In Part One of this article I wrote about the instability of the art-object. How its meaning moves, and inevitably cracks. In this follow-up I ponder text, the book, page and computer screen. Are they as stable as they appear? And how can we set them in motion?
“There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about… writing about that reality is that text is very linear and it’s very unified, and… I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorienting – I mean, you can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but nobody’s gonna read it.”
David Foster Wallace, PBS Interview, 1997
17th Century print technology was rubbish. Type could be badly set, ink could be over-applied, misapplied or just plain missed. Paper quality varied enormously according to local resources, the luck of the seasons or even the miserly want of the print maker out to fill his pockets. There are probably thousands of lost masterpieces that failed to make it through history simply because of the wandering daydreams of the printer's apprentice. But from error, from edit and mis-identification have come some of the clearest truths of the early print age. Truths bound not in the perfect grain or resolute words of the page, but in the abundance of poor materials, spelling mistakes and smudge. In research libraries across the globe experts live for the discovery of copy errors, comparing each rare edition side-by-side with its sisters and cousins in the vain hope that some random mutation has made it intact across the centuries.
Since the invention of writing, and its evolutionary successor the printing-press, text has commanded an authority that far exceeds any other medium. By reducing the flowing staccato rhythms of speech to typographically identical indelible marks we managed, over the course of little more than 2000 years, to standardise the reading consciousness. But in our rush to commodify the textual experience we lost touch with the very material that allowed illiteracy to become the exception, rather than the rule. We forgot that it is the very fallibility of text and book that make them such powerful thinking technologies.
Today text appears so stable that we almost don't notice it. We bathe in it, from moment to moment, on the spines of our books, the packaging of our breakfast cereals, the labels sewn fast into our clothes. We live it without a thought. In fact, we live it because it is thought, composing such a steady proportion of our lived experience that we fail to notice its constricting power over our imaginations. Of course we all speak, but even speech in the literate society has become stultified by the restrictions of the page, the paragraph and the sentence. Rarely does the speech of our leaders, of the world's most powerful politicians, exhibit anything more organic than a choice of when to pause for effect; when to express a comma, a colon or hyphen – each a technology of writing, rather than of free-thinking. Text is all-powerful, omnipotent and invisible. It infects how we think, speak and perceive the flow of time around us. Yet even as a way to break free from the constraints of text rises into view we baulk in pedantry and hark on about tradition. The unyielding space of the printed page has become the primary metaphor for those who fear where reading is heading: the Internet. But to truly understand the Internet's liberating power one must first look towards a great thinker who never read or wrote a word in his life.
Socrates decreed that writing would be the death of thought, becoming a crux to memory. He warned that text was 'inflexible', unable to answer back and that, as a consequence, writing would mark the end of a truly virtuous society in which public debate enhanced the thinking subject. His warnings obviously went unheeded, for were it not for the scribblings of his greatest pupil, Plato, his ideas would never have survived the long journey to your computer screen. Was Socrates short-sighted? Perhaps. But in our current time, of digital divides and books encoded in binary, Socrates' words seem remarkably prescient. Current debate surrounding the omnipotence of the Internet bears a striking resemblance to Socrates' concerns about writing. Just as Socrates proclaimed the authority of the spoken word, so today we hold stead-fast onto the shrivelled husk of a textuality that allows each of us to float aimlessly through literate culture.
In the decades proceeding Henry Clay Folger's death in 1930 his library became the prime resource for scholars of (arguably) the world's most famous playwright. Folger collected manuscripts. In particular he liked rare editions of Shakespeare's works, and he liked them so much he wanted to have them all. The First Folio is the earliest known print-run of Shakespeare's works, collated and published only seven years after his death. Folger's collection of nearly 40 First Folios became the laughing stock of the bibliophilic elite. Surely one copy of the Folio was enough for any research library, let alone a single collector such as Folger?
Folger's library enabled experts to consider First Folios side-by-side for the first time, garnering crucial information from the mistakes and mis-prints that were allowed to creep into the famous Folios by their 17th Century printers. There were three different issues of the Folio, printed and bound by a handful of printers and their apprentices. From Folio to Folio edits are common, a missing Troilus and Cressida in one Folio leaves room for Timon, whereas in other, less 'complete' versions neither play make their way into print. Hidden within some ill-fated Folios can be found a crossed out ending to Romeo and Juliet on the reverse side of a print of Troilus that is missing its prologue. No Folio is the same as any other, meaning that the closest thing left to a 'perfect' collection of Shakespeare's works is the entire run of 400 Folios that still survive to this day, each noted for their individuality; each ready to expose their hidden mistakes to the careful eye of the scholar.
At the level of print, text has never been stable. And a good thing too, for if it were priceless knowledge about Shakespeare's plays would have been lost. The problem with the book and page today is that they have become frozen stiff, losing their dynamism as they spin off the production line. The value of Folger's Folios is not to be found in the meter of the language, or the subjects there imparted, but in the scratches, scuffs and tears scattered throughout like forgotten memories. Is it possible to inject some of this substance back into the mass-produced paperback? To allow authorship, once again, to become a collaboration between writer, page and the medium of transmission?
The internet is the obvious answer, but it is of course not that simple. For as long as we cling to the rigid structures of the printed page the internet will only act as a poor copy of the medium we so cherish. Academics, educators and politicians are quick to speak of the liberating potential of digital technology, but few of them make concessions for the web without first issuing a decree about the standards of reading to which we have become accustomed. In the last century perhaps the most important works of literature to have emerged were those that challenged the rigid flow of the printed narrative, asking us to question the inner realities we write and talk about. I am talking of works like Joyce's Ulysses, or Burroughs Naked Lunch, works that broke the book, even as they infected its forms with their liberating approaches to language and thought.
Like the new breed of art-objects I mentioned in Part One of this article, text is now moving towards a revolution in its status as 'thing'. In order to think beyond text, one must first begin to understand its distinctive character as both subject and object. A good place to start is with the art-object, the best examples of which encapsulate ideas that far transcend the lowly substance of the materials they are composed of. To ponder Duchamp's Mechanical Bride is to move beyond the foil and dust sandwiched between glass panes. Simply put, art-objects are objects that we mistake for subjects – and long may it be this way. This capacity to treat the material as a vehicle for a subject has long been missing from text and the book. When we reach out with our minds, beyond the divides of eye, page and text, we often forget the object-ness of the book, preferring instead to wallow in subjects that we consider the linguistic meaning of the text alone imparts to us.
Scattered throughout this article you will find examples of books which attempt to transcend their 'book-ness' by breaching the gaps between art and text. Some of these works would not have been produced in a pre-internet society. It is not that the internet is a form that text should aspire to, but perhaps that in living and thinking through a net-based society writers/artists have become able to consider the book-object in new and innovative ways. As soon as we could write down our speech, to inscribe it in stone or bind it onto the page, were became capable of speaking and thinking from the outside, like Gods looking down on their creation. Social networks, digital archives, computer screens, user generated interfaces, blogs, RSS feeds and tweets have, in similar fashion, allowed us to spin text out of order, to wrap thought around itself and let it bloom in fractal musings. New technologies have shown us that society is not rigid, that audio and video can be dismantled, distributed and dispersed on the winds of the world wide web. Books are about to start speaking back to us in ways that would have made Socrates and Shakespeare giddy to perceive.
We should encourage books to crack wide open, and let the internet wash between their pages. We should rejoice as the forms of text and print come crashing down around us. Let's rebuild our textual culture from the thinking subject up.