Writing Technologies
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Selfhood and technologies of textual production: the matter of John Donne’s poetics

Siobhán Collins

Our philosophy system excludes techne from its mediations.
Marshall McLuhan1

The principal difficulty resides in not submitting our world made up of mathematical calculus, epistemic things and technological media to a supreme being, be it God, Meaning or Man – something the early modern age was incapable of doing.
Friedrich A. Kittler2

What the printing – presses bring to birth with inky travail, we take as it comes; but what is written out by hand is in greater reverence.
John Donne3

In the early 1970s, Marshall McLuhan pointed out that the philosophy of the Enlightenment ignored the technology of its own production. This remarkable observation is having an important impact on current theory. There is now an increasing recognition that text cannot be conceived outside of its relation to the realm of matter. The work of today’s most prominent media theorists, influenced also by the advent of digitized technology, concentrates on how the materiality of the text shapes our notions of selfhood. The relation between technology and textuality is debated in terms of agency and meaning. Friedrich Kittler argues that technology not only makes inscription possible, but also, and by a process that involves ‘a sort of structural violence’, constructs ‘cultural forms as well as our bodily experience of them’.4 That is to say, society and selfhood are subject to, and subjects of, technology. Kittler shares with Foucault a deterministic notion of human agency. However, he contrasts the author’s passivity with the power of writing technologies. Whilst denying agency to humanity, he suggests that autonomy resides in technology itself. His privileging of technology’s agency excludes the text and the author from analysis, producing a new and dehumanizing dichotomy that separates technology from textuality and authorship. Kittler forsakes the Enlightenment’s focus on the text as transcendent in favour of an historical analysis of the technologies of communication.

However, as James Brown’s topical article, ‘In Search of a Technological Criticism’, illustrates, the separation of textuality and technology is problematic; technology, as the etymology of the word, fusing techne and logos, implies, is both concrete and abstract, and in partaking of an object and a subject implies a mutually informative relation between consciousness and its physical form of expression.5 The interface between textuality and technology extends correlatively to the complex interrelation between soul, mind and body. When our understanding of one of these terms changes it correspondingly alters each of the other terms. For instance, Descartes’ mid-seventeenth-century reconfiguration of the mind as ‘the whole soul, which thinks’, also reconstitutes the body as a mechanical object.6 Whereas the classical tripartite soul has a variety of faculties, including growth, nutrition and locomotion as well as sensation, imagination and intellectation, the Cartesian soul is the principle of thought. Descartes’ argument that the soul and the mind are one made possible his assertion that ‘our soul is of a nature entirely independent of the body’.7 Prior to this division from the soul, the body held ontological significance. The Cartesian notion of selfhood as the thinking ‘I’ that transcends matter is definitive of the historical phenomena whereby, as McLuhan puts it, ‘our philosophy system excludes techne from its mediations’. Although dualism extends back to Plato’s argument that the eternal soul is the essence of selfhood and superior to the perishable body, the body is not passive and mechanized as we find in Descartes’ writings; rather, it has the ability, albeit negative, to distract the embodied soul from its search for knowledge. Aristotle placed much more emphasis on the self as a composite of body and soul. It is through figurative language that he explains their interrelation, comparing the body to ‘wax’ and the soul to ‘the shape given to it by the stamp’.8 St. Aquinas’ scholastic concept of selfhood, which continued well into the seventeenth century, also guarantees the ontological significance of body in language that, like Aristotle’s, relies metaphorically on technologies of communication: ‘the blue-print of all we are…may be carried in soul, but it is realized in body’.9 The early modern pre-Cartesian self as body / soul composite underwrites Kittler’s observation that this period is incapable of dissociating technology from textuality, body from ‘God, Meaning, or Man’. However, while Kittler offers this comment as a critique of humanism, I believe that an analysis of how an early modern author negotiated the impact of competing technologies of writing (manuscript and print) on notions of selfhood is significant to our current, post-enlightened, search for a theory that would account for the text’s relation to writing technologies.

In a work that has greatly influenced the recent turn to technology in Renaissance literary studies, Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday demonstrate that, much as print and digital technologies overlap today, manuscript and the new medium of print not only coexisted as writing technologies in the Renaissance but interacted and competed with one another, each contributing to differing concepts of self.10 Concern with and manipulation of the relation between materiality and textuality, body and meaning, is evident not only in Donne’s poetics, which can be gleaned from both his poetry and prose, but also in his deliberation between the two competing forms of textual production available to him. Donne’s preference was for manuscript circulation of his work. Relatively little of his poetry or prose was published in print in his lifetime. The nine prose works he did print: Pseudo Martyr (1610), Ignatius his Conclave (1611), Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), and six sermons (1622-1627), constitute a small percentage of Donne’s body of prose, which includes: Paradoxes and Problems, Biathanatos, Essays in Divinity, an impressively large body of letters and more than 150 sermons. Of his poetic canon, aside from the three brief commendatory poems and the elegy on the death of Prince Henry that appeared in print ‘in the books of others’, only the two Anniversaries on the death of Elizabeth Drury, with their accompanying ‘Funerall Elegie’, were printed with Donne’s authorization in 1611 and 1612.11 This paper will consider the motivation behind Donne’s decision to print a select few works and to transmit the vast majority of his poetry and prose in manuscript form, an understanding of which is critical to any attempt to reconstruct how the author may have intended his writings to be read. On a methodological level this will serve to illustrate the importance of how the text’s content and the material form of its production, dissemination and reception interact with one another to produce meaning. The weight of meaning Donne imparts to materiality, and its ability to communicate, will be discussed in relation to his pervasive use of the body / book metaphor throughout his canon. Focusing primarily but not exclusively on Donne’s poetry, I will argue that his choice of textual production is a correlation of his ambivalent attitude to his poems as both bodily and spiritual, concrete and abstract, and reveals the psychological, epistemological, ontological and political depths behind the questions of language, authorship, and textual production in the early modern period.

As a result of choosing to circulate the bulk of his poems in manuscript form, Donne’s poetry was susceptible to variant and erroneous transcription. Virtually none of Donne’s poetic holographs survive, motivating negative critical consideration of his authorial attitude towards poetry.12 Izaac Walton, Donne’s earliest biographer, describes Donne’s poems as ‘facetiously composed’ and ‘carelessly scattered’, based on the poet’s decision not to print the greater part of his verse. Speed Hill states: ‘we must admit the possibility that [Donne] …did not value his poetry as we’.13 An image of a careless, yet essentially self-aggrandizing Donne, with little thought for the endurance or worth of his verse, who wrote as a ‘coterie’ poet (rather than as ‘a professional’ like Jonson) for the aim of ‘social prestige and preferment that successful exploitation of the patronage system would win’, has been constructed.14 Underlying this portrait of Donne, I believe, is a modern predisposition toward print, which assumes that an author in this period would, if he or she valued his/her art, choose to immortalize it in type.

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1. Marshall McLuhan, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, ed. Marie Molinaro et al (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), p. 429.

2. Friedrich A. Kittler, ‘Number and Numeral’, trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Theory, Culture & Society, 23:7-8 (2006), 51-61 (p. 58).

3. H.W. Garrod, ‘The Latin Poem Addressed by Donne to Dr. Andrews’, Review of English Studies 21 (1945), pp. 38-42.

4. John Armitage, ‘From Discourse Networks to Cultural Mathematics: An Interview with Friedrich A. Kittler’, Theory,Culture & Society 23:7-8 (2006), pp. 17-38 (p. 24); ‘Editor’s Notes’ to ‘Number and Numeral’, p. 51.

5. James Brown, ‘In Search of a Technological Criticism’, Writing Technologies, 1.1 (May, 2007) http://www.ntu.ac.uk/writing_technologies/Back_issues/Vol 1/Brown/index.html [accessed 23 May 2008]

6. See Marleen Rozemond, Descartes’ Dualism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). In contrast to the scholastics, Descartes writes: ‘I do not regard the mind as part of the soul, but as the whole soul, which thinks’, p. 47.

7. Cited in Rozemond, Descartes’ Dualism p. 44.

8. Aristotle, De anima, The Works of Aristotle, vol. III, trans. by J.A. Smith, ed. W. D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p 13, 412b7.

9. Cited by Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia Press, 1995), p. 269.

10. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, ‘Paperworlds: Imagining the Renaissance Computer’, in The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print, ed. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 1-18.

11. See Ted-Larry Pebworth, ‘The Text of Donne’s Writings’, The Cambridge Companion to John Donne, ed. Achsah Guibbory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 23-33, 24.

12. There is evidence of only one poem, a verse epistle addressed to Lady Carey and Mrs. Essex Riche, that survives in Donne’s hand.

13. W. Speed Hill, ‘The Donne Variorum: Variations on the Life of an Author’, Huntington Library Press http://www.huntington.org/HLPress/HLQPDFfiles/hill_donnevariorum.pdf [accessed 31 October 2002], pp. 445–54, p. 452.

14. Arthur F. Marotti, ‘John Donne and the Rewards of Patronage’, in Patronage in the Renaissance, ed. Guy Fitch Lytle and Stephen Orgel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 208. See also Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne: Coterie Poet (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), and John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), particularly the earlier chapters.