15 February 2009

Early Modern Commonplacing, Dada cut-ups, Digital Poetry and Information Overload

Dove back into my thesis today, and am actually excited about it again for the first time in weeks. Probably because I'm finishing up William Sherman's Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (2008), which is full of goodies. Sherman is great at dangling these juicy little tidbits of information that he recognizes are worth salivating over, but he himself doesn't take always the bait. Which of course (to continue mixing this disgusting metaphor) makes them ripe for the picking.

Like Sir Julius Caesar's commonplace-book, written into a printed template designed by John Foxe (of The Book of Martyrs fame). The template was arranged according to the ten Aristotelian predicaments [substance quantity quality relation activity passivity time place situation appearance] -- not uncommon, as Ann Moss shows in Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought (1996) -- and includes an index. In other words, it was kind of like a Trapper Keeper or those "college notebooks" that have printed subject headings, allowing its owner to organize his or her notes according pre-ordered categories.

Incidentally -- and here's where my thesis research comes in -- the ten Aristotelian categories were also the basis of many philosophical languages and of course ars combinatoria projects, providing a kind of touchstone from which to start the process of generating an infinite library of knowledge from a finite set of predicates. Umberto Eco parodies this brilliantly in his novel L'isola del giorno prima (The Island of the Day Before), in which one of the characters devises an Aristotelian Telescope, or a machine for generating metaphors. Through a kind of memory theatre / universal library combined with a Lullian wheel to automatically permute a set of variables, the telescope can create a metaphor for any concept.
The base consisted of a great chest or case whose front held eighty-one drawers -- nine horizontal rows by nine vertical, each row in both directions identified by a carved letter (BCDEFGHIK). On the top of the chest, to the left stood a lectern on which a great volume was placed, a manuscript with illuminated initials. To the right of the lectern were three concentric cylinders of decreasing length and increasing breadth (the shortest being the most capacious, designed to contain the two longer ones); a crank at one side could then, through inertia, make them turn, one inside the other, at different speeds according to their weight. Each cylinder had incised at its left margin the same nine letters that marked the drawers. One turn of the crank was enough to make the cylinders revolve independently of one another, and when they stopped, one could read triads of letters aligned at random, such as CBD, KFE, or BGH. (Eco 92)

Padre Emanuele turned his cylinders and searched through his drawers, fast as a conjuror, so the metaphors seemed to arise for him as if by enchantment, without anyone's noticing the mechanical gasping that produced them. (Eco 95)

I was thinking through the lens of the text-generating volvelles I'm exploring; but the practice of commonplacing provides yet another interesting angle from which to approach the structuring of data through a set of permutable variables. It also connects up with the practice of cutting up and re-combining texts to create new ones, as practiced not only by Thomas Jefferson, but even earlier by Nicholas Ferrar's Anglican community at Little Gidding during first half of the seventeenth century. As discussed by Sherman:
[The Ferrar community's] famous biblical 'concordances' or 'harmonies' formed an important part of their daily devotional routine. These exquisite volumes were composed by cutting several copies of the four Gospels into separate lines, phrases, and even single words, and then pasting them into a new order to form a unified, continuous story -- which was then illustrated with images gathered from various sources (some of which were, in fact, composed of parts of several prints cut up and rearranged to form a new whole). (Sherman 103-4)
Hello, Brion Gysin! William Burroughs! Tristan Tzara! Or should I say .. Yes? Hello? Yes? Hello. Yes? Hello. Yes? Hello!


(The cut-up technique applied to film; a collaboration by William Burroughs and Anthony Balch; full video and more at ubuweb.)

Surrealists, dadaists, lettrists, the Oulipo --they all used cut-up techniques to foster creativity and produce texts, even music and films (like the one above). Burroughs talks about it more here:



Now these practices are seen as the precursor of generative computing and digital poetry -- that is, as an early form of database-driven, user-generated work. But I love the thought of more deeply and meaningfully historicizing these practices, stretching back to the commonplace cut-ups of the early modern period. And earlier. On the surface, there probably isn't a lot in common between a crazy pomo heroine addict like Burroughs and a finicky, seemingly obsessive-compulsive English lawyer like Caesar living at the turn of the seventeenth century. But think about it: they both lived in increasingly mediated cultures; they both consumed a lot of media in and for their work; they both dealt with information overload. It's not so strange that they both (or rather both of their media cultures) would find their way the same strategy for traversing, consuming and digesting the glut of textual information they had to deal with on a daily basis. The printed book comes to us as a manufactured (and now industrialized) object; it seems only human to want to personalize it, customize it.

But that gets into a whole new body of literature. A whole new discipline, even.

Something else stuck with me about Caesar's commonplace book. Considering the cost of paper, it definitely seems -- as Sherman points out -- a risky undertaking for a printer to publish a book consisting largely of blank pages. And Foxe's template didn't seem to sell too well, although certainly Caesar uses his extensively (or perhaps expansively, remixing Foxe's template to suit his own purposes). But I'll admit to being a little puzzled by the practice. What kind of energy and dedication must it take to copy out long passages, compile detailed indices or link up cross-references across a mound of paper -- paper representing the entirety of lived reader's life?

Then I glanced up from my reading.


My desk at its current state. Surprisingly neat, for me! Four heavily annotated and hole-punched articles printed from databases searched through Google Scholar; two notebooks (one small and for my thesis, one large and blue and for a class I'm taking); one purple pen; two different kinds of post-its (the normal yellow kind, and some small green stickies for pasting into books); a stack of paging records from my trip to the Beinecke Library; a book with some stickies in it; a few binders in the background separated according to different philosophers; some books; a cell phone; and an old laptop. Um, opened to Gmail and Keynote, my favorite notetaking software. Oddly, with a hand-carved elephant from Cambodia holding it all together.

It looks systematic, but trust me, it isn't. I won't get into it, but my strategy for consuming texts is admittedly insane -- the product of a hyper-organized INTJ who thinks in networks. In any case, I'm thinking a commonplace book might be just what I need right now.

14 comments:

LMaruca said...

I just started reading your blog a couple months ago and really enjoy it. I love your desk picture as an example of the multi-media we engage as we compose. Coincidently (or zeitgeistly), I gave a talk on Thursday at the Computers and Writing Research Lab at UTexas called "Cyborg Writing 18c: An Unnatural History of Literacy" about educational technologies and the student body. I only bring this up because in one of my last paragraphs I make some recommendations to my audience about how to re-materialize writing.

"But I also want us to think about our physical environment of writing technologies—including, but stretching beyond, the screen. We write in three-dimensions, after all, and engage all our senses, not just sight, when doing so. Our scenes of composition are often richly layered and textured, encompassing such artifacts as post-it notes, penned legal pads, and underlined books, in addition to mobile devices or even an additional computer. We all know people who must have music to write or have to hold a pen in their hand in order to read. The manufacturers of Kindle know they are fighting with the strong associations with the felt sense of paper. Some writers are kinesthetic, and must pace, chew gum, or drum fingers to enable the flow of thoughts into writing; others require biochemical inducements and can only compose when caffeine, nicotine or Ritalin kick-starts the cerebellum. Any of these suggest that the relationship between mind, hands, keyboard and screen is just the beginning of what we need to learn about read-writing."

I wish I had had your picture for my PowerPoint!

Whitney said...

Ooo this sounds like a great talk! Thanks for sharing. Your description uncannily resembles my own desk...

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