in teleconference with the University of Iowa, Center for the Book,
The Book, the Page, the Text,
or, The Once and Future Book
Founding Director, Communication, Culture, and Technology
The materiality of the medium, or
what exactly is the medium's message?
The social meaning of the codex book.
The page and the book as an information system: 9th century manuscripts to
The prehistory of hypertext and recent history of hypermedia as means
of transcending the material limits of the book.
The digital future of the book: possible book futures and scenarios
Books have a material history, writing and texts assigned value in the
physical form of books. The social significance of the book is under revision
in digital environment.
The material counterpart of textuality is codicity--the significance,
value, authority of the codex book from script to print and now digital
The ideology of the book is sustained by a network of social and political
institutions--schools, literacy, publishing industry, copyright law, social
The book has always embodied technology and convergence in technology:
the old technologies of the book are usually transparent to us as technology
(part of the ideology of the book): the printed codex, and print technology
in general, seems "natural" to us.
Beware of technological determinism (McLuhan, Ong, Postman, Birkerts, etc.)
Regis Debray and Mediology: materiality, culture, technology, ideology
Information in the medium: cultural/social information in the material
form of the codex book, its use and reception throughout history.
Text as social node: "codicity" and "textuality"
Semiology of the Page: the Page
as Information System
Book as material form or instantiation of a text vs. text as weave of language
Book as nodal point, node in a network of texts and other material books.
Any book is always already a node, not simply a delimited object.
The abstract and material texts:
The abstract text of editors and the abstract text of literary theory.
Text has been dematerialized, abstracted from a necessary material bookness,
since modern printing.
Renaissance printing still linked to "codicity" (the material union of
text, type, page, and book).
On one level, the text has always been a node in a network, a momentary
configuration of language, genres, styles.
The digital abstraction of the text for multiple material channels of representation,
display, and design is only a step in the cultural logic of "mechanical
reproduction" as described by Walter Benjamin.
Modern notions of the pure, authentic text without embedding in accrued
commentary or anything that is not the "authors": why do these ideas seem
transparent or natural?
Modern notions of the text and the book are embedded in notions of authorship,
ownership, property, and book as commodity.
The "book" is always already a social, political, and economic entity before
its material form, but it is the material form of the book that supports,
encodes, and reproduces the nexus of forces that define it.
The "book" never has, and never will be, a simple or unified self-disclosing
material object in and of itself.
Modern books and digital media design are still post-medieval, or "post-codical".
Example: script and type fonts encode value and social meaning; there is
a politics of script and type (see Morrison, The Politics of Script).
For example, consider the semiology of type fonts:
There is a larger semiology of the page that was part of the literacy of
the manuscript book.
The Page as information system: the page contains an abundance of cultural
information beyond the text content.
Format and layout of the page as information system.
|Columns of text in various layouts.
||Columns of text in standardized layouts.
||Columns of text imitating print, with new variations in the space of
|Text often embedded in commentary or interpretative matrix.
||Text usually purified of anything not produced by the author or owner
of the text.
||Hypertext linking and variable page design allow for multiple interpretive
|Text and illustrations often interlinked and inseparable from
the design and idea of the book.
||Photography and illustration ordinarily separable from text. Most books
are text only.
||Multimedia assumed to be part of the design of the whole.
|Hierarchies of script
||Hierarchies of type
||Hierarchies maintained but field of possibilities greatly enlarged
|Center and margins as part of the signifying space of the page: margins
as space for expanding the text.
||Center and margins maintained as essential to book design and boundaries
||Where's the center? Where's the margin?
|Text and 2-D images only.
||Text and 2-D images only.
||Video, audio, text, graphics integrated in one interface or display
|Variation in text from copy to copy. Page includes non- "authorial"
texts, commentary, embedding in cultural library outside the book. "Hypertext"
links to commentary.
||Normalization and standardization of texts. Expectation of no
variation from copy to copy. Page normally displays nothing that is not the "author's".
||Variation and dynamic change in page contents. Texts changeable. Unstable
sense of document or text. Multiple authors on a "page". Hypermedia links
beyond any displaying text.
Hypertext before hypertext:
attempts to transcend the physical limits of the book from manuscripts to digital
[Click on images for larger size]
|10th c., Donatus, Ars grammatica
||14th c., scribe laying out page
||10th c., Vergil plus Servius as gloss
Attempts to reveal the network of the node, the text in its library, the
archive in the text.
Medieval "text and gloss" format, institutionalized in scriptoria and libraries
Institutionalization of late classical page design for wider reproduction
Institutionalization of teaching, reading, and library practices in the
design of the page.
Reading and teaching experience embedded in received interpretations of
the text that point to a cultural library.
Text insufficient, non-self-disclosing; internal meaning displayed/displaced
Space on page attempts to overcome some of the material limits of the represented
Latin as operating system, page design as display device.
|12th c. glossed bible
||12th c glossed bible
||15th c. printed Decretals glossed
and Early Modern Books:
Imagining Hypertext, or Beyond the Material Boundaries
The "book" in the digital, networked
- Reading wheel (image right), from Agostino Ramelli, Le diverse et artificiose
machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli [The
various and ingenious machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli],
Paris, 1588. Wikipedia article.
- Science and the Artists' Book: Smithsonian Online Exhibition
- Attempts to move beyond the physical limits of books: reading wheel, text
in embedded commentary retained until 18th century.
Manuscript book properties reappearing in digital form: print only fixed
manuscript codicity in a single, standardized form.
Renaissance imitation of medieval books: the content of a new medium is
the immediately prior medium (McLuhan).
- Trithemius and
the ambiguity of the printed book as cultural memory system:
- He undertook to recopy printed
books on paper back into parchment manuscripts because manuscripts could
be trusted for lasting over time.
- One of the earliest cryptographers, obsessed with writing and permanence.
- See John Tolva, "The
Heresy of Hypertext: Fear and Anxiety in the Late Age of Print."
The book is of course now subsumed in digital media forms, but digital text now
transcends the material limits of the codex.
- The Web and Internet are still full of "book metaphor" that are irrelevant
to the digital medium: Web "pages", "files", etc.
E-Text and web hypermedia now the current format for many genres: digital
encyclopedias have now replaced books, many texts easier to use in digital
The digital book: new memory and display devices for portability and storage.
The E-Book: preserving codicity and copyrightable object in the digital age: ebooks.com.
- What about "digital paper" and the multiple media formats for delivering
and displaying "books"?
- Amazon.com, Google, and the book: what is a book for Amazon and Google?
Bibliography on the Semiotics of the Early Book
- Martin Irvine, The Making of Textual Culture. Cambridge University
Press, 1994. Amazon.com
Copyright 1999-2006; rev. 10.22.2006