“Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” –Walter J. Ong

If all signs, whether verbal or non-verbal, “express ideological meanings,” then perhaps what is most disconcerting about reading the book in the digital age is the way in which books have been flattened into pages, or facsimiles (McKenzie 47). While a traditional facsimile is a codex that imitates a codex, a digital facsimile is—essentially—a digital page imitating a printed page imitating a codex. Using the conventions of print media, facsimiles imitate the texts they claim to represent; in imitating printed texts, facsimiles invoke print reading practices. The most threatening aspect of the facsimile is its seeming naturalness or transparency: the ‘fantasy of the facsimile’, as Bonnie Mak calls it, is “made more credible by new media because digital technology often seeks to conceal the presence of its own mediation” (65). Facsimiles only look like the ‘real’ thing because they are designed to look that way:

Both hardware and software are complicit in the illusion . . . The facsimile is designed to imitate, to emulate, to reproduce; it encourages readers to overlook the ontological rift between the facsimile and the object that is being imitated. (Mak 66)

A facsimile of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, imitates the seventeenth-century folio:

Though the representation is powerful, there are important differences: notably the “underlying rhetorical, cognitive, and physical structures of the page”—in other words, its code (Mak 66). Indeed, every search we conduct online is regulated by the ways in which texts have been marked up by code. Not only do codes structure online texts, but also codes themselves are “shaped by cultural, political, and economic pressures, as well as contemporary approaches to the transmission of text” (Mak 63). In evaluating a facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio, it is therefore necessary to critically consider the online database or archive through which it is represented. The facsimile must be studied in what Graham Caie calls its ‘codicological context,’ and the critic must remain aware of the power that a programmer has over meaning and interpretation (33). Since the process of constructing a digital facsimile differs from that of a printed one, the two products are “underpinned by different systems” that “shape the making of meaning in different ways” (Mak 66). As Stephen Ramsay notes, codes are “not merely structural delineations, but patterns of potential meaning woven through a text by a human interpreter” (qtd in Mak 64).

Thus, to interpret a facsimile without acknowledging its status as a facsimile is to ignore its underlying code and to substitute a model for the original. This is not to say that facsimiles are parasitic on printed texts; rather, this is to emphasize facsimiles as a medium in their own right: neither better than nor subordinate to their printed originals.1 To assume a facsimile is the equivalent of a printed text is to assume that materiality does not signify; that the organizational framework of the codex or manuscript plays no role in our experience or interpretation of a literary work.

  1. Indeed, neither version is more authentic, since “all technologies of writing betray ‘real presence’; always they offer a simulacrum of a voice that is by definition absent” (Kastan 135). []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *