|'The Reader,' Felix Valloton, 1922.|
At the peak of Byzantine culture, the social distinctions between classes reached their ultimate refinement. The same was true again in pre-Revolutionary France. I see a bit of that now: people want to divide themselves up into an infinite number of gradations, and this in societies that are on the face of it, democratic and egalitarian. The deference society, where we must defer to some authority, is not quite dead yet. There are those who think we still have it, or would like to bring it back with themselves as the sole constituted authority.
Fin de siecle.
Society has become decadent. We have arrived at the fin de siecle--the end of a era. We can mourn the passage of the old, or we can rejoice at our opportunity for a new beginning.
At one time there were three estates of man. This was before the evolution of the nation-state with which we are all familiar. There was a martial class of kings and knights, whose duty was to protect the kingdom. There was the priestly class, whose duty was both spiritual and educational. They informed people of what to think and how to think it. Everything they said was backed up by the authority of God and the Bible. The third class was the labour class. Their duty was to do the actual work and support the other classes. Their recommended duty in the face of atrocious social conditions was patience and acceptance. They were better off to keep their mouths shut, or be hanged. Social mobility was very difficult. Society was stratified and everyone believed it was meant to stay that way.
Such an idea dies hard. It’s not dead yet. There are those who are still holding to the hierarchical notion, the idea that somehow, somebody who is head and shoulders above the crowd, must lead in the moral sense, and the legal sense, and the intellectual sense, and that others should have no choice but to conform and to follow.
Think of how easy it is to look down on someone…anyone, really. We have much to be grateful for. And this in a society where by law everyone is created equal. Even now, some are still more equal than others.
A conflict between the conservative and the inventive.
But my premise is that society is a conflict between the conservative and inventive. Isn’t invention a good thing? That largely depends on who you ask, and where their interest lies.
The internet is a great leveler. It is inventive, and a threat to conservatism. Now we can listen to all kinds of people and examine their ideas and see what they are worth. You want me to listen to your message—and accept it. There are those who are both didactic and extremely conservative. They see freedom of thinking and expression as a threat to the established order. They want us to stick to the old models in spite of evidence that there is a new way. They would prefer if we defer to them, let them do our thinking and learn nothing for ourselves that they do not approve of.
Much of the backlash against the rise of digital publishing is in fact a reaction to a perceived threat to someone’s interest. To target those who write something and publish it themselves is to pick an easy target. Some of them really aren’t very good. But those who aren’t very good are not the real threat to conservative, long-established power structures. Those folks are sure to fail. Those who are very, very good are the real threat. Lumping everyone into one basket is a kind of carpet-bombing, where the workers are the real targets. The history of WW II makes it clear that this is no way to stifle production of war materials or anything else. It was only when the U.S.A.A.F. went after oil targets, precision targets, when any appreciable effect could be discerned; and only in terms of fuel production. Airplanes and tanks were produced right up to the very end of Nazi Germany. Production rose at the height of area-bombing.
The fact is that traditional publishing cannot comprehend the nature of the threat (or more importantly, what to do about it,) any more than they can provide profitable publishing vehicles for everyone with something to say. The traditional models are not about communication, or learning, or teaching. They were about the passive consumption of entertainment and corporate profitability.
What if I write and publish a book and no one reads it? If nothing else, I have entertained myself, and in an active sense rather than passive. And I didn’t buy someone else’s product. More importantly, how in the hell does that affect you?
Gutenberg, the man who invented the printing press by popularly accepted accounts, was extremely unpopular with the Church, and arguably with the ruling classes. Knowledge, learning, and most important of all, teaching, are no longer monopolies of Church and state.
The mainstream publishing model held sway for decades, even centuries. Much that was published was crap in somebody’s eyes somewhere.
The internet has changed that. So has self-publishing. Now we have more of everything, in fact somewhere online you can find ‘Mein Kampf,’ Hitler’s turgid and almost incomprehensible ravings in book form—which used to be a ‘real’ book, that is to say one made out of paper and ink. When couples married, the state gave them an important gift—a copy of ‘Mein Kampf.’
The more sophisticated listen to everyone.
While it is true that the more sophisticated listen to as many relevant sources as possible before making up their own minds, there are people who feel very threatened by the rise of self-publishing. Here in Canada, the market is very small.
Some sources are saying much of what is published online is crap. This is actually a true statement, but bear in mind their editorials are also published online.
The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
This is the fin de siecle—the end of an era. The world will be flooded with new books and surely this is a good thing, even if (or especially if,) no one in a position of ‘authority’ vets them or stamps them with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart don’t have time to read it all anyway. To believe that everything touted by cultural arbiters like that is the result of a literary meritocracy is nonsense.
When has anyone ever touted a great book with a premise or point of view that they didn’t approve of?
Now publishing is so easy that anyone can do it. The mystery has been revealed and the monopoly broken. It’s now open to everyone with a computer and an internet connection. This much is true.