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one small islet in the sea of digital text
April 27th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Floss, Paper, Scissors

The phrase “cut and paste” probably brings to mind one of two things:  a word processing editing mechanism that involves selecting and moving a block of text, or a kindergarten activity that involves crayons, scissors, and a glue stick.  Either way, the concept is the essentially same, whether it refers to a crayon-scribbled image or digitally processed text.


Cut-and-paste texts predate word processed and typewritten text by centuries.  Recent articles by Rebecca Onion on Slate’s history blog, The Vault, Whitney Trettien’s Diapsalmata blog, and Harvard’s Houghton Library Blog discuss a seventeenth century book called the Little Gidding Harmony, which is now available online it its entirety, courtesy of Harvard University Library.  The book is a harmony of the four biblical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which have been interwoven into a single narrative.  The book consists of text and pictures that have been carefully cut and pasted from a printed bible and arranged in chronological order.

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But there are even earlier examples of books created from manipulated texts, a process which Ellen Gruber Garvey refers to as “textual poaching” in her article “Scissorizing and Scrapbooks:  Nineteenth-Century Reading, Remaking, and Recirculating.”  Hanneke van Asperen’s article “Praying, Threading, and Adorning:  Sewin-in Prints in a Rosary Prayer Book” from Weaving, Veiling, and Dressing:  Textiles and their Metaphors in the Late Middle Ages tells of MS 14042, a London prayer book that is a compilation of several versions of the rosary with illustrations.  Van Asperen describes the manuscript:  “Except for a few coloured drawings and a miniature, the illustrations are single-leaf woodcuts and engraving. . . . Most of the images are glued to the background; others are sewn in with needle and bright silk thread.  Stitches surround the prints on all four sides of the page.  In this way, the compiler added a layer of border decoration.  Like precious stones in the frame of a painting, the silk threads animate the periphery around the image.  The stitches add colour to the mass-produced images” (82).  The contrasting stitches can be seen in the above photograph, in the alternating colors of the X pattern and the surrounding zig-zag stitches that frame the image.  Van Asperen talks of the distinctive nature of the brightly colored stitchery, noting the artistry evidenced by the attention to color and stitch placement:  “Although the use of needle and thread to attach objects. . . to books was not uncommon in the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century, the highly visible red and green silk floss in the British Library codex begs some questions regarding  function and metaphor, attachment and decoration.  Rarely is the method of attachment transformed into a decorative element; instead, stitches usually remain silent and hardly visible.  In this respect, the London prayer book stands out” (82).  The fine detail present in this small volume testify to the importance of this prayer book as both a text and an object of beauty, a work of art.

A book is always more than the text that fills its pages.  N. Katherine Hayles discusses the materiality texts in her book Writing Machines, noting that  “Literature was never only words, never mere immaterial verbal constructions.  Literary texts, like us, have bodies, and actuality necessitating that their materialities and meanings are deeply interwoven into each other” (107).  This materiality is not limited to physical books, but extends to digital texts as well.  “The physical attributes constituting any artifact are potentially infinite; in a digital computer, for example, they include the polymers used to fabricate the case, the rare earth elements used to make the phosphors in the CRT screen, the palladium used for the power cord prongs, and so forth.  From this infinite array a technotext will select a few to foreground and work into its thematic concerns.  Materiality thus emerges from interactions between physical properties and a work’s artistic strategies. . . .An emergent property, materiality depends on how the work mobilizes its resources as a physical artifact as well as on the user’s interactions with the work and the interpretive strategies she develops – strategies that include physical manipulation as well as conceptual frameworks.  In the broadest sense, materiality emerges from the dynamic interplay between the richness of a physically robust world and human intelligence as it crafts this physicality to create meaning” (32-3).

This interplay between human intellect and interaction with physical writing vs. mechanized word processing is evident in Len Deighton’s composition process.  He worked first with physical texts, scissoring and arranging his typewritten books into the form he desired, before later authoring the first novel written on a word processor.  He proclaimed that “One might almost think the word processor (as it was eventually named) was built to my requirements,” since it facilitated his composition and editorial style.

Each of these books illustrates ways in which bits of image and text are remixed to fabricate a new literary and artistic work.  Recontextualized and rearranged into a collage, they fashion the previously existing works into a new textual fabric that twines them together in ways that create new contextual connotations.




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