Lab #1 Remote Instructions

For those joining the lab in person, I will deliver these instructions in person. If you are completing the lab remotely, however, you will find four things in your packet:

  1. A copy of a historical letter
  2. A candle
  3. A candle holder
  4. Matches

You will also need a writing implement and a blank sheet of paper, and you should find the darkest spot possible in your workspace. Ideally you would be in a room without windows, to simulate night-time, but if that is impossible please make things as dark as possible. In our classroom, for example, I’ll be covering the windows to block as much sunlight as I can.

Once your space is ready, light your candle, turn off any electric light sources (e.g. overhead lights, phones, computers) and transcribe the text of the letter as accurately as possible. We will work on transcribing from the beginning of class at 1pm until at least 1:30, perhaps even a little longer, so you should plan to join us via zoom around that time. Since you won’t have your phone on for the activity, you might set an alarm.

These are the full instructions for the activity, so you can close your computer now and read the rest of the prompt later.

Lab #1 Context

Let’s start with a quote from Marshall McLuhan, which we discussed this week:

The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no “content.” And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the “content” (or what is really another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth.

In today’s lab we read and wrote by candlelight to consider how technologies of illumination, which we might not typically think about as information technologies, nevertheless have influenced centuries, if not millennia, of communication.

Reading and writing by candlelight perhaps most immediately recalls images of medieval scribes transcribing manuscripts, particularly in the winter months when daylight was scarce. However, it is also true that technologies of illumination didn’t change that significantly for a long while—people in the mid-nineteenth century still read and wrote by candlelight and they were still scrivening well into the age of print. In the twenty-first century we are so accustomed to the ways electric light reshapes our daily lives that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine landscapes, labor, and lives not defined by it.

To frame this in another way, the candle is a non-textual medium that has profoundly affected the texts we have inherited from previous generations: the candle is not a format, perhaps, but it has profound influence on the evolution of our textual formats. An ecology of media, including candlelight, parchment, and calligraphic standards circumscribed and defined the labor of early book making, which in turn helped determine what books were made, what forms they assumed, and how they were used. And that labor is also important as labor: bookmaking was a laborious process, an embodied process. The books through which we understand early periods are not simply those that were written, but instead those that survived, and often because they were mediated and remediated through a series of scribes, formats, materials, and, later, typesetters and editors.

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From Brian Pickings, a list of complaints about copying found in the margins of medieval manuscripts.

Lab Report #1 Prompt

For this first lab report, I want you to do a few things:

  1. First, I want you to reflect on the lab itself. What was the experience of reading and writing by candlelight, however briefly, actually like: mentally, physically, mechanically? How far did you get in your transcription? What came easily and what, if anything, did you struggle with? How was this experience like and unlike your typical means of producing text? Feel free to include a photo of your transcription as well.
  2. Second, how does working by candlelight help you reflect on historical practices of textual production? Does considering centuries of writers reading, copying, and drafting in this way—whether working on literary texts, informational documents, or correspondence—offer you new perspectives on texts you might have encountered before?
  3. Finally, I would ask you to choose another format: perhaps something more contemporary, such as a software format, or something related to your own area of research interest. Then, I would ask you to consider—and this will will require consideration and perhaps some brief additional research—a technical or material element that influences the form, production, or use of your format. You have latitude here, but you should be considering something that seems on first glance to stand apart from the content of your format, as the candle perhaps seems separate from the content of the manuscripts produced by its light. What new insight might we glean by considering these elements together, or by widening our lens from a given medium to the technologies, environments, or materials central to its expression?