[First presented in teleconference with the University of Iowa, Center for the Book, June, 1999]
The Book, the Page, the Text, and Biblio-Futures 
or, The Once and Future Book 

Martin Irvine 
Founding Director, Communication, Culture, and Technology Program
Georgetown University

Major Themes:
  • The social meaning of the codex book.
  • The page and the book as an information system: 9th century manuscripts to digital media.
  • 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 for etext.
The materiality of the medium, or what exactly is the medium's message?
  • 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 form.
  • The ideology of the book is sustained by a network of social and political institutions--schools, literacy, publishing industry, copyright law, social class expectations.
  • 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.

The Text as social node: "codicity" and "textuality" 

  • Book as material form or instantiation of a text vs. text as weave of language separable.
  • 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. 
Semiology of the Page: the Page as Information System 
  • 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.
Digital hypermedia
Columns of text in various layouts. Columns of text in standardized layouts. Columns of text imitating print, with new variations in the space of the screen.
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 matrices.
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 enforced. 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 device.
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:
cultural attempts to transcend the physical limits of the book from manuscripts to digital media

[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 from c.800-1500.
  • 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 in margins.
  • Space on page attempts to overcome some of the material limits of the represented text.
  • Latin as operating system, page design as display device.
12th c. glossed bible 12th c glossed bible 15th c. printed Decretals glossed

Renaissance and Early Modern Books:
Imagining Hypertext, or Beyond the Material Boundaries of Books

  • 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" in the digital, networked media environment
  • 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 form.
  • 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 info.

Martin Irvine
Copyright 1999-2006; rev. 10.22.2006