So I thought I’d have a go at writing up my notes from the first Technologies of Writing seminar yesterday. (This is the Folger Institute seminar, taught by Peter Stallybrass and Roger Chartier.) There’s no way I can do justice to the three hours, which included not only some terrific conversation but a long presentation of images. But here are some main themes to emerge from this first day.
1. The amazing diversity of materials, instruments, implements, surfaces, supports, furniture, and physical spaces associated with writing. Consider this list of writing surfaces: rock, slate, clay, cloth, ivory, sand, bone, wax, plaster, papyrus, parchment (skin), and, of course, paper. Exercise: how many different writing technologies can you pick out in the following image of Saint Jerome (1480)?
2. The importance of erasure. Since writing spaces are often volumetric they have a finite surface area and a finite capacity. The materials are expensive and need to be re-used. In antiquity, wax was the erasable medium of choice. One carried about wax tablets and used the sharp end of a metal stylus to incise text. The other end of the stylus, flat, could be used to erase the text. A servant (or slave) would later transcribe your jottings onto parchment for permanent storage (few of these wax tablets survive, perhaps because they were never conceived as anything but temporary conveyances for the written word). As Peter pointed out, one writes in wax, not on wax—a distinction that would later become important to Freud when he talks about the mystic writing pad, which these tablets resemble. Freud also reminds us of the associations with writing and the mind—Hamlet refers to the “tables of his memory,” which was the phrase that launched PBS and RC onto this line of inquiry. Of course erasable storage is fundamental to computing too. Katie King, my colleague here at Maryland, is in the seminar with me, and at lunch beforehand she talked about an early confrontation with the materiality of computers when, as a graduate student doing her word processing on a mainframe, she was suddenly confronted with the bone-chilling message: DUMPING CORE / OUT OF DISK.
3. “Persistence and chronic tensions.” The phrase is Don Fowler’s, and the point is that writing technologies overlap, superimpose, and feed back on each other in rich and unpredictable ways. Rather than hard and fast breaks in the history of writing technologies, practices persist, co-exist, and exert mutual force and influence. One historian of the book, Frederick Kilgor, uses the phrase “punctuated equilibrium” (borrowed from Stephen J. Gould’s work in evolutionary biology) to talk about writing technologies as characterized by long periods of stasis and stability, marked by periodic eruptions of innovation. This seems wrong to me. While most scholars can talk at some length about Gutenberg, far fewer are aware of writing tables, erasable tablets in the that functioned as a kind of early modern PDA; hence Prince Hamlet: “My Tables, My Tables; Meet it is I Set it Downe!” The same individual could be entirely comfortable reading aloud to others (declamation), reading aloud to his (or her) own self, and reading silently. Orality is still very much with us. Or take print and manuscript culture. Handwritten diaries have their origins in printed almanacs when people began adding their own marginal notations and jottings. Soon enough, commerce caught on and almanacs were deliberately printed with space enough for people to add their annotations. The point is that here printed objects serve as a catalyst for an outburst of manuscript writing. This makes simplistic narratives of one medium replacing another (“ceci tuera cela”) suspect, and has obvious implications for our current digital age, when book production increases every year and we’ve not yet managed to achieve the nirvana of the paperless office.
4. The oscillation between materiality and metaphor. This is legion in the history and representation of writing. When Plato speaks of older memories hardening, he almost certainly has in mind the materiality of wax writing surfaces, which eventually lost their viscosity and needed to be recast. Likewise, in the Christian tradition the tablets carried by Moses are typically depicted with curved tops (as opposed to the Judaic tradition where they are usually flat). This curvature mimics the shape of wax writing tablets. So, we (literally) have stone shaped by wax. Representation piled on top of representation. In the paintings we looked at writing technologies contemporary with the artist were frequently depicted side by side with those that the subject would have actually used.
5. The importance of the commercial sphere. This is a point RC really leaned on. You cannot separate the culture of the book from the culture of records and archives. Roger noted the parallels between commercial ledgers and diaries, for example. This is particularly useful to me in my work on computer storage, because many of these technologies originated in office and industry, not more belletristic settings.
6. Finally, a word about scholarly method. The history of writing has some very practical things to teach us about our own work habits. As Peter notes, it’s difficult, in illustrations such as the one of Saint Jerome above, to tell if the figure is author, scribe, or translator. Reading and writing are always bound together, and the writer is always surrounded by his (or her) reading—which in turn propels the writing. Cayce,in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, calls this always asking the next question. Take the line in Hamlet, the “tables of the mind.” Well, what are those? That question lead directly to PBS and RC’s findings in this area. Likewise, paintings are a rich source for learning about writing technologies. What is that thing dangling from the book? And so on. (Peter had hilarious tales about being pursued through galleries as he snapped some of the illicit pictures he used to illustrate the lecture.) Likewise, the the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, now online (1674 to 1834). Many of these cases dealt with forgery and written fraud. A gold mine for any scholar interested in such things. The lesson here, I think, is that the historian of writing has to be alert to finding his or her materials anywhere, scavenging and scrounging from records and representations of all kinds, and must always be prepared to ask the next question. This dovetails nicely with a thesis Peter has about working instead of thinking, but that’s an entry for another day.
I’ll end with this image, which amazingly I had never seen before.
Cubism? Nope. It’s Arcimboldo, The Librarian 1566. Notice the fingers as bookmarks (Stallybrass: “The culture of the codex requires not only that you remember your hands but that you make them proliferate.”) Extra credit: what are the things in the librarian’s hair (look closely, just above the eyes)?Posted by mgk at January 29, 2005 12:36 PM