In The Paradise of Too Many Books
Sean Dockray is an artist and a member of the organising group for the LA branch of The Public School, a geographically distributed and online platform for the self-organisation of learning. Since its initiation by Telic Arts, an organisation which Sean directs, The Public School has also been taken up as a model in a number of cities in the USA and Europe.
We met to discuss the growing phenomenon of text-sharing. Aaaaarg.org has developed over the last few years as a crucial site for the sharing and discussion of texts drawn from cultural theory, politics, philosophy, art and related areas. Part of this discussion is about the circulation of texts, scanned and uploaded to other sites that it provides links to. Since participants in The Public School often draw from the uploads to form readers or anthologies for specific classes or events series, this project provides a useful perspective from which to talk about the nature of text in the present era.
This interview was first published in Mute.
Sean Dockray: People usually talk about three key actors in discussions about publishing, which all play fairly understandable roles: readers; publishers; and authors.
Matthew Fuller: Perhaps it could be said that Aaaaarg.org suggests some other actors that are necessary for a real culture of text; firstly that books also have some specific kind of activity to themselves, even if in many cases it is only a latent quality, of storage, of lying in wait and, secondly, that within the site, there is also this other kind of work done, that of the public reception and digestion, the response to the texts, their milieu, which involves other texts, but also systems and organisations, and platforms, such as Aaaaarg.
SD: Where even the three actors aren’t stable! The people that are using the site are fulfilling some role that usually the publisher has been doing or ought to be doing, like marketing or circulation.
MF: Well it needn’t be seen as promotion necessarily. There’s also this kind of secondary work with critics, reviewers and so on – which we can say is also taken on by universities, for instance, and reading groups, magazines, reviews – that gives an additional life to the text or brings it particular kinds of attention, certain kind of readerliness.
SD: Situates it within certain discourses, makes it intelligible in a way, in a different way.
MF: Yes, exactly, there’s this other category of life to the book, which is that of the kind of milieu or the organisational structure in which it circulates and the different kind of networks of reference that it implies and generates. Then there’s also the book itself, which has some kind of agency, or at least resilience and salience, when you think about how certain books have different life cycles of appearance and disappearance.
SD: Well, in a contemporary sense, you have something like Nights of Labour, by Rancière – which is probably going to be republished or reprinted imminently – but has been sort of invisible, out of print, until, by surprise, it becomes much more visible within the art world or something.
MF: And it’s also been interesting to see how the art world plays a role in the reverberations of text which isn’t the same as that in cultural theory or philosophy. Certainly Nights of Labour, something that is very close to the role that cultural studies plays in the UK, but which (cultural studies) has no real equivalent in France, so then, geographically and linguistically, and therefore also in a certain sense conceptually, the life of a book exhibits these weird delays and lags and accelerations, so that’s a good example. I’m interested in what role Aaaaarg plays in that kind of proliferation, the kind of things that books do, where they go and how they become manifest. So I think one of the things Aaaaarg does is to make books active in different ways, to bring out a different kind of potential in publishing.
SD: Yes, the debate has tended so far to get stuck in those three actors because people tend to end up picking a pair and placing them in opposition to one another, especially around intellectual property. The discussion is very simplistic and ends up in that way, where it’s the authors against readers, or authors against their publishers, with the publishers often introducing scarcity, where the authors don’t want it to be – that’s a common argument. There’s this situation where the record industry is suing its own audience. That’s typically the field now.
MF: So within that kind of discourse of these three figures, have there been cases where you think it’s valid that there needs to be some form of scarcity in order for a publishing project to exist?
SD: It’s obviously not for me to say that there does or doesn’t need to be scarcity but the scarcity that I think we’re talking about functions in a really specific way: it’s usually within academic publishing, the book or journal is being distributed to a few libraries and maybe 500 copies of it are being printed, and then the price is something anywhere from $60 to $500, and there’s just sort of an assumption that the audience is very well defined and stable and able to cope with that.
MF: Yeah, which recognises that the audiences may be stable as an institutional form, but not that over time the individual parts of say that library user population change in their relationship to the institution. If you’re a student for a few years and then you no longer have access, you lose contact with that intellectual community…
SD: Then people just kind of have to cling to that intellectual community. So when scarcity functions like that, I can’t think of any reason why that needs to happen. Obviously it needs to happen in the sense that there’s a relatively stable balance that wants to perpetuate itself, but what you’re asking is something else.
MF: Well there are contexts where the publisher isn’t within that academic system of very high costs, sustained by volunteer labour by academics, the classic peer review system, but if you think of more of a trade publisher like a left or a movement or underground publisher, whose books are being circulated on Aaaaarg…
SD: They’re in a much more precarious position obviously than a university press whose economics are quite different, and with the volunteer labour or the authors are being subsidised by salary – you have to look at the entire system rather than just the publication. But in a situation where the publisher is much more precarious and relying on sales and a swing in one direction or another makes them unable to pay the rent on a storage facility, one can definitely see why some sort of predictability is helpful and necessary.
MF: So that leads me to wonder whether there are models of publishing that are emerging that work with online distribution, or with the kind of thing that Aaaaarg does specifically. Are there particular kinds of publishing initiatives that really work well in this kind of context where free digital circulation is understood as an a priori, or is it always in this kind of parasitic or cyclical relationship?
SD: I have no idea how well they work actually; I don’t know how well, say, Australian publisher re.press, works for example.3 I like a lot of what they publish, it’s given visibility when re.press distributes it and that’s a lot of what a publisher’s role seems to be (and what Aaaaarg does as well). But are you asking how well it works in terms of economics?
MF: Well, just whether there’s new forms of publishing emerging that work well in this context that cut out some of the problems ?
SD: Well, there’s also the blog. Certain academic discourses, philosophy being one, that are carried out on blogs really work to a certain extent, in that there is an immediacy to ideas, their reception and response. But there’s other problems, such as the way in which, over time, the posts quickly get forgotten. In this sense, a publication, a book, is kind of nice. It crystallises and stays around.
MF: That’s what I’m thinking, that the book is a particular kind of thing which has it’s own quality as a form of media. I also wonder whether there might be intermediate texts, unfinished texts, draft texts that might circulate via Aaaaarg for instance or other systems. That, at least to me, would be kind of unsatisfactory but might have some other kind of life and readership to it. You know, as you say, the blog is a collection of relatively occasional texts, or texts that are a work in progress, but something like Aaaaarg perhaps depends upon texts that are finished, that are absolutely the crystallisation of a particular thought.
SD: Aaaaarg is definitely not a futuristic model. I mean, it occurs at a specific time, which is while we’re living in a situation where books exist effectively as a limited edition. They can travel the world and reach certain places, and yet the readership is greatly outpacing the spread and availability of the books themselves. So there’s a disjunction there, and that’s obviously why Aaaaarg is so popular. Because often there are maybe no copies of a certain book within 400 miles of a person that’s looking for it, but then they can find it on that website, so while we’re in that situation it works.
MF: So it’s partly based on a kind of asymmetry, that’s spatial, that’s about the territories of publishers and distributors, and also a kind of asymmetry of economics?
SD: Yeah, yeah. But others too. I remember when I was affiliated with a university and I had JSTOR access and all these things and then I left my job and then at some point not too long after that my proxy access expired and I no longer had access to those articles which now would cost $30 a pop just to even preview. That’s obviously another asymmetry, even though, geographically speaking, I’m in an identical position, just that my subject position has shifted from affiliated to unaffiliated.
MF: There’s also this interesting way in which Aaaaarg has gained different constituencies globally, you can see the kind of shift in the texts being put up. It seems to me anyway there are more texts coming from non-western authors. This kind of asymmetry generates a flux. We’re getting new alliances between texts and you can see new bibliographies emerge.
SD: Yeah, the original community was very American and European and gradually people were signing up at other places in order to have access to a lot of these texts that didn’t reach their libraries or their book stores or whatever. But then there is a danger of US and European thought becoming central. A globalisation where a certain mode of thought ends up just erasing what’s going on already in the cities where people are signing up, that’s a horrible possible future.
MF: But that’s already something that’s not happening in some ways?
SD: Exactly, that’s what seems to be happening now. It goes on to translations that are being put up and then texts that are coming from outside of the set of US and western authors and so, in a way, it flows back in the other direction. This hasn’t always been so visible, maybe it will begin to happen some more. But think of the way people can list different texts together as ‘issues’ – a way that you can make arbitrary groupings – and they’re very subjective, you can make an issue named anything and just lump a bunch of texts in there. But because, with each text, you can see what other issues people have also put it in, it creates a trace of its use. You can see that sometimes the issues are named after the reading groups, people are using the issues format as a collecting tool, they might gather all Portuguese translations, or The Public School uses them for classes. At other times it’s just one person organising their dissertation research but you see the wildly different ways that one individual text can be used.
MF: So the issue creates a new form of paratext to the text, acting as a kind of meta-index, they’re a new form of publication themselves. To publish a bibliography that actively links to the text itself is pretty cool. That also makes me think within the structures of Aaaaarg it seems that certain parts of the library are almost at breaking point – for instance the alphabetical structure.
SD: Which is funny because it hasn’t always been that alphabetical structure either, it used to just be everything on one page, and then at some point it was just taking too long for the page to load up A-Z. And today A is as long as the entire index used to be, so yeah these questions of density and scale are there but they’ve always been dealt with in a very ad hoc kind of way, dealing with problems as they come. I’m sure that will happen. There hasn’t always been a search and, in a way, the issues, along with alphabetising, became ways of creating more manageable lists, but even now the list of issues is gigantic. These are problems of scale.
MF: So I guess there’s also this kind of question that emerges in the debate on reading habits and reading practices, this question of the breadth of reading that people are engaging in. Do you see anything emerging in Aaaaarg that suggests a new consistency of handling reading material? Is there a specific quality, say, of the issues? For instance, some of them seem quite focused, and others are very broad. They may provide insights into how new forms of relationships to intellectual material may be emerging that we don’t quite yet know how to handle or recognise. This may be related to the lament for the classic disciplinary road of deep reading of specific materials with a relatively focused footprint whereas, it is argued, the net is encouraging a much wider kind of sampling of materials with not necessarily so much depth.
SD: It’s partially driven by people simply being in the system, in the same way that the library structures our relationship to text, the net does it in another way. One comment I’ve heard is that there’s too much stuff on Aaaaarg, which wasn’t always the case. It used to be that I read every single thing that was posted because it was slow enough and the things were short enough that my response was, ‘Oh something new, great!’ and I would read it. But now, obviously that is totally impossible, there’s too much; but in a way that’s just the state of things. It does seem like certain tactics of making sense of things, of keeping things away and letting things in and queuing things for reading later become just a necessary part of even navigating. It’s just the terrain at the moment, but this is only one instance. Even when I was at the university and going to libraries, I ended up with huge stacks of books and I’d just buy books that I was never going to read just to have them available in my library, so I don’t think feeling overwhelmed by books is particularly new, just maybe the scale of it is. In terms of how people actually conduct themselves and deal with that reality, it’s difficult to say. I think the issues are one of the few places where you would see any sort of visible answers on Aaaaarg, otherwise it’s totally anecdotal. At The Public School we have organised classes in relationship to some of the issues, and then we use the classes to also figure out what texts we are going to be reading in the future, to make new issues and new classes. So it becomes an organising group, reading and working its way through subject matter and material, then revisiting that library and seeing what needs to be there.
MF: I want to follow that kind of strand of habits of accumulation, sorting, deferring and so on. I wonder, what is a kind of characteristic or unusual reading behavior? For instance are there people who download the entire list? Or do you see people being relatively selective? How does the mania of the net, with this constant churning of data, map over to forms of bibliomania?
SD: Well, in Aaaaarg it’s again very specific. Anecdotally again, I have heard from people how much they download and sometimes they’re very selective, they just see something that’s interesting and download it, other times they download everything and occasionally I hear about this mania of mirroring the whole site. What I mean about being specific to Aaaaarg is that a lot of the mania isn’t driven by just the need to have everything; it’s driven by the acknowledgement that the source is going to disappear at some point. That sense of impending disappearance is always there, so I think that drives a lot of people to download everything because, you know, it’s happened a couple times where it’s just gone down or moved or something like that.
MF: It’s true, it feels like something that is there even for a few weeks or a few months. By a sheer fluke it could last another year, who knows.
SD: It’s a different kind of mania, and usually we get lost in this thinking that people need to possess everything but there is this weird preservation instinct that people have, which is slightly different. The dominant sensibility of Aaaaarg at the beginning was the highly partial and subjective nature to the contents and that is something I would want to preserve, which is why I never thought it to be particularly exciting to have lots of high quality metadata – it doesn’t have the publication date, it doesn’t have all the great metadata that say Amazon might provide. The system is pretty dismal in that way, but I don’t mind that so much. I read something on the Internet which said it was like being in the porn section of a video store with all black text on white labels, it was an absolutely beautiful way of describing it. Originally Aaaaarg was about trading just those particular moments in a text that really struck you as important, that you wanted other people to read so it would be very short, definitely partial, it wasn’t a completist project, although some people maybe treat it in that way now. They treat it as a thing that wants to devour everything. That’s definitely not the way that I have seen it.
MF: And it’s so idiosyncratic I mean, you know it’s certainly possible that it could be read in a canonical mode, you can see that there’s that tendency there, of the core of Adorno or Agamben, to take the a’s for instance. But of the more contemporary stuff it’s very varied, that’s what’s nice about it as well. Alongside all the stuff that has a very long-term existence, like historical books that may be over a hundred years old, what turns up there is often unexpected, but certainly not random or uninterpretable.
SD: It’s interesting to think a little bit about what people choose to upload, because it’s not easy to upload something. It takes a good deal of time to scan a book. I mean obviously some things are uploaded which are, have always been, digital. (I wrote something about this recently about the scan and the export – the scan being something that comes out of a labour in relationship to an object, to the book, and the export is something where the whole life of the text has sort of been digital from production to circulation and reception). I happen to think of Aaaaarg in the realm of the scan and the bootleg. When someone actually scans something they’re potentially spending hours because they’re doing the work on the book they’re doing something with software, they’re uploading.
MF: Aaaarg hasn’t introduced file quality thresholds either.
SD: No, definitely not. Where would that go?
MF: You could say with PDFs they have to be searchable texts?
SD: I’m sure a lot of people would prefer that. Even I would prefer it a lot of the time. But again there is the idiosyncratic nature of what appears, and there is also the idiosyncratic nature of the technical quality and sometimes it’s clear that the person that uploads something just has no real experience of scanning anything. It’s kind of an inevitable outcome. There are movie sharing sites that are really good about quality control both in the metadata and what gets up; but I think that if you follow that to the end, then basically you arrive at the exported version being the Platonic text, the impossible, perfect, clear, searchable, small – totally eliminating any trace of what is interesting, the hand of reading and scanning, and this is what you see with a lot of the texts on Aaaaarg. You see the hand of the person who’s read that book in the past, you see the hand of the person who scanned it. Literally, their hand is in the scan. This attention to the labour of both reading and redistributing, it’s important to still have that.
MF: You could also find that in different ways for instance with a pdf, a pdf that was bought directly as an ebook that’s digitally watermarked will have traces of the purchaser coded in there. So then there’s also this work of stripping out that data which will become a new kind of labour. So it doesn’t have this kind of humanistic refrain, the actual hand, the touch of the labour. This is perhaps more interesting, the work of the code that strips it out, so it’s also kind of recognising that code as part of the milieu.
SD: Yeah, that is a good point, although I don’t know that it’s more interesting labour.
MF: On a related note, The Public School as a model is interesting in that it’s kind of a convention, it has a set of rules, an infrastructure, a website, it has a very modular being. Participants operate with a simple organisational grammar which allows them to say ‘I want to learn this’ or ‘I want to teach this’ and to draw in others on that basis. There’s lots of proposals for classes, some of them don’t get taken up, but it’s a process and a set of resources which allow this aggregation of interest to occur. I just wonder how you saw that kind of ethos of modularity in a way, as a set of minimum rules or set of minimum capacities that allow a particular set of things occur?
SD: This may not respond directly to what you were just talking about, but there’s various points of entry to the school and also having something that people feel they can take on as their own and I think the minimal structure invites quite a lot of projection as to what that means and what’s possible with it. If it’s not doing what you want it to do or you think, ‘I’m not sure what it is’, there’s the sense that you can somehow redirect it.
MF: It’s also interesting that projection itself can become a technical feature so in a way the work of the imagination is done also through this kind of tuning of the software structure. The governance that was handled by the technical infrastructure actually elicits this kind of projection, elicits the imagination in an interesting way.
SD: Yeah, yeah, I totally agree and, not to put too much emphasis on the software, although I think that there’s good reason to look at both the software and the conceptual diagram of the school itself, but really in a way it would grind to a halt if it weren’t for the very traditional labour of people – like an organising committee. In LA there’s usually around eight of us (now Jordan Biren, Solomon Bothwell, Vladada Gallegos, Liz Glynn, Naoko Miyano, Caleb Waldorf, and me) who are deeply involved in making that translation of these wishes – thrown onto the website that somehow attract the other people – into actual classes.
MF: What does the committee do?
SD: Even that’s hard to describe and that’s what makes it hard to set up. It’s always very particular to even a single idea, to a single class proposal. In general it’d be things like scheduling, finding an instructor if an instructor is what’s required for that class. Sometimes it’s more about finding someone who will facilitate, other times it’s rounding up materials. But it could be helping an open proposal take some specific form. Sometimes it’s scanning things and putting them on Aaaaarg. Sometimes, there will be a proposal – I proposed a class in the very, very beginning on messianic time, I wanted to take a class on it – and it didn’t happen until more than a year and a half later.
MF: Well that’s messianic time for you.
SD: That and the internet. But other times it will be only a week later. You know we did one on the Egyptian revolution and its historical context, something which demanded a very quick turnaround. Sometimes the committee is going to classes and there will be a new conflict that arises within a class, that they then redirect into the website for a future proposal, which becomes another class: a point of friction where it’s not just like next, and next, and next, but rather it’s a knot that people can’t quite untie, something that you want to spend more time with, but you may want to move on to other things immediately, so instead you postpone that to the next class. A lot of The Public School works like that: it’s finding momentum then following it. A lot of our classes are quite short, but we try and string them together. The committee are the ones that orchestrate that. In terms of governance, it is run collectively, although with the committee, every few months people drop off and new people come on. There are some people who’ve been on for years. Other people who stay on just for that point of time that feels right for them. Usually, people come on to the committee because they come to a lot of classes, they start to take an interest in the project and before they know it they’re administering it.