Friday, February 26, 2010

How to Make a Soufflé; or, What Historians of the Book Need to Know about Bibliography[1], Carl Spadoni

At last year's conference of our association, Professor Yannick Portebois graciously asked me to speak to you today about bibliography and in particular what historians of the book should know about bibliography. She mentioned that I could take out sheets of paper for you similar to Terry Belanger's demonstrations in his Hollywood‑inspiring movie, the Anatomy of a Book.[2] Voilà une grande feuille de papier! Fold a large sheet of paper once to make a folio, twice for a quarto, and then thrice into an octavo. Say a few judicious words about format, mention chain lines and wire lines in my discussion, and then add a note about watermarks and countermarks. After more elaborate folding, perhaps a cutting of these sheets for what is called half‑sheet imposition, and bibliography magically disappears as a sub‑species of origami. Then a few months ago, Professor Portebois reiterated her invitation to me to "démystifier la bibliographie materielle" and to make my presentation uplifting and possibly "amusant." Our bibliographical reverie this afternoon will thus conclude "en beauté."

Having abandoned the complicated art of origami, I now regard this assignment akin to making a soufflé. The word soufflé is the past participle of the French verb souffler which means "to blow up" or more loosely "to puff up." A soufflé must also have substance. It can be savoury or sweet. As many of you must know, soufflé making, even for the masters, inevitably will have mixed results. It requires delicacy and a light and airy touch. To mix my metaphors even further, I suspect that Professor Portebois has a fondness for certain French wines. You know the ones. The fine wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, and Champagne. They are delicious, subtle and deceptive, but let no one here be fooled about bibliography. Like economics, the dismal science, bibliography unfortunately has a reputation that precedes itself. When I read the classic introductions to bibliography by Fredson Bowers and Philip Gaskell 25 years ago, they were known to the students as "Boring and Ghastly."[3] The discipline requires absolute accuracy and rigour. Alas, we humans are frail and prone to error. The practitioners of bibliography are a serious bunch. As a rule they don't laugh. Those who know me know since I am a bibliographer that I haven't really laughed for a long time. If I do laugh on occasion, I can assure you that it is only a nervous reflex caused by reading too much of Stephen Leacock's humorous short stories;[4] so a word of caution about my remarks today. I suggest that as good historians, you put at least one hand over an ear to guard against the dangers of bibliography. Close both eyes if you must, especially if you nod off into slumber-land five minutes into this presentation. However, if I may retreat back into the safety of the kitchen and my mixed gastronomic metaphors, we must know something about the art of cooking, l'art du bien manger, before we can try haute cuisine.

I must pause here and embark on a series of mock apologies. First to Mary F. Williamson, a determined collector and researcher of Canadian cook books.[5] My second apology is to Leslie Howsam, who is both a book historian par excellence and an apparent expert on cookery books. I acknowledge her admirable discussion of Mrs. Beeton's Household Management.[6] Finally, Elizabeth Driver (I trust that she is not here), the author of A Bibliography of Cookery Books Published in Britain 1875‑1914, and Culinary Landmarks,[7] would undoubtedly hit me on the head with a frying pan. At the risk of getting egg on our faces, let us now venture boldly into the domain of bibliography.

To begin at the beginning, therefore, historians of the book should know that bibliography is both an art and a science, that it is a discipline unto itself and the handmaiden to other disciplines and that it has several branches. Practically all scholars at one time or another have engaged in the listing of books or publications. These are checklists with the bare essentials for matters of citation: the author's name, the book's title, and date and place of publication. This is known as enumerative bibliography. Of this kind of bibliography, Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine and one of the greatest book collectors in his field, has written: "Not naturally dry, bibliography is too often made so by faulty treatment. What more arid than long lists of titles, as dreary as the genealogies of the Old Testament, or as the catalogue of the ships in Homer!"[8] When a checklist is arranged according to a plan or a classification scheme (author, subject, or date, for example), it is called systematic bibliography. Some enumerative bibliographies are also annotated. However pedestrian this type of bibliographical work might appear, it provides a fundamental support to scholarship. Historians should be aware that there are criteria for evaluating enumerative bibliography. They concern subject matter, scope, methodology, organization, the quality of annotations, bibliographic form, timeliness, and accuracy. There are good enumerative bibliographies and bad ones. In the worst case scenario, the compiler hasn't bothered to examine the citations. Here, perhaps we may pause and consider the immortal words of Carl Van Vechten's introduction to The Tiger in the House (1922), and I quote:

This bibliography makes no pretence to being complete. . . An exhaustive bibliography on the subject of cats would undoubtedly fill a very large volume all by itself. But this one is more nearly complete than any other which exists; as a matter of fact it is the only bibliography on the subject [of cats] that I know save Mr. [Percy L.] Babington's, which covers only a small and select private library, and which makes no mention of periodical literature.[9]

Alas, unlike Mr. Van Vechten, the great portrait photographer of the twentieth century, I'm not a great admirer of the feline species. I make no apologies. There are bibliographies, and then there are bibliographies. To conclude my short heretical discussion of enumerative bibliography, I refer to Ecclesiastes, although my recollection of the verse in question is admittedly suspect: of the making of compilations, there is no end; and such bibliographical investigation ultimately can be a weariness unto the flesh.[10]

Enumerative bibliography is akin to basic cooking. It is fried eggs done over easy, an omelette, scrambled eggs, or French toast. A good and wholesome breakfast no doubt. At best, when the criteria of enumerative bibliography have been accomplished to the highest degree - an annotated and illustrated bibliography of an important subject, arranged skilfully and easily accessible with multiple cross‑references - we may even hope for eggs Benedict, a hearty dish that can be mastered with patience and timing. But ultimately enumerative bibliography is not a soufflé.

Generally speaking, historians of the book want to know about the other type of bibliography, not the making of lists which has been conducted by all and sundry since the inscriptions found on clay tablets in ancient Assyria at Ninevah. I'm referring, of course, to what Professor Portebois has termed "la bibliographie materielle," what the Anglo‑American tradition calls analytical bibliography, a god‑awful name which almost puts contradiction to sleep. It is sometimes also called critical bibliography. Analytical bibliography is the study of books as physical objects, their history, appearance, and the influence of the manner of production on texts. Three recognized subgroups of bibliographical activity are within analytical bibliography: historical bibliography, textual bibliography, and descriptive bibliography.

Historical bibliography takes a broad view of printing and publishing. It is basically the history of the book but from a bibliographical perspective. You're all aware of the Adams and Barker model of book history, which criticizes Robert Darnton's communication's circuit.[11] In short, in one sense, one can claim that the publication of Lucien Lefebvre and Henri‑Jean Martin's L'apparition du livre inaugurated a new discipline.[12] But the practice of historical bibliography fundamentally challenges this understanding of the roots of the discipline. Before the inception of the history of the book as a recognized discipline, historical bibliography was widespread in the literature. We focus not so much on the impact of books on society and culture but the reverse of this. In other words, we tell the story of a book's publication in terms of a text's authorial genesis, development, editing, printing, production, marketing, and distribution to the public. Here, the physical book remains central to the story and not a by-product to be put aside or discarded once its impact is made on society.

Textual bibliography, another branch of analytical bibliography, sometimes called textual criticism, is indeed a discipline unto itself. It seeks to identify variations in a text and whether the author, editor, compositor, printer, or others are responsible for those variations. In the words of Sir Walter Greg - a bibliographical scholar practically unknown to historians of the book but who has had an enormous, and controversial, influence on the development of analytical bibliography - bibliography in this sense is the material science of the transmission of literary documents.[13] Admittedly, science is obviously too strong a word in this context. Textual bibliography is concerned with critical editing, the identification of relevant texts and the elusive search and establishment of an ideal text, whatever that may mean. Editors are familiar with the Greg‑Bowers' theory of copy‑text, whose purpose is to produce a single eclectic text combining early accidentals and late substantives inextricably tied to the concept of authorial intention. This editorial theory still has its defenders, though it is much in retreat these days. "The great Demiurge behind all this editing seems to be Mr. Fredson Bowers of the University of Virginia," so wrote the literary critic Edmund Wilson in October 1968. Scholarly editing and its funding, he complained, were controlled by the Center for Editions of American Authors. Wilson called Bowers an impassioned bibliographer. "I have been told that his lectures on bibliography are so thrilling," Wilson stated, "that young students often leave them with no other ambition that to become master bibliographers. But I have found no reason to believe that he is otherwise much interested in literature."[14] A cheap shot to be sure, without a true understanding of the central issues of scholarly editing.

The debates in editorial theory are much more complicated than Wilson's scornful send‑off. They touch on the alleged difference between accidentals and substantives, printer's practices, authorial intention over time, texts and their contexts, whether editing is a process and not a product, and texts ultimately being unstable and multiple. In the era of cyberspace, moreover, texts are fleeting. They are songs in the wind, ever-changing and ephemeral. On the one hand, all of this seems quite remote from our ordinary understanding of bibliography and even further from the history of the book. Who really cares if an author deleted commas along the way, changed a few words, added sentences, or discarded a chapter under the influence of his prudish mother‑in‑law or a captious editor? On the other hand, the nature of authorship and texts, I would maintain, is at the very heart of the history of the book. We cannot understand, for example, the heated arguments about the status of James Joyce's Ulysses[15] without a firm grasp of textual bibliography. Textual bibliography also relates to the debate about books and authors with overlapping themes raised by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. Not all texts are the same, and the task of the textual bibliographer is to investigate and assess those texts critically.

Descriptive bibliography, the third sub‑group of analytical bibliography, is the close description of books as physical objects, recording size, format, binding, and so on. Depending upon the type of imprints described, it may include descriptive elements such as typography, paper, and ink. There are established protocols for descriptive bibliography. G. Thomas Tanselle, for example, has written a series of lucid articles on these subjects, and in particular he has put forward a model of bibliographical description.[16] The model is much in use, although there are variations in these kinds of bibliographies in the presentation of data elements and description. There are descriptive bibliographies of an author's canon, descriptive bibliographies of a set of imprints specified by time, place, subject, or publisher, and even descriptive bibliographies of one book. The bibliographer is required not only to be comprehensive and accurate, but to describe books physically, all editions and sub‑editions. Descriptive bibliography becomes a high‑wire act when bibliography is not just physical description for the sake of description but includes publishing history based on an array of primary sources and archives, all succinctly presented. Here, bibliography becomes an art form, and the results are true monuments of scholarship. In our parallel universe of the kitchen, we have moved beyond the la cuisine bourgeoise into the realm of haute cuisine.

So, what does the historian of the book need to know about bibliography? By now you are either fast asleep or perhaps you have removed your hands from your ears in the hope of salvation. Dare, I believe, that some of you may be hungry for more? Ladies and gentlemen, in my view, the history of the book as a discipline at this time is entering a new phase. The last ten years have witnessed an extraordinary burgeoning of the discipline. Its popularity and the number of studies undertaken force us to take stock of what the historian must have in his or her arsenal. The historian does not have to be a bibliographer. However, it is not good enough to admit bibliographical naïveté or to distance oneself from bibliography as an irrelevant field of study. We have had competing models of what book history is. We have had debates about the divergent approaches of analytical bibliography versus l'histoire du livre.[17] The debate of the ways of the historian as opposed to those of the literary critic also looms in the background. The inspiration of Bourdieu and Derrida or the influence of literary theory, such as post‑modernism, is like pyrotechnics; they produce "ouus" and "ahs" of exploding colour, pushing the discipline into various directions.

If we have learned anything about these debates, incursions, and fireworks, perhaps we understand that there is no one way of writing the history of books. The historian will use different approaches at different times, depending upon his or her purpose and intended audience. As historians, we presume that history must be based on a variety of primary sources: archives, oral testimony, newspapers, journals and magazines, and of course, books. To slight books as primary evidence or not to understand them physically undermines the basis of our work. In this respect, I must express my disappointment with the short shrift given to the study of bibliography in David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery's Book History Reader and Introduction to Book History.[18] The former is slated for a revised edition with the inclusion of the Adams/Barker model of book history and Fredson Bowers's essay, "Bibliography, Pure Bibliography and Literary Studies."[19]

Let us return to our bibliographical soufflé. The main ingredient of our soufflé is books. Like the chef who separates the eggs, beats the egg whites, gently folds in the whites into the yolks, and adds seasoning, we must know how to analyse books and how to examine them. "Every book presents its own problems and has to be investigated by methods suited to its particular case" - so wrote Ronald B. McKerrow almost eighty years ago in An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students, a classic work that I highly recommend. To quote McKerrow further:

And it is just this fact, that there is always a chance of lighting on new problems and new methods of demonstration, that with almost every new book we take up we are in a new country, unexplored and trackless, and that yet such discoveries as we may make are real discoveries, not mere matters of opinion, provable things that no amount of after‑investigation can shake, that lends such a fascination to bibliographical research.[20]

In this respect, the historian must have an understanding of fundamental concepts about books: edition, impression, issue, and state. En français-édition, tirage, émission, et état. When terms such as these give us trouble, then we must have basic tools at hand, such as John Carter and Nicolas Barker's ABC for Book Collectors, Glaister's Glossary of the Book, Roy Stokes's A Bibliographical Companion, Michele P. Brown's Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms.[21] There is an apocryphal story of Fredson Bowers going to a rare book library in search of incunables. The librarian told him that unfortunately, no such collection was available. When Professor Bowers expressed his surprise and disappointment that the rare book library contained no books printed before 1500, the librarian tried to correct him. The library did indeed have many books from that early era of printing, but to the librarian's knowledge, none of them appeared to be incunables. If there is a moral to this Bowers parable, it is that there is a distinct vocabulary about books as physical objects. We must know what we are talking about even when these terms become blurred in their common usage. Otherwise, we will become like the unhelpful librarian who cannot tell the difference between an incunable and a brick.

In addition to being familiar with the vocabulary of the book arts and bibliography, the historian of the book should know about the evolution of scribal culture, the print industry, and the facets of publishing: how books are written and made and how they come into the hands of the public, including authorship, production, and publication. Sir Walter Greg put it this way:

The bibliographer will probably not cover the whole field, for it is a large one, but he will require an intimate knowledge of certain parts and some familiarity with the paths that lead from one part to another, if he is to be any good in his subject. The expert in typography is unlikely to be also a skilled paleographer, but he will require some knowledge of the handwritings upon which various types are based. Both alike will need some familiarity with the history of paper‑making, though they will probably leave the closer examination of water‑marks to a specialist. What is important is that every serious bibliographer should have some general plan of the subject in his mind that will, so to speak, enable him to find his way about, and to understand the advances made in other fields and the possible light they may throw upon his immediate studies.[22]

Now, Greg does not expect us to be an expert on the entire field of book making. What he is saying is that if one is a medievalist, for example, then in addition to knowing about the function of medieval manuscripts and their typology, one must understand the structure of medieval books and the materials and techniques of manuscript production (papyrus, parchment, rolls, the codex, paper, ruling, pens, inks, pigments, scripts, illustration, design, and bookbinding). In other words, the medieval book historian will know about the use of books in the Middle Ages, their context and significance for a variety of purposes, and perhaps the arrangements of texts within books: books for the clergy, for kings, for students, for aristocrats, for women, for collectors, and for the secular public. The bibliographer asks the historian to look closer at the medieval book as a physical object. Here, I have focussed my discussion on the medieval era, but one could make a similar argument for the beginnings of printing in the fifteenth century, the extraordinary technical developments in the nineteenth century, or the book in the current digital age. In short, besides specific works relative to an historian's particular interest, the historian of the book should be familiar with general histories of the development of printing and the allied trades. Steinberg's Five Hundred years of Printing and Twyman's The British Library Guide to Printing are required reading for all of us.[23]"

[W]hat the bibliographer is concerned with is pieces of paper or parchment covered with written or printed signs. With these signs he is concerned merely as arbitrary marks; their meaning is no business of his." Some of you will recognize this startling quotation about the limitations of the bibliographer's sphere of activity. More than seventy years ago, Sir Walter Greg made this statement in his presidential address, "Bibliography - An Apologia," to the Bibliographical Society.[24] It has haunted the study of bibliography ever since. Greg's intent was to separate form from content so that bibliography would not become enmeshed within the vagaries of literary appreciation. He had dreams that bibliography would become a science. "Books are the material means by which literature is transmitted," he claimed.[25] True enough. By the mid‑1980s, when D.F. McKenzie gave his Panizzi Lectures at the British Library, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, McKenzie hinted at a paradigm shift in the study of bibliography: "If a medium in any sense affects a message, then bibliography cannot exclude from its own proper concerns the relation between form, function and symbolic meaning." For McKenzie, "bibliography is the discipline that studies texts as records forms, and the processes of their transmission, including their production and reception." Texts include "verbal, oral, and numeric data, in the form of maps, prints and music, of archives of recorded sound, of films, videos and computer‑stored information."[26]

There are the bibliographical purists of the old school such as G. Thomas Tanselle who in a recent issue of Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America consider McKenzie's interpretation of Greg to be taken out of context. Tanselle pronounces McKenzie's general point of view "comprehensive and enlightened." He also damns McKenzie's writings for "many imprecise and incoherent passages": "His indefensible denigration of analytical bibliography, present in some of his most widely read essays, has exerted a regrettable influence that extends from Gaskell's New Introduction to some of the ongoing multi‑volume national histories of the book."[27] In his ground‑breaking article, "Printers of the Mind: Some Notes on Bibliographical Theories and Printing-House Practices," McKenzie goes further and takes bibliographers to task for making unwarranted generalizations based purely on the physical examination of books.[28] The criticism has unsettled Tanselle who believes that actual books constitute the evidence whereas printers' and publishers' records contain statements about books. Whenever information in the bookmaking process conflicts with the archival record, the former must take precedence, he has maintained.

It seems to me that there is a false dichotomy here. The wise bibliographer should know the limitations of empirical evidence in the artifact and when it is necessary to seek other relevant sources of collaborative information. Tanselle himself has argued that bibliography and the ways of history are not in opposition but complementary to each other. "The two are logically one," he states. "All scholars of the history of books, whether of the French or of the Anglo-American school, are historians. Analytical and descriptive bibliography is history. . ."[29] However, the bibliographer is not just a person who describes books. He or she is a forensic historian of books. Books as physical artifacts can tell us an enormous amount in the same way that a crime scene is analysed by a detective or a corpse is subject to a coroner's inquest. The duty of a bibliographer is to describe all imprints of an author or subject matter accurately and comprehensively. In the case of descriptive bibliography, the description focuses on separate editions, issues, and even reprintings with lesser description given to publications in other formats. But description for the sake of description is like building a house and having no one living in it, cooking a gourmet meal without eating it. How much richer a descriptive bibliography becomes when description is combined with relevant historical research. Sometimes descriptive bibliographies of this nature are called bio‑bibliographies or bibliographical histories. The bibliography is akin to a soufflé. It has substance. It is complex and wonderful, a work of scholarship, a work of art.

So there is a need for historians to appreciate bibliography and a need for bibliographers to appreciate history. If one takes a quick look at the most recent issue of Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, my point will be driven home. There is an article by Andrea Krupp, "Bookcloth in England and America, 1823‑50," and an article by Alistair McCleery on the 1932 edition of James Joyce's Ulysses published by Odyssey Press.[30] The former highlights 222 grain cloth patterns of nineteenth‑century books from the Library Company of Philadelphia. Krupp has created a visual database of these cloth patterns. Although her research focuses on the artifact, she states: "Primary source material that would provide documentary evidence about the manufacture and use of bookcloth during the first decades of its existence, such as advertisements, patents, and publishers' and binders' records, remains scarce."[31] For his part, McCleery surveys the claims of bibliographers and textual editors as to the status of the 1932 edition of Ulysses. He then uses a number of archival sources to good advantage, chiefly the archives of Stuart Gilbert, the book's supposed editor, to question the edition's textual authority.

In the last twenty years, the history of the book has expanded almost uncontrollably. In contrast, the study of bibliography has barely held its own in English departments and schools of library and information science. There are notable exceptions, of course. At the University of Toronto, bibliography continues to flourish. At the University of Virginia, the Rare Book School, Terry Belanger's independent institute, offers thirty, five‑day non‑credit courses.[32] Many of the courses are directed to antiquarian booksellers, collectors, conservators, teachers, and students of the history of the book. In France, Neil Harris of the University of Udine has offered an iconoclastic course on analytical bibliography at the École de l'Institut d'histoire du livre at Lyon.[33] The Bibliographical Society of Canada is hoping to revive the Canadian Institute of Analytical Bibliography next summer at the University of Toronto (unfortunately, the course was cancelled due to lack of enrolment).

Like any discipline, bibliography has a knowledge base and core skills. To go back to the beginning of my paper on bibliography and origami, it is not necessary for the historian of the book to memorize all the formats of paper folding and the directions of chain lines and wire lines and the corresponding position of watermarks. But the historian should have the smarts to know that format in the hand‑press period can easily be verified in a number of sources, such as Gaskell's A New Introduction to Bibliography.[34] There are some things that can be taught and some things that can't be taught. At our conference last year at the University of Western Ontario, Germaine Warkentin's inspiring key‑note address was a personal journey into the bibliographical imagination.[35] A true bibliographer needs to combine a love of books with textual scholarship. My reference here is to D.C. Greetham's book of the same title Textual Scholarship: An Introduction,[36] required reading for all textual scholars. Yet there is no quick route to textual scholarship.

Let us now sit down together at our bibliographical banquet. A soufflé does not rise twice so it is best that we savour it while we can. "Kings wait for soufflés; soufflés do not wait for kings," August Escoffier once observed. Even more pertinent to our discussion of the relevance of bibliography to the history of the book is James Beard's comment that "The only thing that will make a soufflé fall is if it knows you are afraid of it."[37] I hope that you have enjoyed my eccentric bibliographical discussion of soufflé-making this afternoon. If I may borrow the last line from Julia Child's TV show, The French Chef, I will conclude by saying, "Bon appétit."


[1] This paper was delivered on 30 May 2006 at the conference of the Canadian Association for the Study of Book Culture held under the auspices of Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at York University, Toronto, Ontario.

[2]The Anatomy of a Book: Format in the Hand-Press Period with Terry Belanger (New York: Viking Productions, 1991). 1 videocassette (30 min.).

[3] Fredson Bowers, Principles of Bibliographical Description (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1949); Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972).

[4] I have the dubious distinction of being the author of A Bibliography of Stephen Leacock (Toronto: ECW Press, 1988; second edition is in electronic form on CD published by the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box in 2004). To make matters worse, I have edited three other books by Leacock, Canada's premiere humorist: My Recollection of Chicago and The Doctrine of Laissez Faire (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998); Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Literary Texts, 2002); and Gone Fishing! (Shelburne, Ont: The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007).

[5] Mary F. Williamson is the co-author of Art and Architecture in Canada: A Bibliography and Guide to the Literature to 1981/Art et architecture au Canada: bibliographie et guide de la documentation jusqu'en 1981 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991). Her personal collection of Canadian cook books prior to 1950 and nineteenth-century American and British cookery takes up more than forty feet of shelving.

[6] At the SHARP conference in 1997, Howsam delivered a paper entitled "Mrs Beeton's Household Management: Towards the History of a Book." See also her article on Beeton, "Food for Thought," Rare Book Review 31, 3 (April 2004): 32-4, 36.

[7]A Bibliography of Cookery Books Published in Britain 1875-1914 (London: Prospect Books 1989); Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (in press).

[8] Sir William Osler, review of Essai de bibliographie hippique by General Mennessier de la Lance, facsimile in Sir William Osler: An Annotated Bibliography with Illustrations, eds. Richard L. Golden and Charles G. Roland (San Francisco: Norman Publishing, 1988), 9.

[9] Carl Van Vechten, The Tiger in the House (New York: Knopf, 1920), 1.

[10] Ecclesiastes 12:12. "Furthermore, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

[11] Robert Darnton, "What is the History of Books?" Daedelus 111, 3 (1982): 65-83; Thomas R. Adams and Nicolas Barker, "A New Model for the Study of the Book," in The Potencie of Life, Books in Society: The Clarke Lectures, 1967-1987, ed. Nicolas Barker (London: British Library, 1993), 5-43.

[12] Lucien Lefebvre and Henri-Jean Martin, L'apparition du livre (Paris: Éditions A. Michel, 1958). Translated by David Gerard into English as The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 (London: N.L.B., 1976).

[13] W.W. Greg, "What Is Bibliography?," and "Bibliography - An Apologia," in Collected Papers, ed. J.C. Maxwell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 83, 241. See also G. Thomas Tanselle, "Bibliography and Science" in his Selected Studies in Bibliography (Charlottesville: Published for the Bibliographical Society of Virginia by the University Press of Virginia, 1979), 1-35.

[14] Edmund Wilson, The Fruits of the MLA (New York: New York Review of Books, 1968), 17.

[15] See John Kidd's criticisms of Hans Walter Gabler's Ulysses: The Corrected Text (New York: Vintage Books, 1986): "The Scandal of Ulysses," New York Review of Books, 30 June 1988: 32-39; and "What Ulysses Requires," The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 87 (June 1993): 187-248.

[16] G. Thomas Tanselle, "A Sample Description with Commentary," Studies in Bibliography 40 (1987): 1-30. See also his Introduction to Bibliography: Seminar Syllabus (Charlottesville: Book Arts Press, University of Virginia, 2002), especially the section devoted to descriptive bibliography (167-80).

[17] One of the debates, "The Confluence of Bibliography and Book History: Whither the Debate? A Canadian Perspective," occurred at the SHARP conference in Halifax on 15 July 2005. The participants of the debate were Leslie Howsam, Carl Spadoni, Richard Virr, and Yvan Lamonde.

[18] David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, The Book History Reader (London: Routledge, 2002); and Introduction to Book History (London: Routledge, 2005).

[19] Finkelstein and McCleery, The Book History Reader. The second edition was published in 2006.

[20] Ronald B. McKerrow, An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), 5.

[21] John Carter and Nicolas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press; London: British Library, 2004, eighth edition); Geoffrey Ashall Glaister, Glossary of the Book (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979, second edition); Roy Stokes, A Bibliographical Companion (Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1989); Michele P. Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (Malibu, California: J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the British Library, 1994).

[22] Greg, "What Is Bibliography?," 79-80.
[23] S.H. Steinberg, Five Hundred years of Printing, fourth edition (New Castel, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1996); Michael Twyman, The British Library Guide to Printing: History and Techniques (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).

[24] Greg, "Bibliography," in J.C. Maxwell, Collected Papers, 247.

[25] Ibid., 241.

[26] D.F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (London: British Library, 1986), 2, 4.

[27] G. Thomas Tanselle, "The Work of D.F. McKenzie," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 98, no. 4 (December 2004): 520. In this context, Tanselle's reference to Gaskell's A New Introduction to Bibliography probably refers to Bowers's harsh book review, "McKerrow Revisited," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 67 (second quarter 1973): 109-24.

[28] D.F. McKenzie, "Printers of the Mind: Some Notes on Bibliographical Theories and Printing-House Practices," Studies in Bibliography 22 (1969): 1-75.

[29] G. Thomas Tanselle, The History of Books as a Field of Study (Chapel Hill: Hanes Foundation, Rare Book Collection/Academic Affairs Library, The University of North Carolina, 1981), 5.

[30] Andrea Krupp, "Bookcloth in England and America, 1823‑50," and Alistair McCleery, "The Reputation of the 1932 Odyssey Press Edition of Ulysses," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 100, no. 1 (December 2006): 25-87, 89-103.

[31] Ibid., 26.

[32] See the website for Rare Book School at the University of Virginia:

[33] See Harris's course consists of eleven sections: from evocative definitions of bibliography to "thematic vocabulary relating to technical problems in early printing together with bibliographical methods and instruments employed to solve them."

[34] Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography.

[35] Professor Warkentin's talk was entitled "The Bibliographical Imagination." She informs me that it is part of a larger work on bibliographical scholarship and research.

[36] D.C. Greetham, Textual Scholarship: An Introduction (New York: Garland, 1994).

[37] My source of these two quotations is the Web site at, specifically (This link is accessible only to members of the site.)

above copied from:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Film and Film and Film: An Interview with Jonas Mekas, Jon Lanthier

"One who knows how to, as they say, 'read' the images, can tell everything about me."

I first encountered film artist/curator Jonas Mekas through his columns for the Village Voice, which have since been anthologized and collected in a book-length compilation entitled Movie Journal (now unfortunately out of print). For a critic-hopeful who had been nursed on the mother's milk of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, Mekas' writing was bewilderingly brash; using pithy, staccato statements transcribed from audio recordings of vocal rants and testimonies, Mekas challenged contemporary trends with sharp defenses of "Underground Cinema," a bi-coastal, independent film movement blossoming from various counterculture fragments such as the Beat Generation and Warhol's Pop-Art School. Though Mekas would later apologize for his most daring displays of verbal effrontery (particularly his acidic take on Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night and its many supporters), the book remains an essential historical document — a tour through the termitic underbelly of New York City's arthouse scene as explored by a harried film distributor (as in the sections regarding the legally condemned "indecency" of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures) and unabashed avant-garde cheerleader.

Mekas was filming, too, throughout these years, and even earlier — he had been capturing his microcosm with Bolex footage since arriving in Brooklyn as a Lithuanian refugee in the early '50s — and a handful of entries in Movie Journal recount the author's experience shooting the fictional feature Guns of the Trees. But the most lasting of Mekas' creative contributions to cinema history would be the development of the "diary-film," a genre of movies that lack a cast, a crew, a script, or an agenda. Composed of perfunctorily shot natural events and encounters, diary films are rhythmic collages of personal observation, obsessed with the aestheticism of quotidian detail. And despite their apolitical structure, Mekas' diary films are unmistakably ensconced in the radical zeitgeist of their production timeline, providing a poetically empirical glimpse at what it was like to be living in New York through some of its most fecund decades.

Allen GinsbergOne of Mekas' best diary films is his inaugural experiment with the genre, Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, also known as Walden, which compiles footage from the late '60s. An illustrious potpourri of dissonant theoretical and technical influences — Mekas borrows a titular reverence of nature from Thoreau, a loving but playful spatial fixation from Stan Brakhage, and a spontaneous, free-form memoir voice from Allan Ginsberg — Walden is both a subtle sociopolitical statement and a magisterially arranged scrapbook of unforgettable images and sounds. Most of the major metropolitan icons, such as John Lennon and The Velvet Underground, make notable cameos, but the ebullient focal point is Mekas himself — watching, listening, and sharing.

After Walden was released on DVD by Microcinema in August of 2009, Mekas was prodded for some updated thoughts on his groundbreaking film.

JOSEPH JON LANTHIER: Were you involved at all in the new release of Walden?

JONAS MEKAS: No. I mean, it's my movie, and that's it, nothing else. It was all orchestrated and done in Paris by the company Re: Voir, and the distribution in the United States is done by Microcinema. Which I know really nothing about . . .

How did Walden come together?

It came up when the Albright Gallery in Buffalo was organizing an art festival. The organizers thought cinema should be represented besides music, theatre, and etc., and somebody suggested that I was the person. And I had been thinking about editing some of the footage that I shot during that period for a while, and this gave me the opportunity. [The Albright Gallery] paid all the post-production expenses. That was in '68.

You've been interviewed before about the shooting process, but I'm curious why you decided to edit together footage from the late '60s first, since you had been recording with your Bolex since arriving in Brooklyn in 1959. Why didn't you make Lost Lost Lost first?

Because this was more up to date — what I was doing at that time. Lost Lost Lost was earlier material, and I was more interested in showing my current work from '67 and '68.

How did living in New York, in the '60s, influence the form of your diary films?

That was my life! [laughs] It's beyond influence!

But there seems to be something vaguely East Coast or New York about wanting to share the minutiae of your life with other people. I'm thinking specifically of the New England diary tradition.

I don't know if sharing has anything to do with New York. I think that musicians, painters, performers — they just like to do and show. There are only some poets like Emily Dickinson, who wrote all her life without showing it to anybody. Otherwise, those who make films and paint want to exhibit their work — it's a part of life. That's normal.

It's interesting that you use the phrase "those who make films," because on a number of occasions you've asserted that you're a filmer rather than a filmmaker.

Yes, because a filmmaker usually has a script, a producer . . . I have no script, no producer. I have no ideas. I just film, moment after moment, day after day. Nothing is planned. That's very different from making a film, where you collect a team and have a script and actors and producers. That's making a film. I'm not making a film. I'm just filming somebody in the street or . . . I don't know, a flower, or whatever. That's filming.

Do you consider your diary films part of the cinema vérité genre?

No. Cinema vérité was premeditated. In my case . . . there is no script, no notes, no premeditation. I just film and film and film. And then I splice scenes together. But with cinema vérité there was always a theme. Like Leacock's The Chair, which was shot from a very humanistic point of view. There was always some reason for making the film. I have no reason. And [The Chair] is more realistic than Hollywood, than staged cinema, but the subject matter is still . . . well, they approach it the same way, almost in a Hollywood way.

But your films are almost surrealistic.

I would argue that there is no "surrealism" in my works. Surrealism was a style in a specific time period. But my films are not surrealistic, no. They're more like poetic vignettes. And yet they are real life, with nothing staged and nothing imposed.

You've also said before that your diary films are more influenced by music than by cinema, which I think in particular applies to Walden.

Not that it's influenced, but it has more resemblance to music, because I work with rhythm. It's more similarity than influence.

But then it also reminds me of painting quite a bit, due to the way that you use space . . .

Yes, there is that, too. There are some people who say it is like dancing! Dancers also use rhythm. All arts are related in a number of ways. You cannot separate one from the other. Essentially somewhere in the center they differ, but at their peripheries all art forms connect with each other.

. . . and then there are segments in Walden, like "Notes on the Circus," that seem to be a combination of all art forms at once.

Yes . . . it's a very condensed segment.

Why did you borrow the title of your first diary film from Thoreau?

WaldenI have a preoccupation with nature, and due to that I feel very close to Thoreau. I grew up in nature. Even in New York I'm always in Central Park. I see the trees, and I see the snow. There is very little snow in New York, but there's a lot of snow in my New York films! [laughs]

Some have made the point, though, that there's a stronger connection between underground cinema and Emerson. Walden strikes me as a very Emersonian film in that there's a link between existence and the act of seeing.

Yes, very much so. Since I'm obsessed with seeing and recording what I see, that's my life. One could say that I'm a voyeur, but I'm not a voyeur — I'm a gazer. I only want to look and record. A voyeur is someone who looks and sees something he or she is not supposed to see — it's something forbidden. I'm looking at all the things that people see every day — nothing forbidden, everything is open. I'm just looking and admiring and getting excited about it.

When you're filming, do you see the camera an extension of your consciousness?

Not so much an extension of my consciousness as an extension of my fingers! Like when a jazz musician plays a saxophone — the instrument is an extension of the fingers. And fingers are transmitters — extensions of your mind, your heart, your whole body and everything that you are. That's what my camera becomes.
That's interesting, because even when you're not in your films the audience can feel your presence quite strongly.

Yes, through the way I'm filming and what I'm filming. One who knows how to, as they say, "read" the images, can tell everything about me.

One of the main paradoxes of Walden is that you keep repeating, almost like a mantra, that you're happy, and simply celebrating what you see. And yet there's a sharp sense of longing for Lithuania, which you had been exiled from.

WaldenI cannot separate my memories of Lithuania from who I am now or what I'm doing. Well, they're fading now, but they were still very strong when I was making Walden. What you get into yourself during the first ten years or so, that's what forms you and affects and defines you for the rest of your life. I grew up on a farm in Lithuania, then I wound up in a forced labor camp, then in New York — that's not a normal development. Those memories are like the boosters that push the rockets into space. [They] fall off, and then the rocket flies. But those boosters — Lithuania, European culture, the early years in New York — while they're falling off, I'm flying somewhere else.

Why did you feel the need to announce that you were content and happy in Walden?

I'm just that kind of person! I like to sing. Presently I'm singing at Zebulon, a French bistro in Brooklyn, with a group called Now We Are Here. I'm just a happy person. [laughs]

In another interview you stated that Walden was a direct reaction to Godard and that it was, in its way, a political film. Do you still feel that way about it?

[laughs] That was a rather provocative statement. Godard, and some other artists in France at that time, were very political in the sense that they sided with political parties. To me, real politics are those that have nothing to do with political systems or parties. You know, Sartre and his buddies sided with communists and socialists. But my politics are like those of the Beat Generation, or even hippies, the Woodstock Generation, or artists like Buckminster Fuller, John Cage. They changed society without politics, in a completely different way. They changed the style of living — the way people lived and behaved — with no violence, and no political parties. I would say that they changed this country more than any politician.
And, you know, what's happening now in the sciences, and the arts, and on the Internet, and discussions about saving the planet and solar energy — it doesn't come from political parties! So that's my critique of Godard.

That stance seems very much a part of one of my favorite of your films, Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR. You tackle a very political subject in a meta-personal and apolitical fashion.

Yes, it was very personal. I filmed [the news reports] not planning to make a film out of it. I just wanted a record of what was developing there. I'm from Lithuania, of course, so I was concerned. I videotape a lot and I never know whether I'll use it for something someday or not. [But then] two years ago I looked at the footage again and thought "I should share this with others . . . people have forgotten how it all happened." When they saw it in Eastern Europe and in Lithuania, when they saw it . . . many things that I show in the film were new to them because their information at that time came from Moscow. Moscow was controlling the television. So this was all news to them.
It's a part of history, like a textbook almost. In Lithuania now they're using this film as a textbook. They're distributing it to schools and colleges for free, as a teaching tool.

That's great. I also recently saw Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania . . .

Yes! It's been blown up, though, to horrible 35mm prints!

The version I saw was taken from a VHS, so it looked pretty bad. But there was an interview from the '80s tacked on to the end that was fascinating. At one point someone asked you to explain the creative process and you replied by saying "Well, God created us and sometimes I don't know what he was thinking."


Do you remember saying that?

[laughs] Not exactly, no.

In what sense do you believe in God?

I believe that we are more than the flesh, that we are infinite, and that we don't know much about what we are. I believe, really, in the soul, and in the unknown — I wouldn't call it God. In India they don't call it God. I'm more in agreement with Sufis in India and Taoists in Japan. Before Christianity took hold, by force, Lithuania was pantheist. I'm pantheist in a way: I believe I'm part of nature, with all the animals and trees and everything.

And your films are a way of celebrating that.

Yes! I still film a lot, every day. I'm editing now, a new cycle called 1,001 Nights. After the 365 Days project [on] I thought, what else can you do after 365 days but 1,001 nights? I'm not so sure what I'll do with it — it will probably be released as a film in installments, and then maybe I'll also put it on the Internet. But I've finished only 14 of the 1,001, and they already make up 75 minutes!

Despite the popularity of your diary films, you're known here in the states these days primarily as a curator. Do you find running Anthology Film Archives more rewarding than shooting and editing home movies?

I do very little of curating at Anthology these days. I have a very capable team of young people running it. As for what's more rewarding, everything I do, I do because I like to do it. So everything that I do is rewarding to me. I don't do anything that I don't like.

That's a very positive philosophy.

WaldenNot positive, just down to earth and realistic. Why should I spend my time on something that I don't like?

I think a lot of people lack the courage to do the same thing, though.
Why? Because there is money. And when there is money, people will do anything — what they like or what they don't like. But since nobody pays me, I do only what I like! [laughs]

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Transformative Technologies, Sven-Olov Wallenstein

Is the avant-garde dead, defunct, an attitude belonging to a past whose bearings on the present have been lost once and for all? Or does it always await us, coming toward us from a future whose shape is as yet undetermined and open? The first option seems inevitable if we link the idea of the avant-garde to modernism as it exploded on the scene in the 1920s and 30s, and if we see it as a defined and historically circumscribed style with a definite set of questions that can surely no longer be ours within the space of postmodernity, where the artistic gestures of the early twentieth century seem hopelessly naïve. But if we try to detach the impetus of the avant-garde from what has paradoxically enough become its heritage, if we unearth its problems rather than its solutions, then we could perhaps incline towards the second option: the avant-garde is neither alive nor dead, but always there, virtually, waiting to be redefined and reinvented anew.

On the level of historiography, the advent of postmodernity above all brought about a (perhaps paradoxical) reinvigoration of the writing of modernism's history. If we have somehow detached ourselves from modernism and modernity (concepts whose earlier evident mutual implication has also been questioned), then all writing of history becomes an acute and normative investment in the present. It tells us not only where we came from and how it all began, but is just as much meant to stake out a course for the future and to prescribe certain acts and practices as more relevant, contemporary (in the sense of being cum, "with," the movement of time), and legitimate than others.

Surveying this literature with any exhaustiveness is an impossible task. I will present three different ways of perceiving the problem of the avant-garde in order to put my own argument in perspective. Two of them, Matei Calinescu's and Peter Bürger's, are fundamentally negative, whereas the third, Hal Foster's, attempts to rethink the issue of the future of the past in a new and radical way and thus prepares for my own (modest) proposal for a redefinition of the avant-garde.

Three perspectives
In his Five Faces of Modernity (1977), Matei Calinescu provides us with a detailed analysis of the historical vicissitudes of the term "avant-garde," from the French Revolution and the first use of the term with reference to art in the circle around Henri de Saint-Simon—where it denoted a fusion of artistic, scientific, and political radicality under the banner of the spearhead-artist—through its shifting uses in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. What Calinescu discerns in this process, however, is a conflict between modernism, where a viable and productive connection to the past is preserved, and the avant-garde, which attempts to disrupt the concept of art and its institutional framework. What began in the early nineteenth century as a quest for a constructive synthesis ends a century later with a furious negativity: Beginning as a promise and ending as almost a parody, avant-gardism constitutes an inner derailing of modernism and Calinescu does not regret its eventual demise and fade-out.

This rather negative interpretation, its finely nuanced analyses of many historical documents notwithstanding, still leaves us with the question of the status of the avant-garde in the present.1 As is often case in this type of analysis, Calinescu starts off with a kind of saturation of the concept under scrutiny—its essential variations, negative and positive, have been played out, the case is closed, and the owl of Minerva spreads her wings in the dusk of historiographical discourse.

For Peter Bürger, the genealogical parameters of analysis are rather different but his final analysis will remain just as negative as Calinescu's. In his pathbreaking Theorie der Avant-garde (1974), he situates the his-torical avant-garde (exemplified for Bürger by movements like Surrealism, Constructivism, or Duchamp's readymade) against the background of a gradually developing æsthetic autonomy where art only refers to itself. This was already theoretically formulated by Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790) but reached its full-blown form in the last decades of the nineteenth century in Symbolism and l'art pour l'art, with Mallarmé's poésie pure as the most obvious case. The historical avant-garde attempts to break with this situation and sublate the institution "art," not just to criticize the inadequacy of some particular medium (painting, poetry, etc.), but to reconnect art and life in a program for a new æsthetico-political life-world. Needless to say, this project failed (and some of its proponents paid bitterly for this, in many cases with their own lives), but its consequences for posterior history are limitless, since it instituted what we could call the limitless expansion and solidification of art as an institution. The historical avant-garde failed in a tragic way, but the neo-avant-garde movements that Bürger traces from the late fifties and onwards failed (or perhaps even succeeded) in another way that he calls parodic (the schema for this analysis is derived from Marx's Louis Bonaparte's 18th brumaire). The revolt is no longer aimed at art as institution, but now takes place inside the safe haven of these now fully developed institutions—the barriers between art and life are torn down inside art itself, and the neo-avant-garde is at best naïve, at worst cynical.

Bürger's model (which is obviously much more nuanced and richly detailed than comes across in this brief summary) might, however, lead to a kind of post-historical quietism. The neo-avant-garde, and with it all of the present, is condemned to an endless self-deception, and Bürger occa-sionally seems to retreat to a Hegelian position: What remains is not the produc-tion of new works, but an æsthetico-philosophical reflection on past works. At the end of the book, Bürger talks about the "limitless availability" of artistic means today, which puts into question the possi-bility of a coherent æsthetic theory in the sense it has come down to us from Kant and Hegel to Adorno. Neither art nor æsthetic theory seems to have any options left but to contemplate its own demise in the increasing leveling and repressive desublimation of late capitalist culture.

In the third perspective, proposed by Hal Foster in his Return of the Real (1996), there is still hope for a return of the avant-garde, although the sense of "return" will here render the historical evidence more complex. Against Bürger, Foster argues that we should not hypostatize any given moment as the origin of a full-blown avant-garde in relation to which all subsequent "neo" movements would be mere repetitions or representations. In fact, the moment of the avant-garde is only constituted, Foster argues, by being repeated and "comprehended," as it were, in a later phase. The major piece of evidence is of course Marcel Duchamp, who only becomes the historically decisive "Duchamp" he is for us through a series of re-readings and reappraisals begun in the late 50s and extending up to the present day. In this sense, nothing is ever fully "there," nothing is given at once together with all of its sense. The law of history becomes a deferred story, constantly told in a retroactive way.

Foster paints this rather more complex picture by way of Freud's conception of "deferred action" (Nachträglichkeit), especially as this is (re)interpreted in Lacan's 1964 seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. The traumatic encounter with the Real, Lacan argues, can only be a missed encounter; we always arrive too late or too early, and the Real can only be that which returns through repetition. In the same way, the trauma caused by the irruption of the avant-garde in the early twentieth century can only be understood and its sense fully unfolded within the neo-avant-garde.

Against Bürger's rather simplistically linear model, which always perceives temporal sequence as causal and the second moment as straightforwardly derived from the first, Foster's argument is a good one. The problem is, however, that he himself hypostatizes another moment, namely the 60s and its classical conceptual strategies, as the moment of a true critical retrieval of the historical avant-garde. Even though this is not intended by Foster, his argument seems to produce the same reading of our present as Bürger's did in relation to the 60s; the moment of truth is always already past and it becomes difficult to grasp the present. Would it be possible for Foster to argue that current artistic forms "repeat" and "comprehend" those of the 60s without stretching the argument too far? He never really addresses the issue of how, indeed if, the structure of deferred action extends into our present, and perhaps this is because such an argument tends to condemn the present to a negative afterlife.

Art's sense of historicity indeed seems weak today, and most of the arguments which have propelled the avant-garde throughout modernity—a powerful historical logic premised in part on medium-specific self-criticism tending towards formal breakthroughs—seem exhausted. If there is radicality today, it is no doubt located in what Foster terms "horizontal" as opposed to "vertical" strategies, which use art as a means for intervention into specific debates and pay less attention to the dimension of art historical mediation and the inner workings of representation and of the "signifier." If we remain within vertically reflexive self-criticism, art will continue to speak of its own history and inevitably end up in an ivory tower of formalism—but if we opt for pure horizontality, we will succumb to the inverse illusion of immediacy and transparency. To take us out of this dilemma, Foster proposes the notion of "parallax" as a way to keep both of these—equally necessary—dimensions in balance. This seems however more like a way of rephrasing and circumscribing the problem than solving it. Avant-garde temporality seems exhausted and we enter into a kind of "weak thought," as Gianni Vattimo calls it, where we can only witness with melancholy (or delight, depending on one's position) the dispersal of the idea of the avant-garde.

The time of the virtual
We noted how Foster in his critique of Bürger's linear model of history and its latent Hegelianism proposed his own model of history derived from an analogy with the notion of deferred action in Freud and Lacan, where the trauma need not be (and in its most radical version cannot be) present at first, but is only registered afterwards, in repetition. Faced with the objection that modeling history on consciousness is too traditional a move, Foster turns the tables and proposes that we should use this objection as a spring-board and conceive of history on the basis of the most radical and sophisticated model of consciousness available. Thus we find Freud and Lacan usurping the place of Hegel.

It may be allowed to ask just how radical this displacement is, especially given Lacan's well-known dependence on Hegel. In fact, we might find ourselves locked in an inverted dialectic (which is of course Hegel once more), where each new moment is understood as a delayed proxy of another moment, a past reconstructed and "comprehended" (one senses the closeness to Hegel's Aufhebung in this word) in repetition. Perhaps we should attempt, especially when the idea of the avant-garde is at stake, to experiment with other ideas of time and experience more radically dissociated from dialectics. If Foster's analysis delivers us from one kind of historicism, it may lead us into another, namely a kind of infinite analysis (which also threatened Freud), where we will live in an always displaced present. When we ask the question of the avant-garde in historical retrospective, the answer seems pre-programmed: The "historical" avant-garde is, by definition, always on its way to exhaustion, even though it may be repeated and resituated and give rise to diabolically complex forms of reception and to "infinite analyses" where the transfer between analyst and patient trigger ever new problems. Put this way, the question opens onto an abyssal complexity—repetitions of repetitions, an originary scene which recedes ever further back while also insisting to be reproduced in the historian's own discourse as the mirage of the origin—but never onto the question of the present, let alone the question of the future.

But what could be the avant-garde's relation to time if we abandon both the cumulative time of Bürger and negative-dialectical time of Foster? Other conceivable temporalities could be the time of deprivation and withdrawal, which Jean-François Lyotard has attempted to unearth in Kant's theory of the sublime, or, what I will propose here: the time of the virtual. This idea has been put forth by Gilles Deleuze, partly based on a reading of Bergson but also going far beyond this original context, and has been picked up by, for instance, John Rajchman in his recent book Constructions (1998). The time of the virtual would be that which doubles the present with another untimely time, creating, as it were, a swarm of divergent possibilities; or as Rajchman puts it, "quite small 'virtual futures,' which deviate from things known, inserting the chance of indetermination where there once existed only definite probabilities." The question of the virtual would bear upon what is set free in the present, on new modes of thought becoming possible in the blank interstices of the present as it is wrested open— not just toward an art historical past, but towards a much more indeterminate field of forces, technologies, and social movements. Thought within this time of such a virtuality, the question of the avant-garde need not be posed within the history of forms or styles, since this is what immediately makes it old (awakening the demon of precursors) or turns it into a cynical quest for the "new," which turn out to be the same thing.

A problem with such a re-definition is that the very word "avant-garde" has always tended to imply linear conceptions, a troop advancing ahead, going beyond a front line stretched out before us in a terrain that is essentially already known. Already in the first century A.D., Frontinus's Stratagemata established a close connection between warfare and Euclidean geometry that has remained in our imaginary. Perhaps we need to think otherwise, the art of war having undergone tremendous changes and no longer relating to surface battles with perceptible front lines, spatially iso-lated fragments, and massings of force. Why not rethink the issue of the avant-garde based on telewars ("war in the age of intel-ligent machines," as Manuel De Landa would have it) and current models of con-flict, with the battlefield as a function of global conflicts and much of the actual contact taking place over immense dis-tances, dislocalizing the space-time of the experiencing body? This would be a multi-dimensional space, with other and highly variable geometries, differently organized surfaces, times, and velocities, all overlaid in a new way. In such a war-space, there is no obvious "ahead," no clear avant or arrière since what counts as the terrain is itself a function of strategy. The question would then be whether the very concept "avant-garde" here loses all pertinence, or if something else could be thought in this concept (and on what grounds could we be denied this right?). If we suppose that such new conceptual connections can be forged, then the sense of directionality would here be very different, just as the connection to a surrounding milieu would require a new permeability and topology. No matter how difficult this is to think, the avant-garde would no longer be thought of as advanc-ing into a terrain ahead of us and negating what lies behind it, but as the actualization of a different type of space, the kind of "smooth" space defined by Deleuze and Guattari in relation to the nomadic war machine, irreducible to the "striated" and sedentary space of the imperial war machine.

On the basis of such notions, which no doubt need to be defined much more clearly, I believe another formula ought to be tested: not "what is" or "what was" the avant-garde, but what could it become? If this still involves historical repetition, re-actualization, etc., then we need to think of this as a repetition coming from a still undetermined future. As Foster says, we may repeat in order to free ourselves from a present felt to be stagnant, but it should be noted that we do so to free ourselves from both the past and the present by confronting those unknown powers that approach us from the future (as Deleuze would say, the future is not of the order of the possible, where actualization takes place in the image of the idea, but of the virtual, a becoming which doubles history with a stratum of the "counter-historical," a dimension of the "untimely").

To think the question of the avant-garde in this way would imply seeing the devel-opment of art in its different historical con-stellations as a way of acting on extra- artistic materials (technologies, social structures) which are themselves in con-stant mutation. The unfolding of the "histor-ical" avant-garde would in this sense by no means just constitute a negative response to the solidification of the institution "art" (as Bürger would have it), but rather a way of capturing, reconfiguring, and prolonging other movements in society. The autonomy of art lies precisely in its capacity to cap-ture its outside as an inside, and vice versa. The avant-garde is the name of this trans-formation, this capture whereby the respec-tive values of the inside (the æsthetic) and the outside (that which is acted upon) both change. And the important thing is the transformation, not the name.

What would be those new forces that art attempts to capture and appropriate? With due precaution, we could perhaps point to a few of these domains. The most pervasive fact throughout the history of the various avant-garde movements, as well as in the present, is the force of technological change. Each fundamental technological mutation seems to release a corresponding transformative artistic energy. An example would be Walter Benjamin's constructivist appraisal of industrial reproduction technologies and the possibility of new and "non-auratic" forms of art outside of the confines of classical æsthetics. In Benjamin, these possibilities seem to be deduced almost immediately out of the technology itself (which was also one of the charges made against him by Adorno). Thirty years later, Conceptual Art (and to some extent Pop Art as well) was to be propelled by similar motifs, less emphatically but also with an unmistakably utopian flavor. In the age of mass-mediatized reproduction, art was to be made accessible to everyone. As a dematerialized flow of information, it was to contribute to radical democracy, if not in relation to real economies, then at least within the symbolically-charged sphere of the production and circulation of artworks. These hopes were of course just as vain as Benjamin's, but perhaps we should focus less on shattered dreams than on the kind of movements they make possible—an explosion of new artistic gestures and strategies that we without doubt see as "avant-garde," and that we are still working through today (perhaps also "repeating" and "comprehending" in Foster's sense).

That today's information technologies release the same transformative energies is clear. The utopias—and the naïvetés—are analogous, as are the visions of a new "anarchism" predicated upon the dissolution of the system producer-consumer, the leveling of æsthetic hierarchies, the new metaphysics of networks, and an economy less and less focused on the materiality of the consumer object. (In fact, in their emphasis on the commodity as sign or mark, many models of the current economy that take as their framework the semiotic-psychic political economy of the sign rather than classical political economy seem to come straight out of Jean Baudrillard's early work. These theories had an almost overwhelming presence in art discourse in the 80s, but were dismissed by many as too apocalyptic and dystopian. Today they seem revived almost in the guise of normality.) An artistic avant-garde—regardless of whether it would accept such a term, or perhaps precisely because it would reject it scornfully—will no doubt insert itself into this sphere of circulation, as if both to destabilize and accelerate it, just as the avant-garde in the early twentieth century broke down traditional æsthetic form in order to adapt us to a new techno-industrial plateau (the analysis of which has been undertaken in great detail by Manfredo Tafuri). But before this is determined and made recog-nizable as critical intervention, submission, ironic complicity, or something else, it is above all a place of indeterminacy, a place where art changes, and a zone of temporary formlessness which gives rise to new modes of construction, subjectivity, and experience. On an even more speculative level, we could add recent developments in biology and biotechnology. Here we encounter the limit of traditional humanism, where the form "Man" appears more dubious than ever (as was already presaged by Michel Foucault some three decades ago). The possible convergence between a biotech-nical and informational paradigm will surely have tremendous impact on the arts, some of which have been charted by Katherine Hayles in relation to literature in her recent How We Became Posthuman (1999). A visionary forerunner would here be the exhibition Les immatériaux curated by Jean-François Lyotard at the Pompidou Center in 1985, which dealt with the new sense of "immaterials," the transformation of materiality and physicality into waves, flows, and packages of information. It is surely in this dimension that we should seek the "sublime" and the "unpresentable" that Lyotard (in his famous 1983 essay) claimed constitutes the underlying momentum of the avant-garde, and not exclusively in what made up that particular essay's examples.2

These technological mutations have to be understood as both emanating from and reacting upon the social changes resulting from multinational capitalism in its globalized phase (which was pointed out by Fredric Jameson in his classic essay on the cultural logic of late capitalism, written the same year as Lyotard's essay on the sublime). Today we are witnessing the rapid dissolution of an Occidental art historical narrative that has been at the basis of most theories of the dialectical movement of form and materials. This means not only the end of the traditional dialectic between mass culture and modernism but also of the mantra of the "dissolution" of the border between them, as it has been diagnosed, cherished, and feared since the Frankfurt School of the 30s. What we require is a new analysis of the situation and its possibilities after the breaking up of the mono-cultures that previously contained the high-low dialectic and whose downfalls mark the end of the idea of a unified public space, now mutating into proliferating sub-systems. Criticism, debates, and patterns of publishing will change as intellectual communities become less rooted in language, place, or nation. It would, of course, be erroneous to think that entities like the nation-state simply would disappear. As Saskia Sassen has demonstrated, these changes bring about a restructuring of the state apparatus, with new forms of centrality, control, and monitoring in a space of "electrotecture" characterized by new interfaces of physicality and informatics and by new urban forms and trajectories.

As Sassen argues, decentralization and centralization do not form exclusionary opposites, but rather complementary poles in a new world system that will not be more democratic than before, just characterized by new conflicts. To remain within the art world, these changes are reflected in the formation of a new elite of "curators." It would be false to downplay this change by pointing to the long tradition of museum curating. Historical analogies will not help us chart this territory because the function is new: not to preserve the old, but to organize and systematize the production of new things and symbols in the circulation of the art world. The curatorial function expresses the increasing professionalization of this world, and its increasing emphasis on self-regulatory mechanisms. The system of biennials, triennials, etc., indicates the extent to which the institution produces goods meant for internal circulation and evaluation, and dispenses with the classical notion of an "audience." (To some, this may in fact look like a perverse realization of Kosuth's 1969 statement that, like science, advanced experimental art does not have an audience since it is primarily directed towards other artists.)

It would be easy to provide moralistic comments on this situation, but it would also be misleading. There is no reason to see the loss of earlier functions as purely catastrophic, as if our capacity to perceive and grasp works of art would be uniquely tied to certain historical modes of production and distribution. Older systems of selection and presentation—from the gradual demise of jury systems and the birth of the avant-garde in its various attempts to create new systems, both democratic and elitistic—are just as much or as little repressive as current systems. Today's avant-garde faces the formidable task of inventing new situations, modes of production, and reception. Such an avant-garde no doubt exists, and it will be both like and unlike the one that once appeared as the "historic" avant-garde at the beginning of the previous century. Those outer forc­es—technologies, economies, and power relations—that it works over, appropriates, and transforms are themselves in constant movement.

1. It should be noted, however, that Calinescu systematically disregards most movements from the early nineteenth century when an avant-garde position—even though the word may not have been used as such—implied a constructive renewal and reconsidering of artistic practice rather than mere destruction.
2. The emphasis on Barnett Newman has done great damage to Lyotard's argument, since it gives the impression that the sublime would have an essential connection to certain late modernist painting, which it does not. The question Newman relays to us is that of the now ("What is now?" "Is it happening?" etc.) and even though for Lyotard these questions are registered in Newman's vertical "zips" of color, these questions need not be inscribed in these particular forms for us.

Sven-Olov Wallenstein is a philosopher and an art critic living in Stockholm. He teaches art theory at the University College of Arts and Crafts and philosophy at the University of Södertörn, both located in Stockholm. He is co-founder of the Art Node Foundation in Stockholm and a contributing editor of Cabinet.

Copied from, issue 2 "Mapping Conversations", Spring 2001