“Books and/as New Media” Part I at Harvard University

On 14-15 May 2015, the first of twinned symposia, “Books and/as New Media,” was convened at Harvard University. Co-organized by Deidre Lynch (Professor of English, Harvard University) and Tom Mole (Director, Edinburgh Centre for the History of the Book), this symposium featured six leading scholars who traced articulations, re-imaginings, and redeployments of the book in the face of changing media ecologies.

The first day of the symposium attended closely to the page — of nineteenth-century books, of later eighteenth and early nineteenth-century almanacs, and of William Blake’s visual engagements with Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. In his paper, “Book Traces and the Technologies of Memory,” Andrew Stauffer (University of Virginia) brought the fruits of affect studies to bear on questions associated with the provenance of nineteenth-century books. For Stauffer, the traces of use in such books help to recover the waves of sentiment, longing, and the “rigorous nostalgia” that shaped reading practices in the nineteenth century and the “appropriative marking” of literary matter.

Likewise interested in the everyday use of books and their re-mediation, Lindsey Eckert (Georgia State University) took up the problem of provenance in relation to the popular and ephemeral genre of British almanacs (1750-1850). Drawing on the vocabulary of new media theory, Eckert posits that the marginalia in almanacs, as well as users’ propensity to cut out poetic verses from the texts (and perhaps insert these in scrapbooks), constitutes a kind of “hacking” – a creative engagement and even resistance to the “interface” developed by the publishers of almanacs.

Luisa Calé (Birkbeck) took the audience into the realm of nineteenth-century visual culture by exploring the complex dynamics that govern Blake’s successive illustrations for Young’s Night Thoughts. While at times faithful visual translations of Young’s text, at other stages in Blake’s composition process his illustrations become interventions in and even supplantings of Young’s narrative. Examining the archival afterlife of Blake’s illustrations, Calé suggests the ways in which the disbinding and rebinding within the museum space at once deracinate Blake’s images from their original contexts but also, perhaps, replicate his own working dynamic of redistributing and recombining illustrations.

On the second say of the symposium, the audience was urged to consider how the approaches of digital humanities might yield fresh understandings of the processes of reading. Taking Calé’s concerns with the disbound page into digital territory, Andrew Piper (McGill University) asked what happens when computationally generated topics are used to construct a history of topical and topological reading. Where Stauffer trained our attention on the intimate relationship between the book and its nineteenth-century reader, of his or her handling of the physical codex and its status as an emotional site, Piper came at the problem of spatial reading from a different vantage point, specifically, that topics themselves constitute spaces that one can inhabit.

Mark Algee-Hewitt (Stanford University) picked up one of the threads from the first day of the symposium — affect and the reading process — and investigated this according to the “digital turn” taken by the humanities. Using the tools of digital textual analysis, informed by the paradigms of social psychology, Algee-Hewitt tracked the phenomenon of narrative suspense. If suspense must be situated in the history of emotions, Algee-Hewitt’s paper also demonstrated that eighteenth-century media technologies (and their analysis using twenty-first century digital tools) shaped a complex “aesthetics of suspense.”

Jonathan Sachs (Concordia University) gave a provocatively titled paper, “Hating Books,” which helped the audience to think about the press of time in the late eighteenth century and the ways in which the increased literary output in the period gave rise to a negative emotional response to books. Sachs asked if there is a case to be made for a kind of information overload, historically specific to the late eighteenth century, and one that is tied to the sense of accelerated time, commercial dynamism, and general anxiety about being “modern.”

A lively roundtable, led by the co-organizers of the symposium, and which included all of the speakers, moved outward from the papers to consider such issues as whether there is such a thing as a “whole book” (or whether the book’s “breakability” is its defining feature). The necessity for each history of media or tracing of media ecology to include an explicit history of making was also discussed. Does the understanding of the book as a network of forces preclude or insist upon the formation of a digital ethics? Finally, the role of such mediating structures as libraries and museums, and a self-consciousness about past (and present) archival practices emerged as central to the investigation of books and/as new media.

Report from the Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh.

For more on Part I of the ‘Books and/as New Media’ symposium, check out the #booksnewmedia Storify.


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