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Fantasies of Immediacy, or, the Boundaries of the Book in Eighteenth Century Travel Narratives

  • Matthias Buschmeier

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  • Matthias Buschmeier
    Universitat Bielefeld

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To speak of the boundaries of the book in the eighteenth century seems at first glance highly paradoxical given the book’s expanding ubiquity as the century wore on. And yet one could argue that the eighteenth century was the century of travel literature, a genre expressly about geo-political boundaries. Not only were reports of individual Bildungsreisen such as the Italian grand tour published in ever greater quantitities, but accounts of diplomatic travel and scientific expeditions were becoming increasingly popular as well. Further still was the popularity of another genre of travel literature, one that often formed the basis of the travel narrative: the travel guide or Ars Apodemica, which grew out of an early modern statistical tradition of compiling data about a particular location and that was intimately related to the field of encyclopedic knowledge. One can see the extent to which the geographic-political space on which such accounts were based was understood to be relatively stable at the beginning of the century. The updating and actualization of data by travelers was of little consequence. By the end of the century, with the increasing importance of information-driven cameralistic models of governance, the claim of timeliness by travel writers – of the immediacy of representation – grew inordinately.

The claim of the timeliness or actuality of one’s representation thus emerged as one of the most important figures of rhetorical legitimation on the part of the eighteenth-century travel writer. Actuality guaranteed authenticity. However, this newly formulated demand for the continuous revision of accumulated data posed a significant challenge. If writers during the latter part of the Enlightenment were busy diagnosing the acceleration of history and observing the exponential change of the world and its surface, they needed new ways of capturing this experience in order to keep up with it. The early modern period was characterized “by a persistent and growing concern for the production of standardized information” (Behrisch 2008, 463) and, at least initially, the printed book served as an ideal medium for this type of data compilation.

In the Encyclopedie, Diderot and D’Alembert articulated their achievement of such information systematization through the metaphor of the map and the tree (Buschmeier 2005). In their “atlas of knowledge” they were choosing a metaphor that, in light of the rapid advancement of knowledge and understanding, responded to the logical embarrassments of Ramist standardization by insisting on the necessarily retrospective character of any attempt at the systematization of knowledge. Nevertheless, the epistemological shift from the systematization of components to the systemization of knowledge acquisition did not solve the problem of how to transmit this information. Diderot’s “Prospectus” evoked the difficulty in compiling knowledge in the face of a rapidly changing knowledge base, underscoring the limits of the book as an ideal medium for a compilation of this sort. By the time the one-volume encyclopedia was published and available, its content was already threatened by obsolescence—something that English encyclopedias had already faced and the very obstacle Diderot sought to overcome. As such, the multi-volume encyclopedia could theoretically maintain the authority of knowledge compiled and updated over time without the threat of obsolescence. The appropriate medium of knowledge became a significant concern for the experts who compiled and verified the actual data.

To generalize this as “Print Technology” certainly does not do it justice (Behrisch 2008, 468)[1]. The late eighteenth and the entire nineteenth century was the age of the book, as Andrew Piper has shown in his remarkable treatise Dreaming in Books. The eighteenth century compensated for the loss of authority in the desacralized book (Curtius 1993, 352) by an abundance of book production. Addressing the surplus in Maxims and Reflections (Maximen und Reflexionen), Goethe notes a preference for faster and cheaper-bound paperback copies which question the dominance and rival the authority of the well-bound volume.

[Shakespeare, mb] also presents parallels in areas where we would not expect to find them, for example, with the book. Although the art of printing had already been invented more than a hundred years earlier, the published book was nevertheless still considered sacred. Clearly, the books of this era were held in high esteem by the noble poet. We bind everything now and do not easily regard a book’s binding or its content with respect.

WA I, 41ii, 93

The media-specific problem of the book that emerges in the eighteenth century is consistent with the emergence of encyclopedia studies and the travel literature of the time. On the one hand, the book seeks to distribute the authority of the knowledge it contains while on the other, it is limited by the process of its distribution, a limitation that compromises the authority of its contents. The old metaphor of the world as a book thus undergoes a crisis that McLuhan describes as the end of the Gutenberg galaxy, a lengthy development that he places in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Geographic statistics and similar data were mainly recorded in book form as well, which meant that travel literature also faced a similar media crisis in the tension between the authority of its knowledge (its medium of presentation) and the timeliness with which such an abundance of material could be presented. In the particular case of travel writing, this tension was exacerbated by several contributing factors, including greatly improved travel options, significant advances in technologies like coach building, and the expansion of postal and communication systems that facilitated the exchange of information to and from remote areas[2]. These changes exercised a powerful impact on the media tensions associated with travel literature. The multi-volume travel book, saturated by time sensitive data and information, was no longer the ideal format for travel literature, nor did it adequately lend itself to the immediacy that the travel experience itself required.

The material issue is visible on two levels: first, how can time sensitive data and impressions be efficiently, effectively and accurately collected and recorded in the course of travel without resorting to data that would no longer be accurate at the time of transcription. And second, given the length of time it takes to publish a book, how can observations and notes be transformed and transcribed into a report without undergoing the risk of publishing outdated data? The book is always at risk of being out of date, in that the travel experience conveyed to the reader relies on an abundance of time sensitive data which may no longer be accurate by the time it is printed. One example that alludes to the virulence of this problem in the first half of the eighteenth century, is Küchelbecher’s nearly 800 page volume of the historical-topographical description of Vienna. Addressing this issue, the author writes:

In so far as one must account for all noteworthy and necessary issues and events and at the same time account for his own investigations – whether one has understood the issue as it should be, whether one has found the truth – in this way it can also escape us, against our better knowledge and our own will. If one seeks to perfect the work, one must necessarily have time to do so; but no sooner is a chapter completed, the work on another begins such that revisions must take place to maintain the piece as a whole and bring it into another form. Let alone that such changes may occur at the time the book is going to print.

Küchelbecher, Preface

The demands for timeliness, accuracy and verifiability of the material articulated here indicate that, “(the book) can longer resolve these issues where historical topography is concerned” (Kauffmann 86).

The consequence of this unresolved issue reveals the fundamental problem of the book as an adequate medium. The discrepancy between the compilation of statistics and data and the subjective report of the travel experience is, at least in the latter case, a problem written from the soul. In both respects, however, the category of immediacy, or perhaps rather the instantaneity of such reports, becomes a determining factor of presentation during the eighteenth century. The materialization of the book as an authority in the sixteenth century, that is, as an ideal medium for the presentation of data, was by the seventeenth century considered the premiere medium[3] which reinforced its popularity. It was, however, less suited to the flux in scientific statistics and geography. In other words, while the “book” became the medium par excellence for the imagination, it also clearly imposed its limits with respect to travel literature, apparent in the form of the book itself. I can really only outline the scope of this problem here as further development and validation of this hypothesis would require more in-depth research. Nevertheless, the rising tension between the medium of presentation and the abundance of material to be presented and the corrolary issues that I have been discussing in relation to this tension are already quite tangible in Friedrich Nicolai’s Description of a Journey through Germany and Switzerland in 1781 (Beschreibung einer Reise durch Deutschland und die Schweiz im Jahre 1781), to which I now turn my attention for the remainder of this essay.

As its title would indicate, Nicolai’s Resisebeschreibung is a twelve-volume description of his travels in 1781, one that earned Nicolai as much recognition as ridicule among his contemporaries and one that arose at the tail end of the systematized travel reporting associated with the Ars Apodemica that had been authoritative since the early modern period.

By the end of the eighteenth century, as the demand for a medium to better accommodate specialized geographical data and statistics grew, encyclopedic compilations of scientific data diverged from the subjective travel experience to form separate, individual subject areas which required their own medium, independent of the comprehensive multi-volume encyclopedia. Since the sixteenth century, numerous attempts to accomplish this feat were repeatedly and widely criticized for the unreliability travelogues presented to the systematization of data. These so-called Ars Apodemica were based on questionnaires and forms that relied on observations collected during the trip, as well as on the written layout imposed post movem which sought to structure both aspects in a single volume.

The longstanding and influential tradition of a systematized travel itinerary declined at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1795 Franz Posselt used the term for the last time in the German speaking realm in his Ars Apodemica or the Art of Traveling (Apodemik oder die Kunst zu Reisen). The goal of the ars Apodemica was not only to convey structured perceptions of the trip and to represent the traveler’s experience, but also to offer a template for recording notes and observations such as those one would record in a travel diary. The rhetoric of the ars apodemica borrowed scientific headings to provide a comprehensive description of any region or space: headings like nomen, figura, capacitas, jurisdictio and situs collectively demonstrated the polyvalent pretense of the Ars Apodemica. How closely related or unrelated to the statistics of the eighteenth century the Ars Apodemica or academic travelogue actually was, is exemplified in the works of founding fathers of German academic statistics, Gottfried Hermann and Conring Achenwall. The symbiotic relationship between older data and updated statistics overtook and expanded the ars Apodemica method of structuring data to establish a mutually dependent exchange. The ars Apodemica employed data taken from statistical-geographical encyclopedias for their descriptions, while state recordkeepers and encyclopedists such as Anton Friedrich Büsching relied on the information compiled by the ars Apodemica, newspapers and other governmental sources. However, these two-way acquisitions increasingly led to an aporia. Given the Ramist encyclopedic roots reflected in the ars Apodemica, it provided a method for the inventory of knowledge, but not a systematically secure method for generating new knowledge.

The eighteenth century marked a turning point and forced this predicament to be addressed by any credible scientist. In 1777, August Ludwig von Schlözer published Draft of a Travel Collegio for his Göttingen students. In 1804, however, the publication of his Theory of Statistics irreversibly delineates the limits of the ars Apodemica tradition when faced with the rise in the science of statistics. The primary goal of these emerging statistics, especially in the context of the geo-political sphere, was to record data using the latest methods and to present the results in the most direct and immediate form possible. Subsequently, these results required assessment and verification techniques that gave rise to a novel fusion of geography and statistics to create the medium of the “statistical map”. Because the imperative of this new science could be coded as true/false, its timeliness and immediacy relied heavily on the medium that presented it. At the end of the seventeenth century, for example, the Austrian cameralist, Johann Joachim Becher, proposed to the monarchy that: “If I were to write one atlas, with all the punctuality and particularity from the greatest to the smallest detail, on the state of all Your Majesty’s hereditary lands, comprising all instances of power and might, beneficiae and income, it would present all of these at a glance” (Becher, 868). The book at this point is still expected to be a reliable source and medium for this at-a-glance consultation, whereas the description clearly indicates that this was as monumental as the descriptions in the works of Conring or Achenwall. However flawed, Becher still equated the atlas with the map. Since the map is an entirely different medium than the book, the problem of how to adapt successive and transitory moments into a composition of simultaneous events remained an urgent one.

It is therefore not surprising that the universal historical and statistical encyclopedias, such as Büsching’s extremely popular Descriptions of the Earth (Erdbeschreibung), could not sustain continued publication by the end of the eighteenth century. Statistics and mapping had long since become an instrument of political power, as reflected in the induction of the definitive categories of ‘political economy’ and ‘political arithmetic’ within the administrative practices of the early modern states in the last third of the eighteenth century (Behrisch 2004). As methodological innovations advanced within the cameralistic practices of regulatory and legislative offices, compilations of the survey data and results usually remained confined to these offices. Insights and excerpts gleaned from these surveys were, however, published in newspapers and popular calendars, media which allowed for the rapid distribution of time sensitive data. Evidently, under the rule of this practice and, in order to ensure the validity and relevance of comparable data sets, timeliness is of utmost importance - applicable to both collection and analysis of data. The dynamization of space, which I discussed earlier, was also documented in the same bureaucratic manner. Nicht mehr die ständische und eher statisch bleibende Organisation des Herrschaftsraumes war von Interesse, sondern allein die quantitativen Veränderungen, die sich in diesem Raum messen und zählen ließen. Rather than sustaining an interest in the class-oriented and static permanence of the political terrain, interest was now focused on quantitative changes that allowed themselves to be measured and counted (Behrisch 2006, 124-129). The rapidly changing geo-political landscape demanded a medium that could keep up with these changes; essentially a medium that promised equally rapid diffusion of the updated values. Criteria noted by Nicolai indicate the necessity for such awareness. His acknowledgement pinpoints the transition from a pre-modern to modern study of geo-political landscapes. By the early nineteenth century, it had become glaringly obvious that the printed book was an inadequate medium for the flood of data generated by the ever-increasing prevalence of ‘statistics offices’. Büsching had addressed this problem in 1773, by publishing a “Weekly bulletin of new land maps, geographical, statistical and historical books,” the first edition of which proclaimed that the bulletin would be delivered to the reader by “horse-post”, meaning that it would be delivered via the quickest, most effective vehicle possible. Reasons for this weekly paper were justified by the steadily increasing volume, as he states in the last edition which appeared in 1787, of “statistically, geographically and historically particular” (Preface, 4) books, which could no longer be considered up to date or accurate. The weekly paper was an ideal medium, suited for rapid distribution while ensuring the relevance and validity of its data whereas, according to Büsching, in this regard, the book could only succeed with obvious difficulty.

In his travel report, Nicolai largely followed the ars Apodemica method of questionnaires taken from Zedler’s Universal Lexicon (Universallexikon) and implemented the utilitarian framework of the model proposed during the Enlightenment. (Jäger, 109) He understood his project as a utilitarian possibility to homogenize the “German provinces”. Concurrently however, Nicolai was far too conscientious a contemporary to ignore the changing demands imposed upon the ars Apodemica. By basing his project not only upon the expansion of existing data, Nicolai also compiled newer data. Even from the embryonic stages of his journey, Nicolai intended to compare existing data with the newly recorded data, essentially creating a body of work to testify on behalf of his “desire for statistical comparisons” (1795, 114), something Nicolai would only elucidate in the tenth volume. The resulting comparability meant Nicolai’s data of sub-regions coincided with data based on the previously recorded geo-political surveys, and certainly reinforced his impetus to homogenize the German regions. In fact, his hope had already become a reality in the state administration of the territories.

In the meticulous preparation for their endeavor, Nicolai and his son gathered data from previously surveyed material recorded in manuals, travel reports, country and city maps, for which they indexed the bibliographic origin of each source. Their thorough compilation of survey data was not meant to be simply integrated into their own report; rather it was meant to be validated (and corrected if necessary) against the observations they conducted on site, with the goal of constructing an accurate and up to date representation of facts. In the prefaces to the published volumes, it is no surprise that Nicolai disclosed the particulars of his approach and the method and manner of his preparation in great detail. Nicolai sought to “verify everything possible” (1783, 13), using all data available to him in order to guarantee a true representation of a particular area or region, so that his text could be indexed as a reliable source in the systemization of scientific fact.

For the purposes of my own inquiry however, the careful preparation of materials for his trip is less relevant than the materiality of the trip and the documentation of the trip itself. Nicolai noted the details of mail carriers with whom he traveled in great depth - he was exceptionally particular about which postal delivery methods and routes he chose. Of notable importance were the “extra post” routes, routes outside the parameters of ordinary postal delivery that Nicolai followed in his own coach. Use of these routes allowed Nicolai to observe and follow the postal system’s schedule and routine along customary mail routes, and to take note of when and where the horses were substituted along the way. Given that extra post transportation routes were the fastest available means of transport during the late eighteenth century, it was clear that Nicolai wanted to cover as much ground as possible and quickly; to take the greater hypotenuse through an expanse of space rather than to stop and understand the space itself.

Overcoming this problem of time and space (to stay within his seven-month time frame), by quickly advancing over any stretch of land required varied transportation methods to accommodate the expanse of the German territories and regions. For the Viennese segment of his trip, Nicolai had an odometer specially designed for this purpose. For Nicolai, the time between two destinations remained a means which allowed him to work on his report. In this sense, his travel coach became a mobile office. (Buschmeier 2006) To facilitate writing in the coach, Nicolai had a writing instrument specially designed to more effectively make a note of his experience. This permitted him to record data and observations more immediately and directly. The inevitably unreliable nature of memory for the preservation of impressions required a dependable medium of recording data, in response to which Nicolai’s table format would effectively allow for the quasi-simultaneous transcription of impressions and validate the factual persuasion of the data. “It is therefore necessary to write down everything as quickly as possible. The inaccuracies found in travel descriptions are likely largely attributable to an inability to do so.” (1783, 21) Nicolai organized his report around his travel materials and integrated photos of both his coach and the custom writing instrument, thereby indicating that the authenticity of his report is made possible by virtue of technological innovation. Effectively, the immediate notation made possible by permanent ink eliminated the fallible nature of transcribing by memory: “By means of such a pen, one can make use of every glance or moment. Even the details found in libraries, art collections, natural history collections and the properties of any object can be more closely recorded by virtue of this pen.” (1783, 21-22) The material existence of the writing instrument somewhat resolved the medial inadequacy to which the travel report had been previously subjected.

Within the work itself, however, these efforts appear almost ad absurdum. The first volume, published in 1783, was followed by eleven subsequent volumes over the fifteen years following the trip. Nevertheless, the twelve volumes, fail even to encompass his entire journey. Materials collected from excursions to Switzerland and to the northernmost territories were not processed by Nicolai, meaning that the original scope of his project was left unfinished. As Nicolai once again justified his intentions in the preface to the 11th volume, he offered valuable insight into the reasons for its failure: it “seemed to me that a travel report is intended to be a very legitimate means, not only to represent the regions visited, as far as publicity and other considerations are concerned, but also to allow for a true representation of all possible aspects of the trip. These aspects also pertain to the report’s capability to be regarded as a resource and a compilation of learned miscellanea that clearly describes and communicates observations, thoughts and suggestions that could be of use to this country and the rest of Germany, and in turn present an opportunity for an open dialogue regarding these findings. This was my plan.” (1796, XXVII). The past tense “seemed” suggests the admission of failure. Nicolai himself realized that, given the new standards in statistics and geography, his chosen genre of the ars Apodemica had, become an anachronism. And yet, similar projects continued to exist even after Nicolai’s public admission of failure. A publisher may well have been more readily aware that the medium of the book, with its long gestation period—from notes to manuscript to proofreading to the printing and eventual delivery to the bookseller—could no longer meet the requirements for an up to date representation of the space or region being documented[4]. The accompanying texts of the new statistical and geographical publications were limited in their objective and could no longer accurately acknowledge “Observations on learning, industry, religion and customs” (“Bemerkungen über Gelehrsamkeit, Industrie, Religion und Sitten”), as Nicolai’s subtitle had promised. Above all else, these methodically reflective texts produced and certified the accuracy of scientific proof.

The travelogue genre faced a similar dilemma. Even Goethe, threatened by compromised medial effectiveness, succeeded in finding a new solution to this problem. In 1797, the undeniable similarities to Nicolai’s ars Apodemica approach are immediately apparent in Goethe and Heinrich Meyer’s 78-page schema in preparation for their second visit to Italy in 1797. Goethe, for example, cites Hilraius Pyrkmair, who in 1577 first used the term apodemica in his preparatory reading. On November 16, 1795, writing in the spirit of Nicolai, Goethe’s letter to Meyer reads: “I can already see an opportunity before me to represent a physical site, in general and in particular, from its soil to its culture, from its oldest to its newest time, which would position people in the context of their future relationships to these natural environments.” (WA IV.10, 328). And yet Goethe’s published travel reports show very little evidence of this. Where Nicolai’s main purpose was concerned with presentation, and as a result failed in its at-a-glance representation, Goethe’s purpose was merely preparatory. For Goethe, the comparison between knowledge and the immediate perception of an environment served as means to infuse literary objectivity into the poetic objectivity of a work. As the Introduction to Morphology, (Einleitung in die Morphologie) states: “Observers consider themselves aware of the fact that knowledge itself advances and that it requires observation without being aware that it does so. This goes beyond observation in that even the most knowledgeable of observers must bless themselves in the presence of imagination in that they must, lest they overlook it, call the power of imagination to their assistance.” (II.6 WA 302)

On the one hand, the medium of the geo-statistical journal maintained its currency in that its tables and maps could be readily distributed and valued as templates for, and openly discussed by, the educated public. On the other hand, the resulting range of literary forms converted and ordered imagination into a new and inadequate sense of space for which the book was better suited and for which the book continued to exist. (See Graczyk and Kauffmann) If it is true, as N. Katherine Hayles says that, “to change the physical form of the artifact is [...] to transform the metaphoric network structuring the relation of word to world” (23) then, in relation to my topic, this would corroborate the need for an adequate model suited to spatial perception and understanding at the end of the eighteenth century. The concept or perception of space central to occidental culture defined the book as the medium for imagination and pushed the timeliness and accuracy of the calculated and measured space of maps and tables aside. Imagination could only be considered a disturbance to a medium that was primarily concerned with precisely calculated facts and figures. This process of medial differentiation facing the genre of the autoptic and autotelic travelogue, as Stewart describes it (Stewart 27-29), suggests that still to this day the book remains the ideal medium for imaginative literary immediacy and authenticity. For the broader scope of the “sciences”, however, the book loses much of its significance and authority. For the sciences, the book is no longer the medium best suited to the public discourse that critically substantiates its subject matter. Accordingly, this medial crisis is one that the humanities, as an institutionalized form of knowledge or Wissenschaft, are forced to confront to an increasingly greater degree.