form of “carrying on Blake’s work and art” but marketed the competition more widely through various newsletters and websites listing grant competitions, and we received 16 entries—including a lecture series, an exhibition based on an MA thesis, as well as photography, painting, translation, and theatrical projects. What we learned that year was that it is difficult to weigh the merits of very different projects in different forms. Since then, we have focused each year’s Tithe Grant on a particular area: musical composition, photography, and—most recently—on writing aphorisms on Twitter. What happens with the competition sometimes challenges our own assumptions about doing things with Blake, as when we invited photographs interpreting Blake’s poem “The Tyger” in 2013. We hoped for startling juxtapositions of Blake’s ideas with contemporary images, but a substantial number of the entries were photographs that, while magnificent, were indistinguishable from photos that might appear in issues of National Geographic. We are still determining what a Blakean “competition” looks like as we reiterate the Tithe Grant each year, but we have been pleased at how it has changed over time. In 2011, the winners were a poet and an actress, both in their twenties, while last year’s aphorism competition, judged by Stephen Fry, was won by a woman in her eighties. The winners thus far have hailed from England, Australia, and America, and since 2011, we have gone from receiving 16 to over 700 entries.

22.        Indeed, from “Tyger[s]” to tigers and Twitter, many things are possible with Blake. But in the last year, we have been engaged in a much more difficult project: in September 2015, the Blake Cottage Trust (a small group which had emerged from the larger Blake Society) [6]  succeeded in purchasing the cottage at Felpham in Sussex, England where Blake had lived between 1800 and 1803. The cottage is a significant part of Blake’s history for several reasons, and acquiring the cottage was a momentous occasion: of the nine homes that Blake lived in during his lifetime, only two of the original buildings survive. One is 17 South Molton Street, now an upscale shopping avenue near Oxford Street in London. The other is the thatch-roofed cottage at Felpham, on the southeast coast of England, where Blake worked on Milton (comp. ca. 1804-1811), wrote the lyrics to the hymn “Jerusalem,” and where he was arrested for sedition after ejecting a soldier from his yard. Though the building has been added onto, the original architectural structure of the cottage still survives intact. The cottage’s previous owner, Heather Howell, often generously entertained Blake scholars for teatime visits and occasionally allowed individuals to spend a night in what was most likely Blake’s bedroom. The question of what would become of the house was always uncertain. While Howell was interested in Blake and cordial to the Blake Society, her grown children were less so, and as a result there was really no chance of the cottage being simply willed into a public property, for example.

23.        From Heath’s perspective, as Blake Society Chair, finding a way to acquire the cottage was important for multiple reasons: as a heritage site and a physical artifact of Blake’s life that supplements his surviving books and prints; as a space that could be used for a wider variety of events than are currently possible through our relationships with St. James’s Piccadilly and Waterstones Books; and to embody Blake’s question: “Where shall we take our stand to view the infinite & unbounded” (Erdman 391). Though the South Molton Street residence is in central London, and thus more accessible, its proximity to the trendy upmarket shops around Oxford Street establish its estimated value somewhere over £10,000,000. In contrast, the Felpham residence was bought for £495,000. Even so, raising this sum initially seemed like an impossible task for a literary society whose annual budget in recent years has been less than £5,000. Those of us involved in the process of raising funds thus count the purchase as a major accomplishment, but an accomplishment that we were far from confident would ever happen. Almost certainly, part of the challenge involved assumptions and questions about the purpose of the house. Many people assumed that the cottage was to become something like the “William Blake Museum” or perhaps a specialized lecture hall or retreat for writers. In other words, it was difficult for individuals to imagine what the society might do with the house (or with Blake himself as a cultural figure) if our purposes were not to be academic in nature. Such thinking suggests that although Morris Eaves expressed concern in 1995 about the “white noise” of Blake-related activity diluting the “original message” of Blake’s art and writing (414), the actual problem that friends of Blake face is that of limited vision in which Blake is too closely associated with school and learning—so limited that it is difficult or impossible to imagine a Blakean activity that is not obviously academic in nature. [7] 

24.        Thus, there are a number of reasons that could be offered for why we struggled to raise the money for the cottage or for areas of the campaign that could have been run differently. I would argue, though, that our difficulties were related to the question of what the Blake Society does and how it does what it does—in other words, how we exert our energy in order to fit into larger systems. It’s a question of authority—where it comes from and on what basis it is recognized. Perhaps the authority to do things with Blake comes from the Blake Society’s legal and nominal status as a public organization. Beyond that status, however, we are a bit eccentric. One needs only to look at Michael Warner’s description of the relationships between private/public and interested/disinterested to begin to understand why. Warner writes that

as private persons came to be seen as driven by self-interest, the public came to be defined as disinterested. Those aspects of people’s lives that particularize their interests came to be seen as inappropriate to public discussion. To be properly public required that one rise above, or set aside, one’s private interests and expressive nature. (40)
In contrast, the Blake Society is specifically about those “aspects of people’s lives that particularize their interests,” and if our goal is not directly to make them into objects of public discussion (except when individuals specifically choose to do so), it is certainly to make the cultivation of those personal interests into a subject that is worthy of public dialogue and energy. We are, then, closer to Warner’s idea of a “counterpublic,” a space “defined by [its] tension with a larger public” and “enabl[ing] a horizon of opinion and exchange” (Warner 56), or as a Foucauldian heterotopic space, one that might juxtapose “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are themselves incompatible” (Foucault 25). The possibility of such spaces existing is certainly recognized in academic discourse. Actually creating such a space, especially one that straddles the border between academic and non-academic activities and which tries to circumvent hallmarks of institutional learning in order to subvert expectations of public disinterestedness, is more difficult to achieve. Producing such a space—doing something with Blake—takes more than labor and energy: it requires capital. For an organization like the Blake Society, the challenge is finding a way of converting labor and energy into capital and in conjunction with the existing systems that surround us.

25.        In The Economy of Prestige (2005), James F. English notes that “cultural practice itself has . . . become ever more dependent on institutions of cultural competition and award. The work of culture, especially the work of producing cultural value, has increasingly been accomplished through these institutions” (256). English’s statement confirms the focus on isolating merit and overemphasizing credentials. In that process, cultural value becomes strongly linked with institutional forms (e.g., books, essays, courses, etc.) that become the trappings of cultural value. And in competitions and awards, it’s usually the output—rather than the process—that matters most. [8]  The problem is that when the “work of culture” becomes closely linked with outputs and finished products, it contributes to the devaluing and normalization of a great deal of labor. Academic work becomes invisible, resulting in the perception of academics as ignorant hirelings. This process affects the authority available to organizations like the Blake Society and, at the same time, negatively impacts professional academics. I don’t invoke these challenges in closing here in order to make excuses for the Blake Society and what it has or hasn’t accomplished. I invoke them because they affect the most basic terms and environments in which the Blake Society must continue to intervene.

Works Cited

“Blake Society Constitution.” The Blake Society Online. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

“A Brief History of Previous Blake Societies.” The Blake Society Online. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Eaves, Morris. “On Blakes We Want and Blakes We Don’t.” Huntington Library Quarterly 58.3 (1995): 413-439. Print.

English, James F. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

Erdman, David V., ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. New York: Random House, 1988. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics 16.1 (1986): 22-27. Print.

Galison, Peter. “Trading with the Enemy.” Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise: Creating New Kinds of Collaboration. Ed. Michael E. Gorman. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2010. 25-52. Print.

---. “Trading Zone: Coordinating Action and Belief.” The Science Studies Reader. Ed. Mario Biagioli. London: Routledge, 1999. 137-160. Print.

Kripal, Jeffrey John. “Reality against Society: William Blake, Antinomianism, and the American Counterculture.” Common Knowledge 13.1 (2007): 98-112. Print.

“The Society.” The Blake Society Online. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2002. Print.

Whitson, Roger and Jason Whittaker. William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.


[1] All parenthetical page citations for William Blake quotes refer to David V. Erdman’s edition of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1988). BACK

[2] For relevant work on the topic of Blake and antinomianism, see Jeffrey Kripal’s “Reality against Society: William Blake, Antinomianism, and the American Counterculture.” BACK

[3] During the course of that project, the Blake Society was contacted by a member in Australia who had access to a series of dramatic readings of Blake’s poetry made by an Australian theatre group in the 1960s, and these recordings were able to be added to the online resource, thus making them available to audiences worldwide after they had been packed away for several decades. BACK

[4] Relevant here is Peter Galison’s concept of the “trading zone” as a space where multiple groups “can agree on rules of exchange even if they ascribe utterly different significance to the objects being exchanged” (“Trading Zone” 138). Even if the parties involved disagree on the significance of the exchange process, the trading zone supports “local coordination despite vast global differences” (“Trading Zone” 138). Galison began working with the idea of trading zones as a way of parsing the interactions and intersections between experimentalists and theorists in scientific fields, and he did so to show that while they might share a discipline, their conclusions were “not grounded on the same standards and forms of argumentation” (“Trading with the Enemy” 26). The Blake Society agrees to work to create a space for the appreciation of Blake, academics agree to be participants in that space, and we all agree that Blake is important enough to devote our energies to thinking about him. Beyond that point, our perspectives diverge significantly. The priorities within academic study of Blake often include historical accuracy and discovery, the preservation of the disciplines of literature, history, etc., as well as the professions associated with academia. The Blake Society’s priorities also include accuracy, yet the priority of simply surviving as an organization is nearly as important and is often a far more urgent concern. BACK

[5] Though we have maintained this principle so far, we are also aware of the issue of asking our speakers to donate their time and energy without any sort of honorarium, and based on discussions at recent Executive Committee meetings, it seems likely that a small event charge for non-members will be instituted in the near future. BACK

[6] The Blake Cottage Trust is a legally separate entity from the Blake Society, but the campaign to raise funds for the cottage was run by the Blake Society while the Blake Cottage Trust was still being constituted (due to the time-sensitive nature of the project). BACK

[7] The Blake Society’s activities could be classified as what Roger Whitson and Jason Whittaker have explored in their discussion of the “‘Blake brand’, . . . a particular type of visionary poetics and art that . . . may sometimes be closer to Blake’s original activities as an enterprising freelance on the fringes of the London art scene than the weighty, canonical interpretations that have been overlaid on him since” (120). See Whitson and Whittaker’s William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (2013). BACK

[8] If James F. English is correct, then a conventional view might be that the Blake Society produces little or no cultural value simply by focusing on creating a space for Blake. Does the Blake Society count as the sort of cultural value-producing institution to which English refers? Academia is such an institution (recognizable in most parts of the world) with a mass of institutions of various sizes within it. Some of these institutions are so familiar and dominant that they set many of the standards by which others are measured. Other institutions are less accomplished but draw their own legitimacy from a combination of their own efforts and from sharing institutional designations (e.g., college, university, etc.). Academia often propagates cultural values and rules by following them itself. Underneath those rules and designations, however, academic institutions are people—instructors (permanent and adjunct), administrators, staff, and students. For better or worse, their individual efforts are often subsumed within the collective of the institution. Activities that fall within the expected scope of the institution often pass with little or no attention, while those that are unexpected draw attention and are found to be either outstanding innovations or errors. For an institution to change and become something else or something new thus often takes substantial work. BACK