The Book Bloc, a starting point.

Book Bloc, Rome

My starting point for the idea of this blog was the Book Bloc. Born in Rome during the student protests of December 2010, and again in London’s demonstrations of that same month, the Book Bloc would not normally figure in a chronology of libricide. After all, no actual books were destroyed. But, as we shall see, it’s not all about the books.

A witty and practical piece of protest theatrics, the Book Bloc is essentially a line of home-made DIY shields made to look like over-sized books with a view both to protect protesters from the visciousness of flailing police truncheons and to send out a message by making a gesture symbolising the need for culture to defend itself in the face of an aggressive ideology against which it sees itself in perilous opposition.

The eloquence with which the Book Bloc images embodied the underlying message of theses protests was, for me, what made them stand out from the routine and generic shots these kind of events invariably produce; photos of angry cops, masked faces, and smashed window panes. This is something that sets the images apart, too, from the more scandalous, headline-grabbing photos of Charles and Camilla besieged in the royal Rolls Royce, and the unfortunate snaps of Charlie Gilmour swinging from the Cenotaph. But what, then, is the nature of this eloquence? Why should these mock-up books have such an impact? This question started a train of thought.

Wu Ming, the nom de plume/guerre for a small collective of authors – whose novel, Q, was one of the titles featuring in the Roman Book Blocput forward an imaginative and lucid reading of the particular choices made in selecting the ‘books’ holding up the front line (partly available in translation from the Italian here). The Decameron‘s plague represents the current blight of the ‘atomization of social relationships’, echoed by Asimov’s The Naked Sun, whilst the obsessive futility with which the quixotic people chase after the Great Whale of ‘berlusconism’ (Moby Dick) is represented through Cervantes and Melville. And so on.

Book Bloc, London

Similarly Jay Griffiths, author of Pip Pip (a book in London’s bloc), indulges in a more nostalgic exegesis of the titles on display, focussing mostly on the aptness of the protest’s nod to Huxley’s Brave New World and the spectre of 1968.

Griffiths begins her article with the observation that ‘It’s a very strange thing to watch a policeman take a truncheon to a book.’ This attention to the visceral language of destruction- surely an ontological imperative of the Book Bloc – is largely seen to be missing from both Wu Ming and Griffiths’ accounts. And it seems to me that this language points to something else; namely, the destructive poetics of that other mass social and cultural practice called biblioclasm – defined as the practice of destroying, often ceremoniously, books or other written material and media.

In another article, Wu Ming write, “This afternoon, in Rome, students confronted the cops while carrying shields with book titles on them. The meaning was: it is culture itself that’s resisting the cuts; books themselves are fighting the police.” Futhermore, the people behind the London bloc have said of books that “we teach with them, we learn with them, we play with them, we create with them, we make love with them and, sometimes, we must fight with them.” The idea that it is the books themselves fighting the police, and that they are effectively comrades in arms, reveals something profound about the way we conceptualise books – as somehow animistic entities possessing independent powers. This is something David Abram has touched upon, arguing that books (or texts) are ‘speaking subjects’ taking up the same place in ‘culture’ that was once occupied by rivers and trees in societies subscribing to animistic concepts of nature.

It is perhaps this same idea that caused Ray Bradbury to say “I felt it [Hitler’s ‘burning of the books’] as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh“.  Interestingly the allusion to transubstantiation made by Bradbury corresponds to the transformation of the book-object’s use-value in moments of crises. In the Book-Bloc, the symbolic change can be described as teacher-to-warrior, in biblioclasm this trajectory goes from perpetrator-to-victim; regarded with suspicion of being a propagandist of ‘dangerous’ ideas by a regime or social group, the book is set upon and silenced.

The cuts in education and funding are more than measures to alleviate gargantuan defecits. These cuts are also ideological. In these specific cases they are attacking the university institution, sewing the seeds to change it from a forum where knowledge is taught, created and disseminated, to a marketplace where profit rules above all. These cuts are deeply anti-culture.

What I saw in the Book-Blocs of Rome and London was indeed a symbolic self-defense of culture. But it was more than that. By marching these cardboard and styrofoam tomes into the violent tumult of the front line, these protesters were, in essence, offering up their carefully selected titles to be destroyed in a ceremonial act of sacrifice. This has the effect of being a kind of reverse biblioclasm, a self-immolation – a literary Jauhar of sorts – and suggests a considered détournement of the poetics of oppressive violence.

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Frank Kermode

The late literary critic, Sir Frank Kermode, was once an unwilling accomplice in mass libricide when he accidentally had his entire personal library systematically destroyed. The unfortunate episode is recounted in his Daily Telegraph obituary: “Expecting the arrival of some men to help him move house, he blithely handed the 50 cardboard boxes containing his library of 2,500 books, including many rare volumes, to the two burly types who knocked on his door. The entire collection was duly lost to the compressor of the municipal dustcart.”

Oops.

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