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.