In a recent entry, I offered a working definition of a "book" as: "an historically situated, paginated object that represents and has emerged from a recursive negotiation between socially produced ideas, materials, and tools." Yeah, not great. But it’s got some important elements that are relevant to my discussion of Erdman’s discussion of Blake’s illuminated manuscripts. Something akin to the illuminated manuscripts being purely Blake’s original vision because he had so much control over the whole process.
The first idea I want to talk about is the idea of control and process. (I also want to make it clear that I’m not trying to directly engage Erdman or Blake in this post. Just working through some ideas in response to the two writers.) From what I know of Blake’s process, experience, and skill he did, actually, have almost complete control over his process. And I would guess that it’s part of the reason the manuscripts are so damn stunning. But control has limits, and I want to think about how control cannot be taken for granted as resulting in texts resembling what the writer actually wants. Control is actually pretty useless, even potentially destructive, when it’s not accompanied by competence…
…with all aspects of production, including materials, process, context, history, and economics. For instance, in the case of his manuscripts, Blake was at least competent (big understatement here) in each of these aspects. He knew his way around the language of the poems, and he was experienced with the materials, equipment, and process of the print shop. He knew his audience, and he understood the extent to which could push the limits of the "multi-media" aspects of his composition in order to work effectively, both in the world of the visual arts and the world of letters. He knew the history of previous such works. And he understood the economic limits of his choices. Not a huge circulation. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to argue that he could have made better choices or executed them with more skill.
But there’s a flip-side to Blake’s particular production model. What, for instance, if he’d not understood how to produce images suitable for economically viable printing methods? What if he’d merely produced images similar to the etched line-drawings, which up until then were really the only examples he had to work from. What if he’d not understood strategies for balancing the text with the images? What if he’d only worked from the squares-and-rectangles models too-often borrowed unreflectively from pamphlets and broadsides? His manuscripts were revolutionary because he had a variety of competences AND control.
Think about architects and clients. About great houses when each party communicates well with the other. Think about great musicians with great record producers. Think about a singer who finds out the hard way he can’t write hit songs to save his life. Think about the homeowner who can build that spiral staircase himself. There’s an important relationship to consider between control and expertise. Great designers know that they’d be best served to leave the type design to a specialist if they can. Or they set about doing what they need to do in order to gain that expertise on their own.
Okay, okay. Multimedia designers. Producers of digital books. Like building a house, or an illuminated manuscript, or opening a restaurant, producing digital texts requires a wide variety of skills. I know. No secret to most of you reading this blog. So what, exactly, is the payoff here for you reading this now?
Collaborate. Collaborate. Collaborate. Don’t be afraid to seek help. Get training. Collaborate with people who have the skills you don’t have. Collaborate with people who have the skills you want to learn. Collaborate with people who are smarter than you are. Listen to your collaborators. Challenge your collaborators. Listen to your editors. Challenge your editors. And feel good for having the humility and confidence to bother with it.