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The Workshop in the History of Material Texts

Material Texts Roadshow, “Writing on Objects”: feat. Chris Faraone (Chicago), Shannon Mattern (The New School), Jennifer Park (UNC-Greensboro), and Suzanne Karr Schmidt (Newberry Library)

Books, scrolls and other textual objects

Monday, November 23, 2020, 5:15pm, via Zoom

This week's session will be a little different than usual. We have invited four scholars - Chris Faraone (Chicago), Shannon Mattern (The New School), Jennifer Park (UNC-Greensboro), and Suzanne Karr Schmidt (Newberry Library) - working on different periods and geographies to give lightning presentations (about 10 minutes each) on the theme of "Writing on Objects." Each will present on a single object.

Christopher Faraone will present on "Amulets."

A thick sheet of copper alloy in the Louvre is about the size of a playing card and was inscribed on both sides with human and/or animal figures, each encircled by Greek letters and symbols. A four-line inscription in Arabic (as yet untranslated) allows us to date the object to after the Arab conquest and in 2017 I argued (Kernos 30, 5-22) that it was an early medieval copy of an earlier pattern-book for creating curative and protective gem-amulets. I have returned to this object this year to try and to try and show how the relationship of text to image on the plaque provides a missing link, of sorts, between the gem-amulets of the Roman Empire and the flat bronze amulets of the Byzantine period.

Shannon Mattern will present on "Split-flap displays."

It’s been almost two years since commuters passing through Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station last choreographed their movements to the flutter of a split-flap board, a typographic display composed of thousands of tiny, rotating metal flaps. While the mechanical signs are fast disappearing from spaces of global logistics, and their legacy manufacturers have moved on to LCD screens, the old analog apparatae have inherited new communicative and aesthetic functions. In this short talk, I’ll examine how the split-flap constitutes an adaptable design system – one that extends long traditions of public reading, while also broadcasting messages and embodying operational logics germane to the computational age.

Jennifer Park will present on "Playing cards."

Seventeenth-century England witnessed the popularization of decks of geographical playing cards which divided the “four parts of the world”—namely Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas—among the four suits of a playing card deck—hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs. I examine examples of these geographical playing cards to interrogate how interaction with printed matter and material texts might have influenced early modern ideas about race and world-division. I hope to demonstrate how playing cards, as material ephemera meant to be rearranged and passed actively from one participant to another, engage processes of reading and material interaction to shape ideas about playability, and pliability, of imperial and colonial hierarchies.

Suzanne Karre Schmidt will present on "Silk printing."

Silk printings of letterpress text on luxurious fabric survive from the early modern period. A unique 17th c. German wedding broadside at the Newberry serves as a starting point to discuss this impressive ephemeral genre.


About our speakers:

Christopher A. Faraone is Professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Chicago. He is author of Vanishing Acts: Deletio Morbi as Speech Act and Visual Design on Ancient Greek Amulets (London, 2012) and The Stanzaic Architecture of Archaic Greek Elegy (Oxford, 2008). His most recent book is The Transformation of Greek Amulets in Roman Imperial Times (Philadelphia, 2019).

Shannon Mattern is Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research. Her writing and teaching focus on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. She is the author of The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities; Deep Mapping the Media City; and Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, all published by University of Minnesota Press; and The City Is Not a Computer, forthcoming from Princeton University Press. She contributes a regular long-form column about urban data and mediated infrastructures to Places Journal, and she collaborates on public design and interactive projects and exhibitions. You can find her at

Jennifer Park is Assistant Professor of English, specializing in early modern literature, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her current work explores the intersections of early modern science and race-making in text and performance. She is currently working on two book-length projects, on recipes, science, and race in early modern drama, and on race-making in the material-textual cultures of games and science in seventeenth-century England.

Suzanne Karr Schmidt is Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Newberry Library. Previously, she was Assistant Curator in Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. With a PhD in the History of Art from Yale University on the Renaissance Pop-Up Book, and a BA from Brown University, she writes about interactive and material aspects of Premodern printmaking. Most recently, she co-curated the exhibition "Renaissance Invention: Stradanus's Nova Reperta" at the Newberry.



We are virtual for fall 2020! All are welcome. If you would like to receive details on how to attend upcoming Zoom meetings, please sign up for our listserv using this link or visit the Workshop website.

The Workshop in the History of Material Texts is supported by the School of Arts and Sciences through the Department of English and hosted by the Penn Libraries. The co-directors of the seminar are Professor Zachary Lesser (English), Jerry Singerman (Penn Press), and John Pollack (Kislak Center, Penn Libraries).

Associated with the workshop is the book series in Material Texts published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, which includes many monographs that have emerged from presentations given at the workshop over the years.

For more information, please contact Philip Mogen.