The book or article stands before me as an object. It is something there in the world like a chair, rock, or tree. As I regard the book, I intend it as something containing arguments, concepts, claims, and so on. That is, just as I attribute a certain mass to the rock, just as I treat this mass as a property of the rock, so too do I treat the book or article as possessing these arguments, claims, and concepts. Yet strangely, unlike the rock (though this is arguably true of the rock as well), the book cannot be encountered all at once. Where are these concepts, claims, and arguments? The book can only be read in time. It can only unfold in time. Even if I were to lay out all the pages side by side, I still could not encounter the book as a simultaneity. For the reader, the book can only be encountered as a process, as something that must unfold. And also, for the writer, the text must be produced. Neither the reader or writer can encounter the text all at once.
Perhaps there is a differential between the existence of the text and the process or erlebnis of the text. We might say that as an ex-istence, the text is a simultaneity that is all there at once, wrapped up within itself, complete. It is only in the lived time of presentation, the argument would run, in the lived time of reading, that the book would present itself under the aegis of being a fragment of the whole:
Husserl’s paradox: We intend the object as a unified whole but only ever encounter the object in partial profiles. From whence is the unity of the object constituted as a unified whole? How is it possible for the object to be “counted-as-one”, when it is nowhere presented as one?
As I read the book, I am perpetually conscious that there is a whole that lurks just over the horizon of the word, the sentence, the horizon. Each fragment somehow fits into that whole or is a part of that whole. Yet where is this whole? Between two covers? Perhaps. Yet even when I complete the book, the whole has evaded me and slips between my fingers even as I hold the book in my hands. I intend the book as being in the book, but I look in vain to find the book.
Like Carroll’s snark that never appears where you look for it, the book never seems to appear where it appears. Where is the book? Between the covers? In the authors mind? In the act of reading? There are occasions, upon returning to a beloved book, where I wonder whether the book hasn’t rewritten itself in the interval of my absence. How can this be? How does the book change so markedly?
Perhaps there is something about the sheer physicality of the book that generates the impression that the book is something. After all, we encounter the book as a thing or an object. It is there, right before us, between those two covers. And the book must therefore be in that physical object? What academic postures, attitudes, temperaments, might this paradox of the book produce? In the famous section on commodity fetishism in Capital, Marx writes:
The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labor themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relations of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensious things which are at the same time supra-sensible or social… In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity-form, and the value relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relations between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. (vol. 1, Fowkes trans., 164-5)
Marx remarks that we must mobilizes all the subtlety of theology and metaphysics to uncover the mystery of the commodity. The commodity presents itself as a physical object, as a thing, such that it is the object that we relate to, not other human beings. But in fact the commodity is a masked or clothed set of social relations. Is it not the same with the book? The book is there, between its covers, and the meaning is in it. Or this is how the book or article is intended anyway. The meaning is treated as something floating about, out there in the world, contained in the text… Belonging to it. But where could it possibly be? The book only unfolds in time, even if the pages are simultaneous in space. The space between the covers contain only ink. The text must actualize itself in a reading. Text is event. Not simply the event of inscription, but the necessary event of decryption, of a reading, that makes the text be again.
I encounter books as artifacts. They are things that populate the world, like tables and rocks. Do I therefore approach or intend books and articles in the way I intend tables and rocks? Do I encounter them as substances? When I look at the academic postures of those that traffic only in books and articles, who only communicate with other academics through the medium of the book, I sometimes get this sense. The text is treated as a thing, possessing a meaning. This can readily be seen at conferences. Someone in the audience asks a question. A look of disdain crosses the face of the author. Obviously this fellow must be a dolt. He missed the entire point of the paper. He missed the substance of the paper! Since sense or meaning is taken as being a property of the text, as being thing-like, a difference can only indicate a failure to understand or a misinterpretation on the part of the reader. For here the text is not a process or an event, but a substance that underlies the script.
In blogging a different relation to text seems to emerge. Following the arguments of Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler, the medium of the blogosphere is not simply an alternative space in which to convey ideas, but also has an impact on how thought unfolds and the nature of social relations. In the case of books and articles, the author is generally absent. The author is on the horizon, but as a shadowy, generally idealized, operator of the text. The text has a thing-like character and is treated as a substance. Yet in blog writing, the text is encountered far more as process, in its unfolding, in all its hesitations, false trails, divergences and so on. On those blogs where comments are open, readers post responses. The author very quickly discovers that the reader is not a dolt, but rather that, as Lacan said, all communication is miscommunication. There is a powerless or inability to master the word, such that the sentence is like a floating blog, pervaded by all sorts of relations, which is plugged into all sorts of assemblages quite different from that where it first exploded into the world. Here it becomes clear that meaning is not a substance beneath the graphe, but a perpetually displaced entering-into-relation, event, or encounter. At the conference, the academic individuated in an ecology of books and articles, encounters the rude and belligerent questioner as a jerk who is just being difficult and who has failed to behave reasonably. Yet in the blogosphere one discovers that the reasonable is a sort of transcendental illusion or fetish, borne of those who spend their time silently with the non-responsive book or article, seldom encountering the passions that haunt real and regular encounters with others. Does not this space of the encounter call for a rethinking of meaning, text, and above all reason? Does it not call for a new model of what it is to think?