Part I: After Reading George Dyson’s
Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
Since we appeared together last spring on the Left Forum panel on the future of experimental literary publishing, I have been trying to state clearly my intuition that our discussions about “the future of the book” have been missing something crucial. After reading George Dyson’s extraordinary history of the making of the first high-speed, random-access storage matrix computer, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, I think I am closer to being able to state what that crucial something is. Dyson’s book forces its reader to face the proposition that the coherence of everyday life that we now experience is produced by a cybernetics of command and control that has absorbed and superseded within its extra-linguistic, mathematicized protocols of logic the linguistic protocols of print literacy as the governing technology of universal communicative accountability. I read his book to be suggesting that the absorption of the representative function of signs within their instrumentalization unlocked by mathematicized calculative machine thought has permitted coercive power to replace deliberative consent as the immediate currency and self-justifying ethos underlying the determination of everyday life.
Capitalism instrumentalizes value by monetizing it. Can the relentless monetization of value now underway—and made increasingly charismatic by the exponentially increased powers of the calculative machines driving it—wholly absorb natural language’s capacities for deriving an effective ethics and politics by which capitalism’s own history of “value” can be stated, debated, and challenged? Does the history of literacy, in other words, still contain within itself a possible post-capitalist future for realizing, distributing, and valuing “wealth” quite differently from finance capitalism’s assertion of monetization as the only legitimate expression of the optimal allocation of value by a optimally rational, “free,” and universal marketplace?
Aren’t these the real questions that stand behind public fascination with the fate of traditional book publishing in a global business environment now operating according to the digital and financial logics of value and cybernetics pioneered by Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter? Aren’t these also the really big questions that should be addressed self-consciously in our thinking and in our proposals for re-creating and preserving the emancipative and empowering capacities of print literacy and not-for-profit book publishing in today’s digital and thoroughly financialized media environment?
The words “literacy” and “reading” do not appear in the index to Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson’s indispensable history of the creation between 1946 and 1953 by John von Neumann and his colleagues at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study of the first computer “to make full use of a high-speed random-access storage matrix and [that] became the machine whose coding was most widely replicated and whose logical architecture was most widely reproduced.” Nevertheless, my intuition is that Dyson is giving us the history of a crucial turning point in the history of literacy. As a mathematician, physicist, and computer scientist, his background enables him to place the inner story of the unlocking of the seemingly unlimited powers of numbers by mathematicians and physicists newly, and perhaps transformatively, within humanists’ intellectual grasp.
One of Dyson’s greatest achievements is to pose the central question of whether John von Neumann’s seemingly successful axiomatization of logic and value through number and calculation, upon which global cybernetic and consumer culture’s universal monetization-as-value today rests, may come at the expense of human beings’ ability to act on those mathematicians’ own potentially transformative finding that “the consistency of mathematics is unprovable.”
Dyson, the humanist historian of technology, takes us right to the edge of the abyss of modern knowledge and power more successfully, more elegantly, more urgently than anyone else, I sense, perhaps because he experienced it himself first as a scientist and mathematician after having grown up on the grounds of the Institute among von Neumann’s immediate circle as the child of two of its members. The computer that now controls so much of everyday life, we should never forget, was invented between 1946 and 1953 because secret weapons developers needed to accurately and quickly predict the complexity of the blast effects of thermonuclear weapons, a task quite simply beyond the unaided human intellect’s calculative capacities.
Few readers, I suspect, will be able to bring a sufficient range of knowledge across the necessary number of intellectual disciplines to their reading of Turing’s Cathedral to do it justice. I know I cannot. This may turn out not to be a weakness but one of the strengths of Dyson’s magisterial—perhaps “great”—book if it results in a shift of consciousness on the part of many of our best thinkers. Perhaps Dyson’s book will give them a new awareness of how their individual disciplines intersect within a larger pattern of modern knowledge, power, and determination whose “whole” may be more terrifying than any one modern disciplinary vantage point has so far been able to capture.
I have read Dyson’s book as a novelist and editor who was trained as a historian. The book’s enormous gift to me is that it provides an intelligible interior account of the instrumentalization of the militarized forces of command and control implicit in both Alan Turing and John von Neumann’s understanding of computer technology and its potential enhancement of human thought. Dyson does this with a subtle insistence on the madness of the present, ever-intensifying magnitude of that instrumentalization, devoted to ever more effective, and exponentially increasing, applications of cybernetic techniques of command and control.
Dyson, by intimately detailing the Cold War history of the development of new technologies’ uses for modern versions of ever-increasing domination, convincingly demonstrates that their present use for the maximum extraction of profit by corporations within a militarized global state system has nothing to do with any universal scientific “law” of value, optimal rationality, or “truth.” Rather, the generative capacities of mathematical language, of natural human language, and of nature itself suggest that today’s frenzied, universal monetization of value, tied to cybernetic algorithms maximizing efficiency in ways that lead their beneficiaries to use metrics as substitutes for ethics, may be better understood as the approaching dead end of a militarized Cold War civilization from which we have been unable to find any exit.
Turing’s Cathedral, despite everything Dyson knows about the enormous beauties and powers of the new orders of thought computers make possible, refuses, from within the heart of the science and the mathematics themselves, to find any authority for the current instrumentalization or market rationalization of intellectual life. Instead, his book all but explicitly states, this history we are reading, of the application of some of the human mind’s best thought within current monetized and militarized corporate structures of command and control, is rapidly approaching a cliff. We have created a world, Dyson shows, any accurate understanding of which forces us to ask, “What if the price of machines that think is people who don’t?”
The intellectual technology Dyson uses to argue his case for a different ethics of determination—asymptotically approaching a different form of communicative reciprocity—is, of course, the humanist literacy by which his readership will engage and understand his book. (Turing’s Cathedral is a national bestseller.) Reading, after all, creates a shared communicative horizon of the mind in relation to other minds, reaching back to long before modern capitalism presumed to teach speech the language of market value.
Literacy, the act of reading this book presumes, will be available for what comes after the present system fails. But that literacy, Dyson may also be suggesting, may first have to be released from its present instrumentalization and absorption within corporately managed metrics of maximized profit extraction before its liberating humanist potential for new, non-monetized thought can be realized.
What would experimental not-for-profit literary book publishing actually look like if it took as its ultimate goal the explicit creation, in the context of today’s globally administered command and control structures, of an interpretive community of readers and writers dedicated to realizing non-instrumentalized, non-monetized deliberative exchange in the context of modernity’s egalitarian Enlightenment promise of a historicized commons of translatable human speech?
I would love to know the answer to this question and sense that you and your fellow authors and colleagues will help create the answer.
Part II: Publishing as Readership
I love the idea of literature as a kind of preserve, a space where thought and language from before and outside capitalism can survive and develop. I love also the secret intuition this whispers, that the language and thinking that capitalism cannot assimilate survive within it and will outlast it (at least if humanity does).
This, I think, is ultimately why the totalizing corporate discourse we find ourselves swimming through is so antithetic to literary production: because engaged reading is itself a kind of promise of a time after capitalism (that cause & cure for missing souls that has always thrived on a false rhetoric of inevitability and permanence). “Speech is constituted in the other”—that is, our ability to think and connect through language depends radically on the reciprocity and universal equality implied by the commons intrinsic to language. Literature by its nature casts light forward and backward toward a meadow to which Amazon forbids our returning.
So what can “publishing” (which is, always, to say “readership”) mean in these dark ages? Like you, I want to envision a model in which the reader completes the book—that is, a version of publishing that creates and nurtures communities of lively critical response. These communities, for which the Internet is the perfect place, might prove a crucial laboratory for figuring out how to recall to a dialectical surface the Atlantis of literacy that Google & co. continue to submerge. They may be steps toward the rediscovery of that form of value that can never be transmuted into money.
What this seems to me to compel is the creation of some body of repertory literature, a thesaurus in the old sense, a treasury. Dalkey Archive Press has done something akin by building a backlist of modernist & new-novel gems to underpin the contemporary work they publish that bears that influence. The New York Review Books has recently made a splash by reprinting the works of Renata Adler. These, while estimable and out of print, have never been hard to find, so that the act of republishing them seems more about claiming a trajectory (“these belong here”) than making them available. In both cases, the publisher performs a role similar to a curator’s or an archivist’s: selecting work according to a broadly intuited, and later defined, kinship without regard to the commercial or pedagogical utility of the clades being created. Why not ask each other, “What’s the anti-canon whose modi operandi and legerdemains have gestated a particular agenda that contemporary authors are making new, are sounding out in the mysterious space of linguistic encounter defined by reading?”
I imagine this as a two-tiered system of publishing, where a frontlist can be produced in the usual way (slapping ink on paper, with electronic variants at the ready), while a backlist exists as an online archive (that POD would make it easy for tree-haters to get their hands on too). A frontlist of this kind would be an opportunity to mark current events in language—both new work and fresh translations. As for the backlist this model envisions, well, the Internet already makes pretty much everything available, but, as everyone from Vannevar Bush to David Graeber has pointed out, too much availability actually limits access by drowning us in more possibility than we can reasonably navigate. So instead, I imagine a curated online library, available to subscribers, that can create a moveable context within which to publish new work—an adjustable, intrinsically provisional framework for the constant reconstruction of meaning.
That work—the cultivation of communities of meaning through reading and response—will have to be taken up by publishers, and in a big way. This kind of publishing would, like most publishing, be largely about finding heretofore unavailable texts and bringing them forth, but it would also be about drawing maps of affinity across the landscapes and histories of literature, unearthing unfamiliar and even exotic coherences, discovering neglected intellectual families.
For publishers to stay relevant they’ll have to find a way of making the intersection of these activities the epicenter of a rich conversation among readers, writers, and editors. I won’t pretend I can prescribe how this will or should be done, but I do know one thing that can help, and that happens to have been the province of successful publishers from Johannes Gutenberg on: ruthless enthusiasm for their books.
The model I’m discussing will leave publishers no room to be glib or technocratic. There will need to be upfront reasons, aesthetic or ideological, for all the books appearing on their lists. (This is not the same as saying that any book will require a wide audience to be publishable. An audience of one person can justify a printing if it’s the right person.) Readers will be within their rights when they demand to know why a particular book is being put before them—immediate corporate profits, future commercial prospects, movie tie-in opportunities, and special favors to authors fully included among the possible answers (with critical and interpretive consequences for the work in question).
For all the unprecedented output of the contemporary publishing industry, the margins of literature are buckling under the pressure of work that begs for print, and that would benefit hugely from the model I’m describing. Just one example is Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki, a work that has been translated a couple of times (at least once, by William Tjalsma, well), but not in Vagrius’s excellent 2000 edition that features extensive notes by Eduard Vlasov rigorously scouting the book’s many quotations from, redolences of, and backroom melees with, centuries of Russian literature. Another is the terrific poetry of Jared White, informed by an expansive community of present and absent poets that vigorously deploys a poetics of lyrical disruption, slyly reprogramming voices and forms—where we erroneously expect to find a poem’s solidity—to be instead loci of unfamiliarity and astonishment.
It will also be crucial for publishers adopting this model to achieve and protect total independence—this means editorial independence from those institutions (including universities) that fund them, and, even more crucially, independence from markets and capital. It will be necessary for such publishing to create more revenue than it can reasonably hope the sales of its books to provide. The shrewdness—even what the brilliant publisher and novelist Eugene Lim calls the “parasitism”—of publishers will need to be refocused and re-directed. Such publishing financially will look more like a museum or an archive, institutions whose fiscal accumulations are ideally a bulwark against, rather than fuel for, the violence of markets.
Taken together, I hope what I’m describing is a call for a model of publishing that is paradoxically both hieratic and democratic. Hieratic in the sense that its central activities are selecting, preserving, and recopying texts; hieratic in that the publisher’s job is to instigate world-defining contact with those texts; hieratic in that the primary role of those texts is to transcend the parameters of being that our daily lives offer; democratic in that the goal is to shift the partitions of the perceptible among equals, open a space for a conversation in which we can offer up egalitarian modes of valuation to which other forms of value (like money, like political structure) can be held accountable.
I am talking about restoring to literature a kind of holy pugilism, a communitarian militancy for the reestablishment of the word—not as a chimerical, status-free discursive sphere, but as the crucial material through which these other forms of value will be created. The street and the barricade in it. And what I take this to mean more practically is that we need language to supplant the analytic engine as the central force in our daily determinations of presence in, and absence from, the world. The deliberative process must be returned to language because language, for all its failures and unbridgeable chasms, is the only formal symbolic system porous and flexible enough to reflect the complexity and unrealized possibilities of human social life. It is language that invented the question.
If, in a landscape horrendously disfigured by the disasters of calculation, we are going to resolve profound conflicts without liquidating one another and revive an actual politics through which capitalism’s past and future, its inside and outside, are held socially accountable to a universal human interest, then language—formally constituted as an egalitarian holding environment with others through reading—is still the best available place to create, collect, prosecute, and evaluate claims. And this is the moment, as ones and zeros have all but gutted the traditional world of publishing, for publishers to awaken to their sacerdotal and democratic duty as keepers of language’s hearth.
A last thing to say is that, while I’m talking in pretty serious tones here, it’s going to be a party. The stakes are no bigger than life, and we haven’t got much, at this point, to lose. A lot of what we need to do we can do through play, and we can make it a cornerstone of our work that what we’re talking about—reading and discussing what we’ve read—are among the greatest pleasures in the world. This is an adventure story smuggled to school inside a textbook. Literacy is a place where we can care, grow profitably confused, and learn from each other. Tomorrow’s a snow day. Sleep fast.
Peter Dimock is the author of two novels, George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time (2012) and A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family (1998). He worked in book publishing for over 25 years and now lives, writes, and does freelance editing in New York City. Ian Dreiblatt is a poet, translator, and legal commenter. His translation of Gogol’s The Nose will be published by Melville House Publishing in 2014, and his poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Harp & Altar, Web Conjunctions, Pallaksch. Pallaksch., The Boog City Reader, and The Agriculture Reader, among others. He lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where he does strange things on hilltops and skulks around the dog park.
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