A Certain Historical Orientation Toward Avant-Design

Cheryl, Debra, and I just recently submitted another draft of The New Work of Composing to the CCDP. The process is taking a long time, longer than any of us expected, but we’re sort of working in uncharted territory here. As part of this project, we had at least three significant goals. First, we wanted to collect and make available a body of scholarship exploring how the practices, technologies, politics, and materials of composing were changing as we move further into the twenty-first century. I can confidently say that we’ve been extremely fortunate in terms of the quality of work submitted/revised/completed for each of the collection’s chapters. (Wow. Really, I can’t say enough about how much I enjoy the work these authors produced.) Second, we wanted to explore different notions about the nature of “the book” as the encroachment of digital bibliographic technologies continues to accelerate. And finally, we wanted to offer and demonstrate specific textual-formal responses to the questions we had hoped to explore, as well as some conundrums we hadn’t really expected. We cover a lot of these reflections, narratives, admissions, and revelations in the collection’s introduction and afterword. And I might end up including, here on the blog, some of what I’ve already contributed to those components, or at least versions.

I think, as editors, we’ve had to reckon with several formal aspects of the traditional form of the book (read: the codex). Personally, I’ve been particularly interested in the generic concepts of the table of contents and the index. Cheryl, I think has been most interested in the TOC, the index, and what we’re going to end up calling “the binder.” And Debra has continually challenged each of us to deal with one overwhelming question: “What makes a book a book?” Of course each of the elements of production has been a collaborative effort, and each of us has made significant contributions to each of those discussions.

In my next couple of posts, I’m going to reflect some on a process emerging for me (a heuristic, even?) regarding the design of traditional paratextual elements (TOC, index, cover, colophon, etc.) in terms of their material, social, economic, cultural, and semio-rhetorical history. More succinctly, questions like this one: “In light of emerging digital technologies, how should we rethink our notions of the traditional end-of-book index in light of emerging digital technologies? And how can we actively participate in the production of a new type of index?”

These sorts of questions are complex, and they are ripe to be contested. That gets me excited. In my next post, I’ll offer a gloss of my working model for historicizing the new media design traditional textual elements. Mostly it’s a set of questions based on a certain historical orientation toward avant-design. And I’ll be using these posts to reflect on some of the specific questions we encountered as part of this editorial and design process, as well our responses to those explorations.

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