The Book as Relationship

In The Book as Relationship, Max Yela argues that we, as humans, have a primal relationship with books. This relationship extends beyond the contents of the book; the bed-time stories we may remember from childhood or the experiences of escapism rendered from works of literature. The book, as an object, appeals to our fundamental needs and desires as human beings. Our interaction with the materiality and phenomenal aspects of books draw us closer to our natural and authentic way of being. Yela argues that books are the oldest form of art, and they are a singularly unique expression in the evolution of conscious organisms. For instance, books mediate; they express ideas and abstract concepts that are deemed worthy of remembrance. In this way, mediation is the one thing that distinguishes humans from other species (Yela, 4). Art, as we know, is an expression of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and our spirituality or essence (i.e. what makes us human). To make art and to share art is to share our experiences, which are invariably intersubjective, to use a term from the phenomenological tradition. This all begins with the book.

Sadly, the book arts are beginning to lose traction and favor in the twenty-first century. Printed books are increasingly yielding to the influences of electronic media. This has troubled many bibliophiles for the last several decades. If we take the book to be “the central metaphor for civilized interpersonal relationships” (Yela, 5), we should ask ourselves how far our technologies will develop, and how much as a species we stand to lose in this transition from print to digital media. This is what I took away from “Position / Opposition” by Jessica Meuninck-Ganger; an art installation which depicts a series of life-sized print frames with various human faces in gestural expressions. The installation seemingly morphs and changes depending on the viewer’s physical orientation to the statuesque pages. This impression is aided by three different formats for “Position / Opposition.” There is a small accordion-fold book; an out-sized accordion-fold book, and the life-sized room model. The art piece is supposed to convey the dynamism of media content; that “interacting with the same content in a variety of different ways alters our understanding of that content” (Yela, 8). This is an idea that I fully accept. Today’s voguish use of electronic media draws us inexorably away from our own essential qualities as humans who have arisen from animate nature. The fast march of technology through the ages has led to increasing levels of abstraction, and this is no more evident than in our own age. One thing that technology seems to have taken away from us is the reverence we once held for our animate surroundings. I believe that taking our primary truths from technology holds the living world at a distance, which creates a profound loss of meaning. One can say that we are creating new meanings with digital literate technologies. But there is a qualitative difference between digital “books” and material books which affects us personally. Digital technology tends to have an estranging effect on ourselves and our relationships to each other, as well as to our natural surroundings. With technology, human values have been redirected to prize the artificial, and to invest in its ubiquity.

So what of the book? The book arts are changing. They are practically being swept away by developments in digital technology. Yela makes an important distinction between the imposing edifice of Meuninck-Ganger’s life-sized book, and her smaller accordion-fold version. The former requires the viewer to approach the piece with their whole body, whereas the latter can be negotiated simply with the hands; a more comfortable experience due to our predilection to standard books. The former experience may be awkward and intrusive, since others are engaging with the book simultaneously. The latter experience is a “one-on-one encounter, to be held in the hand of the individual and experienced in the most personal of spatial interactions” (Yela, 4). So it is with the distinction between digital and print books. While all three “Position / Opposition” installments have been rendered in physical format, they each elicit a different experience from the reader. As Marshall McLuhan has said, “The medium is the message.” No two books are alike. No two books generate the same inward experience unless they are made on the same scale and from the same materials.

The juxtaposition between Meuninck-Ganger’s different formats forces me to consider the stark contrast between digital and print books. Electronic media has become a global fetish; a phenomenon that, at once, includes the opinions of countless others. Furthermore, these technologies are affecting a process of homogenization in which multicultural values and traditions regarding books are beginning to disintegrate. Print culture, on the other hand, employs a ready philosophical resistance to this process of homogenization. The tangible book will always see its author or reader as an autonomous unit. The printed book is immediately divorced from the swaying opinions of others. Moreover, the philosophical nature of the book is closer to our own materiality and embedded nature within the natural world. No doubt, the tangible aspects of a physical book blend in well with our other sensuous surroundings. There is something very refreshing about taking a physical book – a medium that is both singular and linear – and finding a place for retreat and imaginative venture. This feeling is part of our biological nature. It does not exist with mediums that display electronic text, because one needs a source of electrical power for digital devices. These devices are also multi-linear in the sense that you need WIFI Internet access and an operating system, which has many other applications on the device; a great temptation for the mind to wander. In other words, no longer is there just one thing to focus on and enjoy when reading in electronic format. Where we once had purpose with the fully disclosed nature of the book, we now have the sporadic nullity of literate devices that are leading us in contradictory directions.

This leads me to consider William J. Bernstein’s book Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet. Bernstein is optimistic about digital communications technologies, even drawing a correlative link between every day, personal technology use and increased democratic values. He says, “Simply put, in a free market economy, communications and surveillance technologies rapidly become cheaper and more accessible to and–more important–controlled by the general population” (Bernstein, 3). Despite my reluctance, on purely philosophical grounds, to accept the global diffusion of digital communications technologies, I realize the potential this type of technology has for being a positive force in society. This technology can motivate individuals to organize, perfect a discourse, and engage in critical issues. For instance, digital activism is spreading and becoming the de jure method of civic engagement. The Arab Spring, perhaps, is the prime example of successful political motivation predicated on social media. Today, as well, we are reaching a critical point in our history with citizens demanding change from the government on issues of mental health, background checks, and gun control. The ubiquitous use of social media and portable devices used for sharing our immediate experiences has shocked many in this nation recently with images of violence. Never before have we had such grotesque evidence of an event streamlined for public media consumption. This media access has knocked many people out of their political stupor. But such stupor, I believe, is also a product of this very same media. McLuhan said that “all media works us over completely.” We are beguiled by technology and its strange power. The breakneck speed of our digital technologies; the power of its abstractions; and the tendency it has to disrupt our natural ways of relating to each other has very much worked us over completely.

On a final note, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said that “What is dangerous is not technology. There is no demonry of technology, but rather there is the mystery of its essence” (Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, 28). The essence of technology and our own essence is very much disproportional. The book, however, has something to say to us. Its tradition is one of harmony with the environment, with cultural lifeways, and with a standard for intellectual endeavor. But the book’s propensity to provide shared experiences has been disrupted. The intersubjectivity of the book has been fragmented. Still, our evolution with digital technology is slowly, and painfully, bringing us to a new pinnacle of achievement, I think; a desperate grasp at reconnecting to a shared humanity.

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