From: James Crawford Blenko (
Subject: Iconic Page Summary

The Iconic Page in Manuscript, Print, and Digital Culture
by James Blenko and James Crowley

On October 11th and 12th, the University of Michigan hosted the Iconic Page Conference. Organized by Michigan Professors of English George Bornstein and Theresa Tinkle, the conference explored the history and semantic potential of the page, as both a medium for textual transmission and a component of textual meaning. The international panel of philosophers, historians, historians of art, and literary scholars aimed to call attention to the historical and cultural contingencies of manuscript, print and digital media and to the important but neglected role played by the bibliographic code (visual features), in addition to the linguistic code (words), in interpretation and meaning. Perhaps most interesting for readers of this list was the cumulatively convincing argument that textual display has been and continues to be part of textual meaning rather than an incidental factor: i.e. that "text" and "words" are not equivalent terms. The participants placed a high value on the role of imaging in humanities computing.

"Old English Poems in Multiple Media"

Kevin Kiernan opened the conference on an appropriate note by demonstrating that manuscript, print, and digital cultures are not mutually exclusive realms. In fact, his presentation of some digital reproductions and enhancements of two manuscripts and a printed book showed that electronic editing can work hand-in-hand with the more traditional methods of paleography, codicology, and textual scholarship. Kiernan began with images of a fire-damaged tenth-century manuscript containing King Alfred's translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy and showed how infrared lighting could reveal text hidden beneath the paper frame surrounding each uniquely damaged manuscript page. The digital images reveal a great deal about the manuscript's layout without requiring any more physical manipulation of a very fragile manuscript. An electronic edition could also facilitate comparison of the text in this manuscript with an all-prose version that first appears in a twelfth-century manuscript. Kiernan showed how a Renaissance transcriber of the later manuscript tried and failed to collate the poetry from the tenth-century manuscript with the prose text of the twelfth-century manuscript, and then how a seventeenth-century print edition of the translation relegated the poetry to an appendix. An electronic edition of the translation, Kiernan concluded, could clarify the relationships among these manuscript and print materials and call greater critical attention to the relatively neglected text and poetry of the tenth-century manuscript. Respondent Robert Edwards pointed out that Kiernan had related a narrative similar to that of a Gothic romance: a pretender emerges after the hero is damaged in a fire, and justice can be done only when the rightful authoritative hero reappears. The lesson of this narrative, according to Edwards, is that an iconic understanding of the page is profoundly historical and based on very fragile and contingent human activities.

"Muslim and Christian Print in the Renaissance"

Rudi Lindner framed his talk with the story of Pietro della Valle, a self-described pilgrim who travelled extensively and traded in manuscripts in the Near East during the early seventeenth century. Lindner's specific concern with della Valle and his failure to get his works widely published launched him into a wider consideration of the reasons for the paucity of printed Arabic and Islamic works during the Renaissance. Much of this had to do with the traditional Islamic fidelity both to the linguistic integrity of the Koran and to the calligraphic requirements of Arabic writing. Translations of the Koran have never had any standing as sacred texts, and movable type requires a translation of sorts by forcing radical adaptations of the sacred script and the "sacred space" of the manuscript text. Lindner's examples showed how the forms of Arabic letters in early print editions did not conform to the requirements of Arabic calligraphy. Early print technology could not effectively reproduce the beautifully complex ligatures and intertwined letters that appear in professionally produced manuscripts of the Koran and other Arabic and multilingual Ottoman literature. Other visual examples from Lindner's talk illustrated additional features, such as curved lines of text and pictures emerging from intertwined and superimposed letters, that are difficult to imitate in a printed text. Lindner concluded with a return to della Valle's writings, most of which went unpublished after his return to Naples. The printed page of Renaissance Europe was apparently not as receptive to Near Eastern script and religion as was della Valle. Questions following Lindner's talk touched on the ways in which the Islamic concern with the physical space and layout of books blurs the theoretical distinction between work and text.

"Medieval Manuscripts and Modern Readers"

Theresa Tinkle further troubled the distinction between work and text by arguing for a diachronic as well as a synchronic approach to textual scholarship. Tinkle began by pointing to two medieval manuscripts containing a poem by Hoccleve in praise of Chaucer. In one manuscript, a well-known portrait of Chaucer appears alongside the poem; in the other the portrait has been excised, and a marginal note indicates a later reader's awareness of its absence. From this example of the literal making and unmaking of a text, Tinkle moved to a wider observation that the synchronic approach, mainly concerned with generating a stable-looking authorial text, has dominated textual scholarship. She further asserted that medieval manuscript culture does not support a sense of textual stability. Tinkle used examples from two versions of the Wife of Bath's Prologue to demonstrate how a diachronic approach to manuscript study might work. Four key passages of the Prologue that make the Wife appear more openly devious, cynical, and reliant on astrology appear in the famous Ellesmere manuscript version of the Canterbury Tales but not in the earlier Hengwrt manuscript. Other passages appear only in later manuscripts, and it is impossible to know whether these additions are authorial or scribal. Tinkle referred to these passages as evidence of "cumulative authorship," a continual process of writing, augmentation, and interpretation that makes it impossible to fix a text or even a character absolutely. Tinkle finished with a wider discussion of the ways in which annotations and textual layout in print editions have influenced modern reception and interpretation of medieval texts by emphasizing some meaningful qualities, such as Chaucer's classicism, and hiding others, such as the original audience's lack of receptiveness to classical references. Diachronic study of cumulative authorship and the material conditions of textual production would, Tinkle concluded, open up interpretive possibilites and allow us to abandon overly rigid interpretive categories.

In a paper entitled "C. S. Peirce's Iconic Philosophy," Mary Keeler discussed the development of Peirce's "tri-relative set of functions": the iconic, the indexical, and the symbolic. In keeping with the conference's larger themes, she argued that symbolic modes of signification (in which culturally-determined abstractions such as language determine meaning) tend to supersede iconic forms (in which an object like a crucifix resembles what it represents). Thus for many modern readers, pages become transparent carriers of symbolic linguistic codes for reading rather than self-contained objects for viewing. As Keeler pointed out, Peirce resisted this tendency in his own voluminous writings by incorporating numerous visual, non-linguistic codes: colored inks, flow charts in three dimensions, and what he called "existential graphs." Peirce thus provides modern textual scholars with both invaluable tools and a difficult challenge: a powerful critical vocabulary for discussing interpretation and a sea of pages posing knotty editorial problems. Respondent Stephen Darwall raised the point that Peirce's functions would be of increasing relevance as society considered the ontology of both textual and digital communication.

"Sensations of the Page: Imaging Technology and the Medieval Manuscript"

Michael Camille used Aristotle's discussion of the five senses to evoke the multifaceted sensory appeal of medieval books. Camille began by displaying images from two manuscripts containing Latin translations of Aristotle's works. He then explained the ways in which images within the texts represent paradigmatic activities associated with each sense. These mixtures of image and verbal text both call attention to medieval versions of "multimedia" display and raise general questions concerning how images mean and how they appeal to senses other than sight. Just as medieval Aristotelians saw the five outward senses as the beginning of cognition, Camille asserted that the complete sensory experience of medieval manuscripts is the beginning of any understanding of medieval reading and book production. Camille also argued that modern editions of medieval texts value the sense of sight at the expense of other important physical qualities of medieval books, and that electronic media only intensify this emphasis on visual imagery. Camille's attitude toward electronic imaging was not entirely hostile or elegiac, however, and he acknowledged that electronic texts, like the manuscripts he had previously discussed, could blur distinctions between verbal text and image. After pointing out such similarities, Camille spent the rest of his talk highlighting key differences between the sensory appeals of electronic texts and medieval books. Unlike an electronic text, which puts the eye at the center of things, a medieval manuscript puts all of the senses to work. Camille concluded that electronic media are exacerbating the dematerialization of text that earlier innovations, including modern print technology, have already set in motion by encouraging interiorization, rather than bodily incorporation, of the word. The discussion that followed the talk revolved around the need to determine the different kinds of sensory appeal that electronic texts can and should have.

James L. W. West's paper, "The Iconic Dust Jacket--Fitzgerald to Styron" challenged textual scholars and editors to consider the ways that booksU external appearances can influence how they are read. West provided a brief historical overview of the dust jacket as a comparatively recent means of advertising and selling books before calling attention to a particularly controversial example: the dust jacket of William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron's novel first appeared in a jacket that resembled nineteenth-century posters advertising runaway slaves. West argued that this "deliberately antique" layout--a design approved but certainly not created by Styron--created the misleading impression that the work would be based on history rather than being a fictional meditation on historical events. When critics attacked the novel for distorting history, they seemed to be responding as much to the implicit claims of the jacket as to the words of the novel. West then argued that subsequent editors of Styron would bear a responsibility not only to reproduce the author's language but also the cover that surrounded and helped influence it.

"Foxe's Renaissance Page"

The day after Theresa Tinkle discussed the multivocal nature of medieval manuscripts, Evelyn Tribble described ways in which Renaissance printed pages can record multiple voices. Showing the audience images of pages on which Protestant and Catholic polemicists openly respond to one another's theological views, Tribble argued that these pages make the contestability of interpretation visible by allowing competing interpretations, even of sacred texts, to share space on the printed page. Tribble also noted that William Fulke's annotations to his translation of the New Testament ironically disseminate as well as refute the annotations of an earlier Catholic translation. This point set the stage for Tribble's final juxtaposition of Foxe's Actes and Monuments, a Protestant martyrology, with the Parson's Treatise, a vigorous Catholic response to Foxe's text. After displaying several examples from these texts, Tribble concluded her discussion of the two martyrologies with a focus on their different treatments of the Protestant martyr Alice Driver. Tribble asserted that even though the Parson's Treatise disparages each of Driver's arguments (as they appear in Foxe's text), it lends her a measure of credibility by aggressively responding to her. At the end of her talk, Tribble left the audience with a number of provocative questions concerning the possibility that features of electronic media, such as quoting software and Internet newsgroups, might be undercutting established hierarchies of the modern printed page. Tribble pointed out similarities between the look of contemporary religious debate taking place on the Internet, in which polemicists quote and pick apart one another's arguments, and the Renaissance pages she had shown previously. What, Tribble asked, will electronic media do to modern distinctions between primary and secondary texts?

Peter Shillingsburg's paper, "The Faces of Victorian Fiction," began by acknowledging everything that scholars do not yet know about the sociology of Victorian novel-production, from specific marketing strategies to the details of contracts between authors and publishers to the numbers of novels that were sold on remainder. To highlight the importance of nineteenth-century book marketing and book covers, Shillingsburg presented a fictional parable: the story of two Victorian bookbuyers on December 1, 1862, a day when two of the bestsellers were M. E. Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and a new single-volume edition of The Mill on the Floss. Without a reader's guide to the physiognomy of Victorian fiction, Shillingsburg argued, it is difficult to reconstruct what informed these readers' economic and aesthetic choices: why was it that Eliot's novel never appeared in the gaudy yellow-backed "trade" edition of the day and why did Braddon's more titillating scandal memoir sell much better in expensive editions than in cheap ones? Shillingsburg's fiction anticipated his closing point: that scholars of the Victorian book would be better served pursuing reception studies focusing on readers' complex responses to books than intention studies explicating the motivations behind publishers' packaging of their novels.

"Corporealizations of Dickinson and Interpretive Machines"

Martha Nell Smith gave a practical demonstration of the interpretive implications of electronic media by guiding the audience through her own World Wide Web site, "Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem." Smith designed this site in order to challenge important biographical and typographical commonplaces that have influenced Dickinson editing and criticism throughout this century. By displaying various drafts of the poem, "Safe in their alabaster chambers," many of which appear in witty correspondance between Dickinson and her sister Susan, Smith's Web site undercuts the traditional view of Dickinson as a retiring and morbid recluse. Additionally, by giving the reader access to the look of Dickinson's handwriting, arrangement, and lineation, the site undoes the rigidities of print display and shows how Dickinson's manuscripts exploit their freedom from print limitations. Smith also argued that printed texts and the assumptions of print editing so strongly encourage internalization of the text that they discourage editors and readers from considering the implications of physical embodiments of the text. Smith noted that Thomas Wentworth Higginson first printed "Safe in their alabaster chambers" as a two-stanza poem, ignoring three other stanzas that appear in Dickinson's own drafts and letters. He also ignored the ways in which Dickinson often placed line breaks in unconventional spots, either consciously or unconsciously disrupting traditional print conventions of displaying verse. Smith added that editorial classification of the poems into headings such as "Love," "Nature," and "Time/Eternity," influenced editorial decisions about which stanzas and which versions of each poem readers would see in the print editions. Smith conceded (in agreement with her respondent Marta Werner) that there never will be an authorized version of Dickinson's works because only the manuscripts as physical objects entirely fulfill Dickinson's aesthetic intentions. Smith concluded, however, by noting the potential of hypertext editions to "unedit" the poetry and thus, like Dickinson's manuscripts, to foreground the reader's participation in all formations of poetic objects.

Jerome McGann began his paper, "Rossetti's Iconic Page," by noting both his dedication to compiling the electronic Rossetti Archive and his frustration at some of the problems of producing an edition, whether in a print or in an electronic environment. One editorial and interpretive challenge posed by Rossetti's printed oeuvre is its intense self-consciousness about detail: as an example, McGann cited one of Rossetti's volumes in which the endpapers subtly echoed the favorite wallpaper of the poet's father. This silent memorial is only one form of what McGann called the poet's "intensely visual" work. Rossetti's sensitivity to visual imagery has been much-noted, but McGann argued that the poet's texts are also iconic (or visually signifying) in their play of letters, morphemes, and phonemes. Rossetti's texts thus pursue both a deliberative and an optical vision; his ideas owe allegiance as much to the bodies of the words expressing them as to the souls of ideas themselves. McGann argued that Rossetti's texts typify an extraordinary sensitivity to the expressiveness of physical objects in English poetry between the middle of the nineteenth century and roughly 1930. This literary tendency is now increasingly difficult for us to recognize, coming as we do in the wake of Sausurre and other linguistic theorists who would deny the printed word of significance. McGann concluded by arguing for poesis over philosophy, noting that creators have as much or more to say about literary signification and interpretation than philosophers.

In keeping with his title, "Yeats and Textual Reincarnation," George Bornstein noted Yeats's preoccupation with the supernatural world and argued for the necessity of reincarnating the textual world of Yeats's poems. When the original linguistic and material embodiments of poems are overlooked, Bornstein argued, readers and editors run the risk of projecting their own preoccupations onto poems. This historic and intellectual distortion results partly from the inevitable fading of a poem's "aura" (in the Benjaminian sense) and partly from a widespread failure to recognize the ways that bibliographic code (textual appearance and context ) determine meaning. To demonstrate the importance of textual reincarnation, Bornstein traced different versions of two of Yeats's poems, "When You are Old," and "September, 1913." "When You are Old," for example, first appeared as part of a handwritten volume of poems given by the youthful Yeats to his beloved Maud Gonne. The many subsequent appearances of the poem--whether in an early volume of Yeats's poems, collected edition of Yeats's works, a variorum edition, or the inevitably decontextualizing Norton anthology--altered the meanings of the text. Bornstein contended that this ongoing process typified one of the most pressing problems faced by literary scholars: the gradual distancing of poems from the personal, nationalistic, and political forces that originally animated them. The talk concluded with a discussion of what editors and scholars might do to facilitate textual reincarnation. Bornstein raised the possibility that editors might do more to describe and illustrate prior editions of a work. Looking forward, he called attention to the intriguing possibilities of future computer editions, with their capacity to include multiple images of texts and to juxtapose different textual versions. He closed his talk by urging that scholars maintain a healthy awareness of their own belatedness when approaching historical texts. Bornstein's respondent, J. C. C. Mays, raised the nagging question of how to address historical loss and the multiple agencies that help construct texts. Mays also asked what computerized editions will do to transform editing and the texts being edited--what will happen when the book-bound William Butler Yeats becomes a browsed entity instead?

In his paper, "Joyce and Modern Fiction," Daniel Ferrer echoed Mary Keeler's prior discussion of Peirce's tri-relational terms. Ferrer argued that Joyce was "not a particularly visual author" and that his manuscript pages are most profitably studied as the indexical (or causal) traces of his creative processes. As indices, manuscripts can shed insight into the chronology and associative logic of an author's work: Ferrer offered the example of a passage in Ulysses that was inspired by ink that seeped forward in Joyce's manuscript book and was reproduced in reverse on a later page. This graphic or visual example helped Ferrer call attention to the centrality of time in the creative process. Chronological self-consciousness is necessary if genetic studies of texts are to avoid teleological assumptions: early manuscript versions of Ulysses episodes are self-contained and internally-ordered texts, for example, and not merely early drafts inevitably culminating in the published novel. Finally, scholars must constantly remember that our indexical readings of manuscript pages differ from Joyce's symbolic readings of them: while we look backwards, seeking to understand the creative logic echoed in the pages, Joyce would have looked forward to future drafts and galleys, seeking to produce a protocol or textual score that he could clearly interpret, clarify, and reproduce for other readers. In response to Ferrer, Hans Gabler argued that editors and scholars must attempt to "imagine the blank page" if they wish to take manuscripts seriously.

A recurrent theme of the conference was exploring the capacity of an electronic environment to represent visual elements by capturing images of them. It is important to theorize such issues clearly, because on the one hand computers make it possible to display images from the products print and manuscript technology, but on the other hand they distance the user from the very material represented. Expanded versions of the papers that the participants delivered at this conference will be published in late 1997 by the University of Michigan Press as The Iconic Page in Manuscript, Print, and Digital Culture, ed. George Bornstein and Theresa Tinkle, in its series "Editorial Theory and Literary Criticism."

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Last update: 6 November 1996.