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      Superficial Travel through Time: A Reaction to Catherine Brown

      Scott Raines, University of Kansas

      For the average twenty-first century reader, the concept of materiality in reading is rather abstract. The modern distance that separates author from reader can, at times, be quite extensive. For example, this reaction to Catherine Brown’s 2014 article “Scratching the Surface” is an organized representation of my thoughts as author, intended to be communicated to some reader (in this case, you, desocupado lector). As my thoughts translate into words, those words produce multimodal digitation from both my hands that press buttons, labeled with letters, and the buttons themselves that electronically encode binary 1’s and 0’s which then appear on a screen as the illusion of text (digital text). The reader then uses a series of codes online (mostly invisible to him or her) to access this document, which takes the 1’s and 0’s from my computer to his or hers and replicates the digital illusion of text onto their computer screen. In some cases, the electronic document is finally printed out through a series of other combinations of 1’s and 0’s sent from one machine to another to guide a printer on how to place ink on a specific grid to reproduce the digital text physically. This rather complicated and intricate electronic process, which almost all computer users take for granted, highlights the modern emphasis on information and the speed at which that information becomes accessible and retained, as opposed to the materiality of how that information is presented. This modern focus blinds the contemporary reader when he or she engages with a non-modern text. Brown, through the same technological process now described, opens a window for the twenty-first century reader to look back in time and see the intimacy and materiality of reading and manuscript production in the non-modern era. Brown’s window not only allows the reader to investigate how reading occurred in the past, but also explores, more importantly for Brown, how the texts themselves imagined their own reading to take place in the future—surely, no easy task. 

      As readers in the modern era, it can be difficult to not impose our current knowledge and experience onto the past. Understanding her own contemporary context, Brown first takes the reader to the past by explaining the difficulty with which a non-modern text was produced. She cites notes written by a scribe in Latin on an old illuminated manuscript: “Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides” (200). The descriptors of physical pain engage the reader and force him/her to think about how he or she would take on the task of writing a book by hand. Brown shares a second analogy to the physical toll of writing, quoting Isidore of Seville who “quotes the dramatist Atta’s invitation: ‘Vertamus vomerem / in ceram mucroneque aremus osseo’ (‘Let us turn the ploughshare and the plow with bone point in wax’)” (201). The physical pain described in the first manuscript and the metaphor provided by Isidore of Seville (plowing away at the earth) take the reader out of the twenty-first century and into the past to examine the total real cost expended to make, preserve and disseminate writing and thought. Brown then introduces a manuscript from a man by the name of Florentius who himself further emphasizes the gardening metaphor for manuscript production. In the manuscript he explains that his very process for writing should be likened to plowing, “using the metaphor… ‘exaraui’ (‘I plowed’)” (205). Brown states that “the result of that labor is the ornamental garden before you. And that’s a ‘you’ that the page explicitly evokes and interpolates” (205). Florentius, dedicating his work to Christ, metaphorically redeems fallen Eden by allowing the reader to come to the garden he himself built through writing. The modern reader less acquainted with producing one’s own food through gardening, and much less familiar with older processes of writing, will benefit from this metaphorical transposition of the mind from the present to the past through these metaphors. Though the modern (wo)man does not necessarily concern him or herself with the production of their own sustenance (the large orchestration of work that finalizes with the production of a Big Mac purchased from the window of your car), the movements that culminate in the food we eat still continue on behind the scenes. Brown shows that the same is true in writing and invites the reader to consider who it was that produced the text because the text’s materiality can change the very nature of the way it is read—and, more importantly, how it was intended to be read in the first place.

      One of the final points Brown makes is that “reading is the residence of letters, where letters live. To read is thus to move in with the letters as if into new rooms, installing yourself there in body and bodily sense” (210). This final point leads into the metaphysical aspect of reading/writing mentioned on page 205, that reading becomes the place where “the individual writer is linked to his individual reader.” When one comes into contact with the tactile physical manuscript for which some dedicated, discipled monk sacrificed physical time and energy to produce, the reading experience changes. In a sense, to scratch the surface of an original manuscript is to metaphorically shake hands across time with the scribe who plowed the garden through “seeing, hearing, pen, hand, ink, wax and parchment” (200). Brown effectively brings the modern reader into the non-modern era to have a more immediate conversation with the once living person who’s writing now influences the present (their future). Brown’s move into material reading provides the pieces to the needed bridge between yesterday and today to be able to more fully value the non-modern material culture of writing and reading in the twenty-first century. 

      Work Cited

      Brown, Catherine. “Scratching the Surface.” Exemplaria: Medieval, Early Modern, Theory, vol. 24, no. 2-3, 2014, pp. 199-214.

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