Materiality: Rectangles, Accordions


In the science fiction part of our conversations here, we’ve inched toward imagining books once they stop looking like books, or like rectangles. What will it be like when we “read” via a chip in our parietal lobes? I just reread (the old-fashioned way) Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012) and that novel’s deliberate banalities and its querying of how fiction interacts with reality, or with autobiography—and with beauty, how it stakes a claim for genius in part by being ugly!—remind me of Conceptual Poetry. Heti’s book is both a story we may or may not fall into and an argument with storytelling, with novels; in that way it’s quite similar to Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetry, his printing out the Internet, or Joseph K(aplan)’s making his own name by listing the names of, and arbitrarily (or not?) identifying the socio-economic status of, other poets in a long “poem” (Note: Kaplan’s Kill List was published online in 2013 by an independent press, Cars Are Real. The Poetry Foundation’s blog about the book helped facilitate explosions of condemnation and defense).

Goldsmith says in an interview with the Academy of American Poets, “The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports…and without ever having to read these things, you understand them” (2011). I imagine the paperless book will often have additional ambitions, but I think our embrace of conceptual lit, our genial welcome of high jinks and provocation and contentlessness (or content overload, or content disingenuousness) to the conversation (Goldsmith is featured on the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites, the grand dames of contemporary American poetics, both of which over the last fifteen years have become increasingly open to experiment and avants of various kinds) signals something about how ready we are to consider books in new ways.

Two areas of book-change stand out to me: first, the relationship of the book to whatever paratextual material accrues around it. As writers reconstrue (for better or worse) the way they allocate time and energy between making novels or poems and making a context for those novels and poems to find readers via, usually, social media, they either generate such paratextual material, or permit it to be generated via interviews, audio recordings, etc., and as they also help disseminate it, the book is increasingly likely to be encountered inside the nest of all this other stuff. As, for example, book trailers grow more beautiful, or more funny, or more engaging in any of a range of ways, or as other kinds of video are linked to books, as the ruminations of writers about their work or the work of others are easier to find and read before, during, after reading the referenced literary work…has that started to create a new conglomerate book, the sum of these many parts? Already some books seem to want to house more and more within their covers or their e-carnations of whatever kind.

And here is one example, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ visual poem based on Victoria Redel’s Woman Without Umbrella (2012), of why that’s potentially so appealing:

Second, there are a plethora of wonders now being produced for large audiences: Anne Carson’s Nox (2010), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010), the new collection of Dickinson’s envelope poems, Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb (2011), Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006) (thanks to the poet Erika Meitner, (Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (2011), Ideal Cities (2010)), for helping me think of some of these; she also mentioned Daphne Gottlieb (a performance poet) who used to give out little eight-page chapbooks of new poems to people she met and liked, chapbooks hand-bound with ribbon—a smaller instance of tenderness toward the book’s richness as an art object…). Some of this may derive from the nostalgia Amaranth Borsuk is writing about. In any case, as we perceive the traditional book to be threatened, we seem to become wistful about its physicality, its capacity to be both a container of consciousness and a joy forever…. When Richard Nash started Cursor and Red Lemonade, part of the idea was to make books widely available as e-books and also beautifully available in limited editions, the best of both worlds. So as books grow increasingly ephemeral, we’ve embraced their materiality anew.

Conceptualism may facilitate the deletion of materiality from our list of expectations of “literature,” from even the book itself. If you don’t have to read it, you don’t need to hold it in your hands! Your experience may be enhanced—or muted, mitigated, alloyed—by reading while also (or instead?!) consuming the paratextual stuff. And then, too, the opportunity to unfold the accordion of Carson’s paintings and notes and collagings and to read her poems and translations surrounded by that colorful, unwieldy, gorgeous origami text—even if that’s driven by future-of-the-book anxiety of some kind, it’s pretty glorious to do.

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.

Authorship: Conceptions of Creativity / Creative Systems


How is our sense of creativity changing as the object called the book changes? How do we “practice” differently as writers in a world where distribution of literary art increasingly relies on our own efforts, where the audience that makes up Consumers of Language-Based Entertainment has more options? I’m writing, by the way, in a roomful of other people writing: people from the book industry, from academia, entrepreneurs—in general, they are people who are mostly interested in knowledge (how it’s transmitted, how it’s stored—). I am mostly interested in literary art, though I also think knowledge occurs there, lives there, too.

Michael Simeone, the director of ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research Nexus Lab: Digital Humanities and Transdisciplinary Informatics, asked initially: what does creativity even look like if the identity of the consumer is more important than the identity of the producer? I am wondering if that is the key shift as the book moves forward. At first I thought that such a shift would convert the writer to a Draper: Mad Men, Madison Avenue, a target marketer aiming at a segment, utilitarian maybe above all else (that is certainly a model that would be espoused, for example, by the university presidents who want to charge more for useless things like humanities courses).… Though that utilitarian conception of the writer begs a question about what it means (meant?) for the producer’s identity to “matter more.” Because an oversimplification of the question lets us think that the writer for whom the consumer’s identity does not come first is not concerned with other people. She’s that navel-gazer writer rebuked by the head of the Nobel Committee a few years ago when he felt the need to explain why American fiction was not interesting to the prize committee. (Too insular.) But I want to slow down with the question of identity here: of whose identity matters to a writer, and how the book itself, or the means by which books make their way into reader’s heads, may affect that question.

For literary writers, the relationship to an audience, the possibility of believing one even has an audience, has ranged widely from person to person and era to era. The defining pressure of our time is consumption: clicks and hits and sales. The mainstream publishing industry, joined often enough by small press publishers, wants authors using social media regularly and then intensely to have a presence, to create a buzz. The time writers must spend cultivating this presence, this promotional avatar of literary aliveness, probably depletes the time they can spend immersed in the work they are meant to be promoting. Many writers find transitioning from one territory to the other difficult, and the seductions of social media interactions (additionally justified as pleasing to one’s publicist) have to be actively opposed if one is to fall into creative literary work. How does that change such creative work? And does the cultivation of that online personality sometimes suffice for people who might have been creators of literary content in the past?

I think that’s often the criticism of writers who use social media, that there’s a whorish self-promotional thing going on, and many of us probably know writers whose social media presence has made them less attractive—or more attractive—than whatever we thought of them just as persons or just as authors (depending on whether we know them in the flesh or only on the page).

This is a sprint: and I want to return to that question of the author/producer’s identity and whether or not we think of ourselves or the consumer first—or whom we’re thinking of, if we aren’t in marketing mode. The novelist T. M. McNally defines the novelist’s responsibility as to the people on the page. The post-structuralists would likely chuckle, right?—or at least, in their wake, we think it’s quaint to owe anything to fictional lives, to self-conceive as in service to something imaginary that might somehow be taken as universal or (more modestly) representative….

But the way text is encountered now is (at least initially) online, and we probably meet the “author” before we meet her characters—before, I mean, we meet her art. Does she make it differently, do we look at it differently, because we know the blog, the interview, the Next Big Thing, the feed?

Creativity: writing has probably always been something one had to fight distraction to do, and as the varieties of distraction have multiplied, maybe now it’s more difficult to do it, even as it’s easier to “get it out there.” Certainly the world we now inhabit does not encourage contemplation, lostness in one’s imagination, etc. If you are lost in thought, Reader, you are not shopping. In The Matter of Capital (2012) Chris Nealon describes what he calls the Post-Language poetry of late-late capitalism, which, he says, can most potently be recognized by its stance. Which is waiting. To be waiting, to be aware that noticing obsolescence is obsolete, to know (in keeping with Michael’s posts of DOOM) that we already ought to be done here, having already more or less ruined everything, or commodified it (that’s probably not a difference but a definition—). And so at best, Nealon observes, we feel this “rueful astonishment” that we’re still here, sometimes perfectly happily. That’s where writing now begins: either in the universe of distraction and segue and association and accumulation, or in the lull between distractions. Schools, I think, are formed around whether one believes such lulls can exist at all, or if instead one thinks any notion of escape from gluts and heaps and links and ads, this constant ravenous simultaneity, is delusional, naïve.

The questions about identity (whose matters more, the consumer’s or the producer’s?) lead to other questions about attention (paying it, or seeking it—). The measure of which identity has more power can probably be seen in the parceling of attention. If the future of the book will also be defined by its stance, then we find ourselves considering point of view, which we create in poetry and in fiction by how we pay attention. When the writer is required to, or elects to, solicit attention, that probably gets entwined with (or into conflict with?) the attention she needs to turn so unflinchingly toward her subject.

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.