BOOK THINKING // Levi Sherman

31 Dec 2015 9:00 PM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

Artists’ books are a slippery, interdisciplinary medium. Attempted definitions seem to fall into two general categories: genealogies and zones of intersection. The latter acknowledges how artists’ books can be understood by applying analytical tools from myriad disciplines including film, design, poetry, and so on. Though this may leave some purists, determined to define precisely what is and is not an artists’ book, dissatisfied, these related fields provide the theoretical and critical framework for artists’ books as a mature discipline. In turn, artists’ books today are capable of lending an analytical lens to other areas of study and practice.

I wish to advocate for the idea of artists’ books as a way of thinking: Book Thinking. This is an easy leap for me, as someone who studied graphic design at a time when Design Thinking was already a pervasive cultural buzzword. Another design analogy is Katherine McCoy's influential essay, “Typography as Discourse,” which, following Foucault, understands discourse as a “[way] of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations....” What can we gain from artists’ books as discourse, from considering formal qualities like structure and sequence within social contexts like literacy and book culture?

I believe acknowledging Book Thinking would avoid two frequent and unproductive conversations within the artists’ book field. On one hand, purists rejecting a work: “But it’s not an artists’ book.” On the other hand, enthusiasts adopting everything: “Cave paintings are artists’ books” and “Facebook is an artists’ book.” The purists and enthusiasts make such claims until the definition of an artists’ book is either squashed or stretched to the point of meaninglessness. By acknowledging Book Thinking, enthusiasts can bring the analytical power of artists’ books to new frontiers without watering down the field, and purists can engage related works without knee-jerk defensiveness.

The biggest benefits of Book Thinking lie beyond our own discipline. Philosopher Gary Tedman argues that Marx’s 1844 Paris Manuscripts is an artists’ book (though I would amend that it be understood through Book Thinking). Tedman cites Margaret Fay, who asserted that understanding the visual and structural eccentricities of Marx’s original hand-bound manuscript leads to a fundamentally different interpretation of Marx’s critiques of Adam Smith and G.W.F. Hegel. The manuscript embodies and clarifies the challenging concepts of immanent critique and dialectical thinking. In JAB38, Anne Royston similarly applies Book Thinking to Derrida's Glas in her intriguing essay, “The Fibrous Text.” Like Tedman, Royston helps readers access a difficult and unusual text. Such insights are no small feat for Book Thinking. Imagine if those of us with expertise in artists’ books pursued such studies more frequently.

Having borrowed from so many influences, the artists’ books field is ready to give back. By embracing Book Thinking, we can move beyond unproductive self-definition and collaborate with other scholars and practitioners, whether to study cave painting or social media. In today's climate of budget cuts and lip service interdisciplinarity, it can hardly hurt to demonstrate what we have to offer.


Works Cited

Fay, Margaret. “The Influence of Adam Smith on Marx's Theory of Alienation” Science & Society: An Independent Journal of Marxism, Vol. XLVII, number 2, Summer 1983.

Tedman, Gary. “Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts as a Work of Art; A Hypertextual Reinterpretation” Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 16, issue 4, Routledge, 2004.

Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.


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