Blog Post

Revisiting Very Old Media

I began writing a comment in response to Jed's recent post on "old media," but it was getting long. So I've decided to continue the conversation in a new post. Thanks, Jed, for the thought-provoking questions!

As I've discussed before, my current research is on moving parts in books -- specifically, nested wheels or volvelles that generate text, and sometimes poetry. Here is an example, a labyrinth by Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz, published in his Primus calamus ob oculos ponens metametricam, often cited as he Metametrica (1663), a book of experimental poems.


Different paths through the wheels generate different lines of verse, that can then be combined to form couplets or stanzas. And this is just one example.

Jed asks a great question: "What role does old media serve in the age of digital reproduction?" From the perspective of my current research, I would say that on the one hand the "old media" of volvelles in printed books can help us historicize digital poetry, rooting generative poetic practices in a history that long pre-dates the Oulipo or Fluxus movements. They can also shed new light on questions of the materiality of language and letters (a common theme between the seventeenth-century poets who created these mechanisms and digital poets today), as well the role of databases in two media cultures that seem so different.

On the other hand, I'm inclined to say that asking how "old media" serve the new is the wrong question, in part because (as many have discussed on the HASTAC blog!) it forces us to think about media in a linear manner. The old persists -- paper engineering of volvelles is still an art, as is letterpress, and I've recently learned of cardboard text generators popular in Germany in the 1980s -- but, more interestingly, what matters about the new is often not that new at all. Instead of thinking in terms of two different media periods, print and digital, I've been forced to think about how the cultural concerns of two periods of media in transition both led artists to explore similar territories.

I love that Jed writes of the smudges and misprints in letterpress, something that draws me to the bookarts as well. Part of my love for these crazy little volvelles is how they challenge our assumptions about what a reader is (the passive consumer of letters laid out on the page) and what a writer is (the creative engine), in the same way that so many new media texts have. The moments I've been lucky enough to see them in person -- to see the worn edges where someone else's finger rubbed against the paper to create a poem -- have taught me more than any theory could about the openness of texts, or the consumption of media objects.

Since Jed brought up letterpress: there is also a bigger question of what book history, which focuses fairly narrowly on printed texts, can teach new media studies, and vice versa. A panelist at a recent conference I attended brought up Robert Darnton's life cycle of the book in relation to digital humanities projects, describing how we could see the operation of digital humanities labs or projects through its frame. And of course Matthew Kirschenbaum's excellent book Mechanisms draws several interesting parallels between the material study of hard drives and bibiliography. I'm very curious how book history has been integrated into other scholars' programs, if at all, and how "very old media" (to use Jed's term) are incorporated into their research. Do others agree that we live in a new media world, or have you found continuities between the mediated past and our networked present?


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