A friend’s story: his father visited him in Baguio, sort of giddily perhaps, he told his father about a book he has made. Sort of giddily I guess, he showed his father: several pages of photocopied material, stapled. I cannot remember if his father was addled, doubted him, laughed at him a little – maybe all at once. When did a stapled, photocopied thing begin to constitute a book?
Now, it begins to be in the offensive: swarms of self-published books, photocopied and stapled and rawer, dappled with proofs of greater doses of manual rather than mechanical reproduction, exhibiting how, sort of in contrast to Warhol’s wish to become a machine, human hands are still taking control of, kneading the machines. The control is not just theoretical; the control is out there, sweating-glistening in the flesh: hands and machine working together to create a book, not just hands operating machines to create a book.
What is the significance of this progress in the landscape of cultural, specifically book production? Democracy sheds off some of its unashamed pretentiousness and starts to approximate a more genuine version of democracy in cultural production. What Gisele Freund said about photography’s claim to being art can also be applicable to cultural industry’s inferable claim to democracy: Cultural industry’s claim to be democratic was raised precisely by those who were turning it into a business. The mass production of culture was hailed for the way it democratized cultural consumption but what the hailing overlooks is the capitalistic goal of this democratization: we want cultural products to be available to more people, we want more people paying in order to see Marilyn Monroe onscreen, listen to Air Supply, watch Mara Clara or Maalaala Mo Kaya.
In this unpromising tendency towards monopoly, self-publishing books, turning books into a do-it-yourself venture can be presented as an alternative act of democratization, one that pedestals not so much the profit aspect as the aspects that are more internal to the cultural products themselves. What is more valuable is not so much the price of works and how one can profit from them as what these works are saying, how they are saying it and what do they enact in relation to its surrounding contexts – cultural, political and social.
Democracy in publishing becomes fleshlier, sweeter to put one’s faith on once the means of ‘book’ production – tied to the alteration of what constitutes a book – becomes more accessible and then maximized. But production is not all. Once the products stand robustly in the corner of one’s apartments, one’s little, crummy office, distributing comes next. This is one aspect that appears to be lagging behind even as signs of breakthrough are already with us. Venues for sharing, selling, distributing, displaying DIY products or self-published materials are growing. This is significant for materials like these are not warmly welcomed in the national book stores, unless people are willing to do the strenuous, mostly scattered and hopeless task of slyly tucking copies of zines and photocopied materials in between pages of books or on top of rulers and pencils sold in bookstores. Another reason is this: following Apostol’s Bibliolepsy, it is in the face of the earth that cultural works “must pay dues,” and they must not have their “eye cocked to the moon, as if in secret only heaven might understand.” Cultural works must be out there in the sweatiness of everyday, being read, being refused to be read, being talked about, being a pain in the ass, being a stimulant of a vision, and not folded cleanly and demurely, meant to be read as if in deference to a life of the mind – and this apply not just to DIY stuff. Distribution is key; sharing is important; passing on material is advised. Without these, one is unlikely to get struck by a father used to seeing books glossy and well-bound and covered nicely with some cute art; a father who, in the face of a stapled material his son is showing him, might ask: When did a stapled, photocopied thing begin to constitute a book?
To conclude this, a reference-as-analogy: “I listened to a tour guide at the National Gallery ask his group what made Rothko great. Someone said, “The colors are beautiful.” Someone else mentioned how many books and articles had been written about him. A third person pointed out how much people had paid for his paintings. The tour guide said, “Rothko is great because he forced artists who came after him to change how they thought about painting.” This is the single most useful definition of artistic greatness I’ve ever encountered.”
That was from David Shields’ Reality Hunger. Is not always there a ticking cuteness, a goading resolve when we talk about changes in the way we’ve being thinking about things, the way we’ve been doing things? On December 4 at Café Yagam, Better Living Through Xeroxography will return to Baguio and all the photocopied materials, DIY works will converge there and hopefully, with festivity and contained contumacy, it will force other cultural workers to expand, if not drastically change the way they think about producing and disseminating books. Let greatness be of secondary importance. The arena where greatness is being evaluated and played out is long prepared for a meaningful contestation. So see you on December 4 at Cafe Yagam, for BLTX and stapled, photocopied things all grinningly constituting themselves as books.
*This has been published in the current issue of Baguio Chronicle