Last week, months of careful organization and mobilization came to a head as students at ten universities occupied their campuses in support of the HE strike. The last of these occupations, at Senate House in Bloomsbury, was met with violent repression: UoL management called in the police, and…
Comparison of quartos and First Folio editions of Hamlet’s soliloquy
Digital Bad Quarto
It’s a truism to say we live in an exciting era for publishing. A myriad of new models are emerging as we develop new technologies, and, as in the past, our existing protocols and codes are incapable or not flexible enough to cope with them. A practical example: what constitutes an ‘edition’ when the data can be changed instantaneously, and that change can be enacted immediately across the globe, and even onto pre-existing editions? It seems our conception of publishing has to be reformed taking into account the post-print publishing environment. Carlin’s continued practice around the nature of the relationship between what is printed and what is published address these fluctuations, and explores print’s developing history and archaeology whilst new protocols are being written, but before the ink is yet dry.
Every book tells the story of every book. Perhaps it can seem today that the book is such a perfectly produced platform for the mass-distribution of knowledge, information and passions that it could only have been the product of a single, and singular, vision. It can be packed into a case, smuggled across a border, flung from a train, drenched in a monsoon, and passed from hand to hand to hand, and still retain all its practical functionality, its remarkably user-friendly interface still operating in low-light conditions, miles from any power source, transmitting its information with as much clarity as the moment it left the printers. It seems supremely designed, but each part of it, from its binding to its contents, its page numbers to its colophon, is the result of a multitude of tiny innovations and developments spread across the entire history of the printing trade. The book is an evolving form, and each new edition holds that history in each component. The form of the book might seem to be a singular vision, but in reality it’s a collection of protocols established between a community of producers and consumers. It’s a landscape of information technology waiting to be excavated.
Most commercially produced titles, for instance, hold a blurb, usually on the back dust-jacket. The back-cover copy today serves as an inducement for the customer to buy the book; it’s usually a brief preçis, with a pull quote from the text, or a review or endorsement. Dig through history however and its roots are quite different. The prebinding of books with hardcovers as an industry standard is a reasonably recent development; before the 1820s books were often sold as loose leaves of paper (sometimes stitched), with binding arrangements left up to the bookseller and buyer to agree upon privately. The trades of printer and binder were quite separate, and both printer and binder had a high degree of personal and political discretion as to whether or not they took on a job. Whilst today the publisher co-ordinates both roles, and hence holds the power and responsibility of what is published, the protocol was once divided between those who physically produced and bound the text. The printer would read the text thoroughly prior to printing; but so too would the binder, to ensure he was happy to put his name to the finished book. As part of this process the binder would often write a short preçis of the book for future information. From this root, via the production of the dust-jacket after the invention of the steam-powered printing press, through to the first promotional quote, and finally to the invention of the term ‘blurb’, is a single example of the developing protocols whose origins are hidden under layers of their own history.
Text itself can be seen to follow this pattern. Information is always corrupted in its reproduction; the history of printing is the story of the constant quest to reproduce a text with increased accuracy. Before printing this was notoriously difficult; each new hand compounds earlier errors when manually copying manuscripts. Today archaeologists of information dig through hand-written manuscripts, comparing and contrasting version, weighing up provenance in an attempt to find the most accurate version of the original. This work is called palaeography — the exploration of ancient writing, the search for uncorrupted authenticity.
“Performance Publishing” by Maurice Carlin is an archaeology of printed layers. Like each book it is a work that documents its own history through stratum of data transcribed and transmitted, and notes each error and each change in protocol. Carlin spent the summer of 2013 in a vast warehouse in Salford, England producing a series of prints as part of a public performance. Each print was produced as a relief print of the floor of the warehouse, made by dragging CMYK inks across thick paper laid upon the floor. The process was experimental; early prints started with a few simple layers, whilst later ones took on vivid hues and more complex patterns as Carlin dragged more and more colour over each print.
The result was a process of incremental analogue recording of the warehouse space, with more data produced daily as Carlin started and finished another sheet. When I visited the work, prints fanned out in situ across the warehouse. From the ground, walking over the blanket of prints, each seemed almost random and totally disconnected from its neighbour, as though the experimental technique had disconnected each from the other. From the viewing gallery raised a storey higher, however, the fidelity of the recording was obvious. The patterns and textures of the floor were clearly picked out, not least the lines which crossed the warehouse where one section of the poured concrete floor met another and produced a ridge imperceptible to the eye but clearly highlighted by Carlin’s printing technique. It was a patchwork of data, and whilst the basic analogue printing technique produced a vast amount of errors and visual noise, it was clearly recognisable as a physical recording of the space.
There are some basic truths to palaeography. The more version, the more corruptions. The further you go chronologically from the source, the less accurately data is transmitted. Errors compound. As academics work through texts written and copied before the invention of movable type, they always bear these basic tendencies in mind. The invention of the printing press complicates this, however; errors on earlier editions can be revisited, improved upon. Factual mistakes are corrected; libels erased. The stratum of information and the errors they contain are disturbed. The layers, previously easy to neatly delineate by time, are shaken and intermingled. For future archaeologists of data sifting through these layers in order to make sense of them becomes harder. It was to simplify this job that the protocol of editions became formalised and made concrete in the row of neat numbers that appear on modern colophon.
An example of this can be found in the first copies of Shakespeare’s plays. Cheap bootleg copies of popular works such as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet were printed and circulated whilst Shakespeare was alive. These were printed as “quartos”: large sheets of paper printed with 8 pages of text, four to a side, then folded, so that they appeared for sale as a four-paged, eight-sided booklet, approximately the size as a modern A4 sheet.
Shakespeare never actually published any of his own work. Elizabethan playwrights were notoriously worried about being published; they made their living from selling their plays to their own company of players. Without copyright protection there was nothing they could do to prevent another company performing their work if they got their hands on a script. They were therefore wary of providing even their own actors with complete copies, instead providing each player only with their part, with the addition of cues.
Shakespeare’s quartos, then, were pirated copies, produced without consent. It is still a matter of dispute just how they were produced; some scholars think they were written from memory by actors looking to boost their paltry wages, whilst others think they were produced by pirates in the audience taking notes in shorthand and reproducing them in long-form for printers at a later date. The arguments for the two positions revolve around the nature and quality of the errors, and whether they indicate flaws in memorial transcription or shorthand transcription.
The definitive version of Shakespeare’s plays weren’t published until the “First Folio”, a collection of 36 plays, seven years after his death, in 1623. There is no extant version of any of Shakespeare’s work in his own hand; not a single line. All we have are layers of printed texts, and even chronology offers little guarantee of accuracy or provenance. The layers sit confused, and littered with the transcription errors of the quartos.
To me Carlin’s prints represent a shorthand version of Hamlet, where the act of transcription is recorded just as strongly as what is being transcribed. Each layer of ink is a layer of data and it would take an archaeologist, or a very particular palaeographer, to pull each compounded flaw from each truthful representation. Only when viewed as a whole do the larger patterns emerge.
This transcript of the space was published online, in the form of a webcam broadcasting the space constantly whilst Carlin worked on the prints. The work became published when it became available en masse, on demand in our web browser. Perhaps this can be seen as an attempt to elide the boundaries between a printed work and a performance on my part, but I felt clearly that it was in the act of publishing that the work became vital. The hazy, fuzzy webcam video was not a broadcast of a performance but a published print in itself, and a new edition of the work was released, with slight improvements and amendments, each time the image refreshed itself.
Available online was a digital bad quarto. The quality of the digitisation of the printed work, like a lot of digitisation of pre-existing publications, was poor; colour reproduced inaccurately and the nuance of the analogue transcription was all but invisible. Layers or error compounded themselves, producing a confused image of the original, but also in the process an exciting attempt to conceptualise the new relationships between digital technology and the act of printing – a series of rich aesthetic misprints and misunderstandings.
This essay was originally produced for Hard Copy, a catalogue to accompany Performance Publishing: Regents Trading Estate, a 3 month performance work by Maurice Carlin, alongside essays by Karen Archey, Joanne McMeil and Danielle Rago.
Language is a plastic thing. One cannot be too precious about new and different uses of words once held in one context. Indeed the plasticity of language is one of the key engines of the innovation and diversity of internet culture. However, recent discussion of the word troll and its…
Hi, I think I can remember reading a piece you did last yearish on trolling on twitter and comparing it to anonymous pamphlets published in the 17/18 C. Was this you and if so could you please share a link? My apologies if I have confused you with someone else from the uk radical twitter scene.
I’m in the process of writing something about it (and have been for months) but I’ve not done it yet. The text I was interested in was ‘The Crime of Anonymity” by E.P. Thompson.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” ― James Baldwin
"Our happiness together remains one of my most vivid and fructifying memories; when we are young and literary, we often experience things in the present with a nostalgia-in-advance, but we seldom guess what we will truly prize years from now. I always placed a high value on friendship, but even I had no way of guessing back then that it was more fun to get drunk with a friend than with a lover. Love is a source of anxiety until it is a source of boredom; only friendship feeds the spirit. Love raises great expectations in us that it never satisfies; the hopes based on friendship are milder and in the present, and they exist only because they have already been rewarded. Love is a script about just a few repeated themes we have a hard time following, though we make every effort to conform to its tone. Friendship is a permis de sejour that enables us to go anywhere and do anything exactly as our whims dictate."