Nightmares of dead generation

by CarlD

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

What is this familiar nightmare (Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) doing here? Well, he’s a tool, of course, specifically ideological cover for a point I tried much too briefly to make at Giovanni’s post on the deselection (and destruction) of books including Gramsci’s Prison Letters at the Victoria University, Wellington Library. In what may be my favorite practical joke in a long while, that comment has itself since been deselected and destroyed, perhaps as part of a more comprehensive culling of all comments at the site. But since that move forecloses conversation there, I’ll move the thought here and see if it’s worth a chat. I’m interested in the forms the nightmares of dead generations take in our lives. [Note: Giovanni’s original post at his own blog, with excellent commentary, is here.]

Giovanni calls attention to the fascinating process his university library used to try to declutter its holdings to free up space for other purposes. Books that had not been checked out in ten years or longer received a red sticker on the spine indicating their peril. Users could veto the cull by drawing a black line through the sticker, a veritable Wikipedia moment in the stacks. Heroic scholarly defenders against this barbarism then crawled around the shelves black-lining every red sticker they could find. “Save one, save all.” I remember the same kind of culture wars at UCSD when I was a grad student there and little-used books were to be gulaged to UC’s off-site storage facility. And soon my own little university’s figleaf of a library will be faced with hard decisions as we work out how to implement consultants’ recommendations to devote a whole floor currently occupied by a big chunk of the meager collection to an integrated ‘Learning Commons’ offering academic services to our ‘Millenial’ students, many of whom read quite a bit but have never cracked an actual book in their lives.

I should admit that the solid, reliable feel of a real book in my hands, the mystery of shelves groaning under the weight of knowledge, the thrill of the unexpected shelf-read discovery, the crisp, definite sound of pages turning are all pleasures that have shaped my life leading up and into academe. Like many of my peers I think there’s nothing that decorates a living room quite so well as piles of loose books. It may be that this sensuous materiality is especially critical in the case of Gramsci’s prison letters. So, Giovanni

recoiled especially at seeing Antonio Gramsci’s Lettere dal carcere sporting a red sticker. The letters that Gramsci had penned as a political prisoner, under the constraints of censorship and the rationing of his writing privileges, and that together form an extraordinary prison memoir, yes, but also a chronicle of intellectual life during Fascism and the autobiography of one Europe’s greatest political thinkers and philosophers of the last century – it seemed such an astonishing indignity for that particular book, such an offence to its history and ours, that it might even be suggested to remove it from view, let alone destroy it.

Gramsci wrote the letters under confining conditions of prison censorship and oversight; his access to books, writing materials and headspace all fitfully but effectively restricted. Yet he was “almost physically consumed by the need to fight with the only weapon he had left the forces that wished to neutralize his intellect.” How ironic, then, for the product of this effort to fall victim to an arbitrary mass purge?

Quite right. But is this book that product? Gramsci wrote his letters one by one, on a variety of papers, to a variety of recipients. Later they were collected, transcribed, edited and published in the handsome critical edition we now discuss. The materiality of this volume, I note, is already pretty distant from the materiality of the letters and their conditions of production. I take it from the shelf, a convenient, compact whole; I find a comfortable nook; I read the letters one after another on their crisp, neatly-printed pages with their erudite critical apparatus. Here I see the content of Gramsci’s writing, but what I do not see, or feel, is precisely the conditions of its production. My ease of access is exactly the opposite of Gramsci’s struggle, or the slow drip of Gramsci his recipients experienced for that matter. The library is not the prison; the book is not the letters. This book is a simulacrum. And although I can appreciate the reverence for the great man that imbues all his offshoots with a reflected charisma, it’s quite another thing to fetishize this object, this rendition, this product of a purely contingent technology of textual production and diffusion as the true representation of an authentic original.

(Interestingly, Gramsci himself had this “reverence for the book,” as Antonio Santucci once described it to me. I had asked him – this was when he directed the Gramsci archives – if the books Gramsci had owned contained any marginalia, knowing that any historian studying me would do well to track the conversations I was having with the books I was reading by the notes I’d left in them. Antonio said there were none, and hypothesized that Gramsci’s poor rural upbringing had instilled this sense of the book as a precious and inviolable object. I might speculate that a folk-Catholic biblical culture might also have had something to do with it. Writing in the margins is just about the only reason I prefer a physical book any more, by the way, and that’s just because I’m too lazy to learn the available digital markup systems.)

So the question is not whether Gramsci himself and his legacy are being attacked by the removal and destruction of this particular book. That’s all a red herring. No, as Giovanni gets around to saying, the more effective questions have to do with the process whereby books were deselected, and their individual suitability for other forms of availability. He also leaves hanging an intriguing thought about the identity-conferring functions of books as material objects. I’ll take these questions in turn.

As to the deselection process, it seems obvious that to clear physical space in a building previously devoted to book display someone’s ox is going to be gored no matter what. As Giovanni notes, this process is happening on a smaller scale all the time as new books come out and old ones obsolesce. The ten-year rule looks good to me as a rough cut of books that are not actively being used for their content. The strikethrough rule makes sense if we imagine that responsible constituencies will use the opportunity, as Giovanni says, to direct their

sharpest possible thinking on the subject of which print materials ought to be displayed, and how, and at what cost, and which titles would do better in a digital environment; how to balance the needs of current and future researchers with broader cultural considerations; how to understand the value of books as material objects, and the act of browsing them as a physical journey into a topic or the history of a country, within a set of spatial coordinates that don’t always map well inside of a computer network.

This is not what happened; the culture warriors did none of this thinking, instead ‘saving one, saving all’. Apparently the mode of destruction encouraged not reflection and responsible participation, but a Luddite backlash. How might the process have been better coordinated, made more ’empowering’ to use a loathsome jargon? Perhaps by turning the mute verdict of the sticker and the mute veto of the strikethrough into real conversations somehow? Can we imagine a happy consensus on which books to cull, or at least a feeling that due process was done? For that matter, is it even possible to get rid of a single book if we devote due attention and care to all of the excellent objectives Giovanni lists?

As to availability, as soon as the Vicky-Welly library has interlibrary loan that’s sort of a non-issue. Libraries share books from both within and among collections; in terms of that function there’s no particular imperative to have any particular title on any particular shelf. Perhaps my perspective at a small library that can’t hope to afford or shelve even a decent fraction of the books I think it ‘should’ controls my thinking here. But further, as I’ve just pointed out the original materiality of the letters makes them particularly bad poster children for defense of the physical book, the thing itself. In the old days we’d be inclined to think that photostatic reproductions were the gold standard for autograph material; nowadays digital reproduction offers quick and easy access to this level of visual authenticity. As for the printed version, that is just as easily digitized as any other book, subject to the same stewardship and market conditions. As I noted in my original comment, Gramsci’s oeuvre has a particularly poor digital availability compared, say, to Marx’s (the above quote was instantly available from my sofa for search and retrieval in public domain from Going forward this, not shelf-to-shelf stocking, may be the more appalling scandal.

If digital media offer easier access to content we want easily accessible, what advantages do physical books offer? Are they just fossils of the dying “analogue humanities,” as Giovanni calls them? Do we need them in some way digital media can’t provide to preserve memory, Giovanni’s special interest? Or are they involved, as he further suggests, in the materialization of a kind of collective identity?

Save one, save all. I don’t care how long it has been since the complete works of Giovanni Boccaccio were checked out. We need them; they must be there, occupy that space, or we might as well not have an Italian department at all.

I can see why it wouldn’t be worth having an Italian department that couldn’t read Boccaccio (or Verga, or Pirandello, Moravia, Calvino). But if he hasn’t been checked out in ten years, are they reading him? Should they just check out the books that give them their identity every once in awhile to reset the clock, as Giovanni suggests? And what would an Italian department look like that read its Boccaccio online, that did not therefore ‘own’ Boccaccio or have his works available to display as a talisman? Why would that be an Italian department not worth having?


18 Responses to “Nightmares of dead generation”

  1. Thank you Carl. This is serendipitously timely since the original post from my blog (not the reposted version on Material World that “lost” your comment – bizarre that!) is up this week at Hacking the Academy, so it’s getting a fresh batch of readers who will I think enjoy your response (I linked to it there).

    You make good points regarding both the relationship between the letters penned by Gramsci and the Einaudi edition, and the fact that the space I argued ought to be defended could conceivably be replicated digitally. But my point is that neither at the time of the proposed cull nor right now, six years later, those alternatives are in fact in place. There is currently no open digital collection of Gramsci’s letters: it’s either the book version or a trip to the archives in Rome. And there isn’t, at least not to my knowledge, an archive of Italian literature, say, before the 20th century, in the public domain and fully accessible via a computer terminal, that is also capable of replicating the architecture of a traditional library environment. This, I think, is crucial, and that’s where I disagree that a copy of Boccaccio that hasn’t been checked out in ten years amounts to a “talisman”. First of all, that it hasn’t been checked out doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been read or put to some use – I’ve picked up and cited several books for research in that very section without checking them out – but secondly and more importantly I think there is value in that space being there and being furnished with that particular selection of books. Walking down that single aisle – we’re not talking about a massive collection here – is also an introduction to the history of Italian literature. Who were the important authors of the fifteenth century? There they are. I’m writing an essay about the contemporaries of Dante, let me see if I’ve left somebody out. And who is this Alfieri fellow? Where are the female writers before the twentieth century? I just don’t think that a list of titles on a printed page or a computer screen actually corresponds to the experience of being there, of being able to actually browse the books, experience and compare their relative size, open them and read them. And however arbitrary that selection is, and with all the usual caveats about canons, I think it’s vital for the department to have use of that space.

    (Plus of course you cannot interloan a book – or access it digitally – if you don’t know that it exists. And often interloaning has a cost, or a time lag that discourages the casual browsing I just described.)

    As for the rhetoric of the barbarians at the gates, I disagreed with it at the time, and still do. But nonetheless I felt that the only appropriate response to that non-conversation, to that bludgeoning approach to what ought to be done about our most fundamental knowledge resources, was the Luddite gesture you describe. And I’m glad it worked. I’m also glad that there are people working on creating digital libraries that can do the work of the old-fashioned ones quite well, and hopefully other things besides. But a library cannot be dissolved today just because we might at some unspecified time in the future be able to replace it.

  2. Carl, terrific. I will be thinking about this as we fly across the Pacific en route to Cambridge, MA, and a summer in the States with the grandkids. Tangentially, I look up at the wall of books that occupies one side of our apartment. Why do we keep them? They are, quite apart from their content, material reminders of particular moments in our lives, a midden that ranges in temporal depth from a Modern Library edition of Plato purchased when I was a freshman at Michigan State to Wasserman and Faust, Social Network Analysis , which points to a current preoccupation. They are, in this respect, like the print by my cousin Alan Campbell, an image of the view looking out over the marshes from my Grandfather’s house in Savannah, on one wall or the desk willed to me by my maternal Grandfather on which my laptop sits as I write, embodiments of stories that constitute my life. Will digital reproductions do what my books do for me for my grandkids? I wonder.

  3. Thanks, guys! John, I do think that element of material memory, the keepsake or memento, is a big part of the appeal of books. I have a thousand books I never read (but who knows, I might) and a thousand lps I never listen to (but it’s all great stuff). Clutter, access to which requires me to live in a much larger house that I otherwise might. Would I miss them if they were gone? I understand the anxiety and compulsion that make hoarders such compelling nutcases.

    But there’s also a sense in which that immediate availability of that kind of artifact creates a productive density of memory and identity – a reminder of who I am and where I come from that would be hard to move to digital. Giovanni, you’re absolutely right that the digital library has not yet achieved that density. But it promises to do that for a much larger public than those who ever could afford personal libraries and regular access to comprehensive university ones. For that reason I think defending the book is the wrong use of our energy and what little cultural capital we have. We need to go all in on getting everything digitized and organized so the new experience of casual browsing can be as instructive and formative as you say.

    If nothing else because the kind of shelf research – who did I leave out? – you cite and I fondly remember is actually bad research, subject in all but the most ridiculously comprehensive libraries to the accidents and prejudices of local acquisition.

  4. “If nothing else because the kind of shelf research – who did I leave out? – you cite and I fondly remember is actually bad research, subject in all but the most ridiculously comprehensive libraries to the accidents and prejudices of local acquisition.”

    No, it’s not. It’s the first port of call, the initial survey. And those books have been selected by successive lecturers in your department, so they represent the history of the discipline in your local institution. Idiosyncratic, yes, and I welcome that; non-omnicomprehensive, yes (and we can open a debate on whether the omnicomprehensiveness touted by the digital is in fact a good thing). But certainly not bad, unless it’s where you decide to stop.

  5. Sure, fair enough – willingness to push past the limitations of the first archive is always a second condition of good research. As for whether the material traces of the local disciplinary history are good for anyone but a historian of local knowledge systems, I’ll invoke feminism, critical race studies and post-colonialism as sources of doubt that good things can be expected to issue from such contingencies.

    Again, I’m someone whose home library is almost comically spotty. I’m used to students who have never been to the stacks in a library. We can’t do the things you’re talking about here, and as long as that’s the ideal and feet are dragging I can’t fully do the new good thing either. Therefore I’m not pragmatically drawn to arguments about how things used to work in a few highly-stylized research factories under conditions we can now begin to think of as primitive.

  6. “Again, I’m someone whose home library is almost comically spotty.”

    So you want *my* library to be comical spotty too? Why?! Look at the shelves in those pictures I took. Subtract all the books with a red sticker, and you’ll see just how spotty it would get.

    “We can’t do the things you’re talking about here, and as long as that’s the ideal and feet are dragging I can’t fully do the new good thing either.”

    I dispute that it’s a binary logic, much as the ideologists of the digital would like it to be just that. And in fact that’s how the exercise worked: turns the 0’s into I’s if you want to save any of these books. But that’s not a substitute for a proper debate on the value of educational resources. And it’s unacceptable to be told that hacking the library to bits is the prerequisite step for hacking the academy and creating new and more accessible, more democratic, more inclusive resources. First we need to be able to offer those alternatives, and then we’ll see if it’s worth getting rid of the books to make space for them. At the moment (six years on!) the overwhelming reality for Victoria is the staggering cost of electronic journal subscriptions, which has killed the budget for buying new books as it is. That’s what we’ve got to show for the whole digital revolution thing.

    (And I say all this as a digital humanist!)

  7. I spent some time working in a large London university library, where some similar issues were being debated. A few random thoughts, for what they’re worth:

    – One of the virtues of a library collection for researchers is the physical proximity and ease of rifling through a bunch of related books – something that’s difficult to replicate online even if the books have been digitised or transcribed. The internet makes lots of research tasks enormously and wonderfully easier, but there are some it can’t very easily replicate. This particular non-replicable virtue of a decent library collection – the ability to sit down and be able to skim and select from a large range of titles (which Google Books & the various academic journal systems are too clunky to easily enable, access issues aside) – necessarily won’t show up in records of books checked out, because the books used in this way aren’t leaving the library. Similarly, there are certain kinds of books that people’ll tend to use without checking out – mind-achingly boring tomes that contain a number of different three page sections of invaluable information on a various different topics; also books already read or even owned but useful to consult when working with other less familiar areas of the collection. In other words – records of how often a book’s checked out, while a rough-and-ready guide to important kinds of usage, will I think systematically under-record other significant kinds of usage, and should therefore be treated with some caution.

    – Relatedly, there’s the ‘long tail’ issue w/r/t the value of any sizable library collection. If a collection basically serves undergraduates, this is rarely going to be an issue – but if the collection is meant also to serve post-graduates or other more advanced researchers, the less commonly checked out volumes are going to be precisely those that provide much of the library’s purpose & value-add. Academia is a specialisation-oriented endeavour, and since specialisations necessarily exist within the ‘long tail’ of academic subject-matters, one can’t I think credibly argue that the ‘long tail’ of infrequently-borrowed volumes can be removed from a library’s collection without significant loss. Indeed the argument may start to cut the other way, once you reach a certain degree of specialisation. The library I worked at was in the process of dramatically culling its store of graduate theses, based on borrowing statistics. Of course most theses are going to be on baroquely obscure topics, and thus infrequently consulted – but the reason for such obscurity of topic is that it enables original research. There is, therefore, a strong case – I’d argue an obligation – to retain such works as part of the raison d’etre of a university. This is an extreme example, but it suggests, I think, the importance of not underestimating the extent to which infrequently-consulted works are a large part of the point of a decent university library. (Inter-library loan is of course a blessing, but it is also potentially subject to ‘the tragedy of the commons’.)

    – There are other issues too, but that’ll do. None of it’s to say that the perennial issue of shelving space doesn’t have to be addressed. And libraries (or at least universities) need to serve other functions besides just storing books – students will not necessarily have access to IT resources or study spaces if the university doesn’t provide them, and they need both. In my anecdotal experience, however, a lot of the thinking that goes into book-cull choices (including judgements about when book-culls even need to be made) can be remarkably misguided.

    [Don’t even get me started on digital resources. The whole situation’s such a mess I can barely talk about it without spluttering.]

  8. In collections where the idea of deaccessioning is anathema—and I’m thinking basically of the UK’s legal deposit libraries here—these problems have grimly been met with offsite storage. If the basic problem is shelf-space, is there scope in any of your circumstances for acquiring the use of another storage space, from which things can be retrieved and to which things are restored once a day, or once a week even? You lose browsability (although, one could if desperate replicate this with place-holder cards, not that that would be very efficient—perhaps a list in shelf bay of “Other books we hold in this classification”?) but avoid having to actually throw away or sell your Bocaccio or Gramsci for the alert student who feels it would be good to read them when he or she turns up the year after the disposal…

  9. I for one will be happy to sign the pledge where we all agree not to write fussy little vanity books of personal discovery and interpretation that will be read by five people worldwide who we could just have a nice chat with instead. If we could get those off the shelves and out of the pipeline I feel confident print classics like Boccaccio and Gramsci would receive a significant reprieve. Perhaps in the interim before all good books are digitally available and browsably organized we could agree that such scholarly ephemera will only be published digitally? This would require a realignment of the culture of professionalization and status-marking, of course, but if all that got moved to digital I bet digital would get pretty spiffy pretty damn quick.

  10. If we make digital publishing the home of unnecessary ephemera, surely that would just result in less money to digital. It’s got to be able to make money back before people will put money into it.

  11. But there’s also a sense in which that immediate availability of that kind of artifact creates a productive density of memory and identity – a reminder of who I am and where I come from that would be hard to move to digital. Giovanni, you’re absolutely right that the digital library has not yet achieved that density. But it promises to do that for a much larger public than those who ever could afford personal libraries and regular access to comprehensive university ones.

    Let’s start with the plausible assumption that most of humanity will never enjoy the unique combination of generous fellowships and low book prices that enabled the start of McCreery’s library. I still wonder how the Internet provides the kind of daily reminder that walking past that wall of books provides me without that wall’s material form and the books that sit on its shelves.

    In contrast, the research serendipity problem seems much easier to address. The tools are already in place in the software that drives Amazon’s “People who purchased this book also…” recommendations. One can imagine an online version of the Library of Congress equipped with an AI agent that does much the same thing, “People who’ve looked at this book/article/website have also looked at….” One can even imagine buttons with which to instruct the agent: (1) restrict to ; or (2) surprise me! (The sort of thing Stumble does with websites).

  12. John, I like this take on the practical issues. I have to tell my students, most of whom don’t come from book culture, that although the cost of books looks like one of the optional costs of their incredibly-expensive education, it’s really the most important. And that they shouldn’t sell their books back to the bookstore, because the presence of them on shelves in their living space will remind them of their education, while making their children natively book-cultured.

    And it’s true, electronic media do not yet have a way to simulate this social-psychological materiality, as far as I know. This is one of the reasons I do not (yet, it’s coming) accept purely electronic submission of written work in my classes. There’s something tangibly personal and real about written comments on the page I don’t think e-commenting can match, and I also think the physical paper can invite a different feeling of craft investment from students than pixels on the screen. But as students come up whose whole engagement with formal intellectuality has been electronic, these considerations will lose weight.

    As for research process and research serendipity, I agree with you completely that electronic media already or foreseeably match and improve on print sourcing. Here I think the defense of the book is at its most quixotic and ideological, in the small sense of rationalization of one’s own habits.

    Jonathan, you make a great point. What I’m getting at is that the scholarly ephemera may not be of great durable importance, but in the short term they are thoroughly entwined in academe’s processes of professionalization and status-marking. For the latter reason, not the former, I suspect significant resources could be diverted to electronic media if the publications scholars use to get tenure, promotion, reference-group acceptance, status and notoriety were shifted to them.

  13. Ah, well, there I agree with you but from the other end of the barrel, as it were: I think that the biggest reason digital publishing has been so slow to take off in the humanities is that the various bodies that ‘score’ research, and this especially in the UK, have yet to agree how electronic publication ‘scores’. The UK system, which is currently being transformed and whose transformation is now probably itself going to be transformed, previously put electronic and web publication down with “Other Output”, its eighth category, which also included theatrical performance and exhibition, i. e. as fundamentally transient media. There is an issue there that isn’t widely enough recognised about durability of electronic storage, especially institutional storage—and maybe when they came up with that they already knew they were about to cut the money to the UK’s central resource for digital archiving in the arts and humanities!—but the consequent refusal to recognise electronic publishing as a durable research contribution means that there is no career-economic incentive to switch to it and that it is always seen as a second-best to print (or seventh-best!). Once that changes, and there’s some reward for electronic publishing that makes it less of a career cost to favour it, then we’ll see the sort of change you’re talking about, perhaps.

  14. Yup, I agree that’s what it would take. And since there are a lot of stakeholders and old habits lined up behind the old model, I’m not holding my breath.


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