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.


  1. Nice thoughts! I look forward to your next installment. Just a quick reaction:

    Are there oral texts? You seem to imply so with your "orality is the only textual form" definition of what you call oral cultures, but don't oral compositions precede text by definition?

    It's not clear as you soar into your peroration about Digital Culture whether you are still talking about "Textual Culture" or have moved to just "Culture". "Digital Culture" encompasses far more than just how we handle texts, obviously. The digital revolution affects all data representation and retrieval.

    Are there digital texts? What are they - I would call the text I read on a screen just another print text with a different form of ink and paper, just as I associate keying in a text with typing a document on a typewriter. The representational reductionism, infinite reproducibility and instantaneous destructibility that differentiates digital data from print data come from a deeper level in computer science than the input/output format. That deliberately mimics print, just as early print mimicked script writing, and early scripts mimicked oral compositions (lack of punctuation, assumptions about reading out loud, etc.).

    It probably won't last, and digital information a century from now will not use letterforms as we understand them. Digital compositions will succeed texts just as Oral ones preceded them. Text will be obsolete -- our descendants will no more be able to read our textual heritage than we can listen to our ancestors' oral heritage. It's a scary/exciting prospect! I plan to be dead.

  2. Squire,

    I'll deal with just your first question here, since the others will probably be dealt with in the second installment (if I ever get around to writing it).

    You asked if there was such a thing as an "oral text," and the short answer is, yes, because the use of the word "text" here does not imply something is written. Books can be texts, but so can speeches, TV shows, theatrical productions, etc. In fact, the use of the word "text" in certain kind of theory-speak can refer to any potential critical object; e.g., I once knew someone who was studying golf course landscaping as text (no, I'm not joking).

    Interestingly enough, your comment illuminates what I meant when I wrote "[Print culture] 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." Your comment, by calling into question the idea that there can be oral texts, and asserting that "text will be obsolete" in the digital age, assumes that text=print culture (even though you don't mention it there, I think you are implying it also includes manuscript culture).

    In the model I am offering here, text does not necessarily imply print, and (in fact) print culture may prove to be the shortest-lived of the textual cultures. It's hard for people like you and me, children of print culture, to accept that it might turn out to be the least significant of all in the long run.

  3. I really enjoyed this post - I think you've done a wonderful job of mapping out some of the significant differences between oral-manuscript-print-digital cultures. I will send my students hither - I look forward to reading your hypertext post and what implications that medium has for "representing" manuscript culture...

  4. I think if electronic culture continues to develop for another 10 years, we may have a hard time imagining how we thought and worked in 2006, much less 1996 or 1976.

    I've been rereading old SF -- most recently Asimov's first 2 robot detective novels, and the "magic" unexplained technology, not the practical, just a few years from now stuff, is what seems realistic. Our tech is so much more elegant than what Asimov could imagine in the early 50s for a period 3000 years in the future.

    But more importantly the way people deal with information in 5000 AD is -- ridiculous? But I am old enough to remember when it would have seemed entirely natural.

  5. It's strange that oral communication is still the basis of the functioning of large parts of our court and legislative systems.

    Is oral communication the least likely to produce misunderstanding, or, worse again, wilful misunderstanding?

    After all, we use "peace talks" rather than peace e-mail/letter exchanges!

    How many of the world's problems have at their root a (wilful?) misinterpretation of printed text.

    Printed text looks great (at least, it does to some people) but is it possible that it will ultimately bring about our end in some extremely ironic way!?

    (i.e. while it purports and appears to be the solution to all our problems, something made possible by printed text will turn out.....badly: even worse than the other really bad things printed text has already made possible)

  6. Thanks, Scott. I finally finished my grading of the famous 100 essays and had an opportunity to read what you've posted so far.

    I look forward to your future hypertextual post (and expect it to have multiple links to other online texts).

    I find that most of my scholarship takes place online, but that's to some extent a consequence of where I find myself, i.e., without a fine library.

    However, as the electronic medium improves and more goes online, including facsimiles of manuscripts, more and more work will be done online by everybody because of the convenience.

    What concerns me most about this future is the fragility of the electronic medium. I can hardly access my old papers anymore because the exotic fonts are encoded differently, but I also worry about how easily electronically encoded material can deteriorate. Another problem is the increasing complexity of the internet as more and more links become broken and lead to dead ends and increasingly frustrating searches.

    I suspect that the future will see the differentiation of internet culture as subcultures spring up with gatekeepers -- perhaps universities and research institutes will join into specialized webs that one can only enter through membership. Probably this will happen in multiple ways as all sorts of associations form with interests in blocking those not invited to the conversation.

    A strange future awaits...

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  7. Anonymous4:08 AM

    The problem of texts being degraded is not new to the electronic age:


    "the word which I give unto thee, thou shalt not add unto it nor take from it"; Deut 4:2

    and the common, 'copy this accurately or else' ending to medieval texts.

  8. It looks like you are reworking Marshall McLuhan here. I think that's a good approach.

    It's important to emphasize, though, that particular forms of communication do not actually disappear, but are merely superseded as the primary formal means of transmitting the dominant culture. This is why the biggest concern is whether historians can reconstruct old cultures, rather than whether any particular culture is perpetuated.

    The other concern is whether any particular subculture, such as print culture, will retain intellectual dominance. This is the scary part for anyone whose life depends on the dominance of print culture. However, those who are intimidated by print culture have learned to adapt, and now those who are intimidated by digital culture will learn to adapt.

    I work at the nexus, as one who translates cultural artifacts between media, so I am personally unfazed by the transition to digital culture. However, it does bother me that the formal repositories of cultural knowledge seem to become more and more remote from the informal culture that the average person lives with. I fear that the information bubble will eventually implode.

  9. Dave,

    You wrote, "It looks like you are reworking Marshall McLuhan here," and in fact McLuhan and Walter Ong were both prescient on these issues. Of course, a great deal of what we are talking about here they could not really get at because many of these technologies had not been developed, and more importantly, people had not yet adapted to these new technologies. Ong's _Orality and Literacy_ is about a quarter century old, and McLuhan's work has to be getting close to a half century old, yet they have aged well.