Wednesday, 22 October 2014

frivolous female readers / body and book

 The original was published as Wednesday Post for Collective Investigations

This blog post is based on the research that I made for (in)discreet editions publications the discreet book of bathroom reading and those frivolous readers, which - in their own turn - were inspired by the material collected for codex: between one hand and another. 


Young Woman Reading Jean Honoré Fragonard  (French, Grasse 1732–1806 Paris)

When collecting images of female readers one cannot escape an overwhelming amount of eroticised reading women,: half-dressed or with their clothes barely holding on; women draped across beds, sofas, armchairs or frozen in a blush, contemplating the contents of their naughty read. Their hair flows. Their hands are gentle. Their skin is porcelain. Their touch is sensual: the book is a tactile object; pages are frozen in the middle of movement. There might be a glimpse of breast exposed. There might be a suggestive vessel or a protruding handle somewhere close by. Their eyes are seductively lowered towards the book held at the height of the chest.

The images come from across the centuries: charged with the intimacy of body and book.

There are Belle Epoque oil paintings, vintage postcards, prints, photos in contemporary press and online social media. Apart from a couple of sightings in Medieval imagery, eroticised women readers more prominently first appear in Renaissance. At that time majority of female portraits commissioned by men were intended as decorative possessions to be "absorbed into the overall ornamentation of ostentatious domestic environment"2. 18th century saw the birth of the novel and a further rise in reading - and new concerns, in particular, about the damaging psychological effects that reading had on female body and mind. 
Terry Castle suggests that even the solitary practice of reading was seen to harbour "dangers" that included a complex dynamics of self-involvement. She explains that once "reading became dangerous because it prompted obsessional thoughts", it became possible to diagnose the reader as the victim of hallucinatory disease. 4
The processes of reading, then were gendered - eroticised and sexualised. The active masculine reader with pen in hand mastered the text no less then his household... The early modern woman as a sexual object was figured and described as a book to be opened. Female reading was frequently eroticised and implicated in the sexual body. The book held to the breast, in the lap, or concealed under the petticoats fetishised both the text and the reader. Male suspicion, even anxiety, variously imagined female reading as a source of ungovernable pleasure, in the eighteenth century even as self-pleasuring. 3
Inaccurate though the image of the idle, frivolous female novel-reader was, the stereotype did not disappear with the close of the eighteenth century1, James Raven says. 

Neither did it disappear with the close of the centuries that followed either.

What fascinates me is that the image of a "sensual reading female" predates the "sexy librarian" by good few centuries. While both images feed off each other in contemporary depiction of books and females (see the very last three images at the very end) the latter one is linked to the erotisation of intelligence as such - the same phenomenon that gives us reading Marlon Brando or reading Gregory Peck as sex symbols (not that they need a book for that!). 
Sensual reading female does not eroticise intelligence. That is sure. She is alone, relaxed, withdrawn and observed. Could she be related to the sleeping nude? If so, what does it say about the role of the book in those image?  Female sexuality? What does it say about the idea of reading? What does it say about the idea of the book?


 Book (reading)(woman)(sensual)   

1 James Raven, Hellen Small and Naomi Tadmor (2007) “Introduction: The Practice and Representation of Reading in England,” in The Practice and Representation of Reading in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (p.19)
2 Ponton, Marcia (2013) Portrayal and the Search for Identity, London: Reaktion Books Ltd. (p. 14)
3 Sharpe, Kevin and Stephen Zwicker (2003) Reading, Society and Politics in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (p.15)
4 Haggerty, Geroge E. (1998) Unnatural Affections. Women and Fiction in the Later 18th Century. Indiana: Indiana University Press.





Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Digital scrolls (again)

Helen Douglas at Whitechapel Art Book fair, 2014


The Art Book Fair at Whitechapel certainly looked different from the last year: upstairs had a much happier feel, with more tables filling the space and a refreshingly (!) large number of Canadian presses. Downstairs seemed as usual - big publishers and big tables. The cafe, however, was almost gone, with it's space in-between the floors occupied by a Blurb commission Unbinding the Book [why in the cafe?), which ranged between underwhelming and truly exciting. [Anyone knows what Imprimatur is? Is it a real imprint? Or is it merely a metaphysical concept from Blurb marketing department?] On the whole - a few hits and misses later - Whitechapel Art Book Fair was an improvement from the year before. 
(My personal favorite at Whitechapel, however, remained Kader Attia's Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder: a magnificent bookwork or a piece of installation - the choice is yours. )

One of the highlights of the fair itself was Helen Douglas’ new book, produced as a result of her residency in Mexico, where she traveled under the invitation from Martha Hellion. Surreal and mesmerising continuous sequence of images blends foliage, architecture, fragments of Mexican papercuts and textile into a seamless panorama. A garden of Eden? {seductive}. The Mexican book is not dissimilar in the many ways to the other books that Helen has been producing since 2001, that feature her trademark Thumberlina's perspective to draw in the viewer through the boundary of paper into the enchanted photographic foliaged images beyond. One of those works is her scroll book The Pond at Deauchar, which was conceived and produced as a physical scroll and as a digital scroll.


Helen Douglas The Pond at Deuchar
There is a well known anecdote about how Helen Douglas wanted to produce the scroll as a digital app to accommodate The Pond at Deuchar.  Apple refused the idea, because the app did not include any more functions than scrolling the scroll (!).
Eventually the app for this artist's book was born and the pond can now be enjoyed online HERE.  It is a beautiful translation from one medium to another, that maintains the original fluidity and depth of immersion. In fact, the experience of the digital scroll excels as submersion into the work due to the level of detail that zoom option provides.

For comparison, below are a few more digitised scrolls by academic institutions. 

1. A library of digitised Asian scroll paintings at the University of Chicago.

Lake Zhiyang and the Eastern Lake 1663

There is a phenomenal incentive from the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago - they have now uploaded online a library of digitised  Asian scroll paintings. What a resource!
The Center for the Art of East Asia initiated the Digital Scrolling Paintings Project to support the teaching of classes on East Asian painting. The temporal and spatial qualities of handscroll paintings are lost in photographs of selected sections that are reproduced in books and projected in the classroom.  Although used widely in current art education and the study of these works of art, such reproductions seriously distort the nature of handscrolls by erasing their sequential and participatory viewing process. The display of these paintings in long cases in museums also is not the way in which these paintings were made to be experienced. With the assistance of the Humanities Computer Research Department, the Center developed a prototype for digital scrolling technology as an exciting tool to simulate the viewing experience and to improve understanding of handscroll paintings.

2. Dead Sea Scrolls online by Google and Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 
Dead Sea Scrolls
In 2011 Google and Israel Museum in Jerusalem uploaded the oldest known biblical manuscripts Dead Sea Scrolls online in a high-resolution format, so they become available to all and everyone (with a reliable and fast internet connection, that is).

3. A Ripley scroll from 1477
Ripley Scroll (1477)
This Ripley scroll (1477) has been scanned-in as a very VERY hi-res very long photo and uploaded online: a delightful level of detail, that can otherwise be only enjoyed with a magnifying glass. In simple terms, it is an alchemical manuscript that shows in pictorial cryptograms the production of the philosopher's stone (the elusive ingredient that produces incorruptible gold out of lesser metals; and/or the elixir of life). A very detailed description of the scroll is on BibliOdyssey (among numerous other treasures that can be found there).

4. Georgian scrolling book Trip to London at Princeton University
Artist unknown, Trip to Town (London: William Sams, 1822). 
Box embossed: E.P. Sutton & Company; 
Sangorski & Sutcliff. GA 2005.01039
 And finally, here is this charming Georgian device Trip to London that has been digitised by Princeton University. It is a box with a twelve plate scroll that contains a story about a very unfortunate  honeymoon journey to London by a recently married Mister O'Squat and the Widow Shanks. 
Here is a POST from Booktryst (June, 2013) about the scroll, including this curious snippet of information.
It is not found in Tooley or Abbey, has no copies recorded by OCLC/KVK in institutional holdings worldwide, no copies at auction since ABPC began indexing results in 1923, no copy in the collection of the British Museum, nor is it found in the annals of our sister TV series, Divorce Court. It is an incredibly scarce item, as rare as a Taylor Swift long-term relationship.


Digital editions raise questions about... editions: what is the relationship between the digital and the material version of the book? Is it an edition in its own right? Prof. Michelle Brown spoke of digital manuscripts in the article she wrote for our Codex: Between This and That book. She suggested that digital editions should be treated as born digital editions in their own right.
The exponential increase in digital imagery available online is encouraging scholars accustomed to working on early texts in the form of printed editions to become aware of the value added and transformative experience of working directly from the primary sources, without having to travel around the world and negotiate access to materials, the rarity and fragility of which may necessitate curatorial restrictions on access to be applied – as in the case of the Beowulf manuscript itself. Manuscript curators initially anticipated that digital surrogates would lessen the demand for consultation of the original; in fact, the stimulation of interest that they provoke can often lead to even more requests to view. Scholarly scepticism is such that there is also felt to be a need to see the original for oneself, in order to test the veracity of digital versions – which indeed have their own life and should be seen as born digital e-manuscripts in their own right.
 Born digital e-scrolls in their own right, then.


The original version of this post can be found in Egidija's Notebook II.