Audience, Reading, Printed Ephemera, Cheap Print, American Revolution, Philadelphia, Non-importation Agreements, Crowd Action, Townshend Duties
For scholars researching the processes and people involved in the full life of a printed text, audiences are perhaps the most elusive element to analyze because reading, or otherwise encountering a text, need not leave a trace of its activity. When considered collectively, the documentary record of reading does not adequately reflect the full extent of reading in historical societies. That said, evidence of reading is not rare. Many books and ephemera in libraries have marginalia, and commonplace books are a regular feature of family papers. Interpreting the scattered notes in margins or disembodied passages in notebooks risks on the one hand being narrow and anecdotal, and on the other being sweeping and superficial. Likewise, the sophistication of a text is a poor indicator of its audience. Researchers cannot divide works into categories of high or low culture and then expect historical audiences to have observed this division. As Carlo Ginzberg and Roger Chartier established, ordinary, nonelite readers readily engaged with texts across this arbitrary boundary.1 There are manifold difficulties with examining audiences, and their study requires various and subtle approaches, but underpinning any analysis of an audience is an appreciation of the work that readers undertook to procure, interpret, and act on the texts they read. And ultimately, the field of material text scholarship is characterized by a close attention to any and all the work associated with textual communication. This short keyword piece, then, is a case study to sketch out the relationship between the audience and the material text: while audiences and their reading practices can be elusive, they may be glimpsed, indirectly, in various other sites, including the physical printed object. [End Page 591]
Stuart Hall provides a useful framework for understanding the work of audiences. Hall emphasized that communication required audience members to translate the messages they received into a meaningful response. The response could relate to social practices, political consciousness, or some other measurable consequence, but without this reproduction of the message the communication from author to audience was incomplete and ineffective. Hall’s model of communication rests on the connected, but distinct, processes of encoding and decoding. The producers of a message encoded it with signals that were in turn decoded by the audience, who then reproduced the message. Crucially, the two processes were not symmetrical, and audiences could decode messages in ways that the author had not intended. There was still, however, a large degree of reciprocity between the signals encoded in a message and the ways an audience decoded that message.2 Hall put forward a strong case that the text itself has relevance for understanding its audience, but he stressed that the work of encoders never defined the reception of an audience.
Thus, though Hall’s model of encoding and decoding allowed for mis-communication between author and audience, he was predominantly interested in the moments in which the message was challenged or subverted, rather than outright misunderstood. For Hall, these moments of subversion were revealing of the social relations that underpinned mass communication. To interrogate this phenomenon, he defined three codes that could affect how audiences reproduced an author’s preferred meaning. Two codes, negotiated and oppositional codes, focused on the process of audiences decoding the message.3 Yet as mentioned earlier, the evidence for early American reader reception is variable, so parsing how audiences used negotiated or oppositional codes would require unusually detailed sources. Instead, Hall’s third set of codes, the professional code, has particular relevance for material text studies because it focused on the text as a physical [End Page 592] medium for exchanging ideas. The professional code was the signals encoded in a message by a network of professionals, such as people associated with the print shop. These print professionals transformed the author’s words into the product that audiences consumed and decoded. For Hall, the professional code mainly involved the technical and practical considerations of turning manuscript into print: typesetting, printing, distributing, and so on. He argued that professionals generally worked within the preferred meaning of the author, but it...