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Umberto Eco: The Virtual Imagination

"But many internet programs suggest that a story is enriched by successive contributions. … This has sometimes happened in the past without disturbing authorship. With the Commedia dell'arte, every performance was different. We cannot identify a single work due to a single author. Another example is a jazz jam session. We may believe there is a privileged performance of 'Basin Street Blues' because a recording survives. But there were as many Basin Street Blues as there were performances. ... There are books that we cannot rewrite because their function is to teach us about Necessity, and only if they are respected as they are can they provide us with such wisdom. Their repressive lesson is indispensable to reach a higher state of intellectual and moral freedom."

(Umberto Eco, 7 November 2000)



2000authorial signatureauthoritative workauthorship • Basin Street Blues • biographybooks • books-to-be-read • booksellersbookstoresCinderella • closed universe • Commedia dellarte • comprehending languagecomputers • copying machine • e-bookelectronic literatureencyclopaediaend of booksend of print • enriched by successive contributions • every performance is different • evolving formfairy talefatefolioFranz Kafkafuture of the book • god passed over • grammatical rulesheroeshypertexthypertext fiction • hypertextual programme • hypertextual structures • Immanuel Kant • infinite possibilities • infinite texts • intellectual freedom • intellectual needs • jazz jam session • Les Miserables • library catalogue • linear narrative • linearityLittle Red Riding Hoodmanuscripts • moral freedom • Napoleon Bonapartenatural language • necessity • new forms of literacy • obsolete form • open work • Penguin edition • photocopierprint on demand • printed books • printed version • privileged performance • publishing houses • publishing modelreaderly textsreading • reading process • revisionscanningselectionshift to digital • single author • specificity of print • systems and text • tailored consumer experience • texts which can be interpreted in infinite ways • theories of interpretation • tragic beauty • tragic literature • Umberto Eco • unlimited texts • utilitarian value • Victor Hugo • War and Peace • Waterloo • William Shakespeare


Simon Perkins
31 JULY 2013

Was Ways of Seeing the first pre-digital book?

"Everyone is talking about the way in which digital media is destabilizing print. I thought it was interesting to choose the reverse scenario: something that started digital but found its real audience in print. Ways of Seeing started as a four–part television series on the BBC in England conceived of and written by art critic John Berger. Berger was reacting specifically to the traditional connoisseurship of Kenneth Clark in the Civilisation series, another famous television program, which inscribed the canonical march of Western culture in heroic terms. As a critique of Clark, Berger created a popular reading of the icons of western art not as aesthetic objects, but deeply cultural artifacts that reveal, upon close 'reading', the limitation, prejudice, bias, and obsession of the culture from which they sprang.

This form of cultural criticism was established in the Universities, especially Marxist leaning polytechnics, but had never before had such a popular airing. The idea that classic paintings could be decoded to reveal social facts–and in fact Berger compared them to modern advertising–was heretical and his work was met with incredulity and anger in the hallowed halls of University Art History departments around the country, But Berger's position, especially his proto–feminist critique of female nudes, would grow to become the dominant form of art criticism in the years ahead.

The television program had moderate success but shortly after it aired Berger joined with producer Mike Dibb and graphic designer Richard Hollis to produce a printed version of the televised series. Clark had also produced a book to accompany Civilisation: a huge, lavish, full–color coffee table monster that must have weighted 10 kilos. In contrast Berger, Dibb and Hollis produced a slim paperback, 127 x 203mm, of only 166 pages. Even more radical, the book was produced in black + white, reducing the famous art to mere notations on standard, uncoated paper of a trade book. It was published by the BBC Books under the Pelican Books imprint, a division of the venerable Penguin Press organized to publish books to educate rather than entertain the reading public.

Even more striking was the book's design. Hollis starts the text of the first essay on the cover: 'Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.' This simple typographic trick gives the book both a certain modesty (saves on pages) and an urgency (no time to waste). Starting on the outside also suggests a digital quality, the content is broadcast to the reader even as they pass the shelf.

The interior is equally unusual. Hollis set the entire book in a bold sans serif font, a very unlikely choice and aggressively un–civilized. There is no nod to classicism, the book is an entirely modern form. The text is broken down into short bursts, usually no more than a paragraph coupled with a visual example. Again reflecting its origin as a televisual experience the text and images work simultaneously, one form leveraging the other. There are five such text–and–image essays on everything from renaissance nudes to modern advertising. But Berger also adds for entirely visual essays. He assembles a series of examples that by the power of his selection and through their aggressive juxtaposition, he makes his thesis without any words at all. In so doing he presages the development of the curated playlist as a predominant contemporary form and creates the first pre–digital book."

(Michael Rock, 2011, 2x4)



2011 • 2x4 • aesthetic objectsart criticismart history • BBC Books • BBC Twoblack and white • canonical march • Civilisation (series) • contemporary form • cultural artefactscultural criticism • curated playlist • destabilising force • digital media • digital quality • educate rather than entertain • end of print • famous art • female nudes • heroic terms • John Bergerjuxtaposition • Kenneth Clark • Michael Rock • Mike Dibb • modern advertising • modern form • modestypaperback • Pelican Books • Penguin Random Housepolytechnic • pre-digital book • print and digitalprinted version • proto-feminist critique • renaissance nudes • Richard Hollis • sans-serif typeface • seeing comes before words • short formsocial factstelevision programmetelevision seriestelevisual experiencetext and image • trade book • typographic trick • uncoated paper • urgency • visual culturevisual essayWays of Seeingwestern artWestern culture


Simon Perkins

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