Friday, September 28, 2007

Books on Trial

Shirley and Wayne Wiegand's new book is out - "Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland." Perhaps I will pick it up before the Banned Books Week is out but certainly this goes to the reading list for next semester. I would be interested in the reception of this book in the heartland today, as the book is being launched. A few days ago, the authors made an appearance in Kansas City Public Library.

Friday, February 09, 2007

How to Operate a Book

A twist on the material bibliography classic videotape, "How to Operate a Book" (Terry Belanger's Rare Book School educational video) that I have been showing to my classes on book history - a Youtube video in which two monks explain the technology of the book.

Unfortunately, a few months later (September 29, 2007) this video is no longer available on its original Youtube location at:

Thursday, October 05, 2006


My role as respondent in a panel on textbooks in the Education and the Culture of Print in Modern America conference (28-30 September, 2006) forced my mind into pleasant musings on the nature of textbooks as print culture, the world of textbooks as miscellanies, and as index of historical knowledge about knowledge. I find it liberating to think in free style about other scholars' research from the point of view of my own. A recent article published by two Indian linguists on chemistry textbooks, points to the dominant place of the speech act of definition in textbooks. I would like to think more about this. But now, to the panel and my response which I promised to post to two of its participants - Jean Ferguson Carr and Stephen L. Carr (both of the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh). The corpus of textbooks they work with is a digital archival collection, Nietz 19th Century Schoolbooks.

The title of the panel was, "But What Does It Say in Your Textbook?": Locating Education Through Textbook Editions" and here is the commentary I read and the questions I presented for discussion:

This research demonstrates the importance of studying practices of recirculation of texts:
  • A body of derivative textbooks provides an insight to interpretive frameworks of their creators who aimed to instruct and educate readers from peripheral cultures of instruction in the paper presented by Jean Ferguson Carr.
  • Bianca Falbo has shown how the idea of authorship is constructed through literacy practices at the point of recirculation of texts rather than in acts of self-disclosure of authors or the constructions of literary property through trade relations.
  • Stephen Carr demonstrated the importance of studying the formation of literary traditions within the context of the “vernacular and extra-literary projects.” He traces the emerging uses of the literary vernacular represented in a sampling of literary textbooks between the 1830s and 1850s, showing movement from low to high culture, from the vernacular realms to the literary profession.
In the papers presented here, the emergence of the cultures of circulation is connected to specific acts of writing and reading and to the specific archives of texts that can serve as interface to institutional process. Here, an archive is constituted from a range of literacy instructional materials – and from diverse educational contexts.

Extracted from a historical realm in which these papers contribute to the historiography of literary education of the long nineteenth century (shaped by the power dynamics of the industrialized societies and the focus on education, growth of literacy and the constitution of the market for books) these papers contribute to an understanding of meta-processes by which literacy and materiality of print are involved in the circulation of culture. This is the point I would like to highlight in this response. Therefore, instead of discussing each of these papers separately, I have decided to find a common thread by which to see how they fit in the recently published work that includes William St. Clair’s influential study of the political economy of reading, a recent thematic issue of Critical Inquiry – titled, The Arts of Transmission (2004), and 2006 thematic issue of the PMLA (Papers of the Modern Language Association) that explores the relevance of book history for literary studies. The work of scholars such as Joe Lowenstein, Jody Greene, and Paula McDowell - on the construction of authorship through the acts of print, inertial circulation of the romantic idea of authorship and the significance of studying vernacular literacy - can provide another context for locating this work within broader arguments of book history field today.

In that light, the common focus of this research is on the cultures of circulation as meta-context in which we can study print culture and literacy practices. Implicit in this work is what I call the methodology of the borderlands approach to highlight phenomena of the peripheral and hybrid nature in order to understand the processes at the center. This concept, although not new in literary study, should be revisited by historians of print as practitioners of literary history to study forms that challenge the dominant interpretations of print culture; such studies become tools for the critique of scholarly formations.

In a recently published edited collection of book history scholarship on print culture in Croatia, I have shown how one can use the borderlands concept to highlight phenomena outside of the hegemonic organization of the archive (as corpus) defined along literary formations that exclude the vernaculars and non-standard practices, and through the culture of periphery tell new tellings about the center.

This leads to focus on adaptativeness, on derivation rather than originality in order to contribute to an overall argument about the nature of literacy and reading. Anomalies that highlight the emergence of literacy forms and remediation are the primary source for such study. As a result, old arguments about canonical literacy and monolithic literary culture can be revisited in light of their relationship to power and dominant cultures. We have seen a model empirical approach for that agenda in the papers we heard today.

Circulation embedded in particular documentary practices (such as those revealed in the genre of textbooks and a range of instructional materials) are interpreted as an archive revealing new formations, as acts of becoming.

“Arts of Transmission” is the title of the thematic issue of Critical Inquiry (Autumn 2004). In the introduction to this volume - James Chandler, Arnold Davidson and Adrian Johns - chose to point to the productivity of translation. The meaning of transmission as conscious translation is inherent in the term which originates from Francis Bacon’s “ars tradendi,” closer to “arts of tradition” or “handing down to posterity” (p. 7). They explain: “Not exactly an original nor yet exactly an imposition, the phrase nicely exemplifies a point that Bacon himself was making in coining it: that what we know depends on the practices of communication by which the knowledge comes to us” (p. 7).

Deconstruction of such practices is the work of historiography of print culture. In my view, the papers presented at this panel contribute to an understanding of the processes of the “arts of tradition” at play and lead to critical understanding of the constructions and invention. Print culture research is the study of the objects of knowledge as they engage documentary practice.

At the end, I would like to present a series of questions, addressing one to each of the speakers (I distributed slips of paper with questions for each - I am so nerdy that I surprise myself!):

Question for Stephen Carr:

• The late 19th century is a key moment or rather a transformative period for the professional cultures because of its association with the emergence of the modern discipline of literary study. How are they institutionalized in the form of curricula and what is the status of curricular record as an archive for tracing that process, as opposed to the materials you highlighted here?

Question for Jane Carr:

• How are textbooks part of a larger context in which instructional culture is formed? How do they connect to audiences explicitly. How is this process revealed through evidence of self-reflection of the readers and teachers: how would further work on autobiographical genres and record of experience of literacy practices in personal realms proceed?

Question for Bianca Falbo:

• I was particularly interested in the circulation of the “moral” of the Ancient Mariner as an object of knowledge. This points to me that process of cultural selection is at play in any circulation of culture, and that the issue of inertial forces by which romantic assumptions about reading and writing then, and now (in the popular imagination at least), are preserving the trope of romantic literary property and authorship. Could you briefly comment on that?

The Place of Memory and Book History: Madison

Wisconsin Hoofer Sailing Club badger beginner tech on lake Monona (with a sight of Capitol).

Madison is sometimes called the Athens of America. For me, it is a very important place around which I organize the memories of my academic life. I attended my first book history conference in Madison in 1995 (Print Culture in a Diverse America) and have been there for 1999 SHARP annual conference. My first real academic job was at the library school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1999-2000. It was appropriate to go back there to mark this year's personal transition into the world of a tenured professor because it was the place where I started my journey as the barefoot scholar after getting my Ph.D. in 1999. So I decided to attend the 2006 conference organized by the Center for the Study of Print Culture to have an occasion to reflect on this whole process. Coincidentally, the library school was marking a Centennial of library education in Wisconsin at that time.

Badger Beginner Techs of
Wisconsin Hoofer Sailing Club lined up for a race. I learned to sail on these one-(wo)man boats on lake Mendota. The experience is meditative because it calls for concentration, strategy and intuition, while involving some physical effort and skill. The lake is like the metaphorical tea cup because even choppy waters don't seem dangerous for the lonely or reckless sailor. I have been towed together with my boat a few times out of the storm and helped get others out. The storms can happen quite quickly but that adds to the joy of the sport. The business of sailing itself is run in the open spirit of the place - in a participatory and accessible model.

More about the Education and the Culture of Print in Modern America conference (28-30 September, 2006) in the next post in which I also publish my response to the panel in which I participated as commentator.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What Did Post-Gutenberg Scholarship Invent? Or Lessons for Book Historians

Interior of the Folger Shakespeare Library, view from the stage.

The panel described in the last post prompts me to consider its implications for book history scholarship. I don't claim expertise in Gutenberg scholarship which I once sunk into for a full half year or so as I was co-teaching a course in the History of Books and Printing at the University of Toronto (as a Ph.D. student) with Patricia Fleming. That is when I got interested in the record of Gutenberg's life, and diffusion of technology and how this history is wired into the national histories of the book and cultural identities.

It is compelling to think about the implications of myth-blasting in general and this one in particular, although anyone who has done research understands that closure is rarely achieved in any serious historical pursuit. For me, it is about alternative histories at any point. And, because I approach technology from a social constructivist view, the history of discoveries and emergent technical frames are of particular interest to me.

As scholarly genre, the panel “What Did Gutenberg Invent? Computer Analysis of Typefonts” could be seen as a scientific demonstration in which Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas use visual justification for their argument. The audience witnesses this as an event which they understand for the most part but there is an element of trust (of the technique) and argument through common sense. And that is nothing unusual. (I personally would not mind to have seen a mathematical analysis behind the visualizations as well but perhaps that belongs in a written report.)

This research demonstrated reversibility of historical interpretation of a foundational myth for the origin of early modern print. If accepted, this finding will provide a starting point for reversing generalizations regarding moveable type and bring the re-definition of what the “invention” constituted in the first place. Based on the possible implications of this discovery, I have organized the possible re-articulations for a revisionist book history along three major themes—revised genealogies, topologies, and materialities of the book. In this framework we can see how formulation of new research questions can occur as well.

The historical construction of Gutenberg’s invention has created a genealogy of discourses around print technology, literally a discursive formation that has ossified historical trajectories constitutive of the national histories of print culture and a source of national prestige – I have wondered how does this discovery short-circuit such interpretations? In some of the silences around your findings but also the dialectics that they may produce in the future responses to these findings, we may see possibilities to reintegrate anomalous typographical phenomena but also for an emergence of new foundational myths and nonlinear chronology of diffusion.
More specifically, I wonder how these findings may lead to re-evaluation of the Laurens Koster story and his experimentation with moveable type that received some attention in literature over the time?

Redefinition of moveable type as a technological artefact (from punches to tools, as Ann Blair stated in her introduction of the second day of the confrence) will bring about a need to reconstruct the spatial networks of diffusion of innovation, and produce novel mappings of the early print trade, but can also bring about a reorganization of core and periphery. Say, if Vienna were to assume a more central role, what would that mean in terms of East-West geography of the history of European early modern print.

The discourse of technology of early printing fits within an ongoing dialogue around the materiality of texts. I have seen your discovery compared to the transformation of the field of textual bibliography compared to research contribution of findings about textual variation were possible by means of collating machines (Hinman collator). The new “paleography of print” can emerge as an ancillary discipline that adds dimensionality to visual analysis produce new classifications of type. But, this belongs to the future. At this point, generalizations will be possible by means of a laborious process initiated by Paul Needham and Blaise Agueira y Arcas.

Self-reflexivity themes with which I introduced this panel, calls to reflect on the boundary of print and electronic as technologies of textual production. This boundary, as we have seen in many writings since the early 1990s, have intensified the meaning of each. And, that intensity can be seen in the elegiac pronouncements by Sven Birkerts and the retractors, as well as the champions of electronic text. But also, this can be seen in the current preoccupation with material history among book historians. Some scholars refer to this as New Materiality.

The lesson that I see for book historians is that an increased awareness of material conditions of production with the emergence of electronic text also calls for interdisciplinarity in which technologists and humanists combine perspectives for new understandings of the multidisciplinary field of book history.

Monday, March 13, 2006

What Did Gutenberg Invent? Typography in 3-D

Just returned from the conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Further Transactions of the Book (March 9-11).

Interior of the Folger Shakespeare Library, view of the stage.

I introduced the first panel of the conference – “What Did Gutenberg Invent? Computer Analysis of Typefonts” which turned out to be one of those conference events that one remembers. A good synergy of reasoning and play. The audience will certainly remember its immersion into the academic argument about 15th century technology by means of stereoscopic glasses .
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The panel featured Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas (two Princeton researchers) who presented their ground-breaking discovery (from 2001) about the technology of the production of the earliest printed books. According to them, "Gutenberg may have used an earlier technology that involves casting letters in molds of sand," not punches as the conventional interpretation has it. This discovery will definitely reshape how we think about the diffusion of print technology and the adoption of conventional moveable type. Their discovery has been subject of a recent BBC Open University documentary, Renaissance Secrets: What Did Gutenberg Invent?.

For me, this was exciting because I like to think about emergent technologies and about the social realms within which they get shaped into stories (and histories). This will have all kinds of implications in debunking various foundational myths if researchers continue to pursue this by means of publications and formal argument. The presentation was breath-taking and ran over time there wasn't any discussion so I think I will continue to post my musings in this blog, to make up for that.

In the introduction to the panel, I made a reference to 2003 essay on the history of European technology (and the relationship of perspective and print - Alberti and Gutenberg) by Friedrich Kittler. He quotes Hegel at the end of his article, stating that the end of art can only emerge from art itself. Apart from its informational content, self-reflexivity seemed key for this panel, as a technology of the past is re-connected to the future through visualization tool of the 1950s that was integral to understanding the connection. The whole idea of visual analysis at the basis of the computational method that Blaise has devised, and the central role of the visual in relation to print in general, seemed to provide an ironic connection of past and present. So, the subject, the object, and the method of the panel was technology. It seemed appropriate to use Hegel's statement (via Kittler) about art to say that the end of a constitutive myth of technology (or at least its re-interpretation) can itself emerge only from technology.

Another ironic connection is related to the audience (and here is where carnivalesque enters this story ) because tridimensional glasses were needed to fully understand the dimensionality of early type font. This audience participation reminded me of Boyle's air pump experiments, and at the same time recognizing Donna Haraway's trope of scientific argument in "modest witness." Far-fetched, cryptic? Well, I see connection in the recognition of conflation of the perspectives of print and visual, its connection to science and its relationship to visual argumentation (witnessing), and the general framework in which we see post-Enlightenment processes. I am also reminded at how much the nature evidence in print culture scholarship (materiality of texts) is tied to visual analysis.

So what is the invention about? For me, it is about place-value in which spatial geometry of Gutenberg's print technology is primary for an as understanding of what the innovation was all about, perhaps even more than how the type was made (of course that is important in connecting the innovation to its historical context). That is what Kittler attempts to highlight in his discussion of print and perspective. In the next post, I present a view of the implications for book history.

More about discovery at:

Donna Haraway's Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ (New York: Routledge, 1997) at:

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Information Passion

On the Blog-Text: There is an uncanny quality to blogs because they are autobiographical and ego-driven, public and performative but also personal; paratextual and textual; aggregative and annotational; at the same time they can figure as diaries, histories, annals, memoirs, annotations, trails ... all of that? I guess I will have to figure out on my own how to write in blog mode.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

ex nihilo

While deciding on a name for this blog, I was tempted to connect it to my past, such as using my mother's name Vida (I like its brevity and association to life.) Using a name that explores my perception of the genre itself would be another option: referring to fluid records floating in an ethereal space of the Internet - associated to Victor Segalen's Stellae because blog posts are like petrified text events. Or, something that captures the unconscious in language like Klimt's Watersnakes. A reference to the peripathetic nature of the posts, like The Arcades flashed through my mind. But here I am using a heroic language of science - partly in irony partly in earnest. Eppur Si Muove exemplifies a belief in the process by which truth finds its way in the artefacts of knowledge (under erasure, of course).