Saturday, July 8, 2006

On the materiality - and ephemerality - of memories

Matt Locke thinks that "nobody else is interested" in Elizabethan writing rings. That's not entirely true - after hearing him talk about the window etchings in relation to intimate technologies at a BNMI summit in 2002 I promptly sought out Juliet Fleming's excellent book Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England - but I'd have to agree that the broader significance of the rings and other ephemeral forms of public discourse, especially as related to new technological practices and locative media, has been underestimated.

An earlier article written by Fleming primarily focusses on the subject of Elizabethan posies, and raises issues that are undeniably relevant to contemporary questions about production, consumption, public, private, memory, the digital and the material. (I'll excerpt rather extensively in case readers don't have access to an academic library, but the full reference can be found at the end of the quote.)

"In The Arte of English Poesie (1589) George Puttenham defines a posy as 'a short epigram . . . printed upon . . . banketting dishes of suger plate' and taken home at the end of the feast by each guest as a kind of party favor.' 'Nowadays,' he continues, posies are more commonly painted 'upon the backsides of our fruit trenchers of wood' or used 'as devises in rings and armes and about such courtly purposes.' For Puttenham the posy is the exemplary form of poetry at the court of Elizabeth. Pinned to trees and curtains, set upon conduits, and wrapped around gifts; or plaited into bracelets, embroidered onto clothes and copied into books, the posy plays a crucial role in the material exchange of favors that articulates life at court. As material forms, posies were classified according to a once fluid and now invisible taxonomy of location.


It is worth insisting that the posy - a piece of writing with physical extension - cannot exist as text in the abstract. To make a distinction that would have been incomprehensible to his readers, Tusser's 'Husbandly Posies' are patterns for posies rather than the things themselves: it is the householder who, copying them onto her walls, or cutting the book in order to paste them there, makes a posy from a text ... [T]he Elizabethans understood reading and writing as procedures for the gathering, storage, and redeployment of well-framed wisdom. Within such a regimen writing is that which frames truth to catch the eye or memory: like the stylistic devices of brevity or ornament, writing can, in and of itself, add weight to a sentence.

In The Art of Memory (1621) John Willis lists the procedures of condensation and displacement that produce memorable representations. Such representations or 'ideas' can be either 'direct' (where the image of a boat stands for a boat) or 'oblique . . . whereby the thing to be remembered is obliquely or indirectly signified.' Willis distinguishes three types of oblique idea: the 'relative' (that is, the metonymic), the 'subdititial' (the metaphoric), and the 'scriptile' (the written): 'a Scriptile idea is, whereby the thing to be remembered, is supposed to be written on a plaine white table hanged up in the midst of the opposite wall'. Within the imagined space of his memory system, Willis advises that ideas be stored in the places they would occupy in real life.


According to the sermon given at her funeral Anne Clifford decorated the walls, hangings, and furniture of her bed-chamber with 'sentences or sayings of remark':

'She would frequently bring out of the rich Store-house of her memory, things new and old, Sentences, or Sayings of remark, which she had read or learned out of Authors and with these her Wals, her Bed, her Hangings, and Furniture must be adorned; causing her Servants to write them in Paper, and her Maids to pin them up, that she, or they, in time of their dressing, or as occasion served, might remember, and make their descants upon them. So that, though she had not many Books in her Chamber, yet it was dressed up with the flowers of a library.'


The practice of early modern wall writing may then have materially informed not only memory systems based on imagined interior 'places,' but also the mental topography of the intellectual system that manifested itself in the keeping of commonplace books.


The writing that survives from the Elizabethan period was produced by people who had the technological and financial resources for the laborious procedures of securing paper, pen, and ink. The poor, the hurried, and those (it may have been practically everybody) unconcerned with the extensive circulation and long survival of their bons mots wrote with charcoal, chalk, stone, and pencil. That the bulk of early modern writing was written on walls, and was consequently both erasable and in our own scheme of things out of place, is a proposition with consequences beyond current assumptions about the constitution and statistics of literacy in the early modern period. For it prompts us to imagine, in an age to which is ascribed the inauguration of 'proper' writing, a widespread, and in contemporary terms multiply 'undisciplined' writing practice: one within which writing and drawing are not fully distinguishable; defacement operates as a principle of textual production; the page is no longer an important boundary; and the written product cannot be taught, reproduced, or sold as a commodity. Elizabethan wall-writing is, in short, graffiti by another name.


Today the uncanny effect of wall-writing depends in part on the dizzying collapse of language into its material forms with which graffiti seems to present us: words flee, writing remains - and remains to speak in the voice of the undead. But it is a marked fact that in the age of Elizabeth, in spite of reformation concern over idolatry, written language does not seem to be aspiring to full transparency, and is still tending to accord sentience to its own material supports ... By the second half of the sixteenth century plaster was made according to a process that produced intense heat and columns of steam from cold limestone, and required the admixture of animal hair: it thus offered a rich metaphorical field for those who wrote about, on, and in it. Blood, charcoal, marking stones of all colours, smoke, lead, and diamonds on glass had further properties of their own; and each drew on the overdetermined terms 'shade' or 'shadow,' to mark or draw."

- Juliet Fleming, 1997, "Wounded walls: Graffiti, grammatology, and the age of Shakespeare", Criticism 39(1): 1-30.

A few things here really stick out for me. I appreciate the reminder that content, or meaning, is always related to context, or a sense of place. I also think that such a rich history of "undisciplined" writing practices goes a long way to temper contemporary claims of radical ingenuity in (digital, mobile, etc.) textual practices. And finally, but most importantly, I'm completely fascinated by how the physical and metaphoric properties of writing surfaces, instruments and materials can make a big difference when it comes to what we even recognise as public discourse, and whether or not we decide it should be preserved, destroyed, or simply left alone to be forgotten.


Blogger enrique said...

Indeed, very great. A couple of years ago, I submitted a prolix, overwrought, and unnecessarily pretentious piece of writing about the "tangibility" of a traumatic event. I looked at Krysztof Penderecki's "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" as the aural commermoration of the first atomic attack. I was dropping Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, Adorno like some type of architecture student that thought he knew was he was talking about.

Luckily, such pretentions were shaken out of me.

Great post.

Blogger StillWater said...

Wow, thats interesting that a woman consumes over 4 to 9 lbs of lipstick in her lifetime! Here is the link that I found that shows all of the research:


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