Jumping from our presentation on the Blake Archive a couple weeks ago, I would like to dedicate this blog post to one particular issue raised by digitizing Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – and, generally speaking, by the process of digital remediation – that is the question of the materiality of the print book and its implications.
What do you lose by getting rid of the book? What does the print book offer that the digital one does not? Does the change of frame affect our reception of Blake’s work? According to Andrew Piper in Dreaming in Books, in the 19th century, “it was precisely the materiality of the book that provided the contours to such imagining, indeed to the imagination itself.” But what about TMHH? Blake himself experimented with the concept of the book by combining textual and visual elements in order to unsettle the reader’s reception; eventually contributing to the redefinition of literature. Blake already complicated the traditional signification of the book. With the development of digital technology, the role of the print book is no longer evident.
Is literature contained within the print book? According to Piper, it was during the 19th century that this idea started to spread with “the emergence of this nexus between the book and literature”. Yet, the growing popularity of devices like Kindles and e-books seem to disprove it. Indeed, digitizing a book amounts to separating literature and print book by transposing literature onto another platform, another space removed from the physical book. According to Piper, it leads us to “reimagine a literary work as residing not in a single book but as part if an interrelated bibliographic network.” Matthew Kirschenbaum in his article entitled “Bookscapes: Modeling Books in Electronic Space” enriches this discussion by explaining that “books on the screen are not books, they are models of books.” What is literature then? For Katherine N. Hayles in “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis”, literature is to be met as “the interplay between form and medium.” Following this statement, we may wonder: what does a book do? To answer this question, Kirshenbaum identifies for instance what he calls five affordances of the book: “books are simultaneously sequential and random access”, “books are volumetric objects”, “books are finite”, “books offer a fundamentally comparative space”, and finally “books are writeable”.
As Piper explains about in the 19th century: “Adapting to books… was not something that just happened. It necessitated significant reorganizations of both social and individual identities.” The apparition of a new cultural media affected individual identities. The same can be said today about the development of digital culture. As a result of remediation, literature becomes a social experience, a collective process. It no long constitutes a private, intimate experience, but a public and interconnected one, shared across the WWW.
The same transition – from private to collective – goes for the print book itself. When we read a book online, it seems that the question of possession comes into account. We cannot possess anything online because we, as users, are separated from the object in question. And few people know better than students/lovers of literature that a book constitutes a valuable possession. Yet, considering that possessions sometimes work as a way to complete a person, it seems that when we are online, we are losing that sense of possession, and by extension, that sense of completeness. In this sense, reading a book online may, in a way, amount to losing or at least to dispense with a part of ourselves. Moreover, the remediation from print book to the web implies moving the text from a stable and monolithic structure to one that is ever changing. The digital space thrives on evolution; it guarantees interconnection, universal access, and no virtual limits, which in theory sounds like an ideal accomplishment. Yet, as a fluid form of communication, it also constitutes a space of constant mobility and updating, a tool that escapes control and with which the individual can never keep up and can even potentially lose him/herself.
Could a system based on universal access and inclusion turn out to be alienating? Are books bound to undergo re-edition, re-appropriation, transformation, and maybe eventually, disintegration? It sounds like a dreadful prospect – maybe something to think about…
Hayles, N K. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: the Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” Music Educators Journal. 90 (2004): 67-90. Print.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Bookscapes: Modeling Books in Electronic Space”. Human-Computer Interaction Lab 25th Annual Symposium. May 29, 2008.
Piper, A. “Dreaming in Books: the Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age.” Literature & History. 20.2 (2011): 97. Print.