Archive Fevers

March 19, 2009

The Figure of the Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — gselmer @ 16:15

One of the interesting things about writing here (wherever here may be) and now (likewise) in this artifactual place is that I’m able to situate what I’m writing more easily – as long as the texts that I am situating this piece alongside are available somewhere on the internet, of course.  The apprent ease with which the internet opens up the ‘text’ to it’s saturation by almost unlimited context is perhaps deceptive, however – because it can be seen to reinforce the illusion (I would argue) that in that sense it is radically different to the book (though of course, in a number of other senses, it is).

Anyway, this post is framed by – even partly pro-grammed by – the interesting conversations that have been going on in both the mainstream media and ‘social’ media (in particular Twitter) about the future (or lack of future) for the book in the digital age.  This is not a new conversation, by any means – the first section of Derrida’s Of Grammatology was portentously titled ‘The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing’, when first published back in 1967.  However, it does seem to have gathered impetous once more in the wake of the release of Amazon’s new Kindle and an explosion of interest in and discussion of social media such as Twitter (an explosion that, in the UK at least, one can probably trace back to Stephen Fry’s chat with Jonathan Ross about it on Ross’s Friday night chat show – what that says about the intersection of the internet, television and celebrity culture is probably a topic for another day entirely).

Wrapped up in all of this discussion is part fear, part excitement, part confusion perhaps, that the print era may be drawing to a close, to be replaced by some uncertain digital future.  I’ll specifically point towards three pieces that I’d like to use to frame this post:

1. Jason Weaver’s (Paperback Jack) post: ‘Things falling apart’, which asks some thought-provoking questions about the future of the publishing industry and the task of writing itself – Jason makes some interesting links between our contemporary situation and the birth of the novel and, perhaps even more interestingly, the ‘explosion of common writing’ that occurred around the time of the English Civil War.  There’s even something I’d like to keep in mind here in the silent, unquoted words that follow the paraphrase of Yeats in his title: ‘the centre cannot hold’.

2. Clay Shirky’s much discussed article on the future of newspapers in a digital age, which Jason also comments upon in the above-mentioned post.

3. Sven Birkett’s article on ‘Resisting the Kindle’, which Jason kindly pointed me towards in his comment upon my last post.  This article reflects the ‘sceptical’ – if not fearful – position towards the so-called e-book and a digital archive.  More interestingly, in light of what I’ve already said at the beginning of this post, and what I want to go on to say, is the way in which he sees tools such as the Kindle as being diametrically opposed to the book in two ways due to it’s ‘circuitry of instant access: firstly, it provides easier and far wider access to information; secondly, it takes away ‘the great clarifying context, the order’ which he argues the material, physical manifestation of the print archive (the publisher, the book shop, the library, the book itself) provides.

So, today I want to think about and write about the figure of the book – about it, on it and around it.

Putting it this way automatically reminds me of something that is fundamental to the traditional system or concept of the book – that it has borders, edges, surfaces, that one can negotiate, move around and about, make a mark upon, and so on (this concept still haunts all our readings of ‘literary’ texts).  The concept of the ‘book’ as a closed system, with an inside and an outside – a text and a context (a view too often reinforced by undergraduate English degree programmes, and tied to our similar distinctions between, say, ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘history’ and ‘story’, and so on).

But this very word ‘book’ complicates itself.  In the Oxford English Dictionary it can be: ‘a written or printed treatise or series of treatises, occupying several sheets of paper or other substance fastened together so as to compose a material whole’.  This sense of completeness or wholeness is also essential to our traditional conception of literature (for example, in the distinction between a ‘fragment’ and a ‘complete work’ or between a ‘draft’ and a ‘completed work’).

What is inside the book stands alone – whole – and apparently needs no other sustenance from the outside.  And, though the OED notes that ‘it is not now usual to do so’ our sense of the book remains contaminated by its other sense of ‘a literary composition such as would occupy one or more volumes, without regard to the material form or forms in which it actually exists’.  This notion of the book is therefore not dependent on a material substrate, but still carries within it that idea of essential ‘wholeness or completeness’ of a ‘work’, which draws a line between a metaphorical outside and inside.  (The dictionary notes that this second sense of the word ‘book’ is derived from the French livre and Latin liber – referring to a ‘writing’ or ‘written account’ – as opposed to the Greek biblion which, as a derivative of biblos referring to the ‘internal bark of the papyrus tree’ and hence paper, refers more directly to the surface that will carry the writing.

But, book also refers to ‘text’ – ‘that portion or contents of a manuscript or printed book, or of a page which constitutes the original matter as distinct from notes or other critical appendages (OED).  So ‘text’ refers to both of the above senses of the ‘book’: both to the contents of the book as a whole and to those parts of the book which are to be considered as the ‘original’ or ‘complete’ composition, without ‘appendages’.

This sets up another distinction that haunts us: between the (often literary) text or work and the critical text which remains on the outside of that inside – being writings ‘on’ or ‘around’ or ‘about’ the actual text itself.  (It also echoes the thorny problem about the separation between theory and practice, which a few of us – @beckyselmer, @ErikaJL and @evilitlsquirrel – were discussing on Twitter earlier today).

Derrida calls this all into question (in his own French idiom) by bringing into play the Latin root of the word ‘text’ – textus, meaning literally ‘that which is woven, web, texture’, leading him to famously redefine text as being ‘no longer… some content enclosed in a book or its margins’ but a ‘fabric of traces, referring endlessly to something other than itself’ and thus ‘overrunning all the limits assigned to it so far… making them more complex, dividing and multiplying [them]’ (‘Living On: Borderlines’) – creating an ‘old cloth that must continually, interminably be undone’ (Positions).

Interestingly, we can open up the ‘book’ (complete with pun) in a similar way in an English idiom: the word being derived from a number of Teutonic sources (for example, Old English bóc, Old Norse bôk), all generally referring, in the manner of livre, simply to a ‘body’ of writing, to what is written.  So, our concept of the book is bound up with our concept of writing, which opens up that concept to all of the same instabilities.  The field or the limits of the book are complicated by the question of writing and its borders are similarly hard to define.

Perhaps what the e-book is helping us to see is that the printed book may have never been a closed system, may have always been saturated by context (though within a different economy of both time and space), and has never had borders which we might easily discern or define. So, what is the answer to the question: will the digital revolution change our way of thinking?  Yes absolutely, and no not at all.


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