Computers, Cut-ups, and Combinatory Volvelles
Computers, Cut-ups, and Combinatory Volvelles
In this piece - part introduction, part artist’s statement - Whitney Anne Trettien reflects on her “combinatory” approach to the history of “text-generating mechanisms.”
Author’s note: Each piece of writing reconfigures its object historically; the following is no exception. Part introduction and part artist’s statement, this essay reflects upon the historical methodologies I pursued in producing my born-digital critical archaeology of text-generating mechanisms - a work of criticism that, like the baroque volvelles and experimentalist cut-ups it studies, forces the reader to navigate through descriptive bits of text to combinatorially accumulate knowledge. Woven into these reflections are threads of writing from the original work, reproducing its historical dialectic by which moments are not narrated linearly, but layered atop one another. Readers are encouraged to experience the original work, entitled “Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms,” at: http://www.whitneyannetrettien.com/thesis.
The present determines where, in the object from the past, that object’s fore-history and after-history diverge so as to circumscribe its nucleus. // Walter Benjamin
Consider two historical moments - nuclei, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the word - marking both the beginning and the end of the book as a media form.
The first is the publication of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (1897), imagined as a metonym for his multivolume, combinatorial Book, Le Livre. A radical experiment in design and typography, Un coup de dés privileges form over content - or rather, form as content, such that blank spaces, typography and the material folds of the book, not semantics, generate what Mallarmé calls “prismatic subdivisions” of meaning on the page.
This unusual use of the book’s architecture leaves the reader, rather than the writer, to cull and combine these scattered fragments of text through multimodal acts of association. “The text imposes itself in various places,” he writes, “near or far from the latent guiding thread, according to what seems to be the probable sense.”Stéphane Mallarmé, “Preface to Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard/Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance,” Selected Poetry and Prose, tran. by Mary Ann Caws (New York, NY: New Directions, 1982): 105. Thus the reader - Mallarmé prefers the word “operator,” etymologically linked to “work,” oeuvre, from the Latin opusMaurice Blanchot, The Book to Come, trans. By Charlotte Mandell (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003): 242. - becomes an (inter)active participant in the poem’s construction.
Consider a second Benjaminian nucleus for our electronic present: Jacob Rabinow’s 1952 model for a hard disk drive, the first random access storage device for computers. As Rabinow himself described it,
The notched-disk memory “doughnut” can be thought of as a kind of book in which round pages are slotted in such a way that each line on each page can be read by merely spinning the page for one revolution; the notches in the pages provide the “windows” through which the selected page can be read. In other words, the book can be read without being opened.
Looking back at his own work in Of Grammatology from the standpoint of the late 1990s, Derrida sees himself has having foretold the death of the long-imagined “onto-encyclopedic or neo-Hegelian model of the great total book, the book of absolute knowledge linking its own infinite dispersion to itself, in a circle.” Jacques Derrida, “The Book to Come,” in Paper Machine, trans. by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005): 15.Yet this random access, infinitely re-writeable doughnut-shaped disk drive in many ways promises precisely that - a “great total book” that “can be read without being opened.” In fact, as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out, Rabinow’s description seems “to anticipate much in our own contemporary response to electronic storage media: the book has become a black box, and whatever is inscribed within its pages is designed for other than human eyes.”I am indebted to the work of Matthew Kirschenbaum for identifying and contextualizing this fascinating early model for a hard disk drive; see Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008)” 80-1.
On the one hand, then, Mallarmé imagines a book - importantly, a book written forty years before the production of the first electronic computer - that has retroactively come to signal the beginning of the digital revolution and the emergence of postmodern hypertext theory;On Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés as the father of the “typographical revolution,” see Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 253n26. On Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés as a bellwether for digital media, see Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004): 210-211; see also Christopher Funkhouser, Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms 1959-1995 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2007): 11; Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001): 153. on the other, Rabinow constructs a digital storage model that projects both an imagined past and a future promise as-yet unfulfilled by our current media ecologies. Although neither project was realized, both Mallarmé’s Le Livre and Rabinow’s doughnut-shaped disk drive mark speculative moments in the history of reading and writing - ruptures between our pre-electronic past, emblematized by “the book,” and our now always/already digital present, theorized as the “book-to-come.” As such, they help us map the history of literacy and inscription from the epistemic stance of our rapidly-changing digital present.
For who “read” these computational devices? Who “wrote” on and in and to them? And how do these never-realized books not only store and retrieve information - the persistent “container” theory of media - but act as language machines, generating new knowledge?On the notion of “language machines,” see the introduction to Language Machines: Technologies of Literary and Cultural Production, ed. by Jeffrey Masten, Peter Stallybrass and Nancy J. Vickers (New York: Routledge, 1997). See also Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999): 94; Steve Caffrey and bpNichol, Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book Machine, The Collected Research Reports of The Toronto Research Group, 1973-1982 (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992): 60.
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Around 1650, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer devised an ingenious ballet. It’s simple: first, give each dancer a board inscribed with a letter of the alphabet; then watch as new words or phrases emerge from dance. The very movement of the dancer’s bodies will act as a combinatory mechanism from which language springs.Jan C. Westerhoff, “Poeta Calculans: Harsdörffer, Leibniz, and the Mathesis Universalis,” Journal of the History of Ideas 60.3 (1999): 465.
There is no evidence that Harsdörffer ever produced such a ballet. Perhaps the first modern conceptual poet, Harsdörffer’s genius lies in his ability to construct reality through language - that is, to use language not as a mirror for the world, but as its fundamental building blocks.
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Harsdörffer used pieces of wood to make anagrams,Georg Philipp Harsdörffer and Daniel Schwenter, Deliciæ Physico-Mathematicæ, Oder, Mathemat. Und Philosophische Erquickstunden… (Nürnberg: in Verlegung Jeremiae Dümlers, 1651): II.514. designed letter-dice to teach children to build word combinations,Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Poetischer Trichter; Die Teutsche Dicht- Und Reimkunst, Ohne Behuf Der Lateinischen Sprache, in VI. Stunden Einzugiessen (Hildesheim, New York: G. Olms, 1971): II.18. and assigned numbers to letters to unlock a poem’s hidden values,Ibid., II.26-9. earning him the title Der Spielende, or “the Player,” in the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft. Each of these games uses language not as an abstraction, the purely rational product of the mind, but as a material object to be manipulated and moved, cut-up and combined.
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“In this simple mechanization we see how the ideas of the combinatorial nature of the world on the one hand and language on the other hand meet: letters are inscribed onto material elements, so that a permutation of these out of itself generates an anagram without requiring any ingenuity. For the baroque poet this structural isomorphism between language and matter explains why this method of anagram production works, while this fact itself serves as a further manifestation of the very same isomorphism. Because language and matter both follow combinatorial principles, it is possible to mechanize the former by inscribing it onto the latter. In the “language machine” the combinatorial features of language and the world which are generally distinct are unified into a single artifact.”Westerhoff, 464-5.
Our present is Mallarmé’s and Rabinow’s imagined futures; the questions articulated above - questions about reading and writing, about the materiality of media forms - are speculative moments from this present’s past. Although, reading them now, I know the paths I chose in pursuit of tentative answers, at the time I had no map to orient my research.
I spent days in the Beinecke archives, fingering through early poets’ rag-paper, drawing volvelles as ASCII circles in my Word file; resisting the urge to tell a story. When I returned to Cambridge, I had a host of notes on German baroque poetry generators, letter games, Leibnizian ars combinatoria and Lullian logic wheels - texts and artifacts that echo the same inventive, materialist energies found in much contemporary electronic poetry. Lapping at the limits of what we now call “literature,” these resistant modes of textual production help to map out an alternative history of digital poetry rooted in material engagement with embodied language. I wanted to put these moments in conversation with each other; yet knowing the end, I could find nowhere to begin.
So I began sketching ideas on graph-paper pads, receipts, discarded library catalog cards - any scrap of paper I could find. Combining these with print-outs of notes I had accumulated on my hard drive, I began cutting these bits of paper into manipulable chunks of text and image.
Combinatorial creation, anagrams, the notion of root elements - these ideas converge in the concept of Stammwörter, or German morphemes rooted in the originary language of Adam.
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One of the most well-known German linguists of the early seventeenth century and a proponent of Stammwörter theory, Justus Georg Schottel wrote a series of grammars promoting the antiquity and expressiveness of German, calling for a return to the pure, Adamic vernacular. The first, Teutsche Sprachkunst (1641), begins with a collection of ten "Testimonia der Gelarten von der Trefflichkeit der deutschen Sprache," or testimonies from the learned on the excellence of the German language. Just as the kabbalist's Sefirot connects the ten digits to the the ten manifest attributes of God, each of the ten testimonies in the Teutsche Sprachkunst expand upon a different quality of excellence inherent in the German tongue, laying the foundation for Schottel's own commentary on German's combinatorial capacity.
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For days, I shuffled these papers about, adding quotes from my reading, identifying overarching themes. Although at first I tried to force my arguments to fall in line, the bits began to assemble themselves spatially, a layered topography whose perspective point kept shifting, each grid "open and connectable in all of its dimensions;...detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification."Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Scizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: university of Minneesota Press, 1987): 12.
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The security of royal patronage, friendships with imaginative thinkers and access to the most extensive library in Europe, the Duke's Herzog August Library, helped Schottel weave together his linguistic theory, most fully developed in the massive Ausführliche Arbeit von der teutschen Haubtsprache (1663). To historicize his native tongue, Schottel traces the German language back to Ashkenaz, "ein Altvater der Teutschen / hat mit sich die alte Celtische oder Teutsche Sprache von Babel gebrach" [the patriarch of the Germans / who brought the old Celtic or German language with him from Babel], and from Ashkenaz all the way back to Adam.Justus Georg Schottelius, Ausfuehrliche Arbeit Von Der Teutschen Haubt Sprache, Worin Enthalten Gemelter Dieser Haubt Sprache Uhrankunft, Uhraltertuhm, Reinlichkeit, Eigenschaft, Vermoegen, Unvergleichlichkeit, Grundrichtigkeit, Zumahl Die Sprach Kunst Und Vers Kunst Teutsch Und Guten Theils Lateinisch Voellig Mit Eingebracht, Wie Nicht Weniger Die Verdoppelung, Ableitung, Die Einleitung, Nahmwoerter, Authores Vom Teutschen Wesen Und Teutscher Sprache, Von Der Verteutschung, Item Die Stammwoerter Der Teutschen Sprache Samt Der Erklaerung Und Derogleichen Viel Merkwuerdige Sachen ... Ausgefertiget Von Justo-Georgio Schottelio .. (Braunschweig: Gedrukt und verlegt durch C. F. Zilligern, 1663): I.34. Thus, while the Confusion of Babel may have muddied the lingua adamica, it did not completely erase it: in fact, German, Schottel claims, has its roots in the pure vernacular of the Garden of Eden.
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Dem allen nach wird gewißlich folgen daß / gleich wie das jtzige Teutschland annoch dasselbe Teutschland ist / welches vor etzlichen tausend Jahren gewesen / ob es schon jtzo besser bebauet / herrlicher ausgeschmükt ... Also ist gleichfals unsere jtzige Teutsche Sprache / eben dieselbe uhralte weltweite Teutsche Sprache ... denn wie das Land / Teutschland bleibet / also müssen die Stammwörter / Teutsche Wörter bleiben die denn ihre natürliche Eigenschaften (davon in dieser Sprachkunst wird gehandelt) so lange in sich / samt jhrer Deutung / gehabt haben / so longe sie in rerum natura gewesen.
"It follows then accordingly that / just as the present Germany is the same Germany / that existed one thousand years ago / although it is better developed and more magnificently adorned...So is our German language currently / the same ancient, universal German language...thus just as the country / remains German / also must the stem-words / remain German words that retain their natural properties (which are traded in this linguistic theory) / and their meaning / as they have been rerum natura."Schottel, HaubtSprache, I.48.
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Rerum natura, the nature of things: an allusion to De rerum natura, a poem by Lucretius circa the first century B.C. In it, Lucretius posits an Epicurean, atomistic world of infinite possible combinations - of "dissimiles ... formae glomeramen in unum / conveniunt" [globes dissimilar in form joined together as one].Lucretius, De rerum natura II.686-7. For Lucretius and Epicurus before him, each atom is a discrete unit of irreducible and self-evident meaning "quod nusquam sine permitiali / discidio potis est seiungi seque gregari, / pondus uti saxis, calor ignis, liquor aquai" [since on no occasion is one able to be separated from the group without a destructive tearing apart, as mass from stone, heat from fire, or liquid from water].Ibid., I.451-3.
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Looking at my notes now, on my screen - flat scans circumscribed by my relentlessly linear word processing software - these fluid assemblages seem almost unimaginable, and indeed may have been were my proposed outcome a book. However, rather than forcing narrative linkages across time, I began to superimpose descriptive microhistories within a strictly delimited space - 1024 by 678 pixels, to be exact. Through juxtapositions, my methods emerged.
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Although not explicitly tied to the creation myth - in fact, Lucretius appears to explicitly reject Adamic theorySee Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995): 88-9. - Lucretius' atomism provides the groundwork for conceptualizing Schottel's Stammwörter. Like atoms, Stammwörter are irreducible, isolatable units of meaning, much as linguists today might speak of morphemes. However, unlike morphemes Stammwörter are not rational conceptions of the human mind, but are inextricably interwoven with the material text. For Schottel they are like letters, having size and weight:
Gleich wie aber die Teutschen letteren oder Buchstabe alle einlautend / eben also sind die ersten Surtzelen oder die Stammwörter der Teutschen Sprache gleichfalls einsilbig.
"Just as the German letters or Buchstabe are all shrunken / even also are the first root or stem-words of the German tongue likewise one syllable."Schottel, HaubtSprache, I.61.
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Like atoms and letters, or like the primitive concepts of Leibniz's lingua characteristica, a root-word in Schottel's baroque Stammwörter theory combines (gefüget) with other words to construct meaning, "gewisser massen gebildet werden" [forming a certain bulk].Ibid., I.70. These combinations are possible because one radical - that is, one signifier - corresponds directly and immediately to the concept it signifies. This relationship is not one of mirroring, in which two distinct entities reflect one another, but, to return the materialism inherent in Stammwörter, of embodiment. Thus in some sense a root word simply is the essence a concept.
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Schottel's theory is both monument and foundation - it both historicizes the vernacular and de-centers the very Judeo-Christian narrative that legitimizes it. In short, like Stammwörter themselves, it both reflects and transcends its moment of creation.
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We're given no non-narrative ways of working in the world, no ways of respecting the past, but instead are encouraged to exploit it for that vague abstraction, meaning. Oriented towards origins, we miss the imaginary projections that sweep us forward.
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Harsdörffer's Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache, or the Five-fold Thought-ring of the German Language, is a database of German words composed of five predicate variables: prefixes (forty-eight values), initial letters or diphthongs (fifty values), medial letters (twelve values), final letters of diphthongs (120 values) and suffixes (twenty-four values). Instead of using a table structure, however, each variable is inscribed along the edge of a disc nested within each of the other discs, forming a simple combinatory mechanism that can generate any information stored in its circular database.
“It is an infallible accuracy / to write a dictionary of all German words / and we insist on the opinion / that all such words combined together / which are denoted [to be] of good and proper German / are particularly [useful] in poems.”Harsdörffer and Schwenter, Deliciæ, II.518.
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On a practical level, Harsdörffer envisions the Denckring as part of his poetic process. The device makes its first appearance in his Poetischer Trichter or Poet’s Funnel, a book on different theories and forms of verse and, as is written in the Delitiae Mathematicae et Physicae, “hat…seinen Gebrauch in Erfindung der Reimwörter / wann man die Reimsilben auf dem dritten und vierten Ring suchet und die Reimbuchstaben auf dem zweyten Ring darzu drehet” [has…its use in the invention of rhyme-words / when one seeks the rhymes on the third and forth rings, and turns the rhyme-letters of the second ring].Ibid., II.518. Similarly, unlike columnar tables printed in books - indeed, if the Denckring were printed as a folio dictionary, it would fill thousands of volumes - the structure of nesting rings allows the poet to identify words that match a particular rhyme scheme, provides immediate random access to the lexicon, and is mobile, encouraging poets to incorporate it into poetic games and performance pieces.
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Perhaps most importantly, in using the Denckring the poet is not locating an item in a list, but dynamically generating meaning in the moment: that is, the very motion of the poet’s hand assembles a whole word out of dissembled parts, engaging the baroque spirit of inventio. More than a mere storage device, the Denckring is a writing implement, mediating the relationship between the poet’s physical body and the generated text.
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Until recently, the term remediation has dominated the discourse on media history, describing the ways in which “new” media absorb and repurpose “old” media. As Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin put it, “what is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media.”
While Bolter and Grusin are primarily concerned with historicizing the present - the subtitle of their landmark study of remediation is, after all, Understanding New Media - many have since challenged their historical methods, including its lack of human agency. Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006): 9. On the passage in Bolter and Grusin quoted above, Gitelman writes: “However astute their readings of the ways different media compare and contrast at a formal level, Bolter and Grusin have trimmed out any mention of human agents, as if media were naturally the way they are, without authors, designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, programmers, investors, owners, or audiences.”Implicitly, the study of algorithmic methods of reading and writing presents a further critique, if not of remediation itself, then of a methodology that locks media history into a set of safe assumptions, thereby implicitly evaluating technologies in terms of their Darwinian “fitness” within the environment of capitalism and mass media.
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In a text-generating volvelle, space is a spiral, a nest, a knot. Spinning the wheel unrolls a series of combinations, much like the mesmerizing list of As, Cs, Ds and Gs produced by DNA sequencers. Yet the disc itself consumes only a small portion of the page, only a few inches square. By condensing the art of combination into an interlocking algorithm, volvelles produce the seemingly infinite from a condensed, finite space.
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Much of the work on the history of digital poetry draws lineages to the modernist avant-gardes - dada, the Oulipo, aleatoric compositions - thereby unwittingly assuming the methods of remediation. Thus the book becomes the seed for Rabinow’s imagined disk drive, even as electropoetics forms the basis for our renewed interest in Mallarmé’s stochastic poetry.
Rather than narrating poetic artifacts through linear genealogies, my shuffled bits of scrap paper - rooted in the methods of media archaeology and spatial history - operates combinatorially, using our present digital episteme (quite literally) as a map for excavating the diverse, little-studied poetic practices from the past. Media form is no longer an embodied history, as with the conception of remediation, but rhetorical content.
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Many baroque thinkers echo Schottel’s admiration for the onomatopoeic qualities of the German tongue, taking it as proof of German’s excellence and divine origins. For instance, in his Frauenzimmer Gesprächspiele, Harsdörffer argues that the German language
“Speaks in the languages of nature, quite perceptibly expressing all its sounds. … ; it roars like the lion, lows like the oxen, snarls like the bear, bells like the stag, whinnies like the horse, hisses like the snake … On all those occasions in which nature gives things their own sound, nature speaks in our own German tongue. For this, many have wished to assert that the first man, Adam, would not have been able to name the birds and all the other beasts of the fields in anything but our words, since he expressed, in a manner conforming to their nature, each and every innate property and inherent sound; and thus it is not surprising that the roots of the larger part of our words coincide with the sacred language.”Harsdörffer, quoted in Eco 99.
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Here Harsdörffer brings the concept of Stammwörter full circle, back to the lingua adamica. From a finite number of radicals, infinite meanings become possible, constructing entire linguistic universes unknown to humans since the Confusion of Babel, perhaps even since the Fall. The more pure these radicals are - that is, the more they embody the divine properties of the universe, the Paths of Wisdom - the closer their combinations come to God’s creation. Thus finding and excavating Stammwörter in the German tongue not only legitimates the vernacular, uplifting it from its state of corruption and neglect, but also exalts its speakers by allowing them to enter a more direct, almost prelapsarian communion with God.
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Moreover - and perhaps more importantly - these methods are rooted in the moral imperative, as Siegfried Zielinski writes, “to understand history as being present not only when it demands to be accepted as a responsibility and a heavy burden” - that is, not only as a means of historicizing our present situation - “but also when there is value in allowing it to develop as a special attraction,” a curious other that simply does not fit our conceptual models.Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward and Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. by Gloria Custance (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006): 3. To return to Benjamin, the present moment determines a media machine’s nucleus, identifying when it transitions from the unrecognizable into the familiar.
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Ironically, by presenting Stammwörter as a form of onomatopoeia, Schottel and Harsdörffer undermine the very theory they are attempting to support. Once linguistic perfection is no longer anchored in the moment of Adamic naming, any language, divinely formed or artificial, may become more perfect simply by molding its sounds to the “language of nature.” Likewise, if humans can excavate the lingua adamica from an ordinary vernacular, then they possess the basic elements of creation, the building blocks from which all meaning constructed, and hence the power to re-construct the world in their own image - to build a new Tower of Babel.
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Do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old. // Siegfried Zielinski
Seek, anywhere, something similar - // Stéphane Mallarmé
From the privileged point of the present, I can now see the narrative of this work as it took shape. This was the moment - the point at which I discovered my methodology; the point at which my ASCII circle sketches made clear the incompatibility of lines and spheres - that the bookish artifacts I had been vaguely paging became objects of study. I pinned down my purpose with a thesis statement:
On the one hand, by positing the physical manipulation of language as a form of reading and writing, this archaeology answers Roger Chartier’s call for book historians to “take on the task of retracing forgotten gestures and habits” that do not fit “the genealogy of our own contemporary manner of reading,” a call echoed in much recent work on the “use” of early modern books.Chartier, The Order of Books (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 8-9. On book “use,” see Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Mazzio and Cormack, Book Use, Book Theory 1500-1700 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2005). It thus challenges our assumptions about how readers and writers of the past made meaning from printed texts and, more broadly, the expressive potentials of the printed book itself. Yet this archaeology of ars combinatoria, the art of combination, also presents an imaginative challenge to historians of the book. For if we accept physically cutting paper or spinning a volvelle as a readerly and writerly act, then we must also, like Mallarmé or Rabinow before us, erase the boundaries we have drawn between “the book” as a material form and “the digital” as an epistemology, reconsidering the various literacies each facilitates or forecloses.
This was the last bit of writing I would produce for the project. With it, the grid of scrap paper on my bedroom floor became the design for a digital mechanism that, like the objects of my study, forces the reader to participate in the process of making meaning.
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Harsdörffer’s Denckring collapses the boundaries between speaking, reading and writing, presenting the totality of a language that nonetheless does not exist outside the combinatory potential of its mechanism. Roland Barthes asserts that the “text” - an authorless, “irreducible … plural,” an “explosion, a dissemination” - is a relatively recent phenomenon compared to the “work,” which is a authored and pedigreed piece of Literature;Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” Textual Strategies, ed. J Harari (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979): 73-81. but in fact the Denckring shows that the ergodic text is an important part of baroque culture. In Harsdörffer’s poetry generator, the author-function is algorithmic and abstract, constructing a structure or code which the reader then must assemble through the motion of the hand - a motion connected with that of writing, of measuring.
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Producing my work digitally became an instantiation of my methodology. It allowed me to present a comparative history without compromising specificity or reducing the complexity of one moment to a mere reflection of another; yet it still strives for thematic cohesion by using our digital present quite literally as a map for exploring programmatic epistemologies in our past.
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In fact, the connection between the Denckring and the hand is strong. Four hands populate the edges of the mechanism, positioned as if they were the reader’s own. The hands in the upper left and lower right hold instruments - a compass and a quill, respectively - while the other two display symbols, a heavy ring and a small wreath.
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Deliciæ Physico-Mathematicæ (one of the texts in which the Denckring appears) is peppered with illustrations of disembodied hands holding tools to measure, slice, or organize matter - instruments that, like written language, help us to understand the surrounding world by rendering it in human terms.
By contrast, the hands in the upper right and lower left corners of the Denckring depict language as symbolic - an atemporal monument that materializes and therefore preserves the abstract. In Western culture, a wreath represents both eternity and death, the fate of language upon inscription, while the hand in the top right corner gestures outward, palm facing up, over the word “unvergessen,” or “unforgotten.”
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Thus two hands around the Denckring illustrate the transient, performative act of writing - the quill sits poised, as if preparing to set pen to paper - while the other two symbolize its material product: the written text. As an abstracted form known to all humans, then, the hand becomes a monument - a structure, much like Harsdörffer’s Denckring, that stores data indefinitely.
That is, until the human hand comes to retrieve it through the gesture of writing.
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Like our current media ecology, the map I’ve produced can be, in the words of some test users, “disorienting,” a Borgesian textual labyrinth. I sympathize with these frustrations. As students and scholars, we are not primed to participate in reading texts as any more than critical interpreters who absorb and refashion language, and writing is still presented as an act of originality. In other words, the creative practice of cutting up and combining texts - that is, manipulating language materially - is almost entirely absent from our current conceptual model of literacy.
Yet such forms of reading and writing are one facet to the infinitely complex history of both the book and (if the recent avalanche of literature on new media literacies is any indication) the book-to-come. By both presenting and enacting the very mechanisms I theorize, I hoped to put a neglected past in conversation with our present while still (in the words of Zielinski) waving “goodbye to much that is familiar.”Zielinski 3.
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“The lesson of the machine is that no matter how marvelous, it is still not miraculous; no matter how many combinations a finite set of elements can produce, its number still falls infinitely short of infinity; and thus the triumphant display of large numbers stands for the exhaustion of language as much as for its fecundity. It is a melancholy Lullism.”Haun Saussy, “Magnetic Language: Athanasius Kircher and Communication,” Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, ed. by Paula Findlen (New York: Routledge, 2004): 263.