Archive for June 1st, 2012

On Blogging: Part 3 of 4

June 1, 2012 in On Blogging | Comments (3)




The triumph of logocentricism was absolute but short-lived. The Internet has dealt a mortal blow to the fundamentalism of the Word. Today not even the most fanatically iconoclastic puritan can hope to purge his surroundings of images and iconography in the way that his forbears could. In effect, a logocentric era has been superseded by a pictographic age: the new ecology of expression will clearly favor those who are comfortable not just with words, but also with images and sound.

But this is not to imply that this new environment is hostile to words. On the contrary it is, if anything, too hospitable, for it has overtaken print in much the same way that print superseded hand-copying – by making texts more accessible. Moreover, by giving a new impetus to literacy this new ecology has ensured an exponential growth in the potential readership of books.

The conflict then, is not with texts but rather with the technology of print and, most directly, with the industry that was built upon it: publishing.

For the last few centuries the publishing industry has been the principal custodian of texts. It became so by marginalizing other methods of transmitting texts – rote learning, recitation, hand-copying, engraving etc. But today the text has once again been prized apart from the ink-and-paper book: it now propagates itself through a wide variety of new devices and has no reason to fear the future. The real question is: what lies ahead for printed books?

Before the age of print, books were produced not for mass circulation but as rare and highly valued objects. Today’s print industry has long exerted itself to move in the opposite direction – to make texts cheap and easily accessible. But the digital age has turned this into a race for diminishing returns. Is it now possible that the publishing industry will do an about-face and resort to some of the practices of the era that preceded print?

To do so would mean pursuing two conflicting aims – of simultaneously creating abundance and scarcity. The ‘traditional’ branches of the publishing business would continue to print large numbers of inexpensive books, to keep pace with electronic texts. But at the same time, their new branches would produce limited numbers of highly priced items intended for a restricted circulation. In other words publishers would have to re-invent themselves to become part factory and part art gallery.

If this comes about (and to some degree it already has) then ‘publication day’ for a writer may mean the simultaneous release of three or more forms of the text: along with a cheap paperback and a digital version (of about the same price) there would also be an expensively produced  ‘exclusive edition’, possibly with numbered copies (as is the case with artists’ prints).

Actually this would be not so much a departure as an elaboration of the current practice in which many books are first released as relatively expensive hardbacks.

Already there are signs that bookselling practices will continue to move in the direction of producing ‘personalized’ or distinctive copies. The growth of ‘first edition clubs’ (a quick Google search produced 28 million results) is one such. Individual book collectors have created another method of distributing personalized copies: at book signings it is not unusual to see people lining up with ten or twenty copies, to be sold later on the Net.

It has also become increasingly common for writers to be asked, when signing a book, to inscribe not just a name but also a sentence or a passage. This is intended to further distinguish that copy from others. It is easy to see the directions this could take: in time specially personalized copies might include, for example, a few pages of the writers’ drafts. Or they could even include ‘illuminations’ created by the writer, or by an artist. Writers will then once again perform some of the functions of scribes.

This in turn will mean that conceptions of value in relation to a book will also come to resemble pre-print notions. During the age of print the publishing world modeled its practices on other industries: it made money in much the same way as, say, makers  of soap – by charging a fixed price for a commodity. Inscriptions, signatures, expositions, readings, appearances etc. were not seen as sources of value, or revenue.  This too will almost certainly change for these ‘add-ons’ are already creating revenue – only not for publishers.  

If this process gets under way it will have far-reaching consequences:  there would be nothing for example, to prevent writers from creating unique versions of their books for special patrons – by including say, an extra chapter or character, or by changing a name or a setting (it is of course, a common practice for painters, sculptors, photographers and architects to tailor their work to the needs of specific patrons). This would transport us not only to the age of the illuminated book, but also to the age of the ‘recension’, when the meaning of a book had to be deduced by comparing variant versions of the text.

Before print, texts changed constantly, in transmission from mouth to mouth and quill to quill. This ended in the age of print which made a shibboleth of the notion of the fixed and final text. But this too was an artifact of the Gutenbergian era: the digital age is taking us back to a time where there was no inherent fixity to texts. On the Net texts mutate all the time.

Decades ago, when I took my first job at a newspaper, the pages for the morning edition had to be set, in a fixed and final form, by 1 a.m.. To ‘break’ the setting was hugely expensive – it was done only for late-breaking stories of extreme importance. Today, the websites of major newspapers are revised hourly.

One of the most interesting aspects of the blog post, as a form, is that it does not demand a final draft. It can be revised and re-edited at will.  

In many ways the new ecology of expression is but an expanded and accelerated version of the environment of an earlier age.








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