Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Preserving the Presence of the Book

Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.

For those who don't recall, or haven't read my initial post for this blog - the project I am undertaking is reading and reflecting on a bunch of books in an effort to gain a better understanding of a theory of (library) preservation as well as the place of libraries in the larger cultural heritage world. I've got a bibliography of books that I'm working through, but one of the very nice things about this project is I'm not beholden to anyone or any final product so I can go off on whatever tangents seem intriguing. (It's a bit like endlessly researching a paper that you never have to actually sit down and write.) This post is such a tangent.

I should have a rule about the books I am reading. If I had the rule it would read, ‘Upon the 2nd mention of Heidegger, put the book down and walk away.’ I should have that rule, but I don't, and after encountering several mentions of Heidegger (as well as Gadamer and Foucault) I kept on reading Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. I read the book, and feel compelled to try and write about it, but I'm not sure the final result will do any body any good.

I arrived at this book in an effort to understand how the materiality of a book affects our experience/understanding of the book. Or, rather, what is the effect of reading a text held within the pages of a book, as compared to the effect of reading text displayed on a screen. Or, what is it about physical texts that deserve preserving. (It began by my Googling "How does a book mean" with no particularly helpful results. It was through Amazon that I happened across a listing for this book and thought it might at least move me in the right direction.)

This book is not about preserving books; it is not even about cultural heritage; it is about being; it is about that which is not interpreted; it is about presence, and the effects of presence. (or at least that's my best guess.)

Gumbrecht uses the example of the Eucharist to portray the shift from a middle ages "body" focus to a modern "mind" focus. In the middle ages - and current Catholic church - the elements of the Eucharist become and are something real - the body and blood. (Its called transubstantiation.) But with the beginning of the modern world and the beginning of Protestantism the elements no longer are or become something, but point to or call one to remember something. In a protestant Eucharist - keeping in line with western thought and Descartes centrality of cognition - its all about meaning, and the physicality of the elements is immaterial. The Quakers go so far as to completely away with physical symbols of the Eucharist.

Gumbrecht finds the modern western world's exclusive focus on meaning as unsatisfying and suggests there is in fact a tension between meaning and presence - between that we interpret with our mind (or within our conceptual framework) and that which is uninterpreted and encountered in space with our bodies. "The dominant human self-reference in a meaning culture is, then, the mind ... whereas the dominant self-reference in a presence culture is the body." (p.80)

Does text embedded within a book affect production of meaning. What other effects, if any, does the physicality of the book produce apart from meaning? These effects, it would seem to me, speak to the heart of preservation.

Gumbrecht briefly mentions the role of presence with regards to reading, "The meaning-dimension will always be dominant when we are reading a text -- but literary texts have ways of also bringing the presence-dimension of the typography, of the rhythm of the language, and even of the smell of the paper into play." (p. 109) (Once again with the smelling of books!)

A digitized text obviously does not have the same effects of presence that the physical text does. A challenge is understanding and communicating the value of that physical presence and then justifying its preservation.

Gary Frost, who I don't recall ever citing Heidegger yet he still manages to provide a very challenging read, has been a most influential writer for my understanding of the act of reading - an activity of encountering both the meaning-dimension of a book, as well as its presence-dimension as we physically engage and manipulate the book.

Near the end of the book Gumbrecht talks of our relation to objects from the past and that the presence of such objects helps us feel like we aren't "leaving behind" the past. And seeing as I'm developing a bit of a reputation as the death and conservation guy, I couldn't finish this post without a quote about death. "One benefit of the capacity to let ourselves quite literally be attracted by the past under these conditions may lie in the circumstances that, by crossing the life world threshold of our birth, we are turning away from the ever-threatening and ever present future of our own deaths." (p. 125)

I may have completely misunderstood and misrepresented this book, but I don't think so - or at least I hope not. I've barely scratched the surface of the book because I find it challenging to creatively reconstruct and engage a text on which I have a very tenuous grasp. Obviously, this book doesn't belong on any Intro to Conservation syllabus, or even an Advanced Conservation syllabus, but I think it provokes some interesting thoughts about how we think about, and otherwise encounter, the objects we work on.

And, for anyone who has actually made it to the end of this post, please be assured - the next book I read and write about should be much more accessible. I could use a fun, light read.

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