Stunning Book Craft Vid, Roland Barthes, and Reading Practices

I’ve been busy lately. Like everyone else out there who reads this blog, most likely. Grading. Prepping. Teaching. Reading. Researching. Adds up, I know. You know. So today, and maybe for at least the next couple of weeks, I’ll be pointing at some things with a bit of commentary. Hope you like it enough. Here’s the first of several…

I am in love with this animation. (I don’t think it’s stop-motion. Most likely CGI, given the smoothness of the transitions and other clues. Maybe.)

What strikes me first is that the video emphasizes the close connection between the words on the page and what we construct out of them in our heads. Language is certainly material. Paper, ink, printing presses, glues, etc. And it’s representational as well. And it’s more complicated than that, of course. The details of those clarifications are not what’s important to me about this. What’s important is the idea of construction. Texts as constructed objects. Texts as constructed experiences. This video seems to be working on either eliding those two concepts or highlighting just how much they have in common.

Let me explain. I first want to foreground and then get to the other side of the concept of the physical book as a constructed object (see above). It’s got pages, a cover, title page, inks, fonts, etc. And the form of the book (the codex…) is social constructed as well. A quick look at this history of binding technologies and textual circulation will point out that there are all sorts of forms for textual organization possible. The book evolved socially along with the technologies we use to preserve and circulate our texts. So… I’m going to move on to a different sort of construction.

I’m thinking of the difference between the work and the text that Roland Barthes makes (see S/Z, From Work to Text, and Theory of the Text for a nice long discussion and realization of that distinction). In “From Work to Text,” Barthes offers an alternative to the decoding practices he worked out in Mythologies, to the linear chain of significations articulated by Derrida. Instead of a single center, Barthes suggests that “the text is plural… it accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible… plural. … it answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination. The plural of the Text depends, that is, not on the ambiguity of its contents but on what might be called the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifiers” (“From Work” 159). Any reading of a text must be understood as one of an infinite multitude of possible readings. Thus meaning and infinite signification no longer contradict each other. But fundamental to such a theory of the text is the advent of the reader in the meaning making process. Barthes, likening the text to a musical score, writes that “the text is very much a score of this new kind: it asks of the reader a practical collaboration. Which is an important change, for who executes the work? … Nowadays only the critic executes the work” (163).

Basically, as I read his work, he defines the text as the work of the author in constructing the arguments, images, references, and linguistic styles which appear on the page. And it is the reader who, effectively, repurposes these assets into a meaningful experience/object for themselves. In this way, writing and reading have very close meanings. And they are both obviously activities of construction.

Which is what I think is so amazing about this particular video, the way that it foregrounds the “constructed” nature of reading a book. What’s ironic, and refreshing, is that it uses the material assets of the book to do so… in a way that Barthes’s work, by focusing only on the semiotic, fails to recognize.

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