Between Blankness & Illegibility.

Between Blankness & Illegibility

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Between Blankness & Illegibility Lisa Gitelman and Craig Dworkin in dialogue Moderated by Darren Wershler Recorded by Michael Nardone Concordia University, 20 January 2013 Below is a transcript prepared by Michael Nardone -- Darren Wershler: Thank you. Welcome to the Concordia Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture’s panel on the materiality of paper in print. Gerald Graff has remarked that given that intellectual history consists entirely of a series of conversations and arguments, it’s all too seldom that we stage events where scholars actually talk to one another in person. So it’s especially exciting to be able to bring to you today a discussion between two people whose work is so vital and influential. Intellectual conversation has almost always been asynchronous. We discuss and debate the matters that concern us with people separated from us by time and space. Historically, the medium enabling that discussion has been paper. So, it’s particularly appropriate that the materiality of paper, including the various formats and genres of blankness, is what’s under discussion here today. China Mieville’s The City in the City is a detective novel that takes place in two distinct cities that occupy the same physical space, but whose inhabitants have been rendered incapable of acknowledging each other through the function of competing ideologies. Hanging over everything is the nagging feeling that the ideas and opinions being expressed nearby could profoundly effect what we do and how we do it if we could only access them. I first began to think about the potential for a conversation between Lisa Gitelman and Craig Dworkin when I realized that although there current research object, the blank – blank books, blank paper – was the same, that they viewed it in a kind of parallax: Gitelman from the perspective of media history and material media theory, and Dworkin through the lens of contemporary conceptual poetics. Each perspective has something to offer the other, as well as its own blindnesses. But the subtle and not so subtle regulatory mechanisms of the academy often prevent us from even realizing that somewhere nearby, perhaps even on the same floor of our building, another conversation about the objects, institutions, and discourses that matter to us, may well be occurring. I’d like to believe that it shouldn’t require moments of profound disruption in the dominant circuits of communication to make us realize such possibilities, though, both the anti-SOPA website blackouts on Wednesday and yesterday’s revelation of the draconian end-user license agreement terms for Apple’s iBook’s author application have made me think a lot harder about the materiality of blankness this week than usual. It is in that spirit that I’d like to introduce our speakers for today. Lisa Gitelman is a leading scholar in the field of media history and an associate professor of English and Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. Though much of her research concerns American print culture and techniques of inscription, Gitelman’s work also makes a major contribution to digital media studies. It insists on the importance of method, tracing the patterns that render digital media meaningful within and against the contexts of older forms. All media, she has famously observed, were once new media. She has elaborated on this concept from Scripts, Grooves, and Writings Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era through to New Media: 1740 – 1915, her edited collection with Jeffrey Pingrey, to her most recent book Always Already New: Media History and the Data of Culture. Her current projects include a monograph, Paper Knowledge, and an edited collection, “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron. For the past three weeks, Lisa has been the Beaverbrook Media at McGill Visiting Scholar. We’d like to thank Media at McGill for helping us to make today’s event possible. Craig Dworkin is a founding figure in contemporary conceptual writing, the editor of the Eclipse digital archive, and a professor of English at the University of Utah. Since his first monograph, Reading the Illegible, Dworkin has been an incisive theorist of the limit cases of contemporary poetry and poetics, which is not entirely surprising because several of Dworkin’s other books, such as Parse, constitute the limit cases of contemporary poetics. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Parse is the result of taking Edwin A. Abbott’s 1874 text How to Parse and attempt to apply the principles of scholarship to English grammar and analyzing it according to Abbott’s own system. It is among the most unnerving books that I have ever encountered, which is saying something. Dworkin’s edited collections include the brick-sized Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, with Kenneth Goldsmith, The Sound of Poetry / the Poetry of Sound, with Marjorie Perloff, and Language to Cover a Page: The Early Writings of Vito Acconci. How we’re going to structure this is we’ll begin with each of our speakers talking for about 15 minutes, then we’ll proceed to about another half hour of conversation between them, and then on to general questions. So, we’ll begin with Lisa Gitelman. Lisa Gitelman: Thank you, Darren. Thank you, Marcie. Thanks, too, to Craig, and also again to Media at McGill. It’s been great to be here in Montreal. Maybe just one more second of background before I launch into my allotted 15 minutes. Darren read chapters by Craig and I that each have to do with blank books, and we’ve read each other’s chapters, and we’re not going to present the full chapters obviously, but that’s some of the background that we have under our belts, if you like. Blank books. This is a blank slide. I have a couple of slides, nothing too fancy. I remember reading a story, a piece in the New Yorker, a long time ago. It was a piece back when celphones had just started to appear in everybody’s hands. It was about a woman or a man, I can’t remember, and she’s hung up on by her boss or her partner or something, and you hear this delicious, rich multi-part click and then you hear a dial tone. The author was making the point, oh, look at these Hollywood sound editors, how behind the times they are, or how behind the times they think their audiences are, because we know, we New Yorker readers know, that celphone circuits don’t have dial tones. And yet, there it was. Dial tones seems to be dying out the more we use cell phones, and yet it’s interesting to think where they come from in the first place. The author of this goes on to describe that dial tones were invented or became sort of ubiquitous only really when automated switching technology was applied to telephone circuits in the 50s or 60s. The dial tone was in a way, a replacement, if you like, for the operator. It used to be that you picked up a phone and a voice said, “Number please.” The dial tone was a way to say, “Okay, you can go ahead and dial your call,” without saying you can go ahead and dial your call. So, why am I telling you this? It was that New Yorker piece that made me think about blanks. The dial tone is a blank. It’s an empty sound or it’s the sound of empty, into which you launch your call, your voice. Not quite signal, not quite noise, the dial tone represents an open channel. But more than that, I hope you’ll agree, that the dial tone also represents an absent telephone operator. It effaces labor. It disavows gendered labor as it alters your experience of communicating by telephone, helping you to forget – and you always do forget – that communicating with a friend on a telephone is always also, also always, communicating with your non-friend, the telephone company. There’s a lot there, in blanks. Blanks are full of missing things, you might say. And it was after reading about the dial tone that I got so interested in pursuing blanks, and thought, hey, you better get back to a field of media history where you know something instead of talking about telephones, and that’s 19th century printing and books. So, I found this list of blank books– let me put it up there – in an 1894 dictionary of printing and bookmaking. I’m not going to read it, which is why I put it up there. But a few thoughts just as you look it over. It’s a list that points variously to the work place, market place, school and home, while it belies the assumption, one rampant in popular discourse today, that books are for reading. Books are for lots of things. Books like these were for writing, for filling in, or filling up. Fillability, in some cases, seems to suggest a moral economy: mind you diary, mind your fern and moss album. But in many others, it suggests a cash economy with which North Americans in the 19th century had grown so familiar. Filling up evidently helped to locate goods, to map transactions, and transfer value, while it also helped individuals to locate themselves and others within or against the site’s practices and institutions that helped them to structure daily life. So, think of roll books, or workman’s time books, little instruments of power, if you like, locating as they do the schooled and the laboring. While hotel registers, rent receipts and visiting books point toward the varied mobility of subjects that stay over, reside or stop by. Letter copying books helped businessmen keep copies of what they also sent away. This was long before Xerox. While cotton weight and log tally books offer space to record one moment and always again the same moment in the life cycle of a bulk commodity. Some things are obscure. I have no idea what a “flap memorandum” is, or a “two-thirds book.” The general picture, though, is one of motion, a confusion of mobilities really whereby goods, value and people circulate. They move through space and across borders from and to, they get caught and kept, they pause and pass, moving faster or slower. They also move in time because recorded in increments, and thus amid intervals. Yet, for all of its motion, I think the same list suggests stasis or inertia. Things – cards, fern fronds – but more typically, records of things stopped forever, as they filled the waiting blankness of books like these. Each of the books listed formed a class or category of blank because each catered to the repetition of certain kinds of writing. If writing is preservative, these books were preserving preservation. Their design, manufacture and adoption worked to conserve patterns of expression. A blank blotter would have conserved inked inscriptions of any kind no matter what was written or drawn, but most blank books would have worked however modestly to mold, to direct, and delimit expression. Order and invoice books, for instance, like ledgers and daybooks, would have had entries that accreted according to the formulae of accountancy if you like. Habits and formulae can change, of course, and be changed, but inertia is one of their defining characteristics. Entries made in exercise books, composition books, reporter’s notebooks would have been far less constrained, less formulaic, yet they, too, were, loosely speaking, micro-genres:repetitive expressions and in some sense shaped according to the norms and obligations that attend the specific callings and settings in which they were habitually deployed. So the blank books were – it’s a bad expression, but – meta-micro-genres, one might say. They establish the parameters or the rules for entries to be made individually in pencil or ink. Rules, like habits, were broken, of course, as notebooks became scrapbooks or as ledgers became the illustrated chronicles of indigenous tribes. But rules there were. That’s what makes one class of these books distinguishable from another. Now to speak of “rules” for filling them in is likely to exaggerate the constraints hinted or proposed by different blank books, but it also appeals to their manufacture and design. Many blanks books, not all of them were ruled, their pages lined in expectation of particular uses, like blank forms generally, the pages of many blank books had ink on them. The ink was, paradoxically, what made most blanks blank. So, you see, I’ve ended up at the same place that I started with the dial tone, a kind of paradox: the fulsome blankness of the technologically blank, blanks made under the sign of bureaucratic labor, power, knowledge. You fill in these blanks. Your voice, your handwriting. But look at it another way and somebody, the company, has already filled you in, designing its blanks ever so painstakingly with you, it’s willing subject, foremost in mind. There are other kinds of blanks and Craig is going to talk about blanks that don’t work this way, but lots of blanks do. I found, for me, a compelling set of examples, a specimen book called Harpel’s Typograph. There’s the book, and I just want to say a few things about it. First off, it’s not a blank book in the same way that a notebook or a ledger is blank. It’s a specimen book because it compiles a set of specimens of what was called “job printing” in the 19th century. This is a sort of commercial printing on contract, the kind of printing that provided you with letterhead, receipts, tickets, cards, handbills, posters, programs, that sort of thing. Normal specimen books, and there was a whole different genre of specimen books, offered typefaces, fonts, and printers equipment to the trade. These can have a certain poetry, usually accidental. I just have a couple quick copies, really bad scans from Google [to show]. But Harpel’s Typograph prints instead hundreds of blanks and other assorted jobs related to everyday uses of print, and my last slides are just four different pages from Harpel to give you an idea. The Typograph is a really weird book. Its codex form serves to countermand the habitual ephemerality of job printing that it seeks to illustrate. Books are for keeps, but job printing, if it survives today, is usually relegated to collections of ephemera. Like the paradox of blankness that’s made of ink, the Typograph preserves an ephemerality it thereby refutes. It works as a sort of time capsule, too, for its age. The product of an over-wrought, unreasoned aesthetic against which modernism would soon recoil. Harpel and his contemporaries apparently loved those curlicues, the clashing display fonts, and other technical gimcracks and ornaments. No clean lines here in the petite bureaucracy of the 19th century tradesman. Just a couple quick points about the Typograph so we can get to our discussion. First, printing like this consumed about a third of the printing trade in the 19th century, yet exists entirely outside the normal – I really want to say – the Romantic realms of authoring and reading. It doesn’t make any sense to think about the blank deposit slip on the right or the tomato label below it as authored, published or read in the manner, say, randomly, of Great Expectations. They are designed, printed and used, not authored, published or read. I’m making this distinction in shorthand to remind us just how co-opted or how distracted we’ve become about print media in general. About media in general and print media maybe in particular, by a set of constructs much beloved, bequeathed to us from Romanticism. I’m thinking of the Book, capital B, the Author, capital A, the literary, capitalize it if you like. Whole bodies of law exist to protect authors. We classify discourse according to the author’s name. Whole departments at university exist to pursue the literary, but who has ever heard about or cared about job printing? So, a second quick point, another question: I think we need to pause and ask what these so-called specimens of Harpel’s are really specimens of. That’s not a label and that’s not a deposit slip despite my calling them that, because Harpel has printed them or printed that ink on to sheets to be bound as a book instead of slips of paper or gummed labels. They are specimens of ink shaped by specimens of labor. I’m thinking again of the dial tone. Harpel’s individual specimens rest on top of or are pressed on to the paper below the way butterflies may be pinned gently to a board. You need to remember to forget or forget to remember about the paper to call it a label or a deposit slip. These specimens are neither, I think, material texts nor intellectual work. They are something somewhere in between that I can’t quite put my finger on. Finally, I think that printed blanks point toward a set of provocative and tensile connections across media forms. For one thing, they are print artifacts that incite manuscript, as Peter Stallybrass has said. For another, the script that they incite can be prompted by oral communication, and I am thinking ahead to bureaucrats, say, who under the sway of scientific management filled out memo blanks that had been printed with the headings “Verbal Orders Don’t Go.” And if blanks helped to demonstrate as well as to insure a continued interdependence of the oral, the written and the printed, then they also begged questions of the digital. I’m sure that you can help me push this forward, [Craig,] but I’m thinking that blanks are increasingly encountered online, for one, where they are often designed to look like 19th century job printing on paper even though there is a whole sort of data architecture behind them there. Going further still, Alan Liu has suggested that you can think of every online text object as a filled-in blank of sorts because of the way that metadata necessarily directs and delimits and encodes the appearance and behavior of text on screen. Metadata makes the blank and then data get poured in. Relatedly, you type into Google’s blank search box, but really now, hasn’t Google filled you into its plans already? By these lights, an account of 19th century job printing and its blanks offers part of an extended history of information in one context, and surely there are many contexts, for the supposed distinction between form and content, between medium and message, upon which contemporary experiences of information and technology so intuitively rely. Thank you. Wershler: Craig. Craig Dworkin: Alright, thank you to Darren and to Marcie and to all of you for coming, and to Lisa, as well. I want to talk about one particular example of a blank book just to try and set the stage for the more abstract discussions we will have, and that’s a book that appears in the opening scene of Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée. It’s set amid the bustle of the Café des Poètes, where Orpheus is shown a copy of the journal containing the poems of his new rival, the enfant terrible Jacques Cégeste. And Orpheus glances at the cover — it has this very thin border, elegant Didot typeface mimicking the familiar designs of Les Éditions de Minuit — and he flips quickly through and objects that it is entirely blank. His companion, this older writer, explains it's titled Nudisme. And Orpheus tosses the book back with a snicker and says, “That’s absurd [Mais c'est ridicule]." In part, this is just a dismissal that is typical of the response of an establishment put upon by avant-garde pranksters, unwilling to assimilate the gestures, ces gestes, of radical reduction. But he also in some ways gets the joke, right? — the jest, say, of its absurd pretensions — and "ces gestes," as the literary records also denotes, are "ridiculous prentensions." Nudisme does indeed follow the structural logic of a gag. It’s structured like the cheap one-liner of a New Yorker cartoon, moving unexpectedly and with this false naïveté between the verbal code of its title and the visual code of the pages in the interior. So, only at a glance, certainly, the whole thing would seem like a hoax, but the specifics — and this is part of what I want to argue here — the specifics are telling. It’s instructive to pause a little longer than Orpheus does before he tosses the issue aside. The difference between the sophistication of getting the joke and then the greater sophistication of refusing to get the joke depends on how closely one tries to actually read a work that seems to ask only that it not be read at all. To begin with, as Lisa points out, blank books typically are not blank. They have ink on them. Here the interior pages are entirely blank. It is the review’s title that frames an interpretation of the blank sheets that follow. That is the joke itself. Since several different titles might have given rise to the same punchline, I want to reflect a little on what the journal was not called. It was not called Silence, for instance. Indeed at exactly the moment that Cocteau is filming Orphée, John Cage delivers his famous “Lecture on Nothing” at the Artists Club in New York where he declares “I have nothing to say and I am saying it, because what we require is silence but what silence requires is that I go on talking.” Orpheus’s companion, not coincidentally, is respected for maintaining decades of principled poetic silence because he has nothing to say. Je n’apportais rien de neuf, he explains, underscoring this contrast with Cégeste, the author of Nudisme, who has nothing to say, and in Nudisme is, in fact, saying it — which for Cage defined not just silence but actually "poetry" itself. “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry,” he continues in his famous lecture. While it would have suited the same intellectual moment voiced by Cage, the title Silence would have come maybe too close to the very first book, very famously published, by Minuit: Jean Laurier’s Silence of the Sea. The review is not titled with the Sartrean "neant"; Being and Nothingness had been published in 1943, which, again, might have brought the satirical mise-en-scène of the Café des Poètes too close to Cocteau’s actual target: Sartre’s real-life haunt in the Café de Flore. He did not choose "rien," which would have signaled a Dadaist nihilism or maybe a rarefied fin-de-siècle aestheticism. It is not entitled "manque," this "lack," this term that Lacan would develop as a working term in just a few years’ time. It is not a mystical Buddhist "vacuité," or any number of related words: "vide," "absence," "lacune." Any of these titles presumably would have elicited the same exasperated response from Orpheus, but their differences inflect the very impatient dismissal that he gives the book and point beyond it. "Nudism," that is, already wittily anticipates Orpheus’s very response. To denounce the publication as a hoax while seated among the true believers in the Café des Poètes is, in essence, to proclaim that the emperor has no clothes: this nakedness that the book itself has already openly confessed. So, the collection presents itself, just as Orpheus accuses it, as being the naked truth, but it also presents itself, to borrow Jacques Derrida’s phrase, as truth as nakedness. Orpheus unclothes a nakedness, but one that has already announced its intention of disclosure even before the book is opened — a simultaneously unapparent and exhibited nakedness, as Derrida puts it. By doing so, Nudisme literalizes the metaphoric. It not only discovers its pages, but it takes off the metaphoric bedsheets to show the actual sheets of paper. It also enacts or dumbly presents the way that truth itself gets figured. This is Derrida’s demonstration that the figure of nakedness is not just any metaphor, but the very metaphor of metaphoricity itself — what is already a metaphor of metaphor, a metaphor to render metaphoricity. So, in staging this joke, Nudisme offers up the very figuration that its pages would seem to refuse, even as it eschews verse, the genre that traditionally turns most conspicuously on figural language. The book figures the figure of metaphoric unveiling. At the same time, this title, Nudisme, triggers mechanisms of social and moral reflex in the best avant-garde tradition of trying to piss off the bourgeois. It’s a title that performs a quick double punch; first it elicits the shock of the prudish bourgeois reader by announcing a salacious subject and then it denies the prurient and equally bourgeois expectation of some kind of titillating material within. I want to note that it’s a title that does not advertise what would would merely be a classically sanctioned nudity or general nakedness, but the specific nudity of counter-cultural nudism. By 1950 this word "nudism" carried connotations of lubriciousness from which some at the time were tempting to distance the word naturisme ("naturist"). You can track the frequency of these words over print media at the time. "Naturist" is gaining ground relative to "nudist" precisely at the moment of Orpheus. The French Naturist Association had been founded in 1948. The attendant lifestyle magazine, La vie au soleil, began publication the following year. And they were promoting this term "naturism" to emphasize connotations of communal living, holistic health, vegetarianism, and environmentalism in contrast to the pornographic, the exhibitionist, associations that "nudism" carried. In so doing, they were etching those associations all the more starkly so that this punning rebus that Orpheus acknowledges works at the level of abstraction between the sign systems of word and image, but any particular sign occurring in that system: silence, nothingness, absence, et cetera — any particular — is always historicizable. That’s the point I want to make. Then, further, I want to claim that in contrast to these other plausible titles, that Nudisme implies an unveiling more than a negation. I think that we might think about what has been made naked in, or what’s made naked by Cégeste’s publication. Part of the work’s frisson is the remove at which it pitches the rhetoric of clothing, which is to say, a rhetoric of rhetoricity itself. To conceive of dematerialized ideas clothed by somehow a more tangible language elides the degree to which our sense of language is itself usually dematerialized in relation to the physical materiality of print, of ink on paper, that would make language manifest. Print clothes clothing; it clothes a clothing. Given the title, Orpheus might have expected a plain spoken or unartificed poetry, something in the style of an unornamented genus humile or genus tenue, but Cégeste has stripped away not just a kind of rhetoric, some particular mode, but any visible language at all. So, in this work is laid bare, is mise à nu, the page itself: the physical facture of a noise-making, weighty, extended object; the substrate of print; what was the typical technological support for poetry at mid-century. Which is to say that in the 50s, it was a space that was indifferently ready to take the imprint of any kind of text treating any kind of topic. It is the fate of lyric in the 20th century: from the most intimate confessional bodily detail to the most banal everyday experience, treating those sort of texts with any kind of form, any kind of politics, any poetic style, from the most excessive or the most reductive avant-garde hoax to the most retrograde alexandrines. If Nudisme is provocative (though not quite in the way licentious readers hope), it’s also — with a similar disappointment and with its entirely unprinted pages — quite promiscuous: "obscene," in Jean Baudrillard’s sense of the term: "explicit," or, as they used to say, "easy," explicitus in the classical Latin. Nudisme, in the film, must have about 40 blank pages, and that material has a very obvious but not incidental trace. Pages are thin enough, they are supple enough, to pass through a press without damaging the type. They are pliant enough to be sewn, and they’ve also been trimmed to accommodate what would be a standard lyric verse with sufficiently luxurious and aestheticized margins. The book in the film, that is, takes the textual form of self-satisfied individualism. It’s light enough to be carried under the arm, to be taken en plein air. It’s light enough to be handed easily back and forth without moving more than the arms or upsetting a glass of wine. It can be tossed lightly aside. It can be slipped discreetly into a stack of paperbacks, all of which the actors in Orpheus demonstrate. So, it’s portable. It is scaled to the reader. It’s a format that permits a precise kind of communication. The revue is small enough that it can be carried in public without being an ostentacious burden, but at the same time it’s just large enough to require a certain care, a certain spread: it needs the support of the elbows or the support of other books when reading. Even though it’s suited to a single, private reader to the space of the outdoor café table, when opened in public, it announces it is being read. The review, then, is the perfect object for the space in which it is distributed and consumed and where it plays this defining role in the social network of the café. It connects discrete generations of writers. It distinguishes between insiders and outsiders, like Orpheus. It reinforces the homogenous community of fashionable young habitués, and it recalls the economic patronage of a princess who funds it, who is not from there and can’t pass among them. And above all it advertises the success of the café celebrity mascot, Cégeste. And I want to suggest that this is one of the primary lessons of media themselves: that we’re mislead when we think of media as objects rather than as social events, and that the closer one looks at the materiality of a work, at the brute fact of its physical composition, that that is a point at which the social context is brought all the more sharply into focus. Thank you, all. Wershler: Thanks to both of you. It strikes me, sitting her and listening, that part of what we’ve been hearing about from two different perspectives is a kind of theory of the missing mass of textuality. I have in mind Latour’s argument about the dividing up into the world of the aesthetic and the scientific. When you think about the bulk of things that have been printed and written are neither literary texts nor scientific texts. There are business texts of various kinds. There are files and memos and folders, thing that John Guillory talks about in “The Memo and Modernity.” Lisa has talked about this in terms of reinserting the importance of genre, the genre of the blank book. As a starting point, I’m wondering, when you think about each other’s respective approaches to the genre of the blank, what is it that you see that is of immediate use or immediate value in a way that you would not have described or you would not have thought about? Dworkin: I can do that. Lisa’s a real scholar. Part of what I take away is that you get the facts right, which is what Ezra Pound said historians do. Those facts that are useful to me are things like remembering what we think of as "literature" constituted, in terms of labor and resources, a really small amount of what was printed. What is useful to me is remembering these things that we know but we forget: that one can separate literature from printing, that one separates genre from format. If I ask you to picture a novel in your head, you’re going to picture a codex, you’ll picture a book. You’re not going to picture this genre, "the novel", spread through newspaper periodicals or something like that. Those are the points that put me in my place. Gitelman: It’s easy to get facts wrong, and I am sure there are wrong facts in what I’ve been trying to do, but what I find so productive in your piece is the reminder, which is so important, that media cannot be seen in isolation, that looking at media is forever a kind of comparative and contrastive endeavor, comparative across media, comparative across time. Once we start thinking about media not as objects but as attached to contexts, as having meanings where meanings equal uses, they are dynamic. They change productively all the time so that you’re always trying to look at a moving target and by going at it with such care and eloquence into this one example, you’re able to show just how multi-faceted the sets of conditions are that might at any one moment articulate a particular blank. Dworkin: One point that we overlap on, that I need to think more about, that I think is worth thinking more about, is when I start looking at a book like Nudism, which is a prop. Someone [Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin] has made a copy, what purports to be a facsimile, but it’s not. It makes me very angry! It’s much too small. It’s not printed in the same way…. I started thinking initially of this with whatever cultural reflex makes me think that blankness is some property that adheres in an object. That is, I could hold up pages and then I could say, “Is it blank?” and you can say “yes" or "no.” But, in fact, blankness is really something that is more like an ideology that often involves or depends on not being blank. As I was working on this project, someone would say, 'oh, I know this novel of blank pages.' I’d be very excited and then I’d go and find it and the pages weren’t blank at all: they had headers or page numbers. Something like that— Gitelman: Foiled again. Dworkin: But that is also what makes them blank. Blankness is not a property that I go to look for; I have to remind myself that it is something more. And once you move away from the aesthetic object or the aesthetic expression, a lot of what is sort of framing the blank as a blank are those corporate, institutional structures that make Google’s search box so empty and inviting, but that also similarly make these 19th century forms empty and blank. I love that sort of Derridean play you have with clothes and clothing here that you just brought to mind again. In my sort of primitive way I think of that as a kind of toggle between on the one hand the bibliographer’s distinction between text (material) and literary work, that the work is the ideal and the text is that thing you can touch, but more so, maybe a little bit more subtly as a distinction, as a sort of insoluble contrast between something that is on and as paper. On paper as paper. You can never quite peal them off the back of one another. It’s like two sides of a sheet of paper. Wershler: You can definitely hear a class politics being played out here too. The first thing that occurred to me was how many people in this audience are enthusiastic consumers of moleskin notebooks. I have a little stack of them upstairs. When I am at a talk like this I am usually busily scribbling away into my extraordinarily expensive little notebook, but the way you articulate it is quite different. Craig’s reading of Cocteau’s Orphée and the blank book Nudisme is an avant-garde slap in the face to the bourgeois, but this is the same bourgeois whose existence is in large part constructed by a series of blank books, which they’re busily filling in: ledgers, memorandums, logbooks and other kinds of records that make the middle class possible in the first place. Can you talk a little more about the role of class, and the role of blanks in structuring class? Gitelman: In framing these little remarks I thought I was going to have to allude to some outside, and I reached for Great Expectations, to the 19th century bourgeois narrative of the Victorian age, because I think that’s the same sort of world as these blanks. So, the work that Craig is doing about the later avant-garde is really different and explicitly a reaction against that world. If there is a through-line though, and I think there has to be, I’m not a pro at theories of the avant-garde, it’s Romanticism. It’s still the Author, capital A, that provides a kind of through-line. That said, the blanks don’t have authors, and technically they don’t have readers. They, like the book that Craig describes, are works that ask not to be read, or assume they won’t be read. Dworkin: I can’t say anything more interesting than that except the Cocteau example, or another example: the poet Aram Saroyan published a ream of typing paper as one of his books in the late 60s. Or to think of the kind of artworks that Tom Friedman has put forward as blank pieces of paper. These all occur in either what are explicitly aristocratic [venues], or our version of aristocratic: art world dealings. As I said, the review Nudisme is funded by a princess and clearly it is a leisure class that can hang out at the poets’ café. The ream of typing paper is published by an Upper East Side heiress. That, I think, on the one hand is not incidental; but I think it works two ways. On the one hand these blank books of the avant-garde are the endpoint of the kind of aestheticism that followed and reacted against Romanticism. There were versions of Mallarmé: that once you say a poem doesn’t need to have a subject, it doesn’t need to have meaning, maybe it doesn’t need language at all. That’s the ultimate refined poem. But it’s also for people who don’t want to read a poem. It’s a joke you get right away when you’re watching the film. You don’t need to be filled in on the fine points of the avant-garde to get the joke. You say, 'yeah, I wouldn’t want to read one either.' I think that’s the other story there. Wershler: As long as we’re talking about reading, it’s probably worth talking about methodologies and reading strategies because in some ways, again, you are looking at the same object but you are doing very different things. Craig is doing a kind of microscopic close reading, reading the base material of the text itself— Dworkin: Wood pulp. Wershler: Right, reading the pulp, reading the ink on the page. And Lisa is providing a larger social and cultural context and an intellectual history of the forms. Ironically, you’re both housed at least partially in English departments— Gitelman: How is that so ironic? Wershler: In part because of the move away from interpretation and close reading, which I think is increasingly important to talk about. So could you talk a bit about method and how that sort of positions you inside the academy and why you do what you do? Gitelman: Yeah, I would love to and I am sure there are people in this room who can speak to this more eloquently than I, too. I am extremely heartened by things like this dialogue but also by work like Craig’s because I do see the two disciplines that I straddle and sometimes uncomfortably inhabit the gap, English and Media Studies, sometimes having a productive interface, more and more so. Maybe the quickest way is to name my three favorite books that are right in the middle there. I think of Andrew Piper’s Dreaming in Books and Virginia Jackson’s Dickinson’s Misery or Mark McGurl’s The Program Era. These are all books that are coming out of literary studies that I find myself running after my colleagues in media studies and saying “You have to read this one.” Dworkin: I’m not a good person to answer this because I don’t feel like I have a very good feel of what goes on in English studies. I know that it doesn’t look like most of what I do. I’m lucky to have a job and so I try not to draw too much attention to what I do. I try to keep my colleagues from reading anything that I publish…. I’ll be fired once this goes online! Wershler: Concordia is kind of an amazing place this way because there is a sort of will toward interdisciplinary collaboration here, an interest in working across departments and across methodologies that I find incredibly attractive. The kinds of conversations that go on with people down the street at McGill too are very much part and parcel of that because it doesn’t exist everywhere. In my experience, interdisciplinarity is often someone saying to you, well, I can do your discipline but you can’t do mine. When I look at work like this and think about what it offers not just for students but for those of us in the thick of it, I’m incredibly heartened and, at the same time, bemused about how to forge more connections. We don’t always go to the same conferences, we don’t read the same journals, so what else can one do to foster more conversation? Gitelman: One thing that struck me, Darren, is this question about close reading, about whether we need to do more than just close read is a red herring, because I don’t think anyone’s just been a close reader. There have been imitations of that, albeit. I think that one thing we learn either from the bibliographical tradition in Literary Studies, as unfashionable as that may be, or from the profoundly Canadian tradition of media studies, is that content and context is a false dichotomy. Medium and message, you can’t get them apart. That’s the whole lesson of bibliography and the whole lesson of media studies. Even though there are people who specialize in the hermeneutic and people who specialize in the media-historical, as I do, it’s an invidious project to try and get them apart, and that’s why we’re here, that’s what’s interesting. Wershler: That was one thing I found amusing about the German materialities of communication theories, even at the sort of height of their polemical position against interpretation, they’re doing an awful lot of close reading. Kittler is embedding entire texts in his book and then commenting on them scrupulously. A decade later, Gombrecht turns around and says well, this was a rhetorical position at a very specific institutional time and place, and, you know, close reading isn’t so bad. It’s another tool that we need in the box. So, for sure, I think that that’s part of it, but I wonder a bit about surrounding ongoing institutional pressures around these questions. Dworkin: The problem with close reading is that it’s rarely close enough. Gitelman: What do you mean? Dworkin: Well, that people are not reading at the level of the alphabetic letter. They are still reading at the level of semantics; they are not reading how is this paper sized? [gestures to sheet of paper]: what are the chemicals here? I want really close molecular readings, or a look at the distribution of ink over a surface. I would like readings to be much much closer. I think in some ways, in the long run, my guess is that your question won’t matter (in the sense it can’t be too long before English departments go the way of Classics departments). Wershler: That was McLuhan’s argument. Dworkin: They are going to be like the Latin departments in universities. This is not to say that interesting stuff won’t go on, but there will be one or two — a couple old people talking about English literature and how to read it— Gitelman: Now I’m going to get fired when they put this up here! Dworkin: And media programs, communications, however that evolves, are going to become the English departments of the 21st century. Wershler: In October, we had a conference here that was put on by the TAG group, the technoculture and gaming group about video games studies as part of the Entretien Jacques Cartier, and we brought Nick Montfort up and I was talking to him about his platform studies model after the conference and he said well, the ironic thing is that we just stole all that stuff from the history of the book people anyway. There’s a very long and careful history in medieval studies and the study of Anglo-Saxon texts that is meticulous about its materiality. Maybe we need more of that in contemporary studies. I spend a lot of time talking to students about things they don’t really want to talk about like colophons and where books were printed, paper stock, all of that stuff. Dworkin: I got interested in what I do thinking that I was going to be a medievalist and taking my paleography and codicology pro-seminar in sourcing bits of 13th century Italian manuscripts where you look very closely at the paper and see what kind of seeds are embedded there, or what kind of sheep led to this bit of substrate…. that kind of thing. Gitelman: Right. I guess I started in documentary editing, which is kind of related to textual studies, in an archive sort of holding up sheets of paper to see the pinhole in the corner to decide whether something had just been pinned to that other sheet, and if so which one had been in front to figure out the chains of correspondence in an archive. That was part of the material sensibility, I guess. Wershler: Maybe one more question and then we’ll open things up to the audience. You’ve both suggested quite strongly that thinking about the materiality of print can be very helpful when we’re thinking about digital materiality as well. You’ve both done a lot of work with digital media studies in a variety of contexts, so could you talk more about that? Particularly Lew’s notion of the data pour, the idea that a blank has been constructed in a certain kind of way long before you arrive there to elicit certain kinds of information and what that does to our notions about the control of our texts and how certain kinds of blank space elicit responses from us. Gitelman: I’m not sure I have anything more to say about that, certainly nothing profound. I guess there’s a really interesting set of conversations going on now, happily, that conversation about whether online experience, text, whatever is virtual or immaterial or not seems to be extinguished. We’ve established the materiality of digital texts in some very productive ways. There’s a kind of corresponding productive discussion going on that I’m not completely up on about the status of code, how we should explain to one another how digital texts operate. I think that that is an ongoing project of great interest. Dworkin: Yeah, I was going to say exactly the same thing. This is why I think thinking of something like blankness as an ideology rather than a thing: as one of those things that we all know and then immediately forget and need to be reminded of. It is important, and I’d want to pitch it back toward bodies: that's one of the problems when digital media was figured as "immaterial"l it's not true when you got tendinitis. It was not true when your neck cramps. Remembering that one reads at all at a point where our bodies impinge on materials in the world — and that it's individual, specific, irreducibly individual bodies with particular material points — is important for political reasons. So remembering that this is not a blank screen [gestures to projection screen]. We all know that, and then we immediately forget it. You’re looking at PVC. You’re looking at certain kinds of pearled and spin-coated plastics but we forget. We think it’s blank. That dynamic is the important one to keep in play. Gitelman: And just maybe I’ll express that in a kind of narrower way in terms of the language of literary genre. I think it’s incredibly hard to keep remembering but we constantly keep remembering it, that genre isn’t something that lies there on the page. Or that novel that’s in a codex and in a newspaper and on a screen. The novel genre is in us. It’s behind the eyeball there. That’s where it’s coming from. Genres are functional in that way. They are uses we make. Werhsler: Great. Thank you very much. I’d like to open things up to questions from the floor. We have two microphones, one on either side. I’ll ask you to use the microphones to address the speakers please. Speaker: Just as John Cage suggested that music depends as much on the silence between the notes played, and those who are involved in erotica maintain that the power lies on the removal of clothes rather than on nudity, I will suggest that when referring to blankness and to printed materials, we must include the exclusions, the people and the thing that are normally excluded. First of all, let us remember that until very recently most people were illiterate to begin with. They didn’t bother using all these various books that have been alluded to. They couldn’t read or write. Similarly, we have the fact that they didn’t appear on voter’s lists. Women’s work at home wasn’t recorded anywhere by the economists. The list goes on and on and on about what has or has not been included. Similarly, we have to ask ourselves a second line of questions and that is in terms of publishing. What gets published? What doesn’t get published? Why does it get published? Who does the selection of texts for schools and universities, et cetera. So, it seems to me that you’ve been concentrating, with all due respect, on what has been included, as opposed to what is excluded, and I think you’ve presented an incomplete picture. Dworkin: I take the points, and agree, though maybe this is going to come back to – it’s not going to help save English studies – but it comes back to my relation with English studies. Frankly, by talking about Aram Saroyan’s ream of paper as a book of poetry, I think of what I’m doing as including things that are not included. It’s not in the Norton Anthology of Poetry. It’s not taught in high schools. Part of recovering an avant-garde is exactly the kind of act you’re doing. It would be well outside of my job to recover the economic counting of domestic labor. I’m all for it, but I’m not an economist. Within the proper realm, I think I’m doing exactly what you’re calling for. Speaker: With all due respect and drawing on my own experience of teaching history, if I can generalize, that somehow a partial revolution or a failed revolution is worse than no revolution. The fact that you have the odd isolated individual – and I don’t mean that in a demeaning sense – doesn’t really change the foundations of much of what goes on. Now what you can do with an individual, I don’t know. But surely, we just can’t take complete solace in the idea that somebody is being a trailblazer or somebody is taking the contrary view. I think we have to look certainly if we are talking about institutional frameworks, we have to look at a wider perspective than the odd heroes who are attempting to do something different. Dworkin: My book is not published yet, but when it comes out we’ll see if the revolution follows. Gitelman. I kind of take the point, too. I guess I would, at least in my English department clothes, second what Craig is saying that my work is so deflationary in a certain sense because so counter literary, but that it’s in a particular institutional academic circle, for what it’s worth. But I did include that example of the telephone operator’s effacement to gesture toward precisely this question of what’s missing. I think certainly a lot of what’s missing in the blanks that I’ve been studying in these printed blanks has to do with labor, how it does go missing. Wershler: That labor really is sort of endless. The point of taking things into account and saying that they’ve been missing is to simply get to the point where you realize that there are other things that are missing and that you have to start that process again. I’m sort of hopeful about this in the sense that there are some signs going up that there are things that are missing, that sort of missing mass in the middle that I started by pointing to. So, I see signs to be optimistic here. Marcie Frank: I wanted to ask about ideology, actually, and about what the relationship is between the claim that we have to see blankness as ideology, which Craig has said, and the idea of blankness that Lisa evoked in the dial tone where it’s more than one thing that’s going on. So, I’m wondering if it’s always a question of there being more than one thing and whether that is ideology or not. I guess that if it’s being disappeared in some ways, if our inclination not to recognize that there is more than one thing is being enforced in some way, that would seem to me to be a question of ideology, but the formal existence of more than one thing doesn’t necessarily seem to me to be ideological in the first instance. Dworkin: Part of what I want to suggest with that term goes exactly to your point. It strikes me that it’s an "ideology" as distributed, unconnected, multiple reinforcements of something. It wasn’t just the one time when someone told you something was blank. It is also all of those metaphoric associations, other cultural institutions, the kind of constructions that Lisa gets to in other parts of her paper. So, the multiplicity is a kind of key towards that for me. Wershler: In terms of the kinds of blank books that Lisa is talking about, it reminds me of trying to use the Google search box that you were also referring to. When you start typing something into Google, Google will helpfully give you a whole list of things that you may or may not be asking about. But I think the sorts of blank books that you were talking about imply that as well. There are certain kinds of things that are appropriate to write into a ledger or certain kinds of things that are appropriate to write into a journal. Even blanks on paper elicit certain kinds of responses. That strikes me as ideology at work. Dworkin: Darren will help me with the guy’s name, but there was someone who when AOL unfortunately released the search data for thousands of its users, before they could pull it off the net, someone grabbed it and published one user’s searches. It’s called something like “I feel lonely when I type to you” or “I feel lonely when I type this.” What’s interesting is that most of things that were revealed were looking up things like addresses or phone numbers or things like that. But this person was having some kind of dialogue with the search box, which was not, obviously, returning the proper answers. They were somehow cathecting to that space as a space that was in dialogue with them. This may be where I am too drawn to the aberrant exceptions, exceptions to things, but it’s a glorious exception. Omri Moses: I feel strange asking this question on this microphone – talk about pragmatic interfaces – but I have a question that I guess goes to the heart of the some of differences you have disciplinarily and also maybe some point of connection between the methods of a cultural historian on the one hand, which wants social context to be built into the way you understand media and media aesthetics, that wants to think a little bit about the conditions of the possibility of the media in various ways. Craig, you were suggesting that media is not an object but a social event, which, in some sense, one can gloss that as being context specific, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that one would say about an event because an event is in some sense open ended. Media is not just a socially and pragmatically contextualized event but it’s also, as you suggested in your metaphor, Lisa, an open channel, that is something has quality and effect on the human interfaces, potentially ongoing and yet to be finalized. So, I guess I was just wondering a bit more about digital media, which is our new media, our media which has yet to be finalized. Of course, you’ve both reminded us that it’s not abstract or disembodied, that is it’s not merely ones and zeroes that can have an infinite permutation of possible meanings or pragmatic effects, but on the other hand it’s also something whose interface is incredibly various, stretches between sound and visual, and between potentially any number of sensory manifestations. So, is there something about media that is, in a sense, an open channel not just because it effaces something that is but also because it opens up to something that isn’t yet? Gitelman: Good question. I wrote this book that is called Always Already New trying to capture that problem of the new that is constantly arriving and receding at the same time. Again, I want to see the meanings of media, which obviously are dynamic and ongoing, as coextensive with the uses of media. Uses can be built in, right. They can exist as standards or values in design, but uses are always also after the fact. After the sign, outside if you like. That’s kind of rough word to use, I guess. So, that’s a great thing about digital media. They are so plural, so various, so varied. I think that media studies and literary studies need to be careful and discerning and to try and see what those emergent meanings are according to their habitual methodologies and domains. For me, I like to think of the literary, I was telling these guys, and this is sort of Foucault/John Guillory again, the literary as a principal of thrift in the proliferation of printed meaning. There is this moment at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century when print forms explode. The literary is a way to keep control of some of it. What are the principles of thrift appropriate to the proliferation of digital meanings? We don’t know yet, but we should be looking at them. That’s what I think we’re going to study if we study new media. Dworkin: In some way, at the moment, the thrift is built in for us in the sense that most of the reading and writing that is digitally done is not for humans at all. Two useful things for myself are trying to think if there are media and what they are, and two of the things that were very instructive came from the digital. One of them was this realization that there is never any medium. There is never one thing. There might be media. I’m not quite sure about that. But one way to think about media would be to think of them as nodes that distinguish activities of analysis or of interpretation. In some ways I could just keep it with analysis. Where one kind of analysis stops and another begins is where you can start to identify media. So, at the level of looking at the screen and typing, there is one thing. Behind that is the processor which is resolving it. I’m going to miss a bunch of steps here, right? But that’s one where that kind of analysis stops. You can start a new analysis to look at that processor. It’s going to get you to code. You’re going to have to start a new kind of analysis. It’s going to get you to the little bits of magnetized metal that are deposited and written over on a hard drive. That’s going to get you to another one. You go from there to the diode. At every point you have to change the type of analysis you do might be one way to think of media. The other thing that helped me a lot was a debate in the "discogs" website by people who are really invested in the rules of this website for a sound artist named Jarrod Fowler, who releases — among other things — blank recordable media as rhythmic audio events. He is a musician whose CDs often contain no sound, and in fact nothing but a CDr given to you by him. Here is where the social comes in. If someone gives me a blank CD, I think about it one way if I am in the office supply store. I think about it another way if it is an avant-garde sound artist giving it to me. The discussion was someone snarkily saying that they just picked up a 100 CD spindle, and should they put that under the deluxe box set of Jared Fowler’s works or not? People got very mad, but that’s a really good question. It opens on, I think, to what you say. Wershler: I’ve always liked the definition that Lisa provides in the first chapter of Always Already New of media as the material technology plus the attendant protocols and social forms that we attach to that. Maybe that’s where the kind of opening that you are talking about, Omri, is coming from, because those social protocols are always changing. The sort of infamous examples of that are things like the invention of touch typing after the final Latham & Scholes typewriter or the invention of the word Hello as a kind of social protocol for answering the phone. That kind of perpetual openness means that there is always something more that could be said or something more that could be done. Speaker: This is really more of a question for Craig. I was thinking about when you started talking about the Cocteau film, when you were sort of contextualizing it with other forms of blankness in the post-war avant-garde. I haven’t read your work yet but I know that you’ve written about Vito Acconci, so I’m assuming you are pretty familiar with this stuff, but I was wondering how you would read the reception of monochromatic painting? By today’s standards that’s not blank in any way, but I’m thinking about your idea of the ideology of blankness and how those paintings were so controversial at the time they came out because they seemed to be promoting this kind of nothingness. Of course they are totally rich in tone. You got me excited about that question and I was wondering if you had considered that. Dworkin: I think it comes in two ways. There is a practical historical moment in which it’s Rauschenberg’s white paintings that are fundamental for Cage thinking about 4’33” which goes on to be fundamental for a range of people presenting clear film strip as film or blank pages as poetry. So, I think you can’t extricate the poetics of a blank page from monochromatic white paintings in that tradition. Then there’s a more interesting and complicated version of that inextricability that I’m not going to be able to pull off here but it goes something like this. One of the tensions in the history of the monochrome is why are they are painted and why they are simply not canvases that are hung up and I’m blanking on the great scholar who wrote Kant After Duchamp. Wershler: Thierry De Duve. Dworkin: Yes! Thank you. Thierry De Duve goes into this with the proper depth. What he argues is very interesting in that painting as a discipline, and avant-garde painting, imagined simply the stretched but unpainted canvas put forward as a painting, and no one ever did it. For all the avant-garde work that was done, no one ever just hung those up. They always primed it. They always put white paint on it. He argues that it was actually necessary for avant-garde painting to imagine but not realize this. The flip side of this is that avant-garde poetry realized the blank page before they theorized its power for poetry, but has to always forget that it was done. This is part of what I take to be the recovery work of this kind of project. It seems necessary for avant-garde poetry to forget that it actually was realized before anyone thought of the power that it could have as such. Does that make any sense? Speaker: Yes, thank you. That was a great answer. Will Straw: I’m making this up as I go along, but partly bouncing off the discussion of the blank CDs, I guess I’m curious of the moral-ecological status of the blank. Blank books and blank CDs are not any heavier usually then ones filled. And they are both thrifty in their spare use of expression, but of course they’re wasteful in the very gesture of giving out blank CDs. I’m wondering if there are any reflections upon that? Wershler: One of the things, when we’re talking about the avant-garde literary side of this, I can talk about this as a former publisher of avant-garde poetry. That’s an economy of waste and excess and arbitrary value anyway. Nobody buys those books. So, you give them away. At the Coach House, there was always an open box at the front door of whatever had just come off the press and anyone coming and going would just take books when they arrived or when they left. What you end up with is this kind of circulation of things ranging from manuscripts to small press ephemera. So, in that sense, to sort of lovingly prepare a blank ream of paper and circulate it, it’s not that different a gesture. What do you think? Gitelman: From a completely different angle, part of describing entries as a micro-genre or micro-genres is to think about them as existing in a kind of economy of expression related to the extent of the material. Dworkin: Picking up on Darren’s point, Aram Saroyan’s blank ream of paper is interesting to think of because it enters into these dynamics of use and waste in really interesting ways. People who would not pay, I think it was, two or three dollars at the time…? How much would you pay for a blank music CD if it’s given to you by some artist? But if you go to the convenience store in the basement here, you’d buy one then. And in fact his publisher was so upset by this publication that she actually took them to the dump. Rather than say 'this is great, I have a 5-years-supply of typing paper', which she could have used; there’s this sort of wasteful expenditure of insisting on the uselessness that he gestures towards. He didn’t say you can’t use my book for typ


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