Whether or not “the book will kill the building,” as Victor Hugo claimed, books have historically manifested one of the strongest trajectories of a death drive that seeks to kill the aura of singularity which the architectural object, among others, is so often claimed to signify. If today there are insurgent electronic forms which are on target to kill the printed book, this should not be understood as either another episode in a progressive cycle of innovation, nor as a liberation akin to the one that photography is said to have bestowed upon painting. Rather, this presents the ongoing unfolding of the innately destructive charter of the book form and the self-annihilating force of a thing that would free itself from materiality.
Print has long formed the vanguard of industrial production and and underwritten the commodity capitalism it engendered. Premodern books were magical power objects because of the great quantity of skilled labor required to produce each one and, in largely illiterate societies, the rarefied knowledge necessary to use them. This is, in modern terms, precisely because they were done wrong. Luddite weavers — finding their work in the crosshairs of another of capital’s “killer apps” — may have broken into factories and smashed power looms, but it is hard to imagine monks feeling anything but joy at being set free from lives of perpetual transcription. In fact it was more often the case that printers and the free-thinking, literate publics called into being by their products, directed a destructive fury against the monks and their opaque, non-textual icons.
The conventions of the print book — that enlightened yet emphatically non-luminous script-without-a-hand that followed the illuminated manuscript — reflect the book’s efficient integration as a commodity into the logistics of industrial production. Forms and formats become simplified and standardized. Books become portable, smaller, enclosed in paper rather than leather or wood. Page numbers appear. Lines of text expand in space. Roman type — a dialectical hybrid of hand and machine, looking simultaneously forward to the technics of the type foundry and backward to the stone mason’s chisel — is developed as a universal alphabet for European publishing.
The emergence of the book form as a print commodity should not, however, be reductively understood as a mere effect of the logistics and procedures of industrial capitalism. While Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the mid-fifteenth century is claimed to have laid the foundation for not only capitalism, but also the Reformation, nationalism, bourgeois democracy, and even socialism, fixing such a stable historical truth would require the staging of a discursive séance communing with, and arbitrating between, technology’s ghost in the machine, the “spirit of the age,” and a host of other spectral entities, which are beyond our powers to summon. What is clear, however, even to materialist vulgarians like ourselves, is that printed books are integral to the foundations, instrumental to the machinations, and starkly symptomatic of the effects of the regime of abstraction and transformation that is capitalism.
The abstract circulation of capital was historically accelerated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the material circulation of an ever-expanding array of textual objects which print unleashed — advertisements, stock market reports, paper currencies, maps, almanacs, accounting manuals, etc. — all of which enabled more highly standardized and efficient speculative and entrepreneurial practices. But the decisive relation to emphasize here is technical: Gutenberg’s moveable type introduced to Europe, more than three centuries ahead of its general adoption by industry, the theory of interchangeable parts which is the basis of all modern rationalizing mass-manufacturing technique. The printed book is the prototype of the industrial commodity, the means of its production is the blueprint for the factory, and the content it disseminated was fundamental to the managerial disciplines of the emerging capitalist class.
At every stage in the history of the book, with the development of every new technology of inscription, the same desacrilizing, democratizing, and defetishizing political effect is asserted. Always simultaneously, however, a new set of fetishes and sacred objects is created, as one technology renders its antecedent obsolescent. While the form of the book was largely fashioned in the transition from handcraft to industrial production, it is currently mutating in the post-industrial matrix of the present. Digital and electronic conditions of production and circulation have been hopefully, but naively, understood as harbingers of, among other things, the death of the author and the all-encompassing expansion of the text. In 1997 Jacques Derrida, speaking at the Bibliothéque Nationale, affirmed the technological emergence of “open textual processes offered on boundless international networks, for the interactive intervention of readers turned co-authors.” But what has become of the materiality of these brave new stateless and author-less forms and the labor by which they are produced?
Today the sale of ebooks has grown to over a quarter of total books sales. This is up from only 3% in the early 2000s. Is this the beginning of the end for the printed book, or are the doomsayers watching the bible market at a time when the real action is shifting to almanacs and balance sheets? Despite the hype, it’s not obvious this electronic form will continue its upward tendency and supplant the print book. The ebook is difficult to grasp — it’s barely legible as a form. It advances a trajectory of information seeking ever purer abstraction, beyond materiality, and beyond form itself as it is conventionally understood. In ebooks the commodity form has almost completely overtaken the book form. The ebook first found solid ground as a commodity by mimicking the forms of the print book: pages and covers. People supposedly make millions of dollars selling them, and there are countless get-rich-quick schemes which attempt to translate the nearly zero capital requirement for ebook production into wealth, freedom and the full realization of the neo-liberal ideal of frictionless, autonomous, entrepreneurial production.
The form of ebooks is defined by its ephemerality. Only nominally “objects,” they are doomed to dispersion on lonely data clouds. They can only sustain value as long as access is controlled and they can be formally insulated from the sludge of low-resolution data which makes up the background noise of online information. All of this cuts against the grain, or rather, swims against the current of the internet’s fluid logistics. What is more enduring, however, is the networked architecture of digital texts, which orders the massive, collectively authored book we call the World Wide Web. Print books clearly recede and mutate before this oceanic medium. They are absorbed by it but also haunt it with traces of old forms and practices, like ghost ships troubling the virtual sea lanes of a new global empire.
They might also represent a resistance. But this resistance is not (only?) human, and we who print books must not flatter ourselves that it simply belongs to us. To claim it as such and to look for salvation in a return to the luminously illuminated, magically hand-crafted icon book, is to confuse resistance for reaction, and to start down a path that would lead not only to poverty but also to chastity, and obedience to a corrupt and calcified patrimony of ruin. Neither, however, must we imagine that there is much to be gained in soldiering for the other side, just as in the sixteenth century, when armies tended to hire only mercenary “freelancers” and to pay only in the meager booty that could be looted from the waste left in the wake of their campaigns of “disruptive” creative destruction. If the luminous, pre-capitalist book form is rejected then so too must the harsh glare of an enlightenment offered by the new, libertarian Round-Heads, with their piratical posturing, blasting away with their blunderbusses, hawking bootlegged bibles and pandering tracts printed in their local doggerel dialects. Instead, we makers of books must become “book makers” in the sense of ledger-keepers and form-finders, who put aside the bible to get to work on the calculating of odds and the making of speculations. We must make new games so that we can learn how to take risks and place bets — perhaps with currency we print ourselves. We must also learn how to fix fights and hedge our liabilities.
Other Forms is an experiment in this game-making and form-spinning. It is “playful” but brutally real, and conscious of being almost certainly doomed to failure … or worse. As an anti-capitalist business venture, we bet against the house, knowing that the house always wins. We do not seek to invest our books with dreams of heroic resistance or autonomy (least of all the “autonomy of form”). Instead we hope to learn from them the inhuman courage of self-annihilation and the drive towards formlessness. Other Forms rushes to take part in the dance of death that, without paradox, we see as the most vital and enduring vector of the history in which we, and our work, are swept up.
Come dance with us.