Published: 2019/05/05, 20:00
I love books. I love them so much that I even decided to make a living from them—probably a very bad career decision. But I can't idealize that love.
During school and university I was taught that I should love books. Actually, some teachers made me clear that it was the only way I could get my bachelor's degree. Because books are the main freedom and knowledge device in our shitty world, right? Not loving books is like the will to stay in a cave—hello, Plato. Not celebrating its greatness is just one step to support antidemocratic regimes. And while I was learning to love books, of course I also learned to respect its “creators” and the industry than made it happened.
I don't think it is casual that the development of what we mean by book is independent from the developments of capitalism and what we understand by author. Maybe correlation; maybe intersection; but definitely they aren't separate stories.
Let's start with a common place: the invention of printing. Yeah, it is an arbitrary and problematic start. We could say that books and authors goes far before that. But what we have in that particularly place in history is the standardization and massification of a practice. It didn't happen from day to night, but little by little all the methodological and technical diversity became more homogeneous. And with that, we were able to made books not as luxurious or institutional commodities, but as objects of everyday use.
And not just books, but printed text in general. Before the invention of printing, we could barely see text in our surroundings. What surprise me about printing it is not the capacity of production that we reached, but how that technology normalized the existence of text in our daily basis.
Newspapers first and now social media relies on that normalization to generate the idea of an “universal” public debate—I don't know if it is actually “public” if almost all popular newspapers and social media platforms are own by corporations and its criteria; but let's pretend it is a minor issue. And public debate supposedly incentivizes democracy.
Before Enlightenment the owners of printed text realized its freedom potential. Most churches and kingdoms tried to control it. The Protestant Church first and then the Enlightenment and emerging capitalist enterprises hijacked the control of public debate; specifically who owns the means of printed text production, who decides the languages worthy to print and who sets its main reader.
Maybe it is a bad analogy but printed text in newspapers, books and journals were so fascinating like nowadays is digital “content” over the Internet. But what I mean is that there were many people who tried to have that control and power. And most of them failed and keep failing.
So during 18th century books started to have another meaning. They ceased to be mainly devices of God's or authority's word to be a device of freedom of speech. Thanks to the firsts emerging capitalists we got means for secular thinking. Acts of censorship became evident acts of political restriction instead of acts against sinners.
The invention of printing created so big demand of printed text that it actually generated the publishing industry. Self-publishing to satisfy internal institutional demand opened the place to an industry for new citizens readers. A luxury and religious object became a commodity in the “free” market.
While printed text surpassed almost all restrictions, freedom of speech rised hand-to-hand freedom of enterprise—the debate between Free Software Movement and Open Source Initiative relies in an old and more general debate: how much freedom can we grant in order to secure freedom? But it also developed other freedom that was fastened by religious or political authorities: the freedom to be identify as an author.
How we understand authorship in our days depends in a process where the notion of author became more closed to the idea of “creator.” And it is actually a very interesting semantic transfer. In one way the invention of printing mechanized and improved a practice that it was believed to be done with God's help. Trithemius got so horrified that printing wasn't welcome. But with new Spirits—freedoms of enterprise and speech—what was seen even as a demonic invention became one of the main technologies that still defines and reproduces the idea of humanity.
This opened the opportunity to independent authors. Printed text wasn't anymore a matter of God's or authority's word but a secular and ephemeral Human's word. The massification of publishing also opened the gates for less relevant and easy-to-read printed texts; but for the incipient publishing industry it didn't matter: it was a way to catch more profits and consumers.
Not only that, it reproduced the ideas that were around over and over again. Yes, it growth the diversity of ideas but it also repeated speeches that safeguard the state of things. How much books have been a device of freedom and how much they have been a device of ideological reproduction? That is a good question that we have to answer.
So authors without religious or political authority found a way to sneak their names in printed text. It wasn't yet a function of property—I don't like the word “function,” but I will use it anyways—but a function of attribution: they wanted to publicly be know as the human who wrote those texts. No God, no authority, no institution, but a person of flesh and bone.
But that also meant regular powerless people started to be authors. Without backup of God or King, who the fucks are you, little peasant? Publishers—a.k.a. printers in those years—took advantage. The fascination to saw a newspaper article about books you wrote is similar to see a Wikipedia article about you. You don't gain directly anything, only reputation. It relies on you to made it profitable.
During 18th century, authorship became a function of individual attribution, but not a function of property. So I think this is were the notion of “creator” came out as an ace in the hole. In Germany we can track one of the first robust attempts to empower this new kind of powerless independent author.
German Romanticism developed something that goes back to the Renaissance: humans can also create things. Sometimes we forget that Christianity has been also a very messy set of beliefs. The attempt to made a consistent, uniform and rationalized set of beliefs goes back in the diversity of religious practices. So you could accept that printing text lost its directly connection to God's word while you could argue some kind of inspiration beyond our corporeal world. And you don't have to rationalize it: you can't prove it, you just feel it and know it.
So german writers used that as foundations for independent authorship. No God's or authority's word, no institution, but a person inspired by things beyond our world. The notion of “creation” has a very strong religious and metaphysical backgrounds that we can't just ignore them: act of creation means the capacity to bring to this world something that it doesn't belong to it. The relationship between authorship and text turned out so imminent that even nowadays we don't have any fucking idea why we accept as common sense that authors have a superior and inalienable bond to its works.
Before the expansionism of German Romanticism's notion of author, writers were seen more as producers that sold their work to the owners of means of production. So while the invention of printing facilitated a new kind of secular and independent author, in other hand it summoned Authorship Fog: “Whenever you cast another Book spell, if Spirits of Printing are in the command zone or on the battlefield, create a 1/1 white Author creature token with flying and indestructible.” As material as a printed card we made magic to grant authors a creative function: the ability to “produce from nothing” and a bond that never changes or dies.
Authors as creators is a cool metaphor, who doesn't want to have some divine powers? In the abstract discussion about the relationship between authors, texts and freedom of speech, it is just a perfect fit. You don't have to rely in anything material to grasp all of them as an unique phenomena. But in the concrete facts of printed texts and the publishers abuses to authors you go beyond attribution. You are not just linking an object to a subject. Instead, you are grating property relationships between subject and an object.
And property means nothing if you can't exploit it. At the beginning of publishing industry and during all 18th century, publishers took advantage of this new kind of “property.” The invention of the author as a property function was the rise of new legislation. Germans and French jurists translated this speech to laws.
I won't talk about the history of moral rights. Instead I want to highlight how this gave a supposedly ethical, political and legal justification of the individualization of cultural commodities. Authorship began to be associated inalienably to individuals and a book started to mean a reader. But not only that, the possibilities of intellectual freedom were reduced to a particular device: printed text.
More freedom translated to the need of more and more printed material. More freedom implied the requirement of bigger and bigger publishing industry. More freedom entailed the expansionism of cultural capitalism. Books switched to commodities and authors became its owners. Moral rights were never about the freedom of readers, but who was the owner of that commodities.
Books stopped to be sources of oral and local public debate and became private devices for an “universal” public debate: the Enlightenment. Authorship put attribution in secondary place so individual ownership could become its synonymous. A book for several readers and an author as an id for an intellectual movement or institution became irrelevant against a book as property for a particular reader—as material—and author—as speech.
And we are sitting here reading all this shit without taking to account that ones of the main wins of our neoliberal world is that we have been talking about objects, individuals and production of wealth. Who the fucks are the subjects who made all this publishing shit possible? Where the fucks are the communities that in several ways make possible the rise of authors? For fuck sake, why aren't we talking about the hidden costs of the maintenance of means of production?
We aren't books and we aren't its authors. We aren't those individuals who everybody are gonna relate to the books we are working on and, of course, we lack of sense of community. We aren't the ones who enjoy all that wealth generated by books production but for sure we are the ones who made all that possible. We are neglecting ourselves.
So don't come with those tales about the greatness of books for our culture, the need of authorship to transfer wealth or to give attribution and how important for our lives is the publishing production.
Did you know that books have been mainly devices of ideological reproduction or at least mainly devices for cultural capitalism—most best-selling books aren't critical thinking books that free our minds, but text books with its hidden curriculum and self-help and erotic books that keep reproducing basic exploitable stereotypes?
Did you realize that authorship haven't been the best way to transfer wealth or give attribution—even worst than before authors now have to paid in order to be published and they practically lose all their rights?
Did you see how we are still worry about production no matter what—it doesn't matter that it would imply bigger chains of free labor or, as I prefer to say: chains of exploitation and “intellectual” slavery, because in order to be an scholar or a writer you have to embrace publishing industry and maybe even cultural capitalism?
Please, don't come with those tales, we already reached more fertile fields that can generate way better stories.