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Back to the Future
The Internet is just the latest communications revolution.
By Phil Leggiere
AVATARS OF THE WORD: From Papyrus to Cyberspace
By James J. O'Donnell, Faculty.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
210 pp., $24.95.
of the most powerful interpreters of the revolutions of late 20th century
communications technologies have, ironically, begun as very bookish literary
scholars. Marshall McLuhan, the maverick critic turned media seer, who
began as a scholar of Elizabethan poetry, is, of course, the most famous,
but he's not alone. Also among the pioneers of contemporary media study
are the Jesuit priest Walter Ong, author of the classic The Presence
of the Word and, more recently, the historian of Victorian literature
and author of Hypertext, George Landow, as well as professor of
Renaissance literature turned cyber-critic Richard Lanham, author of The
James J. O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace,
a meditation on the fate of the scholarly life in the cyber-tech age,
though far more modest in theoretical ambition than the works of those
trailblazers, nonetheless belongs in their company. Described by O'Donnell,
professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems
and computing at Penn, as "a book for people who read books and use
computers and wonder what the two have to do with each other," Avatars
is part historical essay, part rumination on one scholar's engagement
with the Internet, and part speculation on the future of education.
To truly understand the electronic communications revolution
of our own era, O'Donnell believes, we must first uncover and reconsider
two similarly tumultuous moments in our cultural history: the shift in
Ancient Greece from an "oral" society shaped by oratory to a
writing-based culture and the change in Early Medieval Christendom from
scroll-based writing to bound codex books. O'Donnell argues that these
examples show that the history of human communications is not a straightforward
linear progression in which a new medium supersedes and destroys an older
medium, but rather a dynamic pattern in which each new technological evolution
provokes a complex cultural re-vision of what came before -- one involving
both conservation and radical change.
In two fascinating chapters -- one entitled "Hearing
Socrates, Reading Plato," the other "The Persistence of the
Old, The Pragmatics of the New" -- O'Donnell sketches out this intricate
interplay. Socrates, he explains, "stands precisely at the boundary
between the worlds of spoken and written discourse," and the Socratic
Dialogues themselves dramatize the tension in Athens of the fifth
century B.C. between the dominant medium of speech and the emergent new
medium of writing. The famed "Phaedrus" dialogue is "a
book about books, written about the subject of writing when the subject
was still a novelty." Throughout his dialogues, Socrates grapples
ambivalently with the new medium, awed by the power of writing to fix
an image of meaning and memory, yet maintaining a devotion to the more
personal, interactive communication of spoken dialogue.
The epochal transformation in the fifth and sixth centuries
A.D. from scroll writing to the bound codex book prompted another such
creative challenge, one which gave rise to such transitional intellectuals
as St. Augustine, the scholar-monk Cassiodorus, and other lesser-known
figures who created the first Christian libraries and pioneered the art
of bibliography. Cassiodorus, in particular, a rather obscure figure in
comparison to the intellectual star of his time, the philosopher Boethius,
is viewed by O'Donnell as a singularly instructive figure for the present.
A "Pragmatist of the New," Cassiodorus, though schooled in the
older ways, struggled to adapt the classical traditions he loved to the
new technologies, founding the first library of bound texts, developing
an elaborate bibliographic record, and attempting (a little too far ahead
of his time) to organize a monastic scribal culture. As a postmodern scholar
looking back over 1,400 years, O' Donnell finds him "not a patron
saint, but a colleague, a practitioner who innovated, failed and innovated
These historical meditations, while absorbing in their
own right, are not meant as ends in themselves. O' Donnell is determined
to bring the distant past to bear on the technological revolutions facing
scholarship today. In a series of short, provocative "thought experiments"
that take up the latter half of the book, he attempts to revive the spirit
of Cassiodorus. He explores the potential usefulness of networked computers
in enabling scholars to accomplish the long-sought but seldom-accomplished
goal of multidisciplinary collaboration between science and the humanities.
He also examines how a new breed of electronic scholarly publication (such
as his own E-journal, The Bryn Mawr Classical Review) can bypass
the costly economics of bound print journals and the absurdly long intervals
between scholarly writing and publishing, which O'Donnell believes have
hamstrung communication and research.
Finally, he argues cogently for the potential of the
new media to break down boundaries between campuses and wider domains
of the cultural, economic, and professional world, sketching in the process
a new role for future professors -- as conduits in "networking,"
guiding students into wider global connections with colleagues in their
areas of intellectual interest, "encouraging students wading through
the deep waters of the information flood."
Those in search of a sweeping manifesto of some coming
cyber-utopia will be disappointed at the modest incrementalism of O'Donnell's
approach. No cyber-punk, O'Donnell admits he's never "truly at hand
save in a swamp of half-read books." Those looking for a crusty conservative
jeremiad decrying the cultural unworthiness of the new media will find
no ally, either. "A technology this powerful will not be refused,
any more than writing or printing were in their day," he insists.
However, those looking for an informed middle-ground
perspective that balances skepticism about techno-hype with optimism about
the future, will find O'Donnell a congenial spirit and engaging guide.
A sixth-century monk might seem a tad unlikely as a role model for post-modern
scholars, but, in pursuing that quietly audacious premise, O'Donnell has
made a very original contribution to a very contemporary discourse.
Phil Leggiere, C'79, last wrote for the Gazette on Constitutional
scholar and Internet enthusiast Lawrence Lessig, W'83.
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of
interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information
supplied by the authors and publishers.
By Nicole Mones, CW'73.
New York: Delacorte Press, 1998. 384 pp., $23.95.
In her first novel, Mones writes about Alice Mannegan,
an American woman living in Beijing, who yearns for acceptance but is
constantly reminded of her Western otherness. She roams the darkened streets
on her bicycle, looking for refuge and solace in bars and other places.
In China, Alice seeks to escape from lost love, a domineering and racist
politician father, and her own doubts and insecurities. It is only when
her work as an interpreter leads her into the heart of this formidable
country that she realizes the true motivations behind her passion for
all things Chinese. Accompanied by an American archaeologist and two Chinese
researchers, she travels deep into the desert regions of Mongolia, searching
for the remains of the missing Peking Man and discovering true love in
the process. Mones, who has traveled and worked extensively in China for
more than two decades, got the idea for her novel when she translated
for a joint U.S.-China archaeological expedition to China's northwest
deserts. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest and is at work on
a second novel.
SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS: Critical Essays
Edited by James Schiffer, C'73.
New York and London: Garland, 1998. 502 pp., $95.00.
This collection focuses exclusively on contemporary
criticism of Shakespeare's sonnets. In addition to reprinting three influential
essays from the past decade (among them essays by Dr. Peter Stallybrass,
and Dr. Margreta deGrazia, both professors of English at Penn), the volume
includes 16 original analyses by leading scholars in the field. Approaches
range from the new historicism to the new bibliography, from formalism
to feminism. In his introduction, Schiffer, the Elliott Professor and
chair of the English department at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia,
offers a comprehensive survey of 400 years of criticism of these fascinating,
"HEAVY WEATHER AND HARD LUCK": Portsmouth Goes Whaling
By Kenneth R. Martin, Gr'65.
Portsmouth, N.H.: Portsmouth Marine Society, 1998. 212 pp., $30.00.
Although Portsmouth, N.H., has a long maritime heritage,
few people are aware of the days when Portsmouth went whaling. This illustrated
book, written by the former director of the Kendall Whaling Museum and
author of several other whaling books, is devoted to the several 19th-century
voyages of the Ports-mouth ships -- stories of storms and shipwrecks,
captures by South Pacific natives, chance meetings at sea with other Portsmouth
vessels, visits to exotic ports, and eventual financial ruin for the Portsmouth
RESTRAINT-FREE CARE: Individualized Approaches for Frail Elders
By Neville E. Strumpf, Faculty, Joanne Patterson Robinson, G'94, Gr'95,
Joan Stockman Wagner, GNu'82, and Lois K. Evans, Faculty.
New York: Springer Publishing Co., 1998. 168 pp., $32.95.
This book is for anyone seeking information on restraint-free
nursing care. A philosophy of individualized care, which includes promoting
comfort and safety, optimizing function and independence, and achieving
the greatest possible quality of life, provides the framework for this
guide. It contains specific strategies for understanding behavior, managing
the risk of falls, and caring for the person who interferes with treatment.
Strumpf is an associate professor in the School of Nursing, holds the
Doris Schwartz Term Chair in Gerontological Nursing, and directs the Center
for Gerontologic Nursing Science and the gerontological nurse practitioner
program. Robinson is an assistant professor in the College of Nursing
at Rutgers University. Wagner is a senior manager at The Whitman Group
-- America's SeniorCare Specialist, in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. Evans holds
the Viola MacInnes/Independence Chair in Nursing at the School of Nursing,
where she is a professor and directs the school's academic nursing practices.
CRADLE OF KNOWLEDGE: Development of Perception in Infancy
By Philip J. Kellman, Gr'80, and Martha E. Arterberry.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998. 369 pp., $37.50.
Research on the development of perception over the past
25 years has produced discoveries at multiple levels. Kellman and Arterberry
bring together the work in this field to produce a new picture of perception's
origins. The emphasis is on perceptual knowledge -- how one comes to perceive
the world; what information, processes, and mechanisms produce this knowledge;
and how perceptual processes change over time. They examine early perception
in various domains, such as object, space, motion, intermodal and speech
perception, and attempt to discover the starting points and paths of development
of each. Two families of views compete to describe how perception begins
and develops: the traditional constructivist view, emphasizing the construction
of perceptual reality through extended learning, and an ecological view,
emphasizing the role of evolution in preparing infants to perceive. The
authors argue that both innate foundations and learning contribute to
perceptual development. Kellman is a professor of psychology and co-director
of the Cognitive Science Research Program at the University of California,
Los Angeles. Arterberry is an associate professor of psychology at Gettysburg
THE BIBLE FROM ALEF TO TAV
By Penina V. Adelman, G'81.
Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 1998. 185 pp., $14.95.
When her son Daniel was old enough to attend services,
Adelman used to lean over and whisper a simultaneous translation of the
weekly Torah portion in words he could understand. One day, Daniel asked,
"Mommy, why can't I have my own book now?" Adelman knew there
was a niche to be filled. Out of this conversation and her own storytelling
background came The Bible from Alef to Tav, which takes young readers
on a journey into the sacred stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The illustrated book integrates the Hebrew Bible and Hebrew alphabet for
a fresh approach to introducing children to Bible stories. Adelman links
each of her 22 stories, beginning with Genesis and ending with the book
of Daniel, with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Creative activities are
suggested at the end of each chapter and a guide for parents and teachers
is included at the back of the book. A writer and social worker in Newton,
Mass., Adelman lectures and performs throughout the United States and
Israel. She is also the author of Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish
Women Around the Year (Biblio Press, 1986).
THE TRUTH OF UNCERTAINTY: Beyond Ideology in Science and Literature
By Edward L. Galligan, Gr'58.
Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1998. 208 pp., $29.95.
In the last chapter of Walden, Henry David Thoreau
proclaims, "Any truth is better than make-believe." Galligan
shares this conviction and in The Truth of Uncertainty, he argues
that contemporary American critics should embrace literary truths with
all of their ardent uncertainties rather than cling to the make-believe
certainties of ideologies. Post-modern critics fail to ask the truth-seeker's
essential question: What does the evidence prove? Instead, they trust
the generalizations and slogans of ideologies to guide their interpretations.
Attempting to be up-to-date and profound, these critics lose sight of
the literature they are supposed to explore. Dealing with texts that American
critics have largely ignored, the author moves from a rejection of criticism
in the service of ideology to an affirmation of criticism in the service
of truthfulness. Galligan is a professor emeritus of English at Western
Michigan University in Kalamazoo and the author of The Comic Vision
MUSEUMS AND AMERICAN INTELLECTUAL LIFE, 1876-1926
By Steven Conn, Gr'94.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 306 pp., $32.50.
During the last half of the 19th century, Americans
built many of the country's most celebrated museums, such as the American
Museum of Natural History in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
and Chicago's Field Museum. In this study, Conn argues that Americans
built these institutions with the confidence that they could collect,
organize, and display the sum of the world's knowledge. Examining various
kinds of museums, Conn discovers how museums gave definition to different
bodies of knowledge and how they presented that knowledge -- the world
in miniature -- to the visiting public. Conn's study includes familiar
places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Academy of Natural
Sciences, but he also draws attention to forgotten ones, like the Philadelphia
Commercial Museum, once the repository for objects from many turn-of-the-century
world's fairs. What emerges from Conn's analysis is that museums of all
kinds shared a belief that knowledge resided in the objects themselves.
Using what Conn has termed an "object-based epistemology," museums
of the late 19th century were on the cutting edge of American intellectual
life. By the first quarter of the 20th century, however, museums had largely
been replaced by research-oriented universities as places where new knowledge
was produced. According to Conn, not only did this mean a change in the
way knowledge was conceived, but also, and perhaps more importantly, who
would have access to it.
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1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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