Monday, November 27, 2006

Hypertext I: Textual History

At the recent MEMESAK conference, Horace Jeffery Hodges of Gypsy Scholar asked a question of me about the role of hypertext in the future of medieval studies. Since we were so close to lunch (never stand between academics and a meal), I commented that hypertext is an enormously complex issue, and suggested that we talk about it over lunch. Unfortunately, we never did. So, here is my belated response.

Allow me to begin with the model of textual culture I am using, a model that is spelled out in greater detail in my forthcoming article “Global Literature, Medieval Literature, and the Popol Vuh,” and is used implicitly in “Medievalists without Borders.”

Textual cultural history to date can be divided into four different periods: oral culture, manuscript culture, print culture, and electronic culture. We should note that as we move from one sort of culture into the other, each subsequent textual culture does not replace the others; it redefines them. So, for example, although I participate fully in electronic textual culture (this blog post you are reading, for example), I still read books (print culture), write notes and various other things by hand (manuscript culture), and bore those around me with my endless chatter (oral culture). My participation in print culture, though, is quite different from that of someone who lived a century ago, even though we might read the very same book.

Oral culture is pretty simple – it is a culture in which orality is the only textual form, and thus is the beginning and end of language. Oral cultures are ones in which the society structures itself around orality; just because one person living in a culture can read and write doesn’t make it a non-oral culture. A high enough degree of literacy among the social elites, however, does. When laws, or religious texts, or treaties are written down, the society begins to move into manuscript culture.

Obviously, most of human history has been governed by oral culture; unfortunately, we understand this culture perhaps the least. That the work of Lord and Parry was not until the 20th century shows how enormously difficult it is for the literate to understand illiterate orality. As a literate person, I have a very different relationship with the spoken word than does someone from oral culture. Probably a half dozen times per day, I tell someone to “write it down” or “send me a note” – something impossible in oral culture. Note the way that grades are given: I’m only allowed to give a certain amount of my grades based on participation, “participation” being the oral culture of the classroom. Most of my grading is required to be of written material. If I assigned 100% of my grade based upon a student’s oral performance in the classroom, I would probably be accused of being arbitrary and unfair. In an oral culture, though, being able to speak well is not only a valuable skill – it is the only real measure of education. Socrates stood around talking all day, and never wrote anything – try getting tenure as a professor today doing the same. Let’s face it, Socrates was not only untenurable, he’d not have even graduated from college himself.

Manuscript culture, the culture studied by medievalists, results from literacy. The invention of manuscript culture means that anything valued for its permanence in a society has to be written down. Not surprisingly, the engine of manuscript culture in medieval Europe was the Church, since the Church had a view that it was dealing with issues not just permanent, but eternal. Of course, manuscript culture did not replace oral culture – after all, people did not stop talking – but such texts as Bede’s account of the poet Caedmon demonstrate that a change had taken place. That Caedmon could compose such poetry without the tools of literacy is considered miraculous, and of course, his miraculous poems are not memorized, but are set into writing by others.

Print culture is both the best-and-least-studied of these cultures. It is the best studied because most scholars in English departments study the works of print culture; it is the least studied because most scholars take the print paradigm for granted, and don’t consider its implications. For most scholars working in the print culture medium, print culture is indistinguishable from literacy. Nevertheless, the advent of print culture transformed manuscript culture. Absolute uniformity of copies of books in print is not only assumed, but is assumed to be a virtue. Manuscript culture was pushed aside to the realm of the first draft, of the intensely personal, and of the authentic. Many formal documents now needed to be printed, to the end that with the invention of the typewriter, even things for which there would be only one copy (such as a school paper) were expected to be typed. Drafts could be hand written, and certain genres (such as the love letter or personal letter) could not be produced in print according to social conventions. Still, even such print documents as the business letter needed to be authenticated by the signature at the bottom – a little bit of manuscript culture at the bottom of a print culture document.

Now print culture is passing away, a process that will take decades (or even perhaps centuries), and is being replaced by electronic culture (sometimes called digital culture). Print culture is, at the moment, still alive and kicking, with such devices as the computer printer and scanner existing at the nexus point of electronic and print cultures. Still, electronic culture is redefining how we think about print, manuscript, and oral cultures, and the full implications will not be clear for generations. I’ll save that bit for my forthcoming post on hypertext.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Try Our Dragon -- It Tastes Just Like Pork!

According to this story, Welsh Dragon Pork Sausages will have to renamed to avoid confusing customers who might think it actually contains dragon.

In fact, I once used to own a dragon farm, where we farm-raised dragons for the sausage-making industry. Unfortunately, because of the high overhead, we could not compete with pork producers, and the business went under. The flame-retardant pens were not cheap, and neither was establishing our anti-knights-errant perimeter, but the real cost came in the importation of virgins to feed to the stock (after all, when supplies are low, prices rise).

h/t Quid Nomen Illius?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

George W. Bush is Secretly Grading Freshman Essays!

Well, OK, not really, but I found this article, wherein paranoid Canadian undergrads fear that the US will mine's database for gems of terrorism intel ... which I came to from the comments of this article, in which US high school students share the same fear.

Let me assure all the high school students in North America -- no one believes there is intelligence of any kind in your papers. Your subject-verb disagreement, sentence fragments, poor diction, and vacuous "ideas" are safe from the nefarious US government.

Manuscript Studies Website

Someone sent me a link to a medieval and early modern manuscript studies website. Stephen Reimer has put together a nice little page for beginners, especially under the section entitled "course notes."

Saturday, November 11, 2006


I haven't been posting of late since I've been at the Medieval and Early Modern English Studies Association of Korea Conference at Yonsei University in Seoul.

The conference (I'm still here at the moment) has been absolutely wonderful. I hadn't been able to attend MEMESAK for a few years, and the Association has really grown into a center for Asian medieval and early modern studies, now regularly drawing participants from other countries as well. The plenary speaker was Paul Szarmach, who gave a smashing paper on Aefric's Judith, and I'm happy to say that no one threw rotten produce after my own paper, "Medievalists without Borders" (spoofed as "Medievalist without Boredom" here).

Of special interest to the blogosphere is Jeffery Hodges, whose site Gypsy Scholar I read every day. Jeffery is a very nice guy with a very nice hat, for those who are wondering. In fact, I urge him to post an image of said hat post haste, so that the world may wonder at it!

I have to admit, that big, centered picture of me on Gypsy Scholar is a little scary. Even I'm intimidated!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Hate Mail

One problem with putting your work out in the public square is that you sometimes receive public criticism -- and mine often comes in the form of hate mail, sometimes through links, comments, or private e-mails. Though my hate mail usually comes from those who I refer to as Tolkienistas (a term of endearment) who feel I've slighted the good Professor in some way, I've also gotten hate mail from SpongeBob SquarePants fans, Julian of Norwich fans, and one very confused Paraguayan patriot who seemed to think I had insulted his country.*

I recently received the following e-mail from someone who appears to be a young undergrad at a large state institution -- we'll call her Judy. Beyond all the righteous indignation (ah, to be young again!) of her e-mail, I think I detected actual distress, a sort of disillusionment about this post of mine. I wanted to respond to her, but couldn't think of any way to do so without sounding mean or condescending ... so rather than just do so privately, I thought I'd enter my response here, and invite readers to help explain.

Her e-mail read:

Dear Professor Nokes,
I recently came across your blog titled, "In Favor of Banning Books" while researching for a paper in my Contemporary Mass Media class. Although as a professor of English you are more than entitled to your opinions, I find it unbelievable that you would support and blatantly promote the malicious and completely unreasonable act of banning and in your words, "burning" any piece of literature. I am surprised that a renowned professor of English, such as yourself, would fail to see the value in all pieces of literature. The blanket statements you make about "saving humanity" from "junior high poetry" clearly stand only as the naive opinions of a concretely close minded individual. Before "burning" any more literary works in the public square, perhaps you might want to take a second and analyze the deeper messages of some of the authors and works on your list of "aesthetically objectionable books". You may find that although some works may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, they may have some excruciatingly meaningful content that you have simply overlooked. Thanks for your time.
Judy [the name I made up for her]

Before I get into the meat of my response, let me just say this -- "renowned professor of English?" I'm going to clip that part out and send it to my tenure & promotion committee. Just keep repeating that adjective next to my name: "renowned."

Seriously, though, I'm not sure whether or not Judy believes I am literally advocating book burning, since she puts scorn quotes around "burning." I'm going to assume that she is referring to the post itself as the "burning," but just in case there is any confusion out there, I am not really calling for public book burnings. Really. Nor am I calling for the literal banning of these books -- though I wouldn't mind if they fell out of print and were never read again. You can relax, Judy -- no real book banning or burning going on here. In fact, if you were to borrow a book from me and dog-ear the pages, I would probably burn you on the public square. The only thing I hate worse than dog-earring the pages is laying the book face down and open, cracking the spine (ooooh, how I hate that!). I don't highlight my books, I don't write in my books, and I don't use bookmarks that are so thick that they could hurt the spine.

You see, Judy, in this post I am using a literary form known as "hyperbole."** Hyperbole is exaggerating for effect. For example, when you say, "If I've told you once, I've told you a million times..." you are using hyperbole. You don't literally mean you've said it a million times; you are exaggerating to mean something like "I've told you so many times that it seems like a million, and you should really have understood it by now." When my mother came into my room as a child and told me "This is the worst pig sty I've ever seen," she wasn't really a professional pig sty critic who had mistaken my room for a barnyard. She was exaggerating for effect. Hyperbole!

You also write that you are suprised that I "would fail to see the value in all pieces of literature." Well, guilty as charged. Do you know what makes a work literature, Judy? At the end of the day, it is people like me who decide. A professor of English literature who sees value in all pieces of literature is failing at her job. Not everything that is bandied about under the heading of "literature" is great. Some of it is not even very good. Something that is considered of great value now might not even be in print in the next generation, and visa-versa. It is my job to make that decision.

See, when you suggest that I might want to "analyze the deeper messages of some of the authors and works on [my] list" -- well, I've already done that. Nothing appears on that list if I haven't read it. You'll notice that these are not popular works on my list -- they are all works of "literature," and when reading them I approached each and every one of them with respect. Unfortunately, in each case, I not only found them lacking, but I also found something so objectionable about them that I don't think they should be assigned to anyone to read.

You are young, and full of earnest vigor, Judy. Me, on the other hand, I am old enough to be aware of my own mortality, and to despair of all the things I'll never read -- this is the bitter sorrow of all English professors (and perhaps of all thinking people). You are immortal, but for me, time is a zero-sum game. Every hour spent reading one book is spent not reading another, and that time is gone forever. When I read a book of "literature" and it is lacking, that book has stolen time I could have used to read something better. Perhaps you think that I read looking for flaws and reasons to hate. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want to like the works that I read, because I want my time to be well-used, and when I can't find anything to like about it, I'm deeply disappointed.

Friends, that is my response to Judy. I give her so much space because I think I see between the lines a struggle to understand. If any others want to contribute to helping Judy understand how hyperbole and satire work, or want to explain just what it means for an English professor to read something of poor quality, please feel free to do so below. Please do not make fun of Judy, though, as I'm hoping she'll read this post, along with your comments, and come to an understanding of what that post is about.

*No, I'm not making any of those absurd examples up.
**Which is by the way, a 4 syllable word -- the last "e" is not silent, a fact I didn't realize until I went to university and, for the first time in my life heard the word pronounced that I had read my whole life.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Mercato delle Gaite

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article describing a festival in Bevagna, Italy, in which people recreate life in a late-medieval market, the Market of the Quarters (Mercato delle Gaite).

The article itself isn't that great, but you can always look at the slideshow.