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The Platonic Crises of Form: Chartier’s Evaluation of Dualities

The Platonic Crises of Form: Chartier’s Evaluation of Dualities

More information is lost every day than is saved, which is as true of today’s digital information overload as it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The origins of overload, argues Roger Chartier in Inscription and Erasure, are located in its own success.

An early image of an archive, complete with a mention of its organizational system.
An early image of an archive, complete with a mention of its organizational system.

In obsessively saving, organizing, and preserving the written word from destruction, our grasp of the seemingly boundless amount of information spirals out of the control of its makers. Between fear and overload, oblivion and loss of control, and erasure and inscription lies written culture. These dualities, according to Chartier, underpin the foundational tension between producing and consuming the written word; however, this has been obscured by historiographical dualities, specifically between the materiality of the book and the book’s content.

His volume reorients the discussion, uniting the symbolic meaning of the text with its textual forms. Appropriating the structure of the dualities he critiques, Chartier uses a series of juxtapositions as the basis for his essays on how the process of writing and publishing were incorporated into literary works. Though this approach is at times uneven and occasionally leads to unconnected tangents (like the three pages on whether or not Cyrano de Bergerac was homosexual, which I found particularly out of place), this allows Chartier to deconstruct two axioms of written culture: the fixity of print and the universal experience of the reader.

First, in his project to unite material culture with the sociology of the text, Chartier argues that variations in the text of a publication could occur at any point in the production of the work, calling into question fixity of print. Chartier is pushing Adrian Johns’ argument that in early modern Europe print was not considered fixed because of the ever present specter of plagiarism one step farther. For Johns the search for fixity is the search for authority, but for Chartier fixity was never really part of the equation, as fixity or as authority. Because publishing was necessarily collaborative and because, even after publication, changes could be made (via stop press corrections or page cancels), the manner of production automatically renders print not only unfixed, but unfixable. Instead print existed exclusively in relation to other modes of knowledge—handwritten manuscripts, oral transmission, and memory—essentially a definitive feature of print. As he argues, “Every work exists only in its simultaneous and successive forms.”[1]

Not relegated to early modern Europe, this coexistence is seen even into modernity. For example, Soviet Russia’s underground literary scene required multiple though simultaneous modes of textual transmission. Mikhal Bulgakov’s masterful The Master and Margarita has no definitive original text. Instead the book as we know it today was a compilation of several different manuscripts which secretly circulated in the 1930s and were constantly being revised. I assert, and I think Chartier would agree, that none of these versions are anymore fixed than any other; instead, they should be understood in relation with each other, with their multiple revisions, and with their historical context.

Second, this approach allows Chartier to question the universality of readership, suggesting that not only did the experiences of texts differ but so too did their modes of readership. Although this argument is most pronounced in “Commerce in the Novel” where Chartier argues that the dichotomy between extensive and intensive reading is a figment of the historiographical imagination and that the innovation of silent reading coexisted with more traditional modes, it is also suggested in “Text and Fabric.” Using the lens of gender in this chapter, Chartier attempts to reconstruct the relationship between text and textile.

This argument starts out strong by connecting the “word” of Italian comedy to the textile trade, but then he gets bogged down in establishing the feminine connection to authorship via their traditional connection to textiles, specifically in needlepoint. In sewing letters onto canvas, Chartier argues, women were reaffirming their feminine role as purveyors of fabric while also subverting the assumption of female passivity in reading. Here he wants to see readership in its multiplicity, that of the feminized textile and the masculine craft. Though I agree that readership should never be seen as universal or teleological, this particular example does not hold any water. Not only does he ignore the very literal connection between text and textile—that paper originally was made with rags—this supposedly subversive act was not of authorship or readership at all. Instead, these needlepoint letters were graphic and part of a larger culture of needlework and female craft.

Chartier’s instinct to take a gendered approach to readership, however mistaken in implementation, is sound in principle. Heidi Brayman Hackel uses marginalia, another form of writing which exists between erasure and inscription, to reach a similar conclusion. Though the social and material limits on female reading and writing were more restricted in early modern Europe than on their male counterparts, women still showed profound variation in the types of material they read and how they expressed their understanding of their reading. In the end, she concludes as Chartier does, that even gendered readership was not uniform, universal, or totalizing.

Unifying the material and social aspects of literary works in this way reminds scholars that when studying written culture, in all of its many forms, one must maintain a dynamic tension between the permanency and ephemerality, between historically and historiographically constructed dualities.

Works Mentioned:
  1. Brayman Hackel, Heidi. Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  2. Chartier, Roger. Inscription and Erasure: Literature and Written Culture from the Eleventh to the Eighteenth Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  3. Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.

[1] Chartier, 33.

Of Vodka Lines and Books

Of Vodka Lines and Books

Three of my favorite anti-alcohol posters from Soviet Russia.
Three of my favorite anti-alcohol posters from Soviet Russia.

Winding their way through city centers, suburban spaces, and rural outposts, the ubiquitous vodka line simultaneously personified a long-standing history of Russian alcohol abuse, Gorbachev’s perestroika of the late 1980s, and the role of culture in defining what is and is not a commodity. Vodka was one of the earliest and most important units of exchange in Russia. From serf wedding negotiations to the rations paid to soldiers, it represented Russian manhood and was the cornerstone of the Russian working day.

I wonder what one of these men in line would say if you asked him about the value of their vodka. Is it the price of the vodka, which was cheap, that they would mention? Or, as Arjun Appadurai argues, commodities carry a cultural value along with their economic one, so the men would forefront vodka’s cultural value in their lives? According to Appadurai’s definition of a commodity, one which accords with Igor Kopytoff’s and Sidney Mintz’s, value is particular: in this case it was the judgment made about vodka by its makers and drinkers at that particular moment.

The existence of these lines, lines which men would spend hours in each day, is an example how vodka’s value was not as a thing, but as a relationship between the thing and the context. The price of the vodka was cheap, the demand was perpetually high, but its availability was strictly controlled. Its value is not only reflected in the price these men paid, but in their time, the social experience of the line, the state’s exercise of supply control, etc. This illuminates a far more complicated evolution of commodities (commodification?) which correlates to a concurrent evolution of meanings—meanings which are almost too numerous to adequately define, but incorporate both society’s relationship to the thing and the thing’s relationship to society (or culture in Kopytoff and Mintz).

Vodka in this context and sugar in Mintz’s share one meaning: a commodity which gradually became a necessity. Life without vodka or sugar was no longer livable, something evident in the presence of the vodka lines. This almost sacred relationship not only shifts the value of object to its individual consumer, but also to the larger system of value exchange. Just as sugar proved that the British colonial system worked, vodka lines in Russia did not bode well for the health of the Soviet economy.

The meaning of these commodities has thus far been literally consumable; however, what does this process look like when applied to another commodity—the book. The book, and the other print material this represents, is not always a commodity. Appadurai and Kopytoff argue that all objects are potential commodities, but are not necessarily always commodities. When a librarian cannot bear to cut the unbroken pages of the library book, when my sister organizes her library by color, and when I refuse to touch my illustrated Animal Farm with a pin, the book is no longer a commodity (though it might be a fetish). It is resingularized or a potential commodity in those moments, but its value comes from the culture not the economy.

But what if this idea is flipped? It is clear that not all objects are commodities, but one of the major questions which remain is whether or not Appadurai thinks all commodities are objects. A book has value as an object, but it also has a value as a unit of knowledge. Whether or not this knowledge, this non-object can achieve the status of commodity carries profound implications for this shifting understanding of value, a question which Appadurai raises but does not answer.

Materials Referenced:

1) Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penquin Books, 1986.

2) Appadurai, Arjun. “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

The Doctor and Mr. Hyde: Accessing the Victorian Mind

The Doctor and Mr. Hyde: Accessing the Victorian Mind

The Doctor, in an early episode of the new Doctor Who series, enlists the help of the profoundly skeptical Charles Dickens to solve a ghostly crime in mid-nineteenth century Cardiff (trust me, there will be a payoff to this story). A mortician and his comely, clairvoyant maid are plagued by spirits who reanimate the dead and attack the living. Dickens, completely unconvinced by table readings or the appearance of the spirits themselves, calls upon science to help him explain the strange happenings. This portrayal is keeping with the Dickens of modern, popular imagination—a hyper-rational man who deeply understood the workings of the mind and society, one who, though interested in the spiritual, used it purely as a device to further the development of his main characters—bears little in common with the more complex Dickens that Alison Winter writes about in Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain.

Left: Charles Dickens. Right: Charles Dickens as reimagined by Simon Callow.
Left: Charles Dickens. Right: Charles Dickens as reimagined by Simon Callow.

In this case, Dickens alongside his Victorian brothers and sisters struggled simultaneously with skepticism and confidence, science and the supernatural. From the vantage point of hindsight, a well-defined science with a clearly articulated scientific method triumphed over the supernatural and superstitious during the nineteenth century. Because of this, we see the victory, not the battle—an oversight Winter and the mesmerists she studies attempt to correct by arguing that the diversity of the early and mid-nineteenth century, where clairvoyance and mesmerism co-existed with physics and medicine, was responsible for the development of a clearly defined scientific discipline in the late nineteenth century with unassailable authority over the minds and bodies of the Victorian citizenry.

Intimately related to her primary argument, Winter suggests a secondary purpose for using mesmerism: that the Victorian understanding of the mind was profoundly influenced by the mechanization they saw all around them. On one hand, this argument is self-evident. Clearly the ever increasing speed and productivity of production, transportation, communication, and technological advancement affected the people in Victorian Britain. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, the ubiquitous nature of industrial goods is just part of the background—the casually thrown aside lab equipment, the process of cashing a check, or the cheap paper of scribbled notes are all around the characters and define the ways they exist in London. In fact, the murder of Mr. Carew was witnessed by a young maid sitting at her window, probably daydreaming about a hero from one of the new novels or serials (Stevenson describes her as “romantically given”1). Female literacy, new forms of entertainment, new class identification are all present in this one scene though never called attention to, which supports Winter’s first understanding of the role of machines in Victorian society.

On the other hand, Winter argues that through the course of the mid-nineteenth century the human mind and body were increasingly seen as machines. Whereas Winter uses mesmerism to understand this across the period in question, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a single snapshot of a moment in this process—where the methodology of a medical case study, exactly like Elizabeth O’Key would have had, is being superimposed over a scientific experiment with supernatural ramifications. In my favorite scene, Mr. Utterson, the lawyer, shows his clerk Mr. Hyde’s signature. As if mesmerized by the mere proximity to death, Mr. Utterson says, “But there it is; quite in your way: a murderer’s autograph.”2

One aspect of Winter’s argument I find difficult to understand is the relationship between the machine as knowable and controllable, as presented here, and other depictions of the machine in Mesmerized, as the medium of confusing change in Victorian society. How do the positive and negative connotations work together within Winter’s understanding of the more mechanized mind?

In the end, Winter’s work bridges a historiographical gap between the exterior and the interior of the Victorian. On the outside, society was increasingly catalogued and systematized. New methods of organizing knowledge (the card catalogue), of recording the Empire (Levine’s anthropological photographs), of building machines (take your pick), and of understanding the mind (physiognomy) were ways which a rational and logical society imposed order on itself and the world around it. Here is where modern-day popular imagination has created a scientific Dickens, for example.

However, on the inside, there was a deeply troubled Victorian mind, one which was struggling to understand itself—sexuality, morality, and authority—and existed in such a divergent, ever changing world. The Victorians it seems were obsessed with their own minds, using the strange and abnormal in order to access the normal. In this way the Victorians believed that “the mesmeric mind,” writes Winter, “rendered comprehensible, would illuminate the Victorian mind.”3

In order to understand the connection between these two worlds in which Victorians existed, Winter continuously returns to the idea of “plausibility.” For the Victorian, she successfully argues, clairvoyance was plausible in the exact same way medicine was. As the nineteenth century continued on, these divergent urges coalesced into a disciplinary approach to the sciences and, I would add, all forms of knowledge.

This battle over the mind is thus reimagined in Mesmerized as a struggle, a struggle of diverse actors who sought to employ the inner parts of the mind in a variety of contradictory ways. Eventually science as we know it would emerge, but it is my impression that it could have easily have gone the other way—Dr. Hyde (or Frankenstein’s Monster or Mr. Griffin (aka the Invisible Man) could have easily won the day.

  1. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror (London: Penguin Books, 2002), 21. 

  2. Stevenson, 23 

  3. Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 12. 

The Archive: An Anthropological “Type”

The Archive: An Anthropological “Type”

Collage of images from "Resurrection of Christ," a 19th century anthropologist's photo of native women, and an image from an advertisement.
Collage of images from “Resurrection of Christ,” a 19th century anthropologist’s photo of native women, and an image from an advertisement.

Fully nude and dancing in the background of a recently restored Vatican fresco, scholars believe they have uncovered the first artistic representation of Native Americans in Europe.[1] At least fifty years before previously believed, Pinturicchio’s depiction of native people in the “Resurrection of Christ” (c. 1793) was one of, if not the, first example of portraying Native Americans as uncivilized, nude savages. This image placed their bodies within a preexisting, European epistemological system—their location is evocative, on the right shoulder of the returning Jesus.

“Unclothed, acutely aware of the camera,” writes Philippa Levine about the various native peoples photographed much later, during the nineteenth century, for scientific and anthropological reasons, they “were, in the language of the day, anthropological ‘types,’ not individuals but representatives.”[2] In her work, Levine’s naked natives share much in common with Pinturicchio’s. The act of capturing these images rendered these people’s bodies archetypes for their race, symbols for the stretch of the British Empire, and knowable in a way which soothed colonial anxieties. What she argues, and what the recently uncovered painting suggests, is that these sorts of cultural artifacts or archives must be read against the grain for they tell historians more about the system of power, the contexts of colonialism, and the ordering of the Empire than they do about the truth they purport to represent.

Mentioning the archive in this way may seem out of place; however, the archive has a duel meaning: as system of collecting and storing documents as well as the base of knowledge a group of people use to build their understanding of the world. It is this latter way which Levine means the term when she describes the anthropological images as the “body standardized by a precise uniform background, could be observed, measured, and classified.”[3]

Interestingly, this sentence could be said about the East India Company and the creation of its institutional repository as described by Betty Joseph—the Company’s record of observations, measurements, standardizations, and classifications of the Indian people. The Company’s archive was influenced by two forces. On one hand, the Company wished to increase profit through expansion, and, on the other, it had to consolidate its power over the places it already controlled. The archive itself was a way to achieve these goals through recording of precedence, codifying legal cases, to name but two examples.

Whereas Bernard Cohn sees the British exercising power over the Indians in the act of translating and learning Indian languages, Joseph sees it in the relatively few women who appear in the Company’s archive. She concludes that the presence of these women means that, though the archive suggests a male-centered, hegemonic-type control over the British colonial holdings, women were part of the political system. Occasional female subjectivities render the master narrative flawed and the archive incomplete. Although colonization, for Joseph, is clearly a process—from mercantilism, to colonialism, to cultural hegemony, to liberal paternalism—the creation of the archive was not. Instead, in Joseph’s formulation, the archive seems to be static. Although “the colonizer is also subject to the tyranny of his own representations,”[4] meaning they simultaneously create and are bound to their creations, this does not allow for an original representation or an evolution of representations, something Levine’s work also lacks.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, in Silencing the Past, that there are three sites where power is exercised over the archive: 1) within the selection of the original material to form the archive, 2) within the maintenance of the archive itself, and 3) within the mind of the historian who examines the material. At each of these stages, individual voices and marginalized perspectives are literally silenced, stricken from the historical record. The first two are overtly addressed by Levine and Joseph, who are both interested in questions of creation and historical use of the archive; however, the (surprisingly) tacit argument being made is that historians and anthropologists have not only been miss-reading the archive, but willfully employing it incorrectly.

The archive for its creators was the accepted truth—the scientific objectivity of the anthropological photograph and the Company’s interest in proper imperial governance. Scholars take this truth at face value rather than interrogating its cultural, literary, and political foundations, falling victim to contemporary biases and perpetuating them in the historiography. For Cohn the historian and the anthropologist are active participants in the archive—they (we) create a new mental archive as we try to interpret the physical one. Dipesh Chakrabarty is also aware of this when he writes that a good history must “deliberately [make] visible, within the very structure of its narrative forms, its repressive strategies and practices, the part it plays in collusion” with the structures of power.[5]

At every stage of its development, the archive is representational, an anthropological “type” which is symbolic, a construction, and subjective—all of which must be kept in dynamic tension if historians are to understand the multiplicity of people and their various ways of being-in-the-world.

[1] To see the cleaned up image, see Elisabetta Povoledo, “Early Images of American Indians Found in a Vatican Fresco,” New York Times, May 6, 2013,

[2] Philippa Levine, “Naked Truths: Bodies, Knowledge, and the Erotics of Colonial Power,” The Journal of British Studies, 52, no. 1 (2013): 10.

[3] Levine, 9.

[4] Betty Joseph, Reading the East India Company, 1720-1840, ( Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 18.

[5] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 45.


The “hallmark of the free”: Reasons for Literacy

The “hallmark of the free”: Reasons for Literacy

Map of the 13 Colonies copied from an early 20th Century map book found, for some reason, in my desk drawer.
Map of the 13 Colonies copied from an early 20th Century map book found, for some reason, in my desk drawer.

From the earliest stages of American colonization through the Revolution and into the new republic, one thing was accepted almost universally: literacy was the foundation of a good life. So-called “traditional literacy,” which E. Monaghan roots in the British and Protestant inheritance of the American colonies, was an established, almost prescriptive formula for childhood education before 1750—reading (memorization) followed by writing (penmanship). It was not until the mid-eighteenth century when childhood became distinctive from adulthood and educators introduced the spellers, two developments which paralleled changes occurring in Europe and Russia at the same time, caused the colonists to reevaluate this system. She takes to task scholars of literacy who establish literacy and illiteracy as binaries, as something achieved or not. Instead her work shows that in the colonies there was an established, educative program which some students completed, some students started, and some students never even began.

Monaghan argues that the goal of this program was two-fold. First of all, children were expected to be literate enough to read their Bible. The act of reading the scriptures was the same as saving one’s soul, a common theme in both the Anglican and Congregationalist strands of Protestantism popular in the colonies. Second, literacy was the “bulwark against barbarism.”[1] Especially when coming into contact with new peoples, the Wampanoags being an excellent example, literacy preserved the colonists’ civilized identity against the threat of the uncivilized. In addition it was a main vehicle for conversion—culturally and religiously. However, these explanations seem to take at face value justifications which the people themselves purport. They are ideological; they are justifiable. What about more pragmatically? What political or economic reasons could the colonists, not to mention Britain and Protestantism, have for supporting literacy?

In Ben Eklof’s (excellent) study of peasant schools in post-emancipation Russia, he argues that the state, on one hand, wanted peasant children to learn how to be better citizens of the motherland, both morally and ethically. The children’s parents, on the other, only wanted their children to achieve a level of practical literacy and ignored the rest of the school’s instruction. In a population where education was new, let alone literacy, parents considered the act of reading aloud from the prayer book and keeping one’s own accounts enough education for a peasant farmer—it was their own “peasant pedagogy.” Here, like in Monaghan’s work, the family was central to literacy; however, Eklof adds the state as well. In fact the familial and the political were combatants, fighting over the minds of these children. Though there was not a state at this point in America, there was a government and a certain social structure that may have benefited from this focus on literacy, an avenue which Monaghan does not explore. Perhaps pragmatic rationale are outside of her scope, although she does occasionally touch upon the political impact of literacy. For example, teaching the Wampanoags how to read served a religious purpose, missionary work, and a civilizing purpose, the introduction of Western modes of thought. However, concluding similarly to Eklof, Wampanoags did learned to read—most rejecting the religious and civilizing message, but some did not. There are profound political implications here which Monaghan does not explore: why, for example, target this particular group? Was it purely the desire to Christianize? Or could the educators have a more pragmatic reason?

Enslaved, literate people offer an interesting reversal of this message. Monaghan takes what is usually seen as a political reason for not educating slaves—educated slaves, it goes, run the risk of using their literacy to contemplate their own freedom—and makes it familial. Some families educated their slaves and some did not; some families educated some of their slaves and some slaves educated themselves. Meanwhile the Quakers in Pennsylvania connected slavery and literacy in a different way. The abolition of slavery was a reason for white school children to learn how to read, so that they could speak out against the practice. Connecting the family in this way to literacy while also acknowledging the role of the state is when Monaghan’s argument is at its strongest. Like E. P. Thompson’s clock, literacy was a regulator of modern life, a “hallmark of the free”[2] which, as Monaghan argues, was the basis for self-identity in colonial America and, I would add, the nation.

[1] E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (Worcester, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 367.

[2] Monaghan, 8.