Critical Assemblage–Granary Books and the Poetics of Publishing

By Claire MacDonald, originally published in Performance Research, vol. 8, no. 2 (2003), 135–137.

When Will the Book Be Done? Granary's Books1
Edited by Steven Clay, preface by Charles Bernstein
New York: Granary Books, 2001

The Book of the Book: Some Works and
Projections about the Book and Writing
Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Steven Clay
New York: Granary Books, 2000

A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing 1960-19803
A Sourcebook of Information by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips
New York: The New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998

Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing and Visual Poetics4
Johanna Drucker
New York: Granary Books, 1998

Granary Books is an independent publishing house based in New York and run by its founder Steven Clay. Over the last decade and more—a 'baker's decade' as poet-critic Charles Bernstein puts it in his introduction to When Will the Book Be Done?—Steve Clay has created a unique list at the intersection of textual and visual practice, criticism and publication history. Granary publishes visual books by artists using text, and by poets who attend to visual poetics. It also publishes serious critical work about writing and print culture and the social history of artists' and poets' publications, placing alternative—and often ephemeral—publishing practices into the public record in the context of critical thinking. Taken as a whole the imprint generates a new poetics of publishing, treating the practice of publication as a self-reflexive curatorial art project for the late age of print.

The title When Will the Book Be Done? is a tongue-in-cheek reference both to publication itself, with its endless minutiae of processual detail, and the notion of the imminent end of the book as legible material artefact that became so gloomily prevalent in the 1990s. The implicit response—articulated through around 100 double pages that visually and textually detail the books Granary has commissioned, many of them collaborations—is that the end of the book signifies its birth. The book as a historical presence is in a continuous process of redefinition; is not merely static object, but a collaborative and performative publication event. The unfolding context of the virtual world opens the book to new possibilities, rather than presaging its closure. The book has become, if you like, a decentred object, a space of play.

When Will the Book Be Done? opens with an essay, 'Claymation', by Charles Bernstein, which marks that sense of animated play and attests to the press as social and aesthetic intervention, a production in its own right. That Granary Books should come into play (so to speak) in the 1990s is significant—because although it takes some of its defining energy from artists' and poets' publishing and writing innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, and has remained attuned to the significance of the social and artistic revolution those movements generated, Granary Books is far from nostalgic. Theoretically, it has situated itself very clearly within this new age of print, the point at which the book has resurfaced as self-conscious artifact—as its material presence segues into the virtual. In a world where every schoolchild knows what Helvetica is, and where we have all become participants in a culture of reading and writing that Charles Bernstein has called in his afterword to A Book of the Book 'postliteracy', what the book is, was, and might be has once again become socially significant.

The new technologies of the 1990s have created a new age of the book—an age when textuality can be reimagined because it is no longer self-evident. As postliterate participants in textual culture you and I know that we are both players on the page and that we perform this page together; that we are both contributors to meaning; that your reading is the performance of which my writing is the score; that I need you to complete the performance I am making now through the event of my writing; you, that is, who are now somewhere in my future, reading this. This age, when the book has been freed from its function as primary conduit of information and has become a space for play, is a perfect age for the new poetics of publishing.

But neither does Granary lose sight of the particularity of its past. By attending to the recent social history of the book and of publishing, Clay reminds us of the significance of the experiments of an earlier generation of artists for new forms of writing and art making. For performance, this is especially significant. Performance critics often rehearse performance's resistance to the printed record in any medium—photographic, video or textual—sometimes unthinkingly, as evidence of its inherently oppositional political possibilities. And yet, as another New York critic and publisher, Bonnie Marranca, wrote in her seminal book The Theatre of Images, avant-garde and experimental performance was never anti-text, it simply remade the idea of what text could be. Yet the history of performance's engagement with publication experiment has received very little attention within Performance Studies. Marranca's essay on Robert Wilson's textual practice as live archive, for instance, has never really been followed up into a full-scale enquiry into the connections between the poetics of performance and of writing.

The vitality and the significance of East and West Coast experiments in writing and publishing as social praxis is hard to overstate. It is, possibly, only equaled by similar movements in France in the 1960s, which produced much great theoretical work on writing–some of which is referred to, excerpted or actually published by Granary Books—I am thinking here of Edmond Jabès, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes.

A Secret Location on the Lower East Side (a collaborative project with the New York Public Library) is not only significant in its refusal to lose the evidence of the period it covers (1960-80), but for showing that entering the evidence into the public record is a means of shaping the discourse about the critical context of the period. In this collection — beautifully edited, introduced and annotated — we are able to see small press and magazine publishing as social intervention, and as a shaping medium for critical thinking. The book is a rich record—like most of the imprint it should be an unequivocal recommendation for anyone interested in social history, publishing, poetry, or the history of art and culture.

Some of my own interest in the poetics of publishing, and in publishing as a curatorial project, is in the nature of contradictory forces at work now in publishing. Those forces might be identified as centripetal and centrifugal—they pull away at the edges and they pull towards the centre at the same time. The nature of publishing—and particularly independent publishing—has changed a great deal in the past 10 years. Publishing has become the province of fewer and fewer publishers, small family publishers have felt the need to grow or be overtaken, and yet publishing has also dispersed into affordable technologies and micro markets. Within academic life, where theories of textuality continue to emphasize the dispersal and decentring of the material artefact, there is an increasing emphasis on the value of publishing with a range of ever tighter publishing criteria – monographs with named publishers – within legitimated contexts of peer review. This crisis might be said to mirror the crises within all the arts that finally reveals the troubled – critical—nature of capitalism. While there is a powerful critical discourse addressing this, it isn't coming from the arts and culture in the way it was, say, in the mid-1980s with its discussions of subjectivity, language and postmodernist theory.

In a sense this brings me to my last point — and book — because it seems to me that Johanna Drucker is one of the few people speaking to the politics of this context, trying as she does to articulate through her work a fully realized, inclusive practice as an artist/theorist materially engaged with the world of which she speaks. Drucker has practiced making some highly inventive and significant artists' books in the past decade and a half, and the dimension of social intervention—and indeed social critique—lies in her attention to the nature of textuality in her visual work, and in her inclusion of the experience of making work within the form of her theory. Of her many books. Figuring the Word comes closest to materializing that politics. Formally varied, consistently challenging intellectually and very wide-ranging, Drucker 'refuses' as a mark of active resistance — she refuses to settle within easy boundaries, to separate writing forms, to sum up. Instead, her writing acts out the nature of her enquiry into writing and the visual, both within the intellectual context of her practice, and within the psychic/emotional history of her own life. That very important notion of being constructed through the history of one's engagement with signs, with writing, and the refusal to leave it behind as a thinker also connects her work to, I think, French traditions of thinking around the book. She materializes thought.

There is always more. Granary Books encourages a kind of ordered excess of thought if such a thing is possible. It promotes thinking about the nature of technologies as artists' tools. As new technologies emerge in the culture so their immediate precedents become play tools for artists—think now of who uses the typewriter! But most of all it promotes thinking about the relationship of curating, editing and publishing that at this point in time is quite unique. Where that conversation goes next will, I think, be one of the significant artistic and critical questions of the next 5 years.


1When Will the Book Be Done? Is Granary Books' more-than-a-catalogue, a visual/textual index to Granary's list, with an introduction by Charles Bernstein. Some names from a long list of collaborating writers and artists: Charles Bernstein, Jerome Rothenberg, Susan Bee, Johanna Drucker, John Cage, Kenneth Goldsmith, Susan Howe, Paul Celan, Lyn Hejinian, Emily McVarish, R.B. Kitaj, Anne Waldman, Keith Waldrop, Tennessee Rite Dixon, Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, George Schneemann, Julie Harrison, Ed Friedman, Wendy Miller, Carolee Schneeman.
2A Book of the Book is a gathering of excerpts about the 'oral, material, virtual, spiritual' nature of the book. Some titles: 'My Life as a Book', 'Notation and the Art of Reading', 'Book', 'The Book to Come', 'The Written Face', 'Composition as Explanation ', 'The Art of Immemorability', 'When a Book is not a Book'. Some names: Jerome McGann, Roland Barthes, Alien Kaprow, Gertrude Stein, Marjorie Perloff. John Cayley, Marcel Duchamp, Karl Young, Thomas Vogler.
3A Secret Location on the Lower East Side is a sourcebook of visual and textual information on around 100 poets' presses and magazines from the 1960s and 1970s with an index that identifies many more. Some publications: Angel Hair, Roof, Sun and Moon, Open Space, Matter, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.
4Figuring the Word is one of several books and book projects for Granary by theorist and book artist Johanna Drucker that help to both materialize and articulate the poetic praxis of the Granary project. Some terms: visual poetics, hypergraphy, performance, order, gesture, trace, sign, pattern, rhythm, page, event, written image, figure, spectrum of legibility, writing as artefact, materiality.
5Printed Matter, the New York bookstore, publications archive and book dealer and gallery (it is pretty much all these things and more) at 535 W 22nd Street in Chelsea carries ephemera, books, multiple and original book and text art works from the 1960s and 1970s, their website too is an excellent source of information.