The problem with books…

So we run a small publishing company here at Freerange, which loosely means we try to marry author and creators of work with an audience via some sort of printing process, digital or physical.  I am also a student who needs to read and study books for the phd I am undertaking.  Both these activities have got me thinking about books, and the logic of books, at least the process where “something interesting that someone has written” gets “into my brain through my eyes“.

Traditionally this process would have gone through quite a few layers of industrialised systems: negotiating contracts, setting out a book, raising funds, printing several thousand copies, distributing to book wholesalers, selling to book stores, and then we’d find a lovely book sitting their innocently waiting for us to buy.    This process favoured safe publishing as large quantities were needed to make the economic logic work, but we did know where to get the books we wanted into our hands.

Two new technologies have transformed this process and made it much more free and confusing.  The first is that we can now read things on screens without printing.  I know I know, people love books. I do too, but to assert that as the main point is to miss the fact that reading on the screen enables us to read peoples work without the massive systems needed to get a book to print in a store.  This freedom of publishing that is the internet definately has its downsides with common lack of editorial oversite and quality control, but hey, this is a good problem, it also has its upside with the consumption of less resources. (less physical resource anyway, still uses energy).  The second new technology is newer faster smaller printing devices that break down the old need to print large expensive runs of books.  The printing of Freerange Journal is made possible by the invention of TruePress printers of which there are only 2 in Australasia that enable us to print small runs of our journal reasonably affordable.

What is frustrating me is that in NZ and Aus we are in an annoying between the old models of beautiful bookstores and some future of beautiful digital efficiency, and this space between seems to be worse than either.  So today I wanted to get my hands on two books. 1. Hannah Arendts “The Human Condition” and 2. “The Resilient City”. Neither are particularly popular books, but both are in print.

It would be nice to visit a bookstore and buy them, but because of the changed economy of books there are not many stores with large collections now and I don’t want to waste half a day visiting them to walk away empty handed, and sadly in NZ the 2nd hand bookstores and good bookstores don’t seem to have their catalogues accesible.

I wouldn’t mind buying them digitally to have as high quality files that are readable and searchable on the computer either, but for some insane reason the e-versions are more expensive than printing, wharehousing and shipping them halfway across the planet.

So I can buy online, and spend 3/4 of the cost of them book on shipping them to NZ.  I can’t understand why all the books in the world need to come from the UK or the States when surely most of them are printed in China now.   Why can these companies not have big warehouses in different locations to cut on shipping?  Either that our get Print on Demand working better so books are printed locally.

Every time I try to find NZ or Aus places to buy these books all they seem to be doing is ordering them from overseas and putting a mark up on them for that.  As much as I like to support local business that is just wasting money.

The cost breakdown of the books was:

1 The Human Condition

via Amazon:  $US10 to buy $18 to ship to NZ

via Book depository: $NZ23 including postage.

Not available as an e-book.

2. The Resilient City

Via Amazon: $US23 to buy $US18 to ship.

Via Book depository: $NZ42 including postage.

E-b00k. $NZ60!

The end of this rant is:

1. The stores in smaller places need to digitise their collections so I can know what they have in their store and visit it to buy it, and enjoy the beauty of a proper bookstore.

2. The big international online suppliers need to sort their shit out so the supply chains are more sensible, when oil starts hitting 3 then 4 then 5 then 6 dollars a litre they are going to have to anyway.

3. Finally the big e-battle between Apple via i-pad, Amazon via kindle and Google via their opensource system is making the whole online thing confusing and difficult, as a reader why should I pay more for a digital version, and as a publisher why should I have to reformat a book 8 times and make lots of separate contracts with different suppliers for them to make all the money off.






There’s nothing plain about the rail in Spain

Autovia 8, west of Bilbao, where it finishes

Spanish rail is a delight.

It’s cheap, about as difficult as getting on a bus, and more or less on time, and you can travel locally at our train speeds (for about two euro an hour) or at 300km an hour if you’re going cross country and want to spend a little more. It’s a goddam pleasure at that speed to just have a glass of wine, lie back, and watch the train unzipping the countryside. Barcelona to Madrid is roughly the same distance as Auckland to Wellington. In Spain that’s less than three hours, from the moment that you dive into one underground until the moment that you emerge out of another.

It’s a similar distance to travelling, say, between Queen Street in Auckland and Lambton Quay in Wellington. With our check-in times and the quality of our transport to and from each airport here in New Zealand you’re lucky to make that sort of time if you fly. And we easily the have the population density to support just one train line between our two main north island cities.

For years our transport policies have focussed on getting more land under tarmac and more vehicles in and out of cities faster while refusing to invest in any reasonable alternative. The revolution in communications seems to be happening, but surely our bodies need to keep pace with our minds?

Grumble mumble mumble.

Read more

Authors Changing Authority -Part II

“Once a social context has become destabilized, writing will help to introduce emergent and competing alternatives (representations) and thereby introduce and stabilize the emerging system.  In such a context, written communication can become highly strategic, controversial, and negotiated at various levels as agents pursue competing and diverse representations.”
Brenton Faber, “Writing and Social Change” 2008.

I began the last article at the first ‘transition’ of communication systems: from oral to written, which happened about 5000 years ago; and I ended up somewhere around the second recognised transition, toward the printing press and the expansion of literacy from its monastic custodians, to scholars, and then the professions.

This post will be about the third transition -which we find ourselves amidst- from print to “computer-mediated” communication, and like the last post, I’ll specifically address how this might be played out in professional and organisation structures.  To cap it off, I’ll explain the empowering usefulness of “critical discourse analysis”, which essentially deals with the analysis and scrutiny of ‘discourses’ (conversations, texts, documents) in order to understand that ‘discursive context’ (ie, when you ‘talk shop’), making it possible to enact change using language, and texts –written by authors.

The reason I’m personally interested in this, as I alluded to in the first part, is that I am undertaking research in the methods of change in the institutions which are responsible for architectural education.

I’ll pick things up again around 1980, when commercial and professional environments undergo massive change because of the implementation of computer processing.  New workplace patterns emerge such as multi-authored documents, non-sequential writing, and multi-modal writing (hand-written and digital working documents), each with particular effects on authors.

Multi-authored documents (such as complicated proposals for funding) could be written non-sequentially (writing in independant segments, rather than start-to-finish) and collaboratively (often having very little contact with collaborators).  Importantly, these authors begin to perceive of their audience (readers) differently, and they begin losing their sense of possessive authorship (ownership).  They realise they are writing for their editor, rather than the targeted audience, which gives rise to an increase in ‘nominalisations’ (vague, generic, ‘normal’ terms) which flood commercial and institutional texts.  They became the mission statements, company bi-lines and corporate banners that make you feel like you’ve read something important.

“What We Stand For: Our Core Beliefs and Values
• Objectivity is the substance of intelligence, a deep commitment to the customer in its forms and timing.”

That’s from the CIA, a gem plucked out by Don Watson in his book ‘Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language’.  He lays out the best nominalisations: accountability, teamwork, commitment, continuous improvement, adapting to our customer needs… blah blah blah.

What is important though –and is an incredible achievement of the corporate world– is that this device became remarkably powerful.  A survey of ‘average’ writers in a corporate environment were found to actually increase the frequency and use of nominalisations when they were addressing or writing for a more senior member of management, or important clients.  When they wrote for an audience ‘below’ their level, they used less.  Ambiguity meant power.

This is reflected in professional rhetoric when a survey of 200 medical articles (across 10 years, by J.Z. Segal, 1993) reveals that authority is obtained through the high use of citation and nominalisations.  This is probably very familiar to anybody who attempts to read formal academic writing in any discipline. You’ll recognise it as ‘wank’, or in the corporate world, as ‘bullshit’.

“Over the coming twelve months we will be enhancing our product offering to bring you new features and access to innovative funds. You can be confident that our commitment is resolute, to make changes that investor’s (sic) value. -Insurance company newsletter.”
This is how Don Watson kicks off his book. Brilliant.

Authors Writing for Change

Authors are empowered by writing, making it possible to enact social change.  This is a position that ‘critical discourse analysis’ makes possible, arguing that by writing we not only reflect social systems, but continually reconstitute them.

“Legally, but also socially and culturally, modern organiszations and professions are the products of written communication.” Faber, 270.

If authors understand the type of writing they’re doing, and ‘where’ they are doing it, they can subversively effect change, by constructing a type of authority.  I think the type of authorship (and authority) I’m talking about now relates to the older term auctor (discussed in the previous article) because it is more about ‘allowing something to grow’, ‘enlarging’, which is also connected to augere (‘to augment’).  Authors plant subversive seeds of change within existing texts or organisations when they are destabilized, to augment change from within -even if they are originally external to them.

“Once a social context has become destabilized, writing will help to introduce emergent and competing alternatives (representations) and thereby introduce and stabilize the emerging system.  In such a context, written communication can become highly strategic, controversial, and negotiated at various levels as agents pursue competing and diverse representations.” -Faber, 271.

Conveniently, Brenton Faber explains this process using the recent commodification of higher education as a case study.  Through the 1990s, Universities were struggling with their image, they could not clearly say (or write) what it was that they did, and so the ‘system’ became destabilised from a discursive point of view, as well as a very practical one.  What happened was a ‘transitional change’ from a sophistic and rhetoric based structure, to a corporate and capitalistic one.  It is succinctly captured by the phrase “education market.”

So how does ‘discursive change’ actually work at a practical level?  Essentially the agent or new author subversively engages in the discourse by hybridising a new genre of language with the old one.  The new language (which is actually in conflict with the old one) is carefully choreographed to be palatable to the existing members of the organisation (otherwise it will be rejected outright), and is then steadily grown or augmented.  The process is so powerful because the instability of the structure is precisely the rationale for the implementation of a new structure, which is administered through discourse.

“…this concept of transitional change occurs in increments or linked steps as prior existent knowledge is disrupted and eventually displaced by small additions that ultimately build into new formations.” Faber, 270.

Faber points out the remarkable clarity of the current Higher Education “co-hyponyms”, which cleverly make new words interchangeable with old ones, even though their meanings and implications are completely different:

knowledge becomes skills, and competencies
students become retailers
facilities become resources
administration become management
education becomes training.

The rationale for this change is hard to argue against, as it coincided with massive governmental pressure on University funding.  The resulting corporate commodification of Higher Education becomes a stronger discourse to defend, ironically, by implementing a discourse based on strategic ambiguity and the absence of precision (Faber, 275 from Connell and Galasinksi, 1998)
The exemplar nominalisation becomes “excellence”.

This is not a pessimistic article.  Critical discourse analysis offers an empowering strategy of discursive wariness, because it recognises (and argues) that these contested structures (which is sometimes calls genre’s or orders of discourse) are formal, everyday, and most importantly improvisational.  As I began, and as discourse theory upholds, writing reflects and constitutes social systems.  It is a fluid structure, which is continually contested, and is subject to community regulation, making it a powerfully democratic system, so long as its members are not subversively suppressed.

Authors Changing

The current transition to, and maturing of ‘computer-mediated’ communication is obviously significant for the author, and for my subject of interest, architecture education.  Systems and practices which attempt to stabilise discourses (whether they are rules, policy, curricula, accreditation criteria) seem to be under a cultural pressure (maybe what Faber calls community regulation) to adapt to practices which undermine their perceived stability, such as versioning, hypertext, blogging, crowd-funding, print-on-demand, and unprecedented degrees of collaborative writing (Wikipedia).

Institutions are slow-moving beasts though, with a stubborn vocabulary, and even the pups are complicit. Architects for example, somehow remain solitary authors, despite ridiculous odds, even despite themselves.

In a Studio session held at a well known architects office yesterday, two students referred to one of the office’s projects as being by the office’s Director (after whom the office is named), the name was even used in the possessive sense of ‘his building’, luckily the namesake wasn’t in the room, unluckily two other –completely unacknowledged– senior architects in the office were. Cringe.  I also heard an architect (at University) describe buildings with no more information than the office who designed them, “His Building”.  Authorship (dubious in the case of a building anyway) in this case was more important than programme, scale, or any description. Cringe.  The audience was not only expected to know what office they were talking about (acronyms and abbreviations are commonplace), but to know exactly what buildings they had designed.  I suspect we were also supposed to be impressed by the speakers knowledge (and our relative stupidity), which is another great strategy for protecting a body of knowledge.
Ironically, my silence so far in both of these situations is complicit to the discourse I pretend to be resisting, because “it is important to acknowledge that disciplinarity per se does not rest on a commonly accepted body of rules, but rather is definied by shifting frontiers between negotiable terms, appropriations, misunderstandings and misalignments that nevertheless allow certain identities to emerge.
-Architecture and Authorship. 2007

It seems important then, for myself at least, to understand a discourse like ‘architecture education’ and ‘the architecture profession’ more thoroughly, and become both adept and acrobatic in its everyday negotiation and improvisation.  If only to be more wary, strategically wanky, and honest about my bullshit, because everybody’s shit stinks.

I have essentially summarised ideas from the following articles, most of which are in Bazerman’s fantastic reader.  My referencing above does not do them justice at all, in fact I am more of an ‘editor’ than an author here, but I suspect you would rarely picked up a book with so many vague and possibly boring words in the title, so I felt obliged to share what I think are quite relevant ideas, particularly as a Freeranger.
Reading Material:

“History of the Book, Authorship, Book Design, and Publishing” by David Finkelstein, in:
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text.
Edited by Charles Bazerman.  Taylor & Francis, 2008.

Anne Beaufort, “Writing in the Professions” in
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. 2008

Dorothy E. Smith, Catherine F. Schryer, “On Documentary Society” in
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. 2008

Brenton Faber, “Writing and Social Change” in
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. 2008

Architecture and Authorship
Edited by Tim Anstey, Katja Grillner, Rolf Hughes. Black Dog Publishing, 2007

Death Sentence: The decay of public language
Don Watson. Knopf, 2003.


Authors Constructing Authority

Books have always been directly associated with authority and power.  The history of the ‘book’, their authors, and their authority is a small thread of a larger project about professional institutions and the ways they instrumentalise authorship and authority to obtain certain goals, in the case of my research: changing architecture education.  Over the next two blogs (the follow-up will come tomorrow), I’ll discuss some reading I’ve been doing on the history of the book, and then apply this to some contemporary contexts in the hope of understanding a little bit more about institutional authority, and the practice of writing for change.

My recent reading (I wont get into footnoting with any rigour, rather I have a few books listed at the end which I’ve been looking at) started out pretty predictably, looking historically at the rise of the book and any association it might have with authority and professions.

Things kicked off between 3000BC and 3500 in Egypt and Sumeria, when the first ‘shift’ occurs from an oral to a written system of communication.  This signals a shift to a specific type of mark-making (recording of certain information), which these researchers (Bazerman et al -see below) link primarily to economic trade, ownership, and eventually politics rather than a narrative or literary need.  So for example, if you were going to swap some goats with Osiris, you could record the trade, and claim new ownership.  This was useful as things were getting more complicated in ‘urban’ (more populous) areas with sophisticated agricultural development and trade.  Recorded ‘writing’ becomes an encoded way to make a power play, and uphold it.

So quite predictably, I also delve into some etymological research in an attempt to understand the seemingly obvious connection between the words author and authority.
It seems that the Latin-to-French auctor is the fork in the road of the two, happening around the 12C.  The older Latin root auctoritas connects to the idea of an ‘authority figure’, with terms like ‘invention’, ‘advice’ and ‘influence’ being significant.  It wouldn’t be until the 14C that the meaning ‘power to enforce obedience’ would be used, such as auctorite (prestige, dignity, gravity, right), and autorite (the ‘c’ dropped to imitate the French usage) referring to a book or quotation that would settle an argument – which fits in with the uptake of literacy and reading by acadmia/scholarship in the 12C, and the ‘professions’ in the 13C.

On the author side of auctor, the Latin root auctorem, and with it, auctus and augere refer to ‘one who causes to grow (eventually ‘augment’) or increase, an ‘enlarger’ or ‘founder’.  By the 14C it is used in the common sense as ‘one who sets forth a written document’ (coming after the two mentioned expansions of literacy in liberated (secular) scholarship and commercial professions).

Until the advent of the printing press in the 15C, the written word is sacred.  Protected by monasteries during the Dark Ages (a mighty innings from the 5C to the 11th) the practice of writing and publishing is carefully and skillfully upheld for centuries.  The practice becomes increasingly specialised, with spaces (scriptoria) and specialists dedicated to calligraphy, others to script, others to binding, and so on.  If there was ‘authorship’ (as we know it now), it would be described as collective, with little status accorded to any individual.

To reproduce – to replicate a text – was an exacting and esteemed task, reserved for the most significant words.  Clearly inherited from the status of oratory performance, the word itself held almost mystical power. The recording of the written word therefore is understandably volatile and daring, laying down such weight was an immensely powerful tool.

In 1448, the Gutenberg press rips it apart, to their disgust and imaginable disapproval.  Like Victor Hugo, they cried that this shall kill that.  Within 50 years the printing press has spread across Europe.  The Crown and Tudors got amongst it in the UK where they suppressed “seditious and heretical literature” by essentially controlling the publishing market for a couple of hundred years until the 1700s: an early (or the first?) attempt to monopolise the printed media for political gain.

From here print essentially internationalises.  News, events, (Bibles and newspapers for the colonies -New Zealand for example was printing by 1814, with an expanded programme of newspapers by the 1840s) spread the world much faster and in greater volume, and literary culture becomes increasingly central in the development of societies and nation-states around the world.

“Printing engaged writers in a manner that was different from previous scribal activity. It also undermined previous social beliefs in authorship as part of an established, collective authority – no longer were they merely cogs in an ecclesiastical wheel.”

This “preoccupation with the individualised authorial agency” signals a crucial shift in the practice of authors in the construction of authority.

“Printing shifted communication structures by being able to duplicate exact copies of texts very quickly, so allowing knowledge to be transferred more efficiently and more reliably across time and space. In the second place, this “fixing” of print would become a key factor in establishing authority and trust in the figures (authors) who produced these works.” -Finkelstein.

Tomorrow’s bit will drag this through the last hundred years of authorship and authority.

Some reading:

“History of the Book, Authorship, Book Design, and Publishing” by David Finkelstein, in:
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text.
Edited by Charles Bazerman.  Taylor & Francis, 2008.

The Book History Reader, 2nd Edition

Edited by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery.

New York: Routledge, 2006 (2002)

Architecture and Authorship
Edited by Tim Anstey, Katja Grillner, Rolf Hughes. Black Dog Publishing, 2007

And for a bit of theory, you can’t go passed Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” (1967), and Michel Foucault’s reply “What is an Author?” (1968 I think), who both contribute significantly to the theoretical and socio-cultural analysis of the idea.