Books about books commonly introduce their content by reference to the object that readers hold in their hands, be it comprising bound printed paper or networked code and touchscreen interface. This is a useful conceit, for it brings textual content and media form into a momentary resonance, soliciting an embodied and reflexive appreciation of that which tends otherwise to be lost to the immersive flow of a book’s words. I would not break with this practice, because interference between textual content and media form is the stuff of Anti-Book. But I will unsettle it a little, for such introductions can be too comforting, nestling the object in its reader’s hands and habits when our time calls for a more troubling materiality.
Let me start with the title. A book’s title serves a dual function. It introduces readers to the text’s theme, prefatory reference to which would normally assist in carrying readers into the book’s flow of text, but it also helps place the book in a market, an observation that orients attention to more medial and structural features. As Franco Moretti writes of literary titles, “Half sign, half ad, the title is where the novel as language meets the novel as commodity.” The title of Anti-Book is no different, its brevity further serving the commodity function of market visibility even as the book seeks to contribute to the undoing of the commodity form of books. There is communist intent to Anti-Book, then, but it is a communism that would draw attention to such contradictions and not make as though its intent can lift it from the world of capital.
Moving to the book’s wider commodity features, there are numerous ways to possess a book but, file-share scans notwithstanding, I venture that many of you will have purchased the commodity you hold in your hands from Amazon, a retailer and technology company whose profit margins from the sale of print and digital books, among other things, are dependent on pioneering industrial techniques in such arenas as logistics, digital rights management, consumer profiling, and the electronic surveillance and intensification of labor. Such economics of distribution and marketing in which Anti-Book is a participant by no means exhaust its implication in capitalist social relations. These include the book’s structure of authorship, which binds it to bourgeois models of individual creativity and proprietary rights, and the class, gendered, and racialized dimensions of the partition between work and leisure, the latter providing some readers with an environment of more or less leisurely consumption wherein the medium of the book finds its natural home, while leaving others a fit between book and daily life that is rather less clean. Yet we tend not to think of the capitalist form of books. We imagine books to be transcendent intellectual, moral, and aesthetic goods unsullied by commerce, just as we perceive our own individual encounters with these quintessential objects of culture to confirm and augment only our intellect, taste, or political commitments, the textual object greeting and flattering its reading subject as if the two meet outside social determination.
This terrain of the commodity book was the substance of Amazon Noir, a collaborative artwork centered on the unauthorized appropriation from Amazon, and peer-to-peer distribution, of some three thousand e-books. Amazon entices its customers’ attention through the marketing tool “Search Inside This Book,” which enables word search through whole books while preventing access to their whole. Exploiting this function, Amazon Noir comprised a software script that would obtain a book’s entire text via repeated searches, substituting the last words of one search for the first words of the next. Each complete book was automatically saved as a PDF and introduced into file-sharing networks, and, for the exhibition of the artwork, one of the “stolen” books—Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, naturally—was printed, bound, and displayed in an incubator. Amazon Noir served to articulate the inequity of the privatization of the nonscarce resource of digital text, while taking advantage of the means by which the technological affordances of digital text are mobilized to excite consumer desire. It was an art project, but it was also an intervention into the field of publishing, in which context it prompts the guiding question or problem of Anti-Book. What is a communism of writing and publishing that is concerned not only with the content and meaning of text but also with the media forms and social relations by which text is produced, circulated, and consumed? More simply, what is a communism of textual matter?
It is a problem encountered in radical politics only rarely, which, in line with the general trend, more usually pursues writing and publishing for ideational effects alone, for the enlightening and organizing impact of ideas. That said, the problem is not new. The focus of this book is on publishing experiments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but we can take an earlier example, William Blake’s self-published “illuminated books” of the 1790s, works that move us from the practical critique of copyright into the broader materiality of the book commodity and that assist in indicating that in the field of the anti-book, communism finds a certain medial instantiation.
In these prefatory sketches of Blake and Amazon Noir, I am seeking to convey an impression of the communism of textual matter, before this problematic is developed through specific concrete platforms, publishing paradigms, literary forms, and concepts in the chapters that follow. As poet, painter, and printer, impressions were Blake’s stock in trade. In his illuminated books, play between image and text, complex systems of allegory, textual ambiguity, and the confrontation of opposites were intricately woven components of the struggle to attain “the infinite.” Here the “horizon of our being,” in Saree Makdisi’s presentation of Blake’s politics, “is not a narrow formal selfhood, a self as opposed to others, but rather our participation in the common body of God,” a life of the infinite body and “infinite brain,” as Blake puts it. This infinite was posited against the sovereign individual of the bourgeois polity and the constrained everyday conditions of labor and oppression, but, and this is what is so enticing for my purposes, it was practiced immanently to the medium within which it was articulated. In other words, Blake’s infinite was (along with much else) a struggle in and against the book, against its dominant effects of self-referential authority, textual devotion and submission, and dualism of mind and body. The illuminated books are at once the medium through which Blake’s textual and visual images flourish and are themselves articulations of these images.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake describes a vision of an infernal printing house, and in so doing reveals his singular method of “illuminated printing.” Using relief etching, he interlaced image and text on the same copper plates in etchings that no longer reproduced a prior original work but were integrated in the creative process. As Makdisi describes it, variation was now immanent to reproduction, in critical and practical opposition to the repetition of the same that characterized the Gutenberg book qua uniform and equivalent commodity. And Blake’s vision simultaneously reveals the sensory politics of his printing technique, a production of the infinite against the “barr’d and petrify’d” reduction of perception in the finite sovereign subject:
first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite—
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks in his cavern.
The textual dimensions of Blake’s anticapitalist condition of the infinite were to take shape, then, not only in words and images but also in their method of printing and their published form. It is a singular achievement in content and form, in their interplay, indubitably so. And yet this success may blind us to the nature of the relation. Neither in Amazon Noir and Blake nor in the writing and publishing projects that fill the pages of Anti-Book do textual content and media form achieve integrated identity. In what served as a germinal seed for this book, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari provide a compelling slogan for the politics of textual matter: “There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made.” And yet as much as this sentence tips us into a politics of textual matter, it also confounds, for there are in fact many differences between textual content and the social processes and media forms by which a textual work comes into being, as Deleuze and Guattari well knew. Such are the differences that Leah Price has argued persuasively that we might best grasp the nature of relations between content and form, and the specificities of each, by attending less to moments of apparent convergence and more to their disjunctions, moments when they “pull apart, when (for example) an anticolonial manifesto is printed on paper imported from the metropole, or when an oath of revenge is sworn upon the same bible whose text preaches forgiveness.” To do otherwise is to risk losing the specific qualities and effects of media form to a relation of identity with signifying content, as media form becomes merely content’s confirmation, or, when conjunction does not occur, as is more common, an irrelevance.
Hence, if we do want to bring content and form together in a textual politics that is a weave of the two, as is the aim of the experimental works explored in Anti-Book, such a politics needs to be attentive to two aspects of this relation. First, it must reflexively attend to aspects of a work’s material conditions that it is not able to critically refashion, where content comes into relation with media form as critical opposition. Second, in instances when content and form come into a generative and political relation of codetermination, we should attend to the specificities of a text’s media forms, the ways that its conceptual registers and political aims are extended, interrogated, swallowed up, or exceeded in the specific sociomaterial relations and forms by which it is manifest in the world. From such critical and generative interplay arise the many materialities of political text. In their midst, the field of writing and publishing, which has been so central to the transmission of communist thought, can become also a vibrant arena of its materialization—a fleeting and fragmentary “literary communism.”