Machine-Tooled Reading

By: Garrett Stewart  

In my 2011 Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art (U Chicago Press, in second printing), I surveyed the tendency in conceptual art, rather than artisanal book-making, to elegize the epoch of the codex by sculpting or effacing found books (e.g., “de-accessioned” library holdings) in building monuments (virtual cenotaphs) to absent reading in page form. In this elegiac response to the rise of e-reading, works ranged from the intricate carvings of Brian Dettmer to the 90,000-volumes sculptures of Matej Kren. Dozens of such conceptual pieces and installations would be reviewed again by slides. But the elegiac seems to be giving way the analytic if one contrasts a 2014 retrospective exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery, “Odd Volumes,” with a 2017 show at New York’s Center for Book Arts, called “The Internal Machine.” The former stressed deformations of the codex in various incisions and exfoliations, amounting to what I have termed bibliobjets--rather that active textual platforms. The more recent show emphasizes instead the technology of the book form as instrumental mechanism: a delivery system for print text, in competition lately with screen reading. Examining works represented there should help mark a sea change in conceptual art’s approach to bibliographic culture: from the closed book, so to say, of a millennial hegemony to a more concerted examination of the materiality and phenomenality of reading itself, thrown into relief by estranged codex infrastructures. It is in this sense that the “Internal Machine” show genuinely looks under the hood of reading.

Book art, reading
Books and Libraries
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Prof. Garrett Stewart

Having held teaching positions long and short term at Boston University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Stanford, and Princeton, as well as the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, before coming to the University of Iowa, I am the author of 9 scholarly monographs on fiction, film, and art. Most relevant to my Barcelona proposal are Reading Voices (1990), Dear Reader (1996), The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text (2006), and the most recent study Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art (2011, again published by the University of Chicago Press), which my proposed lecture would draw on and extend with new visual evidence. My 2009 book Novel Violence won the Perkins Prize (2011) from the International Society for the Study of Narrative, and I have helpd both NEH and Guggenheim Fellowships. I was elected in 2010 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.