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Challenges posed by the MJP archive—and some solutions

Many of the benefits of the MJP archive that we’ve enumerated above unfortunately come with challenges attached. We’ll discuss some of these challenges here, and point out along the way some tools we’re developing to meet them.

  1. What should you do if you're feeling overwhelmed?
  2. How do you ever grasp a context?
  3. What happens to meaning when texts aren't clearly attributable to authors?
  4. Where do you turn for specialized information?
  5. What if some information simply isn't available?

Challenge 1: How do you avoid feeling overwhelmed? The abundance of primary source material in the MJP’s archive of journals may lead you to new ideas and projects, but it may also lead you to distraction. How can you find your way find your way through this welter of words and images without getting frustrated? How do you focus your investigation of the journals so you use your time wisely? David Ben-Merre has suggested that the right way to handle an MJP journal (like Poetry magazine) may be to productively lose yourself in it—but how do that and not just get lost?

Even single issues of magazines may be daunting for readers. Whereas novels and books are organized so we start at the beginning and progress toward the end, magazines don’t presume linear reading: they can be entered at any point and their contents can be read in any order. So how do you read such a text responsibly? Should you try (despite it all) to read every word in every item, from start to finish? If not, what do you ignore—and how you do justify what you omit?

Some solutions:

  • Secondary framing materials. From its inception, the MJP has created scholarly materials to accompany the MJP journals and their contents: introductions to most of the magazines (and in the case of The New Age, introductions to each 6-month volume), books and essays about important topics, as well as biographies of significant contributors to the magazines along with the artists mentioned in them. You might regard these framing materials as a trail that we’ve blazed through the jungle of the MJP archive; if you don’t have the time to read far and wide yourself, these guides should provide you with important background information and help you focus on some interesting things.
  • Advanced search page. We’ve recently developed an advanced search engine for the MJP database that allows you to limit searches by different categories (e.g., date, journal, genre); you can also limit a search by combining two keyword searches (e.g., all items by an author that contain a certain word in the title). These new search features allow you to sharply focus your investigations on specific parts of the archive.
  • How to Read a Magazine. Students and scholars will find here a variety of suggestions for conducting useful scholarship with magazines.
  • Teaching Projects. Both teachers and students should (eventually) find plenty of ideas in this part of the teaching pages for turning MJP materials into classroom projects—a real time-saver.

Challenge 2: How do you recover a historical context? We’ve claimed that the dense MJP archive puts readers in a position to relate modernism to various contextual frameworks (artistic, historical, social, political)—but context is usually elusive, something that has to be reconstructed rather than simply observed. How then should readers extract meaningful “contexts” from the words and images in the MJP journals?

A related problem arises from the ephemeral nature of periodicals. Because magazines (unlike most books) are constructed around a specific moment, they are informed by various contexts which their original readers (also a product of the time) will be able to decipher without much trouble. The magazine's lack of orienting about these contexts poses an obstacle, though, to future readers, who will likely stumble over obscure references in articles or not share the assumptions held by all contributors on some issue. How do we recover the information that is missing from the magazine precisely because it was common knowledge in the day?

Some Solutions: The contextual tools section on the MJP wiki begins this crucial process of recontextualization and rehistoricization for readers by mapping contemporary pedagogical and scholarly concerns onto the MJP contents.

  • The notable author/text tool indicates where widely anthologized texts appear in the MJP database.
  • The topics tool provides keywords for searching across a wide range of different historical contexts.
  • The debates tool foregrounds controversies important to modernism and where they appear in the MJP journals.

Challenge 3: How do you assign meaning to a text whose authorship is uncertain? Even though the “death of the author” has been a critical commonplace for years now, readers may nonetheless find that magazines frustrate how they normally interpret texts by placing texts beyond the control of a clear author. For instance:

  • Anonymous and pseudonymous contributions commonly appear in magazines. It's also well-known that signed letters to editors in the MJP magazines were sometimes written by the magazine staff rather than the person cited. How do we go about finding who is really responsible for these texts—and if we can’t find out, how should we handle them? Should we treat all these texts the same way? Is there a history of signed, unsigned, and masked contributions that we need to know?
  • Magazines are also corporate entities that involve multiple authors: a small community of voices. This raises all sorts of questions about intentionality and meaning. How should we relate the different voices in the magazine, and should we presume that they're aware of each other? Can we treat a magazine as we do a book—and pretend that a single overarching consciousness informs (and intends) it all? Is it realistic to regard the editor (or publisher) as this intending consciousness behind the magazine? If not, how else may we justifiably treat the magazine as more than the sum of its parts?
  • Finally, because magazines are collections of different texts by different authors, the juxtaposition of its multiple contents also becomes an important though vexing issue. How is the meaning and value of any one text in a magazine affected by the other materials in it, as well as by the magazine as a whole? Does the author of a magazine text need to show an awareness of these contingent materials in the magazine before we read his/her text in light of them? Should we instead regard the editor as responsible for these juxtapositions and whatever meaning they seem to have? Ought we to distinguish between the deliberate and incidental juxtaposition of items in the magazine? These sorts of questions can also be asked of illustrations that accompany a text.

Some solutions: This challenge is one of the key problems that scholars in periodical studies are currently tackling. We can help, though, by identifying some of those authors who commonly wrote under pseudonyms.

Challenge 4: How do you get specialized information? In numerous ways, the periodicals in the MJP archive call for specialized information that readers may not have, such as:

  • information about a different historical period, or a different national culture,
  • and information about the material production of the magazine: typography, graphic design, color printing, the history of illustration, the business of advertising, and other aspects of magazine publishing like finances, circulation, and pricing.

Students studying magazines are commonly asked to decipher the bibliographical code of an magazine item, but even this activity touches on different fields of knowledge that go well beyond critical close-reading.

Some solutions: In the near future, we'll be pointing users toward some handy resources where they might find different kinds of information:

  • Links to specialized sites online (pending)
  • Bibliographies for specialized source material from different disciplines (pending)

Challenge 5: How handle missing information? In some cases, getting access to an expert point of view doesn’t suffice, since the information simply isn’t available: for instance, circulation numbers for small magazines, determining who its readers were, or how they actually read a magazine, or what their experiences were while thumbing through it. It's also likely that we may not be able to discover who authored some unsigned pieces, or if some letters to the editor came from real readers or not, or whether certain resonances between items in a magazine are intended or not.

In place of a solution: We obviously can’t solve what isn’t solvable, but perhaps we can help readers determine whether a difficult problem in fact defies all solution. We can also offer activities (in the Projects section) in which students investigate such intractable problems, and come away with a better understanding of the limits of our knowledge.

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