The Archive and the Future of the Novel

An earlier version of this essay was published as “The Archive and the Future of the Novel” in The International Journal of the Book 6.2 (2009): 71-75.

The Problem of the Book

In his preface to the English translation of S/Z by Roland Barthes, Richard Howard writes:

If we were to set out to write a readerly text, we should be no more than hacks in bad faith; yet, as readers, how hard it is to face the open text, the plurality of signification, the suspension of meaning. It explains that hesitation at the bookshelf, the hand falling on the Balzac story, the known quantity. (xi)

Now that the hand of the reading public falls not on Balzac but his cut-rate imitators — or, as is more often the case, on nothing at all — Howard’s warning rings truer than ever. Now, if a writer is to be anything but a hack, setting forth to produce a writerly text is precisely the task at hand. Yet after half a century of post-structuralist and post-modernist aesthetics, we have not been delivered into a new literary age. In fact, a regression may have occurred — today’s cut-rate Balzacs, like the true Balzac, write as if unaware of the upheavals of modernism, not to mention any successive –isms (although they lack Balzac’s good excuse, an 1850 death).

Why is this? At least part of the problem has to do with a case of linguistic slippage which seems, on the surface, unrelated. This is the expansion of the word “book” to include and efface the word “codex” (the codex in its modern example, pages bound along a spine between covers). The use of the word “book” to refer to the technology of the codex is a development which seems innocuous, but has caused two significant and overlooked effects. The first is the removal of the word “codex” from common speech (or rather, its non-entry into common speech), and even, to a great degree, technical speech. The second, and more disturbing effect, is a direct result of this first:  the fact that a “book” is commonly considered a technological unit (the codex-form book) when in fact it is more properly a conceptual unit (over and above any delivery technology).

All of this would be mere nitpicking if this second effect had not resulted in two major problems which threaten the development of the narrative book (especially the novel): the publishing industry’s adoption of the codex-form book as its primary product and the tendency of authors to write codex-form books rather than compose for other technologies. These problems are interrelated, and might be alleviated in various ways — the particular remedy proposed here is the adoption and utilization of the archive (an unbound collection of disparate materials, gathered together under some conceptual rubric) as a technological form in the production of the book. The archive-form book, as one of many potential alternatives to the codex-form book, is anticipated by the aesthetics of post-structuralism and post-modernism. In addition, even as archive technology stands as an alternative to codex technology, the archive challenges the conceptual unity of the book, and expands the possibilities of what a book is and what it might become.

The Problem of the Codex

That the codex-form book has become the dominant technology within the publishing industry is perhaps obvious. Frederick G. Kilgour writes that “[t]he codex, once introduced, came to stay for at least two thousand years. Today the codex-form book . . . occupies most of the space on our shelves” (48). Kilgour’s qualification, “at least,” belies a general attitude at the time (1998) that persists today — the belief that the codex-form book will cede its shelf space to some digital technology, such as the e-book, eliminating the need for bookshelves altogether. This remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the dominance of the codex-form book within the publishing industry at present has postponed the codex’s possible death, and seems poised to guarantee its distorted survival in the digital world, to the detriment of the book’s artistic development.

The dominance of the codex-form book is in no way threatened by the development of e-books, just as it was not supplanted by the audiobook. This is because, despite the advancement of other delivery technologies within the publishing industry, the codex-form book maintains its primacy. Audiobooks, e-books, and the like remain secondary technologies, adaptations of the codex-form book (emulation technologies, in essence). This situation persists, despite the environmental and financial costs of producing paper codices in massive quantities, most of which languish on store shelves unsold or are processed as returns. The problem is not so much that codices persist. (Personally, I prefer the codex-form book to any other currently existing book form — but I am a specialist and knowingly fetishize these objects, like most people in the academic and publishing industries. Does the same hold true for a public that spends its leisure time online?) The problem is rather that, since the codex-form retains its primacy, other delivery technologies remain underdeveloped or are developed in imitation of the codex. Audiobooks are simply codices read out loud, for the most part, perhaps with elevator music piped in underneath. E-books appear no different than scanned codices, at best scrolling like a papyrus might, but too often maintaining the regular page divisions and insular linearity of the codex. Any doubts about the current primacy of the codex can be seen in the names of the technologies themselves: we have audiobooks and e[lectronic]-books, but no need for the term codexbooks, since the codex is taken as the “natural” form of the book. The primacy of the codex remains unchallenged and unquestioned, and although e-books may yet unseat their prominence, unless e-books come to take some radically altered form, we will find ourselves still reading distorted but recognizable codices (even if the term is, in this usage, a misnomer).

A second, related problem is the fact that authors overlook other technological forms in favour of the codex — “serious” authors compose only codices, as is well-known. This results in a lack of development on two fronts, the first technological, the second artistic. Audiobook and e-book technologies remain relatively underdeveloped, as do other unrecognized or undiscovered book technologies (unrecognized or undiscovered due to a narrow-minded focus on the codex form by both authors and publishers). At least some of the blame for this must be placed upon authors who choose not to compose in non-codex forms. Objections along the lines that audiobooks, for example, are not literary but essentially theatrical, miss the point — an author is an author of books, not codices, and the audiobook form might then, because of its theatrical qualities, be suitable for narratives that are comparatively ill-served by the codex form yet presently composed as codices. Alternatives to the codex, like the audiobook, have yet to be exploited fully by authors or publishers, and as a result may never develop into distinct branches of literature — as they should, rather than remain mere shadows, adaptations of the codex-form book. In other words, the default-position of the codex form as a delivery technology and a compositional choice has prevented and is preventing the radical development of alternative book technologies that might revitalize a flagging industry.

As if this isn’t bad enough, the primacy of the codex has prevented, and is preventing, the radical development of the book itself, as a conceptual unit of literary art. Radical experimentation on the level of form too often results, if it occurs, in the production of books which are not recognizable as books to the publishing industry, or even to literary scholars. Their influence is therefore limited, if exerted at all. An interesting example is Christian Bök’s Bibliomechanics, interesting because the text of Bök’s book comments directly on this state of affairs, however obliquely. In an artistic statement, in which its full text is reproduced, Bök describes the work:

Bibliomechanics is “bookish artware,” consisting of 27 Rubik cubes, stacked together into a block (3 x 3 x 3) so as to create a writing-machine . . . Each side of a single cube has 9 square facets, and each facet displays a single, white word, printed in Futura on a black label. When properly stacked together in all the inaugural positions, the cubes create 18 separate surfaces (6 exterior, 12 interior), each one of which becomes a page that displays a readable sentence (81 words long). Each sentence paraphrases some poetic theory about the machinic function of language itself . . . The book may appear more sculptural or monumental than a codex; however, the work does suggest that, no matter what its form, a book can still become a folding rhyzome of connective potentials. (96-97)

Such a text is undeniably a book. In fact, it is trillions upon trillions of books, “albeit many nonsensical” (97), so many possible combinations that

[a]n immortal, who peruses one page per second non-stop, might begin reading this book at the moment of the Big Bang, yet never hope to finish even a fraction of the work before the expiry of the universe itself. (97)

The text that is visible when the cubes are in their starting positions may be relatively short, but as a single physical object with tremendous literary scope and a productive potential exceeding the endurance of an immortal, considering Bibliomechanics as a single poem or short text, rather than a complete book, is an untenable and reductionist approach to its artistry. In a metafictive moment, the text upon one cube-face states:





OF READING . . . (100)

This might be read, in the light of the previous argument, as an indictment of the suffocating effect that the primacy of the codex form within the publishing industry has had on the development of the literary text itself. Such a deliberate misreading would replace “book” with “codex” and “text” with “book,” and would be hyperbolic yet fundamentally accurate. However, Bök is concerned with advancing a post-modernist argument concerning the multivalence of language and text and their pseudo-animate evolution apart from any codified book-system. If the pleasure of the text derives, as Barthes suggests, not from “its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon [its] fine surface” (Pleasure 11-12), Bök wants to modify this idea from the point-of-view of the text itself, which produces its own abrasions upon the surface of the book, breaking the book’s rules and resisting the discipline it attempts to impose (and does impose, however imperfectly) upon the text itself.

This approach is in line with a metaphor that underlies and resonates within post-structuralist thought, although rarely made explicit: that of the text as an animate organism capable of operating in the world independent of its author (the very notion of the “writerly” text depends on this notion of the text’s animism). The development and persistence of this metaphor of the living text is a subject for another essay, but helps to illustrate a tension that exists between the text and the book, between the operations of poetic language in literary works and the conceptual and technological forms (the book-forms) that give this language a physical (or digital) presence in the world. This tension is productive and necessary to the effective utilization of the archive as a technological form for the (writerly) book.

The Promise of the Archive

“[T]he goal of literary work” from the post-structuralist and post-modernist point of view, “is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text” (S/Z 4). To this end, the writerly text emphasizes discontinuity and fragmentation, “openness” of interpretation, and non-linear progression, among other radical aesthetic values. However, in an undeniable, physical way, the codex emphasizes continuity, synthesizes fragments into an ordered system, imposes linearity, and works to “close” the text to radical interpretation — all a result of its promotion of the text as an ordered, linear, continuous and unified object. It is by no means impossible for a codex-form book to be an “open work,” a literary text which offers not a single, fixed set of meanings, but, as Eco writes, “an indefinite reserve of meanings” (10). However, the archive as a form not only supports but promotes the production of the open work and the writerly text, by emphasizing the very things the codex form opposes.

As a technology, the archive is a centre-less collection of materials, primarily but not necessarily textual, bound together only by some tentative authorizing concept. This loose, fragmentary form stands in stark contrast to the ordered and cohesive form of the codex. Michael A. Peters points out a further contrast when speaking of Jacques Derrida, who,

in Of Grammatology, famously equates the culture of the book with logocentrism, the belief in a transcendent signifier located both outside of structure and language, and hence beyond question, and yet at the very centre, providing it with a central point of reference that stabilizes meaning. (12)

Peters goes on to quote Derrida, who claims that

[t]he idea of the book, which always refers to a natural totality, is profoundly alien to the sense of writing. It is the encyclopedic protection of theology and logocentrism against the disruption of writing, against its aphoristic energy, and . . . against difference in general. (Of Grammatology 18)

The paragraph continues (in the original):

If I distinguish the text from the book, I shall say that the destruction of the book, as it is now under way in all domains, denudes the surface of the text. (18)

Before making the leap to the suitability of the archive as a form for the book, it must be admitted that here Derrida is condemning the book itself, for its opposition to the text, in the same manner as Bök. So far, neither the codex nor the archive seem suitable containers for text, since the book itself as a concept is unsuitable. Derrida returns to this topic in a later essay:

I was [in Of Grammatology] referring to . . . the onto-encyclopedic or neo-Hegelian model of the great total book, the book of absolute knowledge linking its own infinite dispersion to itself, in a circle. (“The Book to Come” 15)

The objection here is to a book produced by a “central, organizing motif . . . [a] tension between gathering and dispersion” (13) which is not resolved. It should be noted that this is not an objection to a book containing this tension but one structured from this tension, in which this tension is the “central, organizing motif.”

This is where the archive promises to deliver the book from evil, in a manner of speaking, by maintaining this tension as a productive force while also maintaining the difference between its elements, in a real and physical way. In doing so, the archive refuses to maintain fixed boundaries or any fixed form, allowing for the constant revision, addition, and removal of its elements. The archive thus empowers readers as authors (in a very literal sense rather than a strictly theoretical one), and rejects the unity that, in the book as a concept and the codex as its form, Derrida and like-minded theorists find objectionable. As Derrida himself notes:

There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside. (Archive Fever 11)

Thus the archive-book is, by its very nature, freed from the potential for totalization and absolute self-circularity that characterizes the “great total book” to which Derrida objects.

This tension between gathering and dispersion finds its expression within the archive as a tension between an archival force (which gathers elements into the archive and under the conceptual rubric of the book) and an anarchival force (which works to delimit the archive through standing as a continual threat of dispersal and collapse). As more and more elements are gathered into the archive and under the book’s umbrella, the word book tends towards incoherence, as the archive threatens to become so large and so disunified in its fragmentary structure that the word book ceases to be practically applicable and the conceptual unity of the archive is threatened by its own collapse. This anarchival force is thus an intrinsic threat and tension that works constantly to destroy or undo the archive, a chaos internal to the archive-book which seeds its own destruction or transmutation. The book thus becomes a fragile, indeterminate site of poetic tensions and narrative potential, threatened by and often succumbing to collapse.

The strength of such an unstable book is that it allows the instabilities of the text — those “excesses [and] ecstasies” that Bök and other authors influenced by the aesthetics of post-structuralist and post-modernist thought treasure — to remain unstable, rather than subsuming them to a logocentric order presupposed by the technological forms of the book that we have come to know. In addition, the archive form posits the absolute freeing of the book as a conceptual unit from dependence on any one technology, and encourages technological hybridization. Already, the incorporation of extra-literary materials (photographs are the most obvious example) within the codex-form book points to the obvious, logical extension of this practice in the development of a potentially endless archive-form book which, as it approaches endlessness, disintegrates and thus cannot totalize its contents or effectively repress its text. Rosamund Davies argues that, due to “technological convergence, the future of the book, like the future of other media, is cross or multi-platform” (52). Davies also argues that the archive “offers the greatest potential to the book as a digital form” (52), but commits three errors: confusing the archive with the index; perceiving this future archive as necessarily digital rather than as an overarching conceptual rubric; and seeing narrative development in the reader’s interactions with a site like Wikipedia. The archive’s ability to conceptually contain items without physically requiring their collation, or setting any necessary and inherent limits on the size, development, or transformation of the archive-book, places no limits on the technologies used to create or reshape such books, or the proliferation or paucity of an archive-book’s contents.

The role of the author thus more truly comes to resemble that of the “dead” author of Barthes, standing opposed to the “author-function” which, for Foucault, “serves to neutralize the contradictions that may emerge in a series of texts” (385). As Davies notes:

the “role of the writer of an electronic text [we might substitute here, ‘archive-book’] becomes more like that of an architect or a game designer. Their role is to create a structure with creative and versatile potential for those who visit and inhabit it: to facilitate potential pathways and connections within an open structure, rather than to fashion a finished text. (53-54)

In doing so, the author of the archive-book might potentially create a text that avoids the aesthetic pitfalls of the codex-form book. The instability of the archive, its fragmentary nature, and its general lack of linearity is particularly useful to authors concerned with the development of the novel through formal experimentation, since the novel tends to observe an additional level of linearity and continuity that is encouraged by conventional narration and then reinforced by the codex form itself. At the same time, the fact that books might, through the adoption of the archive form, become truly interactive, writerly texts, offers new hope for a revitalization of the publishing industry and the potential for literature to play a more dynamic, fundamental role in public life.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. 1973. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.

—. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. 1970. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974. Print.

Bök, Christian. “From Poetry Plastique.” Open Letter 11.2 (2001): 93-102. Print.

Davies, Rosamund. “Narrating the Archive and Archiving Narrative: The Electronic Book and the Logic of the Index.” The International Journal of the Book 5.3 (2008): 45-55. Web. 7 Oct. 2008.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever. 1995. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.

—. “The Book to Come.” Paper Machine. 2001. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005. Print.

—. Of Grammatology. 1967. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1976. Print.

Eco, Umberto. The Open Work. 1962. Trans. Anna Cancogni. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” 1969. The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose. New York: The New Press, 2003. 377-91. Print.

Howard, Richard. Preface. S/Z. By Roland Barthes. 1970. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974. ix-xii. Print.

Kilgour, Frederick G. The Evolution of the Book. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

Peters, Michael A. “Opening the Book: (From the Closed to the Open Text).” The International Journal of the Book 5.1 (2007): 11-24. Web. 7 May 2008.

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