History and Future of the Book: Digitial Medieval Textual Scholarship

The rapid evolution of digital medieval textual scholarship presents an interesting twist on some of the problems we’ve been considering this semester. I’ve mostly been thinking about the consequences of changing technology in terms of how it will affect ‘the book’—and thinking ‘the book’ as primary texts, basically—but the problem as it is seen by the articles we read for class today is different, concerned much more with the ways new technologies offer new ways of gathering and analyzing and presenting or communicating data about primary texts that are more or less static objects. I notice that in this discussion, the very approach to creating scholarly editions has undergone a wholesale change. Where a scholarly edition of a hundred years ago might have sought to include some information for the reader about variations in the texts, the aim of presentation was to provide the reader with a single, unified, authoritative text that the reader was supposed to trust was as close as possible to the text the author intended. Because of the way technology allows for a greater array of information, the editions these articles discuss aim to present all of the available information—but is there still a text? That is, based on the description of the Wife of Bath CD-ROM, it sounds like this edition allows a user to view all the different manuscript sources of information, along with providing the user with tons of information arrived at through the various analytical processes the article describes. It doesn’t sound like a person would use this CD-ROM if she wanted to just sit down and read the Wife of Bath, though. I don’t mean to imply that’s a weakness or something that’s missing from the CD-ROM. But you almost might not even say that the CD-ROM even has a ‘reader;’ it only has users. It seems almost certain that the development of technological analysis and presentation of medieval texts might lead to a point at which a person in this field could do all of her work with data gleaned from manuscripts without ever having any need to approach the text.

Not being in any way involved in medieval scholarship, I have to wonder what sorts of tensions and schisms this sort of work has created in the field. I remember as an undergraduate taking a class on Chaucer. Our professor was not extremely old, but I imagine he had earned his PhD in the late seventies or early eighties. His focus, the focus in the class, was entirely on trying to achieve an unmediated reading experience of Chaucer. He encouraged us to try to pick up as much Middle English as we could, because, he told us, there was something so profoundly moving about being able to speak Chaucer’s words aloud and understand them in Middle English. Unless my memory is exaggerating (or I might conflating some memories), I believe he told us of weeping the first time he read some of Canterbury Tales out loud with some of his grad school friends. It’s not that digital medieval textual scholarship necessarily precludes an experience like that, but it does indicate to me a rather fundamentally different set of goals about the purpose of scholarship.

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2 Responses to History and Future of the Book: Digitial Medieval Textual Scholarship

  1. djschwei says:

    I think you’re right in looking at it as a pretty fundamentally different approach to criticism, though I think it might also be on a continuum: the experience of unmediated experience hasn’t been a goal of most criticism, for many of my professors here who went to grad school in the seventies, for their entire careers (and, paradoxically, I would suggest that the ability to visualize texts/data in different ways might have actually been a big part in the resurgence of narrative theories). And it does call into question what/how we read (as Alex Reid frequently points out, when grad students are told to “read” something, it’s usually a loaded term in various ways, not the least because “reading” A Thousand Plateaus or The Second Sex in two week is not the same as how most of us would consider it outside of those circumstances).
    My other thought, tangentially, is along the same lines: I had an opportunity to interview Eileen Joy last week, who was stunningly articulate, about the intersection of her work (medieval lit and object oriented studies) and digital media. One of the things that was really interesting is how intersectional medieval criticism can be; one the one hand there are very “traditional” approaches; on the other, there are huge influences from ecocriticism, psychoanalytics, queer theory, etc.

  2. Kemael Johnson says:

    It is interesting how often this course overlaps with another course I am taking in which slow reading is the theme. I say that while considering the notion of text as utility in relation to the Wife of Bath CD-ROM and its “analytical processes.” The idea of approaching a text that way gives me this sense of having to negotiate distance, the way I do when I have to speed through a book while parsing it for whatever meanings I can find. With a slow read, I am better able to “be” with the text. There is still the presence of an analytical process, but it is less mechanical, or obtrusive. I don’t feel so much like I am wrapped in a surgical mask, wielding a scalpel and preparing to operate on the text. That feeling, the scalpel-wielding feeling that manages the comfortability (Microsoft auto-correct says “comfortability” is not really a word, but I’m sticking with it) of a text, would seem to be present in the influx of information provided to the reader as it frames the literary text.

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