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In “Books and the Nation”, her chapter in the Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (2015), Trish Loughran writes that

the fact remains: there is no radical history of the book, no comprehensively leftist or revolutionary or decolonizing tradition to speak of. There is no queer history of the book; there is no Marxist history of the book; and despite a massive global diffusion of the field, there is very little (in English) that we might truly call a postcolonial history of the book. (p. 50)

Loughran’s diagnosis of the cause of this disciplinary gap lies in “how the field has historically mediated the universal and the particular”. The relation of the universal to the particular brings to mind the particular insights enabled by dialectical thought. For Hegel, the Universal and the Particular were moments in a dialectical process, connected with and interpentrating esch other, rather than opposed to one another, as they are in formal logic (what Engels refers to as “metaphysics”). Dialectical thought, it would seem, has much to contribute to the history of the book, if only in the area of relating and contextualixing the moments of the universal and the particular.

But that’s not all. The material emphasis of book history requires a materialist dialectic, the dialectic indeed of which Marx wrote:

My dialectical method is, in its foundation, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it… With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.(Postface to the Second Edition of Capital, Volume 1, 1873).

The application of Marxist theory to the history of the book in some ways seems like a natural development. The insistence on materialist, the multidisciplinarity of Marxist thought, and the commitment to social change and social justice, would make it a natural fit for the history of the book, which Loughran describes as

a perfect location from which to launch… a trouble-making project because it’s materialist, detail-oriented, and historical. (p. 50).

This is, of course, an apt description of that other “trouble-making project”, Marx’s Capital, and one could do worse than start where he does, with the commodity, recognizing that the intellectual “wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an immense collection of’ books, even if we have moved beyond the printed codex as the form of the book. The book as commodity has, of course, been looked at many times, but as with the commodity tout court it seems as if the contradictions within it have been overlooked. The book is both a material object and a cultural, intellectual artefact, and no amount of distinguishing between the “book” and the “text” can do justice to the interpenetration of this contradiction.

From the book as commodity, then we have typically been led down two separate paths. On the one hand there is the economics of book production and circulation, focusing on the material conditions of the lives of books, as exemplified by Darnton’s commmunication circuit, which places the cultural aspects of print culture - what Marxists call the superstructure - at the centre of, but separate from, and seemingly subservient to, the material base.

On the other hand, there is the attempt at looking at “the whole socio-economic conjuncture”, as in Adams and Barker’s revision of Darnton’s circuit, which tends to emphasis the superstructure over the material base.This is a circuit driven by readers and writers, workers in the superstructure, where Darnton’s was driven by businessmen, workers in the base. One of the things a Marxist history of the book would need to do would be to show the ways in which these two models are in fact related as part of a social whole, two moments in a common dialectical process.

The dual nature of book as “book” and as “text” leads us to look at the question of reading, which opens up the world of Marxist cultural and aesthetic theory, from Adorno’s culture industry and aestetic theory, to Jameson’s “political unconscious” and beyond. Reading as both individual and social act, the history of reading and reading publics, the history of libraries; Marxism offers particular insights into both the social and structural determinants of these phenomena.

But Marxism is a theory of liberation, of the emancipation of the working class and the achievement of a new society, and I think that a Marxist analysis of print culture in the 21st century offers the potential for particular political interventions in, among other things, librarianship and academia, but also in such areas as the economics and culture of scholarly publishing, post-truth and authority, and academic culture. Insofar as print has also always been a popular culture, interventions in this area are supported by a rigorous Marxist history of the book as well.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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