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  • The Inhumane Wonder of the Book
  • D. Vance Smith

The book is the way, par excellence, of language, because it retains of language only the ability to abstract, isolate, transpose . . . and because it pushes away man himself from it.

maurice blanchot1

In the discipline of book history, form has come to mean the morphology of a text, its embodiment in particular books. The way a text is put together and disseminated has come to be at least as important as the more abstract, even Platonic, idea of that text’s form. As Roger Chartier argues, the forms that make texts “readable to be heard or to be seen, also participate in the construction of their meaning.”2 In the approach first formulated by Don McKenzie as “the sociology of texts,” book history has conditioned us to think of a book’s content as an epiphenomenon of its production. Its contents are revealed by its subsequent history, by how it was assembled, corrected, smuggled, or censored. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari put it, “there is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made.”3 For the most part, the sociology of texts demonstrates a conspicuous bias toward the making of books in the age of print and has tended to privilege the form of [End Page 361] books over the literary form of texts.4 Assuming that Deleuze and Guattari were being serious, I would like to examine the question of what is excluded when we equate a book with its production; or, to put it more strongly, the question of how books compromise or obviate the immanent form of a text. What happens when a literary work, or a work of art, is subordinated to the shape of the book, and how might a book resist or sublate its own conditions of production: how might it be less or more than the compilation of its social relations?

From a less aesthetic perspective, continental philosophy has already contemplated the damage that the book inflicts on the work, conceiving the book as the death of the work rather than its inception. As Maurice Blanchot said of the act of reading, the act of accessing the work, it is “hidden, radically absent perhaps, covered up in any case, obfuscated by the visibility of the book.”5 The form, that is, that a book gives to a work is more immediately evident than a work’s innate form, if that innate form is evident at all. Enabling both universal access and random searches, the technology of the book—the mise-en-page, the index or table of contents, the page or signature numbering, the chapter and book headings—shapes the experience of reading more powerfully than a work’s own form does, unless it is also organized along codicological lines.

A few Middle English works use divisions that resist codicological shaping, such as Piers Plowman, which divides itself into passus, or steps, rather than libri or capitula, or The Wars of Alexander, which is divided into passus each with a number of twenty-four-line units. But the form of the codex intrudes even there. It is possible that the length of the units within each passus of The Wars of Alexander was determined by pages of twenty-four lines at the draft stage of the poem’s composition. In some manuscripts, Piers Plowman is divided into several libri to make its structure more familiar to readers used to conventional codices. In any case, something of the formal experimentation and contingency of Piers Plowman is lost when it is divided into a visio and several vitae; even if these are part of Langland’s original division, the [End Page 362] neatness of the various vitae cuts across the poem’s recursive discussion of all three lives of Dowel, Dobet and Dobest.

Life, but also the demands of codicological structuration, seems to have extended Hoccleve’s work past its point of obvious conclusion, the translation of a treatise on dying. At its beginning, he says that he will be unable to translate more than the first part of Heinrich Suso’s treatise on the art of...


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pp. 361-371
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