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Response to Review of Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution

I am extremely grateful to Dr Magliocco for his clear and perceptive review. His task was perhaps not the most enviable one, given that this is a long book, which covers quite a bit of territory over eleven chapters. As such, it is understandable that the more or less descriptive element of his review takes up most of the space that was available to him, and I am extremely grateful that this review offers such an admirable account of what my book attempts to do, in terms of method, concepts and material, as well as argumentation and historiographical intervention.

Of course, Magliocco does not refrain from raising some objections, and some important and intriguing ones to boot. Indeed, some of the most difficult decisions that the process of producing this book involved were things highlighted in the review. It is something of a relief that the ‘pregnant term’ – Common Politics – has not gone unnoticed, given that this had, in fact, been my preferred title. The term was chosen because it seemed to be a way of conjuring the notion of popular politics, while not actually using a term that seems to me to be highly problematic, because of its rather narrow associations with a plebeian world, and its exclusion of other sections of society. In this situation, therefore, the word ‘common’ seemed to be particularly useful because it can also conjure something – in this case political participation – that was, or rather increasingly became, shared, irrespective of gender, social status or geographical location. Stated at its simplest, indeed, the aim of my project was to assess the impact of the mid-seventeenth century ‘print revolution’, and to argue that, at the level of daily political life, the period witnessed a transformative democratisation, or vulgarisation, of practices associated with participation in national institutions like Parliament. My aim, in short, was to demonstrate a more or less permanent ‘commoning’ of political life, and the emergence of a shared culture of participation. I considered it unfortunate, therefore, that the decision-making process regarding the book’s title seemed to prioritise words that might more obviously generate hits in catalogue and web searches.

Equally frustrating – and somewhat more time-consuming – were the kinds of issues that resulted in a truncated bibliography and some rather dense and perhaps incomprehensible footnotes. Of course, bibliographies are now considered something of a luxury by a number of academic presses, and the nature of the source base that was required for a project like this ensured that both myself and the press were somewhat taken aback by the size of the full bibliography that emerged. As such, we were forced to subject it to a series of cuts – first, to lose secondary literature, then printed pamphlets, and then printed primary sources – until we reached something of an acceptable length. All, however, may not be lost, and the fact that a full bibliography was initially generated means that a way might be found to make this available, should anyone wish to consult it, perhaps on academia.edu.

The footnotes too proved to be a headache, and one which took a fairly considerable amount of time to resolve. In essence, this problem was created by the nature of the project and the nature of the book, which was, at once stage, considerably longer than it is now. In order to pre-empt criticisms about building an argumentative edifice from a range of unrepresentative examples – I even had specific reviewers in mind! – it seemed necessary to provide multiple examples at every step of the analysis and argument. In order to keep the book at a manageable scale, meanwhile, it also seemed necessary to condense discussions of multiple examples into more or less synoptic sentences and passages. And in order to prevent the footnotes from taking over, it also proved necessary to remove from them as much text as possible, and to develop a fairly austere system of abbreviations and short titles. The latter was particularly important given that many of the texts with which I was dealing – especially printed petitions and lobby documents – have extremely long titles. The footnoting system that readers will encounter was thus the product of long and painful reflection, and my only hope is that, if it is almost certainly not going to be easy to use, then neither should it be impossible to fathom.

Since writing the book, I have become painfully aware that these issues – title, bibliography and footnotes – might come to dominate reviews and responses, and so it is almost a relief that Magliocco also offers some more substantive criticisms, in terms of my tendency to overlook questions of ‘self’ in favour of a ‘systemic’ understanding, and in terms of a focus on ‘practice’ which ignores ‘discourse’. On both of these issues, I am prepared to concede that Magliocco has a point, while also pushing back at least a little in terms of the degree to which this might be true, and the degree to which it was necessary. To the charge that I don’t depict my cast of characters as being particularly ‘reflective’, for example, I would argue that this is largely a reflection of my sources, and with the exception of peculiarly and dangerously reflective characters like Nehemiah Wallington, I didn’t have access to many of the kinds of sources in which reflection can be detected. Beyond this, however, I would also like to think that my book actually offers plentiful evidence of reflective individuals, at least in terms of our being able to encounter and observe the process and effects of reflection to a degree that is fairly remarkable. That is to say, large portions of the book involve evidence about individuals confronting a range of different situations, and reflecting on how they are going to deal with the challenges and opportunities associated with political life and print culture, and with their own positions and roles. That it is not easy to access their descriptions of this reflective process, or their considered reflections on their political ‘selves’, does not mean that we are not able to observe them being reflective, or that we can merely observe the effect of their reflection, in terms of changing attitudes towards print and participation.

Of course, the nature of my project – surveying a mass of characters, texts and episodes – militates against providing fleshed-out depictions of reflective individuals, although this is where it becomes necessary to confront the objection about my privileging of ‘practice’, and of a ‘systemic’ understanding, over discourse. Here too I am happy to agree that Magliocco has a point, but not to accept that it is a hugely damaging one. First, therefore, I am unapologetic about the value of trying to map changing patterns of behaviour by surveying myriad small-scale actions and interventions, and also clear in my own mind that this does not necessarily result in anything like a model of participation. Secondly, it seemed to me to be positively useful to turn away from a preoccupation with discourse, since this has become somewhat overwhelming within the field. And, thirdly, I would argue that I have not shunned ‘discourse’ to the degree that Magliocco claims, and that indeed part of my aim was to suggest that looking closely at political participation on the ground provides a novel way of approaching the nature of the language and rhetoric that emerged during the English revolution. I was determined to argue, therefore, that discourse has too often been detached from its context, or contextualised linguistically, and in terms of a rather abstract and depersonalised politics. What I was determined to do was not merely to rethink radicalism and revolution, but also to reintroduce a somewhat structural analysis. And what I at least hope to have shown is that changes in discourse can usefully be connected to, and recognised as being rooted in, political systems and political practice, and indeed in the reflective processes of contemporary citizens, and that as a result it might be possible to rethink discursive innovation, the dynamic history of groups like the Levellers, and even the nature of intellectual history.