Circulation, Distribution, Transmission, Mobility, Information, Remediation, Materiality, Post Office, Racism, Bureaucracy, Collectivity
Books, newspapers, and texts of all sorts undertake considerable and cumbersome journeys before arriving in their readers’ hands. They travel from bookbinders to sellers, from publishers to distribution agents, and from one reader to the next. This textual movement—or circulation—conditions both the production and the reception of a given text. In early America and beyond, publishers considered mobility when determining a text’s material form, and a reader’s interpretation of a text is often inseparable from the means of encounter.
Circulation far exceeds the realm of the textual. As a critical category, it likewise accounts for the adaptation and remediation of ideas across media and over time. Ideas and information circulate through songs and conversations; they move across space and time in trajectories both mundane and unexpected. Bridging material and immaterial phenomena, circulation is a capacious term that at once accounts for the minute movements of a single text and the enduring life cycle of an idea as it reverberates through diverse social worlds. The term’s capaciousness is, in a sense, its strength because it offers many different entry points for thinking about informational exchange.
Scholarly accounts of circulation consider it to be as life-giving as the biological process from which the term draws its name.1 Whereas the circulation of blood animates an organism, the circulation of texts and ideas is understood to constitute and enliven a given social body. For Benedict Anderson, the increased circulation of print led to the formation of the [End Page 621] nation, as this process “made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways.”2 Circulation is similarly foundational to the formation of Michael Warner’s “publics”—the abstract entities “organized not by a place or an institution but by the circulation of discourse.”3 Scholars of early America responding to Anderson and Warner have advanced a much richer and more complex understanding of circulation and its effects on the public sphere: Sandra Gustafson, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, and many others have advocated for multimedia approaches to circulation that consider the importance of verbal acts, theatrical performances, and other non-textual materials as well as print in early America.4 Wai Chee Dimock, Anna Brickhouse, and Christopher Apap have more acutely traced the global, transnational, and regional domains of circulation and, in doing so, introduced new paradigms for understanding early American social formations.5 In different ways, these works consider circulation foundational for understanding the many forms of human collectivity and association that arise through the exchange of information.
Materialist approaches to circulation, in a broad sense, test and retest the hypothesis that texts and ideas circulated through a given social body at all. These studies lavish attention on the particular local contexts that moved information across space and over time. Most prominently, in The Republic in Print, Trish Loughran dismantles the narrative that the nation arose out of the increased circulation of print, and instead argues that textual circulation was profoundly uneven and disrupted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—and, moreover, that it was precisely this lack of [End Page 622] national circulation that led to the formation of the early republic. Circulation studies like Loughran’s are indebted to historians of early America who, over the last three decades, have applied bibliographic rigor to the ways texts and ideas resonate through the social order. Studying the social history of texts, Ronald J. Zboray, Mary Saracino Zboray, and William J. Gilmore illustrate how material details of circulation—the particular routes of informational exchange and the labor of distribution agents—indelibly shaped communities and influenced the life and materiality of texts and ideas.6
More recently, the most innovative materialist approaches to circulation consider the way motion indelibly participates in the ways texts make meaning. In the Viral Texts project, Ryan Cordell uses digital tools to trace the remediation of information across an almost impossibly expansive corpus of nineteenth-century newspapers. By endowing the circulatory field with an agency of its own, Cordell brings...