Fetishizing the Book: My MLA (Part 1)

After much delay and deliberation, here at last is the post (I’m going to make it two posts, because this one ended up going quite long) about my experience of the MLA. Over the course of four days I attended ten sessions, spent an unconscionable amount of time browsing the book room, and saw and made many friends.

My struggle in writing this post was motivated by a couple of things. The first is that the range of things that I saw was so enormous that doing a paper-by-paper summary would quickly feel tedious to write and even more tedious to read. The second is that I had not considered thoroughly enough how to deal with things that I disagreed with. This is something that I think everyone working in the digital humanities has to deal with at some point (and I think Ryan Cordell has a great post reflecting on his own twitter missteps here). I’m especially conscious of this because I feel a great deal of anxiety over the things that I send out into the world, and I want to make sure that the tone I maintain on the blog is one that is always welcoming. I don’t mind a good argument, but I want it to be the type of argument that I have over a few pints down at the pub. I also want to be careful because I think that conferences present a unique opportunity to try out new things, and I take the opportunity to experiment, which sometimes works well and sometimes not, usually both in the same paper. I’m also aware–having once been asked a half hour before I gave a paper to add an extra ten minutes because the conference was running way ahead of schedule–that conference presentations are very much works in progress, temporary congealments of ideas. As scholarship conference papers are significantly different in kind than articles or books, so I want to be mindful of that going forward. My goal is to take ideas seriously, but also not be shy about expressing my disagreement with them. I would ask that anyone who may comment on my blog (now or at any point), would do the same.

The sessions I attended at the MLA were as follows: A More Capacious Conception: Digital Scholarship and Tenure; Anglo-Saxon Legalities; Dirty Chaucer; Convergent Histories of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital; From Imagism to “Amygism” to Vorticism; Eliot, HD, and New England; Early Medieval Materialisms; Humanisms Old and New; Digital Dictionaries; Anglo-Saxon Futures.

By far the best attended of my sessions was Convergent Histories of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital, which in spite of being first thing in the morning was packed, with people sitting all over the floor. It was a superstar panel of people: Sarah Werner, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Martin Foys, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Stephen Nichols, and Kathleen Tonry. Everyone was provocative, and I suspect that the audience was glad that they had made it to the early session. However, this was also were my largest disagreement of the conference came. As a prologue to his talk, Stephen Nichols talked some about a graduate student seminar he had participated in last year, where he was shocked to hear these graduate students talking about what was lost in the digitization of manuscripts. What was lost, in their words as transmitted by Nichols, were things like, “aura, presence, tactility.” Nichols then said that these students were “fetishizing” the book and that this fetishization was especially inappropriate because medieval book producers didn’t fetishize the book and continually embraced new technologies. By talking about what was lost, the graduate students were aligning themselves with those who want to keep books locked away. There were a number of things that bothered me about this, not least the fact that none of these anonymous graduate students were there defend themselves against the charge of fetishization. But what bothered me most was that Nichols was wrong. Of course, I also think the students, at least as presented by Nichols, were wrong too.

My biggest issue is that, whatever the fetishization of the book means, it seems pretty clear to me that medieval book producers and consumers did it. I’m not saying that they all did it, but I think we should get away from the kind of totalizing ideas about the medieval that Nichols was employing. It was a big period, both temporally and geographically, and even individuals living in the same time and place could be engaged in a multiplicity of practices. I don’t especially care to touch the term aura, but that Nichols dismissed presence as a modern anachronism seemed odd. For the cults of early medieval saints, establishing the presence of the saint was crucial, especially in a time when the practices surrounding the veneration of saints was very much in flux and their bodies could be stolen by rival communities (see Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints and Patrick Geary’s Furta Sacra). Accounts of the saint’s life, miracles, and the translation of their bodies were crucial for demonstrating their presence, and were included as a part of the cult of the saints. The St Cuthbert Gospel was placed in Cuthbert’s coffin when his remains were translated, and would seem to provide a perfect example of a text that was venerated but not read in a way that could be called fetishistic.

Tactility would seem to simply be a cipher for the importance of embodiment more generally, and this is where I part ways from both the students and Nichols. I’m all for emphasizing embodiment, but it’s not like digitized manuscripts are disembodied, as N. Katherine Hayles has emphasized in her studies of digital literature more generally. Moreover, I think that the focus on what is lost with digitization obscures how much things have already changed. Manuscripts have already been remediated in the 20th century in the form of the facsimile edition or the microfilm of a manuscript. What’s more, the form of manuscripts changed pretty radically in the medieval period itself with the transition from parchment to paper. What is at issue is a kind of uncanny valley. Robots that seem too human, like the false Maria in Fritz Lang’s technological dystopia, Metropolis, are unsettling; so too, digitized manuscripts may have the potential to be unsettling due to the (unfounded) fear that the digitized form will come to replace the manuscripts. I’m not terribly interested in bemoaning what’s lost, but I do think that the things that have been lost are interesting, and if the present historical moment serves to bring them into sharper relief, then I think that’s for the good. I think the animal nature of the medieval book, for instance, is especially important, and examples of medieval authors who fetishize the form of the book because of its animal nature are abundant. One personal favorite is the Anglo-Saxon Riddle whose solution is book or Bible, in which the construction of the book is detailed as a form of torture, resulting in an object that is like Christ, the Word made flesh or, as Dieter Bitterli has described it, the flesh made Word. The rhetoric used is especially violent, and you might even call it booxploitation if you were feeling especially anachronistic.

Nichols’s dismissal of the embodiment of manuscripts is interesting given that he recently began a guest post on Bruce Holsinger’s blog by noting: “how the mass digitization of medieval codices has radically altered the object of study.” The whole post is a good read, and I don’t have time to get into it fully here, but I think what is notable is the sometimes eschatological fervor with which the digitized manuscript is treated. This put me in mind of how Gadamer ends the preface to Truth and Method: “But though the will of man is more than ever intensifying its criticism of what has gone before to the point of becoming a utopian or eschatological consciousness, the hermeneutic consciousness seeks to confront that will with something of the truth of remembrance: with what is still and ever again real.” I want Nichols to be a part of the conversation of what manuscripts mean: he’s a provocative and insightful thinker. But I also want medieval book producers and consumers, whose codicological practices varied considerably and who were capable of fetishizing the book, to be a part of the conversation too, as well as graduate students for whom manuscripts need to be studied in both digital and physical environments.

(I ended up writing far more than I thought I would, and so will defer discussion of the rest of the MLA to a subsequent post to come in the next couple days. Promise!)

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