Tag Archives: text

CCR: Fixity, Preservation, and Circulation

Although a lot of the elements in the Eisenstein reading were interesting, for whatever reason, the opening sections on textual drift and preservation through multiplication–quantity of copies over quality–struck me, especially in regards to circulation.

As Eisenstein writes, “No manuscript, however useful as a reference guide, could be preserved for long without undergoing corruption by copyists, and even this sort of ‘preservation’ rested on the shifting demands of local √©lites and a fluctuating incidence of trained scribal labor” (113-14). Later on, she terms this corruption through copying “textual drift” and notes how “preservation could be achieved by using abundant supplies of paper rather than scarce and costly skin” (114). Here, then, the fixity of this preservation is not just its material longevity, which is achieved through multiple copies, but the precision of its copies. Each copy is more fixed and less idiosyncratic once the type gets set, reducing the “textual drift” of multiple hand copies.

I want to look at these ideas of drift and fixity.

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Reading without Principle

Along the banks of the Allegheny River on a tepid September day in 2009, a college freshman decided to read the complete works of Henry David Thoreau.

Needless to say, he never reached his goal.

Reading the entire corpus of an author is pretty difficult. Not only for the sheer volume it contains, but also for the access it requires, with some books relegated to expensive collections. It’s also a question of utility: Why read an entire author’s oeuvre, when you’ll probably forget most of it?

But in digital humanities, the use of technology allows a range of new practices–new “reading” and analysis–that makes this act a little more feasible. Franco Morretti’s “distant reading,” for example, can allow a scholar to sift through millions of texts, using different data-driven lenses to pry out patterns.

And while this ability to access large swaths of text is helpful in itself, technology can play with texts in other ways, highlighting certain words, collecting certain patterns, making visualizations. As Tanya Clemens points out, such methodologies “defamiliarize texts, making them unrecognizable in a way (putting them at a distance) that helps scholars identify features they might not otherwise have seen.” This defamiliarizing lies at the heart of literary scholarship, finding new ways to understand texts.

But for now, I want to get back to my freshman self, sitting on the riverbank, reading an old library book of Thoreau.

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