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.


February 9, 2009

Questions posed

Filed under: Uncategorized — gselmer @ 14:29

In the past few years, I have spent a lot of time in the Cambridge University Library.  A visible embodiment of the materiality and temporality of the archive: mile after mile of book stacks, catalogued in the most painstaking detail.  As one of the legal depost libraries in England it has the legal right to acquire and hold a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.  The Cambridge University Library informs us that it seeks to ‘keep one copy of each edition and tries to conserve them forever’.  A bold ambition indeed: the book, as we know, is a fragile object, subject to the ravages of time and use, to wear and tear.  It is such an overwhelmingly vast collection, that it is easy to be seduced into thinking that it contains a copy of everything.

Of course, it doesn’t.  Whilst preparing a paper for a conference on the work of J. Hillis Miller last year, at which I wanted to address Professor Miller’s work on the impact of electronic media in the university, I discovered that this monumental archive doesn’t hold a single copy of South Atlantic Quarterly – much to my annoyance, as it meant I was unable to read an article written by Professor Miller on Derrida and performativity, in which I believe he had some interesting things to say about Wikipedia, and which would therefore have fed nicely into my paper.

More pertinently, of course, the Cambridge University Library – regardless of what it might proclaim – does not want to hold everything within its archive: it is governed, as are all archives, by a set of identifiable ‘archontic principles’, administered largely by its peer review processes and publishing houses (for example).  These archons wield immense power over not necessarily what may be said or written, but over what may be recorded, archived, committed to print and, therefore, over who is able to ‘hear’ or read the message.

Does the electronic media challenge this?  My answer right now would be: yes, to some extent.  But to imagine the internet as some kind of information ‘free-for-all’, as an archive beyond the reach of the archons if you like, is to entertain a utopia.  Censorship is as real on the internet as anywhere off-line, for example, though that’s an analysis for another day.  Certainly it sets up a new archival economy: in some ways it utterly dissolves time and space.

I’ve been really interested in the Digital Wordsworth project, which is being supported by the Wordsworth Trust and Lancaster University.  Simply by accessing an internet connection I am now able, at my leisure, to browse through photographic images of the notebooks in which Wordsworth began to scribble the first lines of The Prelude.  I no longer need to travel to Grasmere to examine this artefact (although I have – and that’s an experience that I shall try and write about soon).  From the comfort of my own desk I can now examine an electronic reproduction of it.  What does this do to the ‘original’ artefact?  On the one hand, it renders it obselete: it is its metaphorical destruction.  On the other hand, by reproducing it, making a copy, it paradoxically conserves it.  It makes the originality of the original appear to be even more so at the same time as it dissolves the original’s original uniqueness.

This is what Derrida argues is the double bind, the ‘archive fever’ that governs every archive, every archiving act: that ‘the archive takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of said memory’.  This puts me in mind of lines written by Wordsworth in that very Goslar notebook, in his own archiving moment, when he speaks of the ‘characters of danger and desire’ written on to the surface of the earth by nature.  This is, perhaps, what lies at the heart of the archive – any archive, and maybe even experience in general – the danger of deletion, death and destruction and that contradictory desire for impressing, storing, memorialising, conserving.

In a further touch of irony, there is no wireless internet connection available within the Cambridge University Library (outside of the tea room) – so that whilst I can access these historical manuscripts from my own home, I’m unable to inspect it whilst sitting in the middle of one of the largest archives in England.

And it’s worth remembering that the overwhelming majority (70%) of humans on the face of the earth today have never even heard a dialling tone, let alone have access to the world wide web.  Industrialised countries comprise less than 20% of the world’s population and are home to over 80% of the world’s internet users (for more information on world internet usage, see here).

Further to that, electronic media technology is dependent on the provision on electrical power.  There’s a whole host of economic, scientific and political issues that we need to explore here.  The internet is as temporal and subject to decay or destruction or oblivion as any other archive has ever been.  No trees, no paper.  No electricity, no internet.  (We were reminded of the fragility of internet data only last week by the disaster that hit Ma.gnolia)

It is just as much a ‘shrine so frail’ for human thought as Wordsworth feared the printed word to be.  Hillis Miller reminds us of this in Black Holes when he notes that the electronic archive only exists ‘as a large number of “bits” of information, zeroes or ones inscribed as magnetic differences on a hard disk or on a magnetic tape or as minute scratches on an optical disk or electrical pulses on the wires and wireless transmissions of the internet’.  The ‘virtual’ archive is by no means immaterial.

On the one hand, children of the ‘information age’ do seem to think differently, to organise information differently and to interact with writing, information and text in a different way.  Jason L. Frand provides an interesting discussion on this here.  I can’t remember the last time I undertook a sustained act of writing with a pen and paper and I find my life increasingly ‘wired’.

On the other hand.  We like to highlight the interactivity of the electronic media (for example the weblog, the social networking site, the Wiki, and so on).  H.J. Jackson’s study of Romantic marginalia seems to show that nineteenth century readers were accustomed from an early age to ‘talk back’ to the books they read, thinking of themselves as ‘co-collaborators or contributors to the books they annotated’.  I’ve always scribbled in the margins of my books (much to my wife’s annoyance!).  What is the structural difference between this and, say, commenting on weblogs (which I also do)?  What different economy of the archive is taking place?

Hillis Miller notes that the ease of word processing ‘encourages the adept in computer composition to think of what he or she writes as never being in quite finished form.  Whatever is printed is always just one stage in a potentially endless process of revision, deletion, addition and rearrangement’.  As a compulsive, life-long reviser (even of work that had seen the press) and in spite of the absence of a typewriter or a word-processor and given his profound dislike even of the pen, did Wordsworth see his work any differently?  All that I know of Wordsworth suggest that it is unlikely.

At the same time, a cornerstone of my thinking about the archive and archiving technology is exactly Derrida’s argument that ‘the archivization produces as much as it records the event’: that a different archiving technology and economy will lead to us thinking differently, writing differently, doing differently – that it effects the structure and nature of the event itself.  So, perhaps that might explain why we are able to retrospectively see nineteenth century writers and readers exhibiting these apparent similarities with our own contemporary lot?

February 6, 2009

My archive fever, your archive fever: why archive fever?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gselmer @ 18:22

I’ve been sorely tempted to blog on many occasions in the past and, for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’ve always held back from doing so. However, this time, I have given into whatever it is that seems to make the idea of blogging so compelling, and here I am (wherever here may be).

One thing that I intend – more than anything else perhaps, above all other things – is for this blog to be a ‘research tool’. I am – and have been for some years now – fascinated by Jacques Derrida’s statement in Archive Fever that ‘the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable contents even as it comes into existence and its relationship to the future’ – that the archive ‘produces, as much as it records, the event’ – or, as J. Hillis Miller has more recently put it, in a neat reappropriation of Marshall McLuhan, ‘the medium is the maker‘. My research has been pursuing this question in a variety ways and I’m curious to see the effect that this blog has on that research – I certainly don’t imagine that it will merely be a passive receptacle or a passing record, but a tool that actively shapes my thought, my writing and my research. Who knows, maybe it will change it irrevocably in ways I can’t predict? I’d like that.

I’m interested in – obsessed with – issues to do with: the future of the book and print media in general, the rise of electronic media technologies and, by direct extension, the future of ‘literature’ itself and of the university, the consignation, configuration and dissemination of knowledge and of the ‘archive’ in general.

My off-the-cuff answer as to why is that the rise of electronic, so-called ‘multi-media’ (I’d argue that paper is perhaps more ‘multi-media’ than we might often think) is a historico-technological change that we are in the process of living through, and I’m interested in trying to understand and narrate that process ‘from the inside’.

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