In Defense of Pressed Vegetation

Our pal Bobby Tomorrowland recently posted a blog that lamented the passing of a time “when brainy little monographs flew off the shelves at independent bookstores, when information was shared and consumed en masse via organic materials, pressed vegetation, before we turned our economy over to the pixel and set fire to the past.” I know that Bob is a bibliophile: we’ve swapped (and stolen) books from each other for years (Bob lately moved north with my unread copy of The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, exchanging a book of anthropo-mythological film criticism in its place). Still, I was nonetheless a little perturbed by Tomorrowguy’s use of the past-tense verb “was.” Bob clarified his point in the comments thread, writing that “there’s a bittersweet realization that the ledgers, tracts and statements of the future will likely emerge in virtual — not vegetable — form.” Now, sure, “will likely” is still conditional, but it also translates to “probably.” Does Bob really believe that paper books are to be consumed by the “fire of the past”? And where does he locate the sweetness ratio of of this “bittersweet realization”?

Websites and blogs give people the ability to communicate a message to a wide audience without the annoying mediation of an editor or the complications of distributing a physical product. Just as 7″ records, once the currency of underground music, have been displaced by mp3s, zines and “little magazines” are giving way to blogs. American newspapers, in competition with both TV and the internet, increasingly find themselves in economic trouble. Writers of every stripe scramble to praise Amazon’s new e-book reader, the Kindle. Clearly, a new type of literacy based on interfacing with screen media, will certainly be a necessary skill for those seeking “professional” or “white collar” jobs in the West, in the now, and in the future (Greg Ulmer, one of my former professors at the University of Florida has dubbed this skill “electracy“). I will grant Tom Orrowland this much. But his line of logic is specifically teleological, presuming a technologically progressive future, a future shared by everyone. What are the limits of this kind of tomorrowland? Does its horizon extend indefinitely into a promised land, where everyone–that is to say, all members of all cultures, of any imposed tier or hierarchy–share access to this future? Is it not possible to imagine a future of social and technological collapse, where hand-cranked presses must serve where pixels have failed? Or, to be less dramatically eschatological–and to return to Bobby’s original vegetation metaphor –are not handbills and fliers and pamphlets the vital stuff of grassroots movements? To be sure, the internet exists as a profoundly important coeval to the print medium, but is access and exposure to such movements to be only available to those with screen media?Is it so inconceivable people without access to machines could exist fifty or a hundred or two hundred years from now? A thousand? Is electracy in fact an evolutionary threat to literacy? Will hypertext cannibalize pressed vegetation?

Maybe I react this way because I truly love books–not just their contents, but the physical objects themselves, and the thought of a future without books is ugly to me. I love my local independent book store, and I visit it at least twice a month. I love the dizzying smell of a library, the sweet slow-rot of millions of pages. I also have a fondness for several independent presses out there today, publishers who understand that their audiences are genuine bibliophiles. Earlier this month, I gave props to Ursula LeGuin for her insightful recent essay “Staying Awake” in Harper’s. She wrote, and I quoted, and here requote:

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you are fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

I couldn’t agree more. Her argument is both simple and profound. To underscore its simplicity, would you be willing to take your laptop or Kindle into the bath with you? How about a sandy beach? Could you imagine poring over a digital version of your favorite Eric Carle book with your young child? What about all the brilliant annotations and ephemeral marginalia doodlers such as myself impose on the text? Again, I’m not presuming that there won’t be water-resistant, beach-friendly, child-friendly, doodler-savvy media interfaces in the future. I can conceive of such a thing. Only I’m dubious. With any number of futuristic fibers available, people still wear organic materials like cotton and leather. We still frame our homes with wood. Many of us prefer to eat real food instead of the edible food-like substances that abound in grocery stores and convenience marts. In short, I think that humans have an affinity and comfort with “naturalistic” products, and I’m not sure if an e-book reader or computer screen will ever be able to replicate the feeling of curling up the couch with a well-loved book stolen from a friend.

Maybe I’m just a Luddite (for the record, I still think my Sony Walkman sounds ten times better than my portable mp3 player). Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, maybe even in just a few short months. Who knows? But I’d rather be cranky and old-fashioned than accept a future without books.

18 thoughts on “In Defense of Pressed Vegetation”

  1. books and novels will most certainly disappear. forms become extinct all the time — it’s the central tenet of disruptive technology.

    epic poetry, scrolls, text-based adventure games… we’ve abandoned them all in search of new models, new sights, new noise. each shift enacts an irreversible mutation that forever alters the mediaverse.

    what’s a book lover to do?

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  2. books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. there are simply too many of them and they are (used, anyways) so cheap that the electronic form isn’t going to a viable option for the everyday reader for quite a long time.

    you just can’t pore over an internet database the way you can tangible pages. even if a number of popular books begin to be released electronically there’ll always be a market for vegetable books.

    everyone assumed the lp was dead.

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  3. I have to agree with Dave – I don’t see books going anywhere anytime soon. Most people I’ve talked to about Kindle, or about e-books in general, have said the same thing. “Why would you want to read a book on a screen when you can read a real book?” Who wants to curl up in bed at night with a little portable screen-reader thingy that takes batteries or needs to be plugged in when you can just hang out with a paperback? It’s no contest in my mind, although I am, like Ed, really really into books, in both form and content.

    I was talking to my mom about this a couple days ago and she was just aghast that anyone would consider e-books to be a really viable option. As Dave pointed out, poring over things on the internet is just not the same. I’m in an online Master’s program at FSU right now and most of our reading is online – yet I know a lot of my classmates print out those readings so they can highlight, take notes, and just have a physical copy to look at it. It’s so much easier to look at things in print format, and so much cozier, too. I don’t think the physical printed form will be leaving us anytime soon.

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  4. I have a few thoughts:

    1. People have been talking about the death of the book for YEARS! Every time a new e-book reader is introduced people go into fits about how the vegetable book will soon disappear. And it never happens. I have seen all of ONE person ever reading an e-book on a subway in nearly 4 years. One digital preservation project funded by the Library of Congress is even trying to find ways to preserve the e-books of yester-year, not because people might want to use them to read things on, but because they are relics of the past! And the Kindle will be too one day, probably along with all e-books. Seriously, no one wants to curl up in bed at night to read a damn electronic book.

    2. Not all information will be digital from now and forever. Once it sinks into the mass brain of the general populous that preserving anything digital is extremely difficult (and very expensive) people will reconsider the genius of everything digital.

    People want to have books on their book shelves that they can look upon and pull out at random, they want to own objects, not just licenses to the content of those objects (that will have to be repurchased when the equipment used to read that content becomes obsolete).

    3. Kindles cannot be loaned out by libraries.

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  5. Kara mentioned something in passing that I’ve seen elsewhere but that has been otherwise lacking in the discussion on this page: books, like scrolls and stones, and unlike digital media, require no technological intermediation. We don’t need anything besides the book to read a book, but we need the internet and a screen and electricity to read an ebook. That’s one major reason that the book won’t be going anywhere while we’re alive.

    I don’t think the comparisons to poetry, scrolls, and text-based gaming are valid. Epic poetry was a literary form, not a technological one, unless Dave means the oral transmission of verses; even if that’s the case, many avid readers and religious practitioners can still recite long portions of their favorite readings. Scrolls aren’t really any different from books, except that books are easier to carry around, search through, index, and cite. The book offers essentially the same reading experience as the scroll, but without the hassle; digital forms offer a substantially more difficult reading experience, all told, than books do. And text-based video games were around for maybe ten seconds, unless you see them as the heirs of choose-your-own-adventure books, in which case maybe you could say they were around for 20 seconds. They were never a stable form, but the book has been around for centuries and will not be discarded so easily.

    And even if it were discarded, what would the drawback be? Technological forms that succeed in displacing older forms do so through their superiority. If anything ends up beating out books for readability, portability, citability, durability, curlupwithability, admirability, throwability, and all the other -abilities that have made them the greatest technological culture bearers of all time, we’ll all be better off anyhow.

    Speaking of which, one thing that I have to admit that I love about electronic texts is their searchability. If I can remember any scrap of a quotation and Amazon lets me search inside the book, I can move to the quotation immediately, saving me more frustration than I can possibly quantify. Widespread searchability could obviate the need for formal citation methods, which would be unspeakably beautiful to me. That’s not enough by itself to kill the book, I don’t think, but it’s still nice.

    (By the way–for the last several years I’ve been trying to locate an anecdote I read about a champion sprinter whose coach always told him to train for “four years from next Tuesday.” I thought I remembered which book it was in, but I was wrong. Has anybody ever heard of this? Could you tell me where I can find it?)

    (See? That’s just the kind of thing we might be able to avoid some day . . . )

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  6. Mike–not to be picky but I *did* address the fact that books don’t require technological intermediation to be accessed. Re-read the LeGuin quote.
    Also, Bob made the argument about scrolls, text-based games, etc. (It was Bob’s initial argument that I was responding/reacting to).
    Also, although I reacted, I’m not trying to suggest that books (novels in particular) are in anyway a “stable form” (my philosophical position re: everything is that there is no such thing as a categorically pure transcendental “stable form”). Perhaps this is just a reiteration of my original argument, but I’m more concerned about *access*–that’s why I think Kara’s comments are of great merit/importance.
    Also, I think that Bob makes a huge logical error when he (teleologically) presumes an either/or distinction (an inscription of extinction). Of course, his reasoning comes from what he describes as the “central tenet of disruptive technology.” I am, of course, mistrustful of any way of thinking that has a center (and thus, an outside). Bob’s center here imagines/posits e-tech in direct, -cidal relations (murderous evolutionary Darwinian extinctive) with “pressed vegetation.” The scroll is still with us (inscribe within the e-text, but also hanging on my classroom wall–specifically, I’m thinking of a long poster full of rhetorical terms). There’s nothing to stop me from reading a CYOA book or playing a text-based game (Viva Leisure Suit Larry). Etc. Etc. Etc.

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  7. Hi Ed–

    I read the LeGuin quote, though not her entire article itself, and I see what you mean, but I was thinking about the self-sufficiency of the book’s technology in a different sense than the sense I originally got from LeGuin. In her quote I originally sensed more of an appreciation for the simplicity of the book as a technological form, but I’m more interested in the staying-power of that form. I was trying to say that I don’t think books will go away any time soon because they require no technological intermediation, not because they’re more aesthetically appealing than e-text (although they are). Looking at LeGuin’s quote again, though, I see that may be part of what she was getting at all along. Sorry about that.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that the comparisons to other forms were yours, as I read them in Dave’s comment above; I was just responding to them. I would say that scrolling is still with us (indeed, we call it “scrolling”), but the scroll as a way to hold and disseminate knowledge is dead, in my estimation. Most scrolls were written in page-like columns oriented orthogonally to the scrolling direction, so that reading multiple columns involved advancing the scroll on one side and rolling it up on the other every few minutes. If you didn’t weigh the ends of the scroll down properly, they might roll up or unwravel, causing you to lose your place. The materials that they were made out of were prone to cracking, since they spent so much time coiled up but then had to be uncoiled in order to be read. Citing was a bitch. And that doesn’t even begin to address the problem of creating or editing a scroll text. And so on. Every single one of these drawbacks is solved by books, and that’s why people no longer publish new works as scrolls. When (by which I mean “if”) e-texts ever outdo books in every single way, we’ll see books disappear too, at least in a meanginful sense. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but if it does, I’ll welcome whatever new advantages the next form offers, for the same reason that nobody misses scrolls when they read a book now.

    I do think that the book is a stable form, not just because gazillions of them have been published and distributed all over the world, but because the book is a trope in itself now, in a way that text-based gaming never was. We can make books like *House of Leaves* that challenge the notion of what a book is supposed to be only because a book *is* supposed to be something in the first place, even if we don’t spend a lot of time contemplating what that something is. French thinkers with nothing better to do can de-construct “the book” only because “the book” is a stable construction. So I think it’s a stable form, even if I don’t think it’s an eternal one by any means.

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  8. “French thinkers with nothing better to do can de-construct “the book” only because “the book” is a stable construction. So I think it’s a stable form, even if I don’t think it’s an eternal one by any means.”–

    Mike, I’m pretty certain you know yr structural linguistics, and I know you’re a smart cookie, but what kind of logic is this? Those French thinkers you are so contemptuously dismissive of–the Tel Quel group perhaps?–use deconstruction as a method precisely to show the inherent instability of forms. The (Platonic) idea that a book can only be deconstructed because it is stable to begin with presumes a number of logical fallacies. You say that “a book *is* supposed to be something in the first place”–rhetorically you grant the book an ontological priority and a teleological destination. I don’t disagree that, at a purely practical level, books have a “purpose.” We read them, we learn from them, we enjoy them, some of them make marvelous paperweights.
    Yet I don’t see any reason why books themselves should be stable forms, especially if I work from your premise that books’ teleological “isness” is precisely what gives them their stability in the first place. If their (categorically pure) stability derives from intentionality–from what “a book *is* supposed to be in the first place”–what happens when we change the events and contexts in which the books are granted a *first place*? If I decide to eat a book or use it as fuel for a fire, or if I decide to build furniture from my books–if I stray from any of the *common sensical* uses of books, do they cease to be books? Do they lose–even momentarily, perhaps–the differential possibility to become books again? What if I never read a book? What if I bury it in my back yard? Is it still a potential book, with a potential teleological purpose? Although these hypotheticals seem silly perhaps (or the results of a thinker with “nothing better to do”), can you not begin to see how notions of stable forms are predicated upon foundational thinking that presumes a transcendental purposefulness to each and every object and action? If we dismiss the eating of a book as merely an erratic tic or an act of lunacy, we do so in defense of notions of our own stability, our own need to inscribe every object and action with (overdetermined) meaning and purpose. I think that there is a great risk here, but, because I’m very tired right now, I’ll address all of this in a more fully realized post (in which I will also recommend an excellent Derrida primer).

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  9. I agree, of course, that you can eat a book, or try to make a phone call with it, or whatever you want: you don’t have to use books as books.

    But “the book” is still a concept unto itself, even if individual books can be used in ways that violate that concept. Abstractions still exist as abstractions–this discussion itself is nothing but a mass of abstractions.

    The fact that thinkers with nothing better to do ask questions like “what is the nature of the book” establishes that a book is something; otherwise, the question is meaningless. We don’t ask “what is the nature of xgkt” because “xgkt” is not a thing; if we ask “what is the nature of a book” and start to get an answer, even if the answer is that a book has no nature, then “book” must be something intelligible, a known quantity of some type. The fact that *HoL* and all kinds of other books can be books without conforming exactly to the abstract idea of “bookness” doesn’t destroy the notion of bookness–it confirms that notion. Bookness is the thing we’re referring to when we say that bookness doesn’t exist. It’s the thing that would make a person raise his eyebrows at you if you handed him a book and asked him what you had just handed him, because obviously what you just handed him is a book.

    So you can eat books all you want, or wear your dog like a hat, or do any other ridiculous things you want without destroying the ideas of book, dog, and hat.

    I didn’t mean to change the tone of this discussion, and I still don’t mean to, so I’ll return to the original idea I was trying, and failing, to express well–but then I have something I have to say about Derrida, since you mentioned him :) Even if the book isn’t a stable technological form, it is a default form for all kinds of applications, and a metaphor for user/reader interactivity that is imitated by other technological forms. The idea of the book is central to all of the extant literate cultures that I’m familiar with. The book as a . . . whatever-it-is has penetrated the market of ideas thoroughly. And what I was trying to say is that few other forms have achieved this penetration, and that it won’t be easy to unseat the book, or even divert a meaningful sliver of its market share, with a new technological form that offers few of its advantages. That’s all I meant. It’s not going anywhere for the time being.

    Now, about Derrida–I feel a little bit like I think you must have felt at that AP conference, because I know this idea won’t be well-received, but I think Derrida’s respect is entirely undeserved. That’s the politest way I can express my feelings for him–he actually makes me angry. So I await your next post. :) And I apologize for pretty much all of the above–I was just trying to contribute, not to introduce a tangent.

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  10. Tangents are fine. Tangents are good. Tangents are part of this whole project. Why is Derrida’s respect entirely undeserved? His contribution of a desconstructivist methodology is, in my view, the single greatest contribution to contemporary philosophy. He makes many people angry, and you include yourself–why? Is it because his methodology upsets the foundational beliefs from which you conceptualize all “thinking”? I think, in the simplest sense, that people are enraged at Derrida because he loved to pick at sacred cows. But Derrida’s engagement with Aristotelian and Platonic logic is sound; indeed, it reveals that much of what we think of as “philosophy” rests on specious reasoning and faith in a metaphysical presence. Why does Derrida make you angry, Mike? Are you a Platonist? A Chomskyan? Still Catholic? Are you more comfortable with “sensible” linguists like Searle? Or have you, like many people, simply seen Derrida as a faddish rabble rouser, assumed that because most of the people who claim to love Derrida cannot properly explain his project, and dismissed deconstruction all together as a bunch of ironic mishmash and linguistic quackery?
    What’s up?

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  11. I’ll admit from the beginning that I haven’t read everything Derrida ever wrote. I’ve read lengthy excerpts here and there, I’ve read commentaries, I’ve read one fascinating nonvel that relies heavily on his ideas, I’ve read a fair amount of Barthes and similar, and I’ve seen Derrida speak in person. That’s about the extent of it. I would read him more fully if the things I had encountered thus far had given me any reason at all to think there was something meaningful behind the curtain, but they have not. Allow to me to expand.

    My complaints about Derrida are, as far as I know, my own, and while it heartens me to read that there are apparently other Derrida-deriders out there, this is the first I’m hearing about a large anti-Derrida community. I have to say it gives me hope. I don’t subscribe fully to any particular -isms that I’m aware of, and I don’t recall ever reading anything by Derrida and thinking to myself that it had to be wrong because it contradicted an idea I’d encountered somewhere else. I just read what he writes or hear what he says and reject it on my own because it either doesn’t make sense, or it makes sense and is patently incorrect, or it resolves to an obvious, sometimes tautological, statement.

    For example, here’s the opening of the last thing by Derrida I ever read (and, if I can help it, ever will read):

    “I will speak, therefore, of a letter.

    “Of the first letter, if the alphabet, and most of the speculations which have ventured into it, are to be believed.

    “I will speak, therefore, of the letter a, this initial letterwhich it apparently has been necessary to insinuate, here and there, into the writing of the word difference; and to do so in the course of a writing on writing, and also of a writing within writing whose different trajectories thereby find themselves, at certain very determined points, intersecting with a kind of gross spelling mistake, a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing and keep it seemly. One can always, de facto or de jure, erase or reduce this lapse in spelling, and find it (according to situations to be analyzed each time, although amounting to the same), grave or unseemly, that is, to follow the most ingenuous hypothesis, amusing. Thus, even if one seeks to pass over such an infraction in silence, the interest that one takes in it can be recognized and situated in advance as pre-scribed by the mute irony, the inaudible misplacement, of this literal permutation. One can always act as if it made no difference. And I must state here and now that today’s discourse will be less a justification of, and even less an apology for, this silent lapse in spelling, than a kind of insistent intensification of its play. ”

    This excerpt is from a long discourse by Derrida on the French word “differance,” which he is coining as distinct (and yet, at the same time, not distinct, which kind of forulaic paradox is supposed to count for brilliant insight on Derrida’s part in the same way that it’s supposed to count for brilliant witticism on Wilde’s part) from the French word “difference.” Derrida opens the passage by explaining that he’s going to be talking about the letter “a,” making this statement:

    “Of the first letter, if the alphabet, and most of the speculations which have ventured into it, are to be believed.”

    Derrida seems to be challenging the notion that the letter “a” necessarily has to be the first letter of the alphabet. Why is that, we’re supposed to wonder? Perhaps the letters don’t have to go in any particular order? Come to think of it, perhaps the alphabet itself doesn’t even exist in any meaningful sense, since it’s only an arbitrary order imposed on a set of arbitrary signs? Or wait a minute–maybe the letters aren’t even signs themselves, but the components of signs–or are they both?

    This isn’t brilliance. It’s a re-capitulation of the abstractions that a child’s mind must work through as it learns to read and memorizes the alphabet.

    Furthermore, and more importantly, it ignores something essential to the notion of the alphabet, which is that it does actually exist, even if only as an abstraction. There is no rational way to suggest that it doesn’t, inasmuch as you could ask a million different literate adults to recite the alphabet simultaneously and separated from one another, and they would all do it in exactly the same order. So the alphabet *is* to be believed, at least as an authority on itself, and the letter “a” *is* the first part of it.

    Or, to put it another way, this second sentence fails what I call the Feynman test (since Feynman is where I first encountered it, though I’m sure it’s a widespread idea): if you just read this sentence on its own somewhere and didn’t know it had been written by Derrida, you would reject it as pointlessly belabored. If a student handed you this sentence in a TOK essay, you would tell him it was artifically complex. Compare this with the ideas of other philosophers, real philosophers, which sound beautiful and meaningful no matter who utters them. If a child told me that he must exist because he’s able to think, I’d wonder if he was the reincarnation of some Lama; if a child asked me whether I believed the alphabet’s position on the question of the letter “a”, I would patiently explain that the alphabet is a commonly recognized construct, that one of the letters has to come first, and that there’s a long-winded explanation for why we start with “a” that has both historical and linguistic components, and I wouldn’t give the question a second thought, because it doesn’t deserve one.

    And this is only the second sentence.

    Later on (pages and pages and pages later on), Derrida comes as close to a direct statement of the discourse’s theme as he ever will:

    “Since the trace is not a presence but the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates itself, displaces itself, refers itself, it properly has no site. Erasure belongs to its structure. And not only the erasure which must always be able to overtake it (without which it would not be a trace but an indestructible and monumental substance), but also the erasure which constitutes it from the outset as a trace, which situates it as the change of site, and makes it disappear in its appearance, makes it emerge from itself in its production. The erasure of the early trace (die fruhe Spur) of difference is therefore the “same” as its tracing m the text of metaphysics. This latter must have maintained the mark of what it has lost, reserved, put aside. The paradox of such a structure, in the language of metaphysics, is an inversion of metaphysical concepts, which produces the following effect: the present becomes the sign of the sign, the trace of the trace. It is no longer what every reference refers to in the last analysis. It becomes a function in a structure of generalized reference. It is a trace, and a trace of the erasure of the trace.

    “Thereby the text of metaphysics is comprehended. Still legible; and to be read. It is not surrounded but rather traversed by its limit, marked in its interior by the multiple furrow of its margin. Proposing all at once the monument and the mirage of the trace, the trace simultaneously traced and erased, simultaneously living and dead, and, as always, living in its simulation of life’s preserved inscription. A pyramid. Not a stone fence to be jumped over but itself stonelike, on a wall, to be deciphered otherwise, a text without voice.

    “Thus one can think without contradiction, or at least without granting any pertinence to such a contradiction, what is perceptible and imperceptible in the trace. The “early trace” of difference is lost in an invisibility without return, and yet its very loss is sheltered, retained, seen, delayed. In a text. In the form of presence. In the form of the proper. Which itself is only an effect of writing. ”

    There are, as we would expect, more formulaic paradoxes (“makes it disappear in its appearance,” “living and dead”). But added to them we have something much more cumbersome, and much more Derridian. Derrida is trying to say, among other things, that language, meaning, signification, and reference are all difficult things to pin down, and that the written word is an ephemera. Which is patently obvious to anyone who has ever tried to write a love poem or a eulogy.

    Derrida’s first major failing, then, is an incessant need to pin down in words the things that, he seems to admit, cannot possibly be pinned down in words.

    But his second major failing is the more egregious one, as far as I’m concerned. Useful inquiry, no matter the discipline, comes not in answering questions thoroughly but in posing the right questions in the first place. (This, again, is an idea that children state plainly–“Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer”–but that would do any philosopher proud.) And Derrida’s questions–at any rate, the questions for which Derrida is famous–are largely meaningless.

    It isn’t that abstract forms can be shown to exist or not, or that we can prove or disprove whether words are stone fences of stone monuments. It’s that it doesn’t matter. We aren’t made happier, healthier, or wiser by Derrida; we don’t read him and become better parents, better lovers, better citizens. Derrida asks meaningless questions and gets back meaningless answers. He isn’t worth the time.

    Wittgenstein, in contrast, asked a much better question about the nature of language, and got a much more important answer. He asked how we could design a language that would point to reality in a meaningful way, and he got this answer:

    “The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other — he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy — but it would be the only strictly correct method.”

    Or, as he later (and more beautifully) puts it in the same document:

    “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

    Now that’s philosophy :)

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  12. I appreciate you situating your attack on Derrida within Derrida’s own words, but I think you profoundly misread him on a number of levels, most importantly, in your claim that Derrida’s philosophy has no utility, pragmatic or ethical. I also think that to reduce his criticisms as “obvious” and “tautological,” and to dismiss his (admittedly difficult) writing as obscurantism is another (common) misreading of Derrida. I don’t see how you can say that Derrida’s questions–questions that concern how language *means*–are unimportant questions. Derrida’s method is to push, push, push at the (foundational) precepts of logic, rhetoric, and philosophical inquiry; in doing so he uncovers marginalized approaches to thought, often revealing the (imposed, inscribed) hierarchies that govern people, that people take as natural. From where I stand, to say that Derrida’s approach has no practical use is to say “everything is fine exactly as it is.” I will put together a proper post about this, including some key passages from D. I’m exhausted right now though. Two more things, and then we pick this up later in a new thread, please–
    1. Derrida is working through Nietzsche’s project (and if your philosophers must also be great poets, read N); Nietzsche values the irrational, not the rational, in his philosophy. From this, of course Derrida will utilize irrational, “childlike” questions.
    2. Your boy Wittgenstein was a huge influence on John Searle, who detested Derrida(‘s thinking).

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  13. Why must we drive our intellectual paddleboats in such dizzying circles?

    I’m less interested in crafting bulletproof arguments than I am in stretching the limits of my own imagination.

    Books aren’t dead. Duh. As a form, they’ll likely survive all of us. But at some point, codex technology will cease to become valuable, and our civilization may very well subsist on a diet of micromedia transactions (e.g., data feeds, lifecasts, search results, summaries, bullets and haikus). The networked world may have little need for book-length explorations of any topic.

    One ambitious resource I’ve found in dealing with these issues is the Institute for the Future of the Book.

    http://www.futureofthebook.org/

    It’s a think tank dedicated to this very subject. They curate some very interesting projects relevant to our database culture.

    I’ll end with a Nietzsche quote:

    “Why couldn’t the world that concerns us—be a fiction? And if somebody asked, ‘but to be a fiction there surely belongs an author?’—couldn’t one answer simply: why? Doesn’t this ‘belongs’ perhaps belong to the fiction, too?”

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  14. Bob, your arguments evince the (teleological) limits of your imagination (“at some point, codex technology will cease to become valuable”); you repeatedly imagine a world where electronic technology is given a primary position over other information systems. This hierarchizing implicitly either “cuts off” those that *aren’t* part of “our database civilization,” “the networked world” *or* presupposes a transcendental unification in which the non-networked, non-database civilizations cease to be. Either way, if it seems that some of us like to “circle” in “intellectual paddleboats” — and I think that your pejorative metaphor is in no way apt for this thread, which I would not figure as circular in any way — it’s because the type of thinking that posits history/culture/technology as a teleological, predestined narrative with an explicit goal always likes to pretend that its categories and claims are stable and pure and definitive, and therefore, its aims are somehow (naturally) worthy or positive or inescapable. This thinking leads to the cutting off, to the marginalizing of ideas, people, cultures, whole nations, etc.

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  15. My hope is that books won’t go away. But I’m also willing to entertain a vision of the future where books will indeed go away or be supplanted by a more age-appropriate technology. You seem to resist this idea, Ed, because you interpret it as potentially “cutting off” whole nations from the tech game.

    Plenty of non-first world societies exist without our technological trappings. These villages, peoples and nations may not necessarily lead the informational vanguard, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, or that they’re helpless, or informationally malnourished. They’re less likely to compete economically on a global scale, sure, but perhaps in the long run they’ll be at a greater advantage than we are, since they’ll be less reliant on such delicate e-networks for survival.

    With regard to my supposed pretense of categorical stability: if I respond to your claim, and then you respond back to me, and we continue to re/state our positions—couldn’t that pattern be reasonably described as circular?

    By the way, House of Leaves looks really cool. Has anyone here read it?

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  16. Backwards:
    1. Barrett’s read House of Leaves and recommended it to me a couple of times now. I don’t have time to read it now, but maybe someday…
    2. I think that the idea of a circular argument implies either a closed system or an ouroboros structure of cannibalizing self-regeneration, or both. I’d like to think that what we’re doing is closer to (what Mikhail Bakhtin has called) a type of dialogism, open to tangential, differential sites of porousness (as opposed to the circle, which presumes both a center and an outside). In this sense, the notion of argumentation as a circular, or even dialectical process, reveals itself to presume foundational precepts that constrain or limit the visions of the discussion, or attempt to rein in the vision to a hegemonic center. I want to avoid this if possible; perhaps I’m deluding myself.
    3. I’m not asking you to go back and read my original post, but I *did* grant the possibility of your tech-wonderland. What I am asking you to do is to look at the (implicit) hierarchies that your language exposes–how casually you refer to a “first” world that will “lead” a “vanguard” of “appropriate” technological advancement. Additionally, you seem to locate these technological “non-first world[s]” outside of the West, the US in particular, yet access to technology and training in the use of technology continues to be (negatively) differential, even in “the world’s richest nation.” So, yes, I am concerned with an implicit cutting off, marginalizing, casting away, because there is a very real pragmatic cost figured into such an idealization of technological “progress.” I am not “against” technology in any way, I am against the idealization or conceptualization of electronic technology systems–and the use of such systems–as somehow intrinsically superior to the non-use of such system. I would be blind and a fool if I could not see that electracy holds a vital place in the world economy–indeed, we are using such a technology even now!–but I think that inscribing this technology as an evolutionary threat to “pressed vegetation” has ethical implications not just to the rest of the world, but to our own children.

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  17. *House of Leaves* is one of the best things I’ve ever read. Truly mind-bending, and truly horrifying–not in the slasher-movie sense that makes you look over your shoulder when you’re alone at night, but in a psychic sense that I can’t really describe. There are a lot of mysteries hidden within it, most of which have been placed there intentionally by the author but at least a few of which were not. I could go on and on. Read it.

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  18. Actually, while I’m recommending books (which is something I try not to do), Petrosky’s *The Book On The Bookshelf* is a really fascinating look at the evolution of the book as a . . . whatever the hell a book is :)

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