Derrida's "The Book to Come"

When researching / reading, I usually write notes in text-edit. Usually this stuff never sees the light of day (especially when I'm working off of 4 hours sleep), but today I feel like sharing. Up until now, I've made this a theory-free zone, but that's about to end. At least this has to do with the intersections between theory and technology (the focus of my disseration-to-come). Derrida, Jacques. "The Book to Come." from Writing Machines [delivered 20 March 1997 at the Bibliotheque nationale de France]
The question of the book, as we shall see, is also that of a certain totality. (5)
The question of the book concerns the end of totality, a changing of media that moves away from materiality (book's binding, heard twice) to virtuality. Speaking of the "work" of the "book," Derrida writes:
[...] the unity or body of an oeuvre marked out by a beginning and an end, and so a totality: assumed to be conceived and produced, and indeed signed by an author, a single identifiable author, and offered up for the respectful reading of a reader who doesn't meddle with it, doesn't transform it on the inside--in what we now call an "interactive" way. (6)
This reader, which has never existed (?), is certainly a fabrication in a digital age. This is Ong's reader--outside of the room, of the mind, of the moment of composition. But this is not the readerS one encounters in the digital, the readers that one forms a formative relationship (not always necessarily agonistic, either). A move from the single-author to the network (isn't English already comfortable with a move away from the single author study?). What's more, these readers carry into other places, we (I mean I) write for them all the time. Every piece of writing is a blog post. Or a comment. Or a response. For the network. And, as scholars such as Jeff Rice stresses, every act of reading in the digital sphere is also writing (del.icio.us, digg, etc.) So, to use the Rice example, my response to Derrida's essay is very much connected to a post Rice put up this morning (on network "work" as [possibly not] scholarly "work"). This is the academic attention economy. We deliver our time. Tracing the etymology of "book" related words, Derrida writes:
[...]like the presence of the Greek tithenia ("to put") in bibliotheke, they all point up the act of putting, depositing, but also the act of immobilizing, of giving something over to a stabilizing immobility, and to the statute, to the statutory and even state institution, which alerts us to all the institutional, juridical, and political dimensions that we must also debate. Setting down, laying down, depositing, storing, warehousing--this is also receiving, collecting, totalizing, electing, and reading by binding. So the idea of gathering together, as much as that of the immobility of the statutory and even state deposit, seems as essential to the idea of the book as to that of the library. (7)
Wow, I love the play working through that passage--book as a statue (inorganic), which is the inorganic organicism of the Humanist human?. And why, perhaps, so many of us are ready to be posthumans? One can project where this is going--what happens when our dominant communicative medium, the everyday medium is no longer the "book"? Derrida asks:
Will we continue for long to use the word library for a place that essentially no longer collects together a store of books?
Anyone who has strolled through a library lately sees this transformation... the other day a friend of mine told this anecdote:
Teacher: so, the call number of a book will help you find the book in the library. [after a few more minutes of lecture] Student (sincere): so, let me get this straight, if I call that number, the library will send me the book?
[...]nonetheless the underlying tendency would be for such a place increasingly to be expected to become a space for work, reading and writing that was governed or dominated by texts no longer corresponding to the "book" form: electronic texts with no paper support, texts not corpus or opus--not finite and separable oeuvres; groupings no longer forming texts, even, but open textual processes offered on boundless national and international networks, for the active or interactive intervention of readers turned coauthors, and so on. (7-8)
It is not a surprise to me that this discussion is seasoned with Levinas' language--that the finitude of the "book" is (not) contrasted to the infinite of the book-to-come, the network. Derrida stresses that "the-book-to-come" will expectedly have to resist BEING the book, it will be a struggle to hold this book back as an infinite becoming, a non-teleological tension between collection and dispersion (did I say Levinas, I must have meant Heidegger, or both). This book-to-come will be haunted by Hegel, God, totality, dialectic. Desire for 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" (15). The danger is in thinking this circle closed, a circuit. A network is not a circuit. Derrida:
Now what is happening today, what looks like being the very form of the book's to-come, still as the book, is on the one hand, beyond the closure of the book, the disruption, the dislocation, the disjunction, the dissemination with no possible gathering, the irreversible dispersion of this total codex (not its disappearance but its marginalization or secondarization, in ways we will have to come back to); but simultaneously, on the other hand, a constant reinvestment in the book project, in the book of the world or the world book, in the absolute book (this is why I also described the end of the book as interminable or endless), the new space of writing and reading in electronic writing, traveling at top speed from one spot on the globe to another, and linking together, beyond frontiers and copyrights, not only citizens of the world on the universal network of a potential universitas, but also any reader as a writer, potential or virtual, or whatever. That revives a desire, the same desire. It re-creates a temptation that is figured by the World Wide Web as the ubiquitous Book finally reconstituted, the book of God, the great book of Nature, or the World Book finally achieved in its onto-theological dream, even though what it does is to repeat the end of that book as to-come. (15)
Phew, that's a long passage, but a good one. Like Borges' fable, we must becareful not to become emperors' seeking the map--to consider the WWW as the empire to be consolidated, synthesized, hierarchized, ontologized, mapped. The WWW is an answer to the questions posed by differance, differends, conditions most post-modern. It will not provide an answer (except, maybe, "forty-two"). While the internet can bring us together to create answers, it will also create questions, perhaps only questions? Oh the AGONy. Both visions presented above are extremes, two specters of the book-to-come; our lived experience will be mitigated through these (and many other) specters. Derrida concludes with four points--one of which interests me in connection with recent debates surrounding net neutrality:
3. The Right to Books. Between the two fantasies I have just mentioned, the turbulence and impasses have, as always, a juridical and ethical-political form. If everything symbolized the World Wide Web can have a liberating effect (in relation to controls and all forms of policing, and even the censorship exercised by the machines of power--of the nationstate, the economy, the universities, and publishing), it is all too obvious that that only advances by opening up zones without rights, "wild" areas, areas of "anything goes" (ranging from the most dangerous, politically speaking, to the most insignificant and the most inept, the worst that coudl come and fill in, paralyze, or break up space). A difficult question in a war for rights and power that was already ongoing at the time of the book's domination, but is obviously taking on new forms and new rhythms. These must be recognized, analyzed, and treated fairly as possible" (17-18).
What gives the WWW the diffusive power Derrida discusses? Movement both ways- the fact that every reader is a writer (potentially). And under the technologies of web2.0, the intellectual networks, the sharing, the push-button endorsement, the tag, the attention economy, "I think, therefore I am" to "we digg what we might never (hope to) perhaps become," this movement becomes as natural as blinking.

1 comment:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Note to selves: Vitanza picks this up in his Enculration article "Abandoned to Writing: Notes Toward Several Provocations."

"Writing is not human! Any writing is not human!

Matter of any kind, such as crystal, seeks, brings about, uncovers ways, or wayves, to re-verse the status quo—all things are imminently reversible—while matter flows and then treks on its wayves to becoming thirds, or transversals.

Yes, "writing" is about sea CHANGE. And that, my d.ear.est, is why we are afraid of the thing called W~R~I~T~I~N~G~, and why we insist on "teaching" writing and IN institutions! I understand that YOU are afraid of the DRUNKEN BOAT."

Writing distances us from ourselves.