Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Challenging Crisis Discourses

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the genre of "crisis discourse" in relation to scribal, print, and digital media in both past and contemporary cultures. Many readers familiar with the early modern emergence of print will doubtless be familiar with similar laments and discourses in that period. (Of course, there is also the problem of teleological accounts that praise printing, another related issue.) Since contemporary rhetoric about the crisis of books in the face of digital media is so prevalent, there is no need to enumerate the instances--but lamentations abound. In terms of contemporary relationships between various media, this is obviously a hot topic, not only among academics (especially in digital humanities) but also in wider popular culture.

Much of my thinking on this issue was sparked a few weeks ago, when I read Ted Striphas's book The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (New York: Columbia UP, 2009) [read my review here]. Just a few days ago, I encountered further thoughts in Elaine Treharne's excellent blog post on "Restrictive 'Humanities'." The former goes a long way to challenge the rhetoric of catastrophe by thinking instead about the various modes of intermediation in our culture. The latter ranges across several important questions pertaining to digital humanities, at one point arguing that "the [early modern] dawn of print did not displace, and still has not displaced, the manuscript; indeed, the digital age itself has not done so, and, I venture, will never do so." Both scholars raise important points for considering the ongoing developments of text technologies, and both convincingly challenge assumptions that underly the misunderstanding that newer technologies eclipse previous technologies.

My own interest in these issues is especially connected to some recent work I've undertaken in terms of a handwritten prayer in an early modern book. While browsing through Early English Books Online a few months ago, I discovered that the Folger Shakespeare Library holds a copy of the first printed edition of A very frutefull and pleasant boke called the Instruction of a Christen Woman (STC 24856.5), translated by Richard Hyrde from Juan Luis Vives’s De institutione feminae Christianae, which contains a handwritten note including a prayer by a reader with the date 1637 (on page B4v; click to view, though only with institutional access). After some digging, I discovered that it has gone fairly unnoticed in scholarship. So I've undertaken a study of the prayer, which turns out to be an appropriation of biblical texts, mainly from Psalm 89 (90) [here we enter problems of medieval & early modern numbering of the Psalms].

Along with thinking about the handwritten note as a cultural artifact on its own, I also want to use it to consider relationships between scribal, print, and digital media--and how this intermediation matters to scholarship. As a model of intermediation, the associations of scribal and print practices in the handwritten note should be understood as dynamic rather than linear, since scribal and print practices intermingled in the early modern period, just as they continue to intermingle in our present culture. In a parallel fashion, the emergence of digital media does not suppress scribal and print forms but intensifies possibilities for intermedial relationships. Thus, the prayer survives through continued intermediation: for twenty-first-century readers, the most accessible means of reading this prayer, through EEBO, further augments the relationships of early modern media with a digital media interface. It is also important to note that even EEBO is a complicated instance of intermediation: this archive does not provide digital photographic reproductions of printed books but representations of the earlier technology of microfilm. Furthermore, these interconnected representations are, in turn, mediated through a web interface controlled by a gateway with a pay wall.

There's a lot here to think about, and I'm in the early stages of working out my thoughts on the issue. While doing so, I've also been wondering where other scholarship exists that similarly challenges crisis discourses and proposes new ways of thinking about shifts in text technologies. Certainly various pursuits in digital humanities contribute here, whether inherently or more explicitly (I've encountered some, but welcome suggestions). It is my hope that this little-known piece of early modern biblical appropriation will lead me to further considerations about the intermediation at work in everyday culture and intersections with how scholarship deals with it.


Steve Mentz said...

An excellent project! I too enjoyed Elaine T's post. Marginalia make good test cases to refashion melodramatic crisis narratives about print technology. Bill Sherman's *Used Books* is a great place to read more about this. Also the dust-up between Elizabethan Eisenstein & Adrian Johns, which is partly about shifting from an "agent of change" model to a "discursive" model. Eisenstein's has a very useful compilation of images of the printing press as "divine art / infernal machine* also. And the once-influential but pretty well debunked "stigma of print" is perhaps worth thinking about too.

Lots of DH stuff that's relevant too, of course. Trithemius's *In Praise of Scribes*, written in 1492 printed (!) 1494, is a rich source for the interpenetration of print and manuscript cultures. Finally -- if you're not biblio-exhausted yet! -- my first article, "Selling Sidney" (TEXT 13 2000) does some hashing about in the print/ms overlap.

bwhawk said...

Steve, thanks for these great thoughts. I agree about marginalia--they're a wonderful witness to continuities. I'll definitely check out some of the work you've mentioned. I am familiar with the Eisenstein/Johns debates, but the other references are helpful, too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these thoughts and pointers, Brandon. Somehow I'd never managed to classify longhand notes, of which I have shelves, as manuscript culture, I suppose possibly because with my execrable longhand they no longer constitute a means of communication but only a sort of encoded database. I also think print culture is surviving all right even in the online age, though what is not doing so well is existing models of academic publication. Even here, though there is a problem especially with bundled packages of electronic journals, people who edit their journals want them to be read. If the sense of the readership becomes that they cannot get at these journals, those editors will want to move them out of the packages and onto other bases of support. I confess that my personal worry here is that I don't see alternatives that don't require far more work of editors and contributors in terms of organising distribution and production, at the same time as we are also being expected to raise output and workloads all over in all other fields, but by now I don't think there will ever be a definable crisis of academic publication. There will be a slow and grudging shift to new modes of distribution and payment, the situation will probably be unsatisfactory to the point of near-sclerosis for a long time but never actually gum up because whenever it looks to have done so, people will then have reasons to do something else. Crisis in the humanities is, as we probably all know by now, something that the humanities is able to sustain for such a long time that we should probably stop calling it crisis.