Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, May 28, 2010

the problem of abundance

The Quintessence of Ham:

Roger Chartier identifies eighteenth-century concerns about scarcity and abundance which closely parallel the challenges faced by digitial humanists. For example, he notes that the “fear of obliteration obsessed the societies of early modern Europe.” According to Chartier the eighteenth century compounded the problem of scarcity with unexpected abundance. He describes the scenario as one of “uncontrollable textual proliferation, of a discourse without order or limits. The excess of writing piled up useless texts and stifled thought beneath the weight of accumulating discourse, creating a peril no less ominous than the threat of disappearance.” Anyone who has studied printed materials during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century is acutely aware of the explosion of new titles and reeditions that transformed the literary landscape of early modern Europe. This revolution in supply was matched by equally transformative growth in demand, with literacy rates spiking and growing especially fast among women. In France, for example, the percentage of women who could read doubled, and the overall rate among men and women rose from about 1/3 to 1/2 of the population. Authors developed new strategies to differentiate their works, and readers had to develop new filters to determine what was worth reading.

The eighteenth century was thus a time when people grappled, often uneasily, with the problem of abundance. One response was the Enlightenment fascination with taxonomy and system-building. The eighteenth century gave us enduring systems for ordering living things (Linnaeus) and physical matter (Lavoisier), but it also attempted to systematize more or less the entire material world with a spate of projects tackling language, arts, cooking, hair styles, whatever. All were designed not only to impose order but also to solve the problem of abundance.

Courtesy @tcarmody.


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