Early Modern Post

‘Studied for Action’: How do we do digital?

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Last Thursday saw our first day back at school, and there was real excitement at discussing CELL’s plans and projects for the year ahead. One project in particular elicited a murmur of curiosity and approval: in collaboration with Princeton University, CELL will create an online edition of sixteenth century polymath and prolific annotator Gabriel Harvey’s copy of Livy’s history of Rome.[1]

Harvey's marginalia in Livy

The volume is heavily inscribed with Harvey’s extensive marginalia, and yet has not received the critical attention it calls out for in large part because this very same annotation means that a standard print edition just cannot do it justice.[2] The scholarly article can only describe so much to the reader; the book itself is always at one remove.

But! The recent explosion in interactivity online, and the opportunities it holds for making a truly ‘dynamic edition’ possible, might just change all that. Anthony Grafton, Arnoud Visser, Lisa Jardine and Matt Symonds will be working out how best to do this, and in this process – and this is what gets me – be echoing a corresponding intellectual navigation traversed centuries before by Harvey and his contemporaries. Digital is the new print.

The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, with the sixteenth seeing up to a tenfold increase in the number of books churned from their bulky frames. Thus the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries saw an emergent book culture, as societies transformed around the accessibility of the written word. What we are living through is an emergent digital culture: similar negotiations to that of the Renaissance reader with their book are being made now on how we interact with and use this new media.

Take that delicious clue-holder of the early modern reading experience, marginalia, as an example. This is at root inscription by the reader in the margins of the printed text in a book. It might be to trial a pen or a new script, just to doodle, to note down a reminder or something much weightier, or to interact with, interpret or guide one through the contents of a text. All of these I saw recently on Wynken de Worde’s excellent blog on the marginalia in Caxton’s printing of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, amazingly including a deed of the transfer of land written into the blank space beneath the text.

This goes to show that early modern interaction with a text could be unlike what we might expect or do ourselves. We jot down notes on spare scraps of paper precisely because of their throwaway nature, rather than in the sacred leaves of a published book, whereas someone then might be more inclined to write in the nice white expanse in a large printed volume, because it ensures its permanence. Additionally, when paper is expensive and writing involves fetching ones materials (including your homemade ink), sharpening your quill, dipping, writing and sealing, the whole process is much lengthier and more involved than grabbing your nearest biro (even when it has inevitably run dry from being abandoned sans lid).

Manicule or hand-shaped pointer in the margin of a letter

This sees early modern readers navigating, trialling and creating different ways of using and interacting with the printed book, just as we are now navigating and creating a digital culture as it grows around us.

The speed with which technological advances become a ubiquitous part of our lives gives an air of normalcy to what is actually still very culturally new. It has become so easy, so user-friendly, to live much of our lives online, that discourse and philosophical questioning of the subject is lagging behind, occasionally sprinting to make up the distance with the odd breathless panic about privacy on facebook.

Social networking is the beast that is most exciting, fearsome and, despite this, omnipresent. Children and teenagers are increasingly ‘plugged-in’; growing up like this is radically new, and we wonder how it feels. Google+ has just been released to the public, a new strain of this online species of socialising site, and one with wide-reaching ambition. Perhaps it is the very thing that makes it exciting that makes for a sense of fear; the ambition feels global, the drive to connect and share everybody and everything takes no prisoners. This is ideology: the removal of privacy and so the risking of the individual for the sake of the collective.

We haven’t quite decided whether we should limit or love this connectedness. Is the fear that comes with such a muscular newcomer founded, or is it just that: fear of the new? It’s hard to imagine a world without the printing press, and even harder to imagine resistance, or even righteous hatred or real fear, at its stupendous promise.

There is risk here, there are challenges, but there are also opportunities for use not yet thought up. I mean this both in society at large, and in terms of academic work, and in the latter case (excitingly) for more than just accessibility; for active exploration of texts. There is much work to be done…


[1] T. Livius Patavini, Romane historiae principis, decades tres, cum dimidia (Basle, 1555).

[2] For an important exception, see: Lisa Jardine, A. T. Grafton, “Studied for action’: How Gabriel Harvey read his Livy’ , in Past and Present, Volume 129, p.3-51 (1990)

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2 thoughts on “‘Studied for Action’: How do we do digital?

  1. Speaking of new ways of interacting with digital technologies, I was looking at the website of a new company, Codasign, and the ambition of its creators (recently graduated phds) to spread the word about the underused potential of technology in art and music. They’re set up to do workshops and training to help artists and musicians use technology in exciting new ways in their work. It struck me that this is a great example of the importance of both creativity and education in being an active part of this emergent ‘digital culture’ I was talking about. It doesn’t just happen, we need to learn – and be taught – how to make good use of the options open to us in this digital world.
    Check out their gallery of past projects here: http://www.codasign.com/project-gallery

  2. Pingback: A Christmas Commonplace « Early Modern Post

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