Early Modern Literary Studies
The Web and the Book: The Memorial Electronic Edition of Andrea Alciato's Book of Emblems
Mark Feltham
University of Western Ontario
William Barker
Memorial University

Feltham, Mark, and William Barker. "The Web and the Book: The Memorial Electronic Edition of Andrea Alciato's Book of Emblems." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 / Special Issue 4 (January, 2000): 6.1-43 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-3/fbemblem.html>.

Introduction: Hypertext and Emblem Books

  1. Emblem books number among the most interesting and yet enigmatic products of Renaissance European visual and textual culture. Emblems characteristically combine visual and poetic elements which interact to create hermeneutic puzzles, often moral in nature. Visual and textual motifs combine with multi-lingual puns and mythological allusions to create these puzzles and, conversely, knowledge of these complex and disparate elements is required to understand them. Confronted with the challenges of emblems, readers quite understandably seek help in negotiating their visual, linguistic, and intertextual complexities, and scholars have thus tried to provide such help in the forms of translations, commentaries, catalogues, indices, and various other reference tools.

  2. Now, latter-day readers of emblems have added hypertext[1] to their toolkit. David Graham, the first critic to explore the intersection of emblem studies and hypermedia technologies, has argued that hypertext helps contemporary readers manage the complexity of emblems. Inspired in part by Graham's application of computer technology to French Renaissance emblem books, William Barker, Jean Guthrie and Mark Feltham created an electronic edition of Andrea Alciato's Book of Emblems.  In the process, we found ourselves exploring the complicated intersection of emblems, the web, and books.

  3. The Book of Emblems was first published in 1531 at Augsburg in an unauthorized edition, soon became a Renaissance bestseller, and was translated into many European languages. The book eventually comprised 212 Latin emblem poems, each of which combines a usually proverbial motto with a woodcut picture and an epigram. Alciato's book marked the beginning of an intense enthusiasm for emblem literature lasting several centuries.[2] Scholarly interest in emblem studies in general[3] and Alciato's emblems in particular has been sustained in modern scholarship. Two recent publications in English require particular mention: an index and translation prepared by a team headed by Peter Daly (1986) and Betty I. Knott's Scolar Press edition of the Book of Emblems (1996).

  4. Our edition, however, is (we believe) the first web-based collection of emblems, although several others are now up and running.[4] However, despite the benefits that we believe follow from our technological re-casting of Alciato's emblems, the Book of Emblems is nevertheless the product of a particular bookish culture and for much of its reception was known as a book, as its title reflects.[5] Although reading a book-text in hypertext form can be extremely useful and even fun, it also transforms our experience of the text in question by erasing some aspects of its meaning that relate to its material status as a book.

  5. We thus offer a tentative account of some of the shifts from page to screen that characterize our project, and we also consider these shifts in light of the debates about material form that animate recent discussions about electronic text. Our experience with the Alciato project will, we hope, interest not only emblem scholars but also those who ask much broader questions about the increasing use of electronic text inside and outside academia.

    A Brief History of Our Project

  6. We began our own "emblematic hyperbook" in the spring of 1995. At that time we were familiar with theoretical discussions of hypertext, but had little experience with actual hypertext systems. We were, however, acquainted with the World Wide Web, and the global access that it provides was central in causing us to choose it as our platform, although this choice counterbalances benefits with drawbacks, as we discuss below.

  7. Having dipped our feet in the balmy waters of theory, we soon found ourselves trying to navigate a sea of new concepts and technical requirements. We learned HTML. We spent many hours in front of the scanner, producing (initially very slowly) web-worthy images of the 212 emblems from the 1621 text, along with other emblems from earlier editions. Meanwhile, the Latin text was transcribed and checked and the translation was completed and then polished (primarily by Jean Guthrie, a sometime Latinist and now English professor without whose assistance the project could not have proceeded).

  8. At the time of this writing, the site has been "complete" (although ever-changing, usually in small ways, as is the way of the web) for over four years. To date we have accomplished a great deal with the site, especially since it has been from the beginning an informal project for the three primary participants. Our site now contains the complete text of Alciato, with images from the 1531, 1534, 1546, and 1621 editions, and the Alciato Latin and English emblems are now linked with their counterparts in the Lefevre edition of 1536 at the Glasgow University Emblem Web Site. As a parallel project we have also included the text of Geffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblems (1586), with emblem-by-emblem links to relevant sections of the Book of Emblems. We have written commentaries for some of Alciato's emblems, although this component of the project still remains unfinished. Major online resources for early modern studies now link to the Alciato site. Moreover, our site seems useful to the scholarly community: our welcome page receives approximately one thousand visitors per month (an impressive number for a now little-known Neo-Latin text, however famous it may have been in its own time), and we have received e-mail from the Netherlands, England, the United States, Italy, Brazil, and various other countries. These messages usually thank us for our work, and often suggest learned additions and corrections as well!

  9. During our work on the project, opinions formed during our preliminary immersion in theory have shattered and reformed many times. Among the many questions that our project inspires, one in particular has been central: when we speak about "reading" Alciato's Book of Emblems on the web, how do the complex activities categorized under the deceptively simple word "read" shift between the web and the book? Jay Bolter writes that a "written text occupies physical space and at the same time generates a conceptual space in the minds of writers and readers" (85). We thus take this essay as an opportunity to provide a necessarily tentative account of the ways in which the "conceptual space" generated by Alciato's emblems alters when we read them online.

    Reading Emblems

  10. An example from The Book of Emblems will illustrate some of the features of emblem literature more clearly.[6] Depicted below, Alciato's Emblem 4, characteristically, interweaves complex visual and linguistic elements. It displays text both inside and outside the image. The emblem presents its moral subject with the motto "One ought to rejoice in God," and adds the mythological exemplum of Ganymede, the beautiful boy seized by Jupiter and carried to Olympus to serve as his cup-bearer. The moral tone continues in the final lines of the poem: "Judgement and understanding of God give delights to the one who is believed to have been seized by Jupiter most high." The puzzle relies on a Greek pun on the name "Ganymede," which, according to the traditional explication, combines two archaic words, ganutai (he rejoices) and medea (devices, thoughts), which are written into the image. So, to begin to understand this emblem, you need to understand the pun, which the dynamic interaction of image and text reinforces.

    In Deo laetandum 
    [One ought to rejoice in God]

    Aspice ut egregius puerum Iovis alite pictor
        Fecerit Iliacum summa per astra vehi.
    Quisne Iovem tactum puerili credat amore?
        Dic, haec Maeonius finxerit unde senex?
    Consilium, mens atque Dei cui gaudia praestant,
        Creditur is summo raptus adesse Iovi.

    [See how the extraordinary painter has depicted the Iliacan boy being carried through the highest stars by the bird of Jupiter. Who would believe Jupiter to be touched by youthful love? Tell us, from what has the old Maeonian fashioned these things? Judgement and understanding of God give delights to him who is believed to have been seized by Jupiter most high.]

  11. Additional intertextual density results from the image of the barking dog in the lower right corner, which alludes to the account of the rape of Ganymede in Book 5 of Virgil's Aeneid, in which dogs bark as the eagle carries the young man skyward. The "decoding" of this emblem can thus proceed in a number of ways -- through philology, iconography, literature -- as each separate disciplinary mode works itself out independently and in relation to the others. The more the reader meditates on the emblem, the more complex it becomes, while at the same time various themes present themselves more clearly.

  12. This emblem is just one among 212 emblems in Alciato's book. When we consider the inter- and intra-textual connections made possible by so many interlocking textual and visual spaces, we can begin to imagine the allusive density that Alciato's text generates. The allusiveness requires us to attend to the internal structure of the text, and at the same time asks us to step outside it, to other texts. The connections and contexts somehow seem to answer questions posed by the originating text. What we get after a short stretch of reading is not a single text, but rather, clusters of texts, the interconnections among which tantalize us with hints of the perpetually elusive "context" so beloved by literary-historical scholarship, which we hope will lead us to the equally elusive resolution of meaning.

  13. In both his published essays on hypertext and emblems, Graham emphasizes the decoding of such complexity, which he sees as a defining aspect of emblematic reading. The combination of elements in emblems, he writes, "was usually somewhat enigmatic and almost always presented in such a way as to convey some moral lesson, whose point would be savoured all the more for being not instantaneously grasped" ("Emblematic Hyperbook" 273).  Graham sees the process of reading an emblem as a kind of feedback loop between the text, with its "enigmatic" arrangement of visual and textual elements, and the reader, who (hopefully) decodes this enigma. This process, he contends, "is likely to be considerably expedited by the kinds of linking and random access that hypermedia technology can provide" (284). Like many who write about the benefits of hypertext, Graham views the technology as duplicating and enhancing certain mental processes. He describes his project as an "attempt to harness the power of personal computers to the wealth of intellectual raw material furnished by the emblem corpus: to 'put old wine in new bottles'" ("Old Wine" 272). This power, when placed at the fingertips of readers, allows them "to spin the sort of permanent but supple web of intuitive links among individual emblems that would correspond to the chains of association in the mind so often evoked by emblem study" ("Emblematic Hyperbook" 273).

  14. Graham's approach implicitly reflects a widespread nostalgia for the gloriously learned mind and limber memory of a retrospectively constructed Renaissance reader. This reader, we like to imagine, had a prodigious memory, did not need explanations of allusions, knew many classical and modern languages, and in general possessed a keen and erudite literary mind. He or she was a committed dweller of libraries, a writer in margins, and a keeper of commonplace books, often with personalized cross-referencing systems. This rare and imaginary person, usually thought of as a creation of the high age of print, has been elegized by George Steiner in two related essays ("After the Book?" and "The Uncommon Reader"). Because many of us fail to conform to this model in any number of ways, we rely on various scholarly tools to help us approximate the powers of this "uncommon reader."

    The Index-text

  15. Hypertext, as Graham applies it to emblem studies, both extends and transforms the long commentary tradition. Present-day emblem scholars continue a tradition dating back to the initial publication of emblem books. Alciato's emblems acquired voluminous commentaries early on: readers began to group emblems into larger thematic structures very early in their tradition, and certain emblems were recognized as commonplaces, which authors then borrowed from each other.  Because of the emphasis on links among emblems (and other texts as well), emblem scholars spend much of their time and energy on collecting, cataloguing, and indexing visual and textual elements.

  16. By carrying out such labours, scholars seek to understand emblems as an expression of particular aspects of Renaissance visual and literary culture. This broader cultural focus tends to view emblems as an interconnected body of verbal and visual motifs,[7] and thus tends to collapse the boundaries between individual emblem collections.  The Emblemata of Arthur Henkel and Albrecht Schöne, published in 1967 (supplemented in 1976) provides the preeminent example of this type of work. This massive and massively expensive folio volume restructures the contents of scores of emblem books into thematic unities following the medieval encyclopaedic tradition (God, spiritual world, material world, animal world, birds, and so on), so that individual emblem poems, now extracted from the books in which they first appeared, can be read in relation to one another.

  17. Graham, working from this disciplinary perspective, focuses on emblems as "raw material" that is "virtually useless unless thoroughly assimilated, cross-referenced, and indexed" ("Old Wine" 271).  Graham's emphasis on the power of computers to search, index, and re-order the visual and textual motifs of emblem literature reflects both the indexing trend prevalent in emblem studies and also the heavy emphasis on associative linking in hypertext theory.

    Limitations of the Book

  18. Graham's focus on personalized associative networks specifically echoes Vannevar Bush's extremely influential 1945 article "As We May Think," in which Bush offers a hypothetical solution to the problems posed by the rapidly expanding record of human knowledge. His solution is a device called the Memex, a desk with screens on which, by means of a complex network of levers and microfilm readers, the user can move through otherwise unmanageable amounts of information by weaving a personalized web of intuitive links.

  19. Most hypertext theorists rightly take Bush's article as a key moment in the conceptual development of hypertext. Like Bush, whom he cites, Graham emphasizes the importance of "managing" information.[8] "In the relatively near future," Graham muses, "advances in technology might provide human beings with the opportunity to manage vast amounts of cultural data more effectively, given the special talents of computing devices in the crucial areas of memory, searching, and sorting" (272).

  20. Because of his focus on searching and indexing, Graham concentrates on the unquestionable advantages of computers in these areas, and consequently, emphasizes the relative weaknesses of books in the same areas. Graham presents a double-criticism of the book format as it relates to emblem studies: it cannot be indexed by the individual reader, and it is extremely cumbersome and slow. He uses the Henkel and Schöne volume to illustrate these problems. Using this work, he writes,

    is a daunting task, since it weighs several kilos, and contains over 2000 large-format pages, each displaying a number of emblems with a translation of their text and cross-references to other emblems in the book. Consultation of the thematic index, followed by a search for individual emblems, and then by their comparison, can be tedious, time-consuming, and frustrating, as one attempts to compare texts or pictures found several hundred pages apart, while simultaneously keeping one's place in the index. ("Emblematic Hyperbook," 274)

    Words like "task," "tedious," and "time-consuming" reiterate Graham's view of emblematic reading as scholarly work. Indeed, Graham's entire account of the process of reading emblems orients itself towards this view, which his choice of words consistently reflects.

  21. The book format restricts the type of reading that Graham emphasizes by making it difficult to re-order and re-write its contents to conform to individualized networks of association. Because the catalogue is a printed book, expensive and usually owned by a library, "the contents themselves or the editorial disposition of those contents cannot be in any way modified by the reader" (274). In other words, even this brilliant reorganization of the emblematic corpus, which breaks the bonds of the earlier books, retains the form of the book (now a "book of the world" or a "book of nature"). It re-orders emblems into associative networks, true, but they are then frozen in these networks.

  22. These observations about the usefulness of the book form for emblem studies mirrors many observations about the book in general, and relates directly to the consideration of the ways in which hypertext "improves" on the older technology. Certainly the book's marmoreal character is part of its appeal as a storage system for textual information, as it makes possible the mass-dissemination of basically identical texts. However, the printed book's great success in fixing what has already been written in symmetrical lines of neatly-set type also distances readers from writers: as Paul Ricoeur puts it, "the book divides the act of reading and the act of writing into two sides, between which there is no communication" (146-7). Graham's comments about the Henkel and Schöne catalogue provide a specific exemplum of Ricoeur's generalized theoretical observation that the book bifurcates reading and writing into separate spheres. Graham seeks a special variety of "communication" between these "two sides": he wants to manipulate the contents in light of his own conceptual categories.

  23. A slightly closer analysis of Graham's comments on the Henkel and Schöne index brings his connection with broadly theoretical considerations of the book format more clearly into focus. The problem, as he frames it, stems not just from the volume's large format, not just from the density of interlocking visual and textual references, but, most importantly, from the great difficulty that the spatial configuration of information separated in the page-space of the book poses for the reader who wants to hold a given set of connections in synchronous cognitive space. Put simply, the spatial character of the book -- especially the Henkel and Schöne volume -- makes it nearly impossible to achieve the kind of simultaneous connection of disparate textual and visual elements that Graham's constructed reader desires. The spatial separation of these informational elements, however, requires that their connection happen diachronically through time rather than synchronically, or at a single point within time. Graham's reader, in light of this model, desires, first, to understand the text as a network of interconnected references, both intra- and inter-textual, and second, to understand the text as a personalized set of associations particular to that time and place. Moreover, his longer description of the catalogue's other inadequacies specifically illustrates Carla Hesse's observation that the book is "a slow form of a exchange" and "a fulcrum that creates space out of time" (27).

  24. Hesse's comments point to another tendency in hypertext theory: the tendency to desire fast access to totalities of information. This desire partially follows from the rhetoric of computing, which emphasizes speed,[9] and also from its mathematical bias, which emphasizes solutions to problems. Hesse contrasts the static space of the book with what she sees as the faster and more permeable forms of communication and exchange that characterize recent developments in electronic textuality. She envisions the electronic generation of "pure textual simultaneity": instead of moving physically (and diachronically) through the pages of books, readers will operate within computerized webs that allow the simultaneous apprehension of multiple threads of interconnected information, which any given reader can then weave into a personalized textual array. Indeed, there is no monolithic "text" as such, but simply the results of multiple and ever-changing search strategies, the records of which can be preserved and recast at will in the memory of the computer. Hesse and others imagine a luminous textual future in which, no longer hemmed in by the physically-demarcated borders between books, we might all experience "pure textual simultaneity."

  25. However, the point, as we see it, is not whether or not readers were -- or are -- able to apprehend the intertextual vastness of emblem literature. We would, instead, like to return to Graham's definition of emblematic reading. How much "savour," we wonder, is possible if we can find the answers to the puzzles with a few mouse clicks?  The "savour" that Graham describes has for us the whiff of the library about it, and we wonder whether or not it translates into the computer realm.

    The Book-text

  26. Graham's comments, however, are still more complicated, and this complexity increases markedly when we consider the implications of transposing emblems into electronic hypertext. The interaction between text and medium (insofar as we can separate them) results in yet another dialectic, between the text, the reader, and the material technology of reading. Although this formulation, in general terms, is certainly not novel, its importance cannot be overestimated.

  27. Along with other promoters of hypertext and hypermedia, Graham takes the position that these new electronic modes of textuality help release the reader from the limiting physical presence of the book. Yet, the experience of any given work is inexorably shaped by the physical medium. A theoretical problem thus presents itself: if a central part of the meaning of a text lies in the material mode of its presentation, what happens when you transpose that text into a new medium?

  28. Graham shares with some hypertext theorists the tendency to view texts as relatively separate from their material circumstances. As Paul Duguid observes, many critics see hypertext as enhancing -- even liberating texts, and they often tend to emphasize the limitations of the book without fully considering how its characteristics inform the texts. The metaphor of "Putting Old Wine in New Bottles," which provides the title of Graham's first essay, figures the text as contents and the book as merely a superfluous container, and thus reinforces this view.[10]  Graham, like many hypertext theorists, tends to view text as a system of signs at the expense of the material factors. Details like physical format (quarto, folio, etc), typefaces, publishers' marks, title pages, watermarks, and the whole broad range of material clues about the production and reception of a text have generally received relatively little attention from hypertext theorists. Certainly, as Graham points out, there is much to gain in creating hypertext editions of emblem books, and of other texts as well. However, there are losses as well: for a reader interested primarily, for example, in paratextual features rooted in the original bibliographic mode of presentation, a hypertext edition, with all its powers of electronic indexing and readerly annotation, would most likely be far less useful than a trip to the rare books library.[11]

  29. One corrective for this linguistic bias is to advance an expanded definition of text, which is exactly what textual scholars have attempted to do in recent years. D.F. McKenzie, proponent of an approach that marries "bibliography" to the "sociology of texts,"[12] insists that the book itself should be viewed as a highly "expressive form" and defines a text as "a complex structure of meanings which embraces every detail of its formal and physical presentation in a specific historical context." [13] This definition exemplifies the turn towards a more diachronic and sociological focus in textual scholarship, and offers a conceptual rubric marked by bibliographic and theoretical rigour.

    From Book to Web: Some Consequences

  30. When we extend the definition of a text beyond mere linguistic codes that can be transcribed, we realize that almost any new version of a text can be viewed, in a way, as a new text.[14] Certainly degrees of difference vary greatly. In the electronic text, however, the physical and conceptual contours of books often appear to shimmer and ultimately fade altogether, and certain textual features fade with them. The "transfer of a written heritage from one medium to another, from the codex to the screen," as Roger Chartier writes,

    would create immeasurable possibilities, but it would also do violence to the texts by separating them from the original physical forms in which they appeared and which helped to constitute their historical significance (22).

    With our web edition of the Book of Emblems, the word "would" disappears: the separation has already happened, and its consequences manifest themselves during every online encounter with the emblems. However, recognizing that Alciato changes greatly when we put it online hardly presents serious difficulties. Although such transformations are of paramount importance, they also comprise an inevitable part of textual transmission. Critics of electronic text sometimes fail to acknowledge, as Peter Shillingsburg observes, that

    objections to electronic texts -- that they introduce a new medium that was never intended by the author and that they add new intentions to the work -- are also of course objections to new editions of any sort, including scholarly editions . . . it seems more reasonable to say that newness and differentness are not criticisms of scholarly editions, they are merely facts about them (34).

    Although the physical mode of textuality certainly matters a great deal, and comprises a large component of the meaning of a text, the importance that we accord to material elements does not preclude transposing the text into other media. However, given that any such transposition results in new "facts," recognizing them becomes a very important part of both reading and editing.

  31. Now that we have the "book" on-line, we have begun to ask ourselves an interesting question: Does anyone actually read Alciato on the Web? Or is the text consulted thematically? It is good to know it is there. It is fun to look at. It has some useful information. But is it read in the attentive, close, concentrated, and even obsessive way that we associate with the age of print? We suspect not. We cannot answer our question empirically. But we have begun to tackle the question in another way -- to ask ourselves what the Web is, how it works, what is its nature. And what we must now admit is that while we have created something with certain merits, we have, in our attempts to weave a web from the book, actually begun to undo the possibility of certain types of readings. Graham has argued that the reader-driven associative linking made possible by hypertext corresponds to the way we read emblematic material. Still, although we accept that this is one potentially valuable way to read emblem literature, we wonder what it leaves out of the equation.

  32. As part of our recognition that our edition comprises a new set of descriptive "facts," we have arrived at a set of tentative statements about the differences, as we see them, between reading emblematic material in books and reading this material on the web. We summarize these statements as follows.

  33. The material elements of book textuality are stripped away.  Although our electronic edition realizes some of the possibilities of networked hypertext, it also strips away an important part of what made Alciato's text what it was. The particular bibliographic and paratextual details that contributed to its status as a historical artifact tend to disappear online. Although some websites devote themselves to presenting digitized images of original book and manuscript pages, these sites still filter elements of the book through the screen. While we still call what we have put online Alciato's Book of Emblems, our labelling is simply a matter of paratextual convenience. Indeed, our simple adoption of Alciato's title foregrounds the shift that has taken place. When reading our Web edition, we are definitely not in the book anymore. Although we still refer to our web-text as the "book of emblems," our web-text is no longer a book. We've created a text that we can "visit" or "consult" or "use" or even "refer to," but that we can't "read" in the same way that we "read" a book.

  34. Although the text is more accessible, it also loses its mysterious and esoteric qualities.  Aside from our desire to experiment with technology, our primary motivation for creating our web edition was to make the text and images of the Book of Emblems available to a wider audience. The electronic "book" on the Web is open to more readers. An example: the Bible is found in millions of copies. But each one of these copies is available to its readers only in a particular time and space. With on-line publication an older notion of the copy disappears. The on-line text is now available to millions of readers. Readers share the same "copy." The image of the book as "closed," "inaccessible," materially separate, and so on evaporates in the new medium.

  35. The text is more easily moved about, more easily mutated and mutilated, and more easily searchable: it thus becomes an information base or "standing reserve."  As most writers about electronic text have observed, annotating, re-writing, fragmenting, splicing and so on all become easier and much more "allowable" in electronic form. Indeed, Graham's most central point about the usefulness of hypertext for emblem studies is the ability of hypertext to reconfigure the text as the reader desires. However, there are pronounced differences between what is possible on the web and what is possible in other hypertext systems like HyperCard (which Graham used for his emblematic hypertexts) or Storyspace, to name a few. Graham's original project consisted of HyperCard files localized on an individual, non-networked machine. The particular features of the HyperCard environment enable the reader to heavily customize the writing space, and to annotate the emblems with personalized commentary.

  36. The Alciato files exist on the web server at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and can be viewed by anyone in the world with a computer, a web browser, and an Internet connection. However, the constraints of HTML and web browser technology prevent the reader from personalizing the files, although we have provided readers with a simple search engine, and some indexing and annotation. The structure of our website is as yet rather conventional, and although it allows readers to browse emblems in various orders, the basic design of the site promotes relatively sequential reading in English or Latin. Still, the reader can switch between the two, or in some cases, go to our fledgling commentaries. We have also made preliminary efforts at linking electronic versions of other emblems, notably Whitney's Choice of Emblems. Readers can link to other sites as well, and to information on their own computer. A reader, to sketch a quick example, might link to online classical texts (such as are provided, for example, by places like the Perseus Project) to illuminate emblems, or to Latin wordlists, dictionaries, and various other online resources for literary-textual studies. Using Emblem 4 again as an example, a reader might search for other references to the Ganymede myth, search for words found in the emblem, and so on. Moreover, once the text and images are made available in electronic form, readers so desiring can download whatever they want and index it however they want using whatever means they want.

  37. In light of these possibilities, then, the text is thus transformed from linear reading experience to networked information source. It is there not to be read, but to be "searched," and to be linked outwards to the results of additional searches.[15] The text becomes, to use Heidegger's term, a "standing reserve" of information. We do not have to read in a linear order to use the text to our own ends. Graham emphasizes this feature: his ideal text is the indexed text, which can be freely connected in various ways to the entire emblem corpus. Individual emblem books, in this new schema, become less important as individual objects. The contours of individual emblem books, indeed, fade as the reader re-combines emblems, groups them in categories based on motifs, mythological allusions, and so on.  In this way, hypertext represents the latest manifestation of scholarly efforts to move beyond individual emblems or collections towards a consideration of the totality of the "emblem corpus."

  38. The text is more physically playful. You can bounce around in it in different ways, and follow different links. At the same time, the text has a greater centrifugality, and it is harder to stay with a linear reading.  Espen Aarseth writes about the ergodic text, where the work of reading becomes a game -- in which we jump from one thing to another, finding our own path through the material. This kind of textuality is very old (commentaries and libraries encourage a form of ergodic reading). But now this kind of reading becomes the central textual activity. We have no more loyalty to unified readings of the text. Rather, we conduct readings that plunder bits and pieces from the text and then move on.

  39. Consequently, the reading trance is displaced by the trance of the game.  Victor Nell describes the "trance"-like state that the reader of popular fiction enters. The linear reading of the pre-electronic text creates different kinds of mental spaces. These can be ones of high excitement (the reading of a "page turner") or deep meditation (where one "pores over the text"). The game trance is different. As one follows different paths through different texts, the game of hyperlinks and other activities -- the game of surfing -- overwhelms the linear reading. Electronic text encourages a game of reading that carries through multiple texts and undoes linearity. In pre-electronic text, it was certainly possible to jump around as a reader, to skip from book to book (indices, notes, and other mechanisms can encourage this skipping). Electronic text pushes this even further. The movement of the game dominates. The mouse-clicking and keyboard-tapping combines with the screen-space and the other features of the computer to echo the experience of playing a video game. Movement towards a goal outside of any individual text becomes the activity of reading.

  40. The text loses its meditative quality and becomes unstable at the moment of its perception by the reader.  Initially for electronic text the screen was one of the principal inhibitors of a meditative relationship with the text. The interface (the glimmering and always shifting of light from the screen, the constant white noise of the computer fans, and so on) creates a thick barrier that prevents a meditative relationship with the text. Even with the solution of these technical problems, there will still be the sense of the essential instability of the visual medium. When we turn the page of a book, we're aware of a new yet essentially stable material physical space. The new page has its own integrity. With electronic text, the new material space of reading does not change. It is still the same screen. We are aware that there is a material instability within the limited space before us. That is a necessary part of electronic reading and is a virtue if we are reading for information. But for a meditative reading, the constant shifting of the material form will remain a problem.


  41. The book format, with its oft-described capacity for preserving language in a durable object capable of outlasting the culture that produced it, may in some cases provide us with a seductive illusion of contact with that culture. Yet, even in the older culture of the book, strict insistence on the authenticity of "original" material modes of textuality made little sense: Homer, Virgil, Dante, or Shakespeare were always read in physical formats marked by historical, social, and cognitive differences from their initial material mode.

  42. With electronic text, the differences become even more marked. Whether it is Homer in a printed book, or Alciato on the screen, we must recognize that the text has been transformed, and that as a result of this transformation, the game of reading proceeds by different rules. This is not to say that electronic reading cancels out the older reading in the book. But what we have insisted on throughout this essay is that there are differences, significant ones, and that we should recognize them as we attempt to mediate between different technologies and different reading practices. Such mediation results in tension, and we have chosen our title to reflect the tension between the web and the book.

  43. Paul Duguid cites Walter Benjamin's comment that the angel of history moves into the future backwards and trailing the wreckage of the past, and adds his own observation that "technology's angel usually advances facing determinedly the other way, trying to sweep objects and objections from its path" (65).[16]  This combined image reminds us of the Janus-head from Alciato's Emblem 18, which provides the signature emblem for our website. This image, we believe, provides a suitably emblematic synthesis of these two positions. The double-head of Janus, gazing simultaneously in two different directions, reflects, for us, the basic doubleness of our project, which looks backwards towards the particular bookish culture of emblem books, while simultaneously looking forward into the future of the screen.

Works Cited


1. The computerized combination of the visual and textual elements that comprise emblems might also be termed hypermedia. However, we follow the lead of many writers in using the term hypertext inclusively.

2. For a fuller account of Alciato and his emblems, along with a list of editions and a selected bibliography, see <URL: http://www.mun.ca/alciato/comm.html>.

3. This point is made often; for example, see Daly ("Introduction" 1-3), Graham ("Emblematic Hyperbook" 273), and others.

4. Several websites specifically devote themselves to emblem literature. They include The Glasgow University Website <URL: http://www.gla.ac.uk/Library/Emblems/>, The English Emblem Book Project <URL: http://emblem.libraries.psu.edu/>, A Compendium of Illustrated Spanish Emblems <URL:  http://dmi.uib.es/people/acoca/emblemas.html>, and German Emblem Books: A Digital Imaging Project <URL: http://images.grainger.uiuc.edu/emblems/default.html>.  Several emblem books can be found at The Competence Center for Electronic Document Engineering at The University of Utrecht <URL: http://candl.let.ruu.nl/>.

5. Emblems are by no means limited to books: "Emblematic designs were incorporated into almost every artistic form" (Daly, "Introduction" 1).

6. A useful short description of emblematic features is also found in Daly ("Description of Emblems); see also his Literature in Light of the Emblem.

7. See Daly ("Introduction" 1-2).

8. Miall makes a similar point (158).

9. Speed, Espen Aarseth observes, "is a major quality in computer aesthetics" (11). Anyone who has ever read a computer magazine knows the centrality of speed: in discussions about and advertisements for various types of computer technology, adjectives describing speed abound.

10. See Duguid for a critique of the wine/bottles metaphor (77). He does not, however, address Graham's use of the metaphor. Duguid also provides a detailed discussion and critique of the idea that electronic text in some way liberates information.

11. This neglect is by no means universal, as the discussions in collections edited by Sullivan (Electronic Text: Investigations in Method and Theory) and Bornstein and Tinkle (The Iconic Page in Manuscript, Print, and Digital Culture) make clear. Moreover, some textual scholars are recording physical details using various forms of tagging. For an example, see the Renaissance Electronic Texts project at the University of Toronto <URL: http://library.utoronto.ca/www/utel/ret/ret.html>.  Yet another strategy for preserving features of books involves the electronic reproduction of visual details through scanning.

12. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts is, of course, the title of McKenzie's Panizzi Lectures. We have taken this phrase from McKenzie's essay entitled "The Book as an Expressive Form" (1-21). Similarly, in "Typography and Meaning" he writes that "the book itself is an expressive means" (82).  (This collection is now available from Cambridge University Press in a new edition, published fall 1999.)  McGann's The Textual Condition, which defines a text "as a laced network of linguistic and bibliographic codes" (13), is also of interest.

13. McKenzie ("Typography and Meaning" 89).

14. Bolter makes a similar point, using the example of Sophocles (118-19). However, he generally passes briefly over the question of older texts and their transference to hypertext, and concerns himself more with the possibilities of hypertextual composition.

15. Cf. Miall (158), etc.

16. Benjamin's observation comes from his "Theses on the Philosophy of History"  (253-64).

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

1999-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).

(MF, WB, RGS, 18 November 1999)