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.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau
Emmanuelle Waeckerlé
Contributions by Vicky Smith and Michael Hampton
MA Bibliothèque
2021

4.125 × 6.75 in. closed
92 pages
Perfect bound softcover with French flaps
Digital printing

Front cover of A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau; below the title is a close-up photo of a handwritten performance transcript

Emmanuelle Waeckerlé is an interdisciplinary artist who works in sound, performance, and publishing. For over two decades, she has been elaborating the concept of readwalking — the simultaneous practice of reading as walking and walking as reading. The shared essence of these seemingly disparate activities is the embodied, performative inscription and interpretation of space, on and off the page. Waeckerlé’s artists’ books document her performances but also serve as performance scores that encourage readers to become readwalkers. This redefinition of reading alone makes Waeckerlé’s work an important contribution to the field, though readers will also appreciate her ability to revivify literary works, like Thoreau’s essay “Walking” or the erotic novel Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: sparse black words are selected from the grey text of Thoreau's essay, "Walking"

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau exemplifies Waeckerlé’s two-pronged approach to process and product. The publication is primarily a performance score, but also includes a text transcription of one of her own readwalking performances. The reader witnesses her clever engagement with the text, but they are also empowered to try readwalking for themselves. The book also includes two essays that put the project in dialogue with broader currents in art and literature. For all of this, the A Direction Out There is simple and approachable. Its core is the complete text of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” with most of the words screened back to a light gray. By subtracting from, but not fully redacting, Thoreau’s writing, Waeckerlé creates a poetic text that can be enacted through her readwalking instructions. Four examples of such a performance are features on an accompanying CD, released by Edition Wandelweiser Records.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: performance instructions for readwalkers

The book’s particular mode of redaction is critical — Thoreau’s text is deemphasized but remains visible; a tenuous tissue that connects but also haunts the sparse words Waeckerlé has selected for her new work. An epigraph by Thoreau speaks to the value of subtraction:

“I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those that are insignificant, which only a divine mind could illustrate.”

It seems Waeckerlé aims to help the reader focus on what is most essential in Thoreau’s essay — a mission the transcendentalist might approve of, though Waeckerlé is more concerned with the material, rather than symbolic, value of his language. The book’s straightforward, minimal presentation contributes to this goal, though the format is actually determined by the publisher, MA Bibliothèque, as part of their series, The Constellations. Waeckerlé encourages readers to follow their own path through the altered landscape of the text, singing, speaking, and “un-speaking” words according to specific parameters. Alternatively, readers with instruments or other noisemakers can respond to punctuation and walking-related words. The instructions are intentionally open-ended (and thus hard to imagine without an example), so the two-page transcription of a readwalking performance by Waeckerlé is a welcome addition to the book. Audio recordings are also available to stream online, which enhance the experience for a first-time readwalker.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: a typeset transcription of a readwalking performance of Thoreau's essay, "Walking"

Essays by Michael Hampton and Vicky Smith also help the reader without foreclosing other interpretations. Both writers address the persistence of Thoreau’s ghostly text, which exerts its will on the readwalker even as it relies on them for renewed life. (For example, can one really rescue the text’s anticapitalist environmentalism from its imperialist manifest destiny?) Hampton also speaks to the contemporary politics of mobility, of readwalking in a time of Covid-19 travel restrictions and refugee crises. Smith calls on media theorist Craig Dworkin to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of a text, and reads Waeckerlé’s work from a feminist perspective invested in the “speech of blanks and hiatus that Kristeva has identified as the language of the negated.”

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: Michael Hampton's essay is typeset unconventionally to posit ideas simultaneously

Just as Waeckerlé enlivens Thoreau’s essay and shows how many possible interpretations are available, Hampton and Smith show that A Direction Out There should be seen as a method as much as a finished work. Reading the book is a dynamic process. Thoreau’s elegant writing pulls the reader back into the original essay and Waeckerlé’s own selection can divert the readwalker from their chosen instructions. This is not a failure, but rather the very essence of readwalking. The text is like a trail, something to follow but also to add to, stray from, or otherwise alter. Waeckerlé refers to the book as a “prepared text,” recalling John Cage’s “prepared pianos,” which guided but did not fully determine his performances.

This is ultimately what any artists’ book hopes to do — guide the reader but remain open to interpretation. In theorizing readwalking, Waeckerlé centers the embodied and performative aspects of reading. A Direction Out There reminds us that every book is a performance score, and that reading is always also writing, and that writing, like walking, is an intervention in space, with ethical as well as aesthetic dimensions.