Against Decorum

Against Decorum
Michael Hampton
2022
Information as material

6.25 × 9.25 in. closed
120 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital printing
Edition of 500

Front cover of Against Decorum. Cover image features a photo of Angus Fairhurst's 2005 sculptural altered magazine, "A magazine — 
removed except 1cm border"

Against Decorum is a work of uncreative writing, which forges poetry from the condition descriptions in rare book catalogues. These fragments of technical terms speak to age and injury and, ultimately, love and obsession. Hampton’s remix method epitomizes the publisher’s mission: information as material “publishes work by artists and writers who use extant material — selecting it and reframing it to generate new meanings — and who, in doing so, disrupt the existing order of things.” Against Decorum converses with conceptual poetry but also older practices, like commonplacing. The latter reveals an abundance of writing about reading, but Hampton’s contribution is the move from distant reading to close reading. So close, in fact, as to skip the text altogether and focus on the book as an object. When those interested in artists’ books think about the haptic exchange between a book and its reader, they mostly focus on how a book (and its creator) move the reader. Against Decorum shifts attention to how a book might be altered by its reader, and what that means for future readers. The author is dead, but the books survive — a little worse for wear.  

Against Decorum, inside spread. Register A, works 2 and 3. Each comprises a bibliographic entry above a poetic litany of rare book condition descriptions.

In an introduction by poet and critic Craig Dworkin, Hampton’s shuttling between close and distant reading is situated within ongoing debates in book history, literature, and digital humanities. Against Decorum poses thorny and necessary questions about what we value in the history of books and reading, and what is lost when we prioritize authors and texts over readers and books. Where literary scholars address a placeless, ahistorical text, Hampton examines the individual book — or rather, he reads and rearranges the descriptions of someone who has.  

A foreword by the scholar Adam Smyth notes the same trends in bibliography and book history, but also reading and writing practices. Smyth references practices as diverse as Walter Benjamin’s quotational methods and the infamous altered books of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. Where Dworkin is taken with Hampton’s movement between distant and close reading, Smyth notes the traffic between high and low culture, archives and kitchen tables. Books are commodities, scuffed and dusty objects that bear the traces of everyday activity.

Against Decorum comprises three sections: Register A, Register B, and Scrapbook. Register A collects twelve monthly pieces, created from December 2019 through November 2020. These pieces are derived from different book catalogues, and each has its own designation: fragments, off-cuts, granules, snippets, and so on. Hampton thus highlights the many ways books are used and not merely read. Each piece is an evocative litany of defects. Wrappers are stained, covers are scuffed, pages are creased. There is “foxing” and “browning,” “pencilling” and “worming.” Amid the scuffing and rubbing, Hampton accentuates the (often erotic) exchange of bodies. Books are “thumbed” by readers, and have their own heads, feet, spines, and joints. With “deletions” and “erasures,” books are “wanting” and “lacking.” This reciprocity is further explored in Register B, which is written in the same manner but is meant “for reading aloud by two performers.”

Against Decorum, inside spread. Register B. The verso is a remixed list of damage and condition descriptions of books from a Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers; the recto has an endnote about the influence of Jarndyce.

The Scrapbook section gathers passages about books, libraries, and reading from a variety of sources, from articles and Amazon listings. Mostly though, it reveals a preponderance of books about books. These seem to favor curiosities and cataclysms: Malicious Damage, Bizarre Books, Lost Libraries. Others are more surprising, though, and the Scrapbook offers an illuminating glimpse into Hampton’s research. Each quotation is far more tantalizing than a typical “further reading” list, and the outliers and oddities will no doubt inspire makers and readers of artists’ books. These excerpts are signposts that stake out a zone of activity where books are contingent, material objects that record their own interactions with the people who use them. 

Against Decorum, inside spread from the Scrapbook section. The verso has an excerpt of a Sotheby's catalogue featuring the "wicked bible"; the recto has a bibliographic entry for a sandpaper "record" with a bandage.

In recording these interactions, Against Decorum centers the longest phase in the life cycle of a book, which is too often overlooked. After books are conceived, created, published, distributed, read, and written about, they persist. They pass through many hands and fall slowly victim to the conditions so meticulously detailed in booksellers’ catalogues. In Against Decorum the authors who write these books are as anonymous as the readers who fold and stain and inscribe them. It is the catalogues that are named, and the cataloger who is exalted. Catalogues are inherently ephemeral, but thanks to Hampton, they outlast the books they list as well as their readers.

Hampton’s monthly writing process sharpens the contrast between the human time scale and the book’s duration. He celebrates the ephemeral catalogue and the traces of past readers’ fleeting gestures. There is a sense of the sublime in the push and pull between close and distant reading, between “thumbmarks in lower corners” and the experience of reading about them in a catalogue, which is, in turn, excerpted in a book. Against Decorum does not lament this mediated access to an authentic original or pit information against material. Hampton truly embraces information as material. The poetry, with its combination of absurd repetition and marvelous neologisms and technical terms, is every bit as moving as the embodied relationship with a book. It is because both strategies push and pull so powerfully that Against Decorum approaches the sublime.

Against Decorum, inside spread. Register A, works 10 and 11. Each comprises a bibliographic entry above a poetic litany of rare book condition descriptions.

Against Decorum offers a way to make sense — and make use — of the information with which we are inundated. Book history is only a microcosm of our postmodern Anthropocene, a world where data (the vast majority of which is no longer intended for humans) multiplies endlessly while physical space and material resources dwindle inexorably. As the creation and processing of data increasingly harms the environment, we desperately need to move from information to knowledge — and wisdom. Hampton shows that this is a job for artists, and Against Decorum provides a method and a sourcebook for future inquiry.

Inscription, Issue 1: Beginnings

Inscription, Issue 1: Beginnings
Edited by Gill Partington, Adam Smyth, Simon Morris
Information as Material
2020

Inscription journal: 12 × 12 in. offset-printed perfect-bound codex, 134 pages
Sean Ashton, Living In A Land: 12 in. vinyl LP
Craig Dworkin, Clock: 6.625 × 6.625 in. offset-printed, saddle-stitched pamphlet in a slipcase, 12 pages
Jérémie Bennequin, An Erasure into the Maelström: 36 × 36 in. offset-printed, folded broadside
Craig Saper, Global Reading Supplement: Augmented reality app

Front cover of Inscription, a square journal with a hold drilled in the middle. The cover image shows the open fore-edge of a book, an partial, black and white photo of a woman and a spiral icon in the top right corner.

As “the journal of material text,” Inscription is necessarily self-aware, so its inaugural issue is appropriately titled “Beginnings.” Each contributor grapples in some way with beginnings, endings, and time more generally. The journal’s organizing principle — and a recurrent visual motif — is the spiral. As a concept of time, the spiral is neither linear nor cyclical, but rather allows for new variations on familiar themes, think Mark Twain’s (probably apocryphal) observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” However, in the case of Inscription, the spiral organization is as much spatial as it is temporal. That is, the diverse contributions — from book history and literature to poetics and pedagogy — are connected by the universal impulse to inscribe and the inescapable influence of time.

Jérémie Bennequin, "An Erasure into the Maelström" fully open to 36 × 36 in., showing a spiral form erased from the complete text of Poe's original short story.
Jérémie Bennequin, An Erasure into the Maelström: 36 × 36 in. offset-printed, folded broadside.

Inscription’s self-awareness is no surprise as a project of Information as Material, a publisher whose mission is to create new meaning through reframing. A journal is such a framing device, and one that Inscription’s editors examine, exploit, and expand. This expansion, also symbolized through the centrifugal movement of the spiral, manifests most visibly in the various components that accompany the primary codex and its relatively conventional scholarly contributions. (I say relatively because many of the essays tend toward lyricism and self-reflection, and because reading them requires rotating the over-sized, perfect-bound codex in a spiral fashion and reading from both directions since the journal has two beginnings with two prefaces.)

On the left, a 12-inch vinyl LP of Sean Ashton "Living in a land" which features a photo of the poet reading in front of a microphone. On the right, Craig Dworkin's "Clock" which looks like a 45 rpm in a square slipcase with a circle die cut from the middle.
Sean Ashton, Living In A Land: 12 in. vinyl LP; and
Craig Dworkin, Clock: 6.625 × 6.625 in. offset-printed, saddle-stitched pamphlet in a slipcase

These additional components comprise: an augmented reality poem by Craig Saper; an audio recording of poet Sean Ashton on a vinyl LP; what appears to be a 45 rpm record but is actually a printed poem-essay by Craig Dworkin; and a three-foot-square, two-sided erasure of Edgar Allen Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström by Jérémie Bennequin. The dimensions of the complete assembly are determined by the 12-inch record, and the journal’s editors plan to include a record with each issue. The square codex itself mirrors the record with a hole drilled through the middle. Indeed, the reader spins the codex like a record, but the hole is not the axis. Instead, it doubles upon opening, two eyes looking back at the reader.

For all of this eccentric and lavish production, the publishers do an admirable job of making the content available. A complete digital version is available open access, including the audio recordings and video documentation of Saper’s augmented reality piece. A downloadable PDF gives the reader some idea of the admittedly cumbersome reading experience of the printed codex, but thankfully the full text of the articles is also available in more conventional HTML. The journal strikes a similar balance between risk-taking and rigor in terms of process. The artist- and writer-in-residence roles may be somewhat unusual for a journal, but submissions are double-blind peer reviewed, and the editorial board is stacked with big names in artists’ books and related fields.

Although I cannot manage a review of individual articles and contributions here (many deserve such attention), together they show the promise of Inscription’s interdisciplinary approach. The wide-ranging perspectives and methods are effectively bound together by themes of materiality and mediation, and each contribution seemed of comparable quality. The articles that seemed furthest outside my areas of interest or expertise were unexpectedly engaging, and those that were closer found fresh approaches to familiar topics. Two standouts were “On Stone,” Serena Smith’s rhizomatic reflection on lithography stones, and “Writing the Birds: Barrawarn,” Australia-based Catherine Clover’s attempt to notate birdsong and imagine a decolonized, vernacular poetics. It is easy to imagine many of the articles in other journals, but in Inscription they resonate with one another in an exciting way and will reach readers who might otherwise stay within their disciplinary borders.

With submissions of this caliber, the success of the journal hinges on its ability to add value to its content. The exceptional production value alone does so, from the high quality of conventional figures and illustrations to the execution of the ancillary artworks. The editors must also continue to balance the strength and flexibility of each issue’s theme. “Beginnings” was a natural fit for the first issue, so “Issue 2: Holes” may ultimately prove whether Inscription can forge a community of contributors and readers from so many different disciplines. The innovative, interactive format of the journal certainly gives readers a reason to subscribe and may even convince writers that their work is better off with Inscription than a more conventional publication. 

Inside spread of Inscription, which shows the text rotated nearly sideways. The typesetting is unconventional, similar to concrete poetry.

The emphasis on material production does leave a nagging question about the practicality of the printed version and the authenticity of its online cousin. There is a case to be made about the materiality of digital inscription, one that might inspire an unconventional website or digital publication of some sort. However, for the sake of accessibility, I am glad that Inscription’s digital presence is thoughtful but conventional. There are real limits to the hard copy journal — I happen to own a record player, but I had to abandon reading on the couch when rotating the 24-inch-wide codex became impractical and ultimately finished the issue at a table in my studio. As a celebration of “material text,” Inscription pushes at the limits of a physical publication, but ultimately retains its thesis by documenting its materiality online rather than attempting to re-mediate it digitally. I truly hope the journal’s impressive production will attract more readers than it excludes, and if the popularity of artists’ books is any indication, I think it will.