New Visions for the Book III: Liquid Books

Part 1 – Fluid environments and liquid publications

The ease with which nowadays continual updates can be made has brought into question not only the stability of documents but at the same time the need for and the efficiency of stable objects. Wikipedia is one of the often-cited examples of how the speed of improving factual errors and the efficiency of real-time updating in a collaborative setting can win out on the perceived benefits of stable material knowledge objects. Experiments with liquid texts and with fluid books conceived in collaborative environments not only stress the benefits and potential of ‘processual scholarship’, they also challenge the essentialist notions underlying the perceived stability of scholarly works.[1]

Textual scholar John Bryant extensively theorizes the concept of fluidity in his book The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen (2002). Bryant argues that stability is a myth and that all works are fluid texts. In The Fluid Text Bryant theorizes (and puts to practice) a way of editing and doing textual scholarship that is based not on a final authoritative text, but which focuses on revisions. For many readers, critics and scholars, the idea of textual scholarship is to do away with the ‘otherness’ that surrounds a work and to establish an authoritative or definitive text. This urge for stability is part of a desire for as Bryant calls it ‘authenticity, authority, exactitude, singularity, fixity in the midst of the inherent indeterminacy of language.’[2] Bryant on the other hand argues for the recognition of a multiplicity of texts or rather for what he calls the fluid text. Texts are fluid because the versions flow from one to another. For this he uses the metaphor of a work as energy that flows from version to version.

In Bryant’s vision this idea of a multiplicity of texts extends from different material manifestations (drafts, proofs, editions) of a certain work into what is called the social text (translations and adaptations). This also logically leads to a vision of “multiple authorship”, where Bryant wants to give a place to what he calls ‘the collaborators’ of or on a text, to include those readers who also materially alter texts. For Bryant, with his emphasis on the revisions of a text, and the differences between versions, it is essential to focus on the different intentionalities of both authors and collaborators. The digital environment offers the perfect possibility to show the different versions and intentionalities of a work, to create a fluid text edition. Bryant established such an edition—both in a print and an online edition—for Melville’s Typee, showing how book format and screen in combination can be used to effectively present such a fluid textual work.[3]

For Bryant this specific choice of a textual presentation focusing on revision is a moral and ethical choice. For, as he argues, understanding the fluidity of language inherently lets us better understand social change. Furthermore, the constructionist intentions to pin a text down fail to acknowledge that, as Bryant states, ‘the past, too, is a fluid text that we revise as we desire’.[4] Finally, it encourages a new kind of critical thinking, one that is based on amongst others, difference, otherness, variation and change. And this is where the fixation of a fluid text to achieve easy retrieval, unified reading experiences, and established discourses, looses out to a discourse which focuses on the energies that drive text from version to version. In Bryants words: ‘by masking the energies of revision, it reduces our ability to historicize our reading, and, in turn, disempowers the citizen reader from gaining a fuller experience of the necessary elements of change that drive a democratic culture.’[5]

Another example of a practical experiment that focuses on the benefits of fluidity for scholarly communication is the Liquid Publications (or LiquidPub) project.[6] This project, as described by Casati, Giunchiglia, and Marchese, tries to bring into practice the idea of modularity. Focusing mainly on textbooks, the aim of the project is to enable teachers to create and compose a customized and evolving book out of modular pre-composed content. This book will then be a ‘multi-author’ collection of materials on a given topic that can include different types of documents.

The Liquid Publications project tries to cope with the issues of authority and authorship in a liquid environment by making a distinction between versions and editions. Editions are solidifications of the Liquid Book, with stable and constant content, which can be referred to, preserved, and which can be made commercially available. Furthermore they create different roles for authors, from editors to collaborators, accompanied by an elaborate rights structure for authors, with the possibility to give away certain rights to their modular pieces whilst holding on to others. In this respect the liquid publications project is a very pragmatic project, catering to the needs and demands of authors (mainly for the recognition of their moral rights) while at the same time trying to benefit from and create efficiencies and modularity within a fluid environment. In this way they offer authors the choice of different ways to distribute content, from totally open to partially open to completely closed books.

Media theorist Gary Hall also experiments with liquid books, nonetheless he provides a different vision on liquidity and on the potential of liquid publications. In his article Fluid notes on liquid books’, he describes his experiment with publishing a “liquid book” together with Clare Birchall as part of the Culture Machine Liquid Books series of Open Humanities Press. The liquid book series is open on a read/write basis and functions via a logic of ‘open, decentralized and distributed editing’.[7] With this project Hall distinctively wants to question the idea of authorship by going beyond concepts of “authors,” “editors,” “creators,” or “curators”, which as he states are just a means of ‘replacing one locus of power and authority (the author) with another (the editor or compiler)’.[8] Hall’s argument is that if we no longer look at the author (or compiler/moderator/selector) for authority, the authority comes to lie with the text, which means we need to take on a more ‘rigorous’ responsibility with regards to assessing their importance and quality.[9]

Hall goes on to analyze what the consequences are when the identity and authority of the work itself becomes debatable. What authority does a work have if it can be changed and updated all the time? Hall, like Bryant, asks the question what constitutes a work in the digital age when a work no longer has any clear-cut boundaries. What does this mean for our whole system of knowledge, which is build upon these kind of knowledge objects for its functioning?

Hall sees a lot of potential to experiment with wikis and similar kinds of environments as they offer a potential to question and critically engage with these issues of authorship, work and stability, as different platforms raise different questions that we need to take into consideration when designing projects for different media. Wikis have the potential to offer increased accessibility and they induce participation also from contributors from the periphery. In this way they can be extremely pluralistic, challenging existing states of affairs:

Rather, wiki-communication can enable us to produce a multiplicitous academic and publishing network, one with a far more complex, fluid, antagonistic, distributed, and decentred structure, with a variety of singular and plural, human and non-human actants and agents.”[10]


[1] As Adrian Johns has argued in The Nature of the Book, the perceived stability of the book brought about by the print medium, more than a technological determinant, can be seen as an actively constructed socio-institutional form of consensus. Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book, 3

[2] Bryant, The Fluid Text, 2

[3] For the fluid text edition of Melvilles’s Typee, see:

[4] Bryant, The Fluid Text, 174

[5] Bryant, The Fluid Text, 113

[7] Hall, ‘Fluid notes on liquid books’, 40

[8] Ibidem

[9] Ibidem

[10] Hall, ‘Fluid notes on liquid books’, 43

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