A few weeks ago, I posted an entry on the reading habits of characters in novels and what I perceived as the unexpected absence of contemporary novels in other contemporary novels. Why hadn't Clarissa read Pamela, I queried; why hadn't Tom Jones read Joseph Andrews? Part of my dissertation is about the temporal organization of literature by genres (how do genres mediate other forms/modes/genres in such a way as to render them obsolete or contribute to their longevity), so I hope I'm appropriately obsessed with what would most simply be called intertextuality. I'm not particularly in interested in the meanings created by such references--if Derrida has taught me anything it's that there's no point chasing down the infinite (or the nothing)--I just want to know what's going on in terms of interpolated literary criticism. What gets noticed, what gets left out.

I have been "reading" Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, the shorter but even less interesting follow-up to Clarissa. The former aspires to even more encyclopedic heights than the latter; SGC's billion or so pages incorporate treatises on education, morality, philosophy, economics, ethics, courtship, and so on; there are whole sections recorded as dialogue, like you'd see in a play, and indeed at the there's a list of dramatis personae (called "Names of the Principal Persons" but I'm not fooled). There are plenty of references to other texts, both well-known and otherwise. The Battle of the Books and Tale of a Tub are mentioned early on; there's an excerpt from Young's Night Thoughts. A Bold Stroke for a Wife gets a mention; Locke is quoted several times. One letter even records a version of that wonderful old poem, "Dr. Fell":
I do not like thee Dr. Fell;
The reason why, I cannot tell--
But I don't like thee, Dr. Fell.
There's more at work here than just the usurpation of the commonplace book by the novel. Richardson is very insistent that all the parts are connected; the narrative systematizes, and literarure is part of the system. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Unsurprisingly, Richardson seems to be continuing his unspoken declaration of damnatio memoriae on the sort-of-novels of Behn, Manley, and Haywood. Though their content has been absorbed (amorous intrigue), it's been largely de-fanged and systematized--justified to the ways of Richardson, and no longer of kinship to its mothers (I shall be drawing out the point of the child being of no relation to its mother in the context of genre/generic inheritance when I get to Tristram Shandy). Thus far, Fielding's novels too are nowhere to be found as existing within the diegesis. Richardson, like a good megalomaniac (and not unlike an encyclopedist, I think--your Chambers, your Diderot), wants to define the whole genre and decide what counts as valuable or true and what doesn't.
So imagine my joy--my boundless, sad academic joy!--when I discover, entirely by accident, in the first letter of volume II, the following:
Lord G. appeared to advantage, as Sir Charles managed it, under the awful eye of Miss Grandison. Upon my word, Lucy, she makes very free with him. I whisper'd her, that she did--A very Miss Howe, said I.
To a very Mr. Hickman, re-whispered she. But here's the difference: I am not determined to have Lord G. Miss Howe yielded to her Mother's recommendation, and intended to marry Mr. Hickman, even when she used him worst.
Harriet (the author of the letter) and Lucy (her cousin and friend) have both read Clarissa. Unless I miss my guess--and I have a lot more skimming to do before I can say for sure--Clarissa will be the only novel mentioned in Sir Charles Grandison. What the significance of this is I am not prepared to say. I'm just pleased to have found it.


Go go Gadget book!

To the right, though it's too small to be viewed here, is the image that greeted me when I logged into Amazon.com today (click the pic for a full-size, readable image). It's a message from Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, the purpose of which is to plug their latest gadget: Kindle, "a wireless portable reading device with instant access to more than 90,000 books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers."

People have for the most part been rejecting electronic books and reading devices for years, and Bezos seems to know why. While Kindle would pay for itself after about approximately twenty books (figuring an average price of $20 per tome), most people I know would gladly continue to fork over the green (or its virtual equivalent) for the "real" thing--the real thing giving us some undefinable tactile experience that for all I know flips some sort of nostalgia switch in our brains or helps us to disconnect from a world all too cluttered with all too many things that beep or squawk at you when they need recharging. I for one like to nibble absentmindedly on the corners of my books, dog-ear their pages, and utterly ruin them for others with tea-stains, chocolate smudges, and obnoxious marginalia. If I should happen to want to throw the book at something, I am also reassured by the knowledge that it is the target rather than the book that will sustain the most damage in the transfer of energy. Can't go throwing $400 doohickeys about unless you're a celebrity or producer of some sort.

Bezos et al. have been working for three years on this latest attempt to lure us literary luddites away from the pleasures of pulp. He acknowledges the elegance of the physical book in an opening salvo that would have your average materialist pulling out his or her very real hair:

"The physical book is so elegant that the artifact itself disappears into the background. The paper, glue, ink and stitching that make up the book vanish, and what remains is the author's world."

I tend to sneer a bit more than I should at book historians who insist I need to sniff at two centuries' worth of dust and foxing in order to understanding a text, so for the most part I'm prepared to agree that once the act of reading has gotten underway I tend not to consider the binding. I don't think the artifact quite disappears, however, and in his heart of hearts I don't think Bezos does either. What he seems to suggest is the crucial element of the new gizmo is its realistic recreation of the appearance of paper. Not forgetting that reading is a visual business, and well aware that reading Clarissa on a screen would have us looking for even faster means of suicide than hanging, the authors of the Kindle product page write: "Revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper."

Looks and reads. I'm not quite sure how to parse that bit of ad-copy--can't quite figure out how you'd get something that looked like real paper but didn't "read" like it--but that's as may be. A Marshall McLuhan fan would definitely like the idea of throwing three years of development into recreating paper: the old technology definitely becomes the content of the new in this scenario. It would seem that in this case the decision is really driven by aesthetics in the pre-nineteenth-century sense of the term. There's something about our sensory interaction with ink and paper that can't be topped by any other graphic representation (perhaps if they can figure out how to "upload" content Matrix-style we'll give up the graphic).

As always, I'm thinking about archives, and it's interesting to me how technodetermined the archive is with a doodad like this one. I don't know how many "classics" of literature will be available; at the moment it seems that you can get any number of magazines and blogs, and almost anything from the NY Times bestseller list. So if you decide that Kindle is how you're going to consume literature, you're really letting the technology determine what you're going to have access to. It's like the "problem" with JSTOR I heard described at a recent job talk--users get the sense that if it's not available electronically, it's not worth reading or simply doesn't exist.

I don't think Kindle is going to have that kind of impact, of course--I'm just theorizing about what it represents in an abstract sense. I'm fairly certain that it's going to be literature's answer to the Segway. Toni Morrison and James Patterson are already shilling for it, if that means anything to you.

There's also something to be said about its offering the availability of a bazillion blogs, magazines, and newspapers as major selling points when no one has ever read blogs on anything but a screen, and when newspaper circulation keeps going down every quarter.

Would you buy one?


Have a Shandean Halloween, everybody!

Please carve the face of your ideal jack 'o lantern in the space provided.


No Novel Here.

Others who are smarter and better read will be better able to answer the following question:

Why hasn't Sofia Western read Pamela? or Clarissa?

And this question, too:

Why hasn't Clarissa read Pamela?

Maybe even this question:

Why hasn't Arabella read either?

Or this question:

Why hasn't Miss Betsy Thoughtless read any of 'em?

You might say that just because they don't mention them doesn't mean they haven't read them. I might respond that given their effect on the genre and their involvement in a very presentist discourse about the education and entertainment of young women, they're conspicuously absent. The novel as it came to prominence during the 1740s and 50s seems to be missing from the novels of the 1740s and 50s.

I am the first to admit that I haven't read nearly enough to make this assessment with any certainty. I can say that in what I have read, there seems to be no diegetic cross-referencing--no acknowledgment by characters or narrators of the presence of those novels that were trying to do away with the pernicious novels of Behn, Manley, and Haywood (in her 1720s incarnation). It occurs to me that Charlotte Lennox, whose The Female Quixote is specifically and explicitly about what should and should not be read, might have mentioned a contemporary title or two by name. Samuel Johnson thought highly of Lennox; he likewise thought highly of Richardson. Why not plug the latter or offer Clarissa up as an acceptable substitute for all those ridiculous romances buckling the shelves and warping the minds of anyone who comes into contact with them?

The novel, for all its formal realism and pretensions to representing a world sans fairies and dragons, seems to have left itself out of the world it purports to depict. Does anyone out there know offhand when Tom Jones or Clarissa shows up in the library or hands of another character in a novel?

I suppose that each of the novels I have mentioned here set out to redefine the genre, and would therefore not be served by giving free press to a competitor. Perhaps it's simply a function of sustainable fictiveness--it always makes me slightly uncomfortable when characters on TV talk about shows that they watch (I just saw a rerun of the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry is accused of watching Melrose Place and is caught out by a polygraph test). There's something very disconcerting about hearing that theme music within the text of another program. (That's right, I said text. Cut me some slack.)

Maybe it's about elevating the novel in the hierarchy of genres. Novelists are happy to talk about old novels, and they quote freely from plays, poems, sermons, essays, and so on. Interestingly enough, though, even when they do make a reference, it's rarely to a contemporary piece. Pope gets quoted a lot, of course, but by 1749 (Tom Jones) he'd been dead for a few years and in any case most of what gets quoted is from poetry he wrote before 1730. Milton makes his contributions. Dryden was quite popular with Haywood; so was Edmund Waller. All men, and all well and truly dead by 1750. It's possible that the unattributed snippets are contemporary, and there's at least one occasion in MBT when Haywood interpolates a ballad fresh from the street, but the fact that they're given no attribution by the narrator or editor suggests that wherever they came from (unless composed by the author), the weren't thought enough of to find their own ways to fame and fortune.

In any case, I wonder if there's something there about the novel being self-contained, whereas all else is contained by the novel. That'd put it on top as a function of its ability to yoke the rest to its purpose.

Still doesn't really explain why Sofia hasn't read Clarissa.


Gumming up the Works

In the September 24, 2007 issue of New York Magazine (which I typically thumb through while waiting for the kettle to boil or waiting for The Simpsons to come on), I came across a brief article that rather flipped my switch. Other dissertators I know have spoken of the eerie synchronicity that comes with deep involvement in a project--the sense that somehow everything is relevant, that everything everyone is talking about somehow relates to your own work. Those of you who know me well will know that I already thought everything was about me, dissertation notwithstanding. Nevertheless, even the most hardened amongst you will have to acknowledge the appropriateness of what follows.

Gum, apparently, is proliferating. I've been writing about organizational mechanisms arising subsequent to proliferation, and have even gone so far as to suggest that the rise of the novel is more intimately involved in this than has usually been stipulated. A reading audience with a taste for poems, plays, romances, epics, comedies, treatises, sermons, essays etc. can have their thirsts slaked by the super-enriched vitamin smoothie that the novel becomes over the course of the first half of the 18th century.

But back to the gum.

"It seems that new kinds of chewing gum proliferate daily," Ben Mathis-Lilley writes. "With bodega cash registers now besieged by both the classical brands and tortured-sounding variations thereon. We decided to determine the best of each genre--mint, fruit, and bubblegum--by doing a comprehensive taste test" (62).

If Fielding's comic epic in prose isn't a novelist's answer to Trident Minty Sweet Twist, I don't know what is. The "new" province of writing that he shaped into Tom Jones takes your classic brands (comedy, epic, mint) and combines them with new flavors (realism, moral ambiguity, Sweet Twist). But the point here is that as soon as there is proliferation, or the perception of proliferation (and I have to say I think it was "5" gum that put ME over the top), there follows a need or desire to establish a hierarchy of value. Some critic shows up to read/chew it all up and tell me what I can leave on the shelves with respect to book and gum alike. Wylie Dufresne and Alex Stupak, a chef-proprietor and pastry chef, inform me that in chew-wise the classics are actually the best. So your Iliad is Wrigley's Spearmint and your Margites (if we hadn't lost the thing) would undoubtedly be Bazooka Joe (valued by the critics here for its "classic" flavor).

Between them (both in flavor and on the actual magazine page) in the fruit category is Adams Sour Cherry, which I haven't tried, but which I am nonetheless confident would to an adept synaesthesiac taste like Tom Jones reads.

All other gums--and books--you can discard as being both literally and figuratively beneath your taste.


One Man's Trash

I had determined to begin my dissertation in earnest today, rather than blogging it a piece at a time in the hopes that each night some little Dissertation-Elves might come and cobble it together whilst I slept. I have written on encyclopedism, novels, Tristram Shandy, Clarissa, Tom Jones, and The Female Quixote; I have engaged Marshall McLuhan on generic mediation and considered the rise or emergence narratives of McKeon, Warner, Hunter, and Watt (for most of these I might as well just have read Reeve's Progress of Romance). I have noted that most leave Tristram out of their theorizations or give it little attention, despite the depth of that work's involvement in novelistic discourse. I have considered the roles of bastardry, inheritance, and gender in the generic formulation and posterity of the novel. And as soon as I opened Word to put virtual pen to paper, I fell subject to the Stooges Syndrome--everything trying to cram its way through the door at once, preventing anything getting through at all. All I have to do is everything; but where do you start a circle?

As if in sympathy with my state, Word began to crash. And crash, and crash, and crash. So while I wait for my computer to slog its way through a complete scan in search of a virus that probably isn't responsible, I thought I'd offer a note on the above--a picture of one volume of an incomplete set of the Complete Works of Charles Dickens that I rescued from the street this weekend. I have recovered fifteen volumes of at least twenty, and though as you can see they're mostly in a fairly sorry state I couldn't bear to see them hauled off to the dust-heap. The set is by Colonial Press, Inc., out of Clinton, Mass., and could be from sixty to more than a hundred years old. Colonial doesn't exist anymore, and their demise largely withered the town of Clinton, but the press was at one point one of the largest on the East Coast and was apparently the first to put the Warren Commission Report into public hands.

I am no Dickens scholar, whatever the MLA might reflect, and if I get a chance to read for pleasure again in my lifetime I'm not sure that Dickens will be the one to whom I look to fill the hours. I understand there were some interesting things written after 1900; I remain skeptical, but I think it might be worth investigating.

The question, then, is why did I bother to dedicate precious shelf-space to approximately 800 cubic inches of tattered Victorian literature that I might never get around to reading? I think it's both because I naturally (by which I mean inexplicably, as opposed to normally) like old books, and know that if I DO ever read them, I won't require the latest greatest aspiring-to-be-definitive editions. I won't require publishing histories, critical essays, or celebratory introductions. I'll just be able to go the shelf and pull down a nice piece of fiction unadulterated by my professional interests and undiminished by what here and there amounts to substantial foxing.

I think that sounds lovely.


Serving up a tasty Cavendish

Or, that's a fine how-to-ragoo!

I am, as ever, unable to resist doing that for which John Dennis would surely have condemned me. But Pope thought Dennis was a prat, so there's that.

In my futile but ongoing attempt to audit the encyclopedic texts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I came across a word with which I unabashedly admit I had hitherto been utterly unfamiliar. Eliza Haywood, in Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) -- a novel which like so many of its mid-century peers is thoroughly involved in encyclopedic discourse -- titles Chapter XVI of the second volume thus: "Is a kind of olio, a mixture of many things, all of them very much to the purpose, though less entertaining than some others."

As Christine Blouch's footnote tells us, an olio is "a hodgepodge of heterogeneous elements." The note is somewhat severally redundant; "hodgepodge" itself refers to a mixture of heterogeneous elements, so indeed the note in itself adds nothing to the chapter title by way of explanation. The interesting part occurs in the etymologies of both olio and hodgepodge. Each comes from the world of food---the former from Spain (ollo), the latter from French (hochepot). This discovery put me in mind of Henry Fielding, who offers up Tom Jones as a "ragoo" of human nature, seasoned with all "the affectation and vice which courts and cities can afford."

So the links between literary variegation and the culinary arts are several. Having left "olio" out of my ESTC searches of "dictionary," "encyclopedia," and the like, I decided to go round once more with "olio," and discovered (as many of you are already undoubtedly aware) that it is Margaret Cavendish who gives us the first recorded use of "olio" to mean a sort of miscellany, or collection of literary pieces. The OED confirms her The Worlds Olio of 1655 as the earliest instance.

Cavendish has in the last few years started to get the attention she deserves, but even Paper Bodies (2000), the excellent Broadview Cavendish reader only offers the preface, and unless one happened to read the thing cover-to-cover one would likely pass over the Olio in favor of the better-known and complete The Blazing World. The entire Olio is available through EEBO, and those of you interested in aesthetics (pre-Romantic), genre studies, or indeed almost any subject under the sun might want to take a look at Cavendish's quasi-encyclopedic treatment. The organization leaves a great deal to be desired in an ease-of-use way, to be sure, but I think through no fault of their own the good people at OED reinforce a mischaracterization of the text. Miscellany an olio may be, and certainly the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were full of magazine-miscellanies that didn't shy away from advertising themselves as "universal," "compleat," or what have you. But a World's Olio--that to me suggests the foundation of a system, the suggestion that these heterogeneous elements are only heterogeneous in presentation. They are meant to cohere, or at least reflect and reinforce the possibility of coherence. It's a far cry from the encyclopedias of the eighteenth, but I think if they listened closely they might hear Cavendish shouting.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Cavendish's first entries are on fame, and why men write books (a subject to which she gave some attention in The Blazing World. Books, she hopes, will be the paper bodies that extend her life beyond the death of flesh). Here are perhaps my favorite of her words on the subject:

"Fame makes a difference between man and Beast."

"Next, the being born to the glory of God, Man is born to produce a Fame by some particular acts to prove himself a man, unlesse we shall say there is no difference in Nature, between man and beast; For beasts when they are dead, the rest of the beasts retain not their memory from one posterity to another, as we can perceive, and we study the natures of Beasts, and their way so subtilly, as surely we should discover some-what: but the difference betwixt man and beast, to speak naturally, and onely according to her works without any Divine influence, is, that dead men live in living men, where beasts die without Record of beasts; So that those men that die in oblivion, are beasts by nature, for the rational Soul in man is a work of nature, as well as the body, and therefore ought to be taught by nature to be as industrious to get a Fame to live to after Ages, as the body to get food for present life, for as natures principles are created to produced some effects, so the Soul to produce Fame."

Heady stuff. Does this go in my introduction, or my chapter on encyclopedias?


Dissertation Envy

In the course of preparing for the jungle war that will be the dissertation process, I have come across a fair few examples of the sorts of projects others have done and are doing. They are all more appealing, well-organized, and better thought out than my own. Or so it would seem from the outside.

The structure I have seen for a dissertation and a good number of shorter critical works is thus: introduction, three to five chapters, conclusion, bibliography. Almost without exception, the chapters are 40-70 pages, and each deals with a single author or text. I recently read a dissertation on the "inheritance novel," which makes an argument for establishing that genre using Clarissa, Evelina, and Pride and Prejudice. Another I encountered follows tropes of failed lineal descent through Tale of a Tub, The Dunciad, and Tristram Shandy (these three texts are perhaps too frequently put together, but that's another matter). The pattern repeats in book-length works. Catherine Gallagher's Nobody's Stories has six chapters dedicated to Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, Delarivier Manley, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth. This, apparently, is how you write a book.

I am having difficulty duplicating this structure in my own work--narrowing down the focus, as it were. For the moment at least I've settled on a breakdown by genre: encyclopedias/dictionaries, poetry, periodicals, novels. I've got a neat little structure there that makes a great deal of sense to me in the abstract. The project is about generic organization of literature with respect to time, or how each genre negotiates its past, present, and future. Encyclopedias, as I will establish in the first chapter, began the century by collecting past knowledge and aspiring to completeness. It ended the century by morphing into a more progressive genre, unable to systematize fully the knowledge of all things and settling into a long life as a research tool. Rather than containing all knowledge, it became about producing more knowledge within disciplines. It's the Britannica I'm speaking of towards the end, and the first edition came out in 1768. The novel, I mean to suggest, underwent largely the same trajectory, so I shall close with Tristram Shandy, a full-on encyclopedic novel more deeply involved in novelistic tradition than is usually appreciated. The last volume of Shandy appeared in 1767, which closes the dissertation into a nice circle in terms of texts and time.

Haven't sorted out the middle, yet.

Encyclopedias are easy. There are a lot of them, but it's easy to talk about the Big Three: Chambers, Diderot, Britannica. Half of this chapter already exists in a term paper waiting to be reworked. Also, they're "closed" units with far fewer and better-defined generic conventions governing their operation. Despite the mind-boggling nature of their stated purpose--collecting and arranging all knowledge--they're quite simple things to think about. Novels, on the other hand, are ridiculously complex beasts, each the spawn of a bastard genre uncertain of its parentage and searching for literary legitimacy. Tristram Shandy is not just encyclopedic the way a novel is encyclopedic, by which I mean capable of containing and mediating and/or remediating all forms of writing. Other novels (Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Clarissa, The Female Quixote, Evelina, Miss Betsy Thoughtless, A Simple Story) traffic in encyclopedic terms, or at least the discourse of completeness, order, epistemological utility. This is intergeneric encyclopedism--a novel, in its post-taxonomic-free-for-all definition, gives you poems, songs, ballads, plays, letters, essays, treatises, sermons, romances, newspapers, magazines, epics, fables, true histories, amatory fiction, didacticism, and so on. They're recognizably present, though fundamentally altered in their synthesis by the novel's fictive status and formal realism. Chivalry isn't dead, it's just been burdened with jointures. Shandy of course takes this to extremes. It has the intergeneric encyclopedism of the novel even as it mocks the claims to characterological and epistemological completeness made so loudly by and by others on behalf of Clarissa, which despite its popularity and number of imitators actually threatened to kill the genre where it stood--a fact reflected, I think, though perhaps not intentionally, by the death of its heroine and the high probability of suicidal tendencies in any of its readers who thought story might count for as much as sentiment. Shandy also, however, has intrageneric encyclopedism. It brings together the entire history of the novel's "rise" by containing and (comically, satirically) abridging the principle concerns of half a century's imaginative prose.

If one wanted to know the history of the novel, one could practically do away with every novel but Tristram Shandy. This is course precisely what Chambers wanted with his Cyclopaedia--to render a great many other books unnecessary. The problem in novelism is that unless you've read a great amount of what Tristram contains and digests, however messily, you wouldn't know it was doing it. To a reader in Sterne's time, though--to an avid devourer of prose fiction--perhaps it was clearer. I certainly like to think it was, because the text is made much richer the more specific its references. The problem I keep running up against in approaching this chapter is how to talk about the nature of Tristram's problematic encyclopedism without becoming problematically encyclopedic myself. To write about Tristram Shandy is to write about a lot of eighteenth-century novels. I'm just not sure for how many or how much of them I have to account.

How do I write about a whole genre in fifty or sixty pages, even if I approach it through one book, when other, better, and smarter dissertators dedicate whole dissertations to single genres, and even then select only three or four works to support their examinations of a single theme?


The Medium is what, now?

I have read Understanding Media more than once. I consider myself bright--not a genius, certainly, in the solving a Rubik's Cube while blindfolded way--but I like to think I'm somewhere on the right side of the bell curve. Nevertheless, I do not fully understand the distinction, such as there is one, between technology and medium, to say nothing of the distinctions between medium, genre, format, and form. I hereby invite my betters to enlighten me with respect to all things McLuhan.
In the thin tissue of lies that my dissertation proposal is rapidly turning out to have in fact been all along, I wrote a line that has since become a bit of a sliver in my eye: "Following Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, 'old' literary forms became the contents of the 'new' organizational technology called 'the novel.' Rather than read an epic, a comedy, and a romance, for example, one could read Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, a 'comic epic-poem in prose.'
Statement of the obvious that it is, I have begun to wonder if I'm not grossly misapplying McLuhan's understanding of media to matters of genre. To allay this fear requires a better understanding of media than I have.

Certainly the novel as it came to be understood in the latter half of the eighteenth-century (at least according to Watt and his ilk)--a realistic middle-class prose narrative, to be reductive about it--behaves and/or causes the sort of behavior attributed to a new technology (I'll overlook for the moment the most obvious of these being "newness" to which the novel repeatedly laid claim). The new realistic novel mediates, as I suggested above, older forms, and as McLuhan says specifically a new medium will always have an old medium for its content. Writing is a new medium that has speech as its content; print is a new medium that has writing as its content. The novel contains (and by containing, changes) the romance, poetry, essays, letters, sermons, what have you. They are mediated by the novel at the same time they constitute it--which is where I run into the perilous form/content quagmire. Is it the content that makes the novel what it is? Or is it something else? Or is content AND something else? And if the novel is a medium having another medium as its content, then what do these other literary forms mediate? How is the romance a medium, when one could argue that it's print that constitutes the medium and content that makes the romance?

Certainly Dr. Johnson seems have fallen into what McLuhan calls the "somnambulism" of the content-worrier; it's the mixture of vice and virtue that bothers him about Tom Jones. To me that reads as a man concerned about a supposedly "neutral" tool fallen into the wrong hands, like General David Sarnoff claiming at the University of Notre Dame that the goodness or badness of a technological instrument depends on the use to which it's put (McLuhan 23). If guns shoot our enemies, they're good. If they shoot our enemies, they're bad. The gun in itself is neither. The novel is out there; Johnson simply wanted Richardson behind the trigger rather than Fielding. If novels present pure pictures of virtue a la Clarissa, they're good. If they portray moral ambiguity a la Tom Jones, they're bad. This interpretation of Johnson's statement could construe "the novel" as a technology used to represent and comprehend the real world. The bigger deal--the medium being the message part of this affair, as the rise-of-the-novel folk might tell you--is that it's the "real" world that's going to be represented, as opposed to some idealized nonsense with noble heroes, mustache-twirling villains, and perhaps the occasional dragon.

I am thinking specifically here of Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752), in which the female protagonist, Arabella, is both so comically and frustratingly addled with French romances that they utterly define her reality. The characters around here, with whom the readers are clearly meant to identify, are appropriately befuddled, bemused, or beleaguered by this epistemological and ontological aberration. In technological terms, and borrowing from the lexicon of a medium oft-cited by McLuhan, this could be construed as the difference between black-and-white versus color television. The medium is the same--television--but there's a critical technological development that permits more "realistic" portrayal of an image (setting aside considerations of cinematographic aesthetics, etc.--I'm just trying to draw out a distinction; the analogy breaks down a bit quickly). We are meant to snicker at Arabella, just as we frequently snicker at someone who refuses to live in the now--the "now," as it so often is, being technologically defined. Email, cellphone, computer instead of letter, landline, typewriter. Realistic novel (Female Quixote, Tom Jones, Clarissa) instead of romance. (My friends snicker at me because I still watch television the old way--that is, with commercials--because I don't have TiVo.) The realistic novel is a technological improvement over the romance so long as realism is defined as the desirable quality. It does a better job of representing the "real" world.*

Another way of phrasing the question might be to ask how "technology" can be broken up--are there subtechnologies, the way there are subgenres. Is genre itself a subtechnology? If genre is a way in which we organize information, and if organizing information is fundamental to the self, and if technology is an extension of the self, is not then genre a form of technology? If language is technology, as McLuhan says, and if language organizes (and perhaps restricts) thought (as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis very problematically suggests), then why shouldn't genre be thought of the same way, if our understanding and communication of information is at least in part and perhaps significantly determined by genre conventions? As it was with Arabella until she got some new tools?

Here's another question with respect to language and technology. Language, let us say, is a technology. That's the thing itself--language, the capacity, the organ, the phenomenon, however you think of it. What then, is French, or English, or Latin? Each has its own rules, permits or proscribes different constructions. It's not enough to say that English is a kind of language. Is format the appropriate term? A way to convert data to information for observation and interpretation? Should I be thinking of genre in terms of format, rather than technology?

*It's worth mentioning that there's reason to interpret Arabella's initial technogeneric (you should absolutely throw rotten vegetables at me for that not-long-for-this-world neologism) recalcitrance as ironic. Her memory for the romances she reads is beyond belief, and her deployment of romantic tropes is such that it may be (has to be?) Lennox satirizing via exaggeration the establishment's concern that this is precisely the effect romances and novel-reading would have on young women. If girls really went about thinking that romances were real, they wouldn't last terribly long because we'd lock them up as lunatics. Arabella is ridiculous; we know she's ridiculous, and that ridiculousness is Lennox telling men that whatever the dangers of bad novels and romances might be, women aren't that ridiculous because that kind of ridiculousness just isn't possible.


A Note on the Marbled Page

Many a critic has spent many a word interpreting the marbled page included in Vol. III, chap xxxvi of Tristam Shandy. Tristram himself calls it "the motley emblem" of his work, and dares the reader to attempt to decipher its meaning. We, being the suckers we are, happily stumble our way through as many readings as there are variations in the page (most of these hinge on the necessary uniqueness of each copy as a result of the impossibility of mass-producing identical marbled pages). And I'm not suggesting we should stop.

In thumbing my way through an ever-increasing pile of 18th century books, however, I noticed that many came with marbled pages when originally printed or reprinted later in the century. The have marbled board-pages, and/or end-pages, as is frequently mentioned the descriptions offered by antiquarian booksellers. I wonder, then, if most of the Shandean critics out there have been missing something by somewhat failing to adequately historicize the marbled page as a regular feature of contemporary bookmaking. I give full marks therefore to Janine Barchas, who reminds us in a parenthetical of from whence Sterne gets the idea (Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel, 16). Barchas, following Hunter, rightly notes that the marbled page is another deliberately misplaced book element with which contemporary readers would have been quite familiar. The meaning--or a meaning--of the marbled page therefore (as so often happen in TS) requires us to look out from the book in front of us to the entire field of printed literature. Sterne foregrounds the common element by moving it into the body of the text, thus transforming what might hitherto have passed as merely an aesthetic addition into a visual representation of the interpretive indeterminacy to which all books are subject. The device is not new--it's old, and it has simply been used in a new way.

I, of course, would say that the way it's used is after the fashion of an encyclopedia, a statement which way well be off the wall with respect to other novels in the period but which is substantially more appropriate to TS, with its Tristrapedia and almost aggressive generic appropriations. An encyclopedia attempts to explain all knowledge--or at least present it--but in order to do so that knowledge must be broken up and displayed in an artificial and arbitrary fashion. The perfect, unified field is out there for the viewing--we call it the world, the universe, whatever-- and it has its perfect author, God. And as easy at it is to experience the unity (be alive), it's awfully difficult to understand once you start to think about it. The novel, especially in a Tom Jones or Clarissa kind of way, seeks to duplicate or at least approximate that unity. Sterne's marbled page is another encyclopedized (awful neologism, that, I swear I'll never use it again) element strategically placed to demonstrate via its absurdity that the novel cannot duplicate nature because it cannot achieve universality. The universe (thanks largely to Newton's mechanics) works the same for everybody; the laws of gravity apply across all bodies. Novels, the marbled page reminds us, don't.


ESTC, you complete me.

What on earth, I wonder, took me so long to rediscover the English Short Title Catalogue? Where was my head? It's on-line, free for all to access, and allows the kind of data collection that simply could not be done in an old-timey off-line way. With it one of course runs the risk of becoming a bad statistician, and any conclusions drawn based on findings therein must be heavily qualified; that being said, some of the searches I've conducted have been highly suggestive if not conclusive. Here's a smattering of what I've done in the space of only a few hours:

Search terms: "complete" and "compleat". Exact phrase in title. Any language.

Years: # items
1601-1700: 938
1701-1710: 269
1711-1720: 313
1721-1730: 345
1731-1740: 407
1741-1750: 414
1751-1760: 424
1761-1770: 559
1771-1780: 683
1781-1790: 835
1791-1800: 872

1720: 23
1721: 23
1722: 31
1723: 20
1724: 37
1725: 48
1726: 39
1727: 32
1728: 35
1729: 35
1730: 59
1731: 25
1732: 48
1733: 33
1734: 36
1735: 40
1736: 43
1737: 37
1738: 50
1739: 48

Search term: "Dictionary." Exact phrase in title. Any language.


1701-1710: 84
1711-1720: 49
1721-1730: 73
1731-1740: 96
1741-1750: 103
1751-1760: 128
1761-1770: 147
1771-1780: 203
1781-1790: 182
1791-1800: 299

Search Term: "System." Exact word in title. Any language.


1601-1700: 36
1701-1710: 35
1711-1720: 63
1721-1730: 71
1731-1740: 89
1741-1750: 99
1751-1760: 128
1761-1770: 153
1771-1780: 232
1781-1790: 286
1791-1800: 445

(bold indicates largest year-over-year/decade-over-decade number--not %--increase, italics largest decrease)

These numbers will not be exact; though the word may occur in the title, unless one looks through each of them (and we all know what eighteenth-century titles are like--each is in itself near the length of a bible) one won't know precisely how the word is being used. For example, "complete" (or "compleat," which started off the century as the favored spelling but gradually lost ground--it's not until 1761-1770 that there are more "completes" than "compleats") generally refers to one or more of the following:
  1. A "complete" collection of an author's works or a bound volume of periodicals
  2. Complete as in everything-you-need-to-know; the "complete gardener," "farrier," "gamester," etc. Also in "complete system."
  3. Complete histories, whether of individuals, nations, events, or subjects, and often including letters, memoirs, declarations, public decrees, acts of government, etc. As in "A Compleat History of Magick," "A Compleat History of the late War in the Netherlands," etc.
  4. A work including some other complete tool, as in charts, indexes, etc.
  5. Complete as in perfect, or utmost, as in "complete happiness."
The first three are by far the most common, but indicate what to me seem very different qualities of completeness. None, moreover, necessarily guarantees anything of the sort. Setting aside the metaphysical quagmire of the fifth category, let us turn to the others. One could reasonably expect a "complete" collection of Ward's London Spy, for example, which ran for 18 months from 1698-1700, and which was published as an 18 part collection in 1703, to be complete. Nevertheless, the 2nd edition of the collection, published in 1704, is advertised as "much enlarg'd and corrected." Corrected, fine; but enlarged? With what, pray tell? Didn't I buy the complete one? The producers of the Compleat Gardener, likewise, might be happy to add 100 items to its list of herbs from one edition to the next. One might also choose to take issue with the idea that Edward Barnard's New, impartial and complete History of England (covering the period of "earliest authentic information" to 1790) occupies 718 pages in 2⁰, whereas Charles Ashburton's A new and complete History of England (from the first settlement of Brutus to the year 1793) takes up 946 pages, also in 2⁰. Is Ashburton's version of English history somehow 228 pages "more" complete? Some of this is obviously my own naivete; different historians will tell different histories, and perhaps simple word economy could buy one author a couple hundred pages. Seems to me, though, that one man's complete is another's unfinished.

What qualifies an index as complete, by the way, is totally beyond me.

So it would seem that "complete" in the 18th century is somewhat akin to our "All Natural!" Everyone wants it, but it might not mean anything. The numbers of titles including the term in what amounts to a marketing ploy, however, always go up, decade after decade, indicating that (as you'd expect) "completeness," however it was understood, remained a desirable characteristic throughout the century. It is also interesting that the largest jumps in such titles occur from 1760-1790; why then? What was going on in other genres? The epistolary novel, for example, saw a dramatic decline in new titles from 1771-1780, the same decade that saw one of the largest increases in dictionaries, systems, and those miscellaneous genres in which "completeness" could reasonably be advertised ("complete" frequently modified "dictionary" and "system" as well, though one perhaps incorrectly feels that "system" implies completeness--isn't an incomplete system a system that isn't a system?). Perhaps these are related; perhaps not.

What can we conclude, if anything, about the year-over-year changes from 1729-1733? All was holding steady until '29 (a year after Chambers' Cyclopaedia), then in 1730 we have something of a glut. Did booksellers respond by turning down titles over the next year? Did they then think they'd gone too far and respond by jacking up the number again?

I don't wish to fall into the Franco Moretti track of dubious quantification built largely on even more dubious generic classifications (a la Graphs, Maps, and Trees). Taxonomy in the arts, and particularly in the realm of eighteenth-century literature, always seems to end in tears; a picaresque isn't necessarily only a picaresque, and a novel in the later sense of the term could easily incorporate, interpolate, or sublimate what was once understood to be romance or indeed anything else (those of you familiar with my hobbyhorse will know that in my estimation the designation "novel" for much the period is dependent on this ability).

So if one is to use this sort of data, it has to be done carefully. The strange thing seems to me to be how compelling I find it--how willing I am to be convinced by a mere display of numbers. Mary Poovey tells me--or rather, A History of the Modern Fact tells me--that I owe this allegiance to numerical facticity largely to the same period that saw the emergence of the novel (I have ideas about that but they're for another time). There's something very sneaky about literary statistics. 445 items with "system" in the title, with probably just under 400 of them reflecting what I understand a system in the period to be. I run up here against the same old problem--with 445 to look through, in a single decade, and the inability to manage effectively the perhaps over 1000 distinct titles published throughout the century, how can I ever really be sure of what I'm seeing?

Soon--a bit more of the same on the romance and the novel...


Only the penitent man shall dissertate.

Bless me, Workblog, for I have sinned; it has been three months since my last entry.

These are my sins:
  1. I have failed to adequately explore the ramifications of proliferation on generic hierarchization
  2. I have failed to make absolutely the most of my time in the British Library
  3. I have raised my fist in anger against Michael McKeon (in absentia)
  4. I have lusted after Evelina, Miss Milner, two Matildas, one Melliora and an Arabella.
God grant me the serenity to find the texts that are material to my thesis, the courage to disregard the arguments that are specious, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Much more to follow; time to go round again. Once more unto the breach.


Nostradamus Goes to the Bookshop

My roommate has a subscription to New York Magazine. In last week's issue (June 4, 2007), following an article entitled "The Best Novels You've Never Read" and preceding one about talent emerging where no one is looking for it, is a one-pager called "The Future Canon." Obviously this piqued my interest a bit. The author, or reporter, or writer, or interviewer, or compiler, or whatever one is when one puts one of these things together apparently went about asking folks which contemporary novels and novelists would be taught in fifty years' time.

Let's pick this apart.

Horace, in the first century BC, writing about the veneration of the past, mockingly posited that one hundred years was the appropriate period a text should have to survive in order to pass the test of time. Pope, in the eighteenth century AD, followed suit. Johnson was aware of the standard, and likewise aware that Pope, like Horace, had scoffed at it. But quantification was all the rage in the later eighteenth, thanks very much Mr. Science, and as Trevor Ross notes in The Making of the English Literary Canon, that gave the number some measure of rhetorical if not practical force (274). Which is not to say Johnson gave it any credit.

I bring this up for no other reason than I found it interesting that fifty is the new hundred, at least according to this article. I quite wonder whether there would have been different answers for different periods. If Atonement, by Ian McEwan (fantastic book, by the way, and certainly very worth teaching), will still be taught in 2057, as Morris Dickstein of the Graduate Center asserts, will it have dropped out of favor by 2107? If the interviewer had said two hundred years instead of fifty, would James Shapiro at Columbia have given a name other than J. M. Coetzee's? (I've read Disgrace, but am otherwise unfamiliar.) My gut instinct tells me that these profs would have returned these titles and names regardless of time-frame. I suppose I can see the virtue in a half-century mark, though, as it doesn't seem unfathomably distant--rather like predicting the weather in a week as opposed to a month. There's timely and there's timeless, and the two can but don't have to overlap. It's easier to imagine what will be worth teaching to our grandchildren rather than our great-great-grandchildren, who rather than going to school and being taught literature will likely attend off-world mandatory education centers for maintained intellectual calibration in the name of the Supreme Galactic Imperator (a wholly owned subsidiary of Pharmapepsipetrolon Insurance Co.). But I seem to have digressed.

Fine, fine, let's call it fifty, then, and move on.

I have no way of knowing -- short of asking, which seems unlikely -- how many responses Lori Fradkin of New York Magazine received, and obviously the point of the article was to provide an array of texts rather than a scientifically conducted inquiry into academically-driven canon-formation, but if one did assume that she asked twelve people from twelve universities for exactly one response each, then THAT would be neat, because there's absolutely no consensus. I'd find the whole thing more convincing if five out of twelve had put their bets on the same book. Then fifty years from now we could look back and see who got it right, and if they got it right because they said they would. Let's start running the numbers on the self-fulfilling prophecy of canonicity! But as I said, that might have been the unheeded spirit of the article rather than its practical point, which is self-evidently to introduce a broader number of books to potential readers.

Another interesting thing at work here is the way the question is phrased. Ask what "canonical" means to an author in 1715 and you're approaching the problem from a very different angle than that taken by the article. Religious components aside, the "canon" for much of the eighteenth (to the extent the term was used at all, which is an open question) meant texts read, not texts taught. The first professorship in English Literature didn't come until 1828, though of course texts were "taught" before that. But Fradkin polled university-level profs, so that's what I'm sticking with. I wouldn't disagree that the "canon" now belongs more to academic than popular discourse, but you're asking a very different question when you ponder what will be taught in fifty years rather than what will be read. The argument here is, I guess, about what wouldn't be read without the advantage of being taught. Does Harry Potter need the academy's help to go the distance? What does it say about Andre Aciman (Diana Fuss of Princeton's choice) that he does? The teaching canon is about what those granted the authority to do so determine should be passed on and protected from Oblivion -- whether Oblivion wants it or not. And of course what Oblivion wants changes.

The important thing here is whether or not what of contemporary literature will be read and what will be taught in fifty years amount to the same thing. In fifty, maybe not; in one hundred, maybe. I don't quite know the period of independent discovery. What have I read from the 1940s and 50s that I didn't come by as the result of education? Going back another fifty or so, would I ever have "found" Conrad, Ford, or Joyce? Without the academy, would they have been there to be found?

Here, in case you are wondering, are some of the reasons presented supporting the selections:
  • According to Prof. Dickstein, "books largely survive because of the quality of their writing, and [Ian McEwan] writes beautifully." Now certainly I'd like to believe this is why books survive, and it has that lovely warm essentialist aesthetic feeling about it, but it seems to be an answer about reading rather than teaching. If beauty is all, or even most, of what it takes, then a beautifully written book wouldn't need people like me to shove it down anyone's throat by way of syllabus. And beauty remains problematically in the eye of the etc.
  • Diana Fuss offers (as with all the others, undoubtedly in oversimplifying extract courtesy of editorial mandate and/or spatial constraint) that Aciman's place in the future is guaranteed by his adeptness at capturing the nuances of human emotion. There's something pleasantly essentialist about this too--not that I think the nuances of human emotion are likely to change in fifty years (I very quietly don't think they've changed all that much in the last five thousand) , but Pope felt that enough had changed in manners if not in secret souls that Homer had to be substantially fiddled with to make him time-and-nation-appropriate. That's a much longer period than fifty years, but hey, in this age of half-hour news cycles and interwebbification, who knows.
  • Stephanie Li, of the University of Rochester, went the Wordsworthian route. She chose Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt, which I've never heard of and which in any case was "not reviewed very well." It will be taught in fifty years, she thinks, because it will take that long for the academy to find it again. If not ahead of its time, the novel is certainly not in its time, so it'll simply have to wait. Wordsworth wrote as much about his own poetry at the close of the eighteenth. Except, of course, rather than having a misplaced sense of humor like Whitehead, Wordsworth had none at all.
  • Andre Aciman, the adept nuance-capturer, chose Austerlitz. Aciman's reasoning is perhaps the most relevant to my line of inquiry. The survival of this novel, he claims, is attached to a generic shift yet to be undergone by Holocaust memoirs. Fifty years will make historical documents out of the memoirs and alter their place in the generic hierarchy. "The high literature," Aciman writes, "will migrate to books like Austerlitz." I would have thought Austerlitz would migrate to high literature out of whatever category it currently occupies, but what we have here is a potential flaw in my perspective. Is it the texts that define the category, or the category that defines the texts? Austerlitz will have been around for fifty years--so in that respect it will have been around longer than however high literature is synchronically constituted. High literature would therefore of necessity have to come to Austerlitz. But of course, Austerlitz will have been around for fifty years outside a diachronic category of high literature. So of necessity it would have to enter that category.
  • The best answer, or at least the most honest, is given by NYU's own Dean Catharine Stimpson, who after naming Jhumpa Lahiri and offering some notes in praise thereof, concludes thus: "if anybody thinks they know how canons are going to be formed, they are guilty of hubris bordering on stupidity."
I rather think she would not have approved my dissertation proposal.


Robo-Fezziwigs will kill us all

Because it cannot possibly have gotten enough press--no amount of press being sufficient--I have decided to call your attention to Dickens World, a theme park dedicated to the works and times of Charles Dickens. Open as of May 25, 2007, the complex is situated in Chatham, in which place young Charles spent the bulk of his youth. I will leave it to you to hunt out most of the details, but suffice to say it seems few if any of the 62 million pounds spent building the thing went to web design (I have many questions, but if any of them are Frequently Asked I'll never know because I inexplicably lack the authorization necessary to access that page. Someone is also operating an equally under-informative blog). The complex apparently comes complete with a boat ride, recreations of Victorian London, and the very latest in animatronics.

At any rate, I'm sure the Powers That Spend have thoroughly considered the commercial viability of such an enterprise, and I suppose it thrills me to hear that they expect 300,000 visitors per year. We poor Americans have neither an equivalent site nor, I imagine, a quite-equivalent author; I'm no nineteenth-century scholar, and I'm certainly no Americanist, but I shouldn't have to be either to figure out who a US counterpart might be. Poe, I might argue, has the most merchandise attached to his name and literary corpus--I don't think any other poet-prose writers can boast the homage of both a sports franchise and a spot on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's--but I imagine if we were to open any kind of public site of entertainment dedicated to his life and times it would have to be a well-stocked bar in the poorly-lit cellar of a crumbling sanitarium somewhere between New York and Baltimore. Hardly seems family-friendly. So--any suggestions? Who would you build an indoor theme-park for?

I'm having trouble figuring out precisely who these 300,000 people are. If they opened a Harry Potter theme park (they are), I could see it being thronged by millions. If they opened a Lord of the Rings park (they could) I'm sure it would do business as well. But Dickens? One supposes that Chatham needs revenue, and unfortunately for it, Shakespeare belongs to Stratford. Despite my love of a good boat ride and ever-present desire to see robots in period clothing go absolutely berserk in an enclosed space, I don't know that I'd find the hour it takes to get there from London and the four hours it takes to take it all in. And I consider myself a Dickens fan. I've read A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers, and Bleak House. I've even had an article published on Our Mutual Friend. So if I'm not going to go, who is?

People with children, you answer, and you must be correct. Not having any, and being of a singularly non-nurturing disposition, I take the wrong approach to this concept. Everyone loves the ghosts of Christmas Past through Yet-to-Come, and you needn't be halfway through a PhD to get a minor kick out of watching Marley rattle his chains. But is there really enough of a Dickens fan-base to make The Olde Curiosity Shoppe exhibit worth seeing? Or rather, as Dr. Johnson might have said, worth going to see? And does that fan-base come equipped with children of the right age? I suppose one might organize school-trips as well. In any case, as I said, I'm sure the planners and whatnot have sorted this all out. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical.

But the reason I decided to comment on this at all is because the attraction puts me in mind of a book I quite liked, and which I might like to recommend. I haven't read much of Julian Barnes' work (I'm waiting for a spell in which to read Foucault's Parrot), but if you are possessed of a cynical outlook and snarky sense of humor you could do worse than to read his England, England, which very broadly is about the reduction of all England to a theme-park attraction of itself located on the Isle of Wight.



First of all, many thanks to Alice for the free press. Her recent entry is the first (and possibly last) demonstration of the relevance of what I'm working on to someone who is neither me nor has been dead for more than two centuries. Generally speaking I prefer a late audience, as I, like so many others, am in the habit of taking by one's silence that he or she agrees; but, as the living go, she is absolutely aces.

Secondly, why have I titled this entry after an Australian rock band that will this very summer be celebrating its twentieth anniversary? For a number of reasons:
  1. I am following Alice's use of the word "excess" in her title
  2. The band has shown durability beyond both my hopes and expectations and done so in the cyclical fashion enjoyed by many the canonical text
  3. The name of said band gets at one of my hobbyhorses--it eliminates "excess" information: that is, a space between words, two "e's", a "c", and an "s".
  4. I am hopelessly ridiculous.
In reading Alice's post and learning of Gordon Bell's digitally archiving what anyone but the most dedicated voyeur, narcissist, or future anthropologist would likely discard as the excruciating minutiae of a life that had better turn out to be remarkable for more than having digitally archived what anyone but the most dedicated voyeur, narcissist, or future anthropologist...

I'll start again.

It's interesting that Bell is recording everything in a digital archive, as digital technology is precisely that upon which all the archivists whose works I've read suggest an archivist should not rely. It is not, to deploy what I have recently discovered is not "my" buzzword, durable. If you want a durable medium, you're still far better off with analogs--stone, metal, quality paper, etc. If you have anything that's important to you on a 5 1/4 floppy, you know what I'm talking about. I haven't read the Bell (and I don't mean to disparage his character at all; I agree with Alice that he's up to something terribly interesting), so I'm sure he's aware of this.

It does bring up an interesting part of the technology tradeoff, which until I'm better educated I'm going to think about in spatial and temporal terms. Scanning, photodocumenting, etc. -- anything that eliminates the middlemen of analog conservation processes -- enables closer-to-comprehensive documentation by saving both time and space. Space is the easy part. The problem with analog storage is of course that it takes up so much damn real estate. Bell can only do what he's doing because he doesn't have to buy a small moon on which to keep everything he wishes to preserve. As Gabriel Naudé lamented in the seventeenth century, comprehensive knowledge is impossible with respect to space because comprehensive data storage and therefore retrieval are impossible. Or, as comedian Steven Wright put it, "you can't have everything. Where would you put it?" The selection process of survival and canonicity, a librarian will tell you, or might have formerly told you, is driven as much by space as anything else. One wonders to what extent matters of taste came to prominence precisely because proliferation put space at a premium and demanded more stringent and nigh-on metaphysical standards of valuation. "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed" is nothing if not quantity reduced to quality. The best expression can stand in for (take the space of) the countless iterations of something clogging up everyone's brains and bookshelves. (The entry on "memory," included in the treatise on metaphysics in the first edition Encyclopedia Britannica (1768-1771) and culled -- in another space-saving gesture -- from John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding uses spatial metaphors such as "storehouse" and "repository" to describe the memory. We're hardly out of the habit.) Now, of course, all we have to do is define "best." Plenty of people around willing to do that.

So, the gizmodification of the world buys us space. The library without walls envisioned by frustrated Enlightenment types can finally exist; total storage and total retrieval are theoretically possible; we can put everything everywhere (of course, this doesn't mean that we can just get rid of the analog "originals." Book historians now weep over the countless manuscripts cast aside when their contents were brought out in print, and as this article suggests, space remains a huge problem. Also interesting and having to do with space, storage, and digital technology is this article).

Tech also buys you time, but the relationship of proliferation to time is a bit more complicated. The proliferation of print is indeed all about time--as Polydore Vergil wrote in 1499 (and as Thomas Langley translated half a century or so later): "one man may print more in one day, than many men in many years could write." You're going to run out of space one way or another, but with high rates of production and increased distribution you're going to run out of more space faster. So in that respect time is the primary concern, but the advantage of speed was one of the most highly praised with respect to the printing press. I'm guessing that it's similarly the temporal advantage of technology even more than the storage concern that makes Bell's project feasible. You certainly can't write to the moment, as Tristram Shandy laments (Fielding's take on this in Shamela is, by the way, one of my favorite things in literature), but with the right gadgets you could perhaps nearly digitize to the moment -- one man may scan more in a day, etc. This I think is the point of Twitter. Limiting the time it takes to make a record (twitter restricts you to 140 characters per message) makes it possible to make more records. As one friend tells me, you send these little missives "all day long." Assuming you can find the right medium between doing things and recording things done, you've got a much more detailed picture of a life to be viewed by you and your posterity at some point down the line.

Or do you? Do 100 140-character notes add up to one 1400-word document? If we don't know what you thought of that bottle of Romanee Conti the label of which you've scanned, or that you barely had space enough to tell us you drank, we might think the more important part of your history has been left out. How do we define ephemera? Dictionaries define it as referring to written or printed documents intended to have a brief lifetime (remarkable how long the concept of "life" has been wrapped up in that of writing. Writing doesn't just exist, or remain--it lives). Ephemera is something you read, and immediately discard. So are my friends' 140-character messages ephemera? What happens to them if I keep them, collect them, string them together, reconstitute them as some sort of narrative? Are they still ephemera? In choosing to record a life 140 characters at a time rather than burden yourself or your friends with "long" entries, could you end up producing an ephemeral 140,000 word document?

What's happened here is an important switch in perspective. So far I've been mostly writing about production. The other side of that coin is of course consumption, and it's on this side that the temporal and spatial advantages of technology meet the limitations of being human. Technology may have allowed you to record twenty years of minutiae and given you a convenient way of carrying it about, but it hasn't given me twenty extra years in which to review it. And if Monsieur Naudé had managed to secure, oh, let's say the entire Left Bank for his Master Library I'm not entirely sure how much time he'd have left to poke about in it. I've written about this problem before -- you can't read everything, and depending on why you're reading, it's possible that you oughtn't to read too much in the first place. Technology doesn't buy the consumer more time; rather, in the context of an increasing and increasingly available body of knowledge contained in print, it makes the same amount of time "worth" less. It's all perfectly well and good if a couple of friends want to send me or make otherwise available ten, twenty, thirty messages a day. I'll be very up-to-date. But if five friends do the same, one wonders if it will start being more trouble than it's worth. And if ten friends do the same, that gives me up to 300 X 140 characters, or 42,000 characters, to read per day. That's just under 30 double-spaced pages of notes. Thank God I'm antisocial. Even so, I can imagine that with much material, I would find myself making decisions about my friends that I would otherwise not have made. "Terribly sorry, old man, but I simply haven't time for any more friends than I can read on the subway. I'm afraid you shall either have to start doing more interesting things with your life, edit yourself down to a reasonable amount, or shove off."

I'm fairly certain that these were roughly the same options readers and/or booksellers gave authors in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Welcome my friends to the show that never ends.

So--on the production side, tech buys time and space. On the consumption side, it makes the process of selection ever more narrowing, and time matters more when space matters less. The only way to combat the time problem caused by proliferation in the absence of spacial inhibitors is a new line in research--a method of knowledge production that reduces time spent in consuming. Though this of course presumes that you're interesting in knowing everything. Or aspiring to knowing everything. Or deluding yourself into thinking you can aspire to know everything. But then, that's what Enlightenment is all about -- with one important distinction. Enlightenment was always about the future. All the mysteries would not be solved in a single lifetime. It would take an untold number to map the mind of the God through the close examination of his works. That meant handing things down, passing them along, securing some sort of continuity that would enable posterity to both understand and carry on the work.

This is why the encyclopedists -- Chambers, at least -- imagined the Cyclopaedia as that work with which humanity could start over if all other works were destroyed. Not start over in a complete sense, of course, but start over from where it left off: in the midst of Enlightenment. So, if you had to save one thing from a world on fire...

Hm. Speaking of proliferation and reduction, this entry has had too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Anything to avoid real work.


Damnatio Memoriae

Something has to stand in for the other side of immortality, and not surprisingly, the Romans had both a name and a plan for it. Obviously, eradicating every image on a coin, in a painting, or on a statue, and every name scratched onto papyrus or into stone requires some serious overtime and a fairly good idea of where you've left everything you want destroyed. We know (and when I say we I suppose I mean modernity) that when ordered it didn't quite have the desired effect. I imagine a certain degree of notoriety -- or prestige, depending on which side you're on -- must attach itself to being enough of a nuisance to warrant an emperor or senate trying to erase you from history. We certainly seem to remember the few who earned the distinction. I suspect the ordering authorities would lack the sense of humor required to appreciate the irony.

"Damnatio Memoriae" is therefore largely a symbolic gesture of a mangitude that has all but gone out of the universe. This is not to suggest that I would want to inhabit one wherein governmental bodies could still get away with ordering that sort of thing. It's terrifying fascist, calling to mind the Nazis with their book-burning and Orwell's vaporization of unpersons in 1984. Nevertheless, the Roman incarnation has an epic feel to it that for some odd reason appeals to me.

At any rate, my recent encounters with matters of posterity, durable storage media, and the digitization of the archive as a repetition of the manuscript-to-print transition that took place in Europe after Gutenberg got me thinking about what I'd call the pocket-veto version of Damnatio Memoriae. Choosing not to transfer, transmit, or maintain some part of the past is a passive act of damnation. I shy away from introducing the personal to this forum, but my recent photography recovery initiatives and a week's worth of spring cleaning and clutter consolidation have forced me to think fifty years down the line. I have chucked out a few bits and pieces this time around that I had held onto for years with the express intent of periodically revisiting. In discarding the odd keepsake I was very much aware of Damnatio Memoriae. Understanding that I could not rely on my memory to remember what I was throwing away, I began to wonder about what I had already forgotten. What of my own past did I banish from future recollection? Was there anything at all? To what extent is my memory really attached to material cues? To what extent will it be as I get older and there's more to remember (and/or forget)?

From the early years of print and on into the eighteenth century, philosophers, scholars, and other like curmudgeons fretted what they perceived as the deleterious effects of books on memory. Because I have been ruined by popular culture, I turn to movies for an example. From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

Henry Jones: I found the clues that will safely take us through, in the Chronicles of St. Anselm.
Indiana Jones: What are they?
Henry Jones: (silence)
Indiana Jones: Can't you remember?
Henry Jones: I wrote them down in my diary so I wouldn't have to remember.

Which line rather says it all. I am no cognitive scientist, so I don't know what effects writing and the print revolution really had on human memory capacities or operations. But it does seem to me that by not writing something down I am ultimately condemning it to oblivion. I am compulsive hoarder of correspondence, but no diarist, which will at some point in the future give me a very odd sense of a life defined by other people's sentiments. Already I have had noticed that by reading old letters my life seems longer, a phenomenon I hope will offer some comfort when little of it remains. It's all written down; I'll remember it later. One can see why "writing to the moment" perhaps meant something quite different for Sterne than it did for Richardson; the latter was providing "complete" documentary evidence; the former was trying to stall death.

Every time you throw out a postcard, a birthday missive, etc., you are effectively committing an act of Damnatio Memoriae, but rather than just obliterating someone else from the record you are also destroying a part of yourself in the eyes of the version of you yet to come. People burn photographs, throw away correspondence, return gifts at the end of relationships. In reordering my bookshelves I came across some junior-high era yearbooks, and flipping through them I found several photos of people along with their names marked over with black magic marker. Clearly, some of the old ceremoniousness has come down to us from antiquity. And it completely worked; I couldn't make out who they were, nor why I blacked them out. Though nearly twenty years on, I rather wish I could remember what had obviously been big enough a part of my life to warrant the treatment.

Each of us is to some extent our own posterity; we leave things behind at every age for rediscovery. Should you edit as you write, or not?


There's what we know, there's what we don't know...

~or, Sometimes you write your dissertation with the body of knowledge you have, not the body of knowledge you want.

I have started the real research phase of the dissertation, and I don't know about you but for me that means picking a secondary source almost at random and hoping it points me in the right direction. There are a series of questions I'd like answered, and at this point it's as though I'm just issuing subpoenas to everyone in the field of English literature in order to define the scope of the inquiry. I'm not entirely certain what's out there. So far, I've seen my buzzwords in quite a few places, but they're being deployed without, I think, careful attention, and no one I've yet read (SO early to say this with confidence) has yet referred to "durability" in quite the way I think they need to. This gives me hope.

First things first: if you're in this field, you should read David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery's The Book History Reader. The 2nd edition is available new in paperback for under $50. It's simply no longer reasonable to participate in literary studies without at least a smattering of book history. As always, I'm coming a bit late to the game, and while I've read a number of the works excerpted in the reader, I have also encountered a number of perspectives hitherto unfamiliar to me. As an eighteenth-century person, I've also gotten into the bad habit of undervaluing periods not my own, which has left me a bit ignorant regarding manuscript production and oral culture. This in turn has left me unable to appreciate fully the impact of print, which has in turn left me a blithering idiot. Thus do I blither on, but to a lesser extent for the survey this book provides.

I was struck today by what I'm calling the Myth of Knowledge until someone tells me what proper scholars call it. The shorthand for it is my frustration at not being able to know everything, and the suspicion that short of my possessing total knowledge, I'm really just making things up. In reading Elizabeth Eisenstein's important The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, I was uncomfortable with what I perceived as a number of abstractions and assessments supported by individual examples. I don't accuse her of shoddy scholarship--leagues and leagues from that; honestly, it's quite the book. But I began to wonder at what point it is -- how much knowledge we have to possess -- in order to draw a conclusion.

For example: say I'm writing about the usage of a particular term in a given period. The word "widget" is used in this context, in these genres, to mean this, applied to that, etc. In how many texts does it have to occur before I can fairly assess what was at work? If I find it in 1000 texts, and there are 10,0000 to look through, is that enough? What if there are 100,000 texts to search? As if I could ever look through that many? If I don't discover the term and what I think is a telling usage in 51% of extant works from the period, am I not fooling myself? And what happens when I discover the single example of a text in which the term is used in a way that does not come into general use for another century? Just because one guy thought about the same thing a bit differently than everyone else, to what extent is my argument unraveled? What is the value of the individual counterexample?

And here's another question, which stems from D. F. McKenzie's reading of the punctuation in the epigraph opening Congreve's authorized version of "The Way of the World" (1710). He compares it to a slight misquotation of the epigraph by Wimsatt and Beardsley in "The Intentional Fallacy." A comma here, a comma there, and you get a whole different interpretation. I'm reminded here of an episode of The West Wing, in which Toby discovers a potential typo in the U.S. Constitution. Could be a comma, could be a smudge; if a comma, a substantive difference results. If a smudge, a smudge. Now then. To understand Congreve, I have to understand his times, what it meant to write, what it meant to write as a dramatist, what it meant to bring out a version of your play in print or manuscript, and therefore what the differences between print and manuscript were, how those differences affected his position as author and playwright, and so on and so forth. One must historicize. What did it mean to "toil" in 1710? What connotations did the word "wrought" carry? And once I know that, can I even be certain that punctuation worked the same way in the early 18th century? McKenzie suggests that the commas isolate and emphasize a particular phrase. I think he's probably correct, and I don't mean to challenge him on this particular point. Rather, I'm using it as an example to demonstrate the impossible depth and breadth of knowledge required to understand what we might think of as the simplest thing about a text. Commas probably did serve the same function as they do now, though based on some of my students' writing, there's no reason to think that the use of the comma and other syntactical devices hasn't changed dramatically over the years. (Some of my students seem to just write a paper and then sprinkle punctuation marks over it like glitter. But that's for a different day.)

Texts, like people, emerge out of ridiculously complex systems that are scarcely understood in their own times much less hundreds or thousands of years later. If I don't fully comprehend everything that went in to the creation of a text, how can I make an argument about it that isn't some discrediting percentage of rubbish? I'm trying to recreate dinosaurs and I have to use frog DNA to fill in the gaps. We all know what happens when you do that. Raptors try to eat you.

Which brings me to yet another problem I've had with some of the criticism I've been reading. These very clever fellows go back and do the research and present pictures of the past that are utterly contradictory. That's fine, you say; that's the nature of the beast. Some people are going to claim that the printing press was better than scribal culture because it cut down on errors and texts didn't have to get more and more out of whack with every generation. Others are going to remind you that a shoddy printer who was in it for the money would have made things worse precisely because he could work faster without carefully checking his work. That's how you get your "Wicked Bible" of 1631. Sheesh, says the poor printer, you leave one "not" out of the seventh commandment, and everyone goes nuts. (The following lovely moment occurs in Walter Ong's contribution to the Book History Reader: a paragraph ends with, "The printing press simply represented a handy means of multiplying indispensable texts even more rapidly and accurately than was possible under the pecia system." Three sentences later, we get: "more than 2,000 copies of Aristotle's works have come down to us from the and 14th centuries" (151). Accuracy, ha!) But fair enough; different research turns out different results, that's no problem. What we're going to discover is that everything was far more complicated, that everything was going on at once, and that unless you do read everything you can you're going to leave out some nuance, some exception, some thing or other that would have given you "truth" at the expense of clarity.

And this is not to mention the somewhat disturbing tendency a few of these scholars have to treat what they have found in history as though it were available to those alive at the time. Did Pope have the understanding of literacy rates and manuscript v. print production that we have now? I sincerely doubt it. In order to better understand the system of literature at any given period, I should think we'd have to synthesize what was with what was perceived. To which side of the equation you give more weight depends, I suppose, on the sort of work you're trying to write. I scarcely understand how one can write anything that doesn't need to wrangle with both, particularly in the eighteenth century, which I associate with almost staggering self-awareness. There is a system; there are agents within it that can, at best, merely think they know that system. Mmm, dense!

I imagine that those outside the humanities must look at these problems and wonder what on earth we imagine to be the point of these tomes we write -- these theories we offer that can never amount to much more than hopeful essays and well-intentioned approximations. If we're not going to get at the thing as it is, I wonder if we shouldn't construct from the pieces of history whatever we think is useful to us now and for the futures we wish to design. Or more properly, because we already do this by default, why we shouldn't do it without hiding behind the skirts of science. I suppose, though, that that way lies a kind of fascism.

Or Enlightenment.

In thinking more about this, as I will, I think a large part of the question is weighing the benefits of sampling against those of an actual census. We're fine with polling data, too, but I don't think anyone would want an election decided by it. If you want real credibility you have to count the votes. Most of them, anyway.


Conversion Factors

Originally uploaded by Scriblerus.
I recently asked a professor of mine if she or indeed anyone else knew roughly what percentage of texts existing in manuscript form were brought out in print when the technology became available, or fiscally reasonable to use. She said that she did not, and that if anyone did, she was unaware of it, and that it seemed unlikely to her as no one really knows for sure what is out there in manuscript anyway. I'm interested in this for reasons related to my dissertation, of course--it seems to me that print technology might have blown a large hole in the future of manuscript texts by semi-permanently consigning them to obsolescence. If it doesn't come out in print when print is the proliferating technology, it must have been deemed unprofitable or unimportant (to the extent that those are separate categories).

This scenario has plenty of modern corollaries. My father has the Beatles' Rubber Soul on vinyl, cassette, CD, and mp3. If the powers that be had at some point decided not to "convert" the old version to the new technology, would it simply have vanished? Or just held out until the last of the record players failed for want of a qualified technician?

The digitization of the archive is the current iteration of this problematic. What gets scanned in v. what does not, or, if we've decided that we're going to go all the way with it, we still have to deal with the order in which things get scanned. If it ain't online RIGHT NOW, it might as well not exist, right? I'm not going to go get it, wherever the hell it is, assuming that it's even out there to be had, which we might not know for certain anyway. So what's the Rubber Soul of the literary past? Who exactly is making the decisions about what's important enough to make available now, versus what will be made available in a year, or two, or whenever they get around to it? Talk about your temporal hierarchization (which phrase, if not yet copyrighted, consider copyrighted). This was the subject of an article in the New York Times on March 11: "History, Digitized (and Abridged)." According to the Library of Congress, the article says, "perhaps only 10 percent of the 132 million objects held will be digitized in the foreseeable future" (sec 3, pg 8).

My dissertation buzzword appears in this article: "'It takes a special skill to select standalone collections that have a durable appeal in the marketplace of scholars," says Donald J. Waters, program officer for scholarly communication at the Mellon Foundation (emphasis mine). Durability here is a quality assigned to the material itself more than to the marketplace audience, which I think is a terribly interesting construction. Indeed, it's the one I'm writing about in the eighteenth century. The material and marketplace, of course, affect and define each other. So how does one define the marketplace in order to render what does the defining durable?

I bring this up today because I just spent a couple of hours sorting through old photos and selecting a few to digitize. In doing so, I think I experienced in miniature a taste of this process. I have a couple of thousand photos around here, culled down over the years from a few thousand more. They were good enough to keep; however, nowhere near that amount were worthy of conversion from analog to digital. A lot of factors went into the decision-making process. I was choosing largely for public access--to post them to flickr.com. Public consumption dictated a selection process based on however I arbitrarily defined "quality"--what would have a durable appeal to the marketplace. Then I had to consider how much memory space I have, how much time it would take, etc. I have done a photo-mining exercise before; several of the photos I scanned this time were set aside several times before. I'm not at all sure what determined why I ignored them before, or why I decided this time around that they were good enough to make the cut. Some were just awful: out of focus, bad composition, bad exposure. Other were quite good, but couldn't be posted for reasons of privacy; I don't like my face being splashed around cyberspace, and I presume several of my friends don't either. I have a few photos that I think are quite beautiful, taken in places and with people during events that profoundly affected my life; but they will not be digitized precisely because those moments are so utterly past as to be potentially problematic if allowed to resurface even before those who were principle participants. There is more than the mere record of my experiences to consider when choosing what parts of that record to present.

Obviously, this last section is personal, and not strictly like to that of the digitization of textual archives around the world. But, I am considering what would happen in the future, if nothing but the digital domain made it to posterity. As a scholar of a future age, I would assume that that which I have received in the most direct form was that which a prior age deemed most worth transmitting. Or, failing that assumption (which I imagine would make me a poor scholar), I would be frustrated by the knowledge that perhaps what was truly most important to the lives of those whom I am studying was specifically left out because it was most important.

Which brings me back to the archive, and the transfer of manuscript to print. And the transfer of manuscript and print to digital. And in fact, the transfer of orature to literature. In any case, all of this has been written about by much smarter people than me; I was simply struck today by my reliving a part of the experience with respect to my own little archive.