de Groot, Jerome. "Review of Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, eds.,
The Renaissance Computer". Early Modern Literary Studies
7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 12.1-6<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-1/revrhod.htm>.
This is an interesting and invigorating book that analyses the impact and
strategies of knowledge transfer systems during the early modern period. The
essays address a wide range of subjects loosely based around the profound
changes caused by print technology. The editors, Neil Rhodes and Jonathan
Sawday, argue that the "situation facing publishers and readers in the first
century of print [...] is in many ways analogous to that facing publishers
and readers in our own period, the first century of computers" (1). The word
"analogous" is the key here. Many of the essays in the volume are predicated
upon analogy, parallel and anticipation. This leads to some interesting arguments,
but it can also mean that the essays rest upon approximations, assumptions
and ingenious arrangements.
The essays in this collection are stimulating and exciting. Andrew Hadfield
deploys a number of postmodern and postcolonial theories to consider the impact
that print had upon notions of national identity and definitions of nation.
He discusses the way that new technologies transform "the range and possibilities
of imagined communities" (116). Hadfield neatly interweaves discussion of
a variety of texts that define 'Britishness' with an analysis of the state
of modern theoretical approaches to nation and identity. Jonathan Sawday considers
the origins of our language of technology and traces the concept of 'replicability'
first defined in the early modern period:
The language which has evolved to describe so many of the activities
which we now associate with computer culture is [...] indebted to a view
of the world which first made itself apparent in Europe in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries (42).
Other articles discuss the systems and strategies involved in the gathering,
organisation and retrieval of information. Clare Preston analyses the relationship
between knowledge and experience in her discussion of Thomas Browne and early
modern cabinets. Anne Lake Prescott looks at various editions of Pierre de
La Primaudaye's L'Academie Francaise to show how early modern readers
used encyclopaedias and received newly organized information. Preston's discussion
demonstrates the way in which this book works best: by acting as a showcase
for new and interesting approaches to a subject, and by fostering a sense
of interdisciplinary enquiry.
Thomas Corns contributes a piece that has interesting things to say about
information retrieval and reading methods. He challenges traditional models
of reception by claiming that early modern readers were conscious of more
complex and less linear ways of approaching texts:
Complex texts of the early modern period in some ways anticipated
recent developments and concerns in electronic media, reflecting their producers'
sense that non-serial access could both make the texts more usable and could
shape the ways in which they are used. (103)
Yet the connections with the overall ethos of the volume seem tentative. Sometimes
the consequences of the essay are obscured through its being forced into the
In their Introduction to the volume Rhodes and Sawday consider that the
explore the technology of the early printed text to reveal how many of
the functions and effects of the modern computer were imagined, anticipated,
or even sought after long before the invention of modern digital computing
Furthermore, they maintain that "The experience of our own new technology
has enabled us to re-imagine the impact of new technologies in the past" (2).
The collection is a stimulating exploration of some intriguing concepts, and
suggests a range of new ways of approaching and reading Renaissance texts.
It does not engage with the theory of technology particularly -- there is
no room in the bibliography for the work of Friedrich Kittler, Paul Virilio,
Jean Baudrillard, or, surprisingly, Michel Foucault. This is minor quibbling,
however. The volume points towards newly theorized readings of print culture,
suggesting new approaches and potent lines of inquiry for those working in
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.