The next contribution to our theme of Publication comes from Gretchen E. Henderson, a literary writer whose work crosses boundaries of genre and media, investigating intersections of literature, art history, book history, museum studies, disability studies, and music.
Potential Publication; or, A Brief History of Lost and Found Time
Hear ye, hear ye: To publish is to make public, to make known, to make famous, to announce, to proclaim, to make public property, to place at the disposal of the community, to exhibit publicly, to publish a book, to seize for the general public, et cetera, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: a resource that can be accessed by subscription (online) or viewed through a magnifying lens (print).
Definitions can be excavated like geologic strata, guiding a reader through contemporary and arcane meanings. On the surface might be something “normal,” but a little digging reveals more than its original meaning of measurement to something more socially deviant. In terms of form, “publication” can range across media and genres: from a tome printed by Gutenberg, to a newspaper, to a peer-edited journal, to a blog post, to an app, and much more: a gamut of forms that continually fit and defy traditional definitions of “publication,” keeping the word in flux.
Within the dashboard of WordPress (the platform for this post) is a box titled “Publish” that allows drafting webpages, then making them public or private, connecting to: Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr. Anyone can sign up for a basic account for free (if they advertise WordPress in the domain) and, in a moment, start “Publishing” and sharing their words and images with a wider world. Presumably. If it is “published,” is it necessarily read? By who, and how? To recall the adage: If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, does that mean the tree really exists?
As a writer who is interested in the translation or transmutation of texts through different media, and through varied reading strategies, I approach publishing as deforming. This might be considered “deformance,” as defined by Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels in literary circles, but there’s something more at stake than formal unreading, considering where aesthetics and politics entwine. On the surface, “deformity” might conjure “ugly” associations (as “deformity” and “ugliness” were defined interchangeably in Samuel Johnson’s famed Dictionary, also “deformance” as Susan Schweik links to “Ugly Laws”). But to borrow Mark Cousins’ definition of “ugly” as an extension of Mary Douglas’ definition of “dirt,” let’s think of the problem as “matter out of place.” If publication is matter, where do we expect to find that matter? And what happens when that matter—publication (whether a scanned copy of a print article with QR codes or a tattoo)—appears out of place?
What happens when a story is published word-by-word as tattoos across the skins of over 2,000 bodies? Or a poem is published on a wall? Or when an article is published online rather than in a peer-reviewed journal? Or when a book is published as a virtual tablet, or a recording, or as a series of blog posts with reader’s comments, or as Twitterature? Any of these may have been unthinkable a century ago, but content grows between old and new forms, as writers and readers and publishers and distributers explore and push the bounds of their mediums, to see where mediums push back on inherited strategies of storytelling, poetics, narrative and visual rhetorics and literacies. Nor is this a new phenomenon…
Rather, this is the history of literature. The heroic epithets of Homer’s epics were shaped by its oral transmission. The roles of bookbinder and printer gave rise to the typographic play of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. The cliff-hanging chapter ends of Charles Dickens arose from his novels’ serialization. Since the medium helps deliver the message, now is a particularly exciting time to be writing, as technology evolves and influences the way we write and package and share our words, often warping them across platforms like a funhouse of mirrors or echo chamber, resonant with sounds from audio books.
Some developments appear as gimmicks or gadgets, suited for their moment in history, while others navigate the bounds of time as a medium. Exploring cyberspace, leaving trails of digital detritus, we scramble to make and unmake, to find new categories, new vocabulary, to describe these hybrid forms as legitimate in their own right, but many of them initially appear to be bastards. Collage, remix, appropriation, mash-up, remix. What gets lost and found in translation? The media at the disposal of publication invite and challenge us to thoughtfully navigate emerging domains to find what is unique to these intermediary, intermedia, interdisciplinary spaces, which cannot be contained or evaluated as the traditional monograph or by existing formats and standards. Many scholars, librarians, publishers, writers, artists, programmers, and others are engaging actively in this process. As we collectively (un)make and take these projects on their own terms and develop accompanying methods of critique, we (un)read through and beyond inherited strategies.
Every discipline offers something to this conversation, whether directly or tangentially. In terms of anthropology, in Paris Primitive, Sally Price has described how objects can become curated and entangled in “a politically orchestrated game of musical chairs.” Her focus on the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris follows African artifacts that were moved from the anthropological Musée de l’Homme to occupy a new museum framed under the auspices of art. Both fields of study are relatively recent in the grand scheme of time. The objects-in-question may remain the same, but their disciplinary and cultural contexts change the way they are viewed. Even when content may not change, shifting contexts can cause displacements, which can make us question the in-between — how we read what we read — to participate more actively than passively in these processes.
Among many fields, museology and informatics overlap in interesting ways, as libraries and museums represent carriers of culture, always changing. Notions of “publishing” shift akin to “curating,” which has become a buzzword that extends beyond museums to the realm of thrift-stores, performances, blogs, and other venues. There is something of display, of spectating and spectacle, of navigating three-dimensional space in two-dimensional platforms. “Everybody’s a curator,” the Chicago Tribune recently (de)claimed, like Hypebot published, “Everybody’s a publisher.” The blurring of domains recalls the OED definitions of “publication”: “to exhibit publicly, to publish a book, to seize for the general public”…
“Publication” assumes different aspects of reading but also raises questions about embodiment and access, not only physical but fiscal, and more: who gets to read what publications, who fits inside the norm, who gets left outside, what knowledges are not represented. No longer reading books in medieval chained libraries, we encounter other chains (like high subscription costs to databases) that lock out readers. Other patterns emerge. Viewing the Irish performance artist, Mary Duffy, with the classical statue of the Venus de Milo reveals “more about the observer than the observed,” according to Lennard Davis, questioning the implications of differing reading strategies around these similarly shaped bodies (especially when Mary Duffy talks back to a spectator to confront expectations). Tobin Siebers describes how disabled bodies “change the process of representation itself” (“Blind hands envision… Deaf ears listen… Mouths sign…”) as a way to think more broadly about aesthetics, which can extend to many practices including “publication,” which historically has been visually oriented.
William Gibson has been attributed with saying, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” Each era has its own ways of (de)facing the text. The surfaces of writing – wax tablets, scrolls, manuscripts, printed books, blogs – change along with languages themselves. Each era finds itself negotiating ways of reading texts and the wider world, maintaining what works, adapting or translating form and content, growing in and out of one another. Interactivity becomes a way to access and (de)create reading and writing practices, and the wider cultural institutions and practices that preserve them. Preservation remains a major question, as many digital makers accept the ephemeral nature of their media, knowing it may not survive, finding ways to document and write around that elephant in the room. “To publish or perish” takes on new meaning, particularly with efforts to document everything while technologies start to talk back with error messages, causing us to step back and reflect on whether our future publications will accord more with historic definitions or lean toward the word’s opposite: more of a “secret.” Like this video removed from its YouTube channel, leaving the message that “Language” … “does not exist.”
Gretchen E. Henderson writes across genres and the arts to invigorate her critical and creative practices. Her books include The House Enters the Street (2012), On Marvellous Things Heard (2011), Wreckage: By Land & By Sea (2011), and Galerie de Difformité (2011, a book collaboratively deforming across media, winner of the Madeleine Plonsker Prize). Her writings have appeared in a variety of publications, and she was a MetaLAB Fellow at Harvard and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT, teaching there and in the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop. Gretchen is currently a Kresge Faculty Fellow at UCSC and can be found online at: bookunbound.wordpress.com.