Materialities of Text

9781907103766New Formations recently published a very exciting new issue, edited by Sas Mays and Nicholas Thoburn on ‘Materialities of Text: Between the Codex and the Net’. Gary Hall and I contributed an article on the political nature of the book, in which we make a comparison between the political nature of artists’ books and open access book publishing, by focusing on the book’s potential—both materially and conceptually—to critique and disturb the commodification of knowledge, to offer radical institutional alternatives, and to open up a space through which politics itself can be continuously rethought. You can find our contribution here or here.

I just wanted to draw your attention to some of the other excellent articles in this issue, by focusing on some of my personal favourites. This issue was preceded by an online colloquium as part of the publication project ‘Archiving Cultures’, serving as a kind of experiment in different forms of communication, and bringing together drafts of the final papers for both internal and external (public) discussion.

The issue as a whole focuses on the material structure of the book. This covers both the books physical materiality, but also the political economy and institutional forms surrounding the book’s production, consumption and distribution. As this issue further focuses on the ‘late age of print’ or our current ‘post-print’ situation, it specifically asks questions on the materialisation and dematerialisation of textual media. Here there is a preference to theorise what can be seen as hybrid textual materialities or the material relationships between media forms, without loosing sight of media-specific practices or what can be called the media (relationship)’s formal properties. Here the printed book is not seen as finished or death, but as a continually evolving hybrid form, as the living-on of the printed book. Materialities of Text also draws attention to how meaning constructs concepts of materiality (and vice versa), to the aesthetics of text and the book and to the relationship between capitalism and publishing (and the role played by the codex as a capitalist commodity herein).

codex-open-4-600x400In the introduction New Formations editor Jeremy Gilbert explains his choice for not making this issue an entirely open issue, and I would like to quote extensively from his introduction:

“New Formations is an almost unique position for a British scholarly journal, in that it is neither wholly self-published, like the much admired Radical Philosophy, nor the property of one of the large international publishing conglomerates. Our publisher, Lawrence & Wishart is one of the last remaining, and possibly now the oldest, independent progressive publisher in the UK, responsible for the dissemination of large parts of the work of writers such as Marx and Gramsci, among others; and university library subscriptions to the journal remain an important income-stream for them. As such, our obvious desire continually to expand the availability of the journal must always be balanced with the need to try to protect this important source of revenue for a great radical institution.

As such, the temptation to switch over to an open-access, free-content model is not one that we could succumb to without doing significant damage, although the political and conceptual commitments of many of the editorial board would tend to make full open-access an appealing option for us. By the same token, the intensive, largely unpaid labour of producing the journal requires the kind of support that only an experienced publisher can offer, and it would not be easy to replace this support with still more free labour if all income disappeared.”

Gilbert ends by stating that New Formations will never succumb to a fully commercial agenda, but that they are willing to act strategically where it concerns attaining wider accessibility to the journal. To achieve this they use both commercial and non-commercial aggregators, whilst simultaneously keeping their digital-only subscription rates low and making a large amount of their fully searchable back-catalogue openly available.

Hanna Kuusela looks in her article ‘On the Material Construction of a Literary Work: the Case of Jari Tervo’s Layla’ at contemporary reading formations. She argues, making use of actor-network theory (ANT), that these should be perceived as ‘hybrid networks of both human and non-human actors, technologies and texts’. She explores in which way these networks determined the meaning of the Finnish bestselling novel Layla, and how they were able to construct a certain dominant reading. She does so by updating Tony Bennet’s concept of reading formations, asking what roles materiality and technology play in the reading formations of contemporary popular literature. Here Kuusela considers Layla not as a ‘fixed entity but as an emergent collective process, an outcome of a network of relations’. (67) Thus the focus should be on the interdependences between the objects/books (as process or event) and the wider operations of the networks.

Kuusela explores amongst others the similarities between ANT and Bennet’s concept of reading formation, seeing similarities in ANT’s sensitivity towards the material aspects of human action and human/non-human interactions. As she states, ANT focuses amongst others on how ‘objects and materialities are constructed by particular power relations but [also on how] they also actively construct such relations’. (73) Material supports can thus be seen as strengthening the discourse (and vice versa). Although the reading process sometimes seems open-ended, Kuusela argues that power relations still support certain reading formations. As she states, ‘the materially embodied practices around the text narrowed down the interpretive scope, making some meanings apparently less successful than others in terms of their public legitimacy.’ (70) What is important here is that through her criticism Kuusela is trying to intervene in these ‘battles between interpretations’, in the processes of dominant meaning formation. She does so mainly by exploring the role played by blogs as actors in the networks constituted by both humans and non-humans, by looking at how blogs (in their media specificity) via a system of links and references that build upon and support each other, create dominant reading formations and that through this material support, strengthen specific readings.

Johanna Drucker, in her article on ‘Diagrammatic Writing’, argues that design, or the acts of making that form the basis of textual meaning production (i.e. layout, composition, formal structures, graphical expressions etc.) are still mostly perceived as heuristic, rather than hermeneutic devices. Proposing a different kind of knowledge, a ‘craft-based knowledge of production’, she argues that these acts are more akin to poetic expression and rhetorical argument rather than ‘logic’. However, these forms of knowledge through material engagement are still seen as lower orders of thought. (85-86) Drucker asks how these kinds of structural relations that underlie a text participate in its meaning-production. She focuses predominantly on the performativity of diagrams, as graphical expressions that structure semantic relations, which are meaningful. As Drucker argues, texts are also structured via diagrammatic structures, via headlines, footnotes, paragraphs, etc. Here meaning is brought into being through making, or, in other words, the format enacts value production (where it does not represent it but allows it to be carried out): a diagram ‘does something’ as a graphic expression; it is thus, as Drucker argues, performative rather than representational (90).

In this article she wants to explore how the potential of digital display and design ‘can be put at the service of imaginative and scholarly tasks’. (89) What is the potential of electronic space, and its ‘flexible morphology’ in this respect, she asks? Especially when, as Drucker states, ‘we are still in the incunabula stage of digital design’. (100) In what sense can forms of digital design and diagrammatic writing enable a more ‘associational structuring of argument’? Can it have a poetic and rhetorical basis? And what might be a material poetics of diagrammatic writing? Can we get away from print and its linear logic and return in some way to the ‘wandering manuscript commentary of medieval scribes’? Drucker ends by saying many things might need to change, including knowledge itself:

“Whether or not such potential is ever realised depends on many other factors, not least of which is the resistance of conventions that stabilise meaning to the forces of change, and the entrenchedness of communities of practice, their attachment to familiar forms of knowledge production, and, of course, of knowledge itself.” (101)

Sas Mays in his article entitled ‘Literary Digital Humanities and the Politics of the Infinite’ engages directly with Johanna Drucker, where he argues that the literary discourse (of which Drucker is a part) that for a large part shapes the Digital Humanities, positions an aesthetic position against a mathesis position, which has led to a ‘recursive poeticisation of the digital sphere’. (125) Mays distinguishes this literary discourse form a populist position towards the Digital Humanities. However, both positions, Mays argues, abide to a conception of archives, texts and databased as being infinite.  In this article then, Mays tries to find a middle ground position between finitude and infinity, through a methodology of deconstruction.

By paying close attention to the figure of the archive, Mays is interested in how mnemotechnics, technologies of cultural memory and dissemination, from the library to the database are conceptualised within the Digital Humanities discourse and in how they conceptualise and valorise quantitative accumulations of knowledge. He does so amongst others by exploring the finitude and infinitude of the book and the database and how they are placed within the contemporary system of capital through a very interesting discussion of the work of amongst others Pierre Levy, N. Katherine Hayles, Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker.

The issue also consists of an elaborate interview on ‘Materialities of Independent Publishing: A Conversation with AAAAARG, Chto Delat?, I Cite, Mute, and Neural’ which is openly available here.

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