Novels, An Assemblage of Histories

IN today’s unsymposium the discussion wandered around the shop about the essay and the literary. On the way home it sparked a little florid flurry of ideas that arose from that half baked discussion. A couple of weeks ago Actor Network Theory (ANT) was mentioned, and while what follows isn’t specifically ANT, the way to think of it is not as a linear sequence of causes but a network of relationships that could have different sorts of outcomes, and that the novel was one particular one, and more importantly it is this aggregation of different things, at different speeds and moments, that sees the novel happen. In this view it isn’t that the novel is at the end of a process and these are the parts of steps, but that the novel finds itself within all these things that have their own, particular, individual histories and trajectories, parts of which touch the novel. (For example the relationship between making wine and the printing press, these histories touch each other, but one doesn’t ’cause’ the other and the printing press is not the ‘culmination’ of an idea.)

I want to write about the novel because the discussion today begun from there, and it is a very useful example of how to think about what we describe as the specificity of media history not as this narrative of cause and effect, but as a conglomeration of, well, stuff. Ideas, technologies, economics, religion, technological appropriation, cultural transmission, and so on. Now, if I were particular sort of theorist, for example some sort of Marxist, I might decide that one of the parts of what I’ve described as a ‘conglomeration’ is more important than the others, in trying to explain how novels happened (and so as a Marxist I might see the emerging forms of capitalism as essential to the whole thing), but that risks a sort of theoretical chauvinism (why is capitalism any more important than realising the wine press over there would solve the technical problem of applying regular constant pressure to actually be able to print?). Personally, I think it is more elegant, and possibly more accurate, to recognise it is a complex messy assemblage and then try to recognise the terms or parts of this assemblage, and as an assemblage to recognise that the parts have their own histories, and uses, and their role here is not just to somehow give birth to printing and later the novel.

So, the novel. There was a good question today about the literary and the digital and the book. My answer was simply that if you take the literary out of the question then the book is, today, irrelevant as a particular form. It simply doesn’t matter. For some things it remains the most convenient form, but that is rapidly changing. In most contexts most people don’t care if it is a book or not (something on paper, with a cover, made up of serial pages), and in many cases a digital form which is searchable and can be annotated and all the rest is more use to you and preferable to a book. Think court decisions text books, legislation, manuals, diagnostic manuals (technical, medical, psychological) even a copy of Shakespeare that can automatically show you every occurrence of a phrase, in context (what we all a concordance), and then provide links to other occurrences of the similar phrases in other works by Shakespeare. (Once upon a time not so very long ago the complaint about ebooks was that you ‘couldn’t read them in the bath’ – seriously. Then things like the iPad came along, which you could, but if you dropped it… Except if you drop your book in the bath then, well, that’s usually buggered too. Now the complaint is about the smell of the paper, or its feel. Now, seriously, if this what makes literature have literary value, just go and buy some paper be done with it, as this is so very seriously a fetish dressed up as an argument to be embarrassing!)

I digress. Unusually. I want to stick the literary back into the conversation and make the provocative claim that the literary and the book aren’t intimate bedfellows, and might not be in to the future. They were intimate, but they don’t have to be, or, more provocatively perhaps the literary will just have had its moment and fade, to be enjoyed by a small band of academics and buffs, while the world moves along to other things. Why? How?

Let’s keep it simple and think about the novel. The novel needs the book, well, it did. The novel needed:

  • the invention of the printing press
  • the printing press developed from the innovative appropriation of the wine press (so we needed wine presses first)
  • development of new technologies of metal making so that typefaces could be easily made (metallurgy and craft skills)
  • the rise of more general literacy (so that there were people able to read books)
  • so the development of more generalised education (social changes)
  • the invention of cheap paper (as prior to paper manuscripts where handwritten and painted on very expensive leather known as vellum)
  • a new ink suitable for printing had to be invented
  • the emergence of nascent forms of mercantile capitalism as the original printers generally operated as what today we’d describe as start ups, a printer would arrive in a small town or city, set up a press, and start printing and selling, with mixed success
  • the desacralisation of knowledge and stories so that the church was no longer the centre of knowledge production, dissemination and distribution (this was cause and effect)
  • with the rise of literacy people didn’t need things read to them, and so the new phenomenon of ‘silent’ reading where those outside of the educated religious elite could now read, and did
  • and with the spread of silent reading, of reading by yourself (instead of in church where the bible was read to you since you couldn’t read) the concept of an interior voice arose
  • and so novels became stories about the insides of people (what today we’d describe as their thoughts and motivations)

Printing is fundamental here, since paper is flat and small compared to vellum (which is thick and the manuscripts often enormous), and now we have a small, intimate writing intended for an audience of one. And as people wondered what to do with it, they experimented, and we eventually arrive at the modern form of literature we call the novel. Personal, interiorised characters (we wonder and are told about their thoughts and feelings), small enough to be in the home, and linear enough to be read across several sittings, short enough and in the vernacular and so not presuming to require a life times study (aka the bible, classical literature).

Therefore the novel is a confluence of lots of different things. Technologies, cultural changes, individuals, trade routes, emerging capitalism, etc.

Now, one of the founding novels in the west is Don Quioxite, published in two volumes (1605 and 1615). That makes it near enough to 400 years old. We have had writing since 3200BC in the middle east and 1200BC in China. If we take China as our case, then we have had writing for 2800 years before the novel came along. Now, while the novel will still be around when I am in my dotage, and I suspect yours, it seems to be an extraordinary intellectual chauvinism to think that something that has been around for about 12% of the time we’ve had writing (and stories) is the final, privileged forever, definitive and going to stay just where it is thank you very much, narrative form. There is, in the history of narrative and its associated technologies, nothing that supports this view.

Stories on the other hand are a constant, while their media and technical form (oral, prose, song, dance, painting, essay, letter, film, game, serial, novel, lyric, song, word, voice, image, sound, air, light, magnetic tape, digital 0’s and 1’s, chemical reactions – photos, film ) seems to me to be anything but constant. To think that the book, as the vanguard and privileged narrative form, smacks of the same sort of imperialism that assumed, a century ago, that the world wanted to be white, colonised, industrialised and ‘modernised’. A view that made perfectly good common sense now, but which gets no recognition as legitimate today. Print here is our master, and thinking that this is the end or final form or the highest form of narrative, our privileged form, is to be its servants.

We have electronic literature and poetry, so that is already one way in which the literary happily leaves behind the page, ink, and paper. It is minor in relation to all the other literary production that is going on, it might fizzle out, but we have had literature prior to the book, which shows that literature does not have to equal the book, though when it does, the novel is the privileged form. Hence, in these conversations, when we say book most people mean literature, but even then what they actually mean, is the novel. Will the novel continue as our preeminent literary form? I don’t know, but history to date says it is unlikely. This is not the same as saying it will disappear, just that its place will shift.

What has this to do with network media? Well the digital is the place where this is being tested, as we witness the rise of ebooks and in many cases see ebook sales outstripping physical sales. This shouldn’t be surprising, it happened with music several years ago where vinyl is, as the novel might become, one for an informed elite rather than its mass, popular form. But its deeper relevance for network media is simply as a case study to realise it is not a linear series of causes and effects but something like a network where different elements have agency – mechanics, metallurgy, religion, education, secularisation, capitalism, guilds and craft practices, market trading routes (which is how print and printing spread), and so on. It is, a bit (don’t force it too much) like an ecology where if we look at a forest the forest is the product of complex interactions of all its parts, there is no simple cause and effect but instead systems of feedback that include geography, geology, meteorology, soil, species, animals, plants which all have their own time scales, their own speeds, their own histories. Recognising this density is what we need to be able to do, rather than thinking there is an answer, or a specific way of approaching what it might mean, that will make guaranteed sense of it. A forest doesn’t mean anything, it just is. I can make it mean timber for houses, or a habitat for a rare species, or a beautiful view, or a site for a hotel, or an example of indigenous significance, or a place for families, but none of these help you to understand what a forest is. In relation to network media, what we’re doing this semester is beginning to think what the network is, rather than trying to provide ways to try to work out what it means.