An argument in defense of real books
A while ago I stumbled upon the work of Johan Sanctorum, a Flemish philosopher that has always consistently refused to publish books. The crux of his argument is rather simple: he sees ‘the book’ as a cultural fetish object, and thinks the worship of print has a rather religious function than anything else. He adds that he ‘longs for a heathen-oral culture to replace it’ and he sincerely wishes the printed book to die out as soon as possible. He doesn’t publish e-books either – such are of course just digital copies of the dreaded cultural fetish object, but instead puts all his articles on his blog.
It doesn’t take much of a philosopher to simply point out to Sanctorum that it’s possible to name anything a ‘cultural fetish object’. Chrissakes, a BLOG? Is there anything in this modern age that resembles a cultural fetish object more than these public notepads where every proselyte acquires imaginary status by constantly peering at his visitor stats, mostly filled up by bots? Or what about the article as a cultural fetish object? Or even the proposition itself – its clear that Sanctorums position is superfluous and tongue in cheek, and yet the guy does somehow seem to take the position seriously, since his actions are defined by it. But rather than counter his position in the easy, sophistic way I will rather expand the argument to more interesting directions.
Who argues books are irrelevant, old fashioned, replaceable by digital text or e-books, etc, is frankly an ubiquitous nincompoop and here’s why: the utopia of the web is the preclusion for the perfect fascist environment and the perfect brainwashing instrument. What is the essential difference between print and digital text? Well, print can’t be changed easily. When you print a book you strew of few hundred or a few thousand material objects into the world that can be spread around. Sure, a government could try track them down and try burn them one by one. It would take a serious amount of effort that would be near to impossible, and real books are hidden easily.
That’s all not true of the World Wide Web. It’s no big secret that huge governments have been into the business of ‘virus development’ as this is simply in their best interest. A ‘digital object’ is an object made of digibytes: anything you see on your screen can easily be changed by changing the representing bytes that cause it to look or read that way. Only the most obnoxious sort of milksop wouldn’t even think for a few minutes as to what this actually means for the position of the Author: we have huge and rather shady governments now that, with a simple piece of software, could theoretically change all editions of every digital work to suit their needs, or simply delete them.
That’s my first essential objection: digitalisation of knowledge is in fact extremely dangerous: it opens up the way for easy censorship and manipulation of history and politics on a scale that was before simply not possible. Digitalisation of knowledge has made something extremely easy and invisible what before was hard: to censor the consensus. Sure, in the old days the government could go from house to house, track and burn all your books, arrest you, and so on. But all that is extremely visible to society. Now, when we have eradicated print, it become a whole different ballgame: powers can censor knowledge without it ever being even visible. What an utterly humongous and enticing prospect that is, Mr Sanctorum. And aren’t it usually the digibetes who are completely unaware of the dangers of certain developments that cry hosanna when the ass marches into town?
Whenever I see people cheer a ‘new development’ or ‘new technology’ I’m always on my guard. One often sees a certain preposterous walhallaism surrounding the advocates of such ‘changes’. We understand that, finally, the revolution we all so longed for has arrived, and from now on we won’t see drooling gerontocrats squatting on the top of Ape Hill but some actual progress. The digital revolution! We had a reasonably functioning yet corrupted musical hierarchy, and now no musician makes any money whatsoever! Yay for progress! We had a cultural industry that at least put some effort into trying to uphold a rather popular/flimsy sort of idea of ‘quality’, now we have a pulp producing market-driven industry that tells real authors ‘digital is all we can offer you, but don’t worry, the sky is the limit’. Right. Progress. What people like Sanctorum probably don’t want to see is that this development has nothing whatsoever to do with the ‘decline of the culture industry’ they so desperately long for – while Adorno stands tall with many authentic and grave observations of the functions of the cultural industry, these people make a serious mistake – they essentially see a monopolization of that industry as a substantial weakening of it.
Real books are now reserved for ‘best-selling pulp’, literary authors have to be satisfied with ‘digital representation’. In other words: they are shooting ducks for any type of censorship, and the cultural industry can support itself being its own justification: l’art pour l’art, l’industrie pour l’industrie.
And there, gleaming on the internet, is Johan Sanctorum, shaking his fist in this mighty revolution while the premise of the development is obvious for anyone to see: after the ‘industrial quality shoe’ we now moved to the ‘cheap mass produced Chinese shoe that falls apart after 6 months’ and the ‘real shoemaker’ can make shoes for free in the basement, if he so desires. Sanctorum, with his detrimental fantasies about ‘the return of the oral culture’ serves entire Flemish Belgium from his cellar-bunker, strangely rather relying on the written word for such an unconditional fan of ‘oral culture’. Why doesn’t he just shout his message to his neighbours instead? Isn’t that essentially much more revolutionary? Why this strange fetish for the rather religious idea that written text would somehow be more effective in communicating his ideas than his neighbours are?
As a lover of the oral tradition, Sanctorum must be a devout Bible fan, for the chunk of its content is composed of knowledge derived from ‘oral traditions’. I can see Mr Sanctorum swoon by romantic revolutionary candlelight at the idea that all our knowledge, instead of just being checkable in print, from now on depends on his neighbours and colleges. It’s no surprise to learn that Sanctorum has often worked with devout Bible-fan Benno Barnard, knight in service of the preservation of our Christian Heritage. But will these gentlemen really want to rely on hearsay in a hostile environment? Because if I had never read Sanctorums words I would have had to believe his many enemies on their word: that he is a fascist little peon. Fortunately, I know thanks to the written word that such gossip is just erratic huey.
But let’s move on to a more important and more philosophical point: I claim Sanctorums position is in its entirety exemplar of what I call a ‘global shift towards visual culture’. It’s a flimsy, poseurish and amateurist argument that seems to be made entirely for the cosmetic sake of some sort of ‘instant-provocation’ – it’s cosmetic philosophy at best, visual philosophy. An image is presented to us (‘Revival of Oral traditions VS religious book-worshippers who are Evil) that seems to have sprouted directly from the brain of one of the Hollywood scriptwriters that wasn’t even good enough for the Pentagon. The real problem of our age and the reason people don’t read books anymore has to do with a global brainshift, that has shifted the attention centre from the thought centre of the brain towards the visual cortex. A compendium of factors has caused this: influence of movies, videogames, food, education, genetic material. The brain has adopted to modernity and discovered its best chances at survival in a visual and violent culture is to go visual itself. Its no big secret hardly anyone is capable of reading books anymore, but there are just few who have a clue about the causes – because the rest simply can’t really think straight anymore.
This inevitably leads to a more ‘visual’ sort of philosophy, that ‘presents interesting images’ to its readers but never constructs a decent argument. Let’s be frank here: the theories of Sanctorum about books might have just as well be vented by Breivik, that deluded fool who played video-games all his life instead of reading books, and ended up as a confused warrior for some visual ideal that wouldn’t make sense to anyone who actually still has a thinking brain.
Is it a coincidence Gutenburg invented the printing press at the highpoint of the Inquisition and print developed rapidly exactly in this period of grave religious suppression? I don’t think so. Is it a coincidence that the resistance in World War II used print and not the existent telephones or Johans precious ‘Oral Tradition’ to communicate? I don’t think so. But Johan, in his zealous hunt for a visual scapegoat has found the true evil in society: it’s people reading, printing and creating books.
Sanctorum better not repose to the modern visual trick of the authority that never defends itself, because if he does I will declare him persona non grata on the Olympus of philosophy.
One of the most important aspects of our society is how knowledge is organized. Such organisation is always based on status: lots of literates and teachers point to Shakespeare when you ask whose a great poet, and subsequently lots of his books get printed and lots of plays and other derivations are born.
In the modern age the way information was ordered has changed. Knowledge is no longer organized by humans but is now organized by machines such as Google. Google replicated the idea of ‘status’ but in a rather unintelligible way: a website gets ‘authority’ when lots of other websites point to it, when there’s lots of websites with the same subject doing so its considered a ‘top site’ that contains prime knowledge. A rather primitive approach, since it uses an entirely egalitarian authority model based on quantity: machines are good at counting, but they cant comprehend the essence of a subject. But the most popular poet is often one that did not end up in the Canon in the old days, just as ‘Justin Bieber’ would not be mentioned three-hundred years later as the highpoint of music in the 21st century. But here’s the problem: that’s exactly what will happen if we leave the ordering of knowledge to machines.
We are increasingly stimulated to ‘put everything into the cloud’. Hundred of thousands of writers must exist already that produce their books entirely in a digital fashion. Giant, fluffy clouds of knowledge float out there, somewhere. But then: oops, the oil ran out. Computers? Hmm, made of plastic? Crash of society. Average lifespan of computer: 5 years. Internet? Gone as soon as it came.
Knowledge? Gone up in smoke.
And all that because books are such horrible evil entities, worshipped by people like me, who simply wants to turn everyone into a perverted fetishist. I hope Johan Sanctorum will have a swaggering time riffling his guitar next to the camp-fire and singing his philosophies to the garden gnomes, that in twilights such as these more than often easily resemble attentive faces in an authentic Agora. Let me just read a real book instead, that does not bombard my face with enlightening radiation.
Martinus Benders, Istanbul, 11-09-2012