30 June 2008

Exhaustion, burn-out, and lots of reading

I've stopped writing for awhile, mostly because I'm just exhausted; but I've been reading. A lot. Like, a book+ a day. It's surprising to me. All this reading is like a bizarre act of ritual self-flagellation, inflicted in the frantic quest "to know." And even as I read, constantly checking how many more pages I have to go, I'm always wondering: What's this all for? I watch NOVA, I know the magnetic poles are gonna flip, and if that stock footage of volcanic eruptions is at all indicative of what kind of seismic chaos will ensue.. well, let's just say shit will go down.

It's a weird thing, to want to know, then to know and realize it isn't worth knowing, which you only found out because you were driven to know in the first place.

A few books of interest: I finally got around to The Nature of the Book, by Adrian Johns -- one of those volumes whose size both initially caused me to buy it, and has intimated me ever since. I finally dove in, and couldn't put it down. Interesting stuff. Johns basically (and pretty unfairly at times) calls out Eisenstein's work on so-called "print culture," arguing that moveable type did not, in fact, promote standardization in texts, and that "fixity" is not inherent to printed texts. Rather, the stability and "credit" of a particular work was won through a series of intricate dances between the Stationer's Company, the government, the printer, the bookseller, the author, and the reader. Here, Johns says it better:
We may consider fixity not as an inherent quality, but as a transitive one. That is, it may be more useful to reverse our commonsense assumption. We may adopt the principle that fixity exists only inasmuch as it is recognized and acted upon by people --- and not otherwise. The consequence of this change in perspective is that print culture itself is immediately laid open to analysis. It becomes a result of manifold representations, practices and conflicts, rather than just the monolithic cause with which we are often presented. In contrast to talk of a "print logic" imposed on humanity, this approach allows us to recover the construction of different print cultures in particular historical circumstances. It recognizes that texts, printed or not, cannot compel readers to react in specific ways, but that they must be interpreted in cultural spaces the character of which helps to decide what counts as a proper reading. In short, this recasting has the advantage of positioning the cultural and the social where they should be: at the center of our attention. (19-20)
This is particularly interesting in light of all the work I've been exposed to recently on the (active, interpretive) role of the consumer in pop culture, a recurring topic in our seminar on media theory with Henry Jenkins. In fact, both fields -- contemporary audience studies and book history -- could learn a lot from each other.

Much of Johns' book is concerned with the piracy of texts in the seventeenth century, and (though these connections were not explicitly made) this discussion is also surprisingly relevant to contemporary debates over intellectual property, piracy and counterfeit goods. I thought many times of the back cover of Stephen Colbert's I Am America and So Can You! ...
WANING!
Several reportages of illegal produced issues of this book from Glorious Peoples Republic of China stealing into bookstores. Do not! By only likely copies only authorized STEPHEN COLBER'S I AM AMERICA AND SO ARE YOU books like this one itself!
-Yours, U.S.A. Publisher
Good stuff.

I'm also in the middle of Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England by Juliet Fleming. This is one of those awesome little bits of scholarship that make a simple yet brilliant point: that writing in early modern England had a unique and fundamental connection to its materiality, and to its technologies of creation and inscription. Paper shortages led people of all classes to write on walls, furniture and textiles in chalk and charcoal, using texts "whose intellectual economy was predicated on a socially constituted subject and on notions of authorship that were collective, aphoristic and inscriptive, rather than individualist, lyric and voice centred" (41). These posies and epigrams, collectively owned, were not "texts" in the sense of a subjectively-constructed work floating free of its medium, but were tied to the material they inscribe as symbols -- as writing recognized not simply as an act of communication, but as an object, a visual and visible thing. Accepting Fleming's argument means rethinking literacy in early modern England, and the notion of "literature" in general.

I'm particularly drawn to Fleming's book because she takes time to untangle the relationship between the oral, aural and visual in a particular kind of writing at a particular time. This is so fascinating to me. My undergraduate education was in English literature, then I was going to go into linguistics, or communication, or media (where I am now), and am thinking of turning next to book history. The only thing that seems to connect these interests is an obsession I have with what lies beyond (or before) the meaning communicated through language. I've found very few books that treat this subject as directly as Fleming's; any others that I've missed are, as always, appreciated.

On the docket.. Language, Mind and Nature, by Rhodri Lewis. I've found plenty of detailed histories of the universal language movements of the seventeenth century, but few go beyond description and context to a theoretical understanding of this incredibly fascinating topic. If the publisher's description doesn't deceive, Lewis might have some gems.

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