Starbooks and the Death of the Work

December 5, 2012

This is the fourth of six posts about the present. Caveat lector.

Some time ago, I wrote about *punk as “a hollowing out of conceptual spaces based on only slightly varied worldlines”. I am less and less convinced that these space are merely conceptual, that these wordlines are imaginary, or divergent from our own. They exist in the same context, if temporarily out of sight.

There’s a reluctance to re-quote William Gibson’s dictum, that “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”, but I’ve figured out the problem, and it bears unpacking. The exact wording of Gibson’s original quote is unclear, but even if that yet wasn’t there, you can still hear it.

The yet implies, and I have always read the quote as implying, that the capital-f Future will be evenly distributed, soon, eventually. The future will arrive, we will reach the promised land.

But that’s not how it works. The future never arrives. The future is always unevenly distributed, leaking out here and there as we poke and squeeze the present, as we invent new words and emotions to articulate contemporary experience. Gibson was almost right (he’d be right now, if you asked him again — hence the “endless digital now“).

As an example in the space of literature, I propose *books (starbooks).

*books are books in their unstable form. Dan Hancox’s Utopia and the Valley of Tears narrates a reality that is specific to Europe, to Spain, to the indignados, right now, but invisible. Its narration is necessarily unstable, and its form inhabits such an instability. Utopia… will come out as an expanded paperback version next year, but needs to be and is published and available digitally now — the two editions will not match. It is also necessarily linked to series of blog posts, tweets, and articles elsewhere. Context is part of the form: the form of the book destabilised by the network. A transitional form, always in transition.

Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple’s Discordia is another *book. It is journalistic writing of the extended, inquiring kind that newspapers can afford to do ever less of but which books have always been too slow to respond to fully. Discordia was written over a few weeks, contained anecdotes from the week before publication, revives illustration as journalistic practice, challenges and changes every form it encounters. It also inhabits the network, as Utopia… does, as part of an ongoing practice and conversation. It is currently available as an ebook, like Utopia…, but that is not all it is: hence *books.

*books are not just political books, but the urgency of political books makes for a good study. “Is Journalism worth saving?” asks Penny in Discordia, as if journalism is some special case of writing, not subject to the same imprecarities as other discourses. These previously opposed forms: fiction and non-, myth-making and journalism, take refuge in the same form, the *book, they flee to it, as the natural condition of a destabilised writing, a communication incised, splayed, and realigned by the network.

Books commidifiability comes in handy again here, because these writers need paying. The New New Journalism will emerge as *books, from the network, just as the New Journalism emerged from the popular magazines of the 1960s and 1970s. But this is a temporary form.

*books are where the story which needs to be told will be told: the spiritual connection back to blogging means that there is always a personal core to this, and the covers and titles of *books are convenient fictions, necessary to commodification but oriented as billboards towards special interests while a continuous flow of thought passes through them.

*books don’t care about objectivity, because there’s never been any such thing, and as networked objects they obey the first law of the network: they reveal. Bias, connection, narrative, interest, complicity. Previously hidden behaviours (no less extant for their invisibility) are revealed.

Don’t be surprised if *books don’t stick to the point: that is, after all, the point. They do not cleave to the commodity, but to the continuum; they are frozen moments, snapshots of an ongoing discourse rather than fully shat-out artefacts of it.

Like the trash theory of Tiqqun. Like Jesse Darling’s assertion:

“I’m into transparency as/of process, and in placing my own works occasionally alongside whatever else I’m posting and reposting, I guess I’m trying to make a statement that this – all of it – is a continuous practice. I’m not sure about the reification of discrete art works within the continuous playbor loop. I think especially now we are all producing work in dialogue with the communities we live in on and offline and I want to be transparent about it, make it explicit.”

This is how we talk about destabilisation.

And this instability applies not only to the writing of these texts, but, crucially, to the reading of them too (which I tried to articulate previously as read/writing: the tight binding between these processes which the network reveals). The condition of reading is in transition and always in transition. Stated as simply as possible, this is the condition of having many tabs open at once. We are always, now, reading a palimpsest. The eye moves easily across multiple texts in different windows, across many services and surfaces, and the mind, despite those nay-sayers who claim we are becoming dumber or less attentive, moves easily with it (we can discount that charge from our own experience, please, now).

In “The Death of the Author”, Barthes distinguished between “literature” and “text”; the latter is authorless – the authorship of the text is simply not important.

We are now ready to declare the death of the work. *books are symptomatic of this death: not of the author, but of the work—of the singular, whole, completed, standalone work. They are hybrid, unformed, inconclusive—inconclusive not in the sense of vague, but their conclusions are not located exclusively within the work, but are distributed across the network.

Books that do work. These are working books in the sense of working definitions: they are arguing towards something, although that something is inconclusive by the above definition. (“Working definition” is related to the “overlapping consensus”.)

The book-container is not dead, any more than blogging is dead, but the work is. The fragmentary nature of media, the expansion of item into stream, signifies that the thing being constructed is higher up the chain. A single tweet or instagram photo is banal — a stream constitutes a far more interesting construction (to say nothing of the coproduced work — likes, comments, retweets, which are now fully integrated into the work itself, a form of collaboration with the audience. Every time a weird twitterer retweets their favstar ranking they’re incorporating the audience into the work itself. You can’t talk about archiving Flickr without archiving everything.)

I used to talk about how Pynchon and Illuminatus and Grant Morrison’s “Invisibles” rewired my brain, but the internet is the greatest work of literature I’ve ever read. It’s my favourite book. A combinatory literature, the literature of the digital dérive, the literature of the wikihole. Hyper-referentiality is the new style – this is why I obsess over Wikipedia, which is a subset of the whole internet, self-similar, at a shorter grain, why I obsess over Fanfiction, which uses the canon as its context: you learn more at each level, like Mandelbrot’s map.

This is why hypertext literature, which we’ve been attempting for 20+ years (and longer on paper), ultimately fails, because it attempts to discard the linearity of the text without dissolving its boundaries. It reconceives the scroll as a cube, but you can pack it as optimally as you like, you can wander across hilbert space in any direction, and you’re still trapped in Koch’s snowflake, endlessly digging up the same old ground. Literature is a hypercube, it exists in many dimensions. The death of the work has already happened: we are living in its aftermath.

Comments are closed. Feel free to email if you have something to say, or leave a trackback from your own site.