I never burned books. Not as a ritual after graduation; not as a Dadaistic attempt to enstage some kind of surreal happening; not as a way to cleanse my soul from feelings of materialistic belongings. No. Books are holy to me. I would probably not even be able to burn a book (though I could kill an animal…).
Friday evening I attended a book burning. Alas, a metaphysical one. The Dutch philosophy journal Krisis celebrated its final paper edition and the launch of its online archive. This celebration took place at cultural hotspot and debate center De Balie in Amsterdam, where the cream of Dutch philosophy gathered to commemorate the passing of the old and the rise of the new, the transformation of Krisis from a print journal to an online, open-access journal for contemporary philosophy.
Eight speakers from Belgium and the Netherlands, both renowned (philosophy) professors as well as PhD and undergraduate students, where asked to give a short ten minute reflection on the occasion and on the evening’s theme of book burning, which, as the invitation states, ‘is a symbol of the bonfire of our journal’s digitalization, but will be elaborated in different directions: censorship, (in)tolerance, privacy, virtuality, digital utopia and iconoclasm’.
The people selected to deliver a small speech were Ellen Algera, Jos Biemans, René Boomkens, Maarten Doorman, Heleen Pott, Casper Thomas, Rosa van Toledo, Georgi Verbeeck en Frank van Vree.
And what a selection it was! Whoever thought philosophy was dull and boring would have changed his or her mind completely after Friday’s event. The talks delivered, each from a very different viewpoint, were both fresh and provocative, and at the same time personal and contemplative.
Georgi Verbeeck showed, using the example of the Library of the University of Leuven, how book burning can sometimes have a positive effect. The strive of the aforementioned library to overcome its multiple burnings and other misdealings, lead to a certain reputation and a will to emerge. In this struggle, the library came out as a winner.
Ellen Algera gave an elegy for the (burned) book using Heidegger’s concept of being “ready-to-hand” and applying it to the use of books. The digital offers all kinds of benefits to the book, from a worldwide public to the possibility of multimedia, interactivity and the wisdom of crowds. However, Algera emphasized what gets lost in an online environment; the possibility to make annotations (or the possibility to internalize the books or the thoughts therein by means of annotating); the tactility of the book; its boundedness. To Algera books are not merely information carriers but objects of thought that portray a sense of meaning in certain contexts or practices. For her the merit of book burning lies exactly here: it is a metaphor for detaching oneself from the text.
Maarten Doorman reflected, on request, on the burning of the library of Don Quijote, whose books (according to his housekeeper) were the main reason for his insanity. Doorman stated that the current practice of superabundant book production has led to an overflow of books. This profusion has, in a way, the same destructive force as a book burning where it leads to massive information overload (and accompanied insanity). Krisis going online can thus be seen as a sort of cleansing ritual.
Jos Biemans talked about the fire from within, quite literally even, for he explained the process of iron gall ink corrosion, which is for instance threatening the music scores of Bach’s Matthäus passion which are kept at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.
Next Rosa van Toledo tackled the night’s theme as a physical process: the transformation of one substance into another. Seen in this light, a book burning can be a synonym for the way we handle knowledge. Words are being used or processed; they are carried from a certain medium to the mind and are internalized into the body (incorporation). Our body burns knowledge, forms a knowledge metabolism, internal combustion. In the mass media, Van Toledo argues, our bodies or our senses are approached in a fragmented manner (we hear, see, and touch seldom in one integrated experience). For Van Toledo however the interconnection of our senses is essential for the digestion of knowledge. She finds this total conjunction of sensory experiences in the theatre, in which the body is the medium. Recalling Antonin Artaud she there re-finds this total self-awareness of the body as a unity now capable of full knowledge absorption.
Frank van Vree gave a plea for the acknowledgement of digital utopianism as a new (contemporary) form of ideology. He draws on H.G. Wells 1938’s writings on the world brain, in which Well’s foresees a future world encyclopedia which will contain a complete planetary memory of all mankind. Van Vree sees this utopian thinking strongly reflected in the digital culture, where the digital is presented as a new way of thinking, a new world, in which information can be free, the medium democratizes and the digital revolution will free knowledge and information from its industrialization and profit making middle men. It will offer an open domain, a virtual transcendence of identity. Van Vree traces this digital utopianism back to the 1990’s but stated that after
15 years it is still going strong. The apparent ideology in this kind of thinking lies in the fact that one can argue that the Internet did not really change that much and for a large part is still a continuation of the ‘traditional non virtual life’. And this traditional ideology and thinking is the one the digital utopia wants to burn down and is building its own pyres for.
Casper Thomas discussed the discrepancy between the virtual and the real when it comes to our personal data. We hold certain schizophrenic ideas: personally we build up walls between ourselves and our environment, whilst online we share every minor detail.
Heleen Pott’s speech on Fahrenheit 451 revisited, mentions the positive aspects of the digitization of books: books are bad for the environment, publishers are making books increasingly expensive, books are heavy, it takes time and effort to read a book (in comparison to reading the online summary or watching the movie). She mentions the book Fahrenheit 451 from Ray Bradbury and the fact that book burnings can be seen as a way to create new jobs and a sense of togetherness or belonging. Her plea goes out to start with putting Darwin’s Origin of species on the pyres.
René Boomkens lecture was entitled (in a rough translation) ‘The article as a smoldering clod of paper’. He sees a symbolic book burning taking place in academia were the sell out of the scholarly monograph is on the rise. Boomkens mentions the fact that never before so many books were bought and read. Even though for years critics of new media have feared the loss of reading abilities and even of the ability to think in a linear and logical way (because of the so-called fragmenting nature of the image culture), books are still going strong. The university does not endorse this development however, for it has started a symbolic book burning. Books no longer count as real output in the academic business. There is an increased pressure to produce more journal articles and books are no longer seen as relevant publications by many a university bureaucrat. An assassination of the book is taking place; the book is becoming a subversive item, a monograph writer a rebel who scorns academic output quota. Boomkens states that university magistrates have began to fear the book because of its costly time to produce, (let alone its time to be read) and its blasphemic ability to develop more than one thought during an argumentation. But this is what philosophers do; they write slow, complex, and time-consuming books. And in this way books offer a radically other epistemological approach than for instance the new media. The special merit of the book lies exactly in its complexity and layeredness. And as Boomkens concludes, this subversive medium that is the book should be heralded for this.
A final note on Krisis’ business model as an Open Access journal. It seems they have partly embraced the Maecenas model. Next to a subsidy from the Prins Bernard Cultuurfonds and some revenue from (hopefully) some future subsidizers and advertisements, they are hoping to gain some financial support from yes…, you! You can help them out by becoming a friend of Krisis (can’t find a link to that at the moment) and get updates and newsletters and the likes and maybe contribute with a little money to support their ‘fairly-paid editorial assistant and a professional copy editor’.
Donations are welcome here.