Digital Salon with RepRecDigit

KÖRSCHEMA

1.     Jesper hälsar välkommen och presenterar RepRecDigit (4 min)
2.    Jonas pratar om digital epistemologi och salongen (4 min)
3.    Cilla redogör för programmet (3 min)
4.    Olle presenterar sitt projekt och påbörjar arbetet (10 min)
(vi uppmanar åhörarna att gå fram och kolla)
5.    Jonas agiterar utifrån Olles projekt (4.30)
(i princip kan åhörarna fortfarande gå omkring nu, jag använder nog ingen .ppt)
6.    Jakob pratar om Ekbom (10 min)
(nu får de sitta ner!)
7.    Johannes framför/presenterar Evolution (10 min)
8.    Cilla pratar om Heldén, Ekman, skogen och texten… (10 min)
9.    Imri framför Flapping Flapping Flapping Flapping, Across och The Hiss of History
10.  Jonas pratar om Thistory (4.30)
11.  Jesper avslutar om McCarthy och Heldén (10 min)
 
Ganska exakt 70 minuter. Lägg till 10 minuter för »transitions» så är vi på 80. Ganska lagom, va?

JESPER OLSSON

Welcome

Welcome everyone to one of last seminars today, a seminar with the perhaps cryptic title ”Digital Salon with RepRecDigit”. I’d like to say something about the latter part of the rubric, i.e. about who we are – after that Jonas will say something about the first oart, i.e. why we are here.
 
RepRecDigit is short for “Representations and Recofigurations of the Digital in Swedish Literature and Art 1950–2010” – and you can hear why we need an abbreviation … This is the name of a research project, funded by the Swedish Research Council, and which includes myself as project leader – my name is Jesper Olsson and I’m from Linköping University – the senior researchers Jonas Ingvarsson from the University of Skövde, and Cecilia Lindhé from the University of Gothenburg, and the PhD student Jakob Lien, from Linköping University.
 
We began our project, in earnest one might say, two years ago – and we have since then arranged a series of seminars and have collaborated, for example with poet, artist, and musician Johannes Heldén, who is also one of our guests here today – together with artist, bookbinder, writer, and, lecturer Olle Essvik and performance artist, poet and PhD student at Valand, Imri Sandström. 
 
The aim of RepRecDigit is to map how digitalization has affected literary and artistic activity in Sweden during the last sixty years. This pertains, to a discussion of how computers, man-machine interaction, and so on have entered novels and poetry as motifs, metaphors etc. But also to an analysis of the digital as way of thinking in an around literature – and a discussion how digital technology actually has been used by poets and artists. 
 
This more general description is of course relevant for what will take place in our event today – but the specifics of ours session – or rather – our salon – will now be outlined by Jonas …

JONAS INGVARSSON

The Digital Salon

And today we take our starting point in the more abstract relation between digital culture and history. Because it is the concept of »Digital epistemology» that is responsible for the conversion of this seminar to a salon, inspired, of course, by the salon culture so popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Instead of regarding »the digital» as something entirely new, something bound up in a set of technologies, machines, gadgets, databases, codes and networks, the concept of digital epistemology is a way to regard »the digital» as a structure for perception – the digital is a lens through which we observe our contemporary culture, as well as our history. By so doing we have become aware that digital culture share many features and expressions with early modern and premodern genres and modes of thought, such as the rhetorical concepts of enargeia and ekphrasis; the collage aesthetics of the cento; the assembling of skills, technology and art in the notion of techné; the multimodal and composite nature of the emblem; the seemingly (but indeed not) random organization of the Wunderkammer; the old archival principle of pertinence (which I will return to later). From the perspective of digital epistemology it may seem »the modernity» is a parenthesis between the early-modern and the digital eras.
 
In short: digital culture provides us with unique opportunities to revisit the cultural history. There is no excluding demarcation line between digital humanities, digital art, and aesthtetic theory. For those of us who have been somewhat hesitant towards »the digital», in fear of losing what once was called »Bildung», and scholarship, in a maze of databases, computer games and teaching platforms – well, to you we today proclaim the Gospel: Fear not, for thou – and the Humanities – shall be saved and born again. 
 
As you may guess, through the lens of Digital Epistemology, the Salon seems to share many features with our contemporary digital culture. The Salon Culture was an informal yet well-structured meeting place for intellectuals flourishing in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Conversations and confidences shared space with tableux vivants, lectures, readings, musical entertainment and political intrigues. The Salon Culture favoured the conversation, the diary, the letter, the oral and the private genres. You could describe it as an informal channel of »early modern file sharing». 

 

2782-salon-scene-michel-fran-ois-dandre-bardon

Le Salon de Madame d’Houdetot

A majority of the hosts of these gatherings were women, and experiments with roles, gender, and identity were encouraged. In short the Salon – where art, politics and cultural analyzes mix with the private and subjective – share many characteristics with the social media of today, with their 50 shades of confidences, role-playing, informal conversations, intellectual and political discussions and agitations…
 
Against this historical backdrop RepRecDigit have now transformed our session panel to a digital salon. We have invited three artists, Olle Essvik, Johannes Heldén and Imri Sandström, and together we will reflect upon the book as a medium from different digital points of view, and by so doing we also challenge our own roles and identities as academics and performers.     

OLLE ESSVIK (with Wiliam Blades) 

Death of Dr Sarolea/Enemies of Books

books.google.com: I end up there by accident. I did a search on the Internet. For books on books.

The first thing that greets me is a search box. The text I type is processed through millions of published books. Older books that have been digitized. Books that have been scanned and added to a database to be searchable.

Scanning.

The page of the book is turned to the camera. Gets scanned. It happens fast. Another page is scanned. Paper and ink become zeroes and ones. The machine turns the page. A new page. When the page has been scanned the computer collects the pages to a file. Digital formats. A dot and a letter combination. .pdf .txt .xml.

BILD1

Enemies of Books. Written by William Blades, published in 1881. A book on the decay of books. The enemies of physical books – fire, water, gas, the bookworm, bigotry, etc . I print out the book. White pages and black marks. No identity. The software scans stains and scratches as letters. Physical traces are digitized.

I find the original on the Internet.  A second hand bookshop in  London has a copy. I order the book. An impersonal form and payment directions. Credit card. The book is expensive, but in  unusually good condition. A few weeks later I receive a package  smelling of paper and incense.

The book is yellowed and the edges are dark brown with dirt. The paper has been bleached by time and the sun. The cover is worn. A thin sheet of paper protects the book. Looks like greaseproof paper. A simple binding.
The third edition. The spine is frayed, the pages are loose and the thread holding them together is visible. Each page has unique stains and creases. The edges are uneven, uncut.

A signature on the cover page. The owner of the book. Inside the book are some newspaper clippings, an obituary notice over Dr. Sarolea. The book belonged to him. Another clipping tells the story of his book collection, consisting of 300 000 volumes, weighing 100 ton. It is described as one of the wonders of the world. Dr. Sarolea is dead but is book collection is alive. A note about the good condition of the book on the cover page. Added by the bookshop. A rubbed out price. Another signature. Unknown. The book ends with date notation, probably jotted down by Dr. Sarolea. Possibly the date when he 
finished the book.

BILD3

I read the book. It is still not mine. The stains and traces are foreign. I can feel the presence of the former owners. People I don’t know. Every time I pick it up it becomes more mine. The smell of my apartment is mixed with the incense and my invisible fingerprints are now added to the older marks.

I read the digitized book. The digital file begins with information on how the book has been scanned by Google. The date of the scanning and information on Google books .

I recreate the book. I let a 3D-printer print out the tool. I want to test if it works. It does.

At night while I sleep the file is processed by the printer, typing out layers of plastic. The digital file is based on tools that have been used for hundreds of years. Combining and modifying the old techniques I create the necessary tools. The components are mounted on a piece of board . I print out and bind the book. I upload the files to the Internet.

JONAS INGVARSSON

On Olle Essvik: New Technologies and Old

The Enemies of Books. That is an apt title for a book describing exactly that, as Olle already has remarked: but even if Bookbinders are addressed as one of the possible enemies of books, this is not a very apt title for the admiration and fascination of the book medium explored in all layers of this performance. Furthermore, this project, as we have seen, employs different digital strategies and tools to evoke and perform the old handicraft of bookbinding. 
 
It is, and that has to be said, for me still a cause of the greatest fascination and astonishment, that you could actually print out three-dimensional objects that really works. This opens up for a completely new arena of Media Archaeology in its most literal sense, that is, to reconstruct and revive long lost objects, or to finally complete once visionary projects that, due to the lack of money or lack of technical resources, never were saw the light of day. But I will leave that for my 3-dimensional colleagues. And I’m sure quite a few projects are already up and printing, so to speak.

What or who are the enemies of books and book culture today? Well, I guess they are about the same as in that 19th Century when William Blades [!] wrote his warnings. Fire, water, ignorance, bookworms, dust… we could add children, fundamentalists and the renovation of libraries. 
 
But how about digital culture?
 
Well, certain individual books may have been sacrificed in the act of scanning, but in the long run, what we see is the future of the book, as well as the future of old trades and handicrafts, preserved very much as a result of techniques and skills provided by digital technologies. 
 
Digital epistemology is just that: an affirmation of the ongoing – and media archaeological – interplay between new technologies and the old. Digital epistemology also rests in the belief that the future of the Humanities, and the ongoing production of new theories of reading and pedagogical perspectives, lies in an exchange between digital awareness and premodern and early modern scholarship. By so doing, there will be room for every skill and scholarship preserved in our old-fashioned departments together with the new perspectives and utilities provided by digital technology. 
Let us not get stuck in the dichotomy between the traditional and the digital. Let us not stay stubbornly old-fashioned. On the other hand: let us not become merely digital archivists.

Artists are the antennae of the race – this was one of Marshall McLuhans favourite quotes from Ezra Pound. The future of the Humanities lies not in reproducing the old, but in producing new thoughts and models for human and posthuman relations in a cybernetics of culture, 

exploring communications between academics and artists, humans and humans, between humans and cultural artifacts, between cultural artifacts themselves and, in fact between humans, non-humans and our complete environment. 
 
So: let’s take a look at the artists. Let us learn from the ways artists explore and communicate their insights, and let them inspire us to find new ways of communicating the Humanites.

JAKOB  LIEN

Who wrote this book?

Since I might be the most codex-oriented of us in RepRecDigt, at least when it comes to research material, in this short paper I will try to say something about a codex-based work that renegotiates traditional analog writing modes and where the boundaries between man and machine almost dissolves. The book I will write about is The Signal Game by the Swedish author Torsten Ekbom from 1965. This paper should be understood more as a tentative way to find new ways to read a book often neglected because it’s supposed to be “difficult to read”.

Ekbom_omslag

Normally a book starts with a cover, then comes half title, title page, colophon, then the body text of the book appears, most commonly on page five or seven, depending on, for instance, if the book has any initial motto or attribution. In The Signal Game everything is different; first comes the cover, half title, title page, colophon – but then only blank pages appears, the only information given is the page number. Five, six, seven, eight, and then at the bottom of page nine it says: “Five minutes passed”. This sentence is then repeated at the following pages, ten and eleven, no less than twenty seven times before any new information is added.  What kind of book is it in fact that we have in front of us? If we are to believe the blurb it is Torsten Ekbom’s new novel. If we look at the subtitle instead, it is a “prose machine”. But then, what is a prose machine? And why am I writing about the information of the book instead of for example the story?

Ekbom_fem minuter gick

 Clearly, this is a book that raises questions at the same time as it overturns our traditional concept of a book. Maybe it is like Siegfried Zielinski suggests, that media and media use play a crucial role for what a representation is and can be at a specific historical moment, as well as for what we recognize as valid representations.

In the preface to his book Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Friedrich Kittler writes that the discourse network is “what’s attached to paper, where it happens, in whose name and to what address”.[1] If you reformulate this statement into questions you get a perfect starting point to understand Torsten Ekboms work. Which is: What is attached to paper in The Signal Game? Where does it happen? In whose name and to what address is The Signal Game written?

To start with, a “story” is never explicitly described, neither in the novel nor in its paratext. The blurb refers instead to a “production” of “messages”. And this production is then said to take place in a prose machine instead of on the expected typewriter or by the writing hand. The only details that are given about the prose machine to the reader is that it is a “to begin with an empty machine, that step by step produces more and more complex messages”. The earlier mentioned media technologies could of course be described as prose machines, but given all the facts it’s reasonable to assume that we are dealing with a computer, or an “electronic brain” as it was called at the time here in Sweden.
     
Therefore it’s not possible to talk about a story in a traditional sense although the reader sometimes can discern a fragmentary plot with agents running around at a hotel located in the beautiful Alps, seeking the truth about room seventeen. Instead it seems like the text and the reading of it, with Kittler’s formulation, leads us to “the technical conditions of literature”. And consequently the “invisible protagonist” of the book is described as The Signal Game itself. Even though the word Signal Game may at first be associated with naval military activities it’s not that difficult to imagine the word as a metaphor for the computer code or the software that is needed to make the prose machine work.
     
On the other hand it seems like Ekbom’s interest in the new digital technology isn’t limited to only the technological conditions of the writing process, but rather to what happens when you transpose a media technology to a new field – namely the literary field.

Shannon

If we look closer at the work it’s almost as if The Signal Game is an aesthetical implementation of Claude Shannon’s model of communication from the late 40’s – which was translated to Swedish and introduced in the magazine Gorilla by Ekbom’s colleague Mats G. Bengtsson only a year after the release of The Signal Game. The model consists of five elements: 1) an information source, in this case the author, which produces a message; 2) a transmitter, the Signal Game, which encodes the message into signals; 3) a channel, to which signals are adapted for transmission, the Prose Machine; 4) a receiver, here represented by the book or the codex, which decodes (or reconstructs) the message from the signal; and finally 5) a destination, the reader, where the message arrives. A sixth element, a noise source, is also present and works as a factor, where any interference with the message travelling along the channel a.k.a. the Prose Machine may lead to the signal received being different from that sent. If we follow Shannon’s model this might explain all the disruptions and the distractions in the book. From time to time it looks like the prose machine doesn’t spit out more understandable “messages” than a tirade of words and letters on the page.

Ekbom_bokstavsregn

But the question is if the message is the most important aspect here or if we are paying attention to the wrong thing if we try to reconstruct and make meaning out of the plot? Kittler says in a comment about Claude Shannon’s model of communication that we can try to grasp and interpret the message as long as we wish, but then we only get information about the message and not about the message system. “The information about the information thus remains at the place where it originates from – with all the engineers that worked with transmitter, channel and receiver.”[2]

    
What happens if we take Kittler at his word in the case of The Signal Game is that the author (Ekbom) is transformed into an engineer, the instance “that worked with transmitter, channel and receiver” – or with the prose machine itself.
     
Another way to put this is to say that Ekbom in his aesthetical practice occupies the same creative position towards his contemporary information- and media theory as Erkki Huhtamo & Jussi Parikka describes that some artists occupy in relation to the media archaeological field of today. In the book Media Archaeology they argue that: ”a growing number of artists who are aware of media archaeology get inspiration from it’s findings and are contributing their own creations and discoveries. This has led to intriguing parallels and connections between research and artistic creativity.”[3]
     
This is an argument that echoes of Marshall McLuhan’s more utopian idea in Understanding Media, published over fifty years earlier, that: “The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures.” To McLuhan this ability to “encounter the new technology”[4] meant that the artist had to start “with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other”.
     
And if you look at Ekbom’s novel from an other angle, that’s exactly what he does when he seeks the effect by mimicking a text written by a computer and appropriating the presumed digital methods – but doing so only with analog media technologies.
 
Ending
When Ekbom in a review of Marshall McLuhan’s book The Medium is the Massage from 67 notes that: “The idea that the electronic technology radically modifies our attitudes, our sensibilities and our social structures, still feels convincing”, I think he’s right.
     

Of course, in the light of this short paper it will be difficult to say something really substantial about when these more discursive technological shifts of our perception etc. occurs – but I believe that The Signal Game can be considered as one example of how digital technology reconfigures the writing modes and challenge not only what’s possible to write, but even how it’s possible to write.


[1] Friedrich Kittler, ”Förord” [my trans.], http://glanta.org/?page_id=2877.
[2] Kittler, ”Skriftkulturens slut” [my trans.], Maskinskrifter. Essäer om medier och litteratur, 2003, s. 224.
[3] Erkki Huhtamo & Jussi Parikka, Media ArchaeologyApproaches, Applications and Implications, 2011, s. 14.
[4] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, 1967, s. 44.

IMRI SANDSTRÖM 

Skärmavbild 2015-10-10 kl. 08.45.26

The Hiss of History

http://www.howeacrossreading.imrisandstrom.com/history/hiss.html

Across

http://howeacrossreading.imrisandstrom.com/across/krossa.html

Flapping, Flapping, Flapping, Flapping

JONAS INGVARSSON

On Imri Sandström: Thistory

While some of us may be concerned that the book will finally be ousted by digital technology, it is apparent that these artists, Heldén, Essvik and Sandström, continually explore digital technologies to tell stories about the history of materiality.
 
Sandström also use electronic devices to explore and deconstruct language itself. In the word playing that goes on in the works Across and the Hiss of History, visual and oral elements of language is taken as a point for departure for moving quite freely between different connotations of the languages involved. On one side she takes a genetic approach, showing the provenance, the root of the word »history» in its Greek origins, historia; this is always a very productive stance – which Cecilia just made a perfect example of by exploring the roots of the word »evolution». 
 Skärmavbild 2015-10-09 kl. 16.08.16
Imri Sandström, moreover, reveals a method that seems to be more related to the principle of pertinence, that I mentioned earlier. According to the glossary, the principle of pertinence means: »A principle of arranging records based on content, without regard for their provenance or original order.» The object itself, not its origin, establish new and surprising, yet not arbitrary relations. This could happen if we take language seriously – as with the notion of evolutio. And this is precise what Imri does with language itself, a pertinence-based exploration of resonances, resemblances and translations.
In fact we can find a congenial description of the principle of pertinence in Gertrude Steins poem, »If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso»:

Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance, exactly and resemblance. For this is so.

Skärmavbild 2015-10-09 kl. 16.08.42History, in Imris work, resembles the word Hiss (with two ‘s’). And the most important hiss of history is, of course the annoying »his» which belongs to the »he» so eloquently evoked by Gertrude Stein (again in her Completed Portrait of Picasso): 

He he he he and he and he and and he and he and he and and as and as he and as he and he. He is and as he is, and as he is and he is, he is and as he and he and as he is and he and he and and he and he.

Let me also add a personal and professional note to the »hiss of history». My home department is Media Arts, Aesthetics and Narration, at the University of Skövde. The Swedish name for the University of Skövde is Högskolan i Skövde – abbreviated HiS. This said, so that you will never forget where to find me. 
 
Perhaps we should change the word History, adding the letter T, and then we have Thistory. The term Thistory rather than History, then, would truly be more in line with the postmodernist credo: which is that beneath every story told, there lies another story. Thistory always hides That story.
 
Gertrude Stein again, finally: »Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.»

JOHANNES HELDÉN

Preface from Evolution

Evolution 1

Evolution 2

 CECILIA LINDHÉ

Evolution = the action of reading

Behind me you see the online version of Johannes Heldéns work Evolution.
 
The term evolution comes from the Latin infinitive evolvere which means ’to unfold’ or ’disclose’ and the form evolutio, refers to the unfolding and reading of a book scroll: not the act, but the continuous action of reading.
As early as the fourth century B.C. papyrus sheets were pasted together to form a bookroll. To be able to read from it one had to use two hands or let one end hang down on to the floor. The ends tended to want to roll back up so, obviously, it was not quite like today when we more or less passively scroll up or down the computer screen. No, you had to be actively engaged rolling and unrolling. To manage taking notes the text was dictated to a scribe and if one wanted to compare texts, a group of people read the same text aloud.[i] Reading events were a communal and shared activity. Naturally, the scroll had no paratextual markers as of today and reading it was a challenge even for educated people: “The bookroll was, in short, an egregiously elite product, designed to signal a high-status, educated, cultured[ii] Coming from print poetry to digital poetry, there is indeed a mutual or similar point of resistance that has to be overcome it can be very difficult and laborious to read digital poetry.
isaiah-scroll1

Scroll

 
In Johannes Heldén’s online version of Evolution, his poetry is continuously erased when the already written is reused in infinite constellations. But the digital Evolution also points towards its other manifestations, such as this book, as well as to the live performances of the work – such as we have seen. This use of various media manifestations where each artwork is entangled in such an elaborated root system is characteristic of Heldén’s work.
Evolution is not only difficult to read and grasp in its entirety, experiencing Heldéns artworks involves the action of reading – evolutio – since they are often manifested in several different medial expressions: the printed book, the online version and a performance or installation.

You, as a reader, are put in motion just as evolutio indicates and to some extent you are – metaphorically as well as physically – encouraged to move and act with and within the total manifestations of the same piece. Also, Heldén’s works are often metapoetical and media historical reflections on the conditions for writing poetry.

In the Vergilian woods we find an ancient metaphor for the ‘poet’s workshop’ and this Latin word for forest, silva, was also used to describe a particular kind of literary composition:
 
No one moves through the woods quickly, or in a straight line; something always happens here. But let us also remember – and this point is not unrelated – that for ancient poets, the woods (silva in Latin, hulē in Greek) also figured the very stuff of literary production, the timber of which poems were made, including everything from subject ‘matter’ to literary models to rough notes to the waxed wooden tablets on which most poets composed.[iii]
 
This was a quote from Shane Butlers book The Matter of the Page.
Scroll

Scroll

Heldén’s entire work can be situated in this ancient metapoetical tradition. One does not move through his work quickly. Often you are urged to make a detour from an exhibition or performance to the online version and then perhaps to the book. Reading in straight lines is never an option. In Heldén’s work, silva functions not only as a metaphor for writing but his writings also derive its nourishment as well as its poetic complication from forest vegetation. In the fragments of Evolution that appear on the screen a vegetative setting slowly emerges:
 
woven grass
rising trees
treehouse a rain
weed
sprout
plant
moss luminous
oak tree
night blooming
 
The presence of Nature is common also in Heldén’s visual installations. In Terraforming (2013) the twenty-one pages displayed in an exhibition case, are perhaps soon to be overtaken by a vegetative growth – eventually completing nature’s recycling process. And in Field that he was invited to do in HUMlab at Umeå University, an interactive landscape is animated on a floor screen. In his entire oeuvre the books take over the role as nature’s undergrowth. And furthermore, Heldén’s digital works invoke the printed book – or perhaps rather its manifestation on paper – through these images of vegetation.
 

In our Swedish literary history we find a similar example. And I am here referring to the Swedish author Kerstin Ekman. In 1991 she programmed the computer game Space Journey – Rymdresa. She wrote the code, her husband made the sound, and Veine Johansson the the graphics. Rymdresa is a “literary computer program” and Ekman wants to teach and encourage young people to read literature by playing the game. To be able to move forward in the game and enter different worlds – you not only have to find answers in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. You also have to have read Stanislav Lems novel the Invincible from 1972. You are forced to move between the printed books and the computer game.

The forest is one of the fundamental principles in Ekman’VÄRLDARs writing – not only in her essayistic writings – such as Herrarna i skogen but also in her novels – as is her continuous moving across different media – such as film, computer games, hypertext, novels, essays and opera librettos, putting them in tangible dialogue and reflecting upon their different qualities, their different materialities.

In 1978 Ekman said that she had been thinking about writing a book without words and instead she wanted to tell her story in the forest by a bonfire and then let the listeners pass it on. Ekman’s and Heldéns works remind us of the beginnings of the evolution of the poetic medium – from the oral, to stone via paper to the digital – and their oeuvre put focus on the relation between screen / paper and materiality / immateriality. In the light of their movements over different materialities it is possible to the rethink such a concept as paper for example. Katherine Hayles famously wrote that print is flat and code is deep. Perhaps we may say yes at first but if we look, touch and feel it closely enough we sense the fibers and pores “that give every page both the texture and the depth into which the ink must sink without penetrating.” [iv] In Heldén’s and Ekman’s work – neither the book page nor the screen – are flat. Here paper as well as screens matter, claim a space and a particular presence. It forces us to reconsider our habituated view of paper through the screen and our habituated view of the screen through the paper. Making us realise that the page is perhaps not always what we think it is.


[i] William A. Johnson, ”Bookrolls as Media”, Comparative Textual Media. Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era, eds. N. Katherine Hayles & Jessica Pressman (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 101–124, quote p. 114.

[ii] Johnson (2013), p. 108.

[iii] Shane Butler, The Matter of the Page. Essays in Search of Ancient and Medieval Authors (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2011), p. 17–18.

[iv] Butler (2011), p. 75.

 

JESPER OLSSON

A Plural Book: Paper, Oil, Digital Networks, etc.

One of the most fascinating novels this year – at least on my reading list – has been British writer Tom McCarthy’s new work, Satin Island (2015). In McCarthy’s novel, two themes slowly crystallize – or perhaps one could say – two books. 
 
The  protagonist of the story – simply called “U.” (i.e. the letter U) – is  an anthropologist with a PhD. He’s hired by a company that’s engaged in  projects of a vague character, but which seem to be about mapping the  contemporary in ways that benefit their well-paying customers. U’s most  important task as a “corporate anthropologist” is to write “the Great  Report”, which will sum up our time period in its totality – a daunting  task, not least due to the constant increase of information. His major  influences in this are Claude Levi-Strauss and Bronislaw Malinowski –  but we could also have guessed at Mallarmé – who prophesized that  everything, eventually, will end up in a book – or Joyce, who wanted to  squeeze as much as possible into one. 
 
In  the end, however, U. won’t write anything at all. He doesn’t need to.  While reflecting on how to proceed with the work, he discovers that the  Great Report – the Great Book – is already being written. 
 
Pondering  these facts, a new spectre, an even more grotesque realization,  presented itself to me: the truly terrifying thought wasn’t that the  Great Report might be un-writable, but – quite the opposite – that it  had already been written.  Not by a person, nor even by some nefarious cabal, but simply by a  neutral and indifferent binary system that had given rise to itself,  moved by itself and would perpetuate itself: some auto-alphaing and  auto-omegating script – that that’s what it was. And that we … were no more than actions and commands within its key chains. (133–134)
 
And  the weirdest thing is, perhaps, that no one, except a machine or a  piece of software will be able to read it. Or as John Durham Peters  contends in his new book on marvelous clouds: “We live in datascapes and  cultural storehouses that exceed not only any possibility of mastery,  but even the slightest acquaintance of any living creature.” (322).

deepwater 3

If  the global information networks of today and the accumulation of  digital data are thus perceived as the great book of our age, there is  also another  book, more subdued, but constantly recurring, in McCarthy’s novel.  Early on in the story, U becomes mesmerized by the news about a huge oil  spill (it’s probably Deepwater Horizon) – and the images of oil-covered  beaches and birds won’t go away. Oil and its relation to space, time  and nature becomes a micro-obsession with the protagonist, and when  fantasizing about a glorious conference paper he might give one day, the  following idea announces itself:
 
When  oil spills, Earth opens its archives. That it takes the form of vinyl  when it hardens is no chance occurrence; what those men in body-suits on  beaches should be doing is not brushing it away but lowering a needle  to its furrows and replaying it all, and amplifying it all the while to  boot: up and up, exponentially, until from littoral to plain to  mountain, land to sky and back to sea again, the destiny of every  trilobite sounds. (118) 
 
We  have trilobites – and we have bytes; and both of them coalesce or  assemble as two great and constantly changing books of our era. They  might seem eons apart. But they are tightly woven together: our global  digital networks could not exist without the planet’s minerals and  energy, without the exploitation of nature as a resource and Gestell.  But technology is, on the other hand, as the quote reveals, a condition  for listening to the voice of the earth; needles and pens and other  technologies is a prerequisite for communication and representation. Or,  to once again quote John Durham Peters, “apparatus is the basis, not  the corruption, of the world”.
 
In  order to think the book today – and the book of the future – it is  necessary to consider the two “books” opened in McCarthy’s novel.  Electronic writing and the book of nature are the inescapable  infrastructures of the present. 
 
That  there is close relationship between books – well, media technologies in  general – and nature, is no news. Already in the Greek Anthology we  find poems that praise nature for providing us with writing tools, and  the metaphor of nature as a book or “universal manuscript” (Sir Thomas  Browne), would circulate widely from Antiquity and Middle Ages into our  own time. The musings of Galileo on this topic were actually very close  to the “information ontology” of today, when he conceived of the  universe as written in a mathematical language
 
In his recent book, A Geology of Media,  Jussi Parikka follows this track toward an expanded materialism of  media, which not only analyzes how our messages and representations have  a material underpinning, but also investigates the mineral and chemical  components of our technologies, in order to discuss where media begin –  as silicon, lithium, copper, gold, and so on – and where they end, as  piles of e-waste.

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 In this, Parikka brings up a number of contemporary artistic works – such as Martin Howse’s earth coding project. But also if we focus on literary practice and bookishness,  in a more exclusive way, we find similar endeavors taking place. One  might mention Canadian poet Christian Bök’s by now famous move from the  book to bacteria as a literary medium in his Xenotext (soon out as a paper book); or one might point toward artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library in a forest outside of Oslo.  
 
But  one could also look here to the potentials of a more familiar book, not  least in its entanglements with digital media. If we are to believe  Vilém Flusser – “A book is, from one point of view, an intermediate  stage on the way from the forest into the land of artificial  intelligences.” From this vantage point, a number of writers today use  both paper and digital devices to test and imagine a book to come – and  to understand our mediated lives and its material infrastructures.
 
Much  of this work, which explores a traffic between different media and sign  systems – something akin to what Katherine Hayles once called  “transmediation” – can be seen as a media archaeological  practice that synchronically discloses often neglected material strata  within the media machine – and, diachronically, its genealogy. A recent  example of this kind of work could be Kenny Goldsmith’s proto-book  “Printing the Whole Internet”; another more book-like object is Mark Z.  Danielewski’s new novel The Familiar  (2015), which de-familiarizes both digital interfaces and the codex in  wonderful ways, and also reminds us of the necessity to get a grip of  the materiality of both media in order to understand their workings and effects.

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The stance that I am trying to circumscribe here could also  direct our attention to the production and distribution networks of the  book today – and there’s always something to say about Amazon, of  course … 
 
But,  I would like to end my talk with yet another literary work, and one  that’s closer to home – Johannes Heldén’s and Håkan Jonson’s amazing  intermedial work of poetry, Evolution.  I won’t have time to say much about it here – and there is really a lot  to say – but in its visual remediation of the codex on the screen,  while at the same time morphing the reading modes of the book; and in  its printing of the code for the machine in a paper book; and in  interspersing the strings of code with “sequences” evoking nature and  weather (this ecological dimension is even more present in other of  Heldén’s works, such as Terraforming) – in all this, Evolution  comes forth as an exemplary book of the day; at least if we begin our  discussion with McCarthy or Parikka, but also with writers and scholars  such as John Durham Peters or Jane Bennett. Evolution is a work that imagines a plural  book that plays with materials and protocols that reach beyond stories  of paper and pixels, the codex and the digital, and open our eyes to  issues of deep time and planetary space, and to a thoroughgoing  materialism.

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This  plural book is part of the cultural transformation taking place today  –  a transformation often summarized with a term such as “digitalization”.  But we are also reminded here of how reductive such designations are,  that they hardly account for the complexity of our media ecologies. More  than an artifact or an object – even if it can be embodied as one –  this plural book is a way of thinking and playing in different media (at the same time) – of exploring not a comforting culture of convergence, but the di-vergent paths, crossroads, and dead ends that a materialist perspective will always open up.

 
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