Monday, January 30, 2012

The unstable text

In an interview widely reported today, the American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, reveals his preference for the pbook (the physical book) as opposed to the ebook. He comments: "Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing - that’s reassuring. Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough” ( Here, Franzen seems to suggest that the literary afficionado functions best through the printed book, particularly because of its place in time and place (close to how Walter Benjamin describes 'aura'). But, contrary to Franzen's belief in the fragility and impermanence of the digital medium, Matt Kirschenbaum, and others, have concluded that the digital--in each individual instantiation of a 'text'--is as permanent or 'fixed', as 'fixable', as anything printed (see Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination [MIT Press, 2007]).

This may well, at the level of the byte, say, be true, but it is also to assume, as Franzen does here, that print itself is unchanging, irrevocably the same each time the printed book is encountered. This cannot be true, particularly with regard to a book's materiality which inevitably degrades, or is altered through being handled, or collects dust. For the 'text' itself (which I would regard as inseparable from the artefact's materiality)--widely understood as the words or images on the page--these change, of course. They change from imprint to imprint and from edition to edition, even if only through an updated paratext, a newly designed cover, the emendation of an earlier error, or, on a grander scale, multiple editorial interventions.

The distinction between the digital and the physical artefact ('analogue') as a distinction between the transient and the fixed, the impermanent and the stable, the immaterial and the material is not a useful one. And, just a reminder for all the post-1500 readers: it is through a detailed understanding of manuscript culture that one might better understand the nature of TEXT in its broadest sense. It is there that the idea of the eventful text is most easily investigated and analysed and there that the efforts to make human endeavour permanent can most clearly and poignantly be seen.


  1. Hello,

    With all of the responses to Franzen, it's especially good to see ones like this, informed by a long and deep view of the materiality of books. But while I agree with your response to JF, unfortunately I cannot agree with your characterization of my own views, specifically the notion that "print itself is unchanging, irrevocably the same each time the printed book is encountered." As early as 2002 I wrote:

    "Ask a Beowulf scholar whether printed matter is really “durable” or “monologic,” or a Wordsworthean whether the text(s) of The Prelude are “static” and exhibit “unity.” Those are not special cases (pedantic exceptions to normative textual conditions), and the tendency to elicit what is “new” about new media by contrasting its radical mutability with the supposed material stolidity of older textual forms is a misplaced gesture, symptomatic of the general extent to which textual studies and digital studies have failed to communicate."

    See for more, as well as the piece on "Editing the Interface" in TEXT 2002.

    Best, Matt

  2. Hi Matt,

    I was thinking specifically of, and agreeing with, your published view that: 'this [book]...seeks to provide a corrective to certain commonplace notions of new media writing--that electronic texts are ephemeral...or that electronic texts are somehow inherently unstable and always open to modification...or that electronic texts are always identical copies of one other' (Mechanisms, p. 17). My point is that each instance, each individual manifestation, of a text is unique and that every digital instance is as 'real' and 'permanent' as print (that is, not transient, not infinitely malleable).

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