In the first discussions at Documenta12, Nat Muller writes on Text Tactility (registration and login required) and Alessandro Ludovici writes on The Persistence of Paper. Both are understandably attached to paper, particularly to books or, as editors, to the permanence of ink and printing. Both seem equally immersed, however, in the world of pixels, and they capture the strange feeling many of us have of living across worlds. They capture the feeling of this strange new life in which publishing is suddenly so interesting as a cultural issue, as it mutates in a series of strange new lifeforms – or more correctly, modes of living. Nat sums up the ambiguities involved –
Many of us though, seem ourselves to be a bit lost in Genet’s desert, negotiating the best strategy between production and consumption; between ownership and sharing; between how and what to read and how and what to write; between hard copy and soft pixel.
Nat also rightly mourns the lack of subtlety in thinking through this dilemma – in which it too often becomes a choice between “coffee OR tea; boy OR girl; paper OR pixel”. Of course, it’s not a choice that’s even possible, let alone desirable. It’s simply no longer how we live (even if it might be how we still speak about it). We are all paper AND pixel these days (and boy AND girl, although I must admit I’m really a tea person). An increasing number of publications (commercial, art, independent, amateur) find themselves mixing up paper and pixels, bookshops, pdf’s and print-on-demand, quite happily. (my local paper in Sydney actually has an article on ebooks today and there’s another site here).
For me, Alessandro’s evocative description of the failure of pixels to overwhelm paper and print is important and compelling. Yet I’m also wondering about our body/our feelings in relation to pixels – how does that side of things play out? The problem is perhaps one of re-embodying our relation to text – to words and images – differently. It takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it’s happening. And although we can talk about the rights and wrongs of it, it’s not something we can resist. This also had to happen with paper and print. It has to happen for each of us. As individuals (over a certain age perhaps) our attachment to books began early. Like a lot of people, I remember the first times I stayed awake in bed reading because a book. Here was something I could hold, more than that, an object that set up the world of my body and its sensations completely differently. It seemed to give me its entire attention – it “looked back at me” – precisely because it did close me in on my own world (not that different from a laptop really). I also remember the books my grandmother used to buy me. My grandmother (who came from a long line of Welsh school teachers) used to buy me “classics”, often leather (or at least pseudo leather) bound and yes, I can remember how they looked, their feel. I also remember, when a graduate student of literature, finishing Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which has a peculiarly sad ending, and getting so angry with the book – the physical object – that I threw it against a wall.
At this stage, I’d never seen a computer, and didn’t have to contemplate my relation to different forms of text, to pixels in short. Now I do. I work with text on screen for at least eight hours a day – and I’m sure this is also leading me to embody a relation to text in pixel form. It’s just as passionate. I might not have thrown my powerbook against the wall yet – but that’s only because it’s too expensive. I’ve had to stop myself a couple of times – we have a definite love-hate relationship. And I know I embody different affective ecologies with pixels, differently across different packages. Email is a shocker at the moment – my whole body shifts in expectation (for better for worse) when I open the browser for it. I can’t stand Word, although I use it (swearing) all the time. I like some other text programmes. For some reason I don’t mind writing online, especially in collaborative environments (it never quite feels so lonely). There are also an increasing number of things I like to read online, rather than offline. At the same time, like a lot of people, I can’t imagine reading a novel online – yet. Although, I like good design in paper and pixels (actually I think I prefer good design in pixels to paper now – as much as I love both).
I guess I’m repeating the point that it takes time for us – individually and culturally – to create new ecologies – complex, deeply affective ecologies of relations to our own bodies, objects and the bodies of others – in which we can embody a relation to pixels (and more importantly, the much more complex relations that we now experience across a range of forms of publishing, atom-based and pixel-based, often all at once). The story/myth goes that once (into the middle ages) there was very little silent reading. When this simple fact sinks in, you realise how important silent reading is. Much of our sense of being an individual, and a diminishing of our sense of being dependent on others – living communally – depends on it. Yet for a long time, not only could many not read, if they could, many couldn’t read without speaking the words (there is of course debate about this, although this is more than a question of literacy). Silent reading – which seems “natural”, is something that had to be learnt – culturally and individually. Learning it transformed culture. It led to new pleasures, and perhaps the a new kind of person (the individual). These new experiences were no substitute for reading aloud, which persists today, but they did add to it immeasurably. They also departed from it. And of course, this changed culture immeasurably.
Much of the same applies to the relations between pixels and paper. This is about unstable text versus more stable, and about “interactivity”, but it is also perhaps about more than this – socially at least; and affectively. There’s actually been a lot of discussion about the instability of pixels, and about interactivity. Indeed, we are probably fairly used to the idea of thinking through how interacting with text makes a culture of pixels different – McLuhan, Ulmer, Pierre Lévy and many others have discussed this kind of thing. This is valuable, but thinking about interaction in this way – as the “new” thing happening to text – is to look at pixels from the point of view of the past, not the future perhaps … from the point of view of the printing press, or from that of the kind of individualism made possible with the “invention” of silent reading. Much more interesting today even than the revolution in interactive reading per se, is the publishing revolution (a huge shift in the relations between reading and writing, between the individual and the collective). Ulmer in particular has dealt with this in a highly original manner. This is not so much a question – in fact to some extent it is a question to be avoided – for the larger companies and established institutions, even if they are trying to figure out how to leverage the digital. Smaller independents (such as Alessandro’s Neural), are able to respond in much more interesting ways. As importantly – so is everyone whose interests are not invested in a given arrangement of reading and writing. Here the shift that pixel publishing provides in terms of community is crucial. I guess I think Alessandro is right about the possibility of knowing (print) and now knowing (pixels) the audience when one publishes in these different forms (although I’d like to hear more). However, it is also true perhaps that sometimes these days online one can know one’s audience – precisely because they are one’s friends, or become one’s friends, and because in the process writing, reading and publishing are never quite finished.
What does it mean when everyone is a publisher as a well as a reader and writer? This is a different question to that of interactive pixels. This has even become a bit of a commercial problem for ISPs in Australia. Most of them don’t currently charge for uploads, because in the past people were mostly downloading (I can’t remember the rate but it was something like only 5-20% of traffic was uploads). Now uploads to downloads are occurring in a ration approaching 1/1. Many are thinking of charging for uploads.
These kinds of shifts put institutions and traditional practices into a strange position. Let’s take the university – where shifts in the nature of publishing affect things from funding for research to the cultural (and embodied) habits of students in relation to learning. Academics are natural pixel users themselves – I think led by the sciences more than the humanities or even design/arts. Yet many academics – and certainly many universities – by and large don’t understand, or want to understand – this shift in the distribution of power and the new forms of embodiment in relation to the communal experience of knowledge. Some are adapting – famously MIT for example (my impression is that a threshold is being reached as regards these changes in places such as Amsterdam). However, the fact that many students are used to creating their own contexts for writing and reading – and want flexible contexts often different to those provided for them by the institution – is a difficult one to deal with. It’s difficult for academics, they have long been used to holding the keys to the literacy kingdom. (I’m not saying that students shouldn’t have to read books – and I do think there are problems in the new formations of reading and writing involved in new media … we still need to adapt however).
This is reflected in other areas. It’s difficult for publishers, for designers (it’s terrible I know but I love clunky amateur web design – I’d never go for it in a book), for writers, for similar reasons. In general, as established publishers, artists, designers, publishers, we all have an affective investment in what our bodies, minds and feelings are good at, what sensations we are good at dealing with (although Spinoza – and everything that follows him – would suggest that we try and expand beyond our habitual investments). Our institutions tend to follow the investments of those who work there – and vice versa – the more the more senior they are. The sad result is that innovation is often blocked. This doesn’t mean there is no need for academics, good writers and editors, designers, publishers, institutions – it doesn’t mean that everything has to be abandoned. However, it might fundamentally change what these professions and institutions do. Or rather it is changing things fundamentally, and an increasing amount of conflict within traditional institutions surrounds this change.
Personally, I know things are changing for me. When I “studied computing” the first time (in 1974), the “computer” was a large calculator. Computers will never be “natural” to me. Despite this, I know that in terms of academic publishing my ratio of reading online/self-edited material to offline/other edited material is now towards 1/1. I have different relations to them but I am developing am embodied/affective relation to them both – and often both at once.
These relations are not always what one might expect. I used to be well-known as a PhD student for always carrying around a worn copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (a book as a kind of talisman). This book gave me great pleasure – more than tactile, this book was a crucial part of my “umwelt”. However, after I finished my PhD I suddenly realised one day that I never finished reading it. My pleasure in the object was indeed in the object – not necessarily in reading it. On the other hand, I read a massive amount of material online now – more usually than not several things at once. I think one reason for this is precisely that I tend sometimes don’t treasure specific pixels as much as the book (or not quite in the same way). So reading can be a funny thing in relation to the objects – paper or pixels – with which we read.