Maybe it’s apt that I don’t remember, but I somehow came across Tom Phillips‘ “treated Victorian novel,” A Humument (Tetrad Press, 1970), nearly a decade ago at San Diego State University. Phillips took William Mallock’s A Human Document (Cassell Publishing, 1892) and obscured words on every page, leaving a few here and there to tell a new story. It’s part painting, part drawing, part collage, part poetic cut-up, and all weirdly, intriguingly unique (You can view full pages from the book at its website).
Phillips claims that he picked A Human Document because of its price-point (“no more than three pence,” he said), but Mallock’s “novel” is oddly suited for Phillips’ repurposing. The original novel is a scrapbook of sorts of journal entries, correspondence, and other ephemera left behind by two deceased lovers. Mallock wrote of these scraps in his introduction that “as they stand they are not a story in any literary sense; though they enable us, or rather force us, to construct one out of them for ourselves” (p. 8). N. Katherine Hayles (2002) characterizes this introduction as “uncannily anticipating contemporary descriptions of hypertext narrative” (p. 78).
Tom Phillips is not the only nor the first to do such a work. According to Wikipedia,
Several contemporary writer/artists have used this form to good effect. Doris Cross appears to have been among the earliest to utilize this technique, beginning in 1965 with her “Dictionary Columns” book art. d.a. levy also worked in this mode at about the same time. Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os is a long poem deconstructed from the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Tom Phillips’ A Humument is a major work of book art and found poetry deconstructed from a Victorian novel. Similarly, Jesse Glass’ Mans Wows (1981), is a series of poems and performance pieces mined from John George Hohman’s book of charms and healings Pow Wows, or The Long Lost Friend. Jen Bervin’s Nets is an erasure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Janet Holmes’s The ms of my kin (2009) erases the poems of Emily Dickinson written in 1861-62, the first few years of the Civil War, to discuss the more contemporary Iraq War.
@shaviro At St Marks bookstore. Realized that I no longer fetishize books as objects in the slightest (which I used to do). Prefer etexts now. (Tweeted August 24th, 2012)
The move to digital texts, which is gaining more and more zeal by the day, has put the not only the fetishization of books as objects in jeopardy but also seemingly the want or need for them at all. It’s not that repurposed books are a last-gasp marketing ploy by the publishing industry—like pretty CD packages with bonus DVDs or 3D movies are—but that there is a reason to fetishize them. As Jonathan Safran Foer (see below) put it, “When a book remembers, we remember. It reminds you that you have a body. So many of the things we may think of as burdensome are actually the things that make us more human.”
Books are only metaphors of the body. — Michel de Certeau
With that said, Austin Kleon stole like an artist and created a best-seller using only markers and copies of The New York Times. His Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010) takes Tom Phillips’ methodology to its basic tenet: poetry as erasure.
Taking a step up instead of down, Jonathan Safran Foer opted for literal subtraction, creating a textual sculpture. Foer treated his favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (Penguin, 1963), by cutting out words, creating Tree of Codes (Visual Editions, 2010).
Giving due credit to his forebears, Foer told The New York Times, “It was hardly an original idea: it’s a technique that has, in different ways, been practiced for as long as there has been writing — perhaps most brilliantly by Tom Phillips in his magnum opus, A Humument. But I was more interested in subtracting than adding, and also in creating a book with a three-dimensional life. On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can’t forget it has a body.” Foer also acknowledges the project’s constraints as well as the power of his source material, adding,
Working on this book was extraordinarily difficult. Unlike novel writing, which is the quintessence of freedom, here I had my hands tightly bound. Of course 100 people would have come up with 100 different books using this same process of carving, but every choice I made was dependent on a choice Schulz had made. On top of which, so many of Schulz’s sentences feel elemental, unbreakdownable. And his writing is so unbelievably good, so much better than anything that could conceivably be done with it, that my first instinct was always to leave it alone.
For about a year I also had a printed manuscript of The Street of Crocodiles with me, along with a highlighter and a red pen. The story of Tree of Codes is continuous across pages, but I approached the project one page at a time: looking for promising words or phrases (they’re all promising), trying to involve and connect what had become my characters. My first several drafts read more like concrete poetry, and I hated them.
As opposed to the anyone-can-do-it tack of Kleon, Foer took the tools and text at hand and made something truly new. Like A Humument before it, Tree of Codes is a unique object worthy of thoughtful consideration. As DJ Scratch once said, “The reason we respect something as an art is because it’s hard as fuck to do.” Taking elements of others’ work and making it your own is one thing. Taking the whole damn thing and completely transforming it into something else is art.
Here’s the making-of video for Tree of Codes [runtime: 3:34]:
de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. (2010). Tree of Codes. London: Visual Editions.
Hayles, N. Katherine. (2002). Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Heller, Steven. (2010, November 24). “Jonathan Safran Foer’s Book as Art Object.” The New York Times.
Kleon, Austin. (2010). Newspaper Blackout. New York: Harper Perennial.
Mallock, William. (1892). A Human Document. New York: Cassell Publishing.
Phillips, Tom. (1970). A Humument. London: Tetrad Press.
Wagner, Heather. (2010, November 10). “Jonathan Safran Foer Talks Tree of Codes and Conceptual Art”. VF Daily.