Instrumentality

On Technical Objects and Orientations in the Later Middle Ages

2024
Author:

J. Allan Mitchell

From medieval to modern, exploring instrumental attitudes toward physical gadgets, diagrams, concepts, methods, and disciplines

Illuminating key moments in the intellectual history of the European Middle Ages, Instrumentality opens up the instrumental condition of the human for critical reflection and renewal. J. Allan Mitchell leads readers from three-dimensional objects to two-dimensional inscriptions and onward to overarching disciplinary norms in the early liberal and mechanical arts, showing how these instruments are indispensable to the past—and the future—of the arts and culture at large.

A fascinating exploration of the ornate interfaces—measuring devices, geometric diagrams, the arts and sciences—between humans and their objects. Instrumentality is an important contribution to medieval studies of the mechanical arts and expands modern ideas about our techniques for understanding the world.

Matthew Boyd Goldie, author of Scribes of Space: Place in Middle English Literature and Late Medieval Science

Illuminating key moments in the intellectual history of the European Middle Ages, Instrumentality opens up the instrumental condition of the human for critical reflection and renewal. J. Allan Mitchell reveals how, in the predigital past, we can recognize many of the operative technics, analytics, and metaphorics that continue to shape human sense and cognition today.

Exploring the diverse modalities of medieval instruments, Mitchell’s case studies encompass techniques as seemingly distinct as time-keeping mechanisms, mathematical diagrams, logical syllogisms, and the literary devices of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. A cultural and intellectual history, Mitchell’s work leads readers from three-dimensional objects (physical mechanisms) to two-dimensional inscriptions (maps and diagrams) and onward to overarching disciplinary norms in the early liberal and mechanical arts. Prying loose the subtle, adaptable, and generative concept of technical objects from limiting contemporary frameworks, he shows how these instruments are indispensable to the past—and the future—of the arts and culture at large.

J. Allan Mitchell is professor of English and director of medieval studies at the University of Victoria. He is author of several books, including Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (Minnesota, 2014).

A fascinating exploration of the ornate interfaces—measuring devices, geometric diagrams, the arts and sciences—between humans and their objects. Instrumentality is an important contribution to medieval studies of the mechanical arts and expands modern ideas about our techniques for understanding the world.

Matthew Boyd Goldie, author of Scribes of Space: Place in Middle English Literature and Late Medieval Science

Exploring a series of ‘eloquent devices’ that enabled both scientific investigation and literary imagination, J. Allan Mitchell’s Instrumentality carefully argues for the importance of instruments as tools for and makers of our thinking. Attending to the specific material processes of the various instruments taken up in the book, which range from the astrolabe to the chord diagram, Mitchell frames medieval instruments as information processing mechanisms that interface with bodies to construct and define our understandings of the world. Instrumentality is an adventurous book that challenges us to reflexively consider the significance of instruments to academic knowledge production while also stressing the need for a ‘critical instrumentality’ that can help us select the tools most suited for enacting positive social change.

David Parisi, author of Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing

Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. Intelligent Objects

Planispheric Astrolabe—Ornament and Organopoiia—Multilingual Scientific Cultures—Multiscalar Models—Plane and Spherical Geometry—Technoscientific Hybrids—Fictus and Technical Figures—Womb, Mother, Spider, Horse—Hylomorphic and Epigenetic Change—Intensification and Extension of Sensation and Cognition

2. Graphic Interfaces

Flat Media—Point, Line, Curve—Documents as Devices—Diagrammatic Figures and Functions—Graphs, Maps, Games, and Other Inscribed Spaces of Action and Intellection—Mathematics and the Chord Diagram—Model Dependence and Metaphorical Transfer—Imagined Archery—Achieving Katascopos

3. Learning Devices, or Instruments of Language and Literature

Disciplines and Divisio Scientiae—Aristotelian Instrumenta Philosophiae—Logos in the Organon—Grammar, Rhetoric, Poetics—Possessio and Usus—Subalternation of the Sciences—Stories as Philosophy’s Instruments—Grammaticus, Criticus, Literatus—Science of Useful Devices—Mechanical Arts and the Invention of Literature

Conclusion: Toward a Critical Instrumentality

Critiquing Instruments—Heideggerian Equipmentality—Simondon’s Technical Objects and Stiegler’s Instrumental Condition—Technocratic Modernity and Instrumental Reason—Academic Working Conditions—Freire’s Instruments of Critical Discovery, and Other Available Models—Critical Instrumentality, or Retooling the Arts

Notes

Index