Friday, July 15, 2005

Dissertation Update: French literature and mud-pies

I spent the week slogging through the doldrums of French language journals. The sources certainly aren’t convenient but they are important. The extant English literature on the Renaissance machine books is written from a narrative history perspective and dates from the 1970s. French researchers have critically addressed authors like Besson and Ramelli within the last ten years. That research has to make its way back into English.

My Dartonesque cycle of Renaissance machine books continues. I’m slowly filling in the details of the authors, publishers, engravers, and booksellers of the time. Understanding readers is a bit trickier. The intended readers of Besson and Ramelli’s work were patrons and royalty. As evidenced by Hooke’s purchase of a Spanish translation of Besson, there were readers across several centuries and continents. The differences between the readership of Besson and Ramelli are of some interest. Ramelli published privately and maintained control of his plates. The single edition of his work was quickly lapped up by the aristocracy and Ramelli and his sons became much ballyhooed ingenieurs de roi.

Besson was a protestant. After finding some initial royal patronage his career went downhill. He died penniless in Paris in 1573. His family had already fled to Geneva. We know that Besson’s engraver contacted his wife in Geneva about selling some “hardes.” scholars assume he was referring to the book plates. These plates were passed around among various publishers who ran their own editions in various translations. Throughout the progression of the editions, we witness multiple phenomena of degraded quality: etching clarity, translation fidelity, paper weight, and publisher status. Eventually a cheap Spanish translation of Besson appeared in London at Pitts the bookseller. Robert Hooke purchased it for seven shillings on Wednesday August 20 1673 (but paid on the 25th). Hooke makes no mention of Ramelli and may have been completely unaware of his work (although he did own a copy of Böckler’s machine book which extensively borrowed from/plagiarized Ramelli).

One issue I’ve run into with the cycle is the engine of movement (Ramelli was very concerned with engines for his machines!). Darnton refers to economic, legal, and social influences as prime movers. There is considerable literature and conjecture on these issues in era of the machine books. Unfortunately, I find it difficult to reconcile the hermetic simplicity of the cycle of the book with the inherent messiness of these engines. Latour’s admonition that the engine of scientific and technical inscriptions is the enrollment of allies for establishing validity claims just doesn’t seem to work in this context. And I’m not sure why yet.

One thought of mine has to do with the way we construct actants. From an economics perspective, actants are often interpreted as disinterested individuals. From a Latourian perspective, the actants seem to be interested individuals. From a history of technology perspective, the actants are primary technological components (e.g., the crown gear, the pinion, the block, etc.) that wage battle and combine in some form of material agency. Reconciling these tensions will take some work.

The handbooks of the distant past are only one half of this project. The other half is Architectural Graphic Standards. Unexpectedly, and with the help of some Inter-Library Loans librarians, I’ve gained some traction. I’m not alone in my interest with AGS. A researcher in Georgia named George Barnett Johnson is conducting ongoing research to determine the ways in which AGS has shaped the discourse of professional architecture. While his focus is on the profession, mine is on the artifact itself and the genre it represents. Regardless, it’s oddly heartening to know that I’m not alone.

I’ve also started putting together some of the threads behind the MasterFormat of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). After tracking down some early technical reports published by the CSI and some early versions of the MasterFormat I’m starting to discern some patterns. At this point, I’m still not sure where these threads will lead or how they’ll reconcile with the overall story arc of technical handbooks.

My ongoing efforts with both parts of this project have led me to one place: methodology. I still feel like a kid building mud pies in a sandbox rather than a technician building a stable structure of research. I’ve backtracked slightly to review literature related to my topic (I seem to remember something from my intro to research methods course: “Step 1: Literature Review”!). I’m rereading this literature not to understand “what” questions were addressed but rather “how” those questions were addressed from the perspective of different disciplinary approaches. My preliminary efforts are starting to take a form recognizable to anyone with an MLIS: the annotated bibliography. Hopefully, it will get me through this mud-pie phase.

I’m slowly getting there. When I know what “there” is, I’ll take another run at the proposal.

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