Monday, December 26, 2011

A "Natural History of the Book": Joshua Calhoun's "The Word Made Flax"

A few months ago my colleague Katy Scrogin passed along to me an article for the MLA Journal. I've been meaning to comment on it for some time now, as I found it thought-provoking and, at many points, exquisite.

Joshua Calhoun's "The Word Made Flax: Cheap Bibles, Textual Corruption, and the Poetics of Paper" [PMLA 126.2 (March 2011): 327-344] takes as its central concern the question of "a printed Bible made of culturally processed natural resources, a Bible that is a palimpsest of plants and animals, social circulation, religious tradition and textual production" [341]. Calhoun's thesis is that Bibles throughout the history of their production have carried in their physical forms the traces of the materials and conditions from which they were produced. Moreover, Calhoun finds clear evidence that readers through the ages have been quite adept at decoding these markings of material provenance, and using that knowledge as part of a rhetoric of interpretation.

To demonstrate his point, Calhoun offers a reading of a 1655 poem by Henry Vaughn, "The Book," which "engages in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates about cheap media and the production of a vernacular Bible in England" [329]. Take, for example, the following lines from the second stanza of "The Book":

[God] knew'st this papyr, when it was
Meer seed, and after that but grass;
Before 'twas drest or spun, and when
Made linen, who did wear it then:
What were their lifes, their thoughts & deeds
Whither good corn, or fruitless weeds [329].

"Like many seventeenth-century readers," Calhoun explains, Vaughn "still lives in close proximity to the materials that make his paper" [337]. Unlike the paper stocks of today, made primarily of wood pulp, the linen papers of Vaughn's day were made primarily of rags--that is to say, they consisted of well-worn, cast-off garments. "Vaughn, like his contemporaries, comprehended the natural origins of paper and understood that flax had to be literally inhabited--broken in as clothing--before it could be used in papermaking" [333].

Calhoun demonstrates that this close proximity to the life-cycle of paper made readers like Vaughn highly attuned not only to the provenance of books, but moreover to the relative qualities of paper employed in fashioning those books. In the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries Bibles (for demonstrably economic reasons) began to be printed on cheaper and cheaper grades of paper. Calhoun observes that "scholars have focused on the increased portability, distribution, and ownership of cheaper Bibles. What tend to be overlooked, at least in current criticism," he continues," are the rhetorical effects of the surfaces on which words appear" [328].

Drawing not only on his masterful reading of Vaughn, but also contemporaneous critics who despaired that the words of God were now to be found printed on thin papers far inferior to papers on which Shakespeare's plays were printed, Calhoun makes a well-supported claim that the rhetorical effect of printing cheaper Bibles was often to cheapen the reverence for the Bible itself. "[T]he Protestant Reformation made the Bible--and, by extension, other books--more vulgar" [328]. The Bible was now literally in the hands of the readers, graspable, and "graspability had interpretive consequences" [328].

"Examining the poetics of paper in Renaissance English texts, I assert the value of a critical approach that accounts for the rhetorical effects of what might be called a 'natural history of the book,'" Calhoun states. Upon reading his article, I was struck by the similarities that exist between his "natural history of the book," arising out of the disciplines of English literary criticism and bibliographic studies, and my own concerns of "material scripture," which arise out of the disciplines of theology and biblical criticism.

I recently contacted Joshua Calhoun, who is at present finishing his dissertation in English at the University of Delaware, Newark. He was very receptive to my description of what SCRIPT is up to, and I am pleased to report that he was quick to see the similarities in our methodologies, and very open to staying in contact and perhaps getting involved in some of the work we do at the conference level. We have made a first foray into cross-disciplinary conversation. I am hopeful that others who read this blog, and who are involved in the Iconic Books conversations and SCRIPT, will also begin to engage Calhoun's work (out of privacy and spam concerns, please get in touch with me directly for contact information). I have no doubt that he will be an excellent and valuable interlocutor as these conversations move forward.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

All I want for Christmas is a Controlled Vocabulary...

...or, at least, to start a conversation about one.

A "controlled vocabulary" is a standard used in taxonomies to help control ambiguity about objects and resources. It cuts down on syntactic clutter.

What sort of clutter? Consider the word "football." The term means one thing in America, sure. As soon as we are out of the US, however, it could easily refer to what we yanks call "soccer," or even (in other parts of the world) rugby. As a descriptor, "football" is a poor one.

In the worlds of Iconic Books and Material Scripture, we have a similar problem. Our terms, especially terms like "book" and "text," are imprecise and (at worst) utterly confusing. Since these are the core objects of our discussions, it makes sense to take up discussions to adopt a standard of terms, a "controlled vocabulary," that will allow us to reduce ambiguities as we move forward in our research.

I am by no means the first person to call for such a move. Those who attended the third Iconic Books symposium in 2010 will remember Deirdre Stam's "Talking About 'Iconic Books' in the Terminology of Book History." I feel now - as I said then, as we were commenting on her paper - that this is the single most important matter facing our research. Hands down.

Now that SCRIPT is viable and attracting new members, we are at a perfect point to undertake a serious conversation about finding a scholarly standard for our bibliographic terms - a shared, controlled vocabulary that we can endorse and encourage the use of in all SCRIPT-related endeavors and publications. (Think of this is terms of the SBL Style Guide, for example - in principle if not in execution - offering a standard reference to writers in the field.) Now, precisely when things are still small and manageable, is the ideal time to put such standards in place.

I speak from bitter experience. In the process of writing my dissertation, I concocted an 80-page chapter where - in my utter ignorance - I attempted to develop a vocabulary out of whole cloth for theologians to talk about physical books. It was terrible; a Frankenstein's monster sort of affair. Moreover, it was executed in complete ignorance of the excellent groundwork in bibliographic studies that already exists.

It is my fear, if we don't establish such a standard, that my experience will be shared by many SCRIPT scholars to follow. Each will take their turn at the attempt to define their subject from the ground up, wasting time and effort that could be spent advancing the conversation in new directions.

For those who have never thought about these issues before, let me suggest two starting points for discussion. The first (shorter) is G. Thomas Tanselle's "The Arrangement of Descriptive Bibliographies," from Studies in Bibliography, Volume 37 (1984) and available online here. In the article, Tanselle suggests the second (longer) starting point, which I'd like to also include here, Principles of Bibliographic Description, by Fredson Bowers.

What is needed, ultimately, is a set of terms upon which we agree, that we will use moving forward to reduce ambiguity in our scholarly conversations. Tanselle and Bowers are two sources I have come across in my own research, but I have no doubt many readers of this blog have encountered others that they might suggest. Please do.

My hope (my Christmas wish!) is that this discussion will be taken up across all quarters of the SCRIPT universe in the next couple of years. I encourage my colleagues to follow Deirdre Stam's lead, and to present papers and perhaps whole conference panels where options for standards can be presented and debated. I also encourage robust discussion on these blogs about the question.

There are well-established, robust standards of bibliographic description out there. Let's share them, search out new ones, and eventually decide on the one that will best serve our scholarship. Then let's agree on it, use it, and move forward to the frontiers.

I'm very interested in suggestions and responses. Please share them in the comments below! Thank you, and happy holidays,

David Dault, Washington, PA

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Call for Papers - "From Text(s) to Book(s)" - International conference


An international and SHARP-sponsored conference
‘From Text(s) to Book(s)’
21-23 June 2012
Nancy-Université (Université de Lorraine from Jan. 2012), France

Deadline for proposals: 15 December 2011

I.D.E.A. (‘Théories et pratiques de l’Interdisciplinarité Dans les Etudes Anglophones’ / Interdisciplinarity in English Studies), the research group of the Nancy-Université English Department, will be hosting an international and SHARP-sponsored conference on the subject ‘From Text(s) to Book(s)’. This conference will provide a forum to discuss the ways in which texts are materialised for consumption by the reading public, both historically and in the contemporary context.

Full call for papers can be found here. Conference website is here.

An extended interview with Bible translator Robert Alter

The Jewish Daily Forward has an interview with Robert Alter posted recently.
"Alter argues that the KJV is frequently inaccurate, and that both the King James and its successors fail to convey in English the refined narrative style and linguistic rhythms of the Hebrew original. It is an argument that is all the more persuasive because it is backed by groundbreaking contemporary scholarship on the literary artistry of the Bible — namely, his own."

Read the rest of the interview here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Society for Textual Scholarship 2012 Call for Papers


The Society for Textual Scholarship

International Interdisciplinary Conference

31 May ­ 2 June 2012

The University of Texas at Austin

Program Chairs: Coleman Hutchison & Matt Cohen, The University of Texas at Austin

George Bornstein, The University of Michigan
Jeffrey Masten, Northwestern University
Phillip H. Round, The University of Iowa

Deadline for Proposals: January 2, 2012

This off-year conference will bring the Society for Textual Scholarship to a campus with internationally significant archival holdings, in one of the most interesting cities in the United States. A number of on-campus resources–the Harry Ransom Center, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, and the Benson Latin American Collection, among others–and the vast multicultural attractions of Texas¹s capital city and technology hub make this an exciting venue for the meeting.

The Program Chairs invite a broad set of proposals on the discovery, enumeration, description, bibliographical analysis, editing, annotation, and mark-up of texts in disciplines such as literature, history, musicology, classical and biblical studies, philosophy, art history, legal history, the history of science and technology, computer science, library and information science, archives, lexicography, epigraphy, paleography, codicology, cinema studies, new media studies, game studies, theater, linguistics, women¹s studies, race and ethnicity studies, indigenous studies, and textual and literary theory.

Given the local context of the conference, we especially encourage submissions dealing with issues of race, ethnicity, cross-cultural textual questions, and translation–issues reflected in our choice of keynote speakers. As always, the conference is particularly open to considerations of the role of digital tools and technologies in textual theory and practice. Papers addressing aspects of archival theory and practice as they pertain to textual criticism and scholarly editing are also most welcome.

Submissions may take one of the following forms:

1. Papers. Papers should be no more than 20 minutes in length. They should offer the promise of substantial critical or analytical insight. Papers that are primarily reports or demonstrations of tools or projects are discouraged.

2. Panels. Panels may consist of either three associated papers or four or five roundtable speakers. Roundtables should address topics of broad interest and scope, with the goal of fostering lively debate between the panel and audience following brief opening remarks.

3. Workshops. Workshops should pose a specific problem, tool, or skill set for which the workshop leader will provide expert guidance and instruction. Examples might include an introduction to forensic computing or paleography. Workshop leaders should be prepared to offer well-defined learning outcomes for attendees, and describe them in the proposal. Proposals that are accepted will be announced on the conference website <> and attendees will be required to enroll with the workshop leader(s). NB: All workshops will be scheduled for Thursday, 31 May 2012.

Proposals for all formats should include a title; abstract of the proposed paper, panel, seminar, or workshop (500 words maximum); and the name, e-mail address, and institutional affiliation for each participant. Workshop proposals in particular should take care to articulate the imagined audience and any expectations of prior knowledge or preparation.

***All proposals should indicate what, if any, technological support will be required.***

*NB: We have secured on-campus housing for the conference at the rate of $70 per night. Conference participants who wish to arrive early and/or stay late–perhaps to take advantage of UT’s vaunted archival resources or Austin’s music scene–are welcome to do so.*

Inquiries and proposals should be submitted electronically to:

Professor Coleman Hutchison

Additional contact information:

Department of English
1 University Station B5000
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712

Phone: (512) 471-8372
Fax: (512) 471-4909 (marked clearly to Coleman Hutchison¹s attention)

All participants in the 2012 STS conference must be members of STS. For information about membership, please contact Secretary Meg Roland at <> or visit the Indiana University Press Journals website and follow the links to the Society for Textual Scholarship membership page: <>.

For conference updates and information, see the STS website at <>.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Call for Papers for a special issue of English Language Notes

The following Call for Papers was passed on to me by S. Brent Rodriguez Plate, president of SCRIPT:

ELN 50.2 (Fall/Winter 2012): “Scriptural Margins: On the Boundaries of Sacred Texts.”

English Language Notes

Contact email:

Deadline: March 15, 2012

This special issue invites nontraditional examinations of sacred texts from major religious traditions, including those of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. We seek readings of scriptures that carve out an interpretive space between religious and secular modes of response. Such readings may be informed by recent critical movements – queer theory, affect theory, ontotheology, biopolitics, etc..

They may investigate the usually complex and uncertain process by which a text moves from sacred to secular status (or from sacred back to secular). They may engage the question of how traditional interpretations bend, mutate, or sustain themselves in the wake of cultural changes or political exigencies.

They may examine the dynamic and mutually transformative exchanges between religious hermeneutics and secular modes of interpretation (e.g. legal, literary, psychoanalytic). Papers submitted for this issue may theorize on the relationship between commentaries, treatises and sacred texts - - on the ways, for example, that commentaries enter into the historical lives of scriptures, inscribing them with meanings that become naturalized. Or they may explore the paths by which scripture flows into non-scriptural writings -- poetry, fiction, or song – and how such paths reconfigure or coexist with the division between a sacred and a non-sacred text. Or they may track the fate of a sacred text as it moves across cultural and geographical boundaries, finding new communities of believers and generating new readings, whether as recognitions or misrecognitions of the readings adopted by preceding schools of believers. In all cases, contributors will be motivated by a desire to operate outside the engrained opposition between religious and secular discourses and by the desire for a mode of reading that isn’t reducible to spiritual or anti-spiritual programs, to immediately recognizable acts of heterodoxy or piety. Consideration will be given to critical essays, creative writings, and to writings that are combinations of the two. We also welcome round-table discussions on particular sub-topics and reviews or review articles of recent books relevant to the issue’s theme.

Please send double-spaced, 12-point font contributions adhering to the Chicago-style endnote citation format in hard copy and on CD-ROM to the address below:

Special Issue Editor, “Scriptural Margins”
English Language Notes
University of Colorado at Boulder
226 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309-0226

Specific inquiries may be addressed to the issue editor, Sue Zemka, The deadline for submissions for the first issue is March 15, 2012