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When assessing scholarly books, pleasure is not normally a factor, any more than flavor is in judging medicines. Calling a monograph enjoyable is, after all, at best an expression of personal judgment. At worst, it’s a breach of the “professional professorial asceticism” that Pierre Bourdieu identified as definitive for Homo academicus.
But what the hell. A columnist has no other protocol to meet than deadline, so let the enthusiasm roll: Lothar Müller’s White Magic: The Age of Paper (Polity) is the most enjoyable scholarly book I’ve read in a while, despite my initial suspicion that it would be just one more example of the the rather hackneyed genre of middlebrow cultural histories with titles like Salsa: The Condiment That Changed Everything.
White Magic is, just to be clear, a serious work in the field of media studies. Müller, a professor of general and comparative literature at the Free University of Berlin, follows through on the implications of the Canadian historian Harold Innis’s work in a more cogent and coherent way than Innis’s best-known follower, Marshall McLuhan, ever did. The bibliography is broad and dense, and the text moves between economic and technological history and literary works in ways that shed light in all directions.
That said: what a great read! It is a book to warm up the brain on a day of mental fog. It’s possible to open up White Magic at random and find a piece of historical information or analysis that is interesting and suggestive in its own right, elaborated in prose that develops its points clearly, with none of the anxious tics (“unfortunately there is not space here to examine...”) that come from straining to establish authority without having the confidence to exercise it.
First published in Germany three years ago, and now published for the first time in English, White Magic continues the drawn-out effort to understand the changes in publishing, and in society at large, wrought by digital communication. Besides his academic position, Müller is editor of the features section of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, a newspaper. That’s certainly one way to experience the ongoing epochal shift of recent years up close and personally.
But White Magic isn’t a defense of print media, or even a eulogy. It challenges the perspectives embedded in the familiar grand narrative of an age of print, dawning with the invention of movable type, that has entered its twilight with the advent of the digital age. Perhaps the best way to introduce Müller’s point is to consider our presuppositions about Gutenberg’s innovation.
The familiar story is that his press made it possible to produce, at much greater speed and in far larger quantity, texts that in earlier centuries would have been copied by hand onto papyrus, parchment or vellum. From scroll to codex to bound volume, there was a continuity in the history of the book -- changes in format tending to make books more durable, with Gutenberg introducing the catalytic factor of mass production.
And very often the story then continues by recounting the intense, even convulsive impact of all that speedy production of writing in bulk: journalism, pamphleteering, the Protestant reformation, etc.
But imprinting ink on a surface with movable type required that the material it was printed on possess certain qualities (especially standard dimensions and consistent smoothness, but also resilience under pressure from metal type) and that it be available reliably and in great bulk. To put it another way, Gutenberg’s invention depended on a still earlier invention, paper, which was itself a mass-produced commodity, turned out in protofactories that represented sizable investments as well as wide distribution networks.
How paper manufacture was invented in China, perfected by the Arabs and eventually adopted throughout Europe is an exemplary piece of transnational history -- and given Inside Higher Ed’s audience, it’s worth noting the huge impact on university budgets, almost from the moment there was such a thing. “To free itself from dependence on paper dealers from Lombardy,” Müller writes, the University of Paris “successfully petitioned the king in 1354 for the right to run paper mills” of its own, operated by craftsmen “who had the status of university employees.”
That was well after Italian universities found a way around the costly reproduction of textbooks, circa 1200, by authorizing the transcription of costly parchment books as paper editions that “would be split into smaller pieces by book dealers or stationers, who would rent out the pieces to students.” Then the students would make their own copies or hire a scribe to do it for them.
Paper was a dynamic commodity. The supply created its own demands, accelerating if not creating bureaucracy and postal networks even before the printing press came on the scene. Müller’s chronicle of these developments and their cumulative impact is rich in detail but surprisingly brisk in the telling.
The significance of this history, the author explains, comes from the fact that “paper was never on its own; it always sought a symbiosis with other media.” We often talk about communication technologies in ways that stress conflict, forced obsolescence, the replacement of one medium by another.
“But media history also encompasses effects of resonance amplification and the symbiosis and feedback between media which have not become technologically integrated but instead react to and cooperate with one another as distinct, separate spheres.”
In Müller’s interpretation, paper stands as “a virtuoso of substitution... insinuating itself into existing patterns and routines” -- very much like digital communication itself, so often taken to be paper’s antithesis.
The translator, Jessica Spengler, has made the unusual choice to leave the Teutonic sprawl of Müller’s paragraphs intact, rather than breaking them up into pieces of less formidable size. A few run for three pages or more, and even the shorter ones sometimes read like miniature essays. While expansive, though, the paragraphs are lean. (Müller seems to have ignored Walter Benjamin’s tongue-in-cheek advice to academic authors: “Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.... A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.”) White Magic is a remarkably concentrated book; that, I think, is why it will likely prove a re-readable one.
Whenever young writers have asked for advice over the years, the only thing I could think to tell them was to practice saying, “Where’s my check?” into the telephone, at various degrees of loudness, mixing in suitable expletives if they felt comfortable doing so. “You’ll probably be saying that a lot,” I'd tell them, generalizing from painful experience.
But as accumulated wisdom goes, it’s pretty well out-of-date. Communication by phone has lost much of its immediacy (half the time it involves leaving a message asking, “Did you get my e-mail?”), and besides, much of the work done by a novice writer, if not all of it, now goes unremunerated. Publication is supposed to be its own reward.
Exaggeration? Sure, but it’s how things look to a writer who began publishing at the close of an era when that meant print and nothing but print. Someone starting out today enters a public sphere with a very different composition and structure -- and does so with a tacit understanding that it, too, will be reconfigured over time. We Gutenbergian geezers must adapt to such changes or else forgo reaching much of our potential audience. Writers emerging now, by contrast, face an arguably more difficult problem: establishing a durable public presence (i.e., readership) at all, in an environment where sustained attention is the scarcest of resources.
A recently launched program at the New School for Social Research called Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (henceforth CPCJ) seems designed with that challenge in mind. The course work, leading to a master’s degree, is intended to teach students “to think critically and historically about book publishing and journalism; to learn about the best practices of contemporary reporting and cultural criticism; to appreciate the business aspects of production and distribution; and to acquire an ability to work collaboratively in the writing, editing, design and publication of texts on a variety of platforms, both print and digital.” (The full program launches this coming fall, but three core courses are being taught this semester.)
The head of CPCJ, James Miller, a professor of politics and former chair of the New School’s liberal studies program, calls it “a frankly experimental program” that is off to a quiet if promising start. “The program has only been up and running for a few months, and without much in the way of advertising so far,” he told me in an e-mail. “We already have in hand 12 finished applications, and another 80 or so people that have started apps or expressed interest via e-mail inquiries or visits to our classes this semester.”
The roster of faculty and guest speakers listed on its Web site is clearly the program’s biggest draw for now, and it’s hard to think of anyone more suited to running it than Miller, who has published monographs on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Maurice Merleau-Ponty as well as pieces in Rolling Stone and The New York Times. At a much earlier stage of his career, Miller was one of a number of professors in government who were denied tenure by the University of Texas at Austin -- in part, it was said by their supporters, because they leaned to the left, but also on the grounds that they were writing for the popular press as well as scholarly journals. Such, at least, was the word going around when I arrived as a freshman in 1981, and it tracks fairly closely with what Texas Monthlyreported the following year, in a cover story called "The Trouble With UT."
Miller was very much a felt absence among some of us, and when the last of his circle was denied tenure, we ended the school year by occupying the liberal arts office in protest. (You never forget your first political arrest.) By then Miller had joined Newsweek as a book and music critic, and also went on to write "Democracy Is in the Streets": From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987) and The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993) and to edit the journal Daedalus, published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
A remarkable skill set, then -- assembled mostly in predigital days but supplemented by Miller’s feel for what the would-be public intellectual, magazine editor or literary publisher would need to know in starting out today. Part of the core curriculum, for example, is a lab where students can expand their multimedia literacy by learning Adobe Suite, WordPress, HTML, EPUB and so on.
You could acquire some of those tools at one of the city's many journalism/publishing degree programs -- or, for that matter, at the Learning Annex, I suppose. But the instructor for the lab is Rachel Rosenfelt, a founding editor of the cultural journal The New Inquiry and someone with a deep interest in the uses of multimedia for serious commentary and debate. Another instructor is Juliette Cezzar, an assistant professor of communication at the Parsons School of Design and president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts/New York, whose course on the history and theory of publication design also involves studio work. While overlapping somewhat with established programs in writing, publishing and design programs, CPCJ integrates them in a specific and, as far as I know, unique way.
A memo by Miller indicates that the M.A. work culminates in “an individualized capstone project that can take a number of forms: from an edgy short story or long-form book review to a piece of investigative reporting, from a business plan for a new literary quarterly to design work that demonstrates a student’s ability to create an engrossing reading experience and shows an awareness of and empathy for today’s reader of serious writing.”
For a reader of serious writing, it’s good to hear this -- especially the part about students designing “a business plan for a new literary quarterly.” Does that sound crass? Well, someone said that you can tell who the poets are at a party, because they’re the ones in a corner talking about money. (The lack of it, presumably.)
My one major worry is that the program could end up as a conduit supplying still more unpaid labor to the voracious maw of the New York culture industry. At some point CPCJ really ought to offer a course on organizing interns to demand fair pay. It's an experimental program, after all, and that's an experiment worth making. All together now: "Where are our checks?"