Author: Staci L. Stutsman

A Ghost in the Machine: The Specter of Literature in EA’s Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor (12 February 2016)

One of the most compelling aspects of studying literature is uncovering the ways society and popular media adapt, adopt, reboot, and reimagine classic literary texts and genres into “new” (and more marketable) media forms—for better or for worse. One of my favorite trans-media adaptations of the last few years has been Electronic Art’s 2014 videogame Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor, an open-world adventure game that takes place in the rich, fantasy universe of J.R.R. Tolkien. This week I will be discussing how Tolkien’s literary texts literally “haunt” this videogame through the character Celebrimbor. Through this figure, I also consider what the ghostly presence of the book as an instance of “old media” can tell us about the future of fiction in an age of new media.

Media culture has its share of weak literary adaptations, some that distort or ignore the world of their origination, and some that are so geeked-out with hidden references and inside jokes that they become inaccessible to casual fans. Shadow of Mordor is unique in that it strikes a perfect balance between Tolkien’s literary world and the game’s player-focused digital narrative.  While one might expect a game based on books as popular as Tolkien’s to rely heavily on a teleological and novelistic plot, Shadow of Mordor’s open-world design allows the player to explore freely while choosing their own path through the loose narrative framework of the game. In a review for Kotaku, Yannick LeJacq writes “Mordor wants to be great game more than a satisfying bit of fan-service,” adding that “the game gracefully manages to keep the fiction of its own universe at arm’s length throughout” (Kotaku). While at first it appears that the rich history of Tolkien’s world—a deep fantasy universe that is founded on generations of unique internal histories—has been vacated in favor of a favorable playing experience, taking a closer look at the mechanics of the game reveals the fascinating and ghostly presence of Tolkien’s literary texts. Interestingly, Tolkien’s literary influence shows primarily through the game’s design and play-mechanics rather than through the narrative, and it is through these aspects of play that Shadow of Mordor is able to contribute to, rather than appropriate, Tolkien’s fantasy world.

The avatar through which players navigate the game is Talion, a ranger character invented specifically for the game.  The game begins with Talion witnessing his family’s ritual sacrifice by the evil minions of Sauron (the antagonist of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy) before being killed himself. After his death, Talion enters the spirit world and confronts the ghost of Celebrimbor, an elven ring-maker whom Sauron had also murdered long ago. Fans of Tolkien’s novels might know that Celebrimbor is an essential, if somewhat peripheral, character. As the most talented ring-maker of the Second Age, it is Celebrimbor that forges the magical ring from which Sauron derives his power over others. This makes Celebrimbor a small, but key component to the development of Tolkien’s universe, which revolves around the struggle to destroy the ring of power and arrest Sauron’s dark influence. In Shadow of Mordor, it is through Celebrimbor’s presence that Tolkien’s literary universe interacts with the game-world inhabited by the player.  (picture 2: player avatar Talion (left) and ghost-pal Celebrimbor (right))

mcb2f2

Player avatar Talion (left) and ghost-pal Celebrimbor (right)

Talion, who is a human (like the player) is summarily possessed by the “wraith” of Celebrimbor, and it is this interaction with the spirit world that grants Talion and the player special powers they can use to explore the environment and history of the game-world they inhabit. Seeing through Celebrimbor’s “wraith vision” allows the player to track the footprints of enemies, locate hidden relics, and restore once great ruins to their previous glory.  It is through Celebrimbor, the ghostly remnant of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, that the game’s material history—including its foundations in a literary past now overshadowed by a decade of film and videogame adaptations—becomes accessible to the player.  By joining the player-avatar Talion with Celebrimbor, the ludic dimension of the game-text and it’s literary history become one. And while a player may feel as if they have left the rigid history of Tolkien super-fandom behind, Celebrimbor’s ghost is always haunting the edges of the player’s experience, pointing out the undeniable link between history and the present.

Perhaps Shadow of Mordor’s most compelling aspect for gamers is its innovative Nemesis engine, a system of play that imbues the world of the game with a type of material and historical memory.

mcb2f3

Screen capture of the Nemesis system

The Nemesis system allows Talion’s enemies to “remember” when they have been defeated and, more insidiously, when they have defeated the player. This means that when encountering a seemingly random enemy in the free-roaming world of the game, the player often comes face-to-face with an enemy that bears the scars of past battles and holds a grudge. When Talion is killed in combat, the enemy who strikes the final blow gains a powerful boost in their statistics and may even be promoted to a higher rank in the feudal system of Sauron’s army. This means that mistakes and challenging encounters, which in most games could be forgotten by re-loading a save, create a long-lasting impact on the difficulty and narrative experience of the game.

mcb2f4

A victorious Orc is promoted to War Chief

As many reviewers have noted, the Nemesis system gives the game an entirely new dimension, turning enemies that have long been portrayed as faceless, nameless grunts of Sauron’s evil army into well-known and despised villains with unique personalities determined by their personal history with the player. Strangely, the Nemesis system—designed to create even more provoking villains—serves to “humanize” Sauron’s army in a way, providing a new perspective on the often-ignored minor antagonists of Tolkien’s world.  The Nemesis system makes the materiality of Tolkien’s world a framework for the experience of the game-world. Rather than forcing the player to re-live a pixelated version of Tolkien’s novelized history of Middle-Earth, the free-range, “sand-box” style of the game combined with the Nemesis system gives players agency in discovering, and even creating for themselves, new depths to Tolkien’s work. Even as the player experiences the freedom and pleasure of writing their own adventure in Tolkien’s world, the phantom of the text is always there beside them, guiding them through Celebrimbor’s voice or framing the materiality of Tolkien’s influence through Nemesis. In this way, Shadow of Mordor makes its most interesting contribution back to Tolkien’s literary world.

Inhabiting the ghostly margins of their new media forms, the phantoms of our favorite books are capable of transforming our understanding of literature by shaping new and immersive narrative experiences.


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.

 

 

 

Don’t Eat The Flatware: Balancing Instruction and Interpretation in the Classroom (5 February 2016)

For this month’s posts, I will focus on how engagement with social media, popular culture, film, and video games can inform the work we do in humanities classrooms. This week, I look at how criticism of humanities instruction on Reddit might help us understand why the practice of interpretation leaves some students with a negative impression of this field.

To do this, I want to examine one particular Reddit thread about the Oscars that quickly segued into a discussion about students’ expectations of interpretative arguments and pedagogical assessment in humanities classrooms. Initially, this forum comments on a controversy among Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Spike Lee, and Janet Hubert, Smith’s co-star on the ‘90s television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This disagreement concerns celebrity reactions to the despairing lack of nominations of people of color for marquee positions at the last two Academy awards, which in turn has engendered the resurfacing of the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite as an attempt to return public awareness to Hollywood’s historical marginalization of people of color. In their own call to action, Pinkett Smith, Smith, and Lee have advocated boycotting the award ceremony. However, this decision, in turn, has been met with resistance by actors of color such as Hubert, who claimed that Smith’s boycott was a temper-tantrum over not being nominated for 2015’s Concussion rather than an expression of race solidarity (for more on this debate click here).

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Will Smith and Aunt Viv (Hubert) in Fresh Prince (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank via AP Images)

 

This celebrity pseudo-family feud has promoted discussion of the institutionalized racism that persists in US culture, but I am particularly interested here in how one Reddit discussion connects the #OscarsSoWhite debate with the institution of the university, a dialogue that I think can offer those of us instructing in humanities classrooms a unique window into students’ experience.

Commenting on Hubert’s response to the Academy Awards boycott, Reddit user “hashbrown” associated her reaction with their own experience of receiving a disappointing grade on an interpretive community college essay assignment.

Hashbrown writes:

“I have a story that relates.

Last year I had an English class at the biggest community college in California. My African American teacher made the topic of the entire class revolve around black literature. One of the videos we watched talked about how African Americans need to start “helping” and empowering each other out [sic] by only watching black television, shopping at black stores, and volunteering in black communities.

I wrote my paper on how self segregation was a form of racism itself. Why should black people not shop at stores because of color of the owners skin? Why should people not watch white or asian actors?

In the end my teacher ended up giving me a C and wrote that I wasn’t understanding the material.

A year later and I’m still bitter about that class.”

Hashbrown articulates a common misconception about the value placed on interpretive analysis in the humanities—the notion that any ideological position on a text, regardless of its merit, is valid if properly argued. Missing from this perception is an important aspect of the interpretive process, in which students must take into account the contexts that inform their claims. In this case, hashbrown’s assertion that African American engagement in community activism equates to “self segregation” fails to account for the history of structural racism in Hollywood cinema, and the result of this lack of context was a C grade–hardly a failing score and a nearly universally accepted marker of “average” work in undergraduate study, indicating a need for improvement. Despite hashbrown’s possible “bitterness” over the grade itself, it seems to me that their frustration also might indicate a miscommunication in the instructor’s expectations.

While one could easily dismiss these kinds of complaints as quests for minor revenge by disengaged students turned internet trolls, the sheer number of responses that echo hashbrown’s frustrations suggest there may be something more here. Coming to hashbrown’s defense, other Reddit users noted how experiencing an instructor’s criticism to their subjective interpretations of texts left them with a cynical outlook on the project of humanities instruction at large. Reddit user Rainator writes, “I learned in English that the way to get a good grade was to just parrot whatever nonsense the teacher said.” User OneFatGuy described a similar experience, commenting, “I had a professor that would only agree on arguments based on his ideas, and anything other than his ideas were wrong or weak arguments.” From the perspective of the frustrated student, these users articulate a fundamental miscommunication that can occur between students and teachers concerning the pedagogical interplay between instruction and interpretation.

I believe that effective pedagogy embraces a dialogue between instruction—the teacher’s role of providing proper historical and cultural contexts that inform effective humanities study—and interpretation—the practice of synthesizing information from texts and developing an understanding of its meaning. This allows students to form interpretations that are unique, creative, and grounded in an enriched understanding of the text rather than construed from initial, unexamined reactions or previously fortified ideologies. However, when the prioritization of one element leads to the neglect of the other, the result can be the regrettable alienation of the student and/or the demonization of the instructor.

For Hashbrown and many other students with similar experiences, pedagogical focus on subjective argumentation is understood as a license to assert any of all possible readings of a text, even those that do not account for the specificity of material histories and social contexts. To be fair, the focus on rhetoric in many humanities classrooms makes this an easy misperception, even for advanced students. It is especially common in lower-level composition and survey courses, where the responsibility for providing such contextualization usually falls solely on the instructor. This problem is magnified in English and Literature Studies, where students are encouraged to form nuanced interpretations of texts that deal in complex and even contradictory aspects of culture and society, such as racism. However, focusing too much on contextualization over interpretation can be a problem as well. As Rainator’s response points out, when teachers over-prioritize instruction, students can feel that they have no agency in the discussion and simply parrot back information rather than engage in a critical practice.

This experience can be as frustrating for instructors as it is for students. One instructor in particular voiced on this thread their frustration at students’ mishandling of the “tools” provided by instruction claiming, ”It’s like I prepared you dinner and you ate the cutlery.” Engaging critically with such issues often involves confronting unsettling aspects of culture, society, and even our own experiences—a prospect that can be difficult for students and instructors alike. However, by providing historical and cultural context for the texts students read, and setting clear expectations about how student interpretation will engage with this context, instructors can prevent turning students off to the valuable practice of critical analysis and perhaps even help our students to have their cake and eat it, too!

Next week I will continue to think about how engagement with the public can inform humanities research and instruction, so grab your knives and forks and let’s eat!


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.

Coda: The Human in the Humanities (29 Jan. 2016)

My first semester of grad school was kind of a wreck: I was constantly sick, my nerves were bound tight with anxiety, and my back and wrists were in pain from the Soviet-era metal chair-desks in a basement classroom. None of this was helped by the ideological distress I found myself in. Two pieces of scholarly advice that found their way to me that semester still linger with me: one, there’s no such thing as the human condition; and two, your graduate program will tear you apart and remake you in its image.

A photo of a metal classroom chair with tiny desk attached at the armrest.

The chairs were still the worst part, though.

In the classroom, I mentally conceded the probable truth of the first one. My undergrad philosophy classes taught me that we have no good definition of “human.” And the conditions people live in vary so radically that there can’t really be a universal one: the Elizabethans understood the world’s functions quite differently than do the Mosuo or a New Yorker, and attempts to demand that there is one ideal understanding usually end up serving some hegemonic understanding to the exclusion and oppression of other worldviews. That didn’t stop the statement from messing with my heart, though.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I had recently graduated from a Jesuit college, and “the human condition” is a big part of Ignatian philosophy. My best friend and I had lofty aspirations of studying “the human condition” through literature in grad school; I still amuse myself by correctly identifying Jesuit-educated students and priests by their use of the phrase in discussions and homilies, respectively; and Christ’s entering “the human condition” through the Incarnation is the foundation of Ignatian imaginative contemplation, my graduate research, and my personal aesthetic. To be told that “the human condition” is inherently meaningless was like being told that J.K. Rowling’s prose is mediocre, only worse: both statements may be true, but I still love the object that they discredit — and “the human condition” informed my life and work more deeply and for far longer than Harry Potter.

A photo of tree-lined sidewalk leading to a redbrick academic building, which features a statue of a priest over the entry doors and a clocktower topped with a cross. The trees are bare but there is no snow on the grass.

Le Moyne College on a rare snowless day in winter.

 

As imposter syndrome set in and I attempted to impress my professors and fit in with my classmates through mimicking their interests and ideologies, I began to darkly wonder if there was some degree of truth to the second statement, too. As I’ve gained confidence in my ideas, my professors have all been wonderfully supportive of my research, even at critical moments of doubt, but I still felt strangely disembodied from my ideas. They were necessarily available, even susceptible, to outside influences in the name of getting a job, which could range from something as benign as entering them into a critical discourse I was unenthusiastic about to something as disheartening as avoiding theories that are no longer trendy.

Not until I took a summer creative nonfiction workshop with the magnificent Minnie-Bruce Pratt did I realize that this compulsory refashioning had nothing to do with my program, but with the state of English-language literary studies. I spent two weeks reading first-hand accounts like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, in which Morrison exposes the subtle racism of American literary tradition not in the form of a journal article, but of a personal reckoning with that history. I spent three weeks writing in the first person about the body of Christ, the woman’s body, and the queer body not in the form of a seminar paper but in the form of a series of anecdotes and meditations steeped in medieval and Renaissance mysticism. I found myself applying my research to my life in ways that made the Early Moderns come alive — in our exchange of good-byes, classmates from diverse religious backgrounds told me how fascinating and important my research was through having encountered it in this genre.

: The greyscale cover of Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark. Morrison holds a giant floppy hat. A gold sticker proclaims that the book won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Fantastic book, by the way: accessible first-person literary criticism. Highly recommend.

Creative nonfiction enabled me to communicate my ideas — shaped by research and critical writing — with a public upon whom they had material impact. My ideas became my own again: I had a personal investment in recovering historically obscured understandings of gender and the body to not only locate the essential value of the queer and the female bodies in Catholicism but also to share old ways of embodying queerness and femininity that are relevant today. In creative nonfiction, my first-person voice had credibility, purpose, and an audience who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t access to this knowledge.

Radical queer and feminist scholarship is somewhat better at this, leveraging the personal narrative as a source of knowledge and an act of inquiry. To assert a self in English (and, I’d wager, biology, history, math, or information studies) is to assert that you are not the implied raceless, genderless, classless entity interested only in books, but that you instead have an investment in disrupting the status quo. This trickles down into policing how we frame our inquiries: we teach our students not to use the first-person because the personal isn’t credible, and we apply the same principle to our critical essays. Consequently, I have no idea why most of my colleagues study what they do: I assume they all love literature, but if that were their only motivation they wouldn’t still be suffering through grad school. If the English scholar speaks, it is only through the voice of their subject of study, and tentatively: papers on nuns I identify with, on devotional poems that resonate with me. Our research overwhelms our selves, and obscures its own real-life applicability. And so we get accused of navel-gazing and being out of touch with reality:

Nothing like some anti-intellectual sentiment to kick-start one’s drive to inform the public.

So maybe there isn’t a single human condition, but that doesn’t mean studying the humanities can’t improve the conditions of some humans. If my experience with creative nonfiction is any indication, one of the most meaningful ways to connect with those outside the academy is to acknowledge our own subject positions, explicitly recognizing the self in order to humanize the humanities. This is what I’ve tried to do here. But now it’s your turn:

Why do you study what you do? Why do you work where you do? Who are you?

A painted full-length portrait of a nun sitting in a library, paging through a book; she wears a large icon of the Annunciation over her breast.

Also, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is just objectively rad.


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

 

A Match Made in the Archive: Reading and Poaching Through Ngrams and Rare Books (22 January 2016)

On a hunch, I went home after the DH events last September and typed “Jesuit” into the English corpus of Google Books’ Ngram Viewer. The tool is more powerful than what I used it for, but my search revealed how popular the word was in the English-language books that Google has digitized and made searchable. One result from 1524 (before the Society was founded) is the result of a wrong date (actually 1920). But things get really interesting in 1609, four years after the Gunpowder Plot to restore a Catholic monarchy failed and English Jesuit missionaries took a good chunk of the blame. Things more or less taper off as the corpus of extant books expands in later years, but with curious spikes in popularity, one of which occurs between 1840 and 1860.

A line graph tracing the popularity of “Jesuit” from 1550 to 1900.

Jesuits making seismic waves in English literature … or at least tremors.

This spike follows the 1844 Philadelphia Nativist Riots, which is in the news lately as journalists draw apt comparisons between the anti-Muslim paranoia of Donald Trump & Co. and the ultra-nationalist anti-Catholicism of nineteenth-century America. Sometimes called the Bible Riots, Philadelphia nativists violently destroyed Catholic property after outrage over Catholic parents’ wanting their children to be allowed to personally use a Catholic translation of the Bible in their public-school Bible studies: Protestants feared a foreign takeover from these people who often heralded from Ireland or Italy and followed a religious leader in Rome. The Google Books corpus shows that anti-Catholic sentiment persisted on both sides of the Atlantic, however, and includes such salacious titles as Jesuit Interference with Domestic Affairs: A True Statement of Facts Concerning the Conduct of the Jesuit Priests of Texas (unknown, 1848); The Friendship of a Jesuit (with an epigram from Hamlet: “meet it is, I set it down / That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”; Edinburgh and London, 1848); The Perverter in High Life: a True Narrative of Jesuit Duplicity (London, 1851); The Female Jesuit; or, The Spy in the Family (New York, 1851 — and its 1853 sequel); and Madelon Hawley, or, The Jesuit and His Victim: A Revelation of Romanism (New York, 1857; 1859).

The title page and an engraving from Madelon Hawley: the latter features an old man in a black cassock and biretta seated next to a young man in a suit; in the background are a leaded window and at least three crucifixes, one quite large.

Sometimes stereotypes ring true, though, and a Catholic affection for many and ornate crucifixes is definitely one of them.

 

This last title, written by William Earle Binder, has a hard copy housed in the Special Collections Resource Center (SCRC) at Syracuse University’s Bird Library. The book is fairly small for a hardbound book by today’s standards, a little smaller than a trade paperback — a book for casual reading. Though the interior is in good shape, it has a worn-out cover and spotted edges. Framed as a story that the author heard from a dying man, Joseph Secor, who left a corrupt Society of Jesus, the text traffics in the hallmarks of anti-Catholic prejudice handed down from the English Reformation. During his time in the Society, the Fr. Joseph clashes with a tyrannical and cunning senior member, Fr. Eustace, who tormented to death the married Mrs. Hawley, a woman who refused his sexual advances; later, he pursues her virginal daughter Madelon even after excommunicating her (spoiler alert: he and Madelon both die). The pages are filled with priests in disguise, gross caricatures of the Irish, kidnapped women held prisoner in cloisters, allusions to the Inquisition, and vivid (historically and doctrinally inaccurate) ritual. Flipping through the book, I wondered what kind of person would have held it before I put my hands on it — what they would have thought of a dorky Catholic studying Jesuit literature for a living. Indeed, I found written large inside the back cover:

Mrs Clara T Crane

91 3/4 Clark Street

Auburn NY

 A hand holds open the back cover of a book, with Mrs Clara T Crane's name and address written in large, curly script.

Don’t feel bad if you read that as 9 3/4, too.

Auburn hits rather closer to home than Philadelphia. A little Googling revealed Mrs. Crane to be the wife of a W.W. Crane, an English immigrant and manufacturer; in 1900, he died and was buried with Episcopalian and Masonic services.[1] Perhaps she was an anti-Catholic crusader: her husband came to America in 1852, when many of the anti-Jesuit texts were published in England and the US. Maybe she just liked sensational conspiracy novels. Or maybe the book belonged to someone else who merely took note of her address on the back flap of a text they didn’t care about.

A torso in a blue sweater reaches out, holding open the book: one page full of text, the other an illustration of the dying Madelon and Fr. Eustace.

Caution: Dorky Catholic at Work.

In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau (himself a Jesuit) suggests that there is no text without a reader: the reader “invents in texts something different from what [the author] ‘intended’” (169), “like nomads poaching their way across field they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (174).[2] Consequently, there are as many readings of a text as there are readers; each reader interacts with the text differently, and that interaction subtly shapes their interpretation of the book. My experience, as a dorky Catholic studying Jesuit literature, with a specific copy of a text that may have belonged to someone who enjoyed anti-Catholic sensation novels will necessarily shape my interpretation of that particular book. Similarly, your experience, as someone with your background, with this digitized version of a different copy of the text will necessarily shape your interpretation differently, especially since you’ve read this post and are probably thinking your own thoughts in the process. Especially, you can’t touch the handwriting at the back of the SCRC’s book; if this book were reproduced by a nineteenth-century equivalent of EEBO instead, you wouldn’t even know there’s a name and address copied there, since EEBO doesn’t usually include covers in their scans.

A sepia-toned portrait photograph of a middle-aged white man in a turtleneck, corduroy blazer, and tinted glasses.

Michel de Certeau, in the craftiest of Jesuit disguises: nerdy scholar

Books have real, material, human consequences. Sometimes, digital humanities can efface the small consequences: somewhere in Auburn, probably, someone bought an anti-Jesuit sensation novel in the wake of the Nativist Riots, buying into anti-Catholic sentiment at least economically. But other times, DH brings to light the bigger consequences: Madelon Hawley fits into a long literary tradition of demonizing the Catholic other. The humanities are at their best when they combine the two to reveal something about how humans read the books we can still access today, no matter the format.

Next week: The human in the humanities.

[1] See Auburn Weekly Bulletin, February 27, 1900 and Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Vol. 6.

[2] Michel de Certeau, “Reading as Poaching,” The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 165-76.

Many thanks to the Special Collections Resource Center at Bird Library, and especially to Nicolette Dombrowski and Nicole Dittrich, for their assistance with researching this post and for permission to post photographs of the book.


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

Common Knowledge?: EEBO, #FrEEBO, and Public Domain Information (15 Jan. 2016)

If you work in the humanities and you’ve used a database, a dictionary, or Google Docs in the past ten years, congratulations! — you’re already doing digital humanities. This was a point emphasized by Syracuse University professor Chris Hanson in a panel discussion on the digital humanities that I attended after the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon workshop last fall. Grad students, faculty, and a librarian from a range of disciplines underscored that, according to this definition, anyone can do digital humanities — in fact, many already do — as long as they have access to digital information and the tools to manipulate it.

Not everyone has that kind of access, however, and this became painfully obvious for Renaissance-studies scholars a few weeks later when ProQuest discontinued access to the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database for Renaissance Society of America (RSA) members. Previously, those who didn’t have EEBO access through a university’s library subscription — such as independent scholars or those at smaller schools with smaller budgets — could gain access by joining the RSA, a professional organization rather than a library. After a Twitter uproar, ProQuest quickly restored access without much of an explanation, but not before Renaissance scholars could write about the implications of a private business’s controlling access to what is ultimately public domain information.

EEBO’s origins lie in World War II, when the London Blitz threatened to destroy English libraries and the thousands of medieval and Early Modern books they contained — a potential massive loss of information. University Microfilms International (UMI) stepped in to scan the texts for future generations … and for profit. UMI began to offer microfilmed titles in the English Short Title Catalogue (SCT) to university libraries through print-on-demand services.[1] For decades, Renaissance scholars outside the UK relied upon libraries’ microfilm reprints to do their research. Seventy years later, UMI is now ProQuest and the microfilmed SCT is now EEBO, a digitized and expanded collection of scanned texts. Just under half of the (rapidly expanding) current collection was released into the public domain last year. But anyone without library access will have to wait until 2020 for ProQuest’s exclusive rights to expire in order to access the complete collection.[2]

A library with the ceiling caved in. Beams, rubble, curtains, and ladders are heaped in the center. Three men in hats and wool coats inspect the books that remain on the shelves.

The private library at the seventeenth-century Holland House was bombed in the London Blitz. Books in national libraries were quaking in their dust jackets.

I’m one of the lucky ones: Syracuse University participates in the EEBO Text-Creation Partnership, so I have access even to texts that haven’t been made fully searchable. Without my university library access, I couldn’t possibly be an Early Modernist studying Jesuit literature. Syracuse is a long way from the Huntington and the Folger libraries, let alone Cambridge or Oxford. Not only do I not have a research budget as a PhD student, but some of the most prestigious libraries limit access to students already working on a dissertation.. If I hadn’t spent time browsing EEBO’s collections, I wouldn’t even know that I wanted to write about Jesuit literature. I may eventually have read that Richard Crashaw, a seventeenth-century poet and Catholic sympathizer-turned-convert, was raised by a virulently anti-Catholic father who wrote a tract called “The Bespotted Jesuite.” But without EEBO, I would never have had the opportunity to actually read the elder Crashaw’s text for its obsession with the maternal role of the Virgin Mary in Catholic notions of salvation, and then compare its horrified images of breastfeeding with the glorifying images that appear in the younger Crashaw’s baroque — even mystical — poetry. Without EEBO, I couldn’t read about the Maryland colony’s connection to the English Jesuit mission; I couldn’t perform full-text proximity searches comparing discourse on Eucharistic flesh and New-World cannibals; and I couldn’t crosscheck textual references to English Jesuits to add to Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.

 

A poorly copied black-and-white page of text titled “To OUR LADY OF Hall, and to the Child JESUS”; the rest of the text is half-obscured because text from the opposite side bleeds through.

A page from William Crashaw’s “The Bespotted Jesuite,” aka the “Jesuites Gospell” (1642). Read might be a generous verb.

But not everyone is so fortunate: in the few days when some RSA members believed they would lose their only means of accessing the full EEBO, proposals to make a #FrEEBO circulated on the internet. The conversations reminded me of when I graduated from undergrad and realized, to my horror, that I no longer had access to the Oxford English Dictionary. I found myself keeping younger classmates “on retainer,” pestering them to please, please look up the seventeenth-century definitions of this word so I can revise my writing sample to apply to grad school. Imagine being a scholar trying to publish a journal article for tenure and having to do the same thing — but with every single primary text you’re analyzing. Unlike the OED, the texts in EEBO are public domain, after all, even if ProQuest’s digitizations aren’t; there’s no reason scholars couldn’t create a parallel database that’s wholly public domain from inception.[3]

Digital texts have their shortcomings, of course, including other forms of inaccessibility as well. Untranscribed texts are wholly inaccessible to those with visual impairments. Databases like EEBO offer OCR transcriptions of some scanned texts, and while the good ones can be helpful, quality is inconsistent and frequently bad, especially for Early Modern typefaces and spellings. (If anyone has had a good experience using a screen reader with EEBO, let me know in the comments.) Digital texts also necessarily misrepresent the material object it’s based on by transcribing it into a different medium: a scan of a book obscures its size, its texture, its color, its smell, and even, in EEBO’s case, its cover. (More about that next week!)

A black-and-white scan of two pages of text fills the top two-thirds of the image; a transcription fills the bottom third. The transcription is filled with punctuation marks to signal line breaks and diacritical marks. Each transcription has a yellow post-it note icon in the middle of sentences. The text that fills the margins of the scan is not included in the transcription.

A side-by-side comparison between the scan and the transcription of two pages from “True relations of sundry conferences had between certaine Protestant doctours and a Iesuite called M. Fisher” (1626) in EEBO. To read marginal commentary, you have to click the yellow post-it note icons — a very different experience than the Early Moderns had.

 

But shortcomings shouldn’t stop us from finding new ways to increase access to these texts. One aspect of Jesuit philosophy that’s always resonated with me is that education is inseparable from social justice. Extensive higher education is required during Jesuits’ training in part because they are meant to share that knowledge in service to others. Education itself is a common good, and as an aid to education the cultural heritage contained in databases like EEBO shouldn’t be limited to scholars attached to the wealthiest schools — or even to scholars alone. If public scholars are truly committed to democratizing knowledge, our work shouldn’t end at merely presenting our research to the public, which only reinforces the ivory tower’s hierarchical relationship to the public. Our service to the public should extend to enable universal access to the primary sources we work with, so that anyone who wants to — no matter their situation — can discover not only our knowledge but also how we arrived at it, and how they could make some new knowledge themselves.

[1] http://folgerpedia.folger.edu/History_of_Early_English_Books_Online

[2] http://www.textcreationpartnership.org/tcp-eebo/

[3] https://medium.com/@john_overholt/together-we-can-freebo-b33d39618f8#.wpxzn95s1


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

The Human in the Digital Humanities (8 January 2016)

The digital humanities (or as the cool kids call it, DH) have been in my peripheral vision since my first year in grad school: something that looks useful and fun; but for someone who dreads calculating grades, working with data is intimidating. Last September, a series of DH events in a symposium on the future of the humanities inspired me to reconsider how the digital humanities fit into the humanities generally. This month, I’ll be looking at the human in the digital humanities in order to think about where the human is located in the humanities. To do this, I’m going to introduce to you some of my research on the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, a missionary order of Catholic priests founded in Spain by Ignatius Loyola at the time of the Reformation. This focus is partly self-serving: I’m a dork and I love studying Jesuit literature even beyond my Early Modern period. But the connection between the Jesuits and the issues I’ll tackle is a lot closer than just my research. Ignatian philosophy on education, public service, and the relationship of the material to the ideal has greatly informed my appreciation of the digital and public humanities.

A cartoon of Ignatius Loyola, wearing sunglasses and holding a to-go cup of coffee.

Time to get Iggy with it.

The first event I was able to attend in the DH series this past September was a workshop with Daniel Shore and Chris Warren on the new DH project they’ve launched, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (or SDFB).* If you’re familiar with cinema’s (Kevin) Bacon Number, the principle is similar: the database maps degrees of separation between major and minor figures in Early Modern England based on the different kinds of relationships they had with each other. Francis Bacon’s network of relationships greets visitors on the home page: he is one degree of separation from Anne Bacon (“parent of” Francis), Elizabeth Hatton (“attracted to” Francis), and William Fulbecke (“collaborated with” Francis); and he’s two degrees of separation from the Archbishop William Laud (via Thomas Coventry) and Sir Edwin Sandys (via Sir Thomas Coke). Francis Bacon also belongs to the groups “Virginia Company” and “Company of Mineral and Battery Works,” and you can search just for members of a single group or for members of two groups (turns out Bacon is the only one in the database who belonged to both those companies). While the foundational information for SDFB was imported from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, new information is crowd-sourced: anyone can add a new person, add a person to a group, add a new relationship, or assign a new relationship type (for admin approval, of course).

A very busy map of Francis Bacon’s first- and second-degree relationships.

Two degrees of Francis Bacon. I can only hope to be so socially well-connected.

Before I started playing with SDFB the night before the workshop, I hadn’t really understood how any DH methodologies, outside of simple word frequency analyses, would be useful to my research. But as I clicked around the website, looking up individual English Jesuits whose writings I’d read, I began to appreciate the power of visual representation of the connections between these priests and the social circles they moved in during their work in England.

Some historical context about the sixteenth-century English Jesuit mission is helpful here. With the replacement of all Roman Catholic bishops with conforming Church of England bishops, and with the institution of the 1584 “act against Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons,” English Catholics could no longer ordain their own priests to serve their communities. Politically, England was reduced to the same status as an Aztec, Chinese, or any other historically non-Catholic kingdom: it became a mission field served by foreign-trained priests, mainly from the expat community in Douai, France. Indeed, it could even be more hostile than other foreign mission fields: the 1584 act made it high treason to be a Catholic priest, and a felony to aid one; even suspicion of either crime could subject a person to any number of gruesome tortures.

Protestant-era England did have two advantages over other mission fields, however. First, most of the Jesuit missionaries serving in England were born there or descended from English families. And second, Catholicism was still fairly widespread in its underground status, with some families even managing to retain considerable wealth. English Jesuits had something of a home turf advantage, and these connections were crucial to carrying out their work in often hostile territory.

Printed engravings of Edmund Campion (with a dagger in his heart, a noose around his neck, and gallows and stretchers in the background); Robert Southwell (with a dagger in his heart, a tiny noose around his neck, and a cherub waving a crown of laurels over his head); and Alexander Briant (with a dagger in his heart, a noose around his neck, and holding a handful of reeds while a cherub waves a laurel crown over his head)

Some of the English Jesuit martyrs: Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, and Alexander Briant (whose good looks were legendary).

 

When I came to the SDFB workshop the next morning, my goal was to help map the English Jesuits’ human networks of supporters, and I was thrilled to find that this was something in which I had the expertise to contribute and that it was something that was useful to my research. Because of SDFB, I could begin to really see just how tightly connected many of the Jesuit missionaries and their English supporters were, something I hadn’t recognized in the disparate texts I had read before. And I was very pleased to convince Drs. Shore and Warren to add “Jesuits” as a standalone group in addition to “Jesuit missionaries to England,” in order to account for expats who never returned to England.

The database is in beta testing, so there are still some quirks and bugs and inefficiencies. There is a terrible shortage of women in the database, as a consequence of how only 6% of the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, from which the vast majority of SDFB is drawn, are for women.1 This is particularly problematic for my research, as recusant Catholic women were better able to fly under the English government’s radar (so to speak), especially if their husbands conformed, and thus were essential to Jesuit ministry: hiding priests, offering financial support, and granting access to printing presses. (If you want to help boost the number of women in SDFB, check out the Networking Early Modern Women event on January 23 at the Carnegie Mellon and Folger libraries and live online.)

Some features of the current design can also be shortcomings. A sometimes-limiting selection of terms used to categorize and group relationships can flatten their contours and conceal the dynamics. In some ways, broad strokes are necessary to even begin to sort relationships. For instance, “collaborated with” or “attracted to” mean different things to different people, but a general sense of what they could mean enables the first step of investigation. On the other hand, it was rather chilling to see Robert Southwell’s visualized relationships to Robert Persons (a Jesuit) and Anne Howard (a recusant and priest-harborer) given equal weight as his relationship to Richard Topcliffe — his torturer.

aofig4

Robert Southwell’s first-degree relationships.

 

But these are the problems that are resolved by the humanities side of digital humanities. As I often remind my students, data does not an argument make. It doesn’t tell us anything — it must be interpreted. Thanks to SDFB, we can see the names, or the dates, or the likelihood of the relationships between people and the extent of their networks. But we need to read their texts and contexts not only to understand the difference between an ally and an enemy, but also to fully appreciate the contributions these figures made to literary history.

*Full disclosure: To my surprise and delight, I was made a curator for SDFB between writing this post and its publication. Opinions are very much my own.

Next week: EEBO and public-access literature

  1. networkingwomen.sixdegreesoffrancisbacon.com

Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

The English Renaissance “Timeline”: Part III (1 January 2016)

“Habits of behavior begin with the control of the hand, with the formations of the hand.”

– Jonathan Goldberg[1]

In “The English Renaissance ‘Timeline’: Part II,” I discussed how I came upon the works of English Renaissance calligrapher Esther Inglis, specifically through her drawing of an emblem from Jean-Jacques Boissard’s Emblemes (1588). The emblem became even more interesting to me as I thought about it in relation to the self-portrait included in one of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s copies of her Octonaries upon the vanitie and inconstancie of the world (1600/01). The Folger’s is one of nine copies Inglis made of Calvinist theologian Antoine de la Roche Chandieu’s Octonaries.[2] The image I included last week was a detail of Inglis’s self-portrait, whereas, in the image below, you can see her self-portrait within the larger context of the manuscript:

3fig1

Fig. 1    Self-Portrait of Esther Inglis (1v) and “Octonarie 1” (2r) from Inglis’s Octonaries (1600/01). Folger MS V.a.91, 1v || 2r.[3] (Click here to zoom in.)

There are apparently forty-seven octonaries – eight-line stanzas – in the manuscripts, each illustrated with flowers and written in a different calligraphic style. One of the most fascinating and ornate styles she uses, to me, is lettera mancina, or “mirror writing”:

3fig2

Fig. 2    “Octo XXX” and Example of “Mirror Writing” from Inglis’s Octonaries (1607). Folger MS V.a.92, 34v || 35r. (Click here to zoom in.)

3fig3

Fig. 3    “Octo XXX” and Example of “Mirror Writing” from Inglis’s Octonaries (1600/01). Folger MS V.a.91, 30v ||31r. (Click here to zoom in.)

The 1600/01 manuscript is written in French and English, with translations of the octonaries appearing on facing pages. Inglis’s use of “mirror writing” is particularly interesting to me within this context – it is a reversal, or translation, of the French. However, it is also a “reflection” of Inglis as, again, writer and maker of text, as well as the calligraphic nuance with which she pens and translates the octonaries, making each one more memorable for readers – an aide-mémoire.

The intricacy of Inglis’s penmanship and drawings illustrates that, while Inglis copies Antoine de la Roche Chandieu’s printed octonaries, she does not “lack originality” or merely “reproduce” the “designs [of] others,” as some scholars have suggested.[4] Indeed, the self-portrait she draws and includes in the 1600/01 manuscript announces this at its outset – namely through the prominence of her hand. By depicting herself with the instruments of literary composition, Inglis’s self-portrait situates her, visually, as a writer and maker of texts, with her first and last name bookending the drawn frame. Notice how the letters of her name, written in Roman majuscule, so closely mimic print. In this way, her penmanship is very similar to that of English Renaissance calligrapher Thomas Fella, whose “drawings” of printed media I wrote about in an earlier post. She copies printed words from la Roche Chandieu, but through her use of multiple calligraphic styles and floral illustrations, asserts the authority of her own hand and the originality it brings to her works.

As I conclude my three part series on “The English Renaissance Timeline,” I leave you with two more of my favorite images and examples of Inglis’s penmanship, as well as a list of references should you like to know more about Inglis:

3fig4

Fig. 4    “Octo XIII” from Inglis’s Octonaries (1600/01). Folger MS V.a.91, 13v ||14r. (Click here to zoom in.)

3fig5

Fig. 5    “Octo XLI” from Inglis’s Octonaries (1600/01). Folger MS V.a.91, 41v||42r. (Click here to zoom in.)

Further Reading:
Frye, Susan. Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2010.

Knoppers, Laura Lunger, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Ziegler, Georgianna. “‘More than feminine boldness’: the gift books of Esther Inglis.” Women Writing and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart England. Ed. Mary E. Burke, et al. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000: 19-37.

[1] Jonathan Goldberg, Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990: 55.

[2] To clarify, the Folger Shakespeare Library houses two copies of Inglis’s Octonaries – one dated 1600/01 and the other 1607.

[3] All images identified as “Folger MS” or “FSL Collection” are here used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

[4] Elspeth Yeo, “Inglis, Esther (1570/71 – 1624),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.


Amy K. Burnette is a 6th year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Syracuse University where she is currently at work on her dissertation project, Praxis Memoriae: Memory as Aesthetic Technique in English Renaissance Literature, 1580-1630.

The English Renaissance “Timeline”: Part II (23 December 2015)

Last week, I discussed illustrations, or “drawings,” of printed media from Thomas Fella’s commonplace book with the aim of thinking more broadly about the relation between printed media, visual culture, and memory in Renaissance England. This week, I’d like to explore these ideas further by turning to the work of another English Renaissance calligrapher, Esther Inglis:

fig1ab

Fig. 1   Self-Portrait of Esther Inglis. Folger MS V.a.91, Fol. 1v.[1] (Click here to zoom in.)

The second of five children, Inglis was born in London around 1570 to French Huguenot refugees Nicolas Langlois and Marie Presot.[2] Inglis was taught calligraphy by her mother – a “skilled scribe,” according to scholar Elspeth Yeo.[3] Inglis, like Fella, was also influenced by John de Beauchesne’s popular book on handwriting, A Booke Containing Divers Sortes of Hands (Fig. 2).[4]

fig2ab

Fig. 2   Example of “Italique Hande” from A booke containing divers sortes of hands (1602). FSL Collection. STC 6450.2. (Click here to zoom in).

In addition to being an accomplished calligrapher – indeed, “a woman known for her handwriting,” as Georgianna Ziegler describes in her blog post for The Collation – what is perhaps most remarkable about Inglis is that fifty-nine of her manuscripts are extant. However, I came across Inglis’s work in a sort of roundabout way – through the research I was doing on Thomas Fella, actually.

When I first began working on my dissertation prospectus about two years ago, I was using the database Arkyves to search for Renaissance depictions of Mnemosyne, mother of the nine Muses and the Greek personification of Memory, as the relation between memory, femininity, and practices of literary invention is of particular interest to me. Of the images that turned up in my search results, I was especially drawn to one of an emblem from Jean-Jacques Boissard’s Emblemes (1588). The legs of the table are carved in the shape of women, holding up the instruments of literary composition – paper and a quill:

fig3ab.jpg

Fig. 3   Boissard’s emblem[5]

I kept this image in a folder for dissertation research, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the emblem in relation to my dissertation. Last year, when I came across Fella’s commonplace book, I emailed Georgianna Ziegler, Head of Reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, to see about consulting the manuscript in person, as well as to discuss my interest in Fella’s illustrations. Dr. Ziegler very kindly drew my attention to the work of Esther Inglis, explaining that, “Fella is not the only person who ‘draws’ print.”[6] Dr. Ziegler linked me to her blog post on Inglis to see “how she copied an emblem from a printed book woodcut.”[7] To my surprise, the image to which Dr. Ziegler referred me was Inglis’s drawing of Boissard’s emblem! Inglis’s copy is very near to the original:

fig4ab

Fig. 4   Inglis’s drawing of Boissard’s emblem (1599). Folger MS V.a.93. (Click here to zoom in.)

If we turn to the self-portrait of Inglis shown in Fig. 1, from her Octonaries upon the vanitie and inconstancie of the world (1601), Inglis depicts herself with the tools for literary composition – ink and paper. Imitating and copying print seems to be, for Inglis, a means of defining herself not only as a female calligrapher, but also as a female author. Perhaps Inglis fashions herself as a sort of Mnemosyne.

*

The concluding sentence of Elspeth Yeo’s entry for Inglis in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography reads: “Although her [Inglis’s] draughtsmanship was weak and she lacked originality, preferring to reproduce designs by others, the delicacy and precision of her calligraphy, particularly when working on a very small scale, was outstanding.” As I wrote last week, however, what interests me most about the images from Fella’s commonplace book, especially his illustration of the woodcut of sixteenth-century printer John Day, is “the delicate balance he strikes between his meticulous attention to the original medium of Day’s woodcut and the apparent differences in his copying of it.” This, too, informs my interest in Inglis.

In my next post, “The English Renaissance ‘Timeline’: Part III,” I will turn to other works by Inglis to suggest that she did not merely “reproduce designs by others,” nor did she necessarily “lack originality.” Like Fella, she “draws” print, but there are also apparent differences in her copied illustrations and calligraphic print – differences that she fashions with her own hands, as she indicates in Fig. 1, thus supplanting, in a unique way, the highly masculinized work of the English Renaissance printing press.

[1] All images identified as “Folger MS” or “FSL Collection” are here used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/.

[2] Elspeth Yeo, “Inglis, Esther (1570/71 – 1624),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/french/emblem.php?id=FBOa016 (Accessed via Arkyves, January 11, 2014).

[6] Georgianna Ziegler, personal communication, November 24, 2014.

[7] Ibid.


 

Amy K. Burnette is a 6th year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Syracuse University where she is currently at work on her dissertation project, Praxis Memoriae: Memory as Aesthetic Technique in English Renaissance Literature, 1580-1630.

 

The English Renaissance “Timeline” (11 December 2015)

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

– Susan Sontag, On Photography

In a post for her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova introduces the above quotation by asserting photography as “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it.” “This seems especially true,” Popova continues, “if subtly tragic, as we fill our social media timelines with images, as if to prove that our biological timelines – our very lives – are filled with notable moments, which also remind us that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.”

Popova’s post and, in particular, Susan Sontag’s quotation, reminded me of an image I came across about a year ago while studying at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I was doing research for a dissertation-related project exploring the relation between practices of literary invention and English Renaissance ideas about mutability, mortality, and memento mori (Latin: “Remember that you have to die”). The following turned up in my search results:

fig1_amy

Fig. 1   Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 43r. [i]

Click here to zoom in.

The image is of an illustration from Thomas Fella’s commonplace book, or miscellany, A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures, compiled between 1592 and 1598, to which he later made additions in July 1622. Fella was a calligrapher and draper from the Halesworth area of Suffolk County, England. He didn’t attend university, and most of what is known about him derives from two extant writings, including his commonplace book. Perhaps this is what I find so interesting about him: little is known about Fella – “who” he was, what his life was “like.” But if we turn, for clues, to the images and aphorisms copied into his commonplace book, or “timeline,” as it were, it’s striking that those which he thought to include seem to be, as Popova writes, reminders “that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.” While the invention of photography postdates Fella’s commonplace book by about two and a half centuries, Popova and Sontag are, I think, instructive for how we might interpret certain of Fella’s illustrations and, more broadly, a particular historical moment in print, visual culture, and memory.

*

Issuing from the man’s mouth in Fig. 1 is a banderole, or “speech bubble,” on which appear the words “Tempus Omnia terminat” (Latin: “Time ends all things”) – a sort of memento mori proclaiming “time’s relentless melt.” What initially attracted my attention to this image, however, was the phrase written within the second banderole: “Life is death and death is Life.” Fella’s appropriation of the phrase isn’t unusual; I’d encountered it before in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century sermons, all of which place it within the context of St. Augustine’s City of God (462 AD). Variant iterations of the phrase crop up in other English Renaissance texts, most famously in Hamlet’s musings on being and not being – “To be, or not to be.”

However, Fella’s deployment of the phrase participates, per Sontag, “in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability,” namely English Renaissance printer John Day:

fig2_amy

Fig. 2   Folger MS, f.515v

Click here to zoom in.

In the 1563 edition of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, there is, included at its end, a woodcut-cum-miniature portrait (quasi-photograph?) of John Day, Foxe’s printer. The woodcut is included in all editions of Actes and Monuments. Engraved within the ribbon that encircles Day’s profile is the phrase, “LIEFE IS DEATHE AND DEATH IS LIEFE,” bookended by Roman numerals indicating Day’s age. Forty.

The few scholarly paragraphs devoted to Fella’s commonplace book are driven, primarily, by a desperation to find out how he was able to access texts such as Foxe’s Actes and Monuments – whether he owned them, borrowed them – and what other texts the images might have been copied from: the “irrepressible desire to return to the origin,” as Derrida has it.[ii] I share this desire somewhat differently, however: what fascinates me is the delicate balance that Fella strikes between his meticulous attention to the original medium of Day’s woodcut and the apparent differences in his copying of it.

While this image suggests a heightened attention to the sensuous particularities of everyday objects, namely Fella’s interest in the materiality of the woodcut, I think that copying the woodcut communicates this interest in a different way: it holds the memory of its past engravedness, of its former life, in Foxe’s book. The aesthesis of Day’s woodcut is memorialized in the shading techniques used by Fella to detail Day’s apparel, hair, and beard. If memory, as defined by William Fulwood in The Castel of Memorie (1562), is the faculty by “which the mind repeateth things that are past,”[iii] then copying – repetition – is, for Fella, an aesthetic technique through which he preserves, yet also recreates, the medium of the woodcut in his own “timeline” – the English Renaissance commonplace book.

Indeed, the phrase and numbers that encircle, confine, Day’s profile in Fig. 2 are, in Fella’s rendering, notions over which he has physical and sensual control: life and death he grips with his hand, but Fella also used his hand to write those italic words into the swirling banderole on which they appear. Whereas Day’s woodcut indicates his age, or the passage of time, via Roman numerals, Fella’s illustration ostensibly speaks of time’s finitude, and of age, as memento mori – “Remember that you have to die.” Fella thus participates in Day’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” by “slicing out,” or copying, the woodcut into his commonplace book.

*

Fittingly, the phrase “Tempus omnia terminat” – “Time ends all things” – is the epigraph to Fella’s “end” page (Fig. 3), at once testifying “to time’s relentless melt” and acknowledging the inevitable end point of his own timeline/commonplace book: “And all must ende that ever was begonne.” The whole of Fella’s miscellany is preoccupied with mortality – and, for someone alive during the plague-ridden English Renaissance, understandably so. But if A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures is “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it,” so, too, is my interest in it. I participate in Fella’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” as I look at, and write about, a digitized image of his copied image of Day’s woodcut image.

However, the phrase “Life is death and death is Life,” especially Fella’s deployment of it, has a chiasmatic formulation – it implies circularity rather than antithesis. Time’s melt is relentless; but, as Hamlet so often reminds us, memory is the only human antidote to mortality.

fig3_amy

Fig. 3   Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 75r

Click here to zoom in.

[i] All images from Thomas Fella’s A booke of diverse devices and sorts of images are here used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/.

[ii] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), 91.

[iii] Guglielmo Gratarolo, The castel of memorie, trans. William Fulwood (London: 1562).


Amy K. Burnette is a 6th year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Syracuse University where she is currently at work on her dissertation project, Praxis Memoriae: Memory as Aesthetic Technique in English Renaissance Literature, 1580-1630.

A new way forward: healing from depression (25 Nov. 2015)

I used to love goal-oriented words like “achievement” and “success”, but after my experience with depression, they’re more likely to make me uneasy than swoon. An inordinate focus on what I achieved, rather than an appreciation for my nuanced person, is part of what led to my struggle with mental health. Having refocused the way I interact with myself and the world makes me never want to go back to my old model of measuring self-worth.

six sigma

I want my life to be filled with a lot less of things like Jack Donaghy’s (30 Rock) Six Sigma seminars.                   

Earlier in my Ph.D., I lived for the feeling that came from a grant being recommended for funding or receiving positive feedback on a talk. There was a certain high that came along with external validation – particularly because I didn’t do enough to internally validate myself. In a sense, I was my accomplishments and my goal of becoming a tenured professor. I used my academic performance and future to justify my worth.

Without a strong sense of intrinsic value, I was easily punctured. If a funded proposal justifies your existence, a rejected one can be devastating. The worst harm, though, came from my own words, goading me to excel at any cost. Self care? Not for me. It was something I neither needed, nor indulged in. I got all the reassurance necessary from elusive academic successes.

It was untenable.

mountain vista

I’d rather my life be filled with moments like this.

A major component of my healing from back-to-back episodes of major depression, complete with visits to two hospitals, was a greater focus on myself. I learned to listen to what I really needed and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t another first-author paper. I started treating myself gently and cultivating positive self-talk. I took time to notice.

All of this self-assessment and noticing led me to a surprising conclusion: I no longer wanted to go into academia. I continue to think that science is fascinating and wonderfully weird, but I no longer have the drive to be the one doing the discovering. I also don’t envy the long hours of and high demands on pre-tenure faculty members. I’ve come to the comforting conclusion that I can continue loving and advocating for science without being an academic scientist.

Biodiversity

Isn’t Biology grand?

These days I spend most of my time wrapping up my dissertation on the sex lives of incredibly promiscuous beetles, but I carve out chunks of time for my future career path of science communication. I write for SU’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department and I love it. I get to talk to scientists across the college studying topics ranging from climate change, to genetic disorders, to micro-scale physics. I get to indulge my curiosity and focus on improving my writing, a practice I adore.

I don’t like to ascribe utility to depression, but in my healing I’ve found a more sustainable way to live. I am not the number of papers I’ve co-authored, nor am I the latest feedback on a grant proposal. I am an artist. I write for fun and hopefully will write for a career, too. I love science and movies and cooking. I look for joy and intellectual stimulation in life. I am not my C.V.

As I close out my month of writing for metathesis I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to read my posts (if you missed any of them, check out my experiences with depression, thoughts on mental health and academia, and insight into what psychiatric hospitalization is really like). Depression dismantled my life, but with an incredible support network I was able to put together a new, more compassionate one. Open, honest discourse is needed to tear down the stigma associated with mental illness and hospitalization. As such, I encourage you to share anything that spoke to you as widely as you’d like.


As a Biology Ph.D. candidate, Liz Droge-Young studies the incredibly promiscuous red flour beetle. When not watching beetles mate, she covers the latest science news on campus for Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department. She is also a mental health advocate, a voracious consumer of movies, and a lover of cheese.