The echoes of cyberspace

A fascinating draft article by Newton Key on the ‘early modern blogosphere‘ draws some interesting comparisons between the dissemination, discussion, and reading of material in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the way we use cyberspace today. As the third paragraph of the draft paper notes, the early modern blogosphere – Anglophone blogging about the early modern period, chiefly by historians – ‘follows the early modern process—what Dror Wahrman has called Print 2.0—of constant summarizing, cribbing, even cut-and-pasting from one source and one context into another’.

The blog Mercurius Politicus took up the idea of the ‘early modern blogosphere’, but expressed the possibility that these connections could be incidental, ‘a by-product of similarities between blogs and early modern media‘, especially given the materiality of much early modern ‘animadversion, annotation and text-sharing’. The post also queries the notion that digital sources might be ‘somehow more permanent than material ones’, noting that ‘bloggers stop blogging, sites get closed down or pulled, and they aren’t always preserved at the Internet Archive or elsewhere’.

Certainly, it seems social media similarities exist between the modern blogosphere and the information sharing of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but I can’t help but feel that materiality is central to early modern textual culture – especially to certain forms of dissemination, collecting, and re-printing. Indeed, a number of recent articles have stressed the ‘graspability’ of the book, something symbolically articulated by the popularity of the manicule as a reading and noting device. When Lavinia loses her hands in Titus Andronicus, it is not only a gory re-working of classical myth, but a form of un-writing, erasing the textual information that announced Tereus’s rape of Philomel: ‘Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so / An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe’ (II.iv.3-4). No hands, no text; Lavinia is forced to find another way of textually inscribing meaning, of evidencing her trauma, one that ironically fulfils Demetrius’s dark and sardonic jest: ‘See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl’ (II.iv.5).

Leah Marcus’s absorbing essay in The Renaissance Computer supports Newton Key’s suggestion that, in both worlds, textual networks involve ‘copying and transcribing the work of others’. As Marcus notes, ‘in actual practice, the computer encourages users to fragment long texts into manageable units, much as scholars in the middle ages and early Renaissance tended to break down long texts into memorable sententiae and entries in commonplace books’ (‘The Silence of the Archive and the Noise of Cyberspace’, TRC London 2000, 23). Yet, sententiae and commonplace books are often dependent on their material form.

Thomas Heywood’s published commonplace book Pleasant Dialogues and Drammas (London, 1637) is conventionally dismissive of the wealth of disjointed quotations and emblems in his text. It is only as a physical book that it appears to gain status, because patrons value ‘bookes as your best Lapidaries praise jewels’. By confining the mess of half-connected quotations, sayings, and dialogues of his reading within the stitched pages of a book it becomes ‘a small Cabinet of many and choyse’ (A3r). Private reading is associated with ‘sundry’ selections, but in a public text designed to share the fruits of Heywood’s labour, it assumes a more solid form.

Similarly, sharing sententious works such as emblems and certain broadside ballads requires a certain material stability. Wall-pasting was an important form of networking, even if it were not performed by scholars or historians. Innkeepers or householders who followed the instructions to paste broadsides up on their wall follow these texts’ understanding of themselves as physically useful. In order to impart the didactic advice (don’t drink too much?) or test efficacy of their spiritual power (ward off witches?), you must physically fix these broadsides in visible parts of the house.

A related form of communication, at the centre of the culture of ‘animadversion, annotation and text-sharing’, was the epigram. The contemporary pre-literary-theorist George Puttenham sees the epigram as an ‘inscription or writing made as it were upon a table, or in a window, or upon the wall or mantle of a chimney’ (‘The Art of English Poesy, Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism 100-1). James Doelman has traced its movement to the scribal culture of early modern England, noting the importance of its status as a ‘fixed, written form’ (‘Circulation of the Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart Epigram’, Renaissance and Reformation xxix I, 60). Indeed, we might remember that it was often, at least originally, a memorialising genre related to the epitaph, found on gravestones and monuments – ‘pithy, quick and sententious’, as Puttenham would have it (101). Such geographical specificity not only connects them with an individual but with a single and precise material location. The association with the grave places the engraved epigram/epitaph as a form of textual commemoration dependent on its physical inscription in stone, above a corpse.

The fixation on and of monumentality that is associated with epigrams appealed to many early modern writers. Associating their own texts with pithy epigrams, as the familiar ending for a preface, raises the material book to immortality. John Webster, for example, is fond of reminding the reader or the listener that ‘all things have their end; / Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men / Must have like death that we have’ (The Duchess of Malfi V.iii.17-20), but the echo of the dead Duchess’s voice defiantly returns ‘Like death that we have‘. The echoes in V.iii of Malfi are sententious cuttings of Antonio’s speech: Be mindful of your safety (l.32); O, fly your fate! (l.35); Thou art a dead thing (l.39). Returning to haunt him amongst the ‘ruins of an ancient abbey’ (l.2), these epigram-like echoes remove the form from its role as witty, provocative, or coded writing, circulated among contemporaries, and transforms it into a dialogue with posterity. The final words of ‘To the Reader’ for his earlier tragedy, The White Devil, read ‘non norunt, haec monumenta mori’ – Martial’s statement that ‘these monuments do not know death’.  While it is separated from the decay of ‘churches and cities’, the echoes of the Duchess’s voice nevertheless attach themselves to the landscape. Her voice is eternal only because its warnings can be related to the monuments beneath it.  The only way for Webster to ensure the survival of his poetry is by connecting it to the material form of a material genre: the epigram-med grave. If the epigram is representative in some way of an equivalent early modern ‘blogosphere’, it cannot be divorced from its physicality, its fixed-ness. In contrast, cyberspace is impermanent and permanently precarious.  Often, mere shadows of its content are guaranteed to survive; some is actively erased from memory.


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