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.