Digital Sensations: Reflections on Renaissance and Digital-Age Text-Use

In March I had the pleasure of presenting a paper at the Society for Textual Scholarship’s annual conference, held this year at Loyola University in Chicago. Along with fellow Northwestern graduate students Seth Swanner and Simon Nyi, I organized a panel focused on textual editing and the relationship between material textuality and embodiment in early modern England. My own paper, entitled “Editorial Touches: Text-use and Tactile Relations in Renaissance England,” examined the sense of touch, which I argue was central to reading practices and discourses in the period, despite our general inclination to think of reading primarily as a visual activity. Although my presentation concerned itself with the historicizing the ways in which reading practices and textuality were imbricated with the sense of touch in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and did not “touch” on the digital-age modes of reading with which we are generally concerned in NUDHL, considering the sensory experiences of reading in the Renaissance does point to important questions that digital humanists might take up today: where do the “lower” senses—touch, smell, and taste—stand in the realm of the digital? Do we need to engage them more effectively? How?

In the Renaissance, I discovered, touch was central to reading practice because it was considered to be the key to learning: impressing one’s body upon the page allowed the text to impress itself upon the reader’s mind. Geffrey Whitney’s 1586 Choice of Emblemes, for example, pairs a poem with an engraving of two kinds of readers surrounded by books. On the left stands a reader holding a book passively, touching its cover but not digitally engaging with it. On the right, another reader leans over a lectern, his fingers actively touching the recto page of a folio volume.[1] Accompanying the emblem is a poem that urges readers to touch their books actively:


Geffrey Whitney, A choice of emblems (Imprinted at Leyden: In the house of Christopher Plantyn, by Francis Raphelengius, M.D.LXXXVI [1586]), STC 25438 (Huntington Library copy), p. 171.

Proper reading, that which “printe[s] in minde, what wee in printe do reade,” involves more than merely “vewe[ing]” a text. It demands deliberate tactile engagement with it: marking and annotating. To impress a book’s contents upon the mind, to ensure that what we “do reade” touches the intellect, the reader must touch back. To “marke” a text is thus the first step of “practise” and meaningful learning.

Whitney was not alone in advising tactile textual engagement. It was a commonplace among Renaissance humanists that “making one’s mark” on a text, as William Sherman puts it,[2] was an effective reading method and imperative for learning. I can’t help but think these early humanists were right. When we read with our whole bodies, it seems, we learn better—or at least I do. It seems my students do, too, even though they are second-generation digital natives. What, then, do we lose when we “go digital” and the material text with which we interact is abstracted into code and ethereal, digitized data? What is the status of the body in digital humanism?

Of course, advances in technology bring us ever closer to using our whole bodies to do digital work and interact with digital texts. The iPad affords the possibility of tactically manipulating the visual field of the text in ways not possible with paper works: we can zoom in and out, stretch, and shift the screen. The digital is thus increasingly digital—that is, something we consume with our fingers. Nonetheless, computer technologies integrate new levels of mediation between user and text that remove us further from our objects of study. The shape of our relationship to texts changes, and so does the way we learn.

Touch is—and was understood in the Renaissance as—a radically reciprocal sense. It dissolves the distinctions between subject and object, since the touched is always also touching the toucher. Accordingly, the relationship between reader and text was, I argued in my paper, fluid and unfixed. The reader impressed herself upon the text in order to impress the text more effectively in her mind; as the text “touched” the reader, the reader touched back. In this way, the reader’s manipulation of the text, her contribution to its construction (through material marking or annotating, or through her figurative manipulations of its material) effected her learning. Figuratively and physically merging with the text allowed “wisedome” to “ensue” “euermoore.”

Digital texts, however, require a reimagining of the relationship between text and user to accommodate a new constellation: text, user, technology. This is not to say, of course, that the codex book is not a mediating technology. But for many Renaissance humanists, the book was the text; though texts could exist in the abstract—temporally surpassing, as Shakespeare’s sonnet persona writes, “gilded monuments” or “unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time”—the text, at least when it came to learning, was something a reader “vse[d]” physically. When we “use” a digital text, however, the technology on which it is manifested claims a greater and more independent role. Instead of the mutual interaction of text and reader, a reciprocal relationship develops among text, user, and technology. This is in some ways a function of the vast capacity of digital technology; an iPad contains a legion of texts, rather than a single text.[3] We necessarily must recalibrate how we touch a text when subject and object dissolve not into each other, but into their medium.

Although my instinct is to think of what is lost physically and intellectually when we “go digital,” it is more effective—and more interesting—to reimagine entirely our relation to texts. We neither lose nor gain when we touch a screen rather than a page. We simply do it differently. Although we can and should draw on other modes of text-use, the digital advent sees us creating a whole new method of learning. This may require us to teach ourselves new ways of embodying our reading practice. Books smell; (most) iPads don’t. If we can’t smell our digital technologies, we may need to rethink the ways we use them. For even if we are coming to inhabit texts in entirely new ways, we still inhabit bodies, and should, I think, vigorously insist that our bodies and not just our minds take part in the educational process. This demands the conscientious and careful use of our digital media, and a reconceptualization of our relationships to them.

[1] See Bradin Cormack and Carla Mazzio, Book Use, Book Theory 1500-1700 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 1-4, on text-use and Whitney’s emblem.

[2] William Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, 3.

[3] For simplicity’s sake, I will decline here to discuss the Barthesian plurality of any given text; that is a conversation for another day!