Let’s start with a quote from Marshall McLuhan, which we discussed last week:
The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no “content.” And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the “content” (or what is really another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth.
In today’s lab we read and wrote by candlelight in part to think about practices of early manuscript production, and it is certainly true that medieval scribes sometimes copied manuscripts by candlelight, particularly in the winter months when daylight was scarce.
However, it is also true that technologies of illumination didn’t change that significantly for a long while—people in the mid-nineteenth century still read and wrote by candlelight and they were still scrivening well into the age of print. We are so accustomed to the ways electric light reshapes our daily lives that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine landscapes and lives not defined by it.
To frame this in another way, the candle is a non-textual medium that has profoundly affected the texts we have inherited from previous generations: the candle is not a format, perhaps, but it has profound influence on the evolution of our textual formats. An ecology of media, including candlelight, parchment, and calligraphic standards circumscribed and defined the labor of early book making, which in turn helped determine what books were made, what forms they assumed, and how they were used. And that labor is also important as labor: bookmaking was a laborious process, an embodied process. The books through which we understand early periods are not simply those that were written, but instead those that survived, and often because they were mediated and remediated through a series of scribes, formats, materials, and, later, typesetters and editors.
From Brian Pickings, a list of complaints about copying found in the margins of medieval manuscripts.
Lab Report 2 Prompt
For this lab report, I want you to do two things. First, to reflect as always on the lab we conducted together. How does working by candlelight help you think about early practices of textual production and the codex format? What new insights are produced by the experience?
Second, I would ask you to choose another format: perhaps something more contemporary, such as a software format, or something related to your own area of research interest. Then, I would ask you to consider—and this might require some brief additional research—a technical or material element that influences the form, production, or use of your format. You have latitude here, but you should be considering something that seems on first glance to stand apart from the content of your format, as the candle perhaps seems separate from the content of the manuscripts produced by its light. What new insight might we glean by considering these elements together, or by widening our lens from a given medium to the technologies or materials central to its expression?