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.

The Future of Creativity and Books in the Face of Probable Doom, Part 1: Creative Systems



I believe, with at least 75 percent conviction, that we are all doomed. The environment of our planet is badly damaged. Not beyond recovery, but whatever recovery may come will probably take too long to matter. Disease and overpopulation are also threatening, as is a massive global crisis in fresh water supplies. All of this is to say that whatever time period we have defined as a “future” for the future of books to live in will be relatively short. Terrifyingly short, even.

But in the time leading up to a total collapse of civilization as we know it, there have been some fascinating developments in publishing, in writing, and in general knowledge systems that could (if they were not curtailed by a global apocalypse) genuinely transform how we think about expression, knowledge, and identity. It’s a pity they will not happen.

Just for fun, though, let’s think about what could have been.

Let’s think about what it’s still possible to make, and what we might make soon before we cannot any more.

Authorship and the Stream

Social media platforms (I could list them but you know them) have re-centralized how readers can come to knowledge (you also already know this, but there needs to be some establishing part of this conversation. But I won’t waste too much time because we’re already running out of it). Right now, individual written objects like articles and books and blog posts serve as the anchors to which researchers and writers attach their social media streams. It is possible to, by Twitter alone, brush up on world news, discover current research in your field, and find out about new books and poems to read. Streams are fast becoming channels for knowledge types. No, they are not complete, and no, it’s not the same as a library. It is a social knowledge system that circulates a lot of analog-format objects that are, for now, the accepted end products of creative effort. It could also indicate what creative effort could look like in a few years.

The strengths of social media—powerful mechanisms for circulation, accommodation of heterogeneous items, fun and addictive delivery systems—help us think about what social publication might look like, or about a product aggregated by associations rather than an editorial impulse. Books may be replaced by feeds. The connection of resources alongside the creation of resources may be a new dimension to individual creative efforts. At the same time, the ability to draw relationships among items is why it may be possible to have both individual and collective creativity. We could think of creativity as a graphical problem, where new combinations of ideas and people are curtailed by social, physical, and disciplinary limitations. Being a creative agent as a writer or owner of a feed seems to be one path for authors in a time of social media, but assessing and bridging synapses in associations, knowledge, or resources would be the purview of a creative system. Systemic creativity is different from individual creativity. Creative systems optimize contact among human and nonhuman resources, infer or suggest new linkages, and show us the topography of our own intellectual production. One person may have written an experimental narrative about growing up in New England when there were still elm trees. Another may be studying invasive insect species. There is creative potential between them, whether or not they decide to or are allowed to pursue it. Creative potential, one of the objects of creative systems, exists as a structural feature of a social network. Examining co-authorship networks or citation networks in academic publications only scratches the surface of this domain. Individual creativity is an artifact of books. What happens after books will force us to explore further the nuances of creative systems, and by extension the concept of a system-author.

Or it would if we had enough drinking water to sustain a democracy and academic freedom in the year 2050.