Academic journal article New Formations

The Political Nature of the Book: On Artists' Books and Radical Open Access

Academic journal article New Formations

The Political Nature of the Book: On Artists' Books and Radical Open Access

Article excerpt

Abstract In this essay we argue that the medium of the book can be a material and conceptual means, both of criticising capitalism's commodification of knowledge (for example, in the form of the commercial incorporation of open access by feral and predatory publishers), and of opening up a space for thinking about politics. The book, then, is a political medium. As the history of the artist's book shows, it can be used to question, intervene in and disturb existing practices and institutions, and even offer radical, counter-institutional alternatives. Yet if the book's potential to question and disturb existing practices and institutions includes those associated with liberal democracy and the neoliberal knowledge economy (as is apparent from some of the more radical interventions occurring today under the name of open access), it also includes politics and with it the very idea of democracy. In other words, the book is a medium that can (and should) be 'rethought to serve new ends'; a medium through which politics itself can be rethought in an ongoing manner.

Keywords Artists' books, academic publishing, radical open access, politics, democracy, materiality

INTRODUCTION

The medium of the book plays a double role in art and academia, functioning not only as a material object but also as a concept-laden metaphor. Since it is a medium through which an alternative future for art, academia and even society can be enacted and imagined, materially and conceptually, we can even go so far as to say that, in its ontological instability with regard to what it is and what it conveys, the book serves a political function. In short, the book can be 'rethought to serve new ends'.1 At the same time, the medium of the book remains subject to a number of constraints; in terms of its material form, structure, characteristics and dimensions; and also in terms of the political economies, institutions and practices in which it is historically embedded. Consequently, if it is to continue to be able to serve 'new ends' as a medium through which politics itself can be rethought - although this is still a big if - then the material and cultural constitution of the book needs to be continually reviewed, re-evaluated and reconceived. In order to explore critically this 'political nature of the book', as we propose to think of it, along with many of the fundamental ideas on which the book as both a concept and a material object is based, this essay endeavours to demonstrate how developments undergone by the artist's book in the 1960s and 1970s can help us to understand some of the changes the scholarly monograph is experiencing now, at a time when its mode of production, distribution, organisation and consumption is shifting from analogue to digital and from codex to net. In what follows we will thus argue that a reading of the history of the artist's book can be generative for reimagining the future of the scholarly monograph, both with respect to the latter's potential form and materiality in the digital age, and with respect to its relation to the economic system in which book production, distribution, organisation and consumption takes place. Issues of access and experimentation are crucial to any such future, we will suggest, if the critical potentiality of the book is to remain open to new political, economic and intellectual contingencies.

THE HISTORY OF THE ARTIST'S BOOK

With the rise to prominence of digital publishing today, the material conditions of book production, distribution, organisation and consumption are undergoing a rapid and potentially profound transformation. The academic world is one arena in which digital publishing is having a particularly strong impact. Here, the transition from print to digital, along with the rise of self-publishing (Blurb, Scribd) and the use of social media and social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Academia.edu) to communicate and share scholarly research, has lead to the development of a whole host of alternative publication and circulation systems for academic thought and knowledge. …

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