Making Books, Making Language

This post is about an asymmetry in the current disciplinary configuration of literary studies: scholars of my generation often possess detailed professional knowledge of how the books of their period of study, as physical objects, were made. Yet very few of them have an account of how the utterances in those books were made, apart from the patently inadequate notion of word choice (“words in their sites,” as Ian Hacking once put it) and, perhaps, familiarity with classical rhetorical tropes and figures. In the 60’s and 70s Linguistics provided the primary technical resource the discipline literary criticism; now that role is filled by descriptive bibliography.

The general asymmetry has a bevy of local expressions. My colleagues are more likely to have studied how the ink and paper of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was made than how Shakespeare made the sentences in Hamlet. They are surprisingly likely to have spent time writing about William and Isaac Jaggard’s contributions to the volume relative to Shakespeare’s own. Their working vocabularies are more likely to include bibliographic terms like catchword and signature than the distinction between intensional and extensional meaning that is of great import in the philosophy of language. They are far more likely to read and cite D.F. McKenzie arguing that the material form of texts determines their meaning than the work of Noam Chomsky (or any other linguist, for that matter) arguing that the syntactic form of sentences determines their meaning. They are more likely to have performed a collation than a syntactic parse, though they may well have done some sentence diagramming (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentence_diagram) in primary school. They think lots about textual instability and little if at all about scope ambiguity, lots about compositors and little if at all about compositionality, lots about the conventionally meaningful elements of a title page and little if it all about the conventionally meaningful elements of a sentence. I’d wager that more of them know how to differentiate stab-stitched bindings from sewed bindings than count nouns from mass nouns (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Count_noun). And of course the attention to books as physical objects is just one element of the larger turn, across the humanities, from the study of language to the study of media – material substrates and technologies through which communication takes place – and perhaps more generally still from “representations” to materiality, objects, and “things.”

A few qualifications are in order. There is evident vagueness built into who is included in “my generation of scholars” and what counts as an “adequate” account of language – vagueness that for the moment I don’t plan to dispel through stipulation. And I’m really speaking here about North American literary academia plus Oxbridge and London Universities. In countries where English is not the first language, as well as in non-Oxbridge UK universities outside of London, students of English literature frequently study linguistics along with the English language. (As a point of reference, here are the institutional affiliations of the editorial team of the journal Language and Literature: University of Huddersfield, UK, The University of Nottingham, UK, Universidad de Granada, Spain, Jean Moulin University, Lyon, France.) Scholars of Old and Middle English Literature are much more likely to have devoted time to the study of the English language and its history than scholars who study Early Modern or Modern English, though I can’t speak to how often this extends beyond establishing fluency and factual knowledge to theoretical matters. It is also plausible, though not clearly the case from where I sit, that comparatists working across multiple languages are more likely to engage with the technical study of language.

More obviously, it is inherently difficult to generalize about what people know: there are a lot of people out there, and they don’t always exhibit their knowledge in person or document it in published scholarship. I am acquainted with many scholars whose wide and voracious reading has led them to corners of linguistics and the philosophy of language that were not otherwise part of their coursework and training. (My own education in linguistics has been entirely extracurricular.)

Finally, I don’t doubt that my sense of this disciplinary asymmetry is perspectival, in part a product of selection bias. I work on the early modern period, the era of what Elizabeth Eisenstein called the “Printing Revolution,” and as a frequent denizen of the Folger Shakespeare Library, I am unusually likely to meet and socialize with a particular subset of early modern literature scholars: those who choose to leave their home institution and travel to a library filled with physical early modern books and those who get funding to do so. I have friends and colleagues who work on marginalia, typography, fonts, punctuation, bookbinding techniques, miscellanies and anthologies, Sammelbände, paper and ink making, printhouses, booksellers, waste paper, secretary hand, commonplacing, title-pages, and more. A surprising number of them have tattooed early modern printer’s marks, punctuation marks, manicules, or other reader’s marks somewhere on their body.* This milieu is not everyone’s milieu.

Yet even taking these qualifications into account, I believe the disciplinary asymmetry remains. We can characterize it more definitely by speaking not about the knowledge of individual scholars but about the institutions that train them. At the University of Virginia’s Rare Books School (rarebookschool.org), founded in 1983, academics across disciplines mix with “antiquarian booksellers, book collectors, bookbinders, conservators, curators, rare book librarians, teachers, and professional and avocational students of the history of books and printing” (https://rarebookschool.org/admissions-awards/faqs/). At this “mainstay of bibliographical education in the United States and the English-speaking world,” (https://rarebookschool.org/about-rbs/a-brief-history-of-rbs/) scholars can take courses in “The Printed Book in the West to 1800,” “The Book in the Manuscript Era,” “Printed Books to 1800: Description & Analysis,” as well as courses in paleography, papermaking, illustrations, photographic printing, typography, and bookbinding (no less than nine courses on bookbinding are listed on the website.)

For each of the past 17 years, the Texas A&M Book History Workshop has offered a 5 day workshop in which “participants to create a complete facsimile of an eighteenth-century pamphlet by setting, correcting, and imposing type on an English common press, then printing the book in three octavo formes.” (https://printinghistory.org/texas-book-history-workshop/). Workshop activities include “casting type in a hand mould, setting type and preparing it for the press, printing on a period-accurate common press, papermaking, creating marbled and paste papers, and experimenting with a number of book illustration techniques.” (https://library.tamu.edu/book-history/about). Participants do not merely study books, they “experience a complement of practices used to create books.” In the words of R. B. McKerrow, that experience includes “all the processes through which the matter of the work before them has passed, from its first being written down by the pen of its author to its appearance in the finished volume.”*

So far as I know, there are no comparable summer programs geared to provide literary scholars specialized training in what happens as a text is “first being written down by the pen of its author.”

This doesn’t mean that students and professors of literature receive absolutely no such training, only that the linguistic paradigm in which they are trained is (looks at watch) more or less a century old. A literary theory course built around the Norton Anthology (https://media.wwnorton.com/cms/contents/NATHEORY3%20TOC.pdf) will include extensive passages from Saussure’s Cours (1916), selections from two essays by Roman Jakobson, and a chunk of J.L. Austin on performative utterances. (The Rivkin and Ryan theory anthology drops the Austin and adds Derrida on semiology.) And of course so much of literary theory, through structuralism and post-structuralism, depends on the foundation of structural linguistics, with more or less explicitness. Even if they haven’t spent time with Saussure, scholars are likely to have encountered in later theorists – Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, Althusser, Kristeva, Butler, Hall, etc. – the notion that the linguistic sign is an arbitrary pairing of signifier and signified that gains its identity only as part of a larger system of differences. This foundation serves as a support for one of the core activities of current humanistic inquiry across disciplines – antifoundationalist, historicist, lexical semantics – which has persisted largely unchanged through so many claims to methodological novelty over the past several decades.

What about graduate programs and the courses they offer, since this is where the profession reproduces itself? Short of a big data analysis of grad curricula, I am wary of making claims about a domain this big. But a leisurely morning stroll through the current course offerings of a dozen or so top programs reveals a regimen of explicitly labeled book history (and/or bibliography) courses, spread across institutions. Courses with an explicitly linguistic topic or aim are almost entirely absent; a lone exception, of precisely the sort that seems to prove the rule, is the graduate course “Linguistic Theory and Poetic Structure,” offered by a linguist, John Bowers, at Cornell University.

There’s certainly more work that can be done to establish and characterize this asymmetry. But I want to move on to the question that I’ve been pondering for a little while now: how did this come to be? How come current Shakespeareans study in great detail how a leather binding is stitched, embossed, and stamped, without having more than a rudimentary account of how the sentences written by Shakespeare were produced?

I think the most crucial part of the answer has to do with the current disciplinary organization of knowledge. Because there are whole departments of Linguistics devoted to studying language, with a faculty, major requirements, grad programs, and course offerings, and so on, the burden of studying and understanding language has been effectively offloaded. Book history, by contrast, has nowhere else to live, no disciplinary home of its own, outside of departments of Literature, History, and scattered programs in Media Studies, communications, etc. (That it also lives in libraries, archives, and rare book shops is another thing altogether.) Grad students who want to understand recent theories of how language works – how we produce and understand utterances we’ve never witnessed before, how the meaning of those utterances is composed of the meaning their parts, etc. – can take courses in Linguistics… in their spare time, with spare credits, which is to say rarely if at all. What gets offloaded gets forgotten or left out.

This disciplinary division tracked onto one of the biggest intellectual divides of the second half of the 20th century. By the latter 1960s, language took on entirely opposed functions for the opposing camps. For Foucault and the humanities work he inspired, language was the “mankiller,” the premier “positivity external to Man” that constituted human being historically, producing it as a contingent “figure,” and the goal of studying language was to detranscendentalize the claims of the human sciences. Around the same time, by contrast, the study of language in the Chomskyan paradigm became the most prestigious domain for the production of truths about universal human nature.  It purported to establish the biological transcendentals and species-specific endowment of human beings abstracted away from cultural and historical difference. Once it was clear, circa 1980, that literary studies would embrace the detranscendentalizing project, claims about language beyond the cultural specificity and contingency of the lexicon became suspect.

Language itself became a divided terrain: to the linguists went grammar, generality, and universality; to humanists went words, arbitrariness, and cultural specificity. Book history lent itself rather easily to the historicizing project, or at least travelled alongside it without conflict, since the material supports for communication, publication, and distribution vary quite dramatically across periods and cultures; better still, book history compensated for the tendency to idealism of various linguistic, social, and cultural constructivisms precisely because of its hard-nosed and workmanlike empiricism (see “the new boredom”). In this sense, book history didn’t come “after theory” at all but was theory’s easy companion and (depending on what one supposes is the current status of “theory”) survivor.

A further element of an answer has to do, I think, with the strange character of linguistic knowledge, as part of what has sometimes been called the “unrepressed unconscious”: unconscious because readers may to one degree or another share Shakespeare’s linguistic knowledge – know very well how to comprehend his lines – without knowing what they know; unrepressed because that knowledge is gained through experience (a controversial claim in linguistic theory), it never appears explicitly in conscious experience in in a way that could be forgotten or pushed into the unconscious. Scholars sit down to look at the 1623 Folio already possessing most of the linguistic knowledge they need to read and understand it, and they unconsciously learn the rest just by reading Shakespeare and others of his linguistic community.  In short, you don’t need a graduate course for that.

Early modern printers, publishers, compositors, papermakers, and typesetters possessed a rather different kind of knowledge. They learned their craft by consciously watching others operate a hand press and by operating it themselves. Likewise, a scholar sitting down to inspect an early modern book does not already possess the expert knowledge of its production but must reconstruct it, based on artifacts from the period and the evidence of the book itself. When scholars learn how a book was made, they learn it consciously and explicitly, knowing what it is they know.  That’s what classes and summer schools are for.

Still more speculatively, much of the rhetoric around book history has to do with visibility, experience, and tangibility: the object of the book is there to touch, to inspect, and even, potentially, to take apart and put back together again. You can see and handle the tools of the printer’s or binder’s trade, try out for yourself the techniques of production, and hold in your hand the final product: the book itself. McKerrow’s “process” is open to “experience” and direct inspection in a way that the process of making or understanding an utterance is not. (Chomsky observes, somewhere in Rules and Representations, that the primary barrier to such inspection is ethical rather than technological.) In a discipline that otherwise tends to abstraction, scholars have obviously found in the touch of the material book a kind of consolation that attribute value charts or categorical constituency trees or the rules of a context free grammar do not offer.

 

*I’ve heard that linguists sometimes get Wug tattoos, but I’ve yet to see it in person. But linguists also strike me as less likely to get tattoos overall.  I don’t have the confidence to offer an analytic for this difference.

*R. B. McKerrow, “Notes on Bibliographical Evidence for Literary Students and Editors of English Works of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Transactions of the Bibliographical Society12 (1911–13): 220. Quoted from Todd Samuelson and Christopher L. Morrow, “Empirical Bibliography: A Decade of Book History at Texas A&M,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 109, no. 1 (March 2015): 83-109.

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4 thoughts on “Making Books, Making Language

  1. jeff knight says:

    Dan, I love this post. We should co-author something at some point. Obvious reasons aside, I have loads of relevant notes from poking around in various university archives over the years. Some quick thoughts in the spirit of “work that can be done to establish and characterize this asymmetry”:

    1) To my mind you’re developing two unrelated stories here. One is about the abandonment of linguistics in literary studies in general and the other is about the persistence of book history in early modern literary studies in particular. (These are linked by the accident of disciplinary history that allows “philology” to refer to both linguistics and textual scholarship.) Regarding the former, I like your account of the uptake of the detranscendentalizing project from around 1980. I also wonder how much of the groundwork was laid (a.) by the slow move away from Anglo-Saxon philology – i.e., the history of the language – as the legitimizing center of the discipline in the early 20th century, and (b.) by the midcentury reconstitution of a North American formalism that owed almost nothing to linguistics (surely this had to do at least in part with Cold War geopolitics).

    2) Regarding book history, again I like your account (I’ve written a bit about the ‘theory’s easy companion’ dynamic in a recent state-of-the-field piece). To this I would add the banal point that book history persists in part because of our semi-permanent tech revolution (fittingly, D.F. McKenzie issued his “forms effect meaning” dictum in 1985 on the occasion of the British Library opening up its collection to multimedia recordings). Less banally, I’d argue that book history is tethered to the essentially democratic operations of editing and librarianship, i.e. facilitating access to texts, which requires that one know a lot about how books were put together. (“Bibliography,” was in fact the gateway course to advanced literary study in the U.S. for much of the 20th century because so much of one’s training was implicitly about cultural stewardship.) I’d also argue that book history, like its predecessor methodologies, serves the scarcity economy of academic publishing and credentialing well: in the same way that you could put any text through the meat grinder of deconstruction or the EEBO anecdotalism of the New Historicists and arrive at a viable reading, book history gives its practitioners an infinite number of micro-particularities that can be spun out into articles, chapters, books. Finally (banally again), there has been no big, compelling call for early modernists to utilize Chomsky the way we were enjoined to return to the work of the early 20th-century New Bibliographers and eclectic textual critics in “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text” (1993).

    3) That’s not to say this is the right or natural balance. I have a lot of reservations about the entrenched hyperparticularism of book history and I’ve often wondered what it would take to make visible the obvious and less obvious limits of the McKenzian formula.

    4) That said, I do think aspects of your account are overstated (naturally—it’s a polemic). I doubt many scholars interested in book history in our field have performed a collation, studied how ink was made, or worked on catchwords. I had to hit pause on my Ph.D. for a year and go to the UK to get training; it’s not widespread. The two programs you cite – Rare Book School and Texas A&M Book History Workshop – were established primarily for special collections librarians, booksellers, and collectors, though RBS has in the last 5 years or so made a play at a literary historian audience with the Mellon Fellowships in Critical Bibliography.

    5) Finally, regarding why book historians are likelier to get tattoos, I’ll just point out the obvious: tattooing is printing. (See Juliet Fleming, “Tattoo,” in Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England [Penn, 2001]).

    • Jeff, this is great – thank you. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this in part because you (among others) are a natural interlocutor for some of its claims, in part because I’ve heard that you’ve been working on a survey of grad curricula – oh and not least because you are fun and judicious at the same time. I disagree with 1 – I don’t think the stories are unrelated, and not just for reasons of scarcity (of training, coursework, research faculty, etc.), and I agree fully with 2 – all those suggestions seem right (the point about our own current tech revolution), and part of the bigger, more complicated story.

      On 3, I don’t actually want to make any claims for a “natural balance” – and my point is not that people should do less book history and more linguistics (though I would of course like a few more interlocutors on linguistic questions, I don’t really suppose most lit scholars need to read Chomsky – I was just picking the preeminent figure for the sake of comparison). My aim isn’t to lead linguistics into battle against book history – especially since my own work (in Cyberformalism) is in part book historical, invested in the way that our research media condition the possible forms of historical and philological knowledge. My inclination rather is to observe that the current state of affairs is not natural either – things looked remarkably different circa 1975 – and might look surprising to someone who wasn’t already inhabiting the profession. As to the charge in 4 that parts are overstated, I’d just point out that I am not claiming that lots of people are studying ink making or catchwords (I picked purposely obscure topics), only that *more* people are studying these things than are studying some of the central questions and concepts of linguistics (i.e. compositionality, grammatical structure, language change, etc.) – and those numbers are either zero or near zero, so far as I can figure. The relative claim could be wrong (it actually wouldn’t be hard to count, since the number in both cases is pretty small), but I aimed to frame it to allow minimal room for overstatement per se.

      Can you share the review article you mention? And can we talk more at some point about your study of graduate coursework (forgive me if I’ve understood it incorrectly)? Have I already seen your book history tattoo?

  2. jeff knight says:

    Thanks, Dan. Yep, let’s certainly talk more sometime. The study of grad curricula is more or less a hobby at this stage, but conversations like these help motivate me to do something with it. And yep, here’s a link to that state-of-the-field piece: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/lic3.12393

    Point taken about your relative claim. Things do look different from my standpoint though, probably because I’ve only worked in English Departments with strong rhetoric wings (Michigan and UW) and in fact with bona fide historical linguists. There are many more people in my department currently who liaise with Linguistics than who know what collation is (1, and at U-M that number would be 0). But this may be unusual.

    To the observation that things looked different circa 1975 I think you’re right but I also think you’d be surprised at book history’s place in the disciplinary genealogy. Descriptive bibliography goes way back. I’ve seen grad syllabi from gateway courses in the 20s, the 40s, the 60s that gave students in English an education in how to use a hand-press, or how to collect books and maintain a library (!). “Bibliography” didn’t drop out of its central place in the grad curriculum in most programs until “theory” replaced it. So to your cogent point that “In the 60’s and 70s Linguistics provided the primary technical resource in the discipline literary criticism; now that role is filled by descriptive bibliography,” I suspect it’s rather that descriptive bibliography was there going strong in the 60s and early 70s but was briefly eclipsed in the late 70s and early 80s before it’s current resurgence.

    I also wonder whether the diminished state of modern language education (from the weakening of language requirements in the ’00s to the closing down of departments today) has anything to do with this asymmetry.

    Anyway, not sure if you’ve seen my book history tattoos. Soon I’ll have them on my neck, I’m sure, so you won’t be able to miss them.

  3. Jeff, I’m grateful for your some of your complications to the history that I’ve tried to sketch here. It’s pretty hard to sort out, without a deep dive into curricula and syllabi(uses, oi), the difference between changes in the pedagogical offerings of the discipline and changes in what gets attention as emergent, avant-garde, or central issues of the discipline. You see that distinction in the 2001 Kastan quote that begins your (excellent) state-of-the-field piece: “The book is a hot topic
    in the academy today …For too long, however, its consideration has been shunted off to unpopular bibliography courses or hidden among the offerings of the library school.” That is, bibliography courses have been there all along – but they have been unpopular, hidden, and even boring (in the old way!). Conversely, there are still people who stidy and write about linguistic questions today – as you point out, you have actual linguists, with real linguistics PhDs employed and teaching in many English Departments, often as part of rhetoric or historical linguistics wing. But I don’t think that captures the move away from linguistics in graduate education and research in literary studies (again, with the qualifications about scope and perspective I give in the post).

    There are lots of things I admire about your state-of-the field essay: the idea of book history as a relatively “demilitarized zone”; the inspired account of how books as enduring objects challenge the synchronic localism and contextualism of doctrinaire New Historicism; the deft categorization of strands in current work. I am sure that I like it even more because it strikes me as telling part of the same narrative that I sought to develop in the post above, albeit with differences of emphasis:

    “Previously, bookminded Shakespeareans labored through Foucault and Barthes to decenter the author and re-materialize the work, dismantling the post-Enlightenment ideas that obscured early poesy and playwrighting from the view of criticism. Today’s scholars in the field, by contrast, trace the fluctuations of Shakespeare’s popularity on the market for literature; they map social networks between authors, printers, and publishers; they analyze changes in booksellers’ lists or anthology contents; or they excavate histories of reading in records of ownership and conservation, among other endeavors that could be called “after the fact.””

    I think this is just right – and right about far more than simply “bookminded Shakespeareans.” The Foucault and Barthes that previous scholars looked to were not (or not primarily) bookminded – they were linguistic and sign minded, looking to structuralist linguistics (Saussure, Jakobson, Martinet, Trubetskoy) for the intellectual tools to dismantle post-Enlightenment idealism. “Today’s scholars in the field,” as you point out, find their dismantling tools elsewhere – in markets, networks, anthology contents, the ecological matter of ink, covers, paper, etc. – instead of language and linguistics. That is in part because linguistics ceased, with the rise and dominance of the Chomskyan paradigm, to provide instruments for challenging (post)Enlightenment idealism and instead became (if only for a time) the most prestigious 20th-c continuation of that idealism. Book history was there to fill in the gap, providing a new set of investigative tools, right as it became clear that linguistics no longer fit the bill. Our chronologies align nicely too: in my sketch, the linguistic project collapsed right around 1980; in your narrative, the “first wave of Shakespearean book history” stretches from Darnton’s bellwether 1982 essay to Kastan’s book in 2001.

    Part of the reason that our accounts jive so well (at least in my view) is that, of course, we are writing about the much same milieu and many of the same colleagues. I didn’t set out to survey recent work in book history, but when I think about the field I have in mind the work of folks like Heffernan, Kisery, Hooks, Estill, Greteman, Calhoun, Trudell, Greatley-Hirsch, Galey, Pratt, Wall-Randell, Smith, and Knight (many of their tattoos have I witnessed!) and, on the early side of the generational scale, Lesser, Erne, and Masten (if they have tattoos, I have not seen them!). In a few years the next survey will likely be able to add work by Bourne, Nicosia, Keener, Trettien, Neville, Lyons, Mitchell, and many others. This is what a flourishing field looks like!

    But there’s the rub: I could not have written an analogous state of the field for Shakespeare and Linguistics. Of course there are many distinguished scholars who write with immense expertise about precisely this: I read and admire and learn a great deal from scholars like Lynne Magnusson, Heather Dubrow, Jonathan Culpeper, Sylvia Adamson, and Jonathan Hope. In fact I’d wager that there is more linguistic expertise concentrated in Shakespeare Studies than in any other field of literary studies (though Beckett Studies could probably lay claim to the imposing Anne Banfield). But the point I made in the post is generational, and these scholars are, in any coherent sense of that term, my intellectual parents and aunts and uncles rather than siblings – closer to Kastan and Stallybrass and De Grazia than to us. I can’t point to a cohort in my generation of scholars working at American or Oxbridge/London Universities (it gets more complicated once you expand the scope to Helsinki, Lancaster, Glasgow, Sheffield) who are invested in linguistic questions or methods – much less ones who share prominent advisors, attend the same conferences and events, meet up to discuss their work together wearing matching T-Shirts, or put together methodologically coherent Festschriften. There is no equivalent to the Kastanets in literature and linguistics.

    None of this implies that current scholars aren’t attentive to language or don’t write about it. Of course they do – but to the extent that they have an explicit linguistic framework at all they inherit it from Saussurean structuralism or else work in the tradition of mid-century that, as you rightly observe, “owed almost nothing to linguistics” – Empson, Richardson, and American New Critical allies. In either case, that means studying words as the conventional units of meaning and the bearers of conceptuality. You also mentioned the long slide away from Anglo-Saxon philology as the legitimizing center of the discipline, and framed this way this is surely right. But a major element of that philology, shorn of some of its more technical aspects, has remained the most consistent and central activity of the disciple whether one is doing book history or ecocriticism or cultural history or seeking to describe, repair, recover, deconstruct, queer, or decolonize: in the post I called it “antifoundationalist, historicist, lexical semantics” – or more succinctly, as it came to be called since Raymond Williams, the study of “keywords.” Younger scholars are probably more likely to count and compute words than pun on them, but the keyword study remains as a central disciplinary activity.

    I noticed that Queer Philologies, the 2016 book by Jeff Masten (your graduate advisor, if I’m not mistaken) is listed is the “Further Reading” section of your essay. Despite the book’s claims of methodological intervention, I see it rather as an elegant exemplar of the discipline’s current methodological dominant, since it melds together the keywords approach with analysis of the sorts of textual materiality (movable type, orthography, compositors, bibliography) that have been characteristic concern of book historians.

    A final point, so to speak, on tattoos. I’ve found myself wondering whether they are in fact printing, and under what definition – wondering rather abstractly, since I am without tattoos myself, though I did find this video edifying: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxLoycj4pJY. Tattooing (in its current form) does involve mechanical action, like a printing press, and requires pressure to produce distinct marks (even if together those marks appear as a continuous line). When based on a preexisting pattern, it is a kind of mechanical reproduction. On the other hand, tattoo artists work with a handheld mechanism, which would make a tattoo a sort of manuscript. Reproduction requires tracing the pattern rather than printing multiple copies from a pre-made (or assembled) forme, block, or plate. The earliest tattoos preceded the invention of the printing press (in China and, more than half a millennia later, in Europe) by some 4000 years. But if tattooing isn’t exactly printing, what is it? It bears some similarity to writing – ink on a slender tip, applied by hand – but also to needlepoint or embroidery or other kinds of textile work. When multiple needles are used at once to create shading, it more closely resembles painting with an unusually stiff brush. Whatever the answer, I look forward to admiring your future neck tattoos.

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