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Twenty Years After the Death of the Book: Literature, the Humanities, and the Knowledge Economy

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2012
pp. 115-140 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0003

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The Death of the Book

Twenty years ago, the book was figuratively laid to rest by artist Dennis Ashbaugh, author William Gibson, and publisher Kevin Begos, Jr. An art book wrapped in a shroud of cheesecloth and placed in a clam-shelled slate-grey case, deliberately distressed, seemingly time-scarred and battered, Agrippa (a book of the dead) (1992) evokes a disinterred coffin. Those who encounter the physical object must exhume the book's corpse to read it. Inside the book are traces of texts and images, illegible and faded inscriptions, and, embedded in a niche in the middle, a 3.5-inch floppy disk containing a self-encrypting poem by Gibson about his father, who died when the author was six. The book and the poem examine the inscription of lived sensory experience, books and bodies, memory and technology, loss and decay, the tenuous provisionality of knowledge and understanding. "Agrippa" refers at once to the name of a particular photograph album sold by Kodak in the 1920s (Agrippa Files, item #d26) and to the second-century Greek philosopher who formulated the Five Modes of skepticism. Gibson could not have known that Kodak would declare bankruptcy in 2012, but already in 1986 the company had been criticized for its complacency while "silver halide photography, the technology that Kodak invented 105 years ago, is slowly being eclipsed by electronic images" (Taylor and Caminiti). The modes of Agrippa are known today only because they were recorded by Sextus Empiricus, whose Outlines of Pyrrhonism and Against the Mathematicians are the only existing detailed accounts of Greek skepticism. He did not name Agrippa, but Diogenes Laertius ascribed the Five Modes to him in Lives of the Philosophers. At once, then, the title Agrippa indicates the technological obsolescence of various mechanisms humans have used to inscribe and retrieve memory and history, the fragility of those records and the uncertainty of what they tell, and a philosophical skepticism about evidence that questions the possibility of any justified theory of knowledge.

The commentary by Gibson, Ashbaugh, and Begos on the nature of books, digital media, and knowledge are well worth revisiting in this issue on the "Future of the Humanities," with the increasing prevalence of digital "books" (including documents, texts, games, social media, and so on) and digital scholarship. Agrippa (a book of the dead) was a reply to increasing speculations on the effects of the book's supposed demise upon the value of literature, the humanities, and knowledge itself with the arrival of networked communications, Bulletin Board Systems (BBSS), Usenet, the establishment of World Wide Web protocols, and graphical user interfaces. The "death" of the book coincided with the rise of the so-called knowledge society, and what Agrippa told us at that crucial moment just after the invention of the World Wide Web still speaks to the roles of books and digital works in the discipline of literature and in the humanities in general.

The death of the book had been predicted long before Agrippa was published. As early as 1955 Lester Asheim had speculated on it in his introduction to a special issue of The Library Quarterly on "New Problems in Plotting the Future of the Book." Musing on the possibility that the library would not necessarily remain primarily a "book agency" (282), Asheim noted

there is nothing eternal and God-given about the format and dimension of the book as we happen now to know it.... Some of the greatest items in our own cultural heritage, which we now equate with the book, were not intended for book form and were committed to the page by other hands.


Marshall McLuhan echoed predictions of the book's decline in a 1960 interview by Alan Millar of the CBC: "Just as books and their private point of view are being replaced by the new media," he explained, "so the concepts which underlie our actions, our social life, are changing." Further, "Books are what gave the Renaissance its peculiar stamp. We had to see the world and each other through the printed line on the page. Today there are many media of information, many teaching machines. The book's role has diminished because of...

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