Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Platform, Page, Medium: From Medieval “Bookes” to E-books

Garrett Stewart

The author photo below shows me at the entrance to a gallery exhibit built up of approximately 10,000 discarded books, reflected in infinite multiples by mirrors on floor, sides, and ceiling, constructed by renowned Slovak artist Matej Krén for the Bratislava City Gallery in 2004. It is still on view there: a summation of conceptual book art in its response over the preceding two decades to the eclipse of the bound book (or codex) by digital text.

The work is called Passage, and the spectator—better, nostalgic participant—walks its path, with no actual verbal “passage” visible, across a thick plank between the floor mirrors. Warned against the risk of actual vertigo, visitors are led to contemplate the literate subject’s dizzying, unstable place between the heavily braced weight of accumulated book culture and the reflective expanses to which it traditionally opened the mind.

A decade and a half later, just after my new Cambridge book on related subjects went to press, the same artist—turning his attention from the material book object to the ubiquity of e-text—revisits his own architectonic trope in a stunning 2019 digital remediation called Passage Mnemocinema: a hybrid assemblage operating as if in double commemoration of celluloid movies and cellulose books. Viewers en passant are levitated this time not between walls of books carefully arranged at the same thickness, row by row, to prevent sagging—and a further emblematic collapse of the book form. Instead, in this moving-image elegy for book culture, unreachable volumes flanking the eerie passageway have been separately photographed as high-definition digital images, spines and edges in alternation, then run together in a painstakingly edited single file (in both senses of the word). These elongated book-linked layers sweep by in what amounts to a vertical montage of literate culture in flux, each horizontal row slipping past in opposite directions to the one above and below—in a radical frictionless dematerialization—across the seamless flow of tightly fitted large-scale HD8K monitors.

Matej Krén, Passage Mnemocinema (2019); courtesy of the artist

The result: the continuous secondary “streaming” of intangible e-books, twice removed from texture and text alike. All that remains of human contact in a palpable reading experience is the faint recorded noise of ambient library static on Krén’s manipulated whispering soundtrack, pencils in motion, cleared throats, shifted reading chairs, turned pages—with no sound, of course, of silent reading’s verbal engagement in the encounter with text.

Textual encounter, verbal engagement: that’s my subject, whether via impressed ink or pixel, as set off by the ironic brilliance of such installation art. Hence the cover of my own volume, Book, Text, Medium: Cross-Sectional Reading for a Digital Age, features a detail from a work by the New York fabric and book artist Mika Tajima. Her open “book,” Negative Entropy, binds together a primitive computer punch card and the vibrant spectrogram traces of recorded sounds at a modern electronic data center that have been processed through “linguistic-audio software”—though with no language, let alone verbal audio, involved. Such hinged pages lay themselves open to a complex deciphering in cross-media terms, but anything we’d recognize as actual reading lies elsewhere. Even the traditional paper support of the print book must give way to textual materiality in syllabic sequence, to silent word production, as its fueling medium of communication.

Physical books aren’t exactly on the re-bound lately, in competition with cybertext. But a book’s immersive reading experience can, in retrospect, be understood as never before. Toward this end, the three parts of my own book—“The Hold of the Codex,” “The Grip of Text,” “The Yield of Medium”—move from an art historical look at the painting and sculpting of the otherwise held book object, through the gravitational pull of literary language in action, to the philosophy of human speech in transcription: namely, Book, Text, Medium.

Book, Text, Medium By Garrett Stewart
Book, Text, Medium by Garrett Stewart

About The Author

Garrett Stewart

Garrett Stewart is the James O. Freedman Professor of Letters at the University of Iowa, having previously held teaching appointments at Boston University, the University of Califo...

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