The modern age is about making distinctions. Distinctions between novelty and antiquity, truth and falsehood, mind and body, reason and emotion, knowledge and superstition, science and religion, as well as between writing and orality, text and non-text, centre and periphery. In the modern worldview, everything must have its place according to reason, and things are not allowed to overlap. Clarity, certainty and accuracy are to be sought in all things, from the inner self to the outer world.
As the modern worldview has been increasingly challenged since the 1950s, we have come to realise that pre-modern ideas are not as dismissable as the architects of modernity once suggested. And for many of the insights we’ve had over the last 70 years, the premoderns were there first. This made the French philosopher Bruno Latour once exclaim that ‘we’ve never been modern‘ and caused a group of enthusiastic medieval scholars and historians more recently to proclaim that ‘we’ve always been medieval’.
The modern project was a textual project as well. The modern world was forged in the pages of the book. There can be no Renaissance, no European expansion, no liberal political thinking, modern governance and republicanism, rationalism, scientific and industrial revolution or the Enlightenment without the pre-eminence of the printed book, which powered, drove and sustained the evolution of the West from the 15th to the 20th century. But our own age is different. The textual project is being undercut by the advance of the image. In our generation, the image is ‘threatening’ to become the driving force behind culture. Literacy levels are regressing in many developed parts of the world, while literacy itself as imagined by the modernists is being replaced with a revised picture of it. In this development, one thing stands out: porosity.
The premodern mind was in many ways more inclusive than what replaced it. It could accomodate concepts which the modern age segregated completely. It was porous, allowing one type to flow into another, various things to coexist, cross-fertilise, hybridize and clash in both constructive and destructive ways. One of the places this played out was on the manuscript page.
The medieval manuscript represents the maturity of the premodern mind, its openness to diversity and its tolerance of heterogeneity. Text and image coexisted in ways we find baffling today, like in the picture above where parts of one image seem to travel or spill (in)to another. Our modern commitment to fixity, continuity and category-precision is offended by such expressions of fluidity. Text flowing into image, image turned into text, seemingly inappropriate texts living together on the same page, polysemous images, celebrated ambiguity, all of these and many more challenge our way of seeing the text and the book simply as objects of order and clarity.
If the modern world gave rise to the pure-bred, then the premoderns celebrated the hybrid, porous and blurry-edged.