What are lines and what do they do?
These deceptively simple questions provided a rich source of discussion at a recent postgraduate workshop on ‘early modern lines’ at the University of York. The event was put together by Craig Farrell, Frances Maguire and myself (Claire Canavan) with the aim exploring the overlaps, intersections and distinctions between material and conceptual lines in early modern Europe across a range of literary, historical, scientific and artistic disciplines. Participants brought a variety of examples along to the workshop, which took us from poetic to perspectival lines, from cartographic to narratological lines, from lines of sight and sound to lines of transmission and exchange. Before the workshop we read Chapter Two of anthropologist Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History (Abingdon: Routeldge, 2007), entitled ‘Traces, Threads and Surfaces’. The taxonomy of lines offered here provided ample material for discussion, as we explored how Ingold’s transhistorical survey matched up with our experiences of early modern lines. We were particularly struck by how Ingold distinguishes between different types of line - specifically the thread and the trace - through their relationship to surfaces. A trace is an ‘enduring mark left in or on a solid surface by a continuous movement’ (43). A defining characteristic of the thread, by contrast, is that it not drawn on surfaces. According to Ingold then, the transformation of threads into traces creates surfaces, whilst the transformation of traces into threads dissolves surfaces.
As Ingold acknowledges though, not all lines easily fall into these two categories; the cut, the crack and the fold each occupy slightly different and more diverse relationships with surfaces. We wondered then how the early modern examples we had gathered might resist as well as conform to this taxonomy. From my own work on texts and textiles, I wondered how early moderns might perceive a piece of needlework as simultaneously thread and trace. I was also curious about what these lines of embellishment might do to our understanding of different types of surfaces. Do sewn lines dissolve the surface of the ground material or thicken it? How might the way that we conceptualise such sewn lines shape the way that we understand the surfaces of early modern rhetoric, in which lines of text or oratory are flourished and embroidered with figures of speech? Many participants were concerned with how material lines might relate to theoretical lines. Might they help us to understand the relationship between material and metaphor? Can they help us to consider how early modern surfaces could make, organise and contain meaning, as well as constructing, structuring and responding to a range of physical, intellectual and interpersonal practices?
As you can probably tell, the workshop raised more questions than we had time to find answers. Fortunately, this was just the first in a series of events for the newly established ‘Early Modern Lines Research Network’. We are currently in the process of putting together a programme for the coming year. If you are interested in becoming involved in the network or would like to be notified about upcoming events, please drop us a line at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you!