Genetic indeterminacy

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Medieval manuscripts are books. A book is a written artefact. What is written is the opposite of what is spoken, which is oral. Writing is about literacy, speaking is about orality. Therefore, a book is a literate object, anything spoken is an object of orality. That’s a neat distinction. And it’s wrong.

A medieval manuscript is a genetic indeterminacy. It sits on the edge of orality and in the borderlands of literacy. The premodern book is neither here nor there, neither totally within the world of books as we know them, nor completely without. The medieval codex manuscript, just like the even more alien products like the scroll, the tablet, the tree bark, the leaf, etc, is a hybrid of two cultures struggling to keep balance on a pinhead. These are the cultures of the spoken and the written word, respectively.

The medieval book is as oral as is literate. The words on the parchment are as written as they are meant to be spoken – and most of the time, in the culture which produced them, they are uttered, articulated, verbalised.

There are many books. The medieval book is the last book of the noisy world of oral culture – a world of written words in the service of the spoken word.

The modern book preserves this genetic indeterminacy, which means that at any point it risks breaking the silence of the silent reader and making a ruckus in the street, where it belongs. The popularity of the e-book is due to the suspicion many of us have that some books are in a state of captivity, always ready to be released into the world of outside noise by the noise which forms part of their genetic makeup.

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