Meet Dr Sheena Calvert, Contextual Studies Coordinator at Camberwell College of Arts and Associate Lecturer at Central Saint Martins. She is one of the organisers of the Book and Human Debate as part of The Way We Live Now The AHRC 10th Anniversary Debates 2015-2016 taking place at CSM in mid-December 2015. Here she talks about her expectations of the Debate and why the team have invited the selected speakers…
You hand printed the invites, for the Debate, in your studio, why was this personalised printing process so important?
Because the act of letterpress printing connects the subject matter of the debate (the book), to one of its key historical technologies: the invention of printing in the West.
Joannes Gutenberg’s 1453 invention transformed the speed and (later), the aesthetics of the book and facilitated a vast expansion of book production, breaking its link with monastic culture (and thereby the church), promoting literacy, and providing the foundations of the modern publishing industry. The dissemination of secular knowledge which the invention of printing acted as a catalyst for, quite literally transformed the world, and transformed ‘us’.
To produce the invitations, using the same methods of printing with metal letters, which Gutenberg invented, brings this history into the present. It also requires patience, craft skills, and judgment, which foregrounds and presages a discussion of the haptic qualities of the physical book (one of the key debating points which we hope to raise).
What speakers did you invite and why?
Johanna Drucker was invited because she bridges theory and practice, and because she is an eminent scholar in her field. As a philosopher, writer, letterpress printer/ artist and critic, she has written extensively on both this (and related subjects).
For instance, she has recently written about how the new ‘protocols’ of the book, which are facilitated by the move from physical to digital books, are shaping our understanding of that medium. She asks:
“How will we “call” a book into being”
And this raises questions about how we understand what a book ‘is’, and furthermore, what it means to us. In short, it goes beyond a question of simply whether Kindles will replace physical books, to a more meaningful query about the ontological status of books, what they call into ‘being’.
The reason I am particularly excited that Johanna has agreed to participate in the debate is, she is both a thinker and a maker on this subject, and she embraces the aesthetic, humanist, and intellectual questions we hope to raise.
Tom Uglow, from Google, has been invited because he is working on similar questions from the perspective of how shifting forms of knowledge dissemination via new technologies and the act of immersive reading, shape what he calls ‘bookness’.
Both speakers touch on, not only the technological aspects of the book, but how and why books are significant human ‘agents’, and what they mean to humanity. We are in the process of inviting other speakers, and these will be confirmed in due course.
What questions do you hope will be asked at the debate?
I hope that people will ask questions which are less ‘binary’, such as whether the physical book will be replaced by its digital counterpart. Not only have these questions been aired extensively, but they tend to pose things in terms of either/or.
I would be more interested in seeing how a debate around what books means to us in terms of the (perhaps) less obvious aspects of human culture (in its broadest sense), and intellectual life (past/present), can be developed.
It’s true that the format of a ‘debate does tend to suggest that strong positions will be established and argued, and we welcome that ‘dynamic’. However, I believe that there are nuances and subtleties to the question of the relationship between ‘books and the human’ which could be developed. One of the question I might have (to be slightly provocative), is whether books have led to an implicit and disturbing ‘materialization’ of what counts as ‘truth’, especially within the academic context.
To write is to materialize an idea, but to print and disseminate it involves a whole other set of power relations, including who has access to the means of production.
J. Leibling said
“Freedom of the press belongs to this who own one”.
This then leads to questions about the potentially subversive democratizing forces of the ‘digital’. Personally, I find these ideas more challenging than whether we will all be reading kindles…
it’s the broader intellectual/philosophical and cultural implications of the changes in how we make/consume books that intrigue me.
What direction would you like the debate to go in?
In terms of form, I would like it to be a ‘proper’ debate, which is to say, for people to take up strong positions and argue them, while recognising the caveat about binary thinking (as above). It’s important that it doesn’t just become a polite discussion about the subject, or a series of presentations which don’t link up. We need it to generate real thinking on this subject.
I would also like it not to be entirely euro-centric, which is a danger. We are not the only part of the world which has engaged with books, and there are tremendously important implications of ‘the book’ within the non-western world.
For example, the recent discovery that the world’s oldest Koran may predate Mohammed’s teachings, raises very complex questions about Islamic theology. We cannot avoid the significance of the material book in such debates, and these concerns are not just Western ones. The debate was conceived as a trans-disciplinary, cross-cultural platform for asking such questions and rethinking the role of the book in human life.
The CSM students are curating the exhibition windows for display during the debate, what can we expect and who is involved?
Members of the Graphic Communication Design (GCD) programme team are involved in the curation of the show, along with some current MA Communication Design students whose own work aligns with the concerns of the debate.
The form of the show is still under discussion, but it will most likely include examples from the CSM Lethaby archives, contemporary book design which challenges the form of the book, and examples of technological innovation in books.
We are excited to see how it develops.
A few of Sheena’s favourite books:
Image: The Gutenberg Bible, Johannes Gutenberg, Mainz, 1454-55
Image: James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, with annotations by the editors of the Houyhnhnm Press edition (2010). Editors: Danis Rose/John O’Hanlon
Image: The Torah (Jewish Written Law): The five books of the Hebrew Bible