text {isle}

one small islet in the sea of digital text
January 9th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Liquid text


illuminated bible

{ detail from a handwritten illuminated latin Bible }
source:  wikimedia commons

While thinking about all the ways we acquire information today – websites, digital readers, and the old-fashioned book, I remembered two articles from a class last semester that provided different perspectives on texts.  I read an article by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum entitled “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” on the same day that I read Kate Rigby’s article “Ecocriticism.”  While Kirschenbaum explains the role of digital humanities in academia, Rigby opens her article with a discussion Michelle Boisseau’s poem, “Parchment,” which describes the laborious process of creating a medieval illuminated prayer book.  (I am uncertain whether it is permissible to reprint her poem here.  If I can determine that it is alright, I will add it to this post.)  The juxtaposition of these two articles made me ponder the implications of the types of texts we choose to examine.

I think it is interesting to contrast Rigby’s discussion of Boisseau’s poem…

“In her poetic presentation of this prayerbook, Boisseau calls attention not to its meaning as a text, nor to its economic or antiquarian value, but to its materiality.  Or rather, she asks us to reconsider its potential meaning and value in relation to its materiality, perceived in terms of its cost to the natural world.  Thus, she recalls the slaughtered calf, whose skin supplied the parchment, the oak trees, the insect-engendered galls from which supplied dark ink for the written text, and all the other animals, vegetables and minerals, which made possible the material production of this artifact” (Rigby 3).

…with Kirschenbaum’s discussion of our fascination with e-media devices:

“Today, we see the simultaneous explosion of interest in e-reading and e-book devices like the Kindle, iPad, and Nook and the advent of large-scale text digitization projects, the most significant of course being Google Books…” (Kirschenbaum 60).

Kirschenbaum concludes that this “explosion of interest” has resulted in “a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people that live an active 24/7 life online” (60).

[Side note: pedagogy is a fancy academic word for teaching or education.]

Both of the above mentioned articles reference ideas of materiality associated with texts, whether they are physical or digital.  Both Boisseau’s poem and Rigby’s discussion of it focus on the physical components of the text:  the parchment made from calf skin, and the inks from plants and insects that paint the words and images we can still see today.  Before the invention of the printing press, monks and scribes spent long hours painstakingly handwriting pages of text.  As a result, books were expensive and much rarer than they are today and belonged to those privileged enough to afford them.

Contrast the expense and privileged access to medieval volumes with today’s digital texts.  They can be easily disseminated and accessed if one has access to the internet via an appropriate device.  (Of course, keep in mind that at the top of this post you viewed a virtual image of an illuminated manuscript, rather than the actual physical page.)  This relationship between texts and rapid communication, as Kirschenbaum reminds us, can change the way that we view and perform scholarship and pedagogy.  Students, academics, and members of the general public no longer have to travel to distant museums to see important texts and works of art if a good facsimile is available online.

But what are the implications of exchanging a physical object (book, painting, tapestry, etc.) for one that is digital and transitory?  Is the color and detail of the illuminated manuscript adequately represented?  What about the texture, smell, and weight?  Can we see the thick layers of paint and brush strokes that characterize van Gogh’s paintings in a digitized two dimensional photo?  Does it matter?


old books - wikimedia

{ This is not a book. }
source:  wikimedia commons

What about the book?  Is it a physical object, a digital file, a mental construct?  Is it an individual object with its own identifying features, or is digital words on a page that take shape of their container like a liquid in a glass?  Does changing the method of delivery change our perception of the nature of information or of truth?  For example, is truth an unchanging constant universal fact – represented by permanently inked ideas on paper – or is it a highly subjective opinion that can be edited, deleted, or copied and pasted into a new context?  With our ability to alter media via the ‘edit’ and ‘delete’ buttons, texts are no longer static.  How does this affect our perception of “facts”?  Are our words and facts now liquids that take on the shape and color of their digital repositories, possibly to be preserved for posterity or impulsively deleted?  Are our words painstakingly chosen to achieve the exact shade of meaning we intend, or do we compose at a speed only limited by the dexterity of our fingers?



Kirschenbaum, Matthew G.  “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”  The Modern Language Association:  ADE Bulletin, number 150, 2010.

Rigby, Kate.  “Ecocriticism.”  Introducing Criticism at the Twenty-First Century.  Julian Wolfreys, ed.  Edinburgh:  Edinburgh UP, 151-78.



One Response to “Liquid text”
  1. Jessica DeSpain says

    I’m glad your brought up Kirschenbaum. We will be reading another piece he wrote in Technology and Literature from his book Mechanisms that takes the concerns of digital materiality much further by arguing that computer hardware also alters our experience and perception–the foundational tenets of book history argue that no single reading experience is the same and that material state (whether digital or physical–or both), exponentially changes how we understand text. As you can probably tell, these are the essential questions we will be asking this semester, but I’m also wondering as you work on your thesis, if we can expand the concept of “textile” to a digital environment. Perhaps we can both look for readings or representations of textile as text.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *