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?