Unpacking Walter Benjamin

"My Bookshelf" via CarbonNYC's photostream on FlickrIt’s been a while since I last posted. I’ve been working on my dissertation prospectus as well as another really interesting project: co-editing a collection of digital scholarship (that is, digital scholarly texts investigating digital composing practices). I’ll write more about the dissertation later, but tonight, I’d like to reflect a bit more on one of the questions I articulated in an earlier post about the project: “What makes a book a book, both physically and conceptually?” In order to get at that question, I want to begin with the opening from Walter Benjamin’s great essay “Unpacking My Library”:

“I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated, with wood dust, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you many be ready to share with me a bit of the mood–certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation–which these books arouse in a genuine collector” (486)

Is there something here that might offer an insight into what books are? Or at least what we, as a culture, think they are? Well, sort of. What I find most striking about this passage is the richness of the imagery. And in that sense, I mean the connoisseur’s overt obsession with materiality. Benjamin lords over this book-strewn landscape like some conqueror or New World explorer. He is a god calling himself into existence. But it is an identity only defined by the library he is unpacking. And it’s this attention to the ontological dimension of words and ideas that are at the heart of how we define what books are, and what work they perform.

Following Benjamin, a book is very much a singular object with a particular history, and a specific lineage of ownership. To Benjamin, then, there’s no such thing as a “copy” of a book. Each volume emerges from the publishing house an iteration of each of the others, only to accrue a meaning and value of its own depending on its physical circulation and influence on particular readers. But that influence is multivalent.

Take as an example a particular volume of Barthes work, maybe a first edition of his autobiography, in its original French, free from underlining or marginalia. This book’s owner, on reading the volume might be struck with such an unorthodox manuscript. Collections of highly personal pictures. Intimate recollections of his childhood and early preoccupations. Constantly shifting strategies for referring to himself. This first owner might suspect that this work is not a book at all, but merely the ramblings of a self-obsessed nostalgic schizophrenic. But there’s no denying the materiality of the book. Durably bound in cloth covers. Good quality pages, consistent and machine cut. A respectable imprint. A demanding price. Even without Barthes’s fame at the time, any reader would have to suspect that this was a volume in which must investment had been made, and the content contained within framed within the context of that investment. This book is clearly an object of value–one worthy not only of reading, but of ownership–of being purchased, sold, kept, or discarded.

Barthes’s notoriety and scholarly reputation, too, must be considered in order to understand this book’s ontological operation. When (or in Benjamin’s case, if) the owner sets to work reading the volume, he will most likely have to come to terms with the ideas Barthes argues and explores throughout. Inevitably, these ideas will wield some influence over the reader. Weak or strong, positive or negative, the ideas must be reckoned with, and to some extent these ideas shape the reader’s thoughts and/or actions.

And these two ways of understanding books, ownership and influence, both factor into Benjamin’s sense of a particular book’s value. A book, in and of itself, establishes little about the person who owns it. A man who owns the Barthes autobiography mentioned above might have an interest in Barthes, autobiography, post-structuralism, or French public intellectuals. Or it might establish nothing. The man might have inherited the book, or received it as a poorly selected gift, revealing nothing of the man’s interests. However, a collection of books is much more revealing. Finding this book on a shelf among several other experimental autobiographies establishes a much different identity for the book’s owner than it would have had it been found among twelve other volumes of Barthes’s work. But it’s not merely the book’s presence on the shelf that establishes this semiotic value. Instead, it’s the assumption that the library’s owner has found the book worthy of investment. In one sense, this construction of collector’s value is recursive. Ownership and a place in one’s collection confers value on the book, while book itself becomes a materially constructs some element of the owner’s identity.

As Benjamin argues in his essay, this way of understanding the work and materiality of books becomes exponentially fascinating as books take on a lineage of owners and personal libraries. And throughout its life, each book changes. It takes on the patina of its earlier owners. It has a biography of acquisitions, losses, abuses, and rescues. And maybe the most fascinating aspect of a weathered or traveled book is the marginalia it picks up. Or the fact that it has little, if any. The intimate whispers of ghosts a book carries with it.

All this comes back to the overwhelming notion that books are material objects and that their value is inherent to this materiality. And while not everyone thinks about books in this way, I’ve tried to offer my own reading of Benjamin’s essay inflected by what I perceive as common cultural narratives circulating around books.

But the thing is, lots of these notions are in need of deconstruction within the context of the digital age. Books are going digital, and that slow transition (yes, it will be slow) has all sorts of cultural impacts. At the forefront of these shifts in perception is that “digital” books are “virtual” books. While the distinction might not seem important initially, when “virtual” is commonly juxtaposed with “material,” the implications for the future of books are potentially enormous. If digital books are non-material, will they lose their capacity to do the work they’ve always done?

Don’t fret. We can fix this. I’ve got a plan. But there’s a lot more I need to learn. And I’m gonna start with Mathew G. Kirschenbaum’s book Mechanism. His argument? “Digital” is very, very “material.”

And the skies parted…

(I can see these ideas connecting also to Heim’s Electric Language, Lessig’s Remix, Poster’s The Mode of Information, Brown and Duguid’s The Social Life of Information, Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution, Bolter’s Writing Space, and Lanham’s Electronic Word. Anyone out there see another text that might productively inform this sort of investigation?)

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