Sunday, June 04, 2006

Handbooks

I cooked fish for dinner last night: Moroccan-style tilapia grilled over mesquite. It sounds sophisticated; it wasn’t. The Moroccan seasoning required a large number of alternatives and tilapia should never be grilled because the white flesh is really too delicate for rough BBQ handling. I’m not a chef but I do own The Joy of Cooking.

A cookbook like The Joy of Cooking is akin to technical handbooks. It’s a diverse store of well-indexed and organized information. When I realized that I didn’t have the spices I required to prepare my white-fish vision (an unfortunate “shite-fish” typo wouldn’t have been far off the mark), I knew I could find alternates in my favourite kitchen handbook. Unfortunately, “spice alternatives” wasn’t listed in the index. Nor was “alternatives—spices.” But I knew that they were there since I had relied on them before (who actually has saffron in their kitchen!). My knowledge about the contents of the work were developed through the practice of working with it.

This insight goes contrary to some of the other thoughts I’ve had recently. My preoccupation has been the idea of social memory and how authors—particularly early authors of technical handbooks—were required to engineer their creations to capitalize on existing memory practices. The works, in essence, had to be palatable to and understandably by the intended audience. Hence, we see the use of apologia and extended theoretical introductions that invoke the names of Aristotle and Archimedes.

What’s missing from my analysis of the authors’ actions is some consideration of the readers and how the documents themselves had to evolve towards some sort of convergence—“closure” in SCOT terminology—for the handbook to really emerge. Consideration of the practices of both the professional reader and the author is required.

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