The main part of this essay
was originally published under
the title ‘Slight circulations’
in the exhibition catalogue
Repetivity: platforms and
approaches for publishing,
Research Group for Artist’s
Publications, Derby 2000.
A full-page newspaper advertisement placed by a large computer company a few years ago, claimed that
the second business of all businesses was publishing. The copy was written to promote the type of software
that had been created to enable companies and organisations to produce professional-looking documents
‘inhouse’. That there might be throughout the variety of commercial activity, this parallel, albeit secondary
activity, suggests that a paradoxical repetition exists in the primary and secondary businesses of those
concerned with the primary activity of publishing itself.
The type of secondary activity publishing is of course wholly determined by the particular nature of the
primary activity. Besides the production of promotional and advertising material—which is inherently
ephemeral—all manufacturing requires some level of labelling and explanatory literature to accompany the
objects produced. From the operating and maintenance handbook for a piece of machinary, to the label on a
bottle of lemonade, such publishing is attached either by its specific use, or actually packaged along with or
physically joined to the object. In the case of the handbook, although separable from the equipment it is not
detachable from its function; while the label that details the contents of the bottle has no practical purpose
once the bottle has been poured. Therefore to separate the publishing from the object is to isolate the ‘name’
and the explanation from the thing itself—in effect, to give the ‘printed’ a false autonomy.
In contrast, the sole intention of the activity of primary publishing is to produce the autonomous—
background information and labelling will be bound-in and indistinguishably part of the thing itself.
The unique status inherent to the book can be understood further by its continual and undiminishingly
latent nature. Any particular copy of a book is there to be read and re-read at any and all of the time, as of
course is the case elsewhere, with any and all other copies of the same.
During the mid-1970s I worked in the office of the supplier of UK published books to the Library of Congress
in Washington DC. The selection procedure for the accessioning of new titles for the library precluded very
little in the way of new material (romantic fiction and school-level textbooks being two categories
automatically excluded). Ordered, processed and despatched weekly were examples of the broad range of
trade and academic publishing, as well as a far greater proportion of material, wholly specific by way of its
being for example, local or literary or political; or to side-step classification, just inherently obscure. If one
single factor distinguishes this considerable eclectic area of publishing activity, it is that the numbers
produced and distributed of each title are insignificant when compared to the ‘type’ of publishing practised
by ‘commercial’ publishers.
One particularly extreme example in terms of the ‘activity’ and purpose of publishing was a self-published
pamphlet listing and annotating references to Cricket in the writings of James Joyce. A copy had been
deposited with the British Library (as legally required for the purposes of copyright), which had classified,
catalogued and listed it in their fortnightly supplement to the British National Bibliography. The title was
ordered from the author, who supplied it from his edition of just twenty copies for the listed price of nothing.
The overall cost of producing the twenty copies obviously amounted to next to nothing compared to the cost
of say, several thousand copies of a hardback novel; but importantly, and significantly, because the work was
offered free on demand it stood outside of commerce.
The author/publisher had made a pragmatic decision of productional scale based on, and in terms of, a
considered assessment of the potential audience for his title. Of course, over and above all such
considerations was that the twenty pamphlets would arrive and end in the hands of readers who would
appreciate and find some use in the purpose of his research; but as well, the publication can be seen as a
model of one extremity within a breadth of publishing approaches. Another ‘hypothetical’ model that can be
considered to be at another extremity, sharing certain similarities with the above example but contrasting
with others, might be a volume of the same extent with an unoriginal but finely printed text, bound using
elegant materials and published in a similarly restrictive edition, but selling for a very high price.
The publisher not only sets the terms for the practice in the price of publications, but also develops the
strategies for how they are to be made. These productional decisions are to a lesser or greater extent based
on assumptions or models of how the material should end up looking, and more often than not various
compromises come into play. At one extreme, an edition of a book can be written out by hand, echoing
precisely the methodology of the scriptorium; and thereafter the sophistications of later reproductive
technologies are all available, limited only by the equation of capital against expediency. However, the
handicap of limited financial input should be seen in the context of the freedoms inherent in the license to
To take again the two examples above, the publisher of the Joyce work establishes an academic control (in
that it is not the product of an institution as such) whereas, the publisher of the elegant volume establishes
an aesthetic control. In both cases, with each new title, the publisher reasserts control particular to the
concerns and subject-matters of the project of the work; and in developing and establishing a practice for
publication, generates control along with the continual practical consequences of that control.
Outside of the domain of free floating and arbitrary patterns of information—individual titles wholly
displaced from subject groupings—it is the imperative for association that makes a copy of the Joyce work sit
most comfortably as an appendix to the Joyce oeuvre and to other critical works on this writer. It might, in
addition, sit in similar comfort with other bibliographical works, citing the occurrence of the particular
within a single literary output (‘Asparagus in the writings of Marcel Proust’ perhaps). To apply such an
imperative to the ‘Fine Press’ example, where the associations are to be found in the productional qualities
of other hands, either contemporaneous or historic; or, where the associations are isolative in the extreme,
in an imprint-tethered collection, then the essential nature of such aesthetic production is to contain each
title within the oeuvre of the publisher.
In principle, the more limited in quantity in which a publication is produced, the less likely it is that copies
will survive anywhere. By virtue of this, the historical earliest, for example—the first—is intriguing only
inasmuch as there can never be any definitive retrospective view, residual culture is bound to be fragmentary
and incomplete. This shortcoming was perfectly stated by Michael Morrow, director of one of the first ‘early
music’ groups, Musica Reservata, when he declared that “everyone has to knit their own Middle Ages”.