By guest contributor Marianne Brooker
Material textuality has been both the condition and the limit for encyclopaedism throughout its long history. Ephraim Chambers’ alphabetised Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences loomed large over the efforts of later compilers. It was first published in two extra-large volumes in 1728, then republished six times before Abraham Rees produced an enlarged five-volume edition between 1778 and 1788. Later, in the British romantic period, revisionary takes on the scope, shape and function of the encyclopaedia reached a fever pitch. By 1819, Rees’ Cyclopaedia had reached thirty-nine volumes; it was completed in 1820, having reached a staggering forty-five volumes. The fifth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was completed in 1817 in twenty volumes; eleven volumes of Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopaedia had been published by 1817, to be completed in 1830 in eighteen volumes; and the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Perthensis was published in weekly instalments from 1796-1806, when it was republished as a set in twenty-three volumes.
Encyclopaedism had long been characterised by voluminous heft but in the early nineteenth century more experimental plans began to arise. Samuel Taylor Coleridge sketched out his abortive plans for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana in 1817, and in the same year Jeremy Bentham mapped out an entirely new encyclopaedic nomenclature in his fourth appendix to Chrestomathia.
Many of these projects begged, borrowed or stole from the same pool of entries. In the ‘Publisher’s Address’ to what would become the twenty-two volume London Encyclopaedia (1829), the publisher Thomas Tegg wrote that his materials had been proudly ‘purloined’ from other sources, and argued that the encyclopaedist’s ‘occupation is not pillaging but collecting’ – such ‘works are supposed, in great measure, assemblages of other people’. Encyclopaedias were the work of multiple compilers, where ‘compile’ registers both aspects of the word’s dual meaning: ‘to make, compose, or construct’ on the one hand and, from the Latin, to ‘plunder, pillage, rob, steal, snatch together, and carry off’ on the other (OED Online).
Chambers had set the precedent for this logic of assemblage in his first preface: ‘the reader here will have Extracts and Accounts from a great Number of Authors of all Kinds’. His encyclopaedia tests and amplifies the relationship between composition and compilation: the nature of the authorship impacts upon the nature of the text. Collecting and pillaging by turns, Chambers sought to depart from previous lexicographers by bringing a ‘structure’ to what was otherwise a mere collection: thus the ‘cento’ was transformed into a ‘system’.
In the course of this professed transformation, Chambers articulated a problem that would persist for over a century: ‘the chief Difficulty lay in the Form; in the Order, and Œconomy of the Work: To dispose such a Variety of Materials in such manner, as not to make a confused Heap of incongruous Parts, but one consistent Whole’. Here, profuse, heterogenous ‘materials’ must be brought into order by a certain ‘form’, ‘manner’, or process: a method. The resulting system arises not only from the interaction between an author and a community of editors, compilers, and sources, but through an internal ‘Communication […] between several Parts of the Work.’
Chambers elaborates this process through a material textual metaphor: ‘In any other Form [here, a dictionary], many thousand Things must necessarily be hid and overlook’d: All the Pins, the Joints, the binding of the Fabrick must be invisible of course; all the lesser Parts, one might say all the Parts whatsoever, must be in some measure swallowed up in the Whole’. In the Cyclopaedia these ‘parts’ are the ‘matter of knowledge’ and must be made visible by explicit cross-referencing. Chambers’ metaphor relied on his readers’ awareness of the architecture of the material book – ‘the pins, the joints, the binding’ – to shore-up his epistemological argument. Such an awareness would only increase as the eighteenth century progressed. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, was published between 1768 and 1771 in slim, sixpenny instalments then bound by readers into a three volume set replete with 160 engravings.
After a century of controversial innovations in encyclopaedic practice, critics of Chambers’ venture and its legacy flipped his language on its head. For Chambers, the ‘Form’ of the encyclopaedia was a relatively simple question of the ‘Order, and Œconomy of the Work’; by the 1820s, an essay in the Edinburgh-based Blackwoods Magazine called ‘encyclopaedic forms’ into question. This inversion shifts its emphasis from the practical ordering of the encyclopaedia to a particularly encyclopaedic thinking or method.
The Blackwoods piece, written by the little-known philosopher Alexander Blair and published in 1824, begins with a broad-brushed invective: ‘All attempts at bringing knowledge into encyclopaedic forms seem to include an essential fallacy. Knowledge is advanced by individual minds wholly devoting themselves to their own part of inquiry’. Rather than the bloated encyclopaedia and its persistent diffusion and ‘confusion’ of knowledge, Blair argued for a ‘speculative’ knowledge economy, an ‘ideal community’ or ‘imaginary community’. Such an ideal economy was ‘restrained and embarrassed’, ‘unavoidably confined’ by the close, material bounds of encyclopaedism. Blair’s ideal knowledge must ‘transcend by almost infinite degrees – the capacity and means of knowing’ – the ‘Pins, the Joints, the Binding’ that Chambers pulled into the foreground.
Jon Klancher has argued that the essay’s ‘extravagant formal gesturing’ – the way in which its persistent anaphora and catalogues create a sense of burgeoning excess – mimics the essay’s own claim that ‘the Human Mind is extending its empire’. Can we extend Klancher’s reading to take material textuality into account? What relationship do ‘the pins, the joints, the bindings’ have to the particular kind of knowledge economies that Blair participates in, advocates for, and repudiates; what relationship do these material constructions have to the formal and to the ideal?
Blair’s chief criticism of the encyclopaedists is that they have neglected the ‘practical connexions’ of the Sciences and deluded themselves with their ‘imaginary conjunction … as if this must needs [sic] to be found somewhere, embodied and real […] as if that circle of the Sciences, […] did not yet truly exist unless it were materially constructed’. Here, proof of construction is evidence of negation: by their very embodied nature, forging connections between finite articles, encyclopaedias eclipse the world of knowledge beyond their reach. This seething hypothesis, and the long and diverse history of encyclopaedism it rejects, underscores the complex relationship between the practical and imaginary, material and ideal, multitude and individual.
For Blair, the bound volume comes to symbolise the paradoxical pretension of capacious encyclopaedias: the material book enables, even encourages readers to ‘look beyond [their] own minds’, yet ‘We have found that within our own circle we follow a receding circumference. […] The art in which we have no skill appears to us all-accomplished. The knowledge for which we have no measure, has to our eye reached its bounds’. The apparent expanse of the encyclopaedia distracts from a lack of depth.
According to Blair, attempting to ‘exhibit all Science in one body […] to one mind […] are two forms of the attempt to encyclopaedize knowledge’. Unintentionally, this formulation – encyclopaedizing – rehabilitates and vivifies the encyclopaedia: its materials become themselves a method with transformative verbal force. Chambers’ project, then a century old, was not merely a fusty repository, but harboured a threatening efficacy, one that might diffuse and diversify knowledge at the same time as rendering it static and bounded. Moreover, Chambers professed that his Cyclopaedia would ‘contribute more to the propagating of useful Knowledge thro’ the body of a People than any, I had almost said all, the Books extant.’ As the definite article opens out into an indefinitely capacious ‘a’, ‘People’ cohere together in an enormous, embodied assemblage.
Current scholarship on encyclopaedism has focussed in very different ways on the shape and status of ‘complete’ knowledge: Seth Rudy has read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century encyclopaedism in relation to epic poetry, while Tilottama Rajan, focussing on German romanticism, has focussed on the ‘tangled’ systems upon which ‘ideal’ encyclopaedism has been modelled. In both cases, the possibility and potential of complete knowledge is brought into question. Rajan argues that in Chambers’ ‘material encyclopaedia’, the cross-references and talk of systems are merely an internal ‘logic of unification’ – they are supplementary, ‘strictly indexical and not conceptual’. The rhetoric of encyclopaedists and their critics tempts us into emphasising a binary in which the ideal and the material are starkly opposed, yet reading the reception of Chambers’ project through more experimental examples from the early nineteenth century reveals some of the ways in which the formal or ideal is enshrined, reified and visualised through the ‘Order, and Œconomy’ of material assemblage.
Marianne Brooker is a PhD student in English & Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, and a sessional lecturer in Romanticism at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her research explores the ‘materials of method’ and fugitive knowledge in the romantic period, particularly in relation to encyclopaedias, poetry collections, bookkeeping ledgers, artists’ manuals, and museum guidebooks.