PRINT February 1989



ABSTRACTION REDEEMS OBVIATED forms. So the new kinds of painting that emerged at the end of the 19th century were devoted to proving wrong Paul Delaroche’s famous assertion upon seeing a daguerreotype that “From this day on, painting is dead.” More utilitarian forms than representational figuration passed unmourned with the era of the Industrial Revolution. The carriage gave way to the automobile, the wood-burning stove to the oven, the quill to the ballpoint, with, Luddites notwithstanding, only gestural nostalgia or inexpedient sentimentality. But our post-Modern era mourns its own passing as vividly as it mourns the passing of what has come before, and clings to pure forms all the more strongly as those forms incline toward obsolescence. Abstracting them is, perhaps, the only way to validate them; forms that have followed function, when their function deserts them, must be given status as forms alone or they will inevitably cease to be.

We have come too late to save the wood-burning stove; a form that has disappeared, no matter how keenly or mawkishly resuscitated, cannot achieve anything more than grace-note status. But there are other forms that still bear the weight of their own history more than the weight of historicity. Primary among these, perhaps, is the codex, whose function has long established it as the greatest emblem for knowledge. But the codex is slowly giving way, in our computer age, to the serial or scroll experience of texts; the page has turned into a convenience demarcated by a dotted line, and the reader’s physical contact with what he or she reads goes no farther than the arrow-marked keys on a keyboard. This abstraction of the codex, then, is the inevitable outgrowth of our manifest reluctance to forsake a habit in which we have located so much of human dignity for so many years; it should have been predictable.

The Englishman William Morris dignified the practice of crafts, and bookbinding, historically, is a craft, so it is not surprising that Britain has been the locus of much of the most interesting bookbinding of the last ten years. Most of the “radical” binders in Britain today can be aligned with one or the other of three modes of thought: the interpretive, the structuralist, or the purely abstract. In fact, the binders associated with each of these philosophies have rather precipitously incorporated their technological innovations into their theoretical constructs, as though mechanical inventiveness, for so long the hallmark of originality in all crafts, now requires a raison d’être.

The interpretive binders are the most “literary,” yet even in this they are radical; for the traditional role of the binder has been specifically extratextual, concerned with notions of pattern and ornamentation, or, at the outside, of illustration. The interpretive binders, whose primary influence is David Sellars, bind books in structures that are not illustrative, but instead attempt to capture in visual terms the import of the book’s content as the binder perceives it. Meaning emerges from the tension between the binding, whose communication is visual, and the text, whose communication is verbal, and the meaning itself, in principle, transcends what could be achieved in either medium alone. Any one of Sellars’ bindings is not simply about the book it contains; it is of intrinsic interest and constitutes both a response and a complement to the text. Sellars is, in a sense, then, a literary critic who chooses visual terms to interpret texts, like the art critic who uses verbal terms to interpret images.

The structuralist binders, of whom Philip Smith was the first and is still the most rigorous, make books that are puns about the business of bookmaking. A Smith book will be constructed in such a way that its actual structural elements are submerged by a design that supplies “false” structural elements. The tapes of the binding, for example, may be entirely convincing as one views the spine, yet may blossom into roses as one turns the book and views the front cover. These are bindings that are about the nature of binding, thus purely self-referential. Though illustrative elements from the book contained may be included in their decorative scheme, these binders’ real interest always lies in the tension between the realization of that decorative schema—constrained by the tripartite structure of front cover, spine, back cover—and game-playing with that structure’s potential and limitations.

The purely abstract binders are the most sculptural. The rather frightening work of Dee Odell-Foster is at once the most unabashed celebration and purest excoriation of the book as a literary form. Odell-Foster’s books have no words in them; sometimes multiple leaves of paper are bound between heavy covers, but more often the form of the book itself is abstracted into an accordion of Plexiglas shapes, or a wall-mounted series of holograms that each define a page, or a jagged metal oblong. Though disdaining the simplicity of words, these works “describe” events or history by exploiting the universal recognition acceded to the book as a communicative force. They celebrate the triumph of a form that no longer needs its original function; they dismiss the word as though it were nothing more than an outdated pretext for a binding.

Each of these ideas of bookbinding mirrors historical developments in literary theory. The work of the interpretive binders recalls the approach of the New Critics of the ’50s and the humanist vocabulary of F.R. Leavis; structuralist binding, of course, recalls Roland Barthes and others; and pure abstract binding conjures the deconstructionists—Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and J. Hillis Miller. What is perhaps most fascinating is that none of the binders seem to be well versed in the literary theory that so explicitly conjoins with their activity. It has been suggested that our ever increasing dependence on electronic and technological data-bases requires a vocabulary of numbers and symbols, and not of words; to the computer, a text is a series of numerical commands, and not a series of sentences at all. Perhaps, then, the critics whose theories presage recent developments in bookbinding were in fact also struggling, in diverse ways, to abstract a form at the brink of obsolescence; the post-structuralists, for example, who validate textuality even when texts have ceased to convey information, are not far from the bookbinders who validate the codex even when it contains no words. That these movements have gone on quite separately toward the same end is poignant, but also indicative; and though each seems to bespeak a loss of purpose, their significance goes beyond articulating that loss. For these radical interpretations, both in form and theory, though they seem to undervalue the original “function” of the book qua book—text and binding—will perhaps leave us tolerant of words when we “need” only numbers; and that, certainly, is worth something.

Andrew Solomon is a New York writer who currently lives in London. He is a contributing editor of Harpers & Queen.