Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Elizabeth Dacre hidden in a book

The benefits of looking at books holistically, whether they are manuscript or print books, is borne out by my discovery in March 2010 of a Latin love poem written in the sixteenth century. While I was visiting West Virginia University to give a lecture at the invitation of Professor Pat Conner, I dropped into the university's Special Collections to examine some early books with an undergraduate class. The librarian, Harold Forbes, had kindly got out a sixteenth-century edition of Chaucer's Works to show me. I have always been interested in writing outside of the main text-block--marginalia, annotations, ex libris ownership inscriptions, and bits of paper stuck into books--and to my delight, there was a handwritten text pasted into the back board of the Chaucer edition. I could tell from the writing that this was a sixteenth century work, and astonishingly, a name 'Elizabeth Dacre' appeared pasted beneath the main text. I asked what it was, but no one knew, so I transcribed five or six lines to look up when I had finished lecturing. When I looked up the lines, they appeared nowhere. This poem, then, had never been seen since its rebinding into the book cover, never been published, and probably never been read in recent centuries. 

As it turns out, the poem was written by Lady Elizabeth Dacre, an English aristocratic woman (c. 1536-1567), to Sir Anthony Cooke, tutor to Edward VI, and father of the Cooke sisters--famous scholars in their day. The poem is full of love and longing, a personal lament for the 'tristis amor', the 'sad love', which seems to have been Cooke and Dacre's secret. The Latin poem is fourteen lines long and full of classical references to those who shared deep and silent passion, and it ends with a scurrilous Martial epigram. Evidently, Elizabeth took great care to preserve a fair copy, by putting it safely in the book of Chaucer's Works that she herself owned. 

Despite her apparent love for Cooke--whether real or imagined--Elizabeth Dacre never married him and there is no record of their relationship. Instead, she was twice married: to the fourth Baron Dacre first; and then shortly after his death in 1566, to the fourth Duke of Norfolk, the most powerful of all the English aristocrats. Norfolk was ostensibly a Protestant, while Elizabeth was an ardent Catholic. She died in childbirth within months of marrying Norfolk, and during her dying moments while in labour, he refused to allow her access to her priest for the last rites. Her sad death at the age of only about thirty resulted in her subsequent loss to history--remembered only by and through her noble daughters Anne and Elizabeth. Since the late sixteenth century, then, she has been consigned to the footnotes of history, without even a tomb marking her passing. Now, however, with the emergence of this wonderful and personal piece of writing, and the sure knowledge of her classical education and her ownership of Chaucer's Works, something of this extraordinary woman has been brought to life. It goes to show that while we usually focus on the main contents of books, there can often be a great deal to be discovered hiding elsewhere between the covers.

For full details, see my article '"Tristis amor": An unpublished love letter from Lady Elizabeth Dacre Howard to Sir Anthony Cooke’, Renaissance Studies (Print-ahead-of-Publication, 2011), DOI 10.1111/j.1477-4658.2011.00765.x. For recent news coverage, see 

Monday, December 5, 2011

'Anonymity is Authenticity'

Attributed to the founder of the 'vile' website, 4Chan, 'Anonymity is Authenticity' is a thought-provoking soundbite, worth considering in relation to text technologies, broadly speaking. I was first introduced to the phrase through a BBC Radio 3 podcast of 'Arts and Ideas' ( in the summer, and was struck by the conversation in that discussion, where one of the participants talked about her multiple personae on various websites, and how these permitted her degrees of reality that depended on the nature and audience of the website. It suggested that anonymity permits a 'real' opinion to be given: a genuineness of critique; a 'truth' that the openness of authorship can erode (as if we all hide behind our names, afraid to own up to what we think). Anonymity is common in specific scholarly areas, particularly for reviews of book proposals to publishers; sometimes, this ability to remain anonymous leads to criticisms being made that the writers would baulk at stating publicly. Does this make the statements more authentic? Open-review policies now being trialled by some journals seek to ensure that any criticism is attached to the name of the writer. Will this make such criticism somehow less authentic (

On the internet, one might argue that anonymity preserves identity such that unpalatable truths can be made public. Here, the Wikileaks site, with its apparent attempts to reveal particular truths about government actions, seems an obvious contender for the accolade of 'authenticity', but, whose truth do these anonymous reporters tell? No utterance was ever uttered unfiltered; no information is objective, mediated by an author without an agenda.

In past technologies, authenticity might indeed depend on anonymity, though, in the sense that particular authors, or kinds of publications, were frowned upon and censored. There are the obvious and very famous examples of the Bronte sisters, publishing under male pseudonyms to bypass public disapproval of female authors. Pseudonymous publication is a form of anonymity or, more usefully, disguise. Anonymity was often de rigeur in the eighteenth century, as in Hannah Glasse's case. In the twentieth century, it was discovered that she was the author of The Art of Cookery made plain and easy, published in 1747 by 'a LADY' ( Anonymity in this case might have been essential to ensuring the publication of the book, but it also led her being uncredited, which seriously disadvantaged her subsequent reputation and well-being.

In the case of Shakespeare's Bad Quarto and its variants, the anonymity of the title-pages (in comparison with the, literally, 'authorised' First Folio of 1623) has ensured these versions' derogation by textual scholars. In the case of some medieval authors, however, their elision within the text and total anonymity might have meant their works became authenticated by the authorities responsible for the dissemination of sequences of religious texts. One is mindful here of the anonymous homilies circulating in the Anglo-Saxon period, where the authorship of the homily in its multiple instantiations is supressed in order to highlight the major sources used (the likes of Augustine, Gregory, Jerome and Bede, who are explicitly named in the text as those whose writings are employed). In these texts, authenticity is not about the authorship of the original text, or that of the subsequent versions in successive manuscripts, but of the ultimate validity of the text through its use of Church fathers and scriptural quotation.

So, in text technologies, the issue of 'anonymity' being (or 'insisting on' or 'confirming' or 'enhancing') 'authenticity' is not remotely straightforward. It's certainly timely, though, to think through this virtual truism in its more general application to texts and their production.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Silent texts

The History of Text Technologies includes the history of music, from the earliest recorded works, which are predominantly monodic chants written into liturgical works through neumes, to complex multi-track recordings, to digital music, much of which can be composed and published without the use of a 'real' instrument. How the language of music is produced, transmitted and received is the business of the text technologist, and interesting parallels can be made between music and all other forms of text.

In the case of avant-garde musical text, there can be nothing more illuminating than John Cage's 4'33" (, voted by Peter Gutmann as the most significant piece of classical music of the twentieth century: Cage's work, composed in about 1948, illustrates most effectively how text functions, and how significant our expectations of a text technology are. In its printed form (a page of which is shown below) the word on the page, there in place of a musical stave, is 'tacet', 'it is silent'.

4'33", or the Youtube of it posted above, was played in its entirety to 185 students in two separate sessions: the first was to about 160 students in a large, wood-panelled, 1930s lecture hall where some light came through the large windows. The second was to fifteen students in a small seminar room with the lights out. Neither performance of 4'33" was remotely alike. In the first, the anticipation of music was palpable; the room was still--at least, it was still until the end of the first movement, when the coughing at the Barbican video was emulated by coughing in the lecture hall, and where one or two, previously silent, students began to whisper, changing the experience of the performance for their surrounding colleagues. Elsewhere in the lecture hall, there was continuing silence, bar the external noise from a busy campus. In the small seminar room, the awkwardness was much more evident; one student laughed out loud when he cottoned on to what was happening (or not happening, as is the case). Others' perplexed responses were emitted through movement or quiet sighs.

By the end of the performance, a small number of students was fidgety, though most were transfixed. The sound quality, the ambience and the level of attention were all absolutely different from one performance context to the other. Some students thought the whole thing was brilliant; others thought it bizarre. Joery Francois recognised that we had just created our own performance of 4'33"--that we were the instruments in the piece as it was played at 10.25am on November 15th 2011. This wonderful observation demonstrates perhaps more vividly than usual that each text depends on its audience, not just in the interpretation of the text, but also in its very creation. And the depth of the musical silence, its multilayered rendition in those classrooms can most eloquently be labelled (as John Nance labelled it) the consequence of an 'invisible thickness', a new way of describing how many of us access digital and recorded texts, whether these are televisual, auditory, or verbally textual.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bye bye bookshop

I've talked about the fear of the loss of the book as an object on this blog before, and with that fear, the commensurate alarm that we are witnessing the demise of the bookshop. Here's a column from The Guardian in March 2011, which lays out the view of an antiquarian book dealer: What's particularly interesting here are the comments from various readers, one or two of which are silly, but the remainder of which illustrate effectively the nostalgia and emotion evoked by the book, and by specialist bookshops. Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that still exists?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Text is not just comprised of words or even images; it can be inherent in objects. But whether word, picture, symbol or object, text is not semantically transparent. The slippery nature of the Sign is clearly evinced by the custom among many British people (for a number of decades now) of wearing a red poppy in remembrance of those who have lost their lives fighting wars. (It's sold on behalf of the British Legion, who support veterans In these times of democratic sensibility, poppy-wearing can elicit a silly and pseudo-liberal response like this, but on the whole the poppy is simply shorthand for the conscious and personal memorialisation of lives lost. In America, though, the wearing of a poppy is not part of the heartfelt Veterans' Day tradition, and I have worn a poppy this week to the bemusement of some of my students, a few of whom have openly wondered why I'm wearing a paper flower. It's not something they had come across at all. So, what seems so obvious and clear to me--a text symbolising national sadness at loss and admiration of courage--means nothing in another context, showing how all kinds of texts are, effectively, dialectal and socio-culturally contingent.

Handwriting and Humans

In a book that is very much of its time, The Key to the Family Deed Chest: How to Decipher and Study Old Documents, printed in 1893 and still available, Emma Thoyts Cope (described in that book as an historian, genealogist, and palaeographer) commingles graphological aspects of handwriting with diplomatics and a superficial form of palaeography. This hybridity between the science of scholarly subjects and the subjectivity of handwriting analysis is confirmed when Cope makes an explicit association of handwriting with personal character or mood:

If the subject of handwriting as a test of character is carefully studied, it will be found that immediate circumstances greatly influence it: anxiety or any great excitement of any kind, illness or any violent emotion, will for the moment greatly affect the writing. From handwriting the doctor can hazard an opinion as to the mental state of his patient. In all cases of paralysis the writing is temporarily affected, and the patient is usually at first deprived of the power of writing […]. It is not strange, then, that with so many causes upon which it depends, writing should be an excellent test of temperament and bodily health […] [so that from it we can contract] a habit of forming conclusions as to the mental and moral caliber of the writers (pp. 15-16).

It may seem far-fetched to assume that one can tell the ‘moral calibre’ of a writer from their handwriting, but there’s no doubt that it’s as human an endeavour as one can imagine, and it’s one of the reasons, of course, that autographs and holograph copies of authors’ manuscripts are still so widely sought. In what seems to be an overwhelmingly digital world, it’s good to know that an appreciation for the handwritten artefact is still significant. This is admirably focused upon in Wendy Stein’s short video on manuscript culture, here:

Monday, November 7, 2011

What the Dickens?

As we approach the bicentenary of Dickens' birth on February 7th, 2012, it's interesting to look back on what he had to say about his world at a time, in the mid-nineteenth century, when technologies were moving as fast as they are moving today. Inventions were being brought to the public's attention at a tremendous rate, and most involved rapid reproduction, cheaper prices for texts, and increased accessibility to 'knowledge', loosely put. Dickens contributed a good deal to the culture of his era, to contemporary debates about literacy, and he showed great initiative in producing novel forms for the dissemination of text. As the 'conductor' of his periodical, Household Words, which cost 2d (2 pence), he had a large audience of appreciative readers. And to these readers, he introduced his own potted history of text technologies, in his article on 'The Birth and Parentage of Letters', an essay that illustrates a keen understanding of the significance of tools and substrates throughout the centuries:

As Dickens so poignantly points out on the first page, 'Our paper and ink are materials so perfectly adapted for their purpose, that it is difficult to imagine in what way they can be substantially bettered by inventors that shall be hereafter'. Well said, Mr Dickens. One can only imagine, though, how he would have embraced the potential of our brave new digital world.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Present in Absence

In protest at 'Anonymous', the film just released that suggests Shakespeare is not the author of the plays we associate with him, local people in Warwickshire (Shakespeare's birth county in Britain) are protesting by unmemorialising him; that is, they are removing his name from signs: This rather odd reaction is the antithesis of putting up a name plaque or commemorative monument, presumably, though it's hardly a convincing erasure--the same as might be said for the film, in fact.
The attempt to erase Shakespeare or a well known figure from history, more generally, is attested to in the titlepage of the Great Bible, commissioned by Henry VIII in the 1530s and published in 1539, with subsequent editions within the following couple of years. Thomas Cromwell, Henry's Chancellor, appears in the first edition on the left hand of Henry (in the top register) and his coat of arms appears to the right of the title text. After Henry had Cromwell executed in July 1540, the coat of arms was removed from the titlepage, leaving a circular emptiness that is arguably more noticeable than the coats of arms would have been. In removing the heraldic device of Cromwell, his entire legacy seems to be rubbed out. Similarly, the striking out of Shakespeare's name on roadsigns today ironically draws attention to the presence of the name, and to the obvious significance of William Shakespeare to Warwickshire's history and its tourism industry.
And on titlepages and the way in which they developed over time, a great exhibition (outlined here was held last year which shows the ways in which this most important, but overlooked, information retrieval tool changed up to the early twentieth century. From the fabulous, authorless, propaganda of the Great Bible titlepage to William Morris's elegant, Roman, titles, this part of a book's history tells us, in a nutshell, the content and agenda behind a book's production, yet we seldom spend time looking at this part of the book in our hurry to get to the 'text'.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fingers and thumbs

One of the OED definitions of 'digital' is, of course, something pertaining to the fingers and thumbs; 'to digitize' is to turn material into digital form, but during the verb's history, it also meant 'to touch or manipulate with the fingers'. Yet digital technology often takes us further away from the materiality of the artefact, as it hovers disembodied in front of us. The hapticity of the touch screen--the stroking and rubbing of the glass--allows for an odd, glazed, cutaneous tactility, but there is nothing proprioceptive about this hand-to-text connection: nothing muscular, nothing kinaesthetic, nothing voluminous. So, isn't it ironic how digitization contains the semantic element of 'touch' and 'manipulation' without any actual contact at all.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The pbook

I was privileged to spend time yesterday with Gary Frost, the University of Iowa's book conservation specialist, and a quite exceptional thinker. We discussed the future of the print book ahead of this afternoon's roundtable on that subject, at which we are both participants. Gary talked about the need to maintain an 'authentic witness' to the book even as we busily digitise and remove books from the shelves of the libraries at our institutions. He suggested that as we whittle down physical collections on our campuses, all the remainders will, effectively, become 'Special Collections'. The pbook (the 'physical book' as opposed to the ebook: see will eventually become an object of curiosity to be looked at in a glass case. I can barely bring myself to believe this could be true, but the time for considering what we are doing as a world of readers and users of books is now. Technological inevitablism--a passivity in the face of the dramatic changes to the way we do our intellectual business--is simply not an option. Who controls what happens? Who can say 'Stop! Let's think about what we're doing?' I have no idea, but this is a start. So, to the 'think tanks' and the Digital obsessors and space savers, I would insist we hang on just a sec while we work out what it is that we think we're doing, and more to the point, why? The decisions that are made now are significant: whether or not to move the book from the shelf to storage; whether or not to join the Big 12 Universities and agree to share one copy of the real book retained and stored in Indiana, and digitise the rest. Libraries then reinvent themselves as 'Learning Commons', or, as at FSU, 'Scholars Commons' (an ironic vacuous space filled with nothing at all to aid the scholar, and where even the name with its absent apostrophe suggests the demise of traditional intellectualism). At this point, two thousand years of learning through libraries becomes something different, and while different doesn't always mean 'worse', what will the end result be? I'm not a prophet, so I don't know. But I do know that moving books to remote storage and replacing them with space-saving ebooks (force-feeding students by loaning ebook-readers) is not the answer to the current demands of technology and financial constraints. Why not? Simple, really. An ebook is NOT a book; it is something different--a simulacrum at best, a contextless mimic at worst--and it is thus not a case of replacing like-with-like. As Gary commented to me, the University Libraries are the gatekeepers of knowledge, and the guardians of traditional scholarship. Are any of them really thinking about the consequences of their knee-jerk strategies? What they choose to do now matters more than most of them realise, I suspect.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Future of the Book

We find ourselves in the most notable text technological moment since the invention of print, perhaps. That historical event took many generations to be fully accepted, and even as it was generating trade, enhancing the opportunities for increased and more democratized literacy, and widening access to knowledge—particularly in the European vernaculars—it functioned alongside manuscript culture, which itself had been the dominant mode of textual creation for some five thousand years or more.
            Now, some 571 years after Gutenberg and his Bible, manuscript culture is still absolutely mainstream. Children write with pencils, students predominantly use pens and notepaper, generally, we write notes, lists and cards by hand. The Digital has not replaced the convenience of the manual, just as print did not replace it. From that point of view, until printers are small enough to be carried around, no computer, or IPhone or other device will completely replace pen and paper. Moreover, until the Digital is absolutely independent of limited wireless and is freely accessible with day-long battery life, no number of e-book readers will replace the real book. And that’s just the practical side.
            In relation to the book itself, I’m going to think firstly about the debate surrounding the demise of the book and independent bookshops. For the latter, the threat is not primarily the e-book, it is Amazon and other vast mail-based sellers. An intelligent and measured response is here: E-books are having an impact, certainly, but it is not universal. My undergraduates, of whom there are 177, illustrate a set of varying responses typical of their demographic: technological resistance, technological inevitabilism, and technological embrace. Many of them--by far the majority—claim to prefer not to engage with e-books, chiefly because of aesthetic and intellectual reasons. Aesthetically, all of the students point to the fact that ‘real’ book is infinitely superior to the electronic. Showing high levels of self-reflective thinking, the students point out that they cannot easily make notes and underlinings in e-book (such facilities do exist, of course, but many do not utilize these packages); that they cannot read with any degree of sustained concentration from the screen; that they enjoy the untethered reliability of the book (which, as one student pointed out, ‘never requires troubleshooting’); that they like to be able to turn the pages, hear the spine crack (!!); feel the weight of the book; and, arguably most interestingly, finish the book, gain a sense of achievement, watch their library grow, and know that this is a tangible reflection of their increasing academic prowess. Interestingly, many students regard the e-book as ‘ephemeral’, and this has proven to be the case in the past when Amazon has removed books globally: literally taken them off a Kindle owner’s e-bookshelf (
            The students who do use e-books do so because of issues of portability and convenience, and generally associate this learning activity with university and textbooks. A very small number of students has Kindle or Nook or an IPad; it was something like a dozen out of the whole group. I assumed many other studnets would be seeking to acquire such reading tools, but this is not the case. This resistance stems from a feeling of overload—an overwhelming sense that the pace of technology is so rapid, the appearance of new technology so unrelenting that they might as well not bother. This is a proactive decision: a willful response, not inertia or idleness. This generation may well feel such scepticism and reluctance for decades, and may influence their children. Younger readers, however, have a different set of responses, such as that of the small toddler who cannot make a magazine interact like an IPod (, or the eleven-year old who spells in text-form as a first written language. These children will become an intermediary generation in the next thirty years, a generation that will dictate a new pace of change. Thus, layers of e-users will have different responses to the speed and direction of technology, and this is just in the Western world. Elsewhere, similarly variant reactions will depend on localized factors, available resources, and individual preferences. From my perspective, then, I don’t think we’ll see anything like the demise of the book, or even an alteration in its form for hundreds of years, though I do think there will be a shaking out of this technological transformation for particular areas of publishing, and especially, academic publishing and specialist, small print-run editions.
            Where major developments might be expected is in the area of electronic reading experiences. The digital world has promised innovation and inventiveness for some twenty or more years now. Yet from the academic perspective, no software or interface has delivered anything deserving the label ‘innovative’ or ‘new’. Packages that we saw in 1997—such as Martin Foys’ electronic edition of the Bayeux Tapestry—seemed revolutionary and elicited gasps of amazement from the audience at presentations. Now, such a package often cannot be made to function; on my MacBookPro, its technology has proven unsustainable. Subsequent to this, perhaps the most exciting technology is the Turn-the-Pages technology, used first at the British Library, and now widely utilized by museums and software developers. All that ever did was imitate the book, though, and never the complete book—always an unstated abridged version. (And I apologise if I sound like the typical grouchy user—the one without the talent to develop the technology—because I do appreciate the amount of work and money it takes to develop new software). Even so, until developers and designers can move away conceptually from rather unimaginative attempts to emulate the real book, we can expect little by way of excitement or even genuine competition for the codex. This is the age of hybrid or residual technology; just as for many decades, the printed book looked like a manuscript and used chirographic techniques to include decoration and rubrication, so we are now in that intermediary period, where the form of the codex dominates a technology that simply need not be bound by the features of such a form.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Technological Outcomes

Reflecting on some of the major characteristics of the so-called Digital 'Revolution' has proven a useful way to access the emergence of print in the fifteenth century. The photo here is the classroom wall after our graduate seminar yesterday, where discussion of the major elements of text technological change brought about by the Digital in the last decade formed the focus of attention. Among these are the desires for increased speed and immediate access. These, in turn, create a sense of greater democratisation, and, indeed, the globalisation of knowledge exchange; this parallels the exponential growth in the quantity of information available. With such apparent democratisation come questions of authority and control, validity, credibility and authenticity. Similar trends were identified in the century after the invention of moveable type. Just as Caxton wanted to reassure his readers that the works of Chaucer he printed were as 'true' to the author as they could be (and more true than any competitor editions!), so the demand for the authorisation of knowledge continues. Thus, students are urged to check the academic credentials of the online sources they use, for example; and internet hoaxes, such as the Gay Girl in Damascus, cause outrage for their 'fakeness', and, in this particular case, derision about the real author's 'vanity'. Moreover, the mass of information available can easily be confused with 'freedom of information', when these things do not equate. There is nothing on the internet that is not already mediated and where there is mediation there is ideology. The more intrusive the mediation, the greater the obfuscation (or is it the other way around?).

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Typographic Bodytext

Shelley Jackson's Skin project is a witty and innovative novel comprised of 2095 'words', each one of which is tattooed onto participants. Volunteers from around the world are sent an individual word, together with its attendant punctuation, and are obliged to tattoo the word they receive on any part of their body in a prescribed 'classic book font', examples of which are 'Caslon, Garamond, Bodoni, and Times Roman...Futura or Gill Sans...Courier' and 'Baskerville'. Jackson stipulates that the 'tattoo should look like something intended to be read, not admired for its decorative qualities', which suggests she generally views tattoos as decoration and not as 'something intended to be read'. This narrow view of reading (explicitly linked to letters, graphs, words here) is, in itself, interesting and perplexing, since, as we know, non-verbal images are equally text-like and almost always produced to be interpreted or 'read'. Even more interesting, however, is the insistence on a 'classic book font', when what is being produced is manuscript, inscribed by hand into the skin. This makes the participants--embodiments of a fractured, dismembered work--living exempla of hybrid technologies. In contrast, the image of my friend's tattoo shown here is a manifestation of multilayered chirographic practice: it is a line from the Old English poem, The Wanderer ('Thus said the wise man in his mind as he sat apart in secret meditation'), written by needle in an emulative Anglo-Saxon Insular Minuscule script, imitating the original tenth-century scribe's work in The Exeter Book of Old English Poetry. It becomes a tattoo simulacrum--a real fake, written into human skin, instead of on animal skin. My friend literally brings the page to life.

Friday, October 7, 2011

To tattoo or not to tattoo

One of the class wrote to me after our Tattoo session yesterday to ask if I thought Henna designs might be considered as tattoos. I replied that in some ways they were, but in our email exchange, it became clear that the overriding characteristic of tattoos is in their Intentionality; that is, they are meant to be permanent, even if, through considerable laser treatment, they can be erased, creating a palimpsest of the body. As far as a tattoo's materiality is concerned, it is the embedding of ink under the skin that provides that permanence, and this is quite different, of course, from body-painting. It is this breaking of the skin and embedding of substance that aligns tattoos with piercings. Ultimately, of course, tattoos and any other form of 'permanent' body text are evanescent, transient, ephemeral.
From the functional perspective, tattoos are both private and public in nature. Some are literally so, because you cannot see them, unless the person chooses to show you. Some are intellectually private, in that their meaning is not obvious. This might be because of the language in which the tattoo is written (as in the textual examples here,, or because the immediate reference is obscure. The ways in which viewers or readers of the body react to the tattoo is another aspect of functionality: how do tattoos function in the world, and is the tattoee's intention sometimes to shock? It is this former aspect of tattooing--the counter-hegemonic, the rebellious--that might parallel the more public act of writing graffiti.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Books and Humans

Google has just launched its new e-book website in Britain and just as I clicked on the website a survey popped up asking me for my views on The Future of the Book. I was happy to answer, since I don't think e-books or digitisation will make much difference to the future of the book--at least, not in my lifetime. What is currently being produced is seldom inspirational. Digitisation is treated by its producers as a fancy form of reproduction; computer screens simply become intangible photocopiers (albeit in colour). I'd like to see something truly innovative, and thus I wonder what Steve Jobs left as his Apple Legacy (four years' worth of new Apple innovation, apparently) that might impact upon the ways in which we read online. The IPad has been revolutionary, certainly in comparison with Nook or Kindle, which are dull and replicative.
I had a conference call with the Stanford design team of Parker on the Web yesterday, and critiqued their new interoperability project, particularly the interface, which seems similar to quite a bit that is already available electronically for manuscript scholars, though there are some fancy add-ons for transcription and annotating. I believe we're stuck on the 'page' as a foundational design element. Therein lies the flaw. It's all been done before, but for the digital domain we need something new. Yet, as all text technologists know, new technologies emerge from old ones, adapting current forms to create a gradual transition. It's all about making haste slowly, then, as Suetonius himself rightly advised.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Repetitive Strain Injury

All desk workers are familiar with repetitive strain injury. Whole manuals are devoted to Health and Safety at Work, recommending elbow angle, wrist movement radii, and height of computer screen. Looking at pictures of scribes from previous eras, though, it's astonishing how they managed to do their jobs for any length of time. Egyptian scribes sat cross-legged, with the scrolls (sometimes up to 40ft in length) on their laps--rolling out with the left hand hand, and rolling back up with the right, while writing hieroglyphic or demotic with their reed pens. Did this necessitate constant looking down? Or, as with highly competent typists, did they barely need to look at all? Medieval scribes, with their quills and knives, sat at angled desks in drafty cloisters (icy cold at times, presumably), and wrote exquisite calligraphy by daylight or candlelight, without the aid of spectacles until at least the thirteenth century in Europe. We know from some scribes that this was arduous work; yet despite the chill-inducing, muscle-aching, and eye-straining, what was produced was generally so high quality. Next time you read a description of a scribe as 'poor quality', consider what this might mean in the light of these early working conditions.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Memorials as Text Technologies

From a text technological viewpoint, memorials can be divided (as can most text) into 'official' and 'unofficial' categories, with some blurring of these delineations. The official is most easily represented by the stone or metal, high profile and highly visible national monuments, like Mount Rushmore, the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, or the new 9/11 Memorial. Stone and metal, both materials that are of the earth, are enduring, transchronological, and meant to be permanent. They connect the monument with its viewers and reconnect the viewer to the earth, which, unlike us, is eternal (in theory, at least). These monuments are public, and thus placed in areas where they can be visited, but there is a sharp contrast in the ways in which visitors can interact with the memorial. Mount Rushmore can only be viewed from hundreds of feet away; its vastness and stylisation means it can be seen and understood, but not touched. It is iconic and representative: we don't need names for the faces (well, Americans don't).

The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial, on the other hand, are also vast in scale, but this is more to do with the tragedies they commemorate and the desire to name victims individually. While these are still official and public, then, they are deeply personal and intimate, and permit unofficial acts of memorialisation from visitors, who leave mementoes, notes, flowers, and other commemorative artefacts close to the names of their loved ones. Since most of those remembered by name do not otherwise have a site for reflection--few have graves--this is the place where those still present come to remember the absent. The name--carved into stone or stencil cut into copper--becomes a touchable text, a text that by its presence recalls the individual and his or her place in the world. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

The future is digital

Or is it? Apocalyptic rumour-mongering, rife in the media, declares that the book as we know it is dead, and that, indeed, everything in our lives will soon become virtual. This is dramatically prophesised in sound-bite form in a recent podcast of BBC Radio 3's wonderful 'Arts and Ideas' programme (here <> from minute 13:44 onwards). The author David Boyle declares that 'the more virtual our lives are... the more people cling to what is real... If we lose touch with the difference between real and imaginary, between real and virtual, we will soon be forced to use virtual doctors and virtual teachers, which we won't really want to do.'

This apocalypticism is seen throughout history at moments of intense text technological tranformation. So, for example, the emergence of print caused consternation, as numerous literati declared manuscript to be the only 'true' form of written communication; and mechanization in the nineteenth century was bemoaned for decades by artists and writers. Still, important issues arise from these periods of transformation, and among those that need to be urgently addressed are the intentionality and functionality of visual media and digital technology, particularly for representing three-dimensional objects, like books, manuscripts, and paintings. This is why this conference on Monday 5th September in London (<>) and this one on Friday 9th in Cambridge (<>) promise to elicit interesting debate, and perhaps the beginnings of a more united theorizing and conceptualizing of the form and function of the digital.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


According to Jerome McGann, a text is an 'embodied phenomenon', presumably fleshed out with meaning and relevant in its context. It's what we might think of as incarnate, in the sense that without intentionality, text is meaningless; without some conscious determination to communicate a message, even something that looks like text (the elephant painting flowers, the birds' feet fossilized in stone) is simply a thing.

But what is a text?

The term 'text technologies' is a useful label for the history of the form and content of human communication. The field emerges from what has been traditionally known as the  'History of the Book' or the 'History of Writing', neither of which is capacious enough to incorporate image-text, music, film, and new technologies, such as Blogs. 'Text technologies', though, is such a recent scholarly field that it also requires meticulous clarification. What, then, might it mean?