Monday, 7 February 2011

Parerga in More’s Utopia and Scholarly Blogging

Historia est magistra vitae philosophi.

This post, which is a heavily cut version of the paper I read at HUSSE 10 Conference in Hungary is about a possible link between the parerga in Thomas More’s Utopia and scholarly blogging nowadays, i.e. between these otherwise incommensurable phenomena. A possible link between the two is the then and now new technology of publication, more precisely the shift from manuscript culture to print culture then and from print culture to digital culture nowadays. To establish the link between the two I will utilise in a somewhat rough mode Gérard Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.

The concept of the paratext includes everything that can be found around the text of a work, from the title of the work to the book ending colophon. Out of this wide range of textual and visual elements, I am going to focus on 16 items in Thomas More’s Utopia that include epistles and poems written by various people, woodcuts, and an alphabet. These are the items that have been referred to with the label “parerga” by More scholars since 1931. These elements appeared in the first four authoritative editions of the Utopia.

Genette’s method of defining paratextual elements comes very much in handy for the sake of linking the Morean parerga and blogging. Genette when meditating about paratexts, explores the “paratextual message’s spatial, temporal, substantial, pragmatic, and functional characteristics.” The reason for following this template of analysis is that with this lucid method of identification I can succinctly explore instable character of the parerga, and also the problematics around their communicative situation and indirect functions.

The temporal and spatial instability can be demonstrated by the chart below:
1516, Louvain
1517, Paris
1518 March, Basel
1518 November, Basel
  1. A woodcut of Utopia
  2. The Utopian alphabet
  3. The Tetrastichon
  4. Hexastichon Anemolii
  5. Giles letter to Busleyden
  6. Desmarais’ letter and poem
  7. Geldenhauer’s poem
  8. Schrijver’s poem
  9. Busleyden’s letter to More
  10. More’s letter to Giles
only in the 1516
only in 1517
only in 1518
both in 1516, 17
both in 1516, 18
both in 1517, 18
in every edition
  1. Hexastichon Anemolii
  2. Budé’s letter
  3. Giles’ letter to Busleyden
  4. Desmarais’ letter and poem
  5. More’s letter to Giles
      After Utopia
6.                  More’s second letter to Giles
7.      Busleyden’s letter to More
8.      Geldenhauer’s poem
9.      Schrijver’s poem
10.  Errata
11.              Gourmont’s device
  1. Erasmus’s letter to Folben
  2. Budé’s letter
  3. Hexastichon Anemolii
  4. woodcut of Utopia (Ambrosius Holbein)
  5. A Utopian alphabet
  6. The Tetrastichon
  7. Giles’ letter to Busleyden
  8. More’s letter to Giles
  9. Woodcut of the interlocutors

      After Utopia
9.                  Busleyden’s letter to More
10.  Geldenhauer’s poem
11.              Schrijver’s poem
identical with 1518 March, Basel

Three observations follow from the chart.
  1. The columns demonstrate that the first three authoritative editions contained somewhat different elements.
  2. The colours demonstrate that the some items appeared in one of the three, two of the three or in all of the authoritative editions.
  3. There is instability insofar as the location of the material is concerned, as from the 1517 edition there appear items in the postludial position adjacent to the preludial one.

So, all the editions from the 1516 to the 1518 March (November) editions were published with some editorial and authorial consent and yet there are substantial changes from one edition to the other revealing editorial and authorial decisions and indecisions, visions and revisions.

Along with the temporal and spatial instability of the parerga, one also has to account for the pragmatic aspect, i.e. the features that follow from the communicative situation focusing only on the sender(s) and the addressee(s).

As far as the “senders” of the prefatory material are concerned again there is a great variety of possibilities if sticking to the Genetteian classification. In the chart below I have placed some of the senders to identify them.

Actorial (character from the text)
More’s letters (?)
Budé’s letter,
Gilles’ letter (?)
More’s letters
Apocryphal (real person’s name, but was written by someone else)

Author of the alphabet, poem in Utopian
More’s, Gilles’ letters (?)

Some of the senders can easily be identified, some, however, can be placed in several slots. Some of the senders are clearly authentic allographic senders, i.e. real people, but other than the author, e.g. Budé in his letter. It is also clear that the author of the Utopian alphabet is a fictive allographic one. Thomas More’s letter to Giles, and Giles to More, however, stick out from this chart. Thomas More’s letters at face value should be authentic authorial, as he is a real person, author of both the text and the letters. Also Giles’s letter should be authentic allographic insomuch as he is real, author of the letter but not identical with the author of the text. At the same time, however, both of them may as well be classified as fictive actorial senders insofar as both of them mention meeting Raphael, which in turn identifies them with characters in the text. This is not the whole story though, as More’s letters may well appear within the authentic actorial category insomuch as the narrative of the text is first person singular.

Parallel to the elusiveness and complexity of the sender(s) of the parerga, the addressees of them also display a dichotomy, especially with respect to the epistles. This dichotomy lies in the interplay between the addressee named in the title of the epistle on the one hand, and the addressee who is the reader of the printed text. These epistles swarm with expressions of inwardness, which is the more interesting if we consider that these letters were not only addressed to the people named as the addressees, but to a general reading public with the intention to read Utopia. So what is going on is putting on display, sharing with a faceless, unknown reading public their real or feigned private affairs, mistakes and friendships. That is we may assume that there is a cunning game being played with the facelessness of the unforeseeable addressee and the addressee of the letter, or more precisely a game with the new technology of printing and the then traditional way of manuscript culture.

The fourth Genettian category, i.e. the function of paratextual elements also reveals much about the parerga. The parerga on the one hand compensates for the loss of context with the appearance of print culture, which was there for the readers of manuscripts. It also functions as a teambuilding exercise for these leading humanists, men of letters and of public affairs. Also the paperga functioned as a marketing device revealing the understanding of the needs of the book as a commodity, and how much it mattered who published the work, and who gave their names to the publication.

After having seen the temporal, spatial and communicative instability of the parerga and their functions, we should move from the humanist scholarly friendship to Digital Humanities, or at least to one of its activities to show how the new technology influences scholarly activity in the 21st century. More precisely I would like to call attention to the technology that is called blogging as something which in a variety of ways resembles the Morean parerga.

Scholarly blogging may be seen as paratext to the published material. It surrounds the publication of a scholarly text insomuch as it may inform the reader about the state of research, about parts, small parts of an ongoing research, ideas that are cast on the margins of the focus of the research, shortened versions of texts published or to be published, about ideas that are interesting but too small to be included in a large project, or snippets, books, ideas that one comes across when in the middle of research.

These blogs can be characterized with instability, flexibility. Blogs similarly to the parerga can be revised after their first publication, can be deleted, can be removed from one blogging platform to the other. The same text may be published at several blogging services with the same type or with another one, i.e. can be published both with traditional macro-blogging ( and with meso-blogging services (, or at different macro-blogging services, e.g. at and at

The communicative situation is also similar to that of the parerga. The sender of the blog can be a real person identified with a name. Some bloggers, however, use nicknames, or rather pennames, and the real person remains hidden, or known to a narrow circle of readers. The addressee, of blogging poses a similar situation to that of early printing. In this case there is the same unknown, unforeseeable audience that was at stake for the authors of the printed medium, i.e. almost anybody may bump into the blog post. Nevertheless, the intended reader is a specialist and the interested reader, and both should find relevant issues for themselves.

Blogging also creates and celebrates communities. On the one hand bloggers inform the intended readers about what they are doing as researchers. They share parts of research projects, thoughts that remain on the margins of these projects, which are worth meditating about. On the other hand, as this technology creates an environment for reflections as comments, there is room for building communities. In this way a blog post is not a finished item in the long run, but may gradually grow with comments, comments on comments and replies to comments. In this respect a post functions as a discussion forum for specialists and for the interested.

Blogging also functions as a means of marketing. Academic bloggers advertise their own published works and blog posts or those of others. Once, say, a blog post is out, or a book, or journal article, a reference to it may soon appear on a micro-blogging platform (, as well to inform people about it. This reference, i.e. tweet can later be re-tweeted again and again, which fosters instant publicity in so far unimaginable ways.

As a conclusion, one may claim that the comparison of the print in the early 16th century and web 2.0 on an abstract level is fruitful. Back in the 16th-century humanists utilised printing for their own purposes insomuch as creating, sustaining and even boasting off with their scholarly and friendly community. Furthermore they played with its format of its being public with some inwardness. They also discovered the advantages of its power of and for publicity. Similarly to this, blogging is perfect for creating, sustaining and creating social and research networks, and thus contexts for scholarly writing and research. And also the game with publicity and inwardness is there to be played with. Third, blogging is an unexpectedly and unpredictably powerful tool of instant publicity. It is, however, not enough to see the potential in blogging, as the very nature of web 2.0 is that it is in constant evolution. So it is the scholars’ responsibility to take part in its evolution and thus to fashion it into a valuable tool, similarly to their renaissance colleagues, fulfilling the promise anchored in Historia est magistra vitae philosophi.


  1. 1. There is link to a digital reproduction of a 1518 edition of "Utopia" on EMTO:

    2. I agree that there are analogies between parerga and blogging. But there is a crucial difference as well. Who is the publisher of a blog? The owner of the platform? Yes, in a technical and legal sense. No, as far as what is in fact happening in a blog is concerned - because the blogger is a hybrid of author and publisher, depending on technological proficiency. And it is him, rather than a printer, who decides what has to count as a parergon (we can't be sure, I guess, that all parerga are based on the author's decision).

  2. Stefan, thank you very much for the comment.

    First, I am grateful for the link, and also for the EMTO project.

    Second, thanks very much for the lucid claim about the authorial problematics which distances parerga and blogging. This is so much so that I completely agree with you, especially because in the case of Utopia Erasmus was one of the key figures, if not the key figure in the creation, collection of the parerga, while in the case of the 1517 the printer/publisher. So as far as the historical authorial question is concerned you are right. Once, however, the book has been published from the perspective of the reader, and not from a possible editor, there is s slight shift towards the implied, assumed etc. author who emerges from the work as it is read, and in this perspective the historical author's decisions, indecisions do not count so much. Whatever is there in the volume, the reader will try to harmonize with what there is in the rest of the volume. As actually this can be seen in the secondary literature dealing with this aspect of Utopia. Which, in turn, does not refute your claim, because your claim is just true, but rather runs adjacent to it.

    All in all, I am really grateful for your comments helping clarifying this analogy between the time when the new print-culture aimed at understanding itself in light of a manuscript culture, and our time which tries to understand the contemporary technology with an eye on print-culture.