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 In effect, a logocentric era has been superseded by a pictographic age: the new ecology of expression will clearly favor those who are comfortable not just with words, but also with images and sound.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 On the contrary it is, if anything, too hospitable, for it has overtaken print in much the same way that print superseded hand-copying – by making texts more accessible.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.








3 Responses to “On Blogging: Part 3 of 4”

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  1. Comment by Cecil Pinto — June 4, 2012 at 8:43 am   Reply

    Dear Amitav,

    Your analysis of how text and image were, for a while, distanced from each other is fascinating. I come from a background in print advertising where text and image have always worked together for maximum effect. Is there a caste system within the printed word that makes advertisements ‘lower’ and hence nobody objects to images, whereas editorial text is sacrosanct? Notice too how the Op-ed Pages have the minimum of images and no advertisements, as compared to other pages, as though to say good text does not need illustration and should not be corrupted with advertisements on the same page.

    In a related vein I have always wondered why novels do not have pages with commercial advertisements to subsidize printing costs. Was there a time when advertisements were carried in novels? Will doing so be considered ‘cheap’?



    • Comment by Chrestomather — June 6, 2012 at 10:05 am   Reply

      Thanks very much for these interesting comments Cecil. Particularly pertinent is the point about advertising and about the hierarchy of expression in which everything associated with images is automatically ‘lowered’. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that this essentially puritanical and iconoclastic attitude has something to do with the history of print technology. As for novels – serialized novels, like those of Dickens, certainly did appear alongside adverts (and still do in Bengali magazines for example). Some Penguin paperback editions also had advertisements at the back, as I remember, and many books still list the publisher’s other titles at the back, which is of course intended as a form of advertising.
      all the best

  2. Comment by KierstenJuly 12, 2012 at 10:15 am   Reply

    This series of posts on blogging is wonderful, and I especially appreciate how you draw parallels between what’s come before (i.e., the scroll) and what might come after. There is something so unique about blogging (its malleable-yet-enduring presence, for one) from other forms of publication, but, as you pointed out in your first post in the series, its original purpose has indeed been taken over in many ways by social media and micro-blogging. Even so, I’ve become fixated on it as a communication form — and as a way to share ideas in an ever-changing world — and it’s lovely to read another’s thoughts on the subject.

    As an elementary school teacher in the mid-’00s, it connected me to other practitioners with the effect of lessening the isolation I felt when the classroom door closed; as a graduate student, it allows me the opportunity to argue for a narrowing of the policy-practice gap in public education; as an individual, it offers me the chance to pair images and words (I love what you say about this pairing!) instantly in a fleeting moment or, after days or weeks of consideration.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful set of posts.

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