This article outlines and models a simple web-browsing assignment and related research project designed to help students reflect critically on the propensity for William Blake’s illuminated books to break apart and circulate in pieces. The web-browsing assignment asks students to track how the present uses of a single Blake proverb call forth its potentials to mean different things, while the research project has them historicize some of those potentials. Together, the two assignments are designed to prompt classroom discussion of the ways that the semantic and situational instability of Blake’s proverbs might matter for thinking about the formal properties of the illuminated books as a medium, the culture that generated this medium, the cultures that continue to converge with it, and the complexity of the artistic project bound up with it.
1. Google “Blake,” and his “composite art” does not stay composite for long.  William Blake’s Wikipedia entry, the top result currently for the search term “William Blake,” reproduces two frontispieces from his illuminated books, the projects wherein he most thoroughly integrated the arts of printmaking, painting, and poetry, but neither of the selected frontispieces incorporates words.  Examples of more fully composite images are only a click away if, for instance, you follow the embedded links to the entries for Blake’s The Book of Thel (1789) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). But in the rhizomatic realm of Wikipedia, which tempts your indiscriminate wandering, the same degree of virtual separation also exists between “William Blake,” “concubinage,” the history of “hosiery,” and the results of the BBC’s 2002 poll of “the 100 Greatest Britons” (where Blake ranks 38, two places ahead of Henry VIII and just five behind David Beckham).  Should you opt to bypass Wikipedia, you might instead enter the celebrated William Blake Archive, where the illuminated books are displayed in their composite form. The archive offers a rare oasis, however, before the vast desert of the World Wide Web, where de-composition of literary corpuses is a regular feature of the media ecology. The next hundred results for “William Blake” consist almost entirely of study guides, hack biographies, poetry sites, galleries, and compendia of quotations that, with rare exceptions, strip Blake’s poems of their visual character, extract his pictures from their poetic contexts, or privilege those pictures that have never had a poetic context. Indeed, the pieces of the illuminated books that these sites reproduce usually amount to fragments in their own right in relation to their original verbal or visual contexts. In general, the vast Blake archive searchable through Google is comprised of atomic artistic particles much smaller than the unit of the book, poem, plate, or picture—that is, single lines of text or stanzas excerpted from longer poems, details isolated from page-sized plates, or images cropped from larger pictures.
2. Given that the Internet tends to atomize almost everything, even as it also helps to create niches and foster communities, Blake’s fragmentation on the web hardly can come as a surprise. Whether this fragmentation is cause for sadness, interest, or excitement, however, may depend on who is doing the browsing. It presumably has not been a welcome development for those who remain committed to the cult of the artist as Romantic genius, those who privilege the claims of “original” historical contexts to determine texts’ meanings, or those who hold the view that only through understanding the compositeness of Blake’s composite art can we grasp its fullest complexity and most significant meanings.  For others, however, Blake’s circulation in bits and pieces represents an opportunity both to develop new scholarly methods and also to challenge earlier accounts of the significance of Blake’s art. This has been especially true for a new generation of reception scholars and digital humanities scholars committed to studying texts as media, and to analyzing textual reception less with an eye towards isolating historically discrete reading formations and vectors of individual influence than with an eye towards mapping how certain texts behave and could behave—even in fragmented form—as media across populations and systems.  For a number of these scholars, the reliance of earlier criticism on conceptual categories like “author,” “text,” and “reader,” can look like idealist abstractions, especially when applied to Blake’s new medium. Thinking in these terms does not mean that such scholars embrace the politics or interpretive prowess of every appearance that Blake makes in any cultural context. What it does mean is that they take seriously every behavior of Blake’s medium in different contexts, approaching any behavior not as an interpretation that merely reflects an interpreter’s historical situation, but as a potential, and possibly unwitting, realization of a Blake that, as Gilles Deleuze might say, had existed only virtually before. 
3. Regardless of how one feels about the atomization of Blake’s illuminated books in contemporary culture, however, their atomization, or more generously, their ongoing vitality and vibrancy in pieces, also presents tremendous pedagogical opportunities. Bringing awareness of Blake’s contemporary fragmentation and circulation into the classroom carries the potential to give students fresh insights into the formal properties of the illuminated books as a medium, into the culture that generated this medium, into the cultures that continue to converge with it, and into the complexity of the artistic project bound up with it. This essay outlines and models a web-browsing assignment and related research project designed to advance all of these ends and which begins by having students perform Google searches to record instances of the appearance of a single fragment, or identifiable discrete particle, of Blake’s corpus around the web. The assignment requires students to track how the present uses of their chosen Blake fragment call forth its potentials to mean different things, with an eye towards inspiring them to investigate (in the follow-up research project) how long, or in what other situations, certain meaningful potentials might have been there. Which have been there all along? Are there any that were once there which are no longer available or have gone dormant? As students make visible some part of the illuminated books’ fragmentation and circulation, they ideally will become more aware of networks and resonances, disconnections and dissonances, within and across times and places. This will both heighten their awareness of culture’s and history’s complexity and encourage them to think about what it means that the illuminated books—or, rather, the movement and mutability of the books’ pieces—enabled this heightened awareness.
4. The overall assignment could conceivably be based on any number of different kinds of textual particles. Indeed, the ability since 2011 to do a Google image search using JPEGs instead of words as one’s search terms has opened up exciting possibilities for tracking the spread of specific digitized copies of Blake’s pictures, including the spread of visual details that are smaller than the more macro-units of the plate or print. The version I present here, however, focuses on the verbal textual unit of the proverb due to the prevalence on university syllabi of the “Proverbs of Hell” section of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as well as to the ease of searching electronically for a proverb’s citation (a proverb is a discrete piece of text that tends to circulate syntactically whole and lexically unaltered). Aside from its practical advantages, however, focusing on proverbs also gives students the opportunity to think critically about the proverb form and its apparent privileging within William Blake’s verbal-visual medium, a line of inquiry that, for reasons that will become apparent in due course, I take to be especially provocative for thinking about that medium’s artistic, philosophical, and political significance.
5. Specifically, the web-browsing assignment (“Searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom”), as I have written it, asks students to begin tracking how, as a single Blake proverb circulates today, its regulatory counsel becomes multiple and heterogeneous. The assignment is thus aligned with the media-oriented pedagogy of an earlier generation of poststructuralist scholars like Paul Delany and George Landow, who saw in emergent hypermedia a workshop for testing, among other things, the insights of deconstruction.  At the same time, the assignment owes much, too, to the recent efforts of formalist literary scholars like Caroline Levine, who have sought to reinvigorate and radically expand the project of doing historicized formalism by employing design theory’s idea of “affordances,” or “the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs,” to study forms of all kinds, including conceptual forms and the forms of their collisions and intersections.  By having each student work outside of the classroom to identify how, why, and where a specific proverb’s regulatory counsel becomes multiple and heterogeneous, the web-browsing assignment ensures that each student will have a unique evidentiary archive when she returns to the classroom from whence to reflect on what proverbs are and what the form affords, whether or not the instabilities of Blake’s proverbs make them special instances of the form, what insights the atomization of the “Proverbs of Hell” might give us into the formal qualities of the illuminated books more generally, and why someone with Blake’s political, theological, and philosophical views might have been attracted to the proverb form.
6. Finally, the web-browsing assignment also takes up the challenge of media scholars like Gregory Ulmer and Marcel O’Gorman to invent forms of digital pedagogy that, at the same time that they make our students more technologically and informationally literate, also help them to reflect on the sweeping epistemological and ontological changes that result from the proliferation of new electronic and computing media.  In my own classroom experience, as the web-browsing assignment has prompted my media-saturated students to consider Blake’s proverbs as forms of viral media or, alternatively, as engines seeking end-users, it has encouraged them to think about the extent to which Blake’s medium might be elucidated by thinking about what viral media and search engines do (and potentially could do). It also has generated productive discussion of what tracking viral proliferation using a non-neutral search engine like Google can and cannot teach us, and has even led to probing insights into what affordances and limitations the idea of “the viral” itself might have as a conceptual form for understanding how media interface with the cultures of which they are also a part. Such discussions go a long way towards helping fulfill O’Gorman’s pedagogical mission to create “discursive practices that are suitable to a culture that has embraced electronic technology and has internalized the primary tenets of postmodern theory, but has done so by way of popular culture and computing techniques.” 
7. While the web-browsing assignment can be completed effectively by almost any level of student, the follow-up assignment (“Re-searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom”) is geared more towards advanced students, especially those who already have some experience doing more traditional forms of academic research. The assignment takes off from the premise that the instabilities of a given Blake proverb’s counsel in one time and place challenge us to figure out if the potential for these instabilities might have been present in other times and places. It offers students a choice of specific, focused research prompts, each of which asks them to generate a brief written report that highlights some aspect of their chosen proverb’s potential interpretive instability in Blake’s own day. Sharing these reports, especially in the context of a graduate seminar, becomes a way for students to develop insight into Blake’s project in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and perhaps his illuminated books more generally. It also gives them valuable experience in how bringing the study of reception and production contexts together can sometimes work to open up productive new research directions for each.
Assignment 1: Searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom
8. Proverbs are “words of wisdom” that get repeated in exactly the same form in many different contexts. For this assignment, you will choose one of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and use Google searches to track down recent citations of the proverb in order to catalog what wisdom people try to make it dispense when they invoke it in different contexts. What wise counsel is seemingly being given in different situations when, for example, someone today states, “The cut worm forgives the plow” (Erdman 35), regardless of whether or not they attribute the line to Blake?  The wisdom being dispensed will not be consistent across users, and, indeed, part of your task here is to be attuned to and to catalog these inconsistencies.
9. To present your research, compile a table that includes: (A.) the URL where the use of the proverb occurs; (B.) a brief description of the immediate context for the use; (C.) a summation of what you take the proverb to signify when used in this context (or a direct quote indicating what it signifies, if the author includes this kind of explicit explication). Your table must have a minimum of twenty rows or entries (i.e., twenty citations of the proverb). These twenty entries should reflect a minimum of five different interpretations of the proverb (i.e., not a minimum of five different online contexts where the proverb gets cited to convey essentially the same wisdom but, rather, a minimum of five different online contexts where the nature of the wisdom itself is different).
10. NOTE: When you Google your chosen proverb, you should put quotation marks around it so as to weed out partial hits. Your initial search results may be heavily populated by lists of all of the “Proverbs of Hell,” or by e-texts of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and so you may have to dig in order to find instances where your chosen proverb is actually being cited as wisdom or counsel. One way to adjust your search to yield more of the desired kinds of results is to repeat it with the additional term “-Marriage” or “-Blake” (without quotes) in the search field. This will yield only hits that do not identify the proverb’s textual or authorial source and thus a higher percentage of hits where the proverb is actually being cited as something like conventional wisdom.
Objectives and Outcomes
11. Each student should end up producing a table comprised of twenty entries that resembles the following (for the complete sample table of twenty entries, click here):
|“The cut worm forgives the plow”|
|#||(A.) URL||(B.) Context for the proverb’s use||(C.) Apparent or stated meaning|
|1||http://lynnadavidson.com/2013/03/05/the-cut-worm-forgives-the-plow/||Self-help blog entry giving advice to people about how to move forward in the face of pain.||“[We] can survive if we simply keep taking each moment as it comes . . . [if] the plow [has] cut through who you know yourself to be [, you] can start again, renew yourself, continue on.”|
|2||http://forum.grasscity.com/organic-growing/1116550-easy-organic-soil-mix-beginners.html/page-165||Post in a web forum devoted to growing cannabis. The post is responding to a query about whether it is bad for growing soil to have worms in it and, if not, whether it is acceptable if one accidentally cuts those worms in the process of mixing the soil.||It is okay to plow because, aside from the fact that the act of cutting worms is a necessary by-product of the positive work of cultivation, the worm itself is not really sacrificed (“worms regenerate fairly well after being cut”).|
|3||http://www.subzin.com/quotes/M46508638e3/Talladega+Nights%3A+The+Ballad+of+Ricky+Bobby/As+William+Blake+wrote%2C+%22The+cut+worm+forgives+the+plow.%22||Dialogue in the 2006 film Talladega Nights. (Used when a racecar driver taunts his opponent about how this opponent will feel when he loses to him).||You have to forgive your own pain when a superior person or performance causes it.|
12. Compiling the table (and especially column C) forces students to be attentive to subtle variations in how their chosen proverb gets invoked. It also has the effect of discouraging them from thinking that their proverb has a “right” or “best” meaning, encouraging them instead to think more in terms of the many things the proverb can do. For the purposes of sparking class discussion, however, the table is more a means to the end of having each student identify the specific grounds or causes for the variations she has observed in her chosen proverb’s meaning as it gets invoked in different contexts. You might even require students to append a list of these causes (as I have done at the end of the sample complete table).
13. After students compile a list of how and why some of the interpretive variations (in column C) happened, they will be able to contribute real-world examples to a class discussion about the factors in general that produce instabilities in the wisdom of Blake proverbs. When students share these examples, they are bound to notice that variations in the use of Blake’s proverbs tend to be a function of various combinations of the following factors:
- Multiple or ambiguous literal meanings of words or phrases: (e.g., in the case of “The cut worm forgives the plow,” the evidence of the sample table demonstrates that some people today take “cut worm” to mean “dead worm,” whereas others take it to mean “harmed worm,” whereas still others take it to mean “two worms whose missing halves will regenerate”; “forgives” also signifies different things to different people, including “accepts as true,” “refuses to be vengeful,” “accepts as beneficial to the greater good,” and “accepts as beneficial to oneself”).
- Syntactical or grammatical ambiguities in the proverb: (e.g., though the evidence of the sample table suggests this is not presently a common reading, “the cut worm forgives the plow” need not refer to a worm offering retrospective forgiveness for having been cut but could, rather, refer to an already harmed worm proactively forgiving the plow headed towards it to finish it off).
- An unlimited range of situations in which the proverb could be invoked meaningfully, especially because there are an unlimited range of possible figurative applications for the proverb’s words or images: (e.g., the evidence of the sample table shows that while “worm” can signify an actual worm, people tend to invoke it as a metaphor for many different kinds of vulnerable entities, including a human being, a soldier, an employee, a war-torn people, a wild animal, and even a rule of grammar; likewise, “plow” gets invoked as a metaphor for a wide range of things, including a challenge to an individual’s sense of self, anything that causes individual suffering, the activity of subsistence living, the work of cultural or national cultivation, a force heedless to anything other than itself, the course of history, the course of nature, and workplace cutbacks).
- Multiple possible affective responses to the proverb’s wisdom, especially because there are multiple possible subjective identifications one could have with the proverb’s figures: (e.g., as the evidence of the sample table makes evident, the wisdom of “the cut worm forgives the plow” can be invoked in the spirit of tragedy, comedy, or irony, depending on the situation and speaker. Some cite it to admire the worm’s powers of forgiveness, whereas others cite it to critique the worm’s ignorance or helplessness; some quote it to highlight the worm’s selflessness, whereas others view the worm as self-preserving; some invoke the line as a justification to plow, whereas others invoke it as a critique of plowing or a warning about plowing; etc.).
14. Folklorists who study proverbs do not agree on all points about the nature of the form. They do tend to concur, however, that a proverb constitutes a form of repeated wisdom that remains lexically stable across iterations and that tends to function as conventional wisdom over time.  Typically, this conventional wisdom simultaneously serves an epistemological and a regulatory function insofar as it both names a situation and offers strategic counsel in the face of it (though the counsel may not point out a particular course of action so much as ask for acceptance of a general truth about the situation).  A proverb, one might say, is any kind of regulatory wisdom that is cited and received within a culture as if it belongs to everyone, as if its wisdom does not issue from an authority external to the culture so much as accord with the culture’s—and, by extension, its auditor’s—internal regulatory desires or regulatory sense.  It is for this reason that Blake can observe that “The sayings used in a nation, mark its character,” as he proposes at the start of the “Proverbs of Hell” (Erdman 35). A culture’s proverbs work hegemonically to inscribe customs of conduct, or simply customary approaches to living. As such, proverbs tend to operate alongside, beneath the purview of, and even at times in conflict with the culture’s (and the state’s) actual codified regulations. Though in a few cultures proverbs have held legal authority historically as something like common-law precedents for how to behave, their regulatory power in Western contexts has almost always tended to be extralegal. 
15. As students discuss what proverbs are and do, they may not arrive at all of the above points on their own. However, because they have approached the proverb form through Blake, they likely will realize without much prompting that proverbs’ hegemonic regulatory power is incredibly unstable in general and that Blake’s proverbs to some extent just exploit or exaggerate the form’s customary instabilities. A quick in-class experiment can help spark this realization. Have students write down what they take each of the following three well-known English proverbs to mean, along with two situations in which they could imagine someone invoking each: “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” and “out of sight, out of mind.” The results will collectively demonstrate that many of the kinds of instabilities they observed online with Blake’s proverbs can be true of proverbs more generally.  As they saw with Blake, proverbs often work by way of analogy (e.g., “a rolling stone . . .”), and the potential for breakdowns in communication can be high as the proverb’s sender and receiver try to trace this analogy to the situation at hand (e.g., is “a rolling stone” an irresponsible stone, or is it one free of corrosive entanglements?). The situation-specific meaning of proverbs also means that the same line’s regulatory counsel can vary markedly across situations (e.g., depending on the context, “out of sight, out of mind” can encourage acceptance of what feels like a tragic truth, or it can function as an exhortation to engage in some opportunistic forgetting).  Finally, some proverbs blatantly contradict one another (e.g., “out of sight, out of mind” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder”) and others can be interpreted as contradicting one another (e.g., “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “a rolling stone gathers no moss”). This makes proverbial regulation as a whole a far from systematic or coherent enterprise. There is no constitution or system of precedents to which one might refer to determine which proverb’s regulatory authority ought to have jurisdiction in a given situation (or have the authority to establish precisely what kind of given situation or case is even at hand).
16. Discussing the politics of sharing proverbial wisdom gives students an excellent foundation for sharing their own wisdom about the “Proverbs of Hell” as a project, including how it relates to the rest of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell or to whatever other Blake texts you may have assigned. Some students will want to call attention to the obvious subversive political implications of particular proverbs (e.g., “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion” [Erdman 36]) and relate these to other moments where Blake makes similar political commentaries. Others may note the Zen riddle-like quality of particular proverbs (e.g., “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” [Erdman 36]) and connect it to Blake’s various calls on individuals to stretch their sensory capacities, imaginations, and powers of perception. But the advantage of having had the class think about the proverb form as a whole, including both the effects of individual proverbs as they circulate and the tendency of Blake’s own proverbs to fragment his corpus (i.e., their propensity to make pieces of larger works circulate on their own), is that it gives them many more challenging angles from whence to approach the issue of the illuminated books’ artistic, philosophical, and political project. Grounding the wisdom of individual proverbs in positions expressed elsewhere in the illuminated books is all well and good, but it does run counter to proverbs’ demonstrated propensity to break free from their textual context and to their tendency to spread multiple and sometimes incompatible kinds of wisdom. Are we missing the forest for the trees if we focus on individual proverbs rather than the whole population of them? That is, if we focus on their individual “meanings” rather than on what they are capable of doing to the world as more people find them meaningful?
17. Questions you might ask students to provoke their thinking along these lines include: what might the attraction of a hegemonic regulatory form that is extralegal, heterogeneous, and non-systematic be in the context of the other political and philosophical views, beliefs, and positions put forth in The Marriage or in the illuminated books more generally? Are there things that make the proverbs—either singly or collectively—seem incongruous or incompatible with other parts of The Marriage or of the illuminated books generally? Does it make sense to think about the “Proverbs of Hell” as fulfilling some part of the promise that The Marriage makes elsewhere that it will contribute to an “improvement of sensual enjoyment” (Erdman 39) or as fulfilling some part of its promise that the printing techniques whereby it was created constitute a process of burning away blockages that conceal “the infinite” (Erdman 39)? Is there a way to see any single “Proverb of Hell” as improving sensory enjoyment or revealing infinitude? What about the entire collection of proverbs as a whole? What about the act of relief etching? Finally, is the improvement and revelation that The Marriage promises—or, for that matter, the kind of “progression” that The Marriage says requires “Contraries” (Erdman 34)—something that happens to the individual reader, to an audience of readers, or, through this audience as medium, to a population or culture not entirely cognizant that it is happening? What evidence in The Marriage, or elsewhere in Blake’s corpus, complicates our ability to answer this last question? What insight with respect to this question might be offered by the fact that certain Blake proverbs have been released from their original textual contexts and now circulate widely across a massive English-speaking global population? What insight might be offered by the activity of tracking and studying their circulation through a search engine like Google?
18. In my own classroom experience, the final question in this series has encouraged students to make an important cognitive leap that might prove provocative, too, even for seasoned Blake scholars. To the extent that the “Searching” assignment prompts students to study individual Blake proverbs as viral media, it encourages them to conceive of the “Proverbs of Hell,” and perhaps the illuminated books in general, not as discrete art objects or a discrete corpus but as a kind of engine networked into a population of users and, through those users, the world. As several decades of Blake scholarship have demonstrated, the internal complexity of and historical context for this engine can repay intensive study, as can its power to rewire the perceptions, thinking, and politics of the individual users who converge with it. But we also need to think about the engine as something that, through its heterogeneous convergences with a large population of users over time, all of them socially and culturally networked in their own ways, manages to make certain pieces of itself go viral through still larger populations. To the extent that these viral fragments circulate not just across media networks and platforms but also through the difference-producing medium of individual users’ and populations’ disparate regulatory desires for themselves, the fragments have the effect of complicating and rendering more heterogeneous the world that they also connect and rewire in new ways. A differential engine, indeed.
19. At the same time, as we develop better tools—both theoretical and technological—for studying Blake fragments in their complexifying work, we can also begin to look at them as agents for revealing the infinitude of this complex, connected world in ways that they make uniquely possible. When I had my graduate students do the “Searching” assignment recently, the resulting classroom discussion yielded the insight that it may not be exactly apt to conceive of this process of revelation by way of analogy to a computer virus or “worm,” which, through its passage from computer to computer, renders traceable the complexity and interconnectedness of global computing networks.  After all, Blake’s proverbs move through culture more rhizomatically than can be mapped through the woven or branching image of interlaced networks. More to the point, in contrast to viruses or worms following programmers’ source codes, they also prove capable of infecting according to new rules. Still, I was able to suggest to students that the analogy becomes more apt if we merge the idea of the digital worm with that of the more earthly, cultivation-friendly variety, the kind that folk wisdom and some scientists tell us can be made more powerful when cut, because cutting does not harm it so much as create new worms with minds of their own. We could do worse as Blake scholars than to encourage our students to approach his proverbs as special kinds of digital worms that respond to and activate a potentially unlimited number of regulatory codes each time a user makes contact with them, recites them, resituates them, retweets them, or even just remembers them. Encouraging such an approach would be one step closer to realizing O’Gorman’s compelling—and self-professedly Blakean—call to develop pedagogies that use new media not “for archival purposes” but “as a means of rousing ourselves from the ‘Single vision & Newton’s sleep’ [Erdman 722] in which print technology has steeped us.”  At the very least, to have students begin to see the web through Blake by seeking out Blake on the web can be a productive and evocative means of bringing the specificities of both forms of new media into critical focus.
20. That said, one of the potential pitfalls of this kind of discussion is that the participants in it must always be on their guard against the tendency to assert a clear demarcation between the world of the internet and “reality,” as such a distinction (implicitly present in concepts like “cyberspace” and even “virtual reality”) reduces the extent to which the web is a part of reality and reality to some extent “realizes” (and forecloses) some of its own virtuality through the web. In discussing this issue with my graduate students who completed the web-browsing assignment, we arrived at the idea that it might be more accurate to describe the web as an ever-shifting, expanding, and interpenetrating archive of a substantial set of the ways and means whereby reality, at present, publishes its efforts and its tools to connect with itself, know itself, sell itself to itself, and even become itself (or, rather, to realize its previous virtuality). We also discussed the importance of never confusing the results of a Google search with some kind of objectively arrived at map of this archive (or of reality), insofar as Google’s search engine not only doesn’t return results from certain parts of the web (and which parts will differ according to the nation in which the user’s IP address is registered) but also relies upon a proprietary algorithm that privileges corporate websites over popular sites and that can vary based on a user’s previous searches. The thing actually being mapped by any given set of Google search results is the present state of Google’s dynamic algorithm itself as applied to the dynamic object of the web by a particular user and machine. Nevertheless, though engines like Google’s might be hopelessly compromised tools if one’s scholarly project were to try to use internet search engines to map the reality of which they are a part, or even simply to map that reality’s online archive and interfaces, what they can do—and do quite well—is give students and scholars alike a vehicle through which to begin to recognize the virtuality and affordances of certain identifiable cultural forms that have become resonant. Though a Google search cannot map this resonance in its totality, or map the degrees to which certain virtualities of given forms are being realized, it can provide sufficient evidence that some virtualities are being realized and perhaps make us aware of others that previously we did not know existed—new messages that different media are becoming.
21. One potential critique of the “Searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom” assignment is that it does little to historicize the proverb form, especially Blake’s use of it. This can be addressed to some extent by assigning secondary readings that situate Blake’s proverbs in relation to late-eighteenth-century thinking more generally about proverbs, aphorisms, the law, regulation, and ideology.  Such readings can help to make the case that the class’s theorization of the proverb form would have been available to some extent to a late-eighteenth-century thinker, especially one (like Blake) familiar with the state of Biblical scholarship on proverbs, the workings of the law, and/or the philosophy of aesthetics. Secondary readings can also point interested students to other primary texts from the period that Blake’s proverbs can be studied profitably alongside, such as Johann Kaspar Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man (1788), which fueled Blake’s interest in the proverb form.  Still, while secondary readings and additional primary readings can historically contextualize the general insights that the “Searching” assignment delivers, they will not necessarily counteract the tendency of some students to assume that certain instabilities currently made manifest in the application of individual Blake proverbs were possible all along or, alternatively, that the wide range of contemporary online invocations of a single proverb sufficiently captures the full extent of its possibilities in other times and places. You can help students become more aware of these as problematic modes of thinking by having them complete the “Re-searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom” assignment described below.
22. This assignment is designed to heighten students’ awareness that every conceivable interpretation or application of their chosen Blake proverb has historical conditions of possibility—that a proverb (and language in general) does not just contain a treasure trove of meanings always there waiting to be activated. The assignment consists of three separate prompts, from which students must select two, charging them to research the historical and interpretive conditions that were in place in Blake’s day for their chosen proverb to become meaningful in particular ways. Admittedly, by refocusing students’ attention on their chosen proverb’s “original” historical and textual contexts, the assignment may seem to run counter to the idea that only by studying what the entire population of Blake’s proverbs does apart from its “original” context can we grasp the full complexity of its significance. But the advantage of doing the “Re-searching” assignment after the “Searching” one is that you can help students recognize that the “Re-searching” assignment need not conflict with this idea. The assignment does not encourage them to privilege “original” historical and textual contexts as placing limits on what their chosen proverb meant once and for all but, rather, challenges them to find evidence of the interpretive instabilities and historical conditions that opened up what it could have done at first. The “Re-searching” assignment also carries the added pedagogical benefits of developing students’ research and close-reading skills, as well as adding to their knowledge of the specificity of Blake’s historical context. To share this knowledge, as well as to reinforce the general lesson that interpretations always have historical conditions of possibility, you might have students share their research reports with each other via a course discussion board, blog, or website.
Assignment 2: Re-searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom
23. In the “Searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom” assignment, you tracked many of the different interpretations currently operative for a Blake proverb of your choice, as well as identified some of the specific factors enabling these different interpretations to take hold. This follow-up assignment asks you to research some of the interpretive instabilities that might have been present in your chosen Blake proverb in its “original” historical context. These might be instabilities that are still operative today, or they might be instabilities that have since become obsolete. Specifically, choose two of the following prompts and write short research reports in response to them (1-2 pages per report).*
- Try to establish whether or not some of Blake’s contemporaries might have had some kind of knowledge or belief that currently contributes to divergent interpretations of your chosen Blake proverb.
- Using the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, look up one or more words in your chosen Blake proverb to determine if and when their literal meanings, or range of standard figurative applications, might have multiplied and/or shifted. Also, look through the history of their usages in idiomatic phrases. Report on your findings, with an eye towards determining whether or not your chosen proverb could have had literal or figurative applications in Blake’s day that do not appear to be operative at present (at least based on your earlier searches).
Using the “eE on-line Blake Concordance” (which allows you to search for all instances in which Blake uses a particular word or phrase in his
poetry and prose) and/or the Blake Archive’s image search function, look up whether any words or images in your chosen Blake proverb recur elsewhere in the “Proverbs of
Hell” or in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a whole. Assess how the proverb’s contextualization within the lexical and/or pictorial framework of the poem might affect a reader’s sense of the proverb’s possible
meanings or applications (possibilities that may not be apparent still in the proverb’s popular usages today).
OR:Using the “eE on-line Blake Concordance” and/or the Blake Archive’s image search function, look up one word or image in your chosen Blake proverb in order to assess how the proverb’s contextualization within Blake’s writings as a whole might affect a reader’s sense of its possible meanings or applications (possibilities that may not be apparent in the proverb’s popular usages today).* NOTE: In most cases, the research that this assignment requires can be done entirely online (all of the sample reports below were produced entirely using free, open-access online resources, or, in the case of the online OED, a resource to which most university libraries subscribe). That said, depending on the library resources available to you, another prompt could work well here too. For example, you could do word searches in ECCO (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online) in order to find evidence of the currency in Blake’s day of certain figurative uses of particular words or images that your proverb employs. The Lewis Walpole Library’s image search may allow you to find visual evidence of the same in the period’s caricatures. 
Sample Report for Prompt 1. (Try to establish whether or not some of Blake’s contemporaries might have had some kind of knowledge or belief that currently contributes to divergent interpretations of your chosen Blake proverb.):
24. In doing the “Searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom” assignment, one thing that I found that causes divergent interpretations today of the proverb “The cut worm forgives the plow” (Erdman 35) is that people sometimes interpret “cut worm” to signify that the worm is dead or irreparably maimed whereas others seem to think that the two halves of a cut worm can regenerate into two new worms. Therefore, I decided to research the state of knowledge in Blake’s era concerning the ability of worms to regenerate. I discovered that worms cut in two might have been less irreparably harmed in the minds of Blake’s contemporaries than for modern readers, though there was no clear consensus on the issue. Worms were a subject of particular interest for eighteenth-century natural philosophers. At the start of the century, worms were at the center of debates over the issue of how species originated, as they were often the main example adduced in favor of the erroneous doctrine of spontaneous generation, which held that some complex creatures are eggless and originate spontaneously out of non-living matter. Though belief in worms’ ability to generate spontaneously quickly waned as the century progressed, new interest focused on their supposed ability to regenerate (Roger 256-257, 317).  Charles Bonnet, a Genevan philosopher, conducted some influential experiments in the early-eighteenth century wherein he cut some small freshwater worms into various sections and observed that the sections regrew. As the Victorian naturalist George Johnston described it, “The halves became whole worms,—the thirds and quarters also,—and the morsels grew to be complete individuals, not to be distinguishable from the original stock” (318-319). With more terrestrial worms, Bonnet found the regeneration to be slower and more erratic, with more casualties amongst the morsels (Johnston 319). Still, the idea took hold that worms, including earthworms, can regenerate their missing halves when cut. Although some mid-eighteenth-century European scientists, including Carl Linnaeus, expressed skepticism on this point, others, such as René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, claimed to have some success regenerating two complete earthworms from cut worms (Johnston 319-320). It seems safe to say that, in the imagination of many in Blake’s day, worms cut by plows were not so much dead or maimed as multiplied. The year after Blake’s death, another prominent scientist—this time, the French zoologist Marie Jules César Lelorgne de Savigny—claimed success in regenerating multiple worms from certain species of earthworms. By 1843, the idea that earthworms could regenerate in this way was widely enough accepted in Britain that it was advanced in anatomy lectures in London by the prominent naturalist Sir Richard Owen (Johnston 321).
Sample Report for Prompt 2. (Using the online edition of the OED, look up one or more words in your chosen Blake proverb to determine if and when their literal meanings, or range of standard figurative applications, might have multiplied and/or shifted. Also, look through the history of their usages in idiomatic phrases. Report on your findings.):
25. According to evidence in the OED, “worm” had a more expansive literal connotation in Blake’s day, signifying nearly any creature that crawls along the ground, including snakes [1667 John Milton, Paradise Lost (7.476): “At once came forth whatever creeps the ground, Insect or Worme”; 1820 Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound (4.1.151): “Ye beasts and birds, Ye worms, and fish.”]. It could also signify “The larva of an insect; a maggot, grub, or caterpillar, esp. one that feeds on and destroys flesh, fruit, leaves, cereals, textile fabrics, and the like,” and, collectively, “The worm” could also signify “a destructive pest” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “worm”). According to my findings in the “Searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom” assignment, people today who invoke “The cut worm forgives the plow” (Erdman 35) do not tend to regard the worm as a pestilential or potentially destructive creature. Indeed, almost all imply that the worm is a victim or heroic survivor and not a force that could, say, become more powerful (and potentially more violent and destructive) than the plow or plow-operator. But had the proverb gained currency in Blake’s day, many might have heard in it a warning that attempts to stamp out certain ills only multiply those very ills, or, more in line with Blake’s political radicalism, that the act of harming and killing society’s lowest and most oppressed, as if they were worms, only strengthens the cause of resistance or even rebellion. Such an interpretation seems entirely possible given the currency in Blake’s day, according to the OED, of “worm” as a term to signify “A human being likened to a worm or reptile as an object of contempt, scorn, or pity; an abject, miserable creature” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “worm”). It is this signification that underlies the Romantic-era proverb “tread on a worm and it will turn” or “even a worm will turn,” which the OED translates as “even the humblest will resent extreme ill-treatment” [e.g., 1818 Shelley, Julian & Maddalo (413): “Even the instinctive worm on which we tread / Turns, though it wound not”]. “The cut worm forgives the plow” can be read as a kind of translation of this proverb into other imagery.
Sample Report for Prompt 3. (Using the “eE on-line Blake Concordance” and/or the Blake Archive’s image search function, look up whether any words or images in your chosen Blake proverb recur elsewhere in the “Proverbs of Hell” or in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a whole. Assess how the proverb’s contextualization within the lexical and/or pictorial framework of the poem might affect a reader’s sense of the proverb’s possible meanings or applications.):
26. Plows and plowing are recurring figures in Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell.” In addition to “The cut worm forgives the plow” (Erdman 35), they appear in three other proverbs: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead” (Erdman 35), “As the plow follows words, so God rewards prayers” (Erdman 37), and “Prayers plow not! Praises reap not!” (Erdman 37). To the extent that the four proverbs associate plows and plowing with worms, driving, following, and reaping, they have a tendency collectively to pressure the reader to think of plows/plowing in terms of agricultural cultivation (as opposed to, say, their associations—associations more current in Blake’s day than our own—with paper-cutting and book-making). Despite this stability, however, the images of prayers that “plow not” and a plow that “follows words” already encourage the reader to think of cultivation more figuratively than literally. It is in imagining the four proverbs’ possible figurative and situational applications that they collectively multiply one another’s meaningful possibilities, virtually ensuring that different readers will apply the same proverb very differently. “Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead,” for example, would seem to invest plowing with a kind of revolutionary power of revitalization and renewal, turning dead bones into life-sustaining natural fertilizer. Reading “The cut worm forgives the plow” alongside it thus might encourage the reader to merge the two, such that one imagines the cut worm forgiving the plow for the same reason that one is encouraged to drive one’s plow over dead bones—namely, because the worm recognizes that the collateral violence of the act is outweighed by the greater good of the revitalization and renewal it brings. Conversely, “As the plow follows words, so God rewards prayers” would seem, according to one reading, to make plowing into a potentially deluded or misdirected enterprise. Plows follow words in the sense that plow-drivers give orders to teams of oxen, but how many Christians regard God as a plow that does the bidding of those who pray? Perhaps the point is that oxen don’t actually follow verbal orders, just as the other plowing proverb tells us that “Prayers plow not.” Indeed, are there any oxen in this proverb, or just a farmer cursing at his inanimate plow? One reading of the proverb is that God cannot be controlled by prayers, just as a plow does not follow verbal orders. Another is that God rewards not words but correct actions, just as a plow does. Another, more radical, interpretation is that just as there is no plow that words can move, there is no God to reward prayers. While none of these readings explains anything explicitly about the merits of plowing, each does plant the idea that not everyone who wants to plow knows what he is doing. The effect is to make the reader of “The cut worm forgives the plow” less apt to see the proverb as an endorsement of willing self-sacrifice to a greater good than as a critique of the complicity of victims in their own oppression by those who think they know best. All of this would suggest that one of the major kinds of regulatory instability we see operative in this proverb’s use today was potentially present from the time of its publication by Blake. Just as some people today cite the proverb to celebrate the worm’s selflessness and powers of forgiveness, whereas others cite it to critique the worm’s ignorance and self-defeating servility, we can imagine readers of the “Proverbs of Hell” in Blake’s age doing the same.
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 The term “composite art” of course comes from W. J. T. Mitchell’s classic Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (1978). I use it here, however, as a stand-in for any conception of Blake’s verbal-visual art that emphasizes its integrity as a medium. BACK
 Admittedly, it is slightly misleading to apply Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s idea of a “rhizomatic” form to Wikipedia given that the site’s editorial practices presently grant different degrees of editorial control to different users to produce hyperlinks across encyclopedia entries, thus in effect limiting the number of possible, mechanized, pathways through the site. At the same time, Wikipedia’s external openness as a system (theoretically, there are no limits on the number of new entries that can be added to it) and the sheer abundance of defined intra-site hyperlinks bring it closer to a rhizomatic system than to either the more closed, traceable systems that Deleuze and Guattari denote as “radicles” or the more radial, discretely branching systems that they denote as “root-trees” (Deleuze and Guattari 5-6). BACK
 Scholarly attention to the artistic compositeness of Blake’s illuminated books had been growing since the publication of Mitchell’s Blake’s Composite Art in 1978, and, before that, of Jean Hagstrum’s William Blake, Poet and Painter (1964). But it was catalyzed in the mid-1990s by Joseph Viscomi’s Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993). Although Viscomi’s analytical conclusions were not without their critics, his attention to the materiality of Blake’s illuminated books made it newly imperative for scholars, especially historicists, to ground their critical analyses in the books’ material and composite form. Reflecting what he took to be a growing scholarly consensus, Nicholas Williams wrote in 2006 in overview of the state of Blake Studies that recent scholarship had made it imperative to “see the verbal and visual elements of the illuminated works as an integral whole, neither taking priority over the other, and both necessary for the full impact Blake intended” (3). BACK
 See, for example, Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly, and Jason Whittaker’s “Introduction” to Blake 2.0: William Blake in Twentieth-Century Art, Music and Culture (2010); Roger Whitson’s “Digital Blake 2.0”; Roger Whitson and Jason Whittaker’s William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (2013); Mark Lussier’s “Blake beyond Postmodernity”; as well as my own essays, “Blakespotting” and “The Joy of Looking: What Blake’s Pictures Want.” BACK
 For an explication of the Deleuzean concept of the “virtual” text through and in relation to Blake, see Claire Colebrook’s “The Work of Art that Stands Alone.” Colebrook’s Blake, Deleuzian Aesthetics, and the Digital (2012) also makes a case for conceptualizing Blake’s aesthetic project in terms that lend further theoretical justification to many of the approaches pursued by the scholars cited in note 5. BACK
 See the second chapter of Gregory Ulmer’s Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (1994) as well as his Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy (2003). Also see Marcel O’Gorman’s E-crit: Digital Media, Critical Theory, and the Humanities (2006). BACK
 See Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973 [1-4]); Peter Seitel’s “Proverbs: A Social Use of Metaphor”; and Paul D. Goodwin and Joseph W. Wenzel’s “Proverbs and Practical Reasoning: A Study in Socio-Logic.” BACK
 This exercise is based on a survey that Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett conducted in the 1970s. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett discusses the survey, its results, and the issue of proverbs’ interpretive instability across people and situations in “Toward a Theory of Proverb Meaning.” BACK
 Thank you to the students in ENG 730: “Participatory Romanticism,” at Syracuse University in Fall 2015, for diligently completing this assignment and for contributing to the two incisive classroom discussions that resulted from it: Matt Chacko, Vicky Cheng, Noelle Hedgcock, Ashley O’Mara, David Peterka, and John Sanders. BACK
 See O’Gorman’s E-crit (66). Before laying out this call, O’Gorman describes a simple, smart classroom exercise for making students more cognizant of the dynamics of image-text interactions in Blake. It involves blanking out the text of Blake’s “Nurse’s Song,” having them write lines to go with Blake’s accompanying images for the poem, and then, upon comparing their lines to Blake’s, reflecting on the extent to which image and text restrict (and open up) ways of seeing each other, as well as ways of seeing vision itself. BACK
 See, for example, John Villalobos’s “William Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’ and the Tradition of Wisdom Literature”; Mark Barr’s “Practicing Resistance: Blake, Milton, and the English Jury”; and my own essays, “Blakespotting” and “The Joy of Looking.” BACK
 On the influence of Lavater’s Aphorisms on Blake as well as Blake’s influence over the reception history of Lavater, see Sibylle Erle’s “Leaving Their Mark: Lavater, Fuseli and Blake’s Imprint on Aphorisms on Man.” BACK