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Cyberformalism: The History of Syntactic Forms in the Early Modern Period (Mellon, 2013-2014)
Cyberformalism is a book project that uses searchable digital archives like Early English Books Online to trace the genesis, diffusion, and variation of syntactic forms in the early modern period. Humanities scholarship has long been flush with histories of words, concepts, contexts, and cultures, but it has so far overlooked syntactic forms—the forms that order and structure the verbal content of sentences. I aim to establish this new object of philological inquiry through four case studies, each of which aims to enrich and revise a key concept of literary inquiry—imitation, fiction, influence, and style, respectively—through a comparative approach to the forms sentences take.
Even as it retells the histories of syntactic forms, Cyberformalism explores the technologies that make such histories possible. Instead of sequentially scanning the thousand sentences on the pages bound in a single book, digital archives allow us to compare the thousand analogous sentences scattered throughout the history of discourse. In the collections of the Folger Shakespeare Library I will explore the early modern technologies of the text—indexes, concordances, translation dictionaries, marginal commentaries, etc.—that humanist philologists used to recover, organize, and understand their linguistic past. Comparing old and new media will allow me to make visible the practices of knowledge production associated with different technologies of the text. By coupleing searchable digital archives with the indispensable resources of the Folger, Cyberformalism aims both to develop a new domain of philological inquiry and to reflect on the material conditions of such inquiry.