Sunday, September 10, 2006

Reflections on Gutenberg, books, writing, and the Internet

The very first book that I am assigned to read for my graduate program is The Order of Books by Roger Chartier (Stanford University Press, 1992.) It is a series of three essays that examine the changes to reading and books between the middle ages and the eighteenth century. The first essay, titled "Communities of Readers," consider how reading was transformed through the invention of the Gutenberg press from something reserved for the wealthy to something that was more accessible to regular people through the ability to mass produce more books for consumption. Chartier states his question to be, "how did increased circulation of printed matter transform forms of sociability, permit new modes of thought, and change people's relationship with power?" (p. 3). He says, There is a relationship between reader and writer that is bound by customs and criticism. Charier has dual presuppositions a. "reading is not already inscribed in the text with no conceivable gap between the meaning assigned to it and the interpretation that its readers might make of it; and, as a corollary, that a text exists only because there is a reader to give it meaning. He also notes that "reading is always a practice embodied in acts, spaces, and habits. In addition, he explores the construction of reading from something that is done through oral vocalizations to something that is done in silence.

One of the central things that I bring to this book is my own ruminations about books, the creation of books, and, in the case of the first chapter, the creation of readers and audiences for books and writers. This has been on my mind powerfully as a poet because a central question of being a poet and writing poems is wondering how to find the readers for the poems. Particularly for me as a lesbian-feminist poet and writer. When I took a day long writing workshop with Minnie Bruce Pratt, she unequivocally stated that we must take control of our audience and create our own publications to reach our readers. She said that this is what she did as a young poet and feminist, in particular in conjunction with the Feminary Collective. I found this very powerful at the time and in fact still do. It propelled me to explore creating my own postcards, broadsides, and hand-stitched "chaplet." Finding an audience, a community of readers as Chartier calls it, is not just something that happened in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, I think it is a critical and central question for writers and readers today. Certainly there are some different implications, but the underlying issues are the same.

The second essay of The Order of Books is titled, "Figures of the Author." It takes up the questions of single authorial ownership and how that emerged. Chartier writes, "in the latter half of the eighteenth century a somewhat paradoxical connection was made between a desired professionalization of literary activity (which should provide remuneration in order for writers to live from their writings) and the authors' representation of themselves in an ideology of literature founded on the radical autonomy of the work of art and the disinterestedness of the creative act." There was a paradoxical tension in which there was an ability to move from writers relying exclusively on patronage to supporting themselves through book sale and distribution, but both economic realities worked against the imagined idealization of writers and written works of art being "inspired" and somehow outside of the economic system. I think that this paradox is still operational today. It is one of the theoretical underpinnings of my "Queer Culture" essay. We want to have inspired and powerful examples of queer cultural work, but we don't necessarily want to understand the economic environment in which those happen.

The chapter on the Author also deals with how legal understandings of copyright evolved during these periods and impacted how authors were viewed and created as a cultural figure. Most significantly, Chartier writes that "in 1784, two ancient models for the author's condition remained dominant: the writer either enjoyed an economic independence assured by birth or profession or lived on gratifications and sinecures procured from patronage. The new phenomenon of a social status founded solely on the remuneration of writing emerged only with difficulty within the mental framework of the ancien regime" (p. 48.) It is interesting how much later than the Gutenberg Press this notion of economic independence for writers emerged; Gutenberg made his first press in 1450. Moreover, further evolution has happened for the figure of the author; most particularly other forms of support have emerged: the author as academic and the author as journalist. I'm interested in that evolution, but Chartier doesn't address it as it is a much more modern emergence.

The question of authorship is interesting because of the recent controversies about authorship (James Frey, for instance, and Kaavya Viswanatha, the young woman who apparently plagiarized part of the "chick lit" book that she wrote for a substantial advance for a large publishing company), but also because of how authorship is being impacted and changed by the Internet. Certainly, anonymous authorship is more possible on the Internet, but I would also argue that there is more collaborative authorship possibilities because of the Internet. First, authors and like-minded writers can find one another more easily because of email and the web. Second, they can exchange information and ideas more quickly. As an example, I submit a weblog in which I participate, Woman-Stirred, as an example. There are five of us that contribute to the blog postings; we discuss posting via email often, though not always, in advance; each of us can post individually and we have a collective posting option. I've been involved for just about a year now and it has evolved throughout that time. I would never consider it an individual blog-though I have made some individual postings. It is a collective blog with collective authorship. I think that it is changing some of the notions of authorship as Chartier outlines them in this book.

The final essay is titled "Libraries without Walls." It chronicles the development of libraries in the early years of mass production of books. A central question of the class that I am taking is, Are libraries necessary? I want to take up that idea later in a separate post. I'll just say that one of the profound experiences that I had at school was the orientation to McKeldin Library. There are so many resources available to me as a student and it was an incredible relief and sense of validation as a scholar to have those resources suddenly available to me after toiling for the last few years to think and write and work without them. While I have always heralded the Internet as a great equalizer for information and ideas and reveled in the resources that I have had for my work from it, seeing what is available now to me, demonstrates how limited I was before.

The question of libraries though is also one for the Internet. One of the projects that I completed this summer was "publishing" my essay on "Queer Culture." It is a photocopied folio and it is published online at Woman-Stirred. Experimenting with those two forms of publishing was incredibly thought-provoking and stimulating. First, to be able to control my release of it was empowering and Minnie Bruce Pratt said that it would be. It also highlighted my limitations. I'd like a good editor. I'd like more editorial feedback in my writing process. It is exhausting and challenging to produce everything oneself. It is also challenging to figure out how to get it out to readers. I've mailed out about 40 copies and given many copies away. It is a balance between feeling incredibly narcissistic for putting my ideas out there and knowing that if I don't do it no one else will. This independent publishing, though, is outside of libraries and in many ways inaccessible to libraries. That is something that must be overcome because I think that libraries are such an essential part of our collective history.

Ultimately, I think that part of what is happening in the world today in relationship to the Internet is similar to what happened with the creation of books through moveable type. There is a new means of production for things to be published, i.e. on the web or on email, and we are seeing the changes that evolve in conjunction wtih that. Technological changes are impacting publishers, but they are also impacting readers - how we find readers, how readers expect to encounter texts - and writers. I'm interested in how this evolution can be used for queer liberation and queer culture and I'm interested in my ideas about that being informed by sound history.

This journey will continue.

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