The book-fetish

The reactions to Encyclopedia Britannica’s cessation of a print edition has oscillated between nostalgia and a reverent fear for the future of literacy. “Won’t our children know what a book is anymore?” Behind that question, however, is not merely a luddite rejection of technology but a fetishism of the book that undermines the very concerns these sentiments express. It is appropriate, moreover, that they should re-appear on the occasion at the loss of this particular sort of book for, if the opponents of e-readers have forgotten that the book itself is a product of technology, we have also forgotten the origins of the very notion of an encyclopedia and, if we were to recall the ends of such a project, may not be so reluctant to mourn its transformation.

The idea of an encyclopedia is a stereotypically nineteenth-century invention that entailed not only a compilation of all the “available facts of human history, collected over the widest areas” (preface to the ninth edition) but also that they are “carefully coordinated and grouped together, in the hope of ultimately evolving the laws of progress, moral and material, which underlie them, and which will help to connect and interpret the whole movement of the race” (emphasis added). Whether in its British or German versions, intrinsic to the encyclopedic project is the possibility of unifying the results of human inquiry under a systematic orientation toward the idea of a final synthesis of knowledge that requires, among other things, at least the one thing that lessons of twentieth century colonialism has taught us at least that we ought to be suspicious if not simply reject: i.e., a single, substantive notion of “human rationality” across all history and cultures. The encyclopedic project is caught on the horns of an impossible dilemma: either the facts thus collected can be unified into a systematic whole—which presupposes precisely the conception of universal historical progress and singular rationality that has resulted in the subjugation of both women and “savages”—or we renounce the possibility of a systematic unity of the information gathered, in which case what we have is both unending and meaningless since it is not thereby knowledge (if it were, then the IBM computer that was able to defeat Jeopardy! contestants by having a lot of facts at its disposal would be the smartest thing in the world). An “encyclopedia” of facts without a principle of order and selection is trivial but any such principle renders certain things visible at the expense of others.

While the current dismay at the loss of the printed edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica seems directed not at the loss of the encyclopedia itself—which, despite everything, continues to be an unfortunately inexorable presence in the pursuit of knowledge—but at the printed version of it, the objection rests on the same confusion of the paths to knowledge. If, at minimum, the encyclopedic impulse results from the fetishism of facts, which leads us to mistake the collection of facts as knowledge, the fetishism of the book leads us to reduce the pursuit of knowledge to particular objects. While knowledge is inseparable from material conditions, it is not beholden to any particular material conditions and, for that matter, it is strictly speaking not “beholden” to material conditions because knowledge and its material conditions are co-constitutive.

No one would have taken seriously a similar outcry over the loss of the scroll on the advent of the book. By now the intellectual advances made possible by that particular technological transformation are banal. What should strike us as strange is the failure to recognize a similar transformation here. Marx once remarked that humanity only poses such problems to itself that it is capable of solving, because something isn’t even recognized as a problem to be solved unless somehow we are capable of the solution. In this instance, however, our technology has lagged far behind our needs. The sheer amount of information and data produced can no longer be recorded on paper because there simply isn’t enough paper to do so; we’re all aware of the temporal limitations of the publishing industry in cases like textbooks that, because they are published so long after they are actually written, are obsolete the moment they are purchased (which contributes to the exorbitant price of textbooks). The curious phenomenon here is that the resistance to the digital transformation of the book is a resistance to the fulfillment of the needs we have created and a regressive tendency toward those forms of technology that are no longer capable of meeting those needs.

But rejecting nostalgia for the book need not consist merely in an automatic allegiance to the development of technology (since we might still remain agnostic on whether or not the needs to which such technology is responding are actually beneficial). The fetishism of the book confuses the end of knowledge with the means (i.e., technology): that knowledge is (“in”) the book* (and, of course, it is but a short step toward thinking that, therefore, an encyclopedia can “collect” knowledge).

*This is the same confusion of thinking that the piece of music is “in” the score.

If there is anything that digital technology has shown, it is that knowledge is not “in” anything and book fetishism is perhaps the most exemplary form of fetishism (attributing human powers to objects).** Wikipedia has shown, for example, how the transmission of knowledge is not only collective but communicative such that the collective effort at writing and editing a Wikipedia entry allow for a sort of interaction with information that was not possible with a printed encyclopedia.

**This is the same error behind the cliché “at least people are reading a book instead of watching TV”, as if reading were intrinsically better than watching TV. One finds it difficult to see how reading trash like a romance novel is intellectually “better” than watching Mythbusters, for example. If the charge goes “TV rots your brain”, so does Twilight.

While digital technology has not yet given us the means to replace the book completely—for serious academic purposes, for example, e-readers still fall consistently short—there is no indication that eventually it will not do so nor that it is undesirable for it to do so.

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2 thoughts on “The book-fetish

  1. But there is nothing ethically or emotionally wrong with attachment to objects, is there? Old furniture has the same attraction. Fountain pens and bottles of ink, bought in stationery shops that no longer exist. I lament the passing of the library in my home town from the Victorian building that was built for it to an abandoned supermarket under a multi-story carpark. “Ah,” I thought, “Things are not stable as I thought they were. Everything is always moving.” And there is a kind of sadness in that: nostalgia.

    • Thanks for the observation! I’ll confess that we may share a difference in sentiments here. I am not myself terribly sympathetic to nostalgia (in fact I find it covertly dangerous because a desire for the “good old days” often obfuscates the ways in which those “good old days” were actually not because we project our own desire into the objective conditions of the past). But that is different from having “emotional attachments to objects”. I might have an emotional attachment to an old coat because it is comfortable and reminds me of memories while wearing it. I might have an emotional attachment to a particular fountain pen (say it was given to me as a gift). But I hesitate to say I ought to have an emotional attachment to “fountain pens as such” or the “idea of fountain pens” or perhaps typewriters. It would be odd for someone to say “I wish we didn’t have computers anymore and went back to using typewriters”, not only because the technology is obsolete but because it ignores the *social changes* made possible by computers that would not have been possible with the typewriter. Technological advances are always accompanied by a conservative drag (the telegraph was considered to be “too fast” for the truth, for example). I’m not saying that technological changes are therefore always good but I tend to be more suspicious of resistance to them (even in the form of nostalgia).

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