MRG #6 – Chaucer’s Big Bang – Charlotte Rudman

Today’s MRG was led by King’s second year PhD researcher Charlotte, who drew imaginative and provocative comparisons between how we imagine the internet today, and Chaucer’s Dream Vision poetry. Her comparisons elucidated how Chaucer imagined the functions of oral and written poetry, and suggested some anxieties that he may have felt about differences and effects of spoken and printed word. She also revealed how such a comparison reveals the very sonic qualities of the poetry.

Charlotte began by noting how scholars Ruth Evans and Leah Marcus have previously compared Chaucer’s poetry to ‘the internet’ and modern digital forms of communication technology, but have only gone as far as to introduce the idea as a metaphorical image. What we should do, she suggests, is unpick exactly what it means if a poem is ‘like the internet’.

We often imagine the internet as a collective of voices, of data whirring and whizzing about, continually moving, apparently sent into space with no physical form. Constructs such as ‘The Cloud’ imbue our fondest technology with a sense of the ethereal. But we forget that data takes up space, makes images, inhabits physical structures. Code is classified, collected, and passed on, continually written, unwritten and re-written, and housed within huge data banks: taking up space, energy, and resources. The metaphors we use for the internet imagine transience, speed, and sound.

Charlotte’s research focusses specifically on sound within Chaucer’s dream visions. Whilst we often imagine sounds as being invisible and transient, like the tweets we send off into the ether, they are actually saved, multiplied, and sorted. Chaucer’s sounds multiply and are sorted by Lady Fame: just as social media algorithms and user interactions multiply and sort images and posts. As multiplication happens (as a meme is shared over and over again) it becomes solidified. But there’s a play between being fixed vs continually and always needing to be in the process of fixing, to guarantee longevity. Repetition enables fixity, and movement guarantees continuation and preservation. The whirling branches of the House of Rumour are at once alive with movement and sound, but are stabilized in the continual act of re-making through sound and space.

Charlotte’s presentation led us to discuss ideas of power and control: within our imaginary of the internet but also of medieval fame and rumour. The internet is sometimes imagined and idealised as being not controlled, a free-to-use and democratic space. But, just as Lady Fame has control over her house, so too do large corporations own whatever we put into their servers. We wondered, by medievalists recognising the House of Rumour and House of Fame as ‘a model for the internet’, can we actually critique and ‘a-wake’ people up to the control that is exerted over their casual Facebook posts, instant Instagram images, and mindless tweets?

– the MRG team

Charlotte Rudman is doing her PhD with the English Department at King’s College London, her research looks at sound in Chaucer’s dream vision poetry. @CharRud

Charlotte will be giving a paper on architectures of sound at Leeds International Medieval Conference July 2016, #IMC2016, as part of panel #S1219 A Feast for the Senses: Taste, Sound, and Smell in Medieval Dream Visions. She’ll be presenting with fellow CLAMS researcher, Charlotte Knight.



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