Framing the debate (II) Historical Discourses: The Struggle for Both the Past & Future of the Book

Underneath the second part of the 2nd chapter of my thesis. For the first part, see here.


Representationalist discourse

If we look at this debate between Johns and Eisenstein in more depth, we can see that, although I have outlined and emphasised the main differences between the two thinkers, both are anxious not to be accused of any form of technicist or humanist determinism or oppositional thinking. Eisenstein, for instance, is very careful to argue that print was only an agent of change, not the agent of change, and that the transition to print was not a revolutionary one, but a rapid, widespread development, both continuous and broken. Nonetheless, Eisenstein’s emphasis is clearly on the ‘unacknowledged revolution’, on change rather than on continuity, and on how print was incremental in bringing about this change. And as stated before, Johns emphasises that his view is not opposed to that of Eisenstein, but that he just asks different questions.[1]The Nature of the Book is not simply the negative component of a dialectic, he states: he is not opposed to print agency but wants to acknowledge print in a different way, where ‘print is conditioning history as well as conditioning it’. Nonetheless, Johns does clearly emphasise the constructivist nature of the book, and that it doesn’t have inherent qualities but only transitive ones. To this end he argues that the ‘cultural and the social should thus be at the centre of our attention.’

If we take the debate between Johns and Eisenstein and their various position takings as representative of the larger book historical discourse, we can make the claim that this discourse for the most part adheres to forms of representationalism in its depiction of the medium of the book. This becomes clear from, among other things, the technicist (McLuhan, Eisenstein etc.) and humanist (Johns, Darnton etc.) assumptions that continue to underlie the debate. Representationalism, as Barad defines it, is ‘the belief in the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent; in particular, that which is represented is held to be independent of all practices of representing’ (Barad 2007: 28). In representationalism separations (between words and things, discourse and matter) are thus foundational. On the level of history writing or historiography, both Johns and Eisenstein, for example, do not take into account how their own representations might be (materially) influencing the things they represent (i.e. how their descriptions of the past of the book both shape that past as well as the current and future material becoming of the book). More importantly, they fail to acknowledge their own entangled becoming with the book through their discursive practices and the exclusions they create by cutting these apart in a certain way. In this respect Eisenstein’s technicist-inclined account is based on the presumption that books are real objects in the world—separate from ourselves, society, and culture—that can have certain effects on the world. As Kember and Zylinska make clear, however, from a performative viewpoint, ‘media cannot have effects on society if they are considered to be always already social’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 31). Similarly, Jay David Bolter argues that ‘writing is always a part of culture’. For him, ‘technologies do not determine the course of culture or society, because they are not separate agents that can act on culture from the outside’ (Bolter, Jay David 2001: 19). Johns, on the other hand, argues from a more constructivist-inclined view that the book has been constructed or represented by the ‘agents of the book trade’, showing a view in which culture is inscribed on the book, making it into a more or less passive entity, limiting the possibilities for the material agency of the book. Where Eisenstein and Johns do give credit to humanist and machinic agency respectively (as a form of limited constructivism or weak determinism), it is important to emphasise that they see both as complementary, as part of a ‘set’ of influences (in which one set is always emphasised as being more influential). As a result they maintain the ontological (and ethical) difference between discursive and media agency instead of seeing them as co-constitutive and entangled relational and agentic phenomena, as I want to do.

old printing press

In a non-representationalist performative view there is no simple causality between media on the one hand and culture/society on the other, as these are already entangled from the start. As Dolphijn and Van der Tuin explicate in their book, New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, in a dichotomy the opposition is already implied in its negation, which implies that both sides of a dialectic are in a relation, where they are part of the same ‘intimate’ framework of thought (Dolphijn and Van der Tuin, 2012: 97–98). If we want to reframe the debate we should thus focus on their relationship and co-constitution. Along with bringing forward this performative view of book history, what I want to do here is examine how the representations that are put forward by both Johns and Eisenstein and the larger book historical debate, have come to emerge (from what context etc.), and what kind of cuts or dividing discursive practices they have come to promote or exclude through their materialising representations. Cuts or representations, following Barad, have to be made, but it is the acknowledgement of our own responsibility and contextual entanglements herein that can make a start in cutting differently, and perhaps more ethically. As Haraway has made clear, ‘worlds are built’ from our articulations and from the distinctions we make as part of our entanglements (Haraway 2004: 127). Here it is our responsibility to enable transformative instead of merely iterative effects to come out of our performative processes. Here we have to insist on a ‘better account of the world’ (Haraway 1988: 579).

It must be granted that Johns does acknowledge that a re-appraisal of a social history of print culture in the making is consequential and can contribute to our historical understanding of the present conditions of knowledge. But Johns does not seem to acknowledge his own involvement in print culture in the making in this respect—the specific cuts that he makes, for instance, by abiding to the publication practices of scholarly publishing by presenting his ideas in a fixed, objectified, printed scholarly monograph, although he is from a ‘historical’ viewpoint very attuned towards the construction of these specific forms of fixity. It was McLuhan who was more attentive to this, as he actively experimented with the form of his own representations, taking into account the entangled nature of his words and the medium in which they were represented.[2]

Both Eisenstein and Johns, as part of their representationalist accounts, are thus not able to evade oppositional thinking, and can in fact even been seen to enforce it. Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska provide further detail on this continued use of binary oppositions in media studies. They argue that ‘even where these false divisions have been identified as such—and of course many writers are aware of their limited currency—it has been difficult to avoid them.’ This is partly due to the ‘residual effects of disciplinarity’ and its embracing of sets of essential key concepts, but also to the predominance in media studies of social sciences perspectives, bringing along with them what can be classified as an inherently positivist and humanist outlook (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 2). To explore what might be behind the continued emphasis in the book historical debate on (different forms of) oppositional binary thinking, it is important to take a closer look at its disciplinary history, and the specific developments literary studies and historiography went through during the rise of book history as a specific disciplinary niche.


New Historicism and feminist critique

As I mentioned earlier, book history has its roots in bibliographic and literary studies and in the study of history. What we find in these disciplines is an eagerness in the 1970s and 1980s to get beyond earlier historiographic and literary traditions. What is important is that these traditions (history and literary studies) increasingly started to merge during this period, a period that also saw the rise of book studies as initially an amalgam of the two. What we see in the development of book studies, for instance, is clear traces of new historicist thought, which emerged in the 1980s as a literary theory mostly reacting to the formalism of structuralism and certain strands of post-structuralism (mainly the forms of deconstructionism developed within the Yale school of literary criticism) as well as older forms of historicism (Mark Nixon 2004: 6, Pieters 2000: 21, Colebrook 1997: 139, Newton 2013: 153). New historicists can be seen to argue that the latter theories focus mainly on the textual object for meaning extraction, whereas they state that we need to understand a text or work through its historical context too. In the famous words of Louis Montrose, new historicism’s concern is with ‘the historicity of texts and the textuality of history.’ (Montrose 1989: 23). Especially in literary criticism, new historicism is therefore seen as a theory that focuses on the relationship between a text and its context (Lai 2006: 9). New historicism critiques the text/context divide that it claims has been upheld until then, as well as the focus on dominant readings of classical works. By contrast they argue for a renewed emphasis on neglected readings and dissonant voices and for the study of a variety of historical documents, not just the canon.

In the 1970s and 1980s new movements also emerged in historiography or the philosophy of history. These movements were mostly placed under the heading of ‘new cultural history’ (Hunt 1989) or ‘new historiography’ (Ankersmit 1994). Under these descriptors we can classify new forms of cultural studies, such as the histoire des mentalités, and the nouvelle histoire of the third generation of Annales scholars in France (i.e. Jacques Le Goff, Pierre Nora). These ‘new cultural histories’ distinguished themselves from the earlier analytical philosophy of history by means of their focus on narrative, subjectivity and a plurality of interpretations rather than on historical objectivity and facts. This meant doing away with positivist perspectives of objectivity and the possibility of truthfully representing the past, in favour of poststructuralist theories of representation (Foucault, De Certeau), and the focus of historians on their own historicity (i.e. the way historians cannot exclude themselves from their investigation: instead, the present subject is seen as directly influencing the representation of the past) (Pieters 2000: 21). Related to this, Attridge et. al have argued that post-structuralism can be seen as an attempt to reintroduce history into structuralism, but this naturally also posed questions to the concept of history as such. Under the influence of poststructuralism, and most importantly Derridean deconstruction, history became differance, where the assumptions of ‘a history’, a single objectified, final and absolute reading of history, came under attack (Attridge et al. 1989: 2).

It is interesting to note that there are a lot of similarities and overlaps between the literary forms of new historicism and these new cultural histories, where the former can be seen as wanting to put history back into literary studies and the latter as wanting to put literary studies into history.[3] It has even been argued that new historicism can ‘be taken to be the literary-critical variant of what Frank Ankersmit has termed the ‘new historiography’ (Pieters 2000: 21).


We can clearly see the influence of new historicism and new cultural histories on the rise of book history and the book historical debate, where book history can be seen as an example of a new cultural history, especially in how it developed from within the Annales tradition. Furthermore, book history has been at the fore when it comes to arguing that it wants to collapse the text/context distinction, as well as the literary studies/history distinction. However, as I will argue below, although new historicism and new cultural histories embraced poststructuralist perspectives both with respect to doing literary studies and history and related to their object(s) of study, they haven’t been able to embrace ‘difference’ (in so far as it is possible to embrace difference), nor to get beyond thinking in binary oppositions. As I will show in what follows, this is especially the case with new historicism, having to do with its neutral position taking in the text/context (as well as object/human agency) debate as well as in its inability, especially within book historical studies, to fully take into account its own historical position.

Literary theorist Chung-Hsiung Lai argues that new historicism does not get beyond the binary text and context, where she states that it is faced with an ‘insoluble predicament’: how to deal with the perceived poststructuralist focus on textuality and the historicist focus on contextuality. This double claim (on both textuality and contextuality) and its claim of neutrality between the two, becomes impossible, resulting in a situation where, as Lai clams, it ultimately remains focused more on textuality and in its intended neutrality, remains more closely allied with formalism (Lai 2006: 17–18, Liu 1989: 754–755). As Judith Newton puts it from a feminist critique on new historicism, it thus ‘produces readings of literature and history that are as marked by difference as by sameness’ (Newton 1988: 87). This focus on neutrality leads to, as Lai calls it, new historicism taking in an apolitical posture. This partly has to do with, as both Lai and other feminist critics of new historicism, such as Newton, claim, new historicism’s focus on a theory of power based on early Foucault. Here power is seen as over-dominant, and there is no way to perform it differently (i.e. constructionist thinking). In this respect new historicism constructed an universalisation of power and it is lacking any politics of resistance and/or subversion. Feminists such as Newton and Lai have tried to write feminist scholarship and theory into the history of new historicism. Lai suggests that in order to get beyond its textual focus, new historicism should focus more on plural socio-historical dimensions, and on dynamic forms of power that enable forms of subversive resistance. This includes a different reading of Foucault. As Newton puts it, ‘while feminists have drawn upon Foucault, they have also been insistent, for the most part, upon identifying those who have power and asserting the agency of those who have less’ (Newton 1988: 102). Lai uses an exploration of feminist genealogy to reconcile new historicism and feminism and to lift new historicism out of its textual formalism and early Foucauldian power theory. Both Lai and Newton point out that new historicism needs to give up its apolitical condition and take material conditions seriously, to provide channels for the voices of the oppressed in order to really go beyond history as usual. The focus should be on plurality, diversity, and difference, so that new historicism can become otherness-driven (Lai 2006: 22, Newton 2013: 166).


Following a vision similar to feminist critics of new historicism such as Lai and Newton, I will propose a strategy that might lift the book historical debate beyond a simple (and false) binary thinking, by complementing it with the discursive-materialist and performative practices of material feminist Karen Barad. And, like Lai, I will be focusing on the later work of Foucault and its emphasis on resistance and interventionism. As I will argue, on the level of history writing, book historical studies (as well as new historicist ones) need to take their own historicity, as a form of performativity, into account more. For example, although Johns narrates the way 17th century publishers struggled over the construction of the origin of the book—and through that struggle partly came to define the future of the book—there is not enough acknowledgment, both within The Nature of The Book, and in Johns’ debate with Eisenstein, of how his own history writing and his position taking within the debate can be seen to influence and shape both the past and future of the book. For instance, as Jay David Bolter has pointed out, we should see the utopian and dystopian discourses on the past and future of the book as part of and shaping the materiality of our writing technologies:

The technology of modern writing includes not only the techniques of printing, but also the practices of modern science and bureaucracy and the economic and social consequences of print literacy. If personal computers and palmtops, browsers and word processors, are part of our contemporary technology of writing, so are the uses to which we put this hardware and software. So too is the rhetoric of revolution or disaster that enthusiasts and critics weave around the digital hardware and software (Bolter, Jay David 2001: 19).

Book historians, I will argue, should be more aware of their own discursive agency, were they do not focus enough on how they produce the object of their study and with that, structure its future. Furthermore, they should pay closer attention to how this object, the book, both in its materiality and as a metaphor, is and has been influencing their discursive practices. The book historical debate misses for a large part this focus on its own publishing and scholarly communication practices as structuring entities, as well as a more feminist-oriented perspective that tries to go beyond simple binary thinking. To what degree are book historians taking responsibility for their own choices and focal points in this respect? As with new historicism, although the book historical discourse is in many ways critical of and aware of the dichotomies sketched above, it can be argued to still uphold them. Furthermore, it runs the risk of, as Lai describes, taking in an apolitical position, when its main focus is on describing and analysing instead of critiquing, changing or intervening in society. Book historians should therefore be more aware of the parts they play in the struggle for the future of the book. So what can be the ‘beyond’ of book studies in this respect? How can we get beyond this oppositional thinking that as I argue, still structures the debate?


The discursive materiality of the book

One of the more interesting media theories that has come to the fore recently, media archaeology, offers some valuable insights for (any attempt to move beyond) book history. Media archaeological approaches challenge ‘the rejection of history by modern media culture and theory alike by pointing out hitherto unnoticed continuities and ruptures’ (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011: 3). Media archaeologists construct, in the spirit of among others Foucault and Kittler, alternative histories to the present medial condition: counter histories of the suppressed and neglected, to challenge dominant teleological narratives (Parikka 2012: 12–14). Media archaeology should not be seen as being in contrast with the genealogical method however, where some thinkers emphasise the contrast between archaeology and genealogy as being a clear distinction in Foucault’s thought for example. Media theorist Wolfgang Ernst puts it as follows: ‘with regard to media theory, let us put it this way: media archaeology is not a separate method of analysis from genealogy, but complementary with it.’ Ernst does see a difference between media archaeology and a genealogy of media, but he points out that they are not separate methods of analysis: ‘genealogy offers us a processual perspective on the web of discourse, in contrast to an archaeological approach which provides us with a snapshot, a slice through the discursive nexus (…)’ (Ernst 2003). Media archaeology can therefore be seen as an incorporation of both archaeological and genealogical methods. As Jussi Parikka has emphasised, archaeology also refers to the actual excavation of media objects, of ‘going under the hood’ or exploring the inside of media to explore the interior of media machines and circuits by forms of hardware hacking and circuit bending for instance (Parikka 2012: 83). New historicism and new forms of cultural history also influenced media archaeology, where it further draws connections with the Annales school. This was the context in which media archaology formed its own niche in 90s media studies, incorporating a historical perspective to new and digital media studies (Hertz and Parikka 2012).

What is interesting with respect to the approaches adopted by media archaeologists, is that media archaeology is seen as a different way to theorise, to ‘think media archaeologically’. It investigates new media cultures by analysing and drawing insights from forgotten or neglected past media, and their specific practices and interventions (Parikka 2012: 2). In this respect media archaeology is much more a practice, a doing, an intervention than ‘regular’ media histories, and as part of that, the book historical debate. It is disruptive rather than representationalist (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011: 325). Therefore media archaeological approaches could potentially be a valuable companion to book historical studies, where they emphasise the multi-layered entanglement of the present and the past and emphasise ‘dynamic, complex history cultures of media’ (Parikka 2012: 12). Although we can identify a lot of similarities and overlap between media archaeological and book historical approaches,[4] within the current heightened attention surrounding media archaeology, a focus on books and book history is curiously lacking.[5]


However, as with new historicism, the question can be asked, to what extent, in its focus on histories of suppressed and neglected media, is media archaeology repeating and again emphasising these exclusions? In what way does it take responsibility for its own cuts, in its own creation of an ‘entanglement of alternative and neglected media histories’? In what ways does it really ‘perform history differently’ through its (scholarly) practices, and in what sense is it really a ‘doing’? It is here that a reading of the work of Karen Barad can be valuable, to emphasise and read this focus on the ethical and on responsibility for our choices, or cuts as she calls them, into media archaeological, new historicist and book historical studies. How can we ‘write’ a book history that will perform a different vision of the book, that is open and responsible to change, difference and exclusions and that accounts for our own ethical entanglements in the becoming of the book?

In this sense I would like to argue for a vision that tries to go beyond binary thinking with respect to both the book as an object and the discourse surrounding the history and future of the book. In a social constructionist or constructivist vision of technology and media, technology is seen as embedded, and understood predominantly by looking at the social context from which it emerges. Power structures—who controls, defines, owns etc.—are essential here. Technological determinism tends to stress that technology is an autonomous force, which is outside forms of social control, and context and is seen as the prime agent in social change. But technology is always shaped and constructed, and is political and gendered. The problem with constructionist theories on the other hand is that they tend to ignore material bodies as agential entities. Material bodies are not passive entities, just as technology is inseparable from politics: they are sites of bodily and material production.


Karen Barad, in her theory of ‘agential realism’, focuses on the complex relationships that exist between the social and the non-social, moving beyond the distinction between reality and representation and replacing representationalism by a theory of posthumanist performativity. Barad’s work triggers a variety of questions: how are non-human relationships related to the material, the bodily, the affective, the emotional and the biological? How do discursive practices, representations, ideas, and discourses, get to be materially embodied? How are they socio-politically and techno-scientifically structured and in what way do they shape power relations including the materiality of bodies and material objects? Bringing this back to a book-historical context I am interested in the following: how is the book situated through and within material and discursive practices? As Barad states, discursive practices are fully implicated in the constitution and construction of matter. In her vision materiality is discursive, just as discursive practices are always already material (i.e., they are ongoing material (re)configurings of the world). As she argues:

Discursive practices and material phenomena do not stand in a relationship of externality to one another; rather the material and the discursive are mutually implicated in the dynamics of intra-activity. But nor are they reducible to one another. The relationship between the material and the discursive is one of mutual entailment. Neither is articulated/articulable in the absence of the other; matter and meaning are mutually articulated. Neither discursive practices nor material phenomena are ontologically or epistemologically prior. Neither can be explained in terms of the other. Neither has privileged status in determining the other (Barad 2008: 822).

The last sentences in this quote are very important in the context of this study: there is no prime mover or most essential element, neither social, discursive nor material practices, nor the technology or object itself is solely of itself responsible for change, and they are either neither cause nor effect. Barad speaks of matter as matter-in-the-process-of-becoming. The same can be said of media or media formats such as books, which can be seen as dynamic, performative entities. By focusing on the nature of the relationship between discursive practices and material phenomena, by accounting for “nonhuman” as well as “human” forms of agency, Barad extends and reformulates[6] the discursive elements of, for instance, Foucault’s theory with non- or post-human object materiality.[7] Following Barad, agency becomes more than something reconfigured by human agents and looks at how media practices affect the human body, society and power relations. Both the object and the human get constructed or emerge out of material-discursive intra-actions (which Barad calls phenomena), a vision that actively challenges the dichotomy presently uphold to a greater or lesser extent in most book historical studies.

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Following this approach or theory, scholarly communication can be seen as a set of material, performative and discursive practices. The scholarly monograph can then be analysed as one of these practices and at the same time as a process, a relationship between these practices and how they are constituted or embodied. Scholarly and scientific practices—such as publishing—cannot be reduced to material practices but necessarily also include discursive dimensions. Practices do not only include the doings of actors but get constituted by or encompass the whole material configuration of the world (including objects and relationships). As Barad claims, following Butler, practices are temporal and performative, they constitute our life-world as they are constituted by it. Agency is constituted in relationships and is similarly performative, and as a relationship and not something that someone has, it is a doing (Barad 2007: 214).

As N. Katherine Hayles argues in ‘Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep’, materiality is an emergent property, it cannot be specified in advance, it is not a pregiven entity (and thus has no inherent or salient properties).[8] Materiality is and remains open to debate and interpretation. As she points out in relationship to texts as embodied entities:

In this view of materiality, it is not merely an inert collection of physical properties but a dynamic quality that emerges from the interplay between the text as a physical artifact, its conceptual content, and the interpretive activities of readers and writers. Materiality thus cannot be specified in advance; rather, it occupies a borderland—or better, performs as connective tissue—joining the physical and mental, the artifact and the user (Hayles, N. K. 2004: 72).

A variety of material agencies entwine our media constructions. The natural and the cultural, the technological and the discursive are entangled. This perspective offers us a route to rewrite these modernist oppositions. It is not so much that we can speak of assemblages of human and non-human, but these assemblages are the condition of possibility of humans and non-humans in their materiality. What is important is that specific practices of mattering, in Barad’s words, have specific ethical consequences. Things are entangled but the separations that people create signify that they create inclusions and exclusions through their specific focus. This agential cut, as Barad calls it, enacts determinate boundaries, properties, and meanings. Where in reality ‘differences’ are entangled, agential cuts cleave things together and apart, creating subjects and objects. We need to take responsibility and we are accountable for the entanglements of self and other that we weave, as well as for the cuts and separations, and the exclusions that we create and enact. As Barad phrases it, we are responsible for ‘the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part’ (Barad 2007: 393).


By envisioning the book either as a form of agency, cut loose from its context, relations, and historicity, or as a passive materiality on which forms of political and social agency enact, we make specific ethical choices or cuts which we can be held accountable for. My interest lies in exploring why these cuts are made within the book historical discourse, what are the reasoning, the politics and struggles, the value systems that lie behind these choices? At the same time I want to rethink the book, and with that scholarly communication, as a material-discursive practice, as a process that gets cut into, and to think through what this alternative vision on the book could mean for scholarship and academia. What does it mean, for instance, to enact a different vision of the book through our practices and actions?[9] How can we perform the book (and with that ourselves as subjects) in such a way that we enable a more ethical system, one that encourages difference and otherness, fluidity and change, but also responsibility and accountability for our choices and exclusions?

In this respect Barad’s vision is similar to Levinas’, where ethics are already from the start part of our entanglements, as she states, ‘science and justice, matter and meaning are not separate elements that intersect now and again. They are inextricably fused together’ (Barad 2010: 242). For Levinas ethics is inevitable and foundational (it precedes ontology), were we are always already confronted by ‘the infinite alterity of the other’ (Levinas 1979). The other makes me responsible and accountable, s/he needs to be responded to (Zylinska 2005: 13). The self and other do not stand in a relationship of externality to one another either. As Derrida puts it, ‘but could it not be argued that, without exonerating myself in the least, decision and responsibility are always of the other? They always come back or come down to the other, from the other, even if it is the other in me?’ (Derrida 1999: 23). Ethics is thus not outside or external, it is always already present in our practices and institutions and cannot be imposed from the exterior, as it is performed through these practices and institutions (Zylinska 2005: 3). This is why making cuts in ‘the fabric of the real’, is an ethical decision, one that needs to be taken responsibly, following an ethics that is not predefined beforehand but always open, that responds to specific situations and singular events.

As part of my own intervention in the book historical debate, I will argue that debates on all 3 historical-discursive levels mentioned before (on the level of the sources, of history writing and of historiography) determine our vision of the book as a medium on a material level, and the book as a material entity in turn influences and structures these debates. Matter and discourse are both emerging from this continuous process. The book as a medium is thus never ‘done’ and gets reconstituted and reimagined constantly: by technological developments; by the ongoing debate on its meaning, function, and value; by historical developments (i.e. reactions to other ‘newer’ media via remediation, appropriation or remix); by the political-economies and social institutions with their accompanying practices, in which the book functions; and by new uses, which include new material practices and the changing context of the production and consumption of books.[10] Nonetheless, a few ‘salient features’, which very much remain debatable and in many cases have become central topics in the book historical debate, are increasingly seen as essential parts of the book in the common imagination, mostly in a reaction to the rise of digital media and the Internet, to which the book is often compared and is similarly contrasted to in various ways.[11] Salient features which include notions of stability and fixity, the integrity of a work (bound with a cover), a clearly defined author with distinct author functions (responsibility, credibility, authority), and selection and branding by a reputable press which additionally vouches for a book’s authority and quality. It’s these features that, however contested they might be, have become the most well known aspects to define a book in popular discourse. Even more, as I will argue, these perceptions are reproduced and fixed in and through our common daily practices, where they eventually become the basis of our institutions. And it is in this way that the salient features that have come to define the printed book have come to look awfully similar to the scholarly communication system that gets promoted within academia: as qualitative, stabile and trustworthy.


The problem with applying properties to media, however, is that this often relies on a historiographic fallacy: what historically came to be the characteristics of printing has been projected backward as its natural essential logic. It took a long time however for these features to be established and perceived in the way they are now. They are the outcome of long material processes of practise and dispute, and as concepts and practices they are changing constantly. What we perceive as fixity, standardisation and authorship changes over time, their functions change and the way these features and practices get produced and reproduced changes. For instance, now that we have started to experiment with preserving our collective heritage within sequences of DNA, the book might start to look as an incredibly unsteady and temporary storage medium.[12] It is interesting to see how these ideas and concepts that are connected to the printed book, will now be reconfigured, reimagined and challenged again under the influence of digital media, which serve as an added catalyst for this discussion on the future of the book. For example, as Kember and Zylinska point out, under the influence of the debate on new media, a distinction is uphold between new media, which are seen as interactive and converged, where old media, such as the book, are seen as stable and fixed. However, arguably, if we take into consideration the work of Adrian Johns or the history of artists’ books, for instance, books can be seen as just as ‘hypertextual, immersive, and interactive as any computerized media’. As Kember and Zylinska emphasise, ‘the inherent instability of the book never disappeared, it just became obfuscated’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 4).

But there are additional reasons for why it is important to keep on questioning, critiquing and reconfiguring what are seen as essential print-based features. Print has come to envision or serve certain functions for scholarship. By continuously emphasising and fixing what are in essence changeable, fluid and contestable features, we run the risk of making both print and the book, and with that eventually the scholarly communication system, into a conservative and conservatist entity. As Barad has argued, this can lead to an essentialising approach, where a media’s essences become fixed and differences get erased. This will limit our understanding of the book and its heterogeneous, multiple interactions (Barad 2000: 222). However, when we start to recognise and emphasise that these so-called ‘salient features’ are contested concepts that are reconfigured constantly when the book’s material changes, readers change, the production methods change, and the discourse changes, we can start to acknowledge that the book as a medium, a concept, and a material object, keeps on changing too in relation to new contexts. As Kember and Zylinska make clear, ‘media are always hybrids’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 4). Books are among beings and among agencies, entangled and implicated in them. We are involved in the processes of becoming of the book, in our analysis and histories as well in our uses, practices and performances of the book. In this sense we have a responsibility when it comes to the creation of conditions for the emergence of media, were we emerge with these media, we ‘do’ media, just as media are performative through their specific affordances. When we start to acknowledge agential distribution, we will begin to look at the book as a processual, contextualized entity, where the book becomes a means to critique our established practices and institutions, both through its forms—and the cuts we make to create these forms—its discourses and through the practices that accompany it.


[1] Although his book has been classified by some–unfairly in my opinion–as a ‘book length attack on Eisenstein’ (Van der Weel 2012: 81).

[2] See, for instance, The Medium is the Message, the book McLuhan co-wrote with graphic designer Quentin Fiore (McLuhan and Fiore 1967).

[3] It is interesting to note, as Mark Nixon has done, that new historicism is an (almost) uniquely Anglo-American phenomenon, where in Europe this break with history was never that strongly felt. Through the emphasis on deconstruction and cultural materialism, and the Annales school tradition, they never abandoned but always sought out a broad concept of culture in European literary traditions (Mark Nixon 2004).

[4]Especially in the case of historians like Adrian Johns and Roger Chartier, who have tried to emphasise different readings of book history—readings going against the grain of the dominant book historical visions of among others Elisabeth Eisenstein—based on the importance of the construction of fixity by historically situated persons and institutions, and on the active role of the reader in constructing meaning through their multiple readings.

[5] For example, although there is an emphasis on archives and on writing systems and there cognitive-psychological influences, books and book history get no significant attention in two of the recent media archaeological overviews, neither in Parikka’s What is Media Archaeology?, nor in the collection Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, edited by Huhtamo and Parikka. Lisa Gitelman’s work is an obvious exception to this, especially Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Gitelman 2014).

[6] In her posthumanist performative reformulation of the notions of discursive practices and materiality, she also extends and reformulates Judith Butler’s theory of performativity.

[7] One might argue however that a concern for non- or post-human object materiality is already apparent in Foucault’s thought (most apparently in The Order of Things) (Foucault 1966).

[8] The same is argued by Elisabeth Grosz when she states ‘Nature or materiality have no identity in the sense that they are continually changing, continually emerging as new’ (Kontturi and Tiainen 2007: 248).

[9] There is no external position in this vision, we enact and create the book though our discursive practices and vice versa.

[10] Here I argue against thinkers who follow a McLuhanite tradition for instance, focusing on the salient features of a medium. For example, book historian Adriaan Van der Weel, writing in this tradition, argues that the interface of the book, in comparison to a digital interface, is finished. He also states the book’s interface is hierarchical, orderly and linear throughout (Van der Weel, 2012: 189, 198). I will on the other hand argue here that the book keeps reinventing itself, both with respect to its materiality and to the discourse that accompanies it, which continually (re)determines its meaning and identity. It becomes clear more practically that the (printed) book’s interface is not finished from amongst others the history of artists’ books and the various experiments with the book’s materiality. As Johanna Drucker has for instance argued:

A book is an interface, for instance, though its reified condition is equally pernicious, persistent and difficult to dislodge. We are aware that digital interface seems more mutable and flexible than that of a book, but is this really true? The interface is not an object. Interface is a space of affordances and possibilities structured into organization for use. An interface is a set of conditions, structured relations, that allow certain behaviors, actions, readings, events to occur. This generalized theory of interface applies to any technological device created with certain assumptions about the body, hand, eye, coordination, and other capabilities (Drucker 2013).

The literary market also keeps reinventing the book in response to changing (reading) practices for example. See the introduction of new formats such as the dwarsligger (a book form, where the layout of a page from a conventional book is printed sideways on two pages of eight to twelve inches-pocket size), which has become highly popular in the Netherlands (see: Next to that we will increasingly see hybrids of print and ebooks, such as augmented books. Another interesting example of a hybrid book was created as part of the Elektrolibrary project, where a paper book was connected to a computer, so that the book becomes a printed interface to the digital world. Also see (Visnjic 2012) and In this respect I will follow Johanna Drucker’s critique of (too much) media specificity from the context of performative materiality. As she states, ‘When attention to media specificity slips into a literal approach to the interpretation of materiality it falls short of providing an adequate basis for critical analysis of the ways materiality works’. Instead of a literal approach, she follows a performative approach towards analysis, in which a work is no longer seen as static but as processual. Here media are seen as being produced out of an intra-action or an affectual relationship between the medium’s affordances and its uses as part of interpretative processes (Drucker 2013).

[11] This although one could argue that the web has a (hyper)textual basis and that its design was clearly influenced by the order of the book, for instance in its use of book metaphors, i.e. web pages, browsing, bookmarking, scrolling etc.

[12] Scientists are currently experimenting with storing data in DNA molecules. See amongst others (Heaven, 2012; Jones, 2012).


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11 comments on “Framing the debate (II) Historical Discourses: The Struggle for Both the Past & Future of the Book

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