Tenuous Links: Some Musings on Models & Media, Medieval & Modern

What follows is merely an extended musing – what else are blog posts for? 🙂

In full support of Rebecca’s suggestion for adopting a more model-based style of thinking, I’m interested in the possibility of teasing out the presence of proto-digital technologies in some of the medieval, non-codex (or extra-codex) texts we saw and handled today. Indeed, perhaps one possible facet within our 5-minute presentation could involve posing the question of whether (and, if so, how) medieval technologies/models for visualizing and representing information (text, image & otherwise) anticipate some of the unique features of digital media, especially those which either pose a threat to or embody a departure from the codex form. I’m not talking about direct parallels or influence here, as hardly needs to be said, but rather the tentative delineation of what could be called non-identical repetition of formal modalities. That is, models.

Consider the royal genealogical rotulus (vertical scroll), for instance, as a macro-version of the Facebook Timeline format (though predating it by approx. 530 years), which as we all know charts in a scrolling fashion the “lineage” of share-worthy events (with ‘marginal’ space for the activities and responses of preselected – and thus authorized – others). Perhaps more relevant, though, is giving attention to something like what digital scholars call metadata; just as the marginal commentary hovering and accreted around a ‘primary’ medieval text reflexively assists in the construction and supplementary authorization of that text as primary (that is, authoritative), so digitized metadata (biographical or bibliographical information which appears as a result of, say, hovering the mouse over a particular marked-up bit of text) reinforces the hierarchical relationship of “non-flatness” or depth between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ material. This is a depth with contours that also betray prior intentions on the part of editors & encoders, whether monastic or not.

Additionally, it is worth noting a positive resonance between the current push for data proliferation and interpretive accretion and medieval scholastic textual production, as opposed to the humanist ‘purifications’ of texts from unreliable readings about which Helene spoke today. And what of the larger issue brought up in yesterday’s class, that of the obsolescence of copyright in an age of digital crowd-sourcing and media commons? Can instructive comparisons be made between the death of copyright and a medieval notion of authorship, as described by Bonaventure, which includes various functions and individuals: scribes (programmers), compilers (editors), commentators (critics, experts), and proper authors?

Other admittedly far-fetched examples could include considering something like the archival manuscript fragments we looked at today, single shards abstracted from not only a more complete yet absent object-whole but also from a historical context that is itself only preserved in a fragment’s material traces. Or, perhaps more accurately (given that the aforesaid fragments were often ripped from their larger collections by later booksellers), MS compendia and excerpted passages compiled in florilegia and commonplace books; are these somehow conceptually akin to soundbites or other condensed forms of easily digestible & accessible morsels of information, whether streaming news headlines that, again, ‘scroll’ across the bottom of a TV screen (I know, TV, how archaic!), or even a Twitter/RSS feed?

The obvious difference between florilegia/MS compendia/commonplace books and something like a Twitter feed is, of course, not the fact that what gets included (which ‘auctors’ are you ‘following’?) is determined ahead of time by deliberate choice, but that our tweet-fragments are primarily about the latest or the most up-to-date information (especially at events like DHSI), and not really about what we best hope to preserve and access again, necessarily. So is the comparison moot? In any case, what cultural values are betrayed by comparing the content of medieval and contemporary “fragmentary media”? (Can you smell the medievalist behind these words?)

These are enthusiastic musings from a very amateur digital pre-humanist (do please respond and fine-tune or correct them) on possible comparisons between media across time, all to some degree contrived, but therefore hopefully useful or at least provocative as models. Unlike exegetical allegoria in factis or even Coleridgean symbols, digital models do not presume to participate in that reality which they represent. Or do they? This question entertained us well past quitting time today, as well it should. In any case, none of the above is to say that digital models aren’t material; they are, we can see them, which is their very purpose as prototypes for better envisioning and/or making other thing-systems. And they take up real room on a data farm somewhere, we shouldn’t forget.

So if these speculative and mostly experimental threads (like the red & green lines linking bastard relatives on that tenuous genealogy) from past media to present, from analog to digital, serve to spark further discussion, then I hope you’ll forgive the lack of methodological rigor undergirding it all. Placing ourselves in the middle of these issues, as we have so boldly been doing in the seminar, can sometimes be the best way of learning about them in ways that exceed our contemporary lenses and commitments, especially in a sub- or super-field as young as the digital humanities. Then again, ideology is dangerous, so considering those commitments – reading strategies, predilections for certain media, political allegiances – right up front must also take place.

But, at the end of it all, there’s fun to be had, and creative connections to be proffered, paradigms to be jostled, seminar(iums) in which to sow seeds. Noting that the word media and the word medieval share the same etymological root, for instance, is not a substantive point, but rather a point of departure for thinking mediation, past and present, digital and analog. Bruno Latour contends that “we have never been modern.” Can this also mean: “we have always been digital?” As one of our instructors, Erin Kelly, once said (while contending that she herself still carries a scroll in the form of an iPod), the digital is, at one level, simply that which requires the use of our digits. Even iPads – like manuscripts – need fingers.

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1 Response to Tenuous Links: Some Musings on Models & Media, Medieval & Modern

  1. Rebecca W. says:

    Great thoughts, Gaelan. I like the idea of highlighting the ways that the artifacts we have spent time with prefigure some of the modes of communication and expression that we use today–though I’m wary (as I think you are!) of matching them up too neatly, one-to-one. I think recognizing these connections and this continuity is really important. While our medium shapes how we communicate, and even what we communicate, there are ways in which humans have been trying to say the same things and organize the same kinds of information for centuries: putting events in chronological order and placing them on some map of time; building collections of quotes or “sound bytes,” etc. What fascinates me is that the desire to express these things doesn’t change, but technologies come and go that are good at one thing, but not good at other things (or not so good at other things).

    The codex made possible the kind of reference works/indexes that wouldn’t have been feasible on a scroll. And yet sometimes when I encounter a book that is dense with layer upon layer of cross reference and complex systems of notation, I have to think: this book doesn’t want to be a book. It wants to be a database.

    I suspect this will be a debate of its own–Erin started to take us here yesterday, I think, with the discussion of plates and printed text being separated from each other in early books: is this a workflow problem, or a meaningful choice?

    I would be really interested in seeking out in particular some examples of these conventions and structures of print/book culture that seem (to me) to “want” to be something else–places where it’s tempting to suggest we could easily solve some kind of problem, like putting text and image back next to each other, representing many-to-many relationships among bits of information in a database, etc., by re-imagining the work in a digital architecture, and try to think about what the meaningful differences are in making sense of this information by engagement with one medium or the other.

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