A quick update on cutting-edge material practices in libraries and archives. Just looking through my photos from New Orleans, taken at the Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conference last month, and I came across this one of Wendell Pierce who played Bunk Moreland in The Wire talking about the political power of drama in the wake of the hurricane – captured here doing a bit of Macbeth I think. I’d like to point out at the start that making the (dubious) connection between his (inspiring) talk and a session on Shakespearean Forensics wasn’t my idea, one of the speakers in the session did it first (honest!), but it did get me thinking again about the material moves which that session made between technology, close work, and early modern cultures of reading and writing.
The premise of the session was that all the approaches it introduced required, relied upon, the analysis of early modern objects, but that none of the would have been possible without advances in technology. There was analysis, for instance, of the supply of the raw materials for writing, of scarcity and corruptibility and the ways in which these features of source material shaped communication. We heard that ‘libraries are full of animals’, about attempts to reconstruct or reassemble them from their skins, and about the massive reduction in the varieties of sheep which took place between 1700-1800 – connections between economics, agriculture and the textual record.
There were also human traces. We heard about ways in which the waste products of conservation were being analysed at the Folger – how their ‘dust bunnies’ could be used to see how many people over the centuries had interacted with the books (and, apparently, how many readers had had acne). We learned about the way bacteria from different parts of the body can be distinguished from one another, allowing us to know whether books have been kissed or caressed. Forensic archaeological techniques applied to bodies themselves revealed, for instance, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in the mouth of a German nun, indicating that she had been a painter of manuscripts.
This kind of work broadened my sense of what it means to interact with texts far beyond annotation, and its focus on the physical interactions which individuals had with pages, letters and images as artists, writers or readers suggested interesting questions about moments of use and how we might analyse them. In some ways it was a controversial session – a question afterwards suggested that it flew in the face of the kind of political engagement which Pierce advocated for drama at least, its different kind of work running counter the liveness of text as spoken, social interaction. Understanding the histories of those interactions, and thinking through the scale on which we might need to understand them, seemed important too though – the questions for Pierce after his talk included one about his own infamous scene of analysis of a shooting in season 1 of The Wire, an episode which involved lots of minute looking and figuring out that eventually produces the bullet, but a notoriously limited dialogue!
If you want to know more about this work, these were the session participants: Joshua Calhoun, University of Wisconsin; Christina Warinner, University of Oklahoma; Matthew Collins, University of York; Michael Witmore, Folger Shakespeare Library; Peter Stallybrass, University of Pennsylvania.