Sep 172011

Rational Geomancy coverRational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine (The Collected Research Reports of the Toronto Research Group 1973-1982) Steve McCaffery and bpNichol

Lots of good thoughts on reading and writing and explorations of the post-narrative whatsis. Diagrams, games, programs, cartoons, poems. Often half-baked scholarship but carried by enthusiasm and sense of fun. Some echoes of Fluxus-type improv/art games.

I do love the notion of the book, or the book and reader together, as machine. The process of book-reading is very mechanical, composed primarily of 3 movements; horizontal scanning of characters/words, vertical movement down columns, and the flipping forward (or backward) through pages.

The authors are the Canadians Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, both also members of the sound-poetry group The Four Horsemen.

bpNichol was also a writer for TV shows like Fraggle RockFraggle Rock and Care Bears, which many of you should be grateful you are too young to remember.

Steve McCaffery was later the author of a very unusual novel called Panopticon, more on which to follow shortly.

 

There seems to exist at present a dichotomy in attitude between the book as a machine of reference and the book as a commodity to be acquired, consumed and discarded. Traditional printed narrative is largely thought of as the transcription of a hypothetical oral activity: a speech line running from a point of commencement to an end. Such books transcribe language along horizontal axes running from top left to bottom right of each page. This occidentally conventional manner of reading along the length of the line and down the length of each page from first to last in actuality reconstitutes the duration of a “listening.” In reference books such as dictionaries and directories however, the oral hypothesis is minimized to the point, perhaps, of non-existence. Such books are not thought of as having authors or a supposed unitary voice behind them. They exist as physical storage units for information, to be consulted at various times, but not designed to be consumed in a single, linear duration. Popular fiction, marketed for mass audiences, performs a different function; there the page’s non-sequential storage qualities are ignored. Nobody would consider the page of such a book as an area requesting the reader’s free, non-lineal eye movements over a multi-activating, multi-acting surface, but rather as a unit necessarily endured as a means to the complete reception of the book’s information. The current predicament of popular mass fiction is the competitive threat staged by the other great machines of consumption: television and the movies. Where plot consumption is the effect intended, television and film are indubitably the more efficient media. The reason for this is clear. The book’s power as an object to be dwelt on and referred back to are not desirable features. Not only the page but the book in its entirety are conceived as obstacles to be overcome in order to achieve the desired goal of unproblematic, uninterrupted, unsophisticated consumption. Television and the cinema on the other hand afford more rapid and totally sensorial means of satisfying such an appetite for story. In the light of this phenomenon two important implications of such pre-masticated reading as Reader’s Digest become obvious. There is a “division of labour” on the reader’s part in that he renounces a portion of the total reading role which is performed for him. And secondly the more serious implication of a hierarchical structuring imposed upon the reading experience, by means of which a superior “essence” is thought of as being abstracted from a “lesser” padding. To extend this consumer metaphor we may say that plot is product within linguistic wrapping. Dictionaries and directories work against this status by throwing emphasis onto the single page and the information stored thereon. In their function, dictionaries move much closer to the page-iconicity described above. Narrative then can be developed freely along either of two directions: one rooted in oral tradition and the typographic “freezing” of speech; the other set in an awareness of the page as a visual, tactile unit with its own very separate potential.

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