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The Book vs. the Internet: A Dialectic between Sacred and Excremental Space

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Slavoj Žižek, in The Fragile Absolute, conceptualises culture as containing the need for spaces—areas within the imaginative landscape that need to be filled with objects such as art, music, ideas. Here, he makes a distinction between the “sacred space of sublime beauty” and the “excremental space of trash.” Think of culture, then, as a restaurant.

Within a restaurant you have a dining area which is often decorated and designed to be a space of beauty. Alongside this space, you also have hidden lavatories—spaces privatised as cubicles, for example. To eat and to relieve oneself are two basic human actions, and yet the spaces afforded them vary greatly. The space for eating is celebrated, while the space for defecation is shamefully hidden away: defecation being an unwanted and unfortunate consequence of our humanity.

Interestingly, Žižek’s concept of spaces is also useful in helping us understand the publishing industry’s current identity crisis in its relationship to the Internet.

For some time now, literary critics have been making noise about the death of the book and how its demise will mean an unfortunate return to a vacuous dark age—albeit, this time, one that is digitally inclined. What is left unsaid is that the Internet, with its vulgar army of bloggers (self-pronounced critics) and social-media activists (sofa-revolutionaries), is often seen as a lesser space than that of the book. Virtuality is seen as a degenerate form of physicality, in other words. Think of the Internet and its infamous relationship to pornography; or think of user-content managed resources, such as Wikipedia, dreaded and disdained by high academicians. The Internet as a space for information is seen as an untamed wasteland. The book, however, is often romanticised and seen as a space of high culture.

The error that literary critics and publishers make is to state that the Internet, or the move toward a virtually based literary platform, will mean a loss of literary quality. Writing and literature will survive the demise of the book (if that does ever come). The need to express ourselves through written language will not go so easily. What must go, however, is our current discrimination between the book as a sacred space of sublime beauty and the Internet as one of excremental trash. To do so is to ignore the immense potentialities of the Internet as a landscape for literature.

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  • Don Scrooby

    Really ejoyed your article, Patrick. I can’t see the demise of the book, but you’re so right in the “potentialities
    of the Internet as a landscape for literature.” Let’s face it, there’s also such a thing as a vulgar army of authors.

  • http://www.patrickcandoalmeida.com Patrick Cando-Almeida

    Dan, thank you for your kind comment.

    Yes, indeed, the current market forces that drive the publishing industry mean that erudite and engaging writers are often marginalised for material that is easily marketable and palatable.

    While the book is wonderful as an object of physicality, one must accept that the book is also a historical object and that its place within the sphere on “high” culture is also historically determined. After all, the book was also, at one point in time, the high point of technological innovation.

    Onwards we go!