We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Cyberspace & attics (& Library Thing too) · 8 April 06

Dear Harriet,

I thought I would interrupt Elinor’s stories about her experiences at Montreal with some thoughts I’ve picked up from the introductory essay to an anthology: Print, Manuscript & Performance: The Changing Relations of the Media in Early Modern England by Arthur F. Marotti and Michael D. Bristol. Marotti and Bristol argue that paradoxically the world of manuscript communication allows important freedoms to writer and reader within local communities, not least of which is the ability to write down one’s thoughts in free and independent ways precluded once you go to an editor or publisher whose interests mut be consulted. So the kinds of writing that can emerge in societies which respect manuscript communication can be freer than those in societies whose members read and respect only published books.

They point out that while print enables someone’s writing to reach a broad, heterogeneous, and (importantly) powerless unconnected readers, connected only in their ability to write, read, and buy the paper, to get your work into print meant you had to be part of a previously extant social hierarchy (no matter how minimally powerful or smallish this clique might be). Print therefore automatically conferred prestige on what was not excluded, and enabled the powerful to marginalize what could not get into print. Print became a centrifugal force which reinforced the imagined nation-state, and from the early modern period on (but especially from the mid-19th century when newspapers multiplied), published books were the products of, words an pictures manipulated on behalf of those controlling and profiting from its instruments.

For women the thought that what you are writing will only reach a very few people can be liberating. I think many bloggers, particularly the diarist types, write freely on blogs in way they wouldn’t in books because they assume only a few people will read them. The essay in Marotti and Bristol’s volume that I wanted to read especially is on Anne Halkett’s Memoirs and meditations, which she wrote because she depended on their not reaching anyone who could censure her for what was there while she was alive. Anne Finch left a play which exposes some of the private happenings at the court of James II just as it was dissolving: she prefaces it with a seemingly slightly hysterical demand to her potential reader not to publish the text, and especially not to mount it on a stage. I think these 17th century women and diarists and letter-writers of the 18th century and afterwards did hope their work would reach more than a few people, but they were able to write down what they did because they felt safe from print.

I realize this runs counter to all the just claims for progress that printed books rightly receive. But consider how different for women than for men is the experience of going out into what is labelled the public sphere? At the same time I am carrying on reading essays which deny that there can be any separation, and argue that the construct has been set into law in order to allow those controlling marriage (men) to do most of what they please (barring outright murder) within this "veiled" space. The two spheres are tightly interwoven—as we can see revealed here in cyberspace.

There is a fascinating parallelism between the experience of creating and reading manuscripts and creating and reading and reacting to cyberspace culture. I have pointed out one already: the idea that only a few will probably read what you write, and those not powerful people. Handwritten manuscripts are close to the world of orality, and with the handwriting and changeability (you can add on pages) and intimate nature of the contact, create a bond between readers and writer that feels like talk. We know that people in cyberspace refer to their writing as talk. Like blogs and emails and interactions on webrings and elsewhere, in manuscript dissemination the roles of readers felt fused. Maybe the reader couldn’t write back, but he or she felt close to the original writer and part of a participatory local milieu.

I’ll connect these parallels with the problem of understanding and valuing written communcation or texts. Now that I’ve begun to see how much of social and private (the same thing very often) is performative (even when not documented in a letter or email), I can see how the ubiquitous tendency to take the surface or literal statement as being true and having some particular meaning is such a problem in every communication.

On Library Thing this week, the owner offered a new feature where he said that all the members could see what books they shared with one or more other people. He pointed out that the Little Professor had been prompted by this device to list the 25 books she has in her library collection most shared by others. I said to Jim how interesting and why don’t we do this until he showed me that when we clicked "shared" in our catalogue because of the lack of disambiguation between items what is counted as the same is not the same. The word Rambler may bring together highly different choices of texts, introductions, very different books. We found in our first 50 books that "The third volume" by Jane Austen counted as an instance of Pride and Prejudice; a bad quarto of Hamlet as Hamlet. Something was very odd when we could discover only 3 other owners of King James Bibles and yet when we typed in Bible, we got 6500 people sharing "the book" with us, among which were people with guides on how to read the Bible, as well as many novels with the word "Bible" in them. Translations of books were counted as the same as the text in the original language.

The same problem made nonsense of the assertion that we own the same book as someone else because most or part of a title is exactly the same.

I thought of Primo Levi’s brilliant story, "Potassium" in his Periodic Table where he does an experiment by substituting sodium for potassium (after all they are so close, just about the same thing, no?), and ends up with a smashed set of equipment and no meaningful results whatsoever, from which he deduces the moral:

one must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing [the smash-out] would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch point; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effect. And not only the chemist’s trade.

I’ve had both frustrating & lucky experiences on Amazon marketplace because sellers there seem not to be able to describe accurately the objects they sell. I thought I was buying a "Books-on-Tape" edition of Ayala’s Angel, only to discover I had about a "Recorded Books" set of cassettes of the book. Utterly different readers; different text used. The seller really didn’t seem to understand that it matters who reads the book and what text I got, to say nothing of the binding and quality of the tapes. I did get my money back. I thought I was buying inexpensively an old 1934 edition of John Ruskin’s Praeterita (his moving autobiography written in late in life), and what arrived was a beautiful if previously-owned copy of the 2003 Everyman edition of the text, introduced by Tim Hilton and accompanied by another work by Ruskin, Dilecta.

Like Levi’s, such experiences apply to much more than concrete local vaguenesses in individual brains. Richard Feynman described Cargo Cult Science and Cargo Cult Learning as going through the outer motions of doing science and learning in order to get a certificate or salary. Witchdoctoring and pseudo- or corrupt and useless pretenses when it comes to adding to knowledge or helping people or increasing your understanding of anything. Levi makes us think of people who go through a cargo cult life. What does it matter who they marry if the person has such-and-such an income, can bring them such-and-such advantages. Anna Akhmatova learnt that when she married such an important Russian poet, she had damaged herself for life because others took that marriage as ever after defining her place and connecting her to a hot-headed stubborn semi-intelligent man.

I admit I still went as far as to count the first 25 distinct items in the catalogue I was said to share (I had to go through more than 50 to turn up 25). What struck me again was even if the books had the same central texts, how meaningless the exercise was. The book I own which had the most other owners is Pride and Prejudice (as is the case with the Little Professor). Well, so what? In my list I found books that could not be popular (Ulysses) and books I recognized as the ones my father and I, (Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Huckleberry Finn), and then my daughters (Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, The Stranger) were assigned in junior high and high school. Crime and Punishment was assigned in college. Others did dismay: Lolita (pornography in disguise). Some did cohere with those cited in typical "100" favorite books (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Lord of the Ring, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, 1984) and still others gave me the creeps (Lewis’s pernicious Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters). One young adult book: Pullman’s Golden Compass. Shakespeare (complete, together with Hamlet and the bad quarto) was No. 25. But the basis in any case was the idiosyncratic, serendipitious and particular nature of my collection and that of others.

Cyberspace returns us to some of the conditions of manuscript publication and both are plagued by the problem of understanding what is written down, of what is and is not a meaningful number, and what what one can infer from what we are told or read.

With my newly reinforced scepticism, I begin to see why the average person often does not value what is written goes beyond indifference to the intangible and imaginative, and paradoxically why many people do value thresholds for publication which include having what is written read by people with understanding and knowledge. I have by no means meant to depreciate the importance of printed books, vetting (the interaction, growth and challenge for the writer of facing an editor’s criticisms and reaching a large audience), and wide distribution in regions where the apparatus of those who run the state and control the military is not severely controlling.

Printed books have made me what I am today. But cyberspace enabled me to join in with them. And manuscripts (left in attics? desks? muniment rooms?) enabled early modern women to leave writings they could not otherwise have done. How important it is to try to make cyberspace more appealing, hospitable and usable for women.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Leslie R wrote:

    "Ellen, I just read your blog, and I had one comment on this passage:

    'There is a fascinating parallelism between the experience of creating and reading manuscripts and creating and reading and reacting to cyberspace culture. I have pointed out one already: the idea that only a few will probably read what you write, and those not powerful people.'

    I think in some respects the prestige of manuscript culture survived best among the powerful, those for whom publication was vulgar, making a gentleman's (or gentlewoman's) accomplishment a matter for the marketplace. Think of Rochester, almost none of whose work was published, whose work is known through manuscript copies of poems (hence the difficulty of attribution). The exclusivity that manuscript circulation offered gives it a certain elite appeal, doesn't it?


    To which I replied on ECW:

    "I forgot to mention another parallel: Consider the lack of vetting in both manuscript and cyberspace writing. In our period (later 17th through mid-18th century) the problem of attribution remains strong; it only changes when people begin to publish with false identities. In cyberspace people manufacture identities too.

    But there’s this difference, or contrariwise: writing in cyberspace detracts from one’s prestige. What appears in cyberspace is not exclusive; all you need is access to a computer and minimal know-how.

    Exclusion seems a central characteristic humans in their social maneuvring make signficant."

    chava    Apr 11, 5:21pm    #

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