There’s an anti-digital backlash going on, tied to an interest in the “artisanal,” and ultimately connected to the maker movement. Or at least it looks like and anti-digital, pointedly analog backlash. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes gets called the “anti-kindle,” for example, because it allows us to remember the tactile and physical qualities of books (by carving them up with a die-cut method). Appeals to paper and boards and glue and thread, and the weight and feel (and smell) of those things, have recently been made in the context of the artisanal turn in general. Partly this is a countermovement in response to the digitization of everything. As Andrew Piper says, “The more screenish our world becomes, the more we try to insert tactility back into it.” He rightly argues in Book Was There that we’re in a transitional or “translational” moment requiring increased humanistic and technical understanding of what is at stake in the different materialities of our different platforms for reading.
In fact, the most interesting instances of the apparent analog backlash, the bookish resistance to digitization, often contain within themselves the evidence of the very translational complications that may seem at first to be trying to escape. Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s Publishing has produced a number of books with flagrantly physical bindings, for example, not the least of which is Eggers’ own 2012 novel, A Hologram for the King, with a textured, gold-foil stamped cover. It’s a book that says “Book”–no accident, surely, in a novel that tells the story of a crazy boondoggle to set up a hologram-based communication link in the Saudi desert.
McSweeney’s interest in this area is diverse. In December it will publish musician Beck Hansen’s latest “album,” Song Reader, which as the publisher’s advertisement says, comes “in an almost-forgotten form–twenty songs existing only as individual pieces of sheet music, never before released or recorded.”
Complete with full-color, heyday-of-home-play-inspired art for each song and a lavishly produced hardcover carrying case, Song Reader is an experiment in what an album can be at the end of 2012–an alternative that enlists the listener in the tone of every track, and that’s as visually absorbing as a dozen gatefold LPs put together.
If you want to hear the songs, the announcement concludes, “bringing them to life depends on you.” In a digital era when analog synthesizers, vinyl records, and analog tape recordings are retro-hip, Beck has out-analoged the analog fetishists (like the grandson of a Fluxus artist that he is).
Beck’s preface to the album has just appeared at The New Yorker website.
We started collecting old sheet music, and becoming acquainted with the art work, the ads, the tone of the copy, and the songs themselves. They were all from a world that had been cast so deeply into the shadow of contemporary music that only the faintest idea of it seemed to exist anymore. I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia . . . .
But the final twist to the project is that (of course) performances of the songs will be recorded, are already being recorded, by known artists and unknown amateurs, using digital technology and the conventions of social media (of course), and selections of these performances will be posted as videos for download on the album’s official website. So the event or happening that the album is meant to cue is very much what Piper calls a translational event, a hybrid, analog/digital affair, and is ultimately dependent on the Internet for its own successful publication, its being made public, rather than remaining many isolated, individual experiences with ukeleles and pianos.