June 14, 2010

Travels into Print: Professor Charles Withers talk @ University of Warwick, 13th May 2010

Writing about web page http://www.hss.ed.ac.uk/chb/Correspondence.htm

This talk by Professor Charles Withers was part of his two-week IAS visiting fellowship in May- as it's taken me just over a month to write something on this, and the lecture can be found as a podcast on the website, I'm mostly writing this to record a few responses for myself.

Professor Withers is currently coming to the end of a 2-year project titled "Correspondence: Exploration and Travel from Manuscript to Print, 1768-1848"at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for the History of the Book, and his lecture at Warwick discussed some of the key points and issues on which the project has focused. Using the John Murray Archives, Withers has been reseaching the modes of production involved in the publishing of travel writing: he began the talk by setting out this context, asserting that too little consideration is given to the relationship between the experiences "in the field" and the final narrative that is produced; too often, the finished artifact is taken as read without thinking about the processes of production that it went through to get to that point. Yet perhaps more than any ofter form of writing, in travel writing there is a huge amount of correspondence between publisher and author that impacts upon how the original writing is shaped into what becomes the finished, published, travel narrative. There's a presumption of "truth" between the two; perhaps because of the nature of travel writing and the "eye-witness account" it promises, we assume that the words on the page bear a largely unmediated relationship to the initial experiences of the writer.

Of course in the critical study of travel writing there is an attentiveness to the literary nature of travel writing and the fictionalising processes that are at work in all writing, and so the work of the project offers an important contribution to opening up these frameworks further, extending this concern with literariness into thinking about the nature and making of the texts: exploring the demands of publishers, audiences, cultural reception, and meta-textual additions are just some of the areas Withers touched on in the talk.

I was especially interested in thinking about how this works to further break down the disciplinary boundaries between fictional and non-fictional accounts of travel writing, emphasising as it does the constructed natuer of travel writing. Despite the critical awareness of travel writing's "literariness", it seems to me that there remains a distinct disciplinary boundary between non-fictional travel accounts and the study of other types of literary journeys- in my case, fictional renderings of journeys in novels. There is, of course, a great difference between the genres and the discursive practices, forms, purposes, reception, and so on; how "travel writing" is produced, read, understood, interpreted is different to the ways in which fiction is produced. But, whilst taking these differences into account, I think that there are important ways in which the critical distinction can be broken down to offer useful and productive new perspectives. I've been working to re-orientate the frameworks within which we situate writing about travel, thinking about how all forms of "travel writing", fictional and non-fictional alike, can be seen as participating in discourses of spatial production; as Mary Louise Pratt writes, travel narratives have “produced ‘the rest of the world’ for European readerships at particular points” (Imperial Eyes p. 5). To define writing about travel as a mode of “spatial production” – albeit specifically of “other” spaces of the wider world rather than the immediate spatiality of a particular culture – opens up a framework in which we can understand all writing about travel, non-fictional and fictional accounts alike, as participating in the production of spatial imaginaries- as Charles Withers said, in the "cultural production of knowledge (and ignorance)". Whilst different forms of writing might play different roles in this production given the different modes of representation and reading practices involved across literary genres - and attention should be paid to these issues - nonetheless the core practice of constructing textual socio-spatial relations that are indicative of the wider cultural spatial consciousness and its discourses, situates "non-fictional" and "fictional" accounts of journeys as participating in a similar project. Such a perspective, that defines “travel writing” in terms of its function and effect rather than by the processes and origins of its production, is important both in understanding the wider meanings and interconnections of travel writing, and opening up the field to new forms of discourse, and, I think more importantly from my perspective, for extending the possibilities of how we think about literary journeys in more complex ways: not as spatial sites that are somehow enclosed in a vacuum of textual representation, but as engaged in practices and productions which extend beyond the realm of the text itself, contributing to wider discourses of spatial knowledge.

The work of Professor Withers and his research team seemed, at least in my reading of it, to be working towards a similar perspective - re-orientating the study of travel writing to think about the ways in which knowledge is produced and circulated -  but from the opposite angle, bringing to light the very literary, constructed nature of travel accounts through looking at the transitions and transits - "voyages into print" - that are involved in producing knowledge about travel.

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