A Material Turn: Tentative Research Questions and Thoughts on Next Year’s Thesis

It has been three weeks since the end of classes and (despite that final fortnight of sleep deprivation, trail mix, dark coffee, and total disgust) I already look forward to Fall semester.

Tentative Research Question: “What is the relationship between the medium and the message of a text?”

While poking around the Cambridge website (as I so frequently do, at 5:00 am), I stumbled upon the Cambridge Centre for Material Texts: an initiative aimed at uncovering the ways in which “texts of many kinds have been embodied and circulated” (CCMT). This “material turn” of humanities scholarship is based on the premise that texts are not stand-alone entities existing in isolation, but engage in and are created by broader historical and cultural networks. Texts, in other words, are messy: reading the material form of a work as a direct reflection of the author’s mental processes is to overlook the dialectical nature of writing itself; poets make mistakes, scribes are careless, printers misread, and censors have that niggling little habit of blotting out entire passages from the original. The “material text” (book as object, for example) does not necessarily provide a transparent medium for the meeting of minds. As the CCMT so aptly puts it:

“The writer’s tools (pen-and-ink, typewriter, word-processor) may have a significant impact on the way that the text develops, as may the institutions and the media (manuscript, print, film, performance) by which it circulates. As the bibliographer D. F. McKenzie put it, forms effect meanings’; every text is a negotiation between its creator(s) and a welter of worldly circumstances.” (CCMT)

It is this relationship between medium and message that I wish to investigate: is the meaning of a text distorted by its production and circulation? If so, how? What are the implications of material transitions such as oral storytelling to manuscript, manuscript to print, print to ebook publication? Is the Kindle phenomenon all that different from the arrival of the printing press? Are not these material transitions in and of themselves translations, forms of editing, processes of selection? At what point does the book-as-object (signifier) intersect with the ‘real’ text (signified)? What bearing does this have on readers’ experiences of literary works? Indeed, what if Shakespeare had used WordPress?

This, I confess, is a rather large can of worms. Undoubtedly, the only reasonable course of action is to draw up a slightly less esoteric proposal for mid-May, spice it up with a variety of secondary sources, whisk it off to the department, then hit the databases and do some more fishing. Stay tuned for an update.

2 thoughts on “A Material Turn: Tentative Research Questions and Thoughts on Next Year’s Thesis

  1. This topic is fascinating. You might be interested in the work of Marshall McLuhan, who looked at those kinds of relationships. He’s famous for the expression “the medium is the message.”

  2. Thanks! I’m still playing with several ideas (I felt a little self-conscious about using those terms, but think it might be worth looking into). Glad to hear it sparks your interest!

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