The Body of the Text: When Materiality is No Longer Marginal


Given that, as I mentioned in my last piece, and as Sally Ball touches on in her second missive, some writers fear new media and digital publishing, concerned both about the sustainability of Kindle, iPad, and Nook platforms and over whether an e-book will “respect” their line breaks and, by extension, authorial intent, where is the real innovation happening in digital writing and publishing? Which experiments look promising for the potentials of digital storytelling?

Publishers have embraced the enhanced e-book as the future, embedding additional materials around a text (like bonus features on a Laserdisc or DVD). These materials can certainly deepen the reading experience, but they are predicated on our interest in interviews, videos, typescripts, and manuscript editions of a given work (I do, actually, want this material when reading Shakespeare or watching a Merce Cunningham dance). But such material remains paratextual, it is extra, rather than being integral.

Some of the most interesting experiments in the book and bookishness are those in which form and content interlink—as they do in the artist’s book—treating the object as an interface we do not simply look through or beyond (Michael Simeone informs me that when we read, in fact, our eyes are literally focused on a point just beyond the surface of the page). These projects embrace the affordances (and work with the constraints) of digital platforms to create “books” that engage the act of reading as a physical, embodied experience, even when mediated through a screen. I am interested in reading experiences that embrace embodied (or haptic) reading via touch, gesture, and sound (especially interactive binaural audio). These projects are not “the future” of the book, but they are forays into the present moment, and experiments at the edge of possibility—immersive experiences that do not pretend reading is a disembodied experience, either on the part of the reader or the text itself (which, of course, has a body of its own).

I’m especially excited about Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro’s forthcoming Pry, a novel for iPad about a soldier dealing with PTSD whose memories and imagination are layered vividly upon one another in a narrative that is itself a palimpsest of video, text, and sound. Pry takes advantage of the potential of the iPad to facilitate alternative approaches to storytelling. Not a “book,” “game,” or “film,” the project encompasses aspects of all three, creating an immersive (not to mention beautifully-designed) reading experience. Perhaps more importantly to me, Pry makes the medium through which readers encounter it part of the text. Nothing is paratextual, all is integral to the work. By prying open the text with her fingertips, the reader goes deeper into the protagonist’s subconscious, learning more about why James has hidden certain memories away and masked others with imagined experience. Elsewhere, one can force him to open his eyes and confront the external world, which he can only do in bursts due to an injury about which we learn as the story unfolds (or as we unfold it).

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Erik Loyer’s Opertoon has put out some of the most sophisticated app-based reading experiences I have seen, including “Strange Rain,” in which the reader can control the first-person speaker’s meditative state through touch as he watches the sky during a downpour. Opertoon recently ventured into gesture-based reading with Breathing Room, a project for Leap Motion that allows the reader to navigate a landscape with a wave of the hand. Unlike visions of heads-up augmented reality interfaces that act like invisible screens (drag items from one place to another with your hands, double click with your fingertips), this work uses gesture as a metaphor for the act of reading itself (or this is how I read the interface): when you wave your hand, a gust of wind tosses the trees onscreen, clouds drift and shift depending on the speed of your movement, and the sound of a breath suggests the landscape itself is breathing, the reader providing the oxygen that activates the text. Loyer describes the work as a graphic novel, in part because the images and text onscreen appear in panels that suggest time’s passage through juxtaposition. One can reverse time, however, dialing back the clock by spiraling one’s finger in space, a beautiful and rewarding experience in which the role of the reader in traversing a text becomes tactile and present.

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Even as publishers experiment with enhanced e-books that include a range of bells and whistles built around the text, these creators are integrating them into the narrative and aesthetic experience. These innovations are not driven by market concerns, but by the desire to tell specific kinds of stories using the material at hand, whether that be a beautiful accordion fold-out book like Anne Carson’s Nox, which Sally Ball has described, or in a short story we navigate through spatialized binaural sound. I admire the way the interface is integral to the work in both of the cases described above, and I am reminded of Johanna Drucker’s claim that the book is better thought of as a “call” to a storage mechanism that can take many different forms (2013). Or, as Craig Dworkin puts it in No Medium (2013):

As much acts of interpretation as material things, as much processes as objects, media are not merely storage mechanisms somehow independent of the acts of reading or recognizing the signs they record.

It’s not that the medium is the message, but that the message is aware of its medium and its reader, working with and against the technical supports that underlie it. Creative practices can be invigorated by these constraints, particularly if they avoid the trap of thinking of reading, in any form, as immaterial.

My trajectory in these essays/posts/parries has been from the immaterial to the material, from the way cut and paste scraping facilitates the printing of unpublishable texts to app-based books that integrate their interface into their narratives. Or is it the other way around? Those first books take part in the tradition of the artist’s book as democratic multiple, they give material form to work that could have remained purely conceptual. Perhaps immateriality does not exist at all, even in the sort of “asocial” reading Dennis Tenen describes, where it feels as though the world beyond the text has disappeared. The body of the reader and the body of the book may be taken for granted, but they never disappear, leaving print and digital reading intertwined by material threads.

The Book (and E-Lit) as Nostalgic Object


Not only does digital fluidity facilitate the creation of printed media that have no right to exist physically (that should stay digital and not “waste” paper—the using up of these resources clearly pushes our buttons because of both concern over conservation and over cultural capital—that gets to be a book?), expanding (or shrinking, depending upon your perspective) authorship, it also raises questions of access—how do we ensure these texts remain available as platforms change? As Michael Simeone notes, digital books are far more brittle than their physical counterparts and decay in a far different fashion. Sally Ball has addressed the way this ephemerality impacts conceptions of authorship—knowing that our works are likely to become dated within a short span of time prevents many writers from experimenting with new media and alternative or app-based publishing forms (many poets won’t even reference the contemporary moment in their work, lest a temporal reference prevent its resonance for subsequent generations). I myself collaborated on a book of augmented reality poems whose content can change at the drop of a hat—since the text does not appear on the pages, but only comes to life when those pages are presented to a webcam, emerging from barcode-like markers on the page’s surface (in fact, the reader herself can now change what appears on-screen, thanks to a web-based tool my collaborator Brad Bouse developed). That very terror, though, of dating oneself, can alternately be seen as liberatory—if we fail, we can erase the evidence, and we can even adapt or update our work to meet a new audience. If Michael Simeone’s doomsday predictions are accurate, then what me worry? about whether my book is accessible a year or two from now? Poets are always accused of fiddling while Rome burns, so to worry about who’s listening only expands our image of writerly narcissism.

To be serious, though, this state serves as a reminder that a book is an event, a performance between reader and page. Artists have known far longer than writers that the best way to save the ephemeral (happenings, performance, some land art) is through documentation.

Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a Philadelphia purveyor of fascinating goods and spirits.

Though I may be willing to give up on work that can no longer be supported, scholars like Lori EmersonDene Grigar, and Stuart Moulthrop are doing wonderful work to build archives of new media writing (from magic lantern slides—which once upon a time, of course, told highly immersive phantasmagoric stories—to hypercard works and Flash-based texts). In addition to this scholarly interest, what about the resurgence in pop culture of “antiquated,” outdated, even obsolete aesthetics? It’s no coincidence that I picked up letterpress printing in graduate school while studying electronic literature, or that my students are fascinated when I bring a typewriter into the classroom, or that we are so inundated by nostalgic-looking image filters that we need a #nofilter hashtag to assure us what we are seeing accurately reflects “reality.” Perhaps the electronic literature projects being made today, even those that seem glossy, interactive, and lovely in the best ways (like Aaron Koblin’s interactive music videos, and mass collaborative artworks created for Google) will indeed look wonky and wiley and willful to future readers (perhaps they may be utterly inaccessible), but it is also possible that, like the resurgence of interest in glitch and animated GIFs, their very stylistic issues will make us treasure them more.

Beyond the Book?


The premise of this gathering is that the book is not simply a changing technology, but one that is disappearing, evaporating, disintegrating before our eyes. Yet even as new technologies have facilitated the digitization of books, and the creation of apps, immersive audio experiences, game-like interactive narratives, and other ephemeral books and book-like artifacts, they have also facilitated the rise of small press publishing and provided increased opportunity for the generation and distribution of texts. Writers, after all, do not, as Ulises Carrión (1985) reminds us, write books, but texts.

In fact, it seems we are not moving beyond the book, but in fact entering a moment in which everything is a book. A natural evolution, perhaps, from poststructuralism’s assertion that everything is a text? If everything is legible, then anything is fodder for publication and distribution, we might say, whether by a robot that crawls the web for content to be packaged into Kindle books, or by the blogger who wants to see a year’s worth of witticisms packaged between covers.

As my co-conspirators Michael Simeone and Sally Ball have pointed out, the “creative systems” through which contemporary writing circulates reconfigure authorship, placing increased emphasis on the reader as co-constitutor of the text, and on the book as a performance that alters each time it is accessed.

Text’s ubiquity and seeming immateriality has given rise to a situation like the one Walter Benjamin imagined in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in which every reader can at any moment transform into an author. Think of all the blogs-turned books (including this project), the rise of Blurb and other platforms for creating art books from digital images, the increased presence of print-on-demand opportunities not only online, but in physical bookstores like Harvard Book Shop in Cambridge and McNally Jackson in New York. It continues to be ever easier to make something into an object recognizable to others as a “book.”

The ease with which text can be poured from one container into another (extending Beatrice Warde’s (1956) notion of typography as a “crystal goblet” in a slightly disingenuous way here—I side with Kate Hayles (2002) and other theorists of media-specificity that the book is in fact not transparent, but in fact structures our interactions with it at every turn) has given rise to some fascinating publications that should, it seems, not be books. An immaterial situation that embraces our ability to print books affordably and to make all that was once air solid again. Whether we are thinking of spambots that troll the web for free content to be sold as e-books or authors like Kenneth Goldsmith and other members of the conceptual avant-garde whose writing practice resembles remix, remediation, appropriation, or, in Goldsmith’s formulation, “uncreativity” (2011).

These books are fascinating artistic artifacts, like Nick Thurston’s Of the Subcontract (2013), a collection of poems crowdsourced through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, with its shiny metallic cover and minimalist design.

Like Thurston’s mirror-faced paperback, many of these appropriations draw our attention to  reader as much as author, repositioning the writer him or herself as a reader/curator. For those interested in the aesthetics of such projects, Paul Soulellis maintains an online repository, Library of the Printed Web, and related projects can be found at Gauss PDF (whose recent works include a series of lovely close-up photographs of Emmalea Russo’s re-typing of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, with stitching obscuring nearly all of the text save the recurrent word “they”—a project that clearly plays with re-enactment and remediation, particularly since it includes recto and verso of every page) and Trollthread (among whose many “unprintable” books you’ll find the antithesis of Thurston’s shiny surface:  Holly Melgard’s Black Friday, whose 734 pages are entirely black onscreen, but devolve gradually during the printing process as your printer’s toner depletes) two PDF publishers specializing in books that push on the boundaries of book-ness and authorship.