Carla Hesse


in Geoffrey Nunberg, ed., The Future of the Book (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1997), pp. 21-36

1. Introduction: The medium is not the mode


What can the history of the book tell us about its future? What must we understand about the cultural and historical roles of traditional literary institutions--such as, the author, the book, publishing, and the public--in order to design the systems and institutions that will mediate the uses of new electronic technologies? Since the publication of Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin's L'Apparition du livre over three decades ago (1958), there has been what can only be described as an explosion of research into the history of printing, publishing, reading, and "the book" in early modern Europe, and particularly early modern France.[1] Historians should thus be in a good position to offer some illumination of the central issues this forum raises.


Let me begin by underscoring the fact that despite the technocratic bias of much of this research, the historical record makes unquestionably clear that the most distinctive features of what we have come to refer to as "print culture"--that is, the stabilization of written culture into a canon of authored texts, the notion of the author as creator, the book as property, and the reader as an elective public--were not inevitable historical consequences of the invention of printing during the Renaissance, but, rather, the cumulative result of particular social and political choices made by given societies at given moments.


Indeed, for this reason, the term "print culture," to my mind is not only inadequate for comprehending both the emergence and the complexity of modern literary culture, but is also misleading in that it implicitly carries with it a technological determinism that conflates the history of a means of cultural production (the printing press) with the historical development of a mode of cultural production which Roger Chartier has cal1ed "le circuit du livre" and that I would render in Einglish as "the civilization of the book," or better still, for reasons I hope soon to make clear, "the modern literary system." Careful discrimination between these two different, though clearly interrelated,


page 21

historical phenomena--the means and the mode--as well as an assessment of the nature of their interdependence is, I think, critical to our comprehension of both the complexities and the possibilities presented by the development of electronic media My opening theoretical axiom, then, is that the medium is not the mode.


2. A brief genealogy of the modern literary system


The printed book, authored and owned and transmitted to a reading public through the nexus of a commercial market, was not a self-evident consequence of a technological change, but rather the expression of a cultural ideal whose key elements have been elaborated slowly in western societies since the Renaissance, but which crystallized into what I would call the "modern literary system" with the advent of the modern western democracies at the end of the eighteenth century.


Recall, first, that the codex book became the dominant form for preserving and transmitting the written word in the West almost a millennium before the advent of movable type or the emergence of the notion of the individual author as a source of ideas. And while it is clear that the introduction of printing accelerated, intensified, and extended the reach and exchange of literate culture, there is no evidence of any clear link between the advent of printing and the emergence of the notion of the individual author as the source of knowledge or truths. This idea seems much more clearly linked, rather, to the changing political, institutional, and cultural demands of the Renaissance states and their absolutist successors, which developed the need for new sets of skills and a new notion of individual accountability. Indeed, while the Renaissance elaborated a new discourse celebrating man as creator, a discourse which contributed to the social elevation of the artist and the intellectual, it was not until the eighteenth century that the author was recognized in western Europe as a legal entity. And even then s/he was not seen as the proper creator of his or her ideas, but rather as a handmaiden chosen by God for the revelation of divine truth.[2] It was only slowly, over the course of the eighteenth century, and in a highly limited manner, that the author became legally recognized as the originator of his or her works (in England in 1710; in France in 1793; and in Prussia in 1794).


Moreover, as Geoffrey Nunberg (1993) has recently reminded us,

page 22



books have never been the exclusive, or even the most prevalent form of printed matter, though they have been the most privileged and most protected. It may thus be concluded that the authored and owned book is an expression of a cultural ideal which the modern West has cherished but which has had very little to do with the technology that has produced it. Indeed, it is a ideal that was not at all self-evident even to the founders of the great modern democracies, who more than anyone cherished the printing press as the great agent of Enlightenment and human progress. In fact, one of the most striking facts to the historian of the book is how closely the current discussion of the future of the book in the electronic age resonates with debates among the eighteenthcentury Enlightenment philosophes and their revolutionary heirs.


John Locke, for example, was deeply skeptical about the value of books as a source of knowledge. In his eyes they were as likely to be repositories of falsehoods and superstitions as of truths. Indeed he saw real dangers in the illusion that books were containers of knowledge. He was aware that the very form of the book, by fixing, tends to reify the information inscribed in it. The only true source of knowledge, he maintained, is that disclosed directly to the senses. Books must be seen merely as a mechanism of transmission, a fulcrum between sender and receiver, rather than as a repository or container of fixed truths.[3]


And in France, Condorcet argued more radically still that the notion of authorship itself was an archaic creation of the absolutist monarchy, bent on dispensing privileged commercial and honor)fic monopolies to favored subjects rather than on facilitating the spread of light. From a radical sensationalist viewpoint he argued that knowledge from the senses does not, and should not, belong to anyone, because knowledge inheres in nature itself, not in the mind that perceives it. Unlike physical property (such as land), he argued, two people, or for that matter an infinite number, can think of, inhabit, and make use of the same ideas or information at once. How then could one of them have an exclusive claim to be the source of those ideas or that information?[4]


Thus, long before the advent of the digital revolution in publishing, a central strand of Enlightenment thought had already condemned the book as an archaic and ineff~cient cultural form. As knowledge came to be seen as derived from experience, it also came to be seen as everexpanding, and as opened-ended as experience itself. To fix knowledge between two cardboard covers, and to attribute ownership of that slice to someone was to constrain its circulation. The best way to spread

page 23

knowledge, according to Condorcet, was through authorless and opened-ended texts, circulating freely between all citizens: he imagined the periodical press supported through the mechanism of subscription rather than through the institution of royalties to authors or monopolies to publishers. Indeed, what Condorcet conceived of as an ideally transparent mode of exchange through the deregulation of print publishing looks a lot like a mechanical version of the Internet.


There are striking resemblances, as well, between current descriptions of the new electronic text and the modes of textuality invented and explored by the periodical press of the eighteenth century: the free play with formatting, the excitement about the combining of image, music, and text, the reassertion of the editorial over the authorial voice, the notion of the text as bulletin board, and, alternatively, as a transparent network for the exchange of letters. The eighteenth century also witnessed experimentation with microtechnologies as a means of putting the power of publication into the hands of every individual citizen. In 1789, Condorcet had the fantasy of using these new technologies of print and modes of textuality to, as he put it, "bring all of France into a dialogue with itself." And, in fact, he became a key player in the formation of a multimedia publishing group that experimented with all of these modes of publication and circulation[5]


Interestingly, it was not the technological limits of mechanical printing that prevented Condorcet and his eighteenth-century collaborators from realizing their dream of a perfectly transparent free-form exchange between citizens through the medium of the printed word. Rather, the experiment was abandoned because of the political terror they experienced as cultural forces were unleashed with this new textuality after the French Revolution of 1789.


With the battle cry of "freedom of the press," in 1789 cultural revolutionaries like Condorcet spearheaded a movement to liberate print culture from the repressive institutions and regulations of the former regime. The declaration of "press freedom" encompassed far more than simply an end to prepublication censorship. It brought down the entire literary system of the old French regime, from the royal administration of the book trade, with its system of literary privileges and its army of censors and inspectors, to the monopoly of the Paris Book Guild on the professions of printing, publishing, and bookselling. Between 1789 and 1793, the mandate to liberate the Enlightenment from censorship and to refound cultural life on enlightened principles

page 24



translated itself into a massive deregulation of the publishing world. By 1793, anyone could own a printing press or engage in publishing and bookselling. What is more, with the abolition of royal literary privileges and the end to prepublication censorship, it appeared that anyone could print or publish anything. Thus, the first few years of the French Revolution saw the corporatist literary system of the old regime entirely dismantled and replaced by a free market in the world of ideas.[6]


These changes did not, however, inaugurate the kind of cultural life their authors had envisioned. Cultural anarchy ensued in the wake of the "declaration of the freedom of the press." The collapse of royal regulation put the notion of authorship itself into question. Pamphleteers reveled in anonymity while literary pirates exploited the demise of authors' "privileges." Far from propagating enlightened ideas, as Condorcet had dreamed, the freed presses of Paris poured forth incendiary and often seditious political pamphlets, as well as works that appeared libelous or obscene to the new men in power. Once legalized and freed for all to copy or to sell, the great texts of the Enlightenment went out of print. The revolutionary reading market demanded novels and amusement, not science and useful knowledge. More profoundly, without any commercial protection of the author or publisher, book publishing became economically unfeasible. In the wake of these first consequences of the deregulation of print culture, the cultural policy makers in successive national assemblies came to recognize that laissez-faire cultural politics was utopian, and that they would have to find a means to regulate the world of print if their ideal of an enlightened republic was to be realized.


The cultural terror Condorcet experienced in the first few years of the Revolution led him to radically revise his dream of a totally deregulated, authorless, free exchange between citizens through the medium of print. Indeed, it led him to play a leading role in initiating legislation in 1793 to restore a cultural order centered in the "civilization of the book," by legally recognizing the principle of literary property as a means of holding individual authors accountable for what they published and by re-regulating print commerce to make book publishing, as opposed to ephemeral printed matter, again commercially viable. The book-centered culture that emerged from the French Revolutionary legislation was, however, radically different from that of the old regime. Through the legal notion of a "limited property right," the National Convention reshaped the political and legal identity of the author,

page 25


transforming that cultural agent from a privileged creature of the absolutist state into a property-owning civic hero, an agent of public enlightenment. And it transformed the publishing industry as well, abolishing corporate monopolies on the means of production, the printing and publishing world, as well as perpetual exclusive privileges on the literary inheritance of France. Publishing was thus regrounded in the principles of market commerce. These legal and institutional changes aimed at ensuring the dominance of the book--a cultural form that encouraged slow, reasoned reflection upon events, rather than the spontaneous and rapid interventions made possible by newspaper and pamphlet production. The author of books, who had property rights in his or her work, could therefore be held legally accountable for what he or she published.


However, it is nonetheless important to note that the "property rights" of authors, legislated by most western European countries by the end of the eighteenth century, were not unlimited in scope. French, English, and Prussian law all recognized that "public interest" dictated that after a fixed period following the author's death, all books should enter into the "public domain" and thus become freely reproducible by anyone licensed to print. After this period heirs or publishers could no longer claim exclusive reproduction rights to these texts, but only to their particular edition of a given text.


This has meant that for the last several centuries the lion's share of profits in commercial publishing has inhered not in the limited "property right" claims to an author's text, but rather in the claim to a particular edition of the text or, as Gerard Genette (1987) has called it, the "paratext" (format, notes, introduction, illustrations, etc.). Indeed, it is for this reason that even to this day most European bookstores are organized by publishing houses (Pleaide, Seuil, PUF, etc.) as well as by subject and author. Significantly, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (1993) have recently renewed interest in the intellectual and commercial value of paratextual apparatuses and their elaboration within the digital environment.


The legal notion of the "public domain" has preserved even within the modern book publishing world a critical element of Condorcet's ideal of universal access to a common literary inheritance. The modern "civilization of the book" that emerged from the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century was in effect a regulatory compromise among competing social ideals: the notion of the right-bearing and

page 26



accountable individual author, the value of democratic access to useful knowledge, and faith in free market competition as the most effective mechanism of public exchange.


The more conservative French regimes which followed the revolutionary period took further legal and administrative steps to favor "the book" over the pamphlet or the newspaper as the dominant form of printed publication in our time. In France, for example, between 1800 and 1880 only book-length publications were freed from prepublication censorship. The political implications of this cultural policy were immediately apparent to the liberal philosopher Benjamin Constant:


All enlightened men seemed to be convinced that complete freedom and exemption from any form of censorship should be granted to longer works. Because writ ing them requires time, purchasing them requires affluence, and reading them requires attention, they are not able to produce the reaction in the populace that one fears of works of greater rapidity and violence. But pamphlets, and handbills, and newspapers, are produced quickly, you can buy them for little, and because their effect is immediate, they are believed to be more dangerous. (Constant 1814: 1)


It is significant to note here that what Constant sees as the critical distinction between "the book" and other forms of printed matter is not the physical form of the printed word, or the implicit set of social actors that it requires (author, printer, publisher, and reader), but rather the mode of temporality that the book form establishes between those actors. The book is a slow form of exchange. It is a mode of temporality which conceives of public communication not as action, but rather as reflection upon action. Indeed, the book form serves precisely to defer action, to widen the temporal gap between thought and deed, to create a space for reflection and debate. The book, as Marcel Proust recognized, is a fulcrum that creates space out of time.


* * *


The parallels between the debates and policy questions of the late eighteenth century and those of today are to my mind very striking. Like Condorcet in 1792, we seem to be facing the anxieties that attend the possibility of losing the means of associating a particular work or text with an individual agency, or of losing the writer's and even the reader's individuality; the possibility of a disappearance, perhaps, of the Enlightenment sense of self and of a sociability based upon a Rousseauesque model of intellectual community and of a liberal model

page 27


of public life rooted in individualism and private property. These cultural institutions, I hope I have demonstrated, were not consequences of printing, but rather of sociopolitical choices, embodied in legal and institutional policies that ensured the realization of that cultural ideal.


For this reason, I would assert that the current debate over the electronic book should be a debate as much about the modes as about the means of cultural production and consumption. I do not think that technologies are the only, or even the main, issue at the center of the debate. The kind of textual destabilization and experimentation apparently made possible by the advent of new electronic technologies--hypertext, electronic bulletin boards, the Internet, and so forth--are less a consequence of these new media per se than of the process of determining the appropriate and desirable forms of their institutionalization. Indeed, I might speculate that the kind of experimentation that we are currently witnessing in electronic publication is a symptom of an underregulated or rather, relative to print media, unregulated communications medium that has evolved alongside of or beyond the reach of current regulatory frameworks rather than a consequence of the technological possibilities opened up by the digitalization itself.[7]


The modern literary system, the "modernized civilization of the book," that emerged from the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century represents a particular vision of cultural life which embodies the ideals of the autonomous, self-creating and self-governing, property-owning individual, universal access to knowledge, and the assurance of cautious public reflection and debate. What we must determine, then, in the remaking of the literary system in the electronic age, in our choice to either challenge or affirm those ideals through the legal, political, economic, and institutional policies we implement, is what kind of cultural agents we envision for the future: put somewhat tendentiously, are we to sustain self-constituting and accountable citizens of a democracy or are we going to advance the future of continuously and spontaneously recomposing postmodernist subjectivities, inhabiting an increasingly imaginable, technocratically managed empire? An account of what is at stake in these choices, in my opinion, is more adequately expounded in the Late Histories of Tacitus, which chart the transition from republican to imperial Rome than in the descriptions to be found in recent publications concerning hypertext, cyberspace, or virtual reality. And once we have designated a clear cultural task for the future, the questions of which tools and

page 28



what modes of institutionalization and regulation are appropriate to that task will follow easily.


3. The remaking of the literary system in the electronic age


The striking parallels between the late eighteenth and late twentieth centuries' cultural debates suggest to me that what we are witnessing in the remaking of the "modern literary system" at the end of the twentieth century is not so much a technological revolution (which has already occurred) but the public reinvention of intellectual community in its wake. The electronic revolution of the past half century has not so much changed modes of human inquiry as it has rendered opaque some of the most seemingly transparent and fundamental cultural choices faced by modern societies: how we determine--as individuals, communities, and nations, and perhaps as a globe--to use these information technologies and toward what ends.


The introduction of these new technologies has radically destabilized and transformed the legal, economic, political, and institutional infrastructure of modern knowledge exchange-permitting, most significantly, the circumvention of traditional mechanical pathways of publication and communication. But these cultural consequences have less to do with the design of the microchip than with the forms of knowledge and modes of exchange that the introduction of microchip technologies has both wittingly and unwittingly made possible.


Indeed the process of reinventing the modern literary system in the wake of the microchip is already well under way. And, perhaps not surprisingly, some of the dimensions of the cultural landscape that are beginning to emerge in this digital environment are comfortingly familiar. Thus, for example, we can detect in the new electronic municipal library project in San Francisco a reprisal of the cultural mission of civic humanism carried forward from the Renaissance Italian city states to the postmodernist Pacific rim. And the new Bibliotheque Nationale de France, which is rapidly reconfiguring the French cultural map, despite its extraordinary architectural and technological innovations, is recognizably anchored in the universalist and encyclopedic traditions of the Classical, Republican, and even Socialist French state. Finally, we can recognize the hand of old-fashioned pragmatic American federalism in the massive project sponsored by the United

page 29


States Library of Congress to convert the Cold War satellite networks of the Radio Free Europe headquarters in Munich into an international bibliographic database for emerging Eastern European parliaments.[8]


* * *


This is not to suggest, however, that nothing new is occurring as a consequence of the electron)fication of the modern literary system. Most striking to the historian, in witnessing the remaking of the literary system in the present age, is the almost unwitting impulse to reconceptualize the key institutions of modern literary culture--the book, the author, the reader, and the library in terms of time, motion, and modes of action, rather than in terms of space, objects, and actors.


This recasting of knowledge forms in temporal rather than spatial terms can be detected across a surprisingly diverse range of recent library architecture projects. Most notably, Dominique Perrault's great rhetofical achievement in the design of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France is a despatialization of the library's form, the articulation of an "architecture of the void," a building without walls, a library that is a nonspace. But it is very interesting to observe that a similar set of rhetorical moves is made by an architect working on a library project in a radically different architectural idiom and with a frame of reference and a set of aims that are local rather than global in nature. Thus Cathy Simon, the architect of the new municipal library for the city of San Francisco, also repudiates a rhetoric of space, conceiving of her new library as exemplifying an "architecture of motion," a "kinetic architecture," comprised, weblike, of nodes, intersections, and passages, rather than volumes delimited by walls. And, more radically still, the international project to create libraries for the new parliamentary bodies emerging in eastern Europe is being conceived simply as a series of globally coordinated satellite networks linking far-flung databases that are not really located anywhere at all except in the hands of their users.


As with the rhetoric of architecture, so, too, with the rhetorical construction of the knowledge that will no longer lie within, but rather circulate through, these nonspatial libraries: the language used to describe the forms of knowledge of the electronic library metaphorically draws our gaze from the spaces delimited by class)ficatory grids to the lines of the grids themselves, to the trajectories of those boundary lines, and to the relations constituted at their points of intersec-

page 30


tion. In fact, knowledge is no longer conceived and construed in the language of forms at all ("bodies of knowledge," or a "corpus," bounded and stored), but rather as modes of thought, apprehension, and expression, as techniques and practices. Metaphors of motion abound. "Information flows between its creators and users", in the words of Paul Evan Peters (1992). Knowledge is no longer that which is contained in space, but that which passes through it, like a series of vectors, each having direction and duration yet without precise location or limit.


The availability of Boolean search through vast full-text databases,as the librarian Robert Berring (1986) has observed, renders obsolete the need for indexers and fixed indexes of texts, or even for subject cat alogs. Each individual user can construct a unique search path through any given database. Moreover, information specialists and computer scientists see that the advanced application of algorithms is leading a breakdown of the very boundary between information and method itself. Thus the computer scientist Allan Newell writes:

As anyone in computer science knows, the boundary between data and program -- that is, what is data and what is procedure--is very fluid. In fact... there is no principled distinction in terms of form or representation of which is which. (Newell 1986, cited in Lyons 1992: 89)


In the future, it seems, there will be no fixed canons of texts and no fixed epistemological boundaries between disciplines, only paths of inquiry, modes of integration, and moments of encounter.


The notions of the writer and the reader are being recast within this temporal idiom as well. The designers of the workstations for the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, for example, redefine the reader in terms of the kind of reading s/he practices. Gone are the social (learned versus popular), political (public versus private), or economic (fee paying versus nonfee paying) categories that once described the constituencies of literary life. The imagined writer-readers in the electronic age are conceived, instead, in terms of their mode of action in time. The crucial distinction in the world of electronic writers and readers, according to the designers of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the librarian Robert Berring among others, will be between long- and short-term researchers.[9] Thus the long-term researcher will move in an ever-expanding web of vectors. S/he will have a sense of direction, because s/he will be competent in the technologies of research, but like an explorer who at once creates and charts a path, the electronic reader

page 31

will not yet know where s/he is going to end up. Metaphorically, then, to enter this cyberspace--the new electronic literary system--is to journey out of space, and into the dimension of time.


What appears to be emerging from the digital revolution is the possibility of a new mode of temporality for public communication, one in which public exchange through the written word can occur without deferral, in a continuously immediate present. A world in which we are all, through electronic writing, continuously present to one another. There is, I would like to suggest, something unprecedented in this possibility of the escape of writing from fixity. What the digitalization of text seems to have opened up is the possibility for writing to operate in a temporal mode hitherto exclusively possible for speech, as parole rather than langue. New modes of reading-writing are emerging: Email communication in "real time," the on-line public forum, certain forms of interactive hypertext, the development of dynamaps in genetic and bibliographic research, and so forth.[10] The implications of these perforrnative modes of electronic writing are potentially profound. Such modes make it possible to imagine a world in which writing loses its particular relation to time, in which the space created by the structure of deferral gives way to pure textual simultaneity, to what we might want to call scripted speech. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, it is lawyers who have been the first to seize upon the social implications of this development, and who have begun to advance new regulatory models for electronic reading-writing-publishing as performance and service rather than commodity.[11]


Digitalization, then, I am suggesting, is introducing a new mode of temporality into the modern literary system. It does not, and will not, however, impose new cultural forms. It is not inevitable that fixed forms of writing and modes of textuality such as the book will become extinct, or that we will all soon be living within a transparent utopian present constituted through scripted speech. Digitalization, rather, has created a new terrain upon which the literary system will now operate; it is a terrain that reconceives our mental landscape (both forms of knowledge and modes of apprehension and exchange) in performative rather than structural terms. What kind of literary system ,we (re)invent upon that new terrain is still for us to decide. The story of how the modern literary system will be remade in the face of these new temporal possibilities, and with what consequences, is one that historians are not yet able to tell. It is possible to speculate, however, that if perfor-

page 32


mative modes of writing supersede structural ones, the history of the book will become nothing more than memory.



[1] Some main landmarks of this historiography include Febvre and Martin (1958), McLuhan (1962), Bolleme et al. (1965), Martin (1969), Davis (1975; 1983), Roche (1978), Eisenstein (1979), Darnton (1979; 1982), Chartier and Martin (eds.) (1983), Chartier (1987; 1992), Chartier (ed.) (1987). For some of my contributions to this literature, see Darnton and Roche (eds.) (1989) and Hesse (1991).

[2] See Post et al. (1955), Davis (1983), Woodmansee (1984), Rose (1988), and Hesse (1990).

[3] See John Locke, The Educational Writings of John Locke, a Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes by James L. Axtell (London: Cambridge University Press, 1968); John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Peter H.Nidditch (ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987); and also John Locke, A Commonplace Book to the Holy Bible... (London: printed by Edw. Jones, for Awnsham and Churchill..., 1697).

[4] See Marie- Jean- Antoine Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Fragments sur la liberte de la presse (1776), in M.- F. Arago (ed.), Oeuvres de Condorcet (Paris: Didot, 1847, vol.ll: 253- 314); see also Hesse (1990).

[5] See the fascinating study of this publishing group by Kates (1985).

[6] For a more extensive discussion of this story, see Hesse (1991: esp. chapters 1 - 2).

[7] The literature on the issue of current legal and regulatory questions raised by electronic media is very large and constantly expanding. I am basing my remarks here principally upon the special issue of Serials Review edited by Grycz (1992), Ginsburg (1993), and Schlachter (1993).

[8] See Bloch and Hesse (eds.) (1993). See also Maignien (1993).

[9] See Grunberg and Giffard (1993) and Berring (1987).

[10] On new modes of writing, see Levy (1993) and Bolter (1993).

[11] See Grycz (1992), Ginsburg (1993), and Schlachter (1993).