Assessing D F McKenzie's Legacy in the Digital Age

Edmund G C King writes the the latest in our series of blogs from the ‘Landmarks in Book History’ seminar series held by the Open University with the Insitute of English Studies:

Prof. David Finkelstein gave us a fascinating glimpse into some of the possible futures of the discipline of the history of the book.  In a talk entitled “Assessing Don McKenzie’s Legacy in the Digital Age: A Case Study,” Finkelstein speculated about what a “sociology of texts” might look like in the twenty-first century, an age in which the definition of “text” seems to be ever-expanding, due to the rise of online media. In the years since McKenzie’s untimely death in 1999, broadband internet – and the profusion of mobile devices that allow users to access it wherever and whenever they please – are making textuality ubiquitous across a range of physical and social spaces. What might a study of textual culture look like in a world where technology makes so many objects and surfaces into potential platforms for the projection or embodiment of texts?

As Finkelstein noted, bibliographers and book historians have been cautious in their approach to new media. Indeed, for some, new media have seemed positively menacing: agents that threaten the very existence of traditional print culture by undermining the physical medium that has traditionally contained it. Yet, this merely reproduces an older “threat narrative,” in which the book (and the act of reading itself) is imperilled by technological change. In this version of the narrative, computers, the internet, and ebooks occupy the roles that film, radio, and television played in previous iterations of it. Finkelstein mentioned one further reason why academic book historians in general might be overly invested in books. Due to current funding regimes such as the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise and now Research Excellence Framework, the measurement of academic value is very much tied up with the monograph itself. There are extrinsic – and not always edifying – reasons for our failure to “let go” of the codex.

However, perhaps the main reason why new media still seem more ephemeral and transient than the book is because of the apparent immateriality of the web and the virtual spaces it inhabits. One can’t pick up and “touch” the internet in the same way one can a book, and the forensics of webpages seem more arcane than the forensics of book production practised by physical bibliographers. Despite the interventions of scholars such as Matt G Kirschenbaum, this kind of work still seems ancillary to the discipline of book history—something that “other people” (the young; media studies theorists; computing historians) might want to do. Yet, D. F. McKenzie knew full well that we needed to expand our definition of “textuality” to encompass image and sound as well as print. These were prescient ideas, and ones that are very useful to us as practitioners of book history in an increasingly digital world. Perhaps, in keeping with McKenzie’s vision, Finkelstein suggested that we could expand the idea of textuality to embrace the materiality of the idea, or “meme” (to borrow a term from Dawkins), as exemplified in this case by the idea of the “film concept.”


To illustrate how this expansion exercise might work, Finkelstein used the example of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) and the array of textual apparatuses and media that accompanied its production, marketing, and afterlife as an object of fan-devotion. In a world where large media conglomerates are able to market products across a range of broadcast media (thanks to the increasing concentration of media ownership into the hands of a few large corporations), the “adaptation industry” (to borrow a phrase from Simone Murray) is becoming ever more important. These companies are able to use their diverse media portfolios to “splice” an idea into a range of differently embodied commodities, thus engendering a natural intertextuality as a means of extending the value of a particular piece of intellectual property. Batman, for instance, exists not only as a stand-alone film, but as a series of other manifestations that “tie-into” and augment the Batman-brand: novelizations, graphic novels, official and fan-based websites, newsletters, toys, computer games, and memorabilia. Finkelstein terms this proliferation “cross-cultural montage.” These manifestations of the film concept across different media are ripe for analysis by book historians. We can examine a range of primary and secondary material to open up an understanding of how texts and other forms of material culture relate to, and are produced alongside, each other.

King Kong, as Finkelstein demonstrated, contains multiple instances of “cross-cultural montage.” Peter Jackson draws heavily on the visual style of older comic books and film imagery and deliberately infuses them into the film. The result is a heavily intertextual visual product. But the film’s montage effects do not end there. King Kong, like Jackson’s earlier Lord of the Ring films, was promoted through the drip-fed release of production materials onto the internet as the film was still being made. (Many of these were later collected and bundled as DVD extras when the films reached that part of the release cycle.) This was a way of building and satisfying a fan-base that thrives on “privileged” access to ephemera and offcuts. During the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a fan-generated website overtook the official website in popularity. Jackson responded to this by engaging with the site and providing material to it, among which was a “sneak peek” into the production of King Kong. This part of the “One Ring” site became a valuable repository of reading experiences and audience involvement in the production of the website, and, arguably, the film itself. It contained a chat-room, message-boards, and online spaces set aside for fan art and other manifestations of fan creativity. Some of these were subsequently taken up by the production company and used to promote the film—“reformulated for commercial purposes”—and later repackaged as DVD extras. (The site itself is still live, and currently hosts similar fan-dedicated chat spaces for the upcoming Hobbit movies.)

An online video production diary was set up before the film started shooting and footage from this documented the many phases of the film’s production. One of the most striking aspects of the King Kong production diaries is the extent to which they feature—even fetishize—the material culture of the film-set itself. Story-boards, script revisions, clapperboards, blocking diagrams, and other textual materials and ephemera from the set were always highly visible in these video blogs. The film’s visual metaphorics show that Jackson himself was highly aware of the textual traces that the long series of prior King Kongs had made upon his own. Adrien Brody’s playwright character, for instance, is forced to write the shooting script for the film-within-the-film in an animal cage in the bowels of the ship en route to Skull Island. In this rather typically heavy-handed piece of Jacksonian visual surfeit, the clichés of 1930s print culture— typewriters; ink-stained fingers—abound. These are unsubtle, but interesting, comments on the way in which the first King Kong film was made, and Jackson “tips his hat” at these levels of intertextuality when he introduces of a copy of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into the film. (One of the minor characters has brought it on-board, thinking it would make an ideal piece of ship-board reading.) This segues into another scene in which physical text features prominently. The ingénue actress played by Naomi Watts tries to flirt with Brody’s character, due to her fan-appreciation of his books.

Yet these links between Jackson’s film and print culture go beyond visual and thematic references in the film itself. King Kong ultimately produced a very tangible range of textual and paratextual material itself—film-scripts; books about the making of the film; novelizations; booklets for the DVDs; videogames; mobile phone apps—some of which re-use material from the original website production blogs.

Finkelstein finished by asking how we could adapt McKenzie’s ideas to encompass a multitextual and intertextual phenomenon like King Kong. To do this, we need to expand our view of the text to include its new digital paratexts—fan sites; DVD commentaries and extras; the readerly responses that viewers leave on review sites, message-boards, and social networking sites. These are unstable and fluid objects, prone to deletion and other, less deliberate, instances of “bit rot.” But how different is this from, say, the example of the nineteenth-century periodical? How many of the issues and titles listed in the Wellesley index are physically available to us now, outside of privileged bibliographical spaces such as the British Library? To fully understand and analyse the new “cross-cultural montage,” we need to actively pursue these furtive paratexts across the digital spaces that house them, while expanding our definition of the “primary bibliographical source” to include their proliferating range of new instances and manifestations.

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4 comments on “Assessing D F McKenzie's Legacy in the Digital Age

  1. Katherine D. Ha says:

    We were just talking about book historians as champions of gender theory in big data, digital archives, and coding this past week. A few book historians challenged other book historians to also take up this cause in order for book history to grow. The 2011 SHARP conference completely embraced the digital and demonstrated how McKenzie’s concepts are already being practiced by book historians. Thank you David for articulating all of these needs so eloquently!

  2. Katherine D Har says:

    Ahem –

    Sorry, correction:

    The SHARP 2011 conference demonstrated that book historians are already applying McKenzie’s concepts to studies about new media and digital texts.

  3. Eleanor Shevlin says:

    Thanks both to Edmund King for this engaging account of David’s lecture and to David for an excellent, timely talk.

    Like Kathy, I feel as if new media and digital texts are becoming (perhaps even have become?) part of the continuum of work being undertaken by book historians.

    Last year my department conducted a search for a digital humanist. While we did note that a person who specialized in the early modern period was highly desirable, we did not mention anything about book history in the ad. Yet, over half of the applicants were indeed practicing book historians in one way or the other and integrating the two fields in very interesting ways. Nor do I think this integration is only happening at the level of the newer scholar.

  4. Gary Frost says:

    Chris Meadows at TeleRead picked up on a recent item in the NYT considering the use of tablets (i.e. connected LCD devices) as book readers. “Are tablets too distracting to make a good e-reading experience?” Both items then go on to consider the premise and review experiences.

    However, two keywords go unexamined. These are “distraction” and “book”. When you are reading one content and are momentarily distracted by another you are reading the distraction. That is what reading is; a lively examination of all kinds of content as well as any provocations to subsequent thoughts. It is unsurprising that we can synthesize many kinds of content into a single reading experience. As for the other keyword, the “book” reading experience is no less volatile.

    So where does the comparison of experiences of monographic content displayed to either phosphor or electrophoric devices take us? Perhaps, to fair admissions of the holistic experience of reading of all kinds.

    The divide between physical and immaterial transmission of content perhaps follows the long legacy of relations of orality and textuality. Popular debate between print and screen book advocates evokes this distinction. Print advocates always mention “smell and feel” while screen advocates always mention “a good story” or the disembodied content. Both toy with more fundamental attributes of transmission inherent.

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