The Materiality of the Text

The invading Medes and Chaldeans, who cared not a whit for cuneiform, accidentally preserved Assurbanipal’s library of clay tablets, among which are the only copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mesopotamian creation myth, when they levelled Nineveh with battering rams in 612 BCE (Johnson, Elmer D and Michael H Harris (1976), History of Libraries in the Western World, 3rd edn., Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, N.J.: 21). But the British officer in command of the raid on Washington DC of July 22nd 1814, during which the original Library of Congress was set ablaze, later testified that ‘he had not known books were there and that there would have been no such action if he had known’ (Jackson, Sydney L (1974), Libraries and Librarianship in the West:A Brief History, McGraw Hill, New York.: 297). The transmission of cultures has always been fragile, piecemeal and contingent upon the unwitting destroyer, the unwitting conservator. Whole literatures have been lost to fire, the sword and the worm, or saved by the accident of a falling wall. Many ancient texts survive despite the vagaries of translation, excerpting, transcription by barely literate scribes, reinterpretation and the travails of transmission across epochs and itineraries. And what survives is the text.

The British firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed Courbet’s The Stonebreakers: we have, fortuitously, a photograph of it made as an experiment in the then new Agfa colour process. To discuss the work now, under these conditions, is not evidence of unreality, but of a relationship which has been redistributed: neither surrounded with the aura of the unique original, as Walter Benjamin (1969) describes pre-mechanical arts, nor a ‘post-auratic’ object, deprived of aura and hence democratised by the processes of mechanical reproduction, like the photograph, for which the only ‘original’ is a negative. What we have is a work whose presence has become absence: a site of mourning. Neither with nor without an original, Courbet’s painting has become a text.

Nor is this a uniquely modern predicament. In the flowering of humanistic learning in the Italian Renaissance, although writers and architects could read and visit ancient rhetoric and buildings, neither musicians nor painters had ancient works to guide them. Botticelli’s Calumny is an imitation without an original: a reconstruction of a lost work by the classical painter Apelles -- of whom no work at all survives -- after a description by the poet Lucian. Despite, and perhaps because of the drive to recover among the ancients models of propriety, for lack of surviving works, as Burke says, ‘Painters and musicians were forced to be free’ (Burke, Peter (1987), The Renaissance, Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, NJ.: 18). Circumscribed and structured by the dialectics of paganism and revelation, reason and faith, morality and beauty, Botticelli’s canvas pays homage to the (lost) text of the classical past.

Of the art object, the one thing that cannot be reproduced is texture, although texture is already a virtual dimension of paintings and sculptures: very few if any of us get to run our fingers over a Botticelli, and to speak of its texture is to infer it from the fall of light. The textual existence of the Botticelli is precisely a function of this virtual relation, the imagination of the text. That experience eliminates the gap between the object and the viewer: through the material conjuncture of viewer and object to overcome that very materiality; still ‘here’, still ‘now’, but disembodied; transported by the very haeceitas of the experience to another experience of space and time which is not-here and not-now.

Text is a state of transcription across editions and copies, often through shifts and changes, even translations: Hamlet in the first folio, in Johnson’s edition, in a modern variorum or Gikuyu translation, in a hundred other forms, from Bowdler to Branagh. The separation of the text from its distribution through individual editions and particular copies throws it open to what textual scholars call corruption. Ptolemy’s librarians at Alexandria wrote their critical suggestions concerning the integrity of the Homeric text into the copies they made, from multiple sources, in pursuit of an increasingly impossible dream: the perfect rendition of a text which, in this instance as with Shakespeare’s, is most likely never to have achieved a definitive version during the lifetime(s) of its author(s) (cf Reynolds, L.D and N.G Wilson (1974), Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 2nd ed, Clarendon Press, Oxford.). Against these vagaries, there is only faith.  Spinoza’s is perhaps the definitive statement:
.... the meaning by which alone an utterance is entitled to be called Divine, has come down to us uncorrupted, even though the original wording may have been more often changed than we suppose..... for the Bible would have been no less Divine had it been written in different words or in a different language (Spinoza, Baruch de ([1670] 1951), A Theologico-Political Treatise and a Political Treatise, trans R.H.M. Elwes, New York.: 172).
The text Spinoza describes is one which exists despite words, but which demands words in order to take on that communicable existence without which it is purposeless. Perhaps in the back of Spinoza’s mind was the far more devout attention paid to copying in Judaism and Islam, with both of which, as a Spanish Jew, he was intensely familiar. More secular traditions of textual scholarship derive from these religious traditions the search for an ur-text, beyond the veil of words and yet palpably close to transubstantiation into them. Quite apart from the urge to preserve, this divine mission informs the policing of texts. Perhaps both find their inspiration in fear of the hereafter. And both, all unwitting, produce despite themselves a text which is nothing if not malleable.

Lamb regales us with the splendid alternative to the propriety of textual criticism when he rejoices in the lending of books to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Reader, if haply thou art blest with a moderate collection, be shy of showing it; or if thy heart overfloweth to lend them, lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S.T.C. -- he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury; enriched with annotations tripling their value. I have had experience. Many are these precious MSS. of his -- (in matter oftentimes, and almost in quantity not unfrequently, vying with the originals) in no very clerky hand -- legible in my Daniel; in old Burton; in Sir Thomas Browne; and those abstruser cogitations of the Greville, now, alas! wandering in Pagan lands. I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library, against S.T.C. (Lamb, Charles ([1823] 1935), ‘The Two Races of Men’, Essays of Elia, in The Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb, ed. Saxe Commins, The Modern Library, New York.: 25)
For some, this might have been defacement, even defiling, as it was for the Islington librarians who suffered the indignities visited on their holdings by Joe Orton. But for Lamb, the books’ return, bearing their cargo of disagreements, musings, voluble applause and aggrieved misunderstandings, was a moment of pleasure and delight. The books came back, in the end, not only read but redeveloped, mulled over and marked up, their treasures redoubled by the ferocity of their new annotations.

Not for the first time, the fact that books are made of pages, and that pages have margins that can be written over, comes back to revivify what might otherwise gradually slide into a miasma of dullness. Much of what we now have as the vernacular literature of the middle ages derives from the palimpsests of the scriptoria: Gaelic praises of water and prayers against the Vikings, the fireside obscenities of the Carmina Burana, trace their textual sources back to their prior lives as marginalia. Much of what we know of that flowering of cultures, surviving and emerging from the domination of Church Latin, has to be read, literally, between the lines.

The space of the book, the material between its covers, has been for centuries not just a repository, a mnemonic store, but an interactive playground. The whiteness of white sheets has been a lure for doggerel, commentary, digression and refusal. The book is not, and has never been, a self-contained thing. It has always required the services of its readers, the interplay between the way the book unfurls the text materially and the way the reader reassembles it mentally, a conflictual or negotiated interface which, for two generations since the massive expansion of university education after World War II, made the study of literature the most popular of the humanities.

Nonetheless, from the scholia of Aristarchus to modern editions, the book has, against its own nature, sought to capture and enshrine the text,  surrounding it with a scholarly apparatus designed to circumscribe and contain its variations within an acceptable horizon, against the processes of dispersal and intercalation that threaten its integrity. The texts which migrate from book to book are dependent on their existence in books, but that materialisation, however devoutly brought about, always jeopardises the ideal purity of the disembodied text. Texts long for materiality, but because they can never wholly and integrally inhabit an actual edition, they are no sooner embodied than they begin to disintegrate. No single edition of a text will ever exhaust the variations of which the text is formed. A certain scholarly mode of reading is an attempt to see through the material of the book to find the ideal text beyond it: a practice which takes as its premise that the text and its actually existing variants are not the same, and which tries, in a spirit of piety, to fix the unfeasible. Like a mischievous deity, the text is never there when you want it, and can never be relied on, no matter what propitiations it is offered.

Even more like gods, texts do not like being constrained, interrupting one another and throwing themselves into passionate and bloody affairs with humans. There is nothing less discrete than a text left to its own devices. Even in the editions studied in universities, you will find massed footnotes ringing and invading Shakespeare, till only a line or two of the Bard survives, a raft floating on tides of exordium. The scholars are not to be blamed: the text is never happier than when attracting new and ever more promiscuous interferences. In sum: a text travels through endless variations, settling into the material form of a book both because it cannot exist without it, and because it wants to escape the prison of its own ideality, its impossible integrity. In taking on physical form, it throws itself open to the interpolations, physical and hermeneutic, of any reader, serious, casual or lost. And yet, a two-stage virtualisation -- of the literary text and of the textualisation of culture -- has become commonplace in the emergent sociology of digital media. For a materialist theory of reading opposed to the idealist concept of text, it is not that the text is a redundant category, but that it is only an aspect of literate culture, one that functions only in a specific literary-critical mode of reading and sometimes as the ‘imaginary’ of writing undertaken at some points in specifically literary and scholarly composition (‘I know what I want to say, but I just can’t find the words’: an aesthetic as specific as Stokes’ idea of the statue waiting to be discovered in the marble).

Issues of authenticity, originality, forgery, corruption and interpretation that have emerged through centuries of textual scholarship reemerge in the prevalence of a textualised universe today, not least in a problematic of the geography of texts: where, in what place, and by what definition of place, do texts exist?  Semantic functions that we need in order to make meanings, like pointing to nearby things, referring to the world in general, making links to other conversations or cultural artefacts and talking directly to listeners or readers (indexicality, reference, articulation and address) define what we understand by place: it is impossible to comprehend where you are without the processes of signification that signify not just ‘here’, but the very idea of place itself. By the same token, ‘now’ isn’t something that exists before it is signified: it is an effect of communication. Texts draw their standing as authentic or corrupt from their spatial and temporal relations, their geographical and historical distance from a mythic point of origin, whether that origin be human or divine. Places, times and texts are, in this sense, functions of distribution. The meeting of all three in a specific and concrete occasion we call  reading.

Reading this weathered library edition of Kipling, in this 1909 print run with the metallic typeface here and there overinked, this unique and battered exemplar, its scent of crisping gum and its yellowed paper,  felt and understood as it can be only this once; in this grey light amid the murmuring of appliances, a here and now made in an act of reading in which I am intricated in their unfolding, articulated through the concreteness of this and only this experience with a closed universe of infinite depth; reading as this person, formed in the traces of memories and forgettings, and to be transformed with them during this reading. A particular act of reading is the intersection of the here-and-now and its text. You could say that where they meet is in a subjectivity, an individual which they im-person-ate, to whom they give local structure; a habitation and a name. And yet, paradoxically, one of the most alluring functions of reading is to allow us to escape from ‘I’, from the here and now, from the material perception of the book, even from the ideal and impossible serenity of the text, into the singularity of reading. Reading does not pin down the subject but enforces its freedom; does not anchor the text but dismantles its sacrosanctity. By the same action, it opens up a gateway through the here and now into other spaces, other temporalities. For some, this is what is most to be treasured in communication: the experience, in each unique instance of reading, of the distances of distribution, the vertigo of converging and diverging world-lines.

Reading is the interface of modes of distribution: textuality, subjectivity, time and place. The material condition of distance, in which space and time are braided, is the way they are distributed across history and the world, unevenly, inequitably, unaccountably -- and yet distributed. Every reading is at once compounded of all the determinants of these distributions, but at the same time a unique instance of their interplay. But since the instance of reading is neither innocent nor instantaneous (all media are time-based), and because space is not pure extension but an organisation, a distribution, of significant geography, we do not choose a particular text, or a particular form of book, magazine or comic, but a mode of reading: a kind of experience marked out by the selection of a specific type of medium, a particular kind of place and time to read. As the text is circumscribed by its materialisation in books, so reading is circumscribed by the times and places which, socially and culturally, are appropriated for reading. These libraries, buses, bars and beaches are as active in determining the mode of reading as the preexistent text or even the personalities we bring to bear upon it.  {{{But if we are to undertake a materialist reading of reading, then we should also be ready to undertake a materialist reading of the book as object of study.}}}}

You might someday be walking far from home and hear a singing voice, out, say, along the hills over Todmorden, singing for no reasons you were meant to share, just singing, or you might be singing to yourself and not know quite what or why, but full of song as a robin. The experience of intense self-communication to the exclusion of the world is not the sole prerogative of reading, though the image of a good read gives a reader a clear impression of what it entails. Just so, the formations of the public reader are not exclusively literate, and engage discussion, debate, conversation, parody, rumours, gossip, doodles and doggerel. If any reading seems most explicitly literate, it is the formation of the playful read, so extensively overdetermineded in the commodity publishing market. Yet it is here that we are invited, so often, to witness the emergence of a post-literacy as the materialisation of the global village in interactive TV.

The interweaving of oral and literate, even in the overdeveloped world where literacy is as near universal as it has ever been (Graff, Harvey J (1987), The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN.: 374-381), suggests that there is no teleological development associated with the emergence of either alphabetisation or printing. The uses of writing among indigenous peoples, of the making of scripts for non-written languages, and the formation of scripts for spoken languages -- like Haitian creole and, rather differently, rap and ‘kebekwa’ French Canadian -- relate only outside the bounds of teleology to the theses of the orality/literacy division. Such events are not without meaning, but their meanings are neither singular nor determining.

The primacy of the pre-literate/literate division as a marker between pre-modern and modern, its Eurocentric normativity only massaged by the shift to ‘oral’, is prepossessing only as genre theory. Just as the establishment of generic theories of science and literature have enabled the divorce of reference from texuality, so the genre theory that distinguishes pre-literate and literate severs the bodily and the intellectual. In the doctrine that experiments must be repeatable, science is actually closer to the oral, in that its ‘this’ and ‘now’, if not identical between writer and reader, are replicable terms. In this way, at the price of a certain totalitarianism, scientific discourse has escaped the wretched binarism of the intellect as dominance and the body as subversion which has become a governing cliché of contemporary cultural studies. In its efforts to universalise the textual, deconstructionist orthodoxy has not textualised the universe, but reduced the universe of deconstruction to the text, a disembodied ideal as metaphysical as the presence whose demise it portends. It is only such a textualisation of societies that allows them to be constructed as generically literate or oral, their materialities reduced to a single and simplified aspect of their communications techniques, as if whole cultures could fall silent and forget to dance.

But beliefs can become material forces: instigators of policies, inspirations for technologies. It was not only English literature that became a tool of imperial governance, but the very practice of literacy, defined within a Eurocentric conception of what it is to read and write. As hypertext programmes begin to offer ostensibly new ways to structure and compose writing, there comes the promise that this European literacy can find renewal in the age of information. In the network digital archive, there seems no technical reason why we should not be able to navigate freely through what Ted Nelson, a founding figure of hypermedia, calls the docuverse (Nelson 1992: 53), leaping from text to image, image to sound, as lightly as attention skips. Of course, that is how a library works, through indices, bibliographies and catalogues: but swifter, and without the discretionary boundaries of bookbindings and shelves or the physical transition from notation to performance. Multimedia extends the domain of textuality to movies and music. This docuverse is the realisation of the universal text, a facet celebrated by George Landow with a telling quotation from Barthes:
In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of sugnifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable...; the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language (Barthes 1974:5-6)
Landow’s astute judgement of this passage, and of other select moments from Foucault, Derrida and Bakhtin, is that they bear the same message as the hypertextual (Landow 1992: 2-34). What he must leave unsaid is that the focus on the sytemic infinity of language comes at the expense of the enunciative, langue instead of parole. As a result, the hypertextual subject is the subject of the enunciated, is spoken by the system of language, not the subject of enunciation for whom language is a tool box whose materiality lies not in the conceptualisation of system, but in the practice of its use. In hypertext, the ideal is given a kind of actuality: its profit on it is the universalisation of the document.

Just as the subject of Western imperium lays claim to self-fragmentation, a sacrificial dissolution with which to put to scorn emergent identities, it evolves, in a hybridisation of the library and the playworld, a mode of textual practice which allows its dissolute self to wander through a universe designed precisely for its nomad comprehension, assured that it subjects itself to the full panoply of difference. But this undisciplined thinking is as much a product of empire as disciplinary thought, its wayward infantilism as profoundly articulated with the needs of the transnational and nomadic corporation (cf Critical Art Ensemble 1993, 1995) as the rigidities of an older professionalism to the imperial bureaucracies. The difficulty of finding the headquarters of a TNC, of locating its arterial connections and vital organs, is a function of its displacement, its subsumption to itself of the difference of distance: externally rhizomatic, internally it is an enclosed unverse, a space-time matrix infinitely extensible within its own horizons, the endless combinations of a nonetheless restricted code, the infinitessimals between 1 and 2 which, though interminable, nevertheless exclude 3. The bounded infinite of the playworld is enabled by its textualisation.

To deny yourself your own speech, or to belittle the powers of speech is a doomed resistance, since it is precisely in speech that the central edicts of contemporary global organisations are formulated. The literary culture belongs to an elite which, increasingly, finds itself excluded from both the core conversations of power and the propositions of the popular. A mediate culture is what the vast majority of the world’s population deal in: and what is extraordinary is that this anti-hierarchy is more, not less diverse as it ascends towards its base. Hypertext is precious not because it will rescue literacy in an age in which neither the popular nor the ruling classes require it or its professionals, but because it is a route through which the culture of the text might possibly open up its stultified archive to the inconstancies that have always empowered popular discourse. Put positively, the disenfranchised knowledge professions, proletarianised increasingly in the massification of the knowlege industries, can only gain time beyond their alloted span from multimedia. Put negatively, the openness of popular, mediate culture emerges from its complete exteriority to genre theory -- to distinctions between oral, literate and mass mediation, between literary and scientific, and crucially between verbal, visual and aural. Those who work with their hands neither regard machines, bodies, animals, tools and brains as distinct, nor believe that rediscovering one or another of them amounts to revolution. The mediate, ever restless, always mixing song and dance, paint and poem, doesn’t have to colonise itself. Those who suffer violence do not seek a politics of ‘violence’ at the level of the signifier.

In the emphasis on language as system, the book itself becomes invisible. Its material dematerialised under the immateriality of the text, it loses its conjuncture with the mediate. Generalised so that even the monumental shifts from volumen to codex, scroll to bound book, or from Gothic to Roman scripts (cf Laufer 1982, 1984; also Darnton 1986) can be relegated to substrate and context, below and beside the immaterial, reading is expressible as the interface of the textual with a textualised subject, a seamless continuity. Undoing ‘the paradox underlying any history of reading, which is that it must postulate the liberty of a practice that it can only grasp, massively, in its determinations’ (Chartier  1994: 23), it liberates instead the determinations, and catches the reader in their discourse networks. Texts have no existence beyond the specific gravities of inks, glues, bindings, paper, fonts, of grids and gutters, colophons and quires, materials transcribed, collected, exchanged. Nor can they live outside reading formations, ‘discursive and intertextual determinations that organise and animate the practice of reading....constituting readers as reading subjects of particular types and texts as objects-to-be read in particular ways’ as Bennett argues (Bennett 1985: 7), but also the sociological, political and economic actualities of what it is to read. Neither writing nor print can be formalised as unitary; nor can textuality and literacy be extrapolated from their materials.

As long as the hypertextual pioneers consider their work an extension of immaterial literacy, it will continue to be plagued by the dialectics of the playworld and the library, all commingled with the selfish self-absorption of silent private reading. The artifice of literacy has divorced hypertext cultures from access to commonality, and so to the semantic zone, to pointing to things in the world beyond the docuverse, to effective action, to transformation. The question of the cyborg therefore, as both the existing human-computer synthesis and the wished-for emergence of a transformatory culture, involves the transgression of a theory that has made itself real by the denial of materiality. To restore its material is the work of materialist cricism, and must entail the histories and geographies of the machine, a nearly autonomous historical agent in the planetary culture. Nelson is right to rail that the computer revolution has not gone far enough. It has yet to confront, let alone overcome, the Enlightenment image of infinitely extensible and empty space which, on the model of the dematerialised text, has become the classificatory system of the library, a neo-Linnaean imperial morphology of the natural world, and the tourable spaces of the map. The difference between Nelson’s position and materialism is, he knows where we ought to be going.