Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Reading "On Longing" - or at least parts of it

On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, by Susan Stewart. Duke University Press, 1993.

I only read sections of this fascinating book. It is not a light read and a full read would have required too much. As the blurb on the back jacket says “this highly original book draws on insights from semiotics and from psychoanalytic, feminist, and marxist criticism.” The amount of energy it would take me to fully intellectually engage this book, beyond my simply passively receiving it, is more than I’m willing to expend at this time. I’m a little amused, embarrassed, and pleased at how much of the book I understood – at least the gist – but the language is still foreign enough that forming my own sentences of response would take a good deal of concentration. Some day I would love to give this book the thorough reading it deserves.

The reasons I was initially drawn this book include the evocative title On Longing and my own ponderings on the role of longing and nostalgia as motivations for preservation, but more importantly, within the context of that title, I saw that the volume discussed the materiality of the book, and the collection – with the great chapter subheading The Collection, Paradise of Consumption.

As one who works at preservation in a library setting, I think it this volume discusses topics – of reading, the material book, the collection – that while perhaps not immediately pertinent to the day-to-day tasks of preservation, do help to understand the larger context wherein these day-to-day tasks happen, and hopefully, may even shape these tasks.

So, once again, with books where I cannot create too much of my own response, I’ll simply present some worthwhile quotes. (Oh, and I hope that some day Gary Frost will read and publicly reflect on this book. I'd be curious to read his thoughts. hint, hint.)

“The reader who arose from the mechanical reproduction of literature is a reader acutely aware of the disjunction between book as object and book as idea.  And the solitude of his or her reading takes place within the bourgeois domestic, a milieu of interior space miming the creation of both an interior text and an interior subject.” P. xi.

“Nostaliga, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, the past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack.” P. 23

“Our terror of the unmarked grave is a terror of the insignificance of a world without writing.” P.31

 “The simultanaeity of the printed word lends the book its material aura; as an object it has a life of its own, a life outside human time, the time of the body and its voice. Hence, the transcendent authority of the classic and the classicism of all printed works. The book stands in tension with history, a tension reproduced in the microcosm of the book itself where reading takes place in time across marks which have been made in space. Moreover, because of the tension, all events recounted within the text have an effect of distancing, and effect which serves to make the text both transcendent and trivial and to collapse the distinction between the real and the imagined. The ideological nature of the work becomes apparent here as the idea supplants the ‘merely real.’ The printed word always tends toward abstraction, for it escapes the necessity of a material referent and the constraints of an immediate context of origin; it is always quotation.” P. 22

“In the realm of market competition, speed is the auxiliary to consumption, and the rapid production and consumption of books, their capacity for obsolescence in material form, necessarily seems to transform their content. If the book can be consumed, so can the idea; if the book can is destroyed, the idea is destroyed.” P. 33

Miniature books “The early artisanal concern with the display of skill emphasizes the place of the miniature book as object, and more specifically as an object of person, a talisman or amulet. The fact that the miniature book could be easily held and worn attaches a specific function to it.” P.41

The Collection
“Significantly, the collection marks the space of nexus for all narratives, the place where history is transformed into space, into property.” P. xii

“The collection seeks a form of self-enclosure which is possible because of its ahistoricism. The collection replaces history with classification, with order beyond the realm of temporality. In the collection, time is not something to be restored to an origin; rather all time is made simultaneous or synchronous with the collection’s world.” P. 151

“Like other forms of art, [the collection’s] function is not restoration of the context of origin, but rather the creation of a new context, a context standing in a metaphorical, rather than a contiguous, relation to the world of everyday life.” P. 152

“…the space of the collection is a complex interplay of exposure and hiding, organization and the chaos of infinity.” P. 157

“The collection relies upon the box, the cabinet, the cupboard, the seriality of shelves. It is determined by these boundaries just as the self is invited to expand within the confines of bourgeois domestic space.” P. 157

“Herein lies the ironic nostalgia of the collection’s economic system: although dependent on, and a mirroring of, the larger economy of surplus value, this smaller economy is self-sufficient and self-generating with regard to its own meanings and principals of exchange. Whereas the larger economy has replaced use value through the translation of labor into exchange value, the economy of the collection translates the monetary system into a system of objects. Indeed, that system of objects is often designed to serve as a stay against the frailties of the very monetary system from which it has sprung. The collection thereby acquires an aura of transcendence and independence that is symptomatic of the middle class’s values regarding personality.” P. 159

“When one wants to disparage the collected object, one says ‘it is not you.’” P. 159

“Yet it is the museum, not the library, which must serve as the central metaphor of the collection; it is the museum in its representativeness [ital. mine] which strives for authenticity and for closure of all space and temporality within the context at hand.” P. 161.

1 comment:

  1. With new books I try to assign a discipline perspective....this one looks like literary studies. The books I find most instructive are those that cross and interplay two or more disciplines. So far I find I can decide what goes where.

    Here are some disciplines crucial to a study of resilience in book transmission

    1. Book Studies - the future of books projected from a historical perspective

    2. Book Technologies - the future of books projected from current product developments

    3. Book Cognition - future implications of book reading behaviors, habits, and impacts

    4. Library Science - the future of libraries and book collections

    5. Book Arts - the future of the aesthetics of the book and predictive role of creative work in book format.

    6. Literary Studies - the future of the book projected in works of literary theory and criticism.

    7. Composite Studies – works that approach resilience of book transmission by deliberate synthesis of two or more disciplines

    A single discipline approach to the future of the book and resilience of book transmission offers a comfort zone. Academic interest need not leave book studies, print on demand technologists and e-book venders need not leave their enclave, and those in cognitive sciences at work on reading behaviors and text cognition can work in their specialty zone. Librarians can attend to their changing collections and services and book artists can project aesthetic interpretation. Literary study can attend to its own conventions of study and exposition.

    All these disciplines can work in their home disciplines and yet not encompass prospects for the monographic book. In this shopping mall it can be difficult to realize a more comprehensive, resilient system of book transmission emerging around us. The whole scope of the future book transmission will require cross-discipline observation and examination of the various stances of the specialist enclaves as they influence each other. In essence another, additional, cross-disciplinary approach needs to be added.

    Separate disciplines considered can be converged to study the near future of the book. One tactic would be compilation of the various ambiguities and anxieties. A discipline of the disciplines can be crafted by negotiation of perspectives from each enclave. Distortions and mandates can be moderated and each practitioner is challenged to use the methods and metrics of all the enclaves. Such an exercise mirrors the comprehensive role of the book itself.

    The record of publication of the disciplines can also be considered as a whole. This is an effort of librarianship. Finally, some consideration can be made of new textbooks, anthologies and resources synthesizing disciplines as these begin to lap into studies on the prospects for book transmission.

    I have a bibliography....