Landow, “logics” of print, and book futures

"Chains," foxypar4, Flickr, creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licenseReading Landow’s Hypertext 3.0 this morning, working through some of his ideas about the future of the book and my own inquiry (yes, I’m looking at you, dissertation) into the future of the digital scholarly text. As I’ve been reading, I’ve started to come to understand the basic genre of the book as a multipurpose machine. Maybe even little engines started, fueled, throttled by our own reading practices. (Taken too far, the analogy gets cumbersome, though.) So I find myself especially interested in Landow’s assertion that:

“We find ourselves, for the first time in centuries, able to see the books as unnatural, as near-miraculous technological innovation and not as something intrinsically and inevitably human. We have, to use Derridean terms, decentered the book. We find ourselves in the position, in other words, of perceiving the books as technology. (46) … “Books… are teaching and communicating machines.” (49)

I’m not so much interested in machines as a figurative approach to conceptualizing books. Instead, I find that books literally operate as semiotic machines. Books have an internal machinery operating as systems of tables-of-contents, indices, page numbers, headers. Any given book itself also operates as an object in a multiplicity of social, cultural, academic,and economic systems (and more). In one sense, machine; in another sense, black box. For the sake of this post, I’m more interested in the mechanistic model.

The first chapter of my dissertation focuses on two theoretical inquiries: book history and the future of the book. Each of those threads are capacious and complicated enough to constitute their own disciplines, so clearly, I’ve had to narrow the focus of my own interests. I’ve worked to combine them into a single gesture: the rhetoric of historicizing the future of digital texts, with an emphasis, where possible, on scholarly texts. There’s a lot of hair-splitting to be done here, and I think it’s important.

For instance, how am I defining “rhetoric of”? Well, I don’t exactly draw on any scholarship which examines this sort of move. Instead, I attempt to locate what I see as representative instances “historicizing the future of the book,” and attempt to cull common rhetorical moves or patterns. (This is the sort of common scholarly project that Min-Zhan Lu challenges her graduate students [aka me] in her courses. It’s truly fascinating work.)

I can start to see Landow enter into that sort of rhetorical space when he asserts that “the logic of a particular technology cannot permit simple prediction” (50). Not only is he careful to avoid specific predictions, he goes so far as to argue against the possibility of precise prediction. What he does offer, though, is a term he borrows from Kernan. A technology’s “logic” works as a sort of conceptual momentum or historically-organizing principle. (Still thinking this through.) In other words there are a multitude of factors shaping any given technology (or set of technologies). Those factors can range from demands we put on technologies (think automobiles/mileage, or hard drives and storage), assumptions we have about technologies (consider the frustrations publicly voiced about BP’s lack of “action” regarding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill) or fears we have about technologies (lab-based genetic engineering, for instance). Most of these are social. But there are cultural and economic factors to consider as well.

What I want to point out is that not only do we use technologies in our everyday lives, but we “have ideas about” them, too. Some scholars fold these ideas into their arguments as our “relationships” to technologies. We have specific sets of uses and contexts for any given technology in our lives, and we’re often not comfortable when those uses and contexts are challenged. For instance, there are plenty of scholars who’ve written that print-books will never die because no one wants to take a laptop into bed or the bathtup with them. All of the romanticizing about the musty smell and marginalia of books with which they’ve lived so long also reveal how difficult it can be for some people to destabilize certain relationship they have with technologies.

When considering the future of (or even prognosticating about) a technology, it’s important to keep in mind these relationships we have with them. These considerations are especially important to the future of the book. Landow (quoting Kernan) writes:

“‘knowledge of the leading principles of print logic, such as fixity, multiplicity, and systematization, makes it possible to predict the tendencies but not the exact ways in which they were to manifest themselves in the history of writing” (50-51).

“Leading” is an important term operating in the quotation above. It implies a hierarchy of principles that structure a relationship. I’m not completely sure what he means by “leading,” though. Are these our initial impressions of a technology? Are they the most important? Are they the most common? Are they the most established or entrenched? Not sure. I’m going to take the liberty to assume (because it fits my own purposes here) that he’s arguing that fixity, multiplicity, and systemization are the most common principles, across various social spheres, organizing our “relationships” to print texts (i.e. books).

Identifying the leading and trailing principles governing our relationships to technologies allows us to identify which aspects of a technology are most open to change. Think about electronic texts. There’s nothing about the organization of a computer or website that implies almost any relationship (physically or visually) to a print page. Yet, what we have are web “pages,” and PDFs with “pages,” and electronic books with pages. The medium changes, but the semiotic principles necessary for us to experience something as a book or text remain more steadfast. When considering the future of the book, particularly scholarly books, it will be essential to keep in mind not just what is technologically possible or preferable, but rather what we as consumers/researchers are willing to concede and what we’re not.

“Chains,” foxypar4, Flickr, creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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