The Enlightenment Index


In this essay, we survey Enlightenment authors’ relationship to print, and explain how footnotes, foldout sheets, catalogues, and review magazines gave shape to a network of citation that we call “the Enlightenment Index.” The print technologies examined here, along with their human counterparts (i.e. the authors and publishers), will be characterized as agents co-constitutive of a Great Chain of Reference that was supposed to manage bibliographic excess by bibliographic means. As a heuristic, the Index functions in two ways: it refers to the proliferating empirical traces on particular pages as well as to the ideal of a completely assembled network of all such pages and cross-references. In the context of eighteenth-century philosophy, the two aspects of the Index align with empiricist and rationalist accounts of knowledge. Our argument may also be understood in terms of periodization: while a tension between real and ideal obtains, we operate in an Enlightenment media environment. Because the Enlightenment pursues a complete account of all that has been printed, its Index is both a material reality and a functional means, (albeit an incomplete one), for navigating that reality. It was Romanticism that repudiated the Index as an ideal and promoted competing practices of indexicality to control and transcend the excesses of print.