01 August 2010

An annotated catalog of conference ephemera, with promises and pictures

The long silence is due to traveling, from Digital Humanities 2010 in London, to Material Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, and finally to Rare Book School at UVA to get drilled in the principles of descriptive bibliography. I learned and experienced too much to share it all; so, instead, here are a few bulleted memories in no particular order. Inclusion does not imply especial significance; exclusion doesn't imply uninterest. Read it as a Sunday evening exercise in cataloging a few scattered moments from across a month.
  • On my panel at Material Cultures were two other speakers whose research is worth highlighting: Amit Ray, who is doing interesting work on Wikipedia as a new "tower of Babel" (anglocentric though it may be); and Lisa Otty, who's doing wonderful work on digital poetry and modernism. Lisa looked at examples of "unbound" distributed narratives like Shelley Jackson's Skin, arguing that -- far from being materially "unbound," simply because they lack the codex form -- these works actually bind together new forms of textual communities, temporally and geographically. I liked her play on "binding," and her sensitive approach to materiality across literary media.
  • Alan Galey's work proves exactly how book historians can help digital humanists, and digital humanists can help book historians -- or maybe how the one can successfully be the other, I'm not sure. But you already knew that.
  • John McVey's investigations into several copies of John Todd's nineteenth-century Index Rerum have me wanting to take up book collecting more seriously. Index rerums were tabulated notebooks (a kind of printed commonplace book) for recording quotes, poems, books read and places visited. They were usually prefaced with instructions on moral rectitude and right learning, framing the practice of notating one's life as a kind of individual growth. The examples John has collected, though, quite delightfully resist these structures, telling us much about identity and memory, manuscript and print, the "blanks" of the printed page, and in fact how much book culture we neglect by focusing on literature, poetry, or the notebooks of notables. Check out some images from the Indexes John's collected, along with an introduction to their uses.
    • Some of the most interesting work being done in "Digital Humanities" right now is by those who may not explicitly identify with the community at all. A good example is Nate Matias, whom I had the pleasure of grabbing coffee with in London. He's been going back to the basics of visualizing (and notating) alternative pathways through a narrative in ways very similar to what excited me about combinatorial literature. Another good example is James Ascher, whom I met in person at Rare Book School last week. As a librarian and scholar, he's been thinking about models of collaboration between those trained in information management, those skilled in programming, and those who can provide intellectual leadership -- and, more importantly, how these collaborations will shape how we safeguard and access our cultural heritage. If asked, both of these thinkers would agree, I imagine, to being called "digital humanists" (correct me if I'm wrong, guys!) but are approaching their work from such radically different angles, driven by different motivations, that in a sense it's odd to call them part of the same community.
    • I got the chance to visit Little Gidding, where Nicholas Ferrar founded a religious commune in the seventeenth-century, and where the cut-and-paste "harmonized" Bibles I've mentioned here before were made. Also famous for the T. S. Eliot poem. I don't have much to say about it, except I highly recommend literary nerds, cut-up freaks and obscure seventeenth-century commune aficionados all make the pilgrimage.
    • I want to know more about the history of descriptive bibliography. As a little "code," collational formulae seem like such a rich area for historical inquiry. How did they come about? Under what needs/conditions -- driven by what assumptions? And what's with all the condensing, when the difference between a "conservative" and a "liberal" formula is only a character or two? (Could this be an artifact of the paper card catalog?) If anyone has any reading recommendations, please, please send them my way!
    • I also want to know more about how new media have changed descriptive bibliography. I hear tell of a program that visualizes the gatherings of a book, identifying where different pieces of type show up in any given text. This sounds amazing to me. Anyone have any links to share?
    Smaller personal updates:
    • My piece "The Alphabet of Stars / This Fold of Lace," a reimagining of a Mallarm√© quote for screen, was shown as part of the Deus Ex Pagina project at this weekend's Printer's Ball in Chicago. Fuller post on the piece coming soon.
    • I'm back at work on Nehemiah Grew's Anatomy of Plants (1682), researching how seventeenth-century microscopy -- and the technology of the book -- changed the relationship between plants and animals. It's a complex project, but will see publication both in print and as a piece of creative digital criticism (the digital is supposed to support the print, I imagine, but it will be entirely reversed in my case). More on this to come, but, in the meantime, if anyone knows any solid work on Grew; the changing "book of nature" idea in the Royal Society; the arbor inversa trope; mandrake roots in early modern botanicals; or any other examples of "planimals" (plant-animal hybrids, shared spirits), please do share! I'd also love to hear if you're working in a similar area.
    • I started a wiki Whiki to record my notes on articles,books, classes, conferences, talks, etc. Right now, only I can edit it (for the obvious reasons -- this is my personal record when it comes time to study for exams or write), but I welcome suggestions on reading and encourage anyone else to use it as an open resource to augment their own studies.
    ..and two relatively recent works of fiction that I highly recommend:
    • Q, by Luther Blissett (a pseudonym; actually collaboratively written). About identity (or lack thereof), anarchy, the Reformation, radicalism and a world of infinite possibilities. Super smart, ridiculously thought-provoking, and includes an entire section on a recent interest of mine, the M√ľnster Rebellion of the 1530s, in which Anabaptists transformed an entire city into an anarcho-communist utopia (burning all bills of debt, making all property communal) before flipping it just as quickly into a horrifying theocracy, in which women were treated like cattle and dissidents beheaded. Q does amazing things rewriting the history -- replaying one of it's possibilities? -- of Anabaptism.
    • The People of Paper, by Salvador Plascencia. I've noticed Mark Sample pushing this book on Twitter a few times over the last few months and put it on my summer reading list. The first third had me interested, but not enthralled; then the metafictional section began, as characters stepped from the page as a way of proving how "paper" they are. It's a truly brilliant book about the materiality of the novel, about reading practices, about writing, and about, as Plascencia (a character in his own novel) puts it, "the commodification of sadness." Lovely for anyone with a deep interest in the structure and physicality of the book (or anyone else, really).
    More to say, but until then, I have to catch some sleep. To a productive, but relaxing, August --


    Rachel Lee said...

    love the whiki! i've been using googledocs to track exam lists, dissertation bibliographies, and notes -- never considered a wiki.

    re: book history recommendations: i haven't read or seen this, but i just heard about the 5 volume series from Ashgate, A History of the Book in the West. the publisher's blurb:

    The History of the Book in the West: A Library of Critical Essays

    Series Editor: Alexis Weedon, Research Institute for Media Art and Design, University of Bedfordshire, UK

    This five volume series provides a comprehensive resource of the most significant published essays on book history in the West starting with the codex and finishing in the 20th century. The editors have carefully selected the best literature from a wealth of relatively inaccessible sources and written substantial introductions which provide an overview of the period. The papers are reproduced in their entirety with their original page numbers to aid comprehensive research and accurate referencing. Together the volumes provide an essential compendium for students and scholars of book history.

    Whitney said...

    Hi Rachel! Thanks for the book tip. I've used/use Google docs too, but find it sluggish sometimes and am worried about long-term viability. I've lost so many notes using systems/software no longer updated! It's something we all should be talking about/sharing more.